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Musings of the Marginalized

by Khaled Ahmed
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Asif Hassan—AFP

Bilal Zahoor and Raza Rumi have compiled an essential volume of some of Pakistan’s brightest minds to dig into all that ails the nation

Bilal Zahoor and Raza Rumi have jointly compiled a volume of “peripheral” wisdom about Pakistan in Rethinking Pakistan: A 21st Century Perspective (Folio Books), challenging the ideology of misgovernance that retains Pakistan’s backwardness. As Islamabad retraces some aspects of its domestic and foreign policies under pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), this volume might attract some positive attention; but it is the dogma of “permanent” ideology that prevents the institutions of Pakistan from advancement and engenders strange “identity” problems among its political leaders.

What do our politicians—some of them facing corruption charges—mean when they say they are “nazriati” (ideological)? One supposes it means “principled”; but then why use “ideological” instead? Ideology as governance in history brooks no opposition and the word was coined during the French Revolution, which ended up eating its own children. Then the Marxists took up the cause and an “ideological” Soviet Union came into being that brooked no opposition to ‘The Party’ under the constitution. Today, Iran is “nazriati,” has no functioning political parties just like the Soviet Union and thus no opposition in an elected parliament. Pakistan is supposed to be “nazriati” as well, but still has an opposition in Parliament—and outside Parliament too in the shape of secularists who, understandably, tread in fear. It can thus be characterized as an “incomplete ideological state.”

John Stuart Mill must be spinning in his grave after hearing that “liberal” in Pakistan translates to morally “permissive”; and that “secular” means “opposed to religion.” (The Soviet Union propagated atheism as a part of its ideology and therefore was not secular in the strictest sense; a secular state tolerates all religions and is opposed to religious discrimination.) Leaders of Pakistan’s current ruling party, the PTI, often appear on TV to harangue those who champion secularism, urging them to leave the country. Undoubtedly this comes from the top, as Prime Minister Imran Khan himself has often defined liberalism as a value system he is opposed to.

In 2009, addressing a lawyers’ gathering at the Rawalpindi Bar, Khan chastised society’s liberals—“who fly in the face of national emotion and hurt the state of Pakistan”—and condemned their interpretation of the phenomenon of the Taliban while “obediently following the dictation of the United States.” He blamed them for the massacre at Lal Masjid in 2007, claiming they had pressured the Musharraf regime into taking brutal action against “innocent” madrassa students.

Setting out with uncertainty

Bilal Zahoor, editorial director of independent publishing house Folio Books, kicks off the book with an introduction: “The Objectives Resolution (1948) influenced all the three Constitutions the country adopted during the next 26 years. The only Constitution that sought to diverge from the Resolution in terms of redefining sovereignty had to capitulate to Islamists and the country had to be abruptly re-named [the] Islamic Republic of Pakistan in less than two years after being denominated Republic of Pakistan in 1962. Over the years, the state kept distancing itself from Jinnah’s vision with each dictatorial and political regime introducing its own form of appeasement to Islamists. Even the modernist regime of General Ayub Khan had to succumb to the pressure from the ulema and reinforce all the Islamic provisions of the 1956 Constitution that Ayub’s Constitution of 1962 had initially lacked.”

Tariq Rahman, a Distinguished National Professor Emeritus and Dean of the Social Sciences Department at Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University, follows with a look at Islamic radicalism and its effects: “In India, Mawlānā Waḥīduddīn Khān (b. 1925), who was then the president of the Islamic Center in New Delhi, took the lead in refuting radical Islam. In his brief monograph, The True Jihad, written in English to disseminate his ideas outside South Asia, he sums up all he has written earlier. Beginning with the ideological assumption that all Islam’s wars were defensive, he chooses the most appropriate hermeneutical devices to interpret the canonical texts. As for the commands in the Quran urging Muslims to ‘kill them wherever you find them’ (2: 191; 9: 5), he uses specification (takhsīs al-zaman wal makān) saying: ‘such verses relate in a restricted sense, to those who have unilaterally attacked the Muslims’ but are not permanent, general commands.” (When Maulana Wahiduddin came to Pakistan to spread his message against radicalism he was booed out of a gathering in Lahore and left the country in haste.)

Tahir Kamran, historian and former Iqbal fellow at the Center of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, uses his slot to discuss the radicalization of the anti-Deobandi “Barelvi” sect through the lens of its founder and warns against the rise of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan: “What Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi failed to guard against was exclusion and takfir. In his famous fatwa Husam al-Haramain ala Manhar al-Kufr wa’l Main (The Sword of the Haramain at the Throat of Kufr and Falsehood), which was written in 1902 but became public in 1906, Ahmed Raza denounced several individuals in early 20th century India. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian was the first on Ahmad Raza’s lists of kafirs (infidels). He was followed by some eminent ulema from Deoband denomination like Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi, Ashraf Ali Thanvi and Khalil Ahmad Ambethwi whom he described as Wahabis. Among the twelver Shias and the organization of the ulema known as the Nadwat al-Ulama, he accused some specific people of kufr.”

Modernism: met and mauled 

Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a cultural critic, historian and author, talks of the rise and fall of the Pakistani “modernist”: “From 1947 till the mid-1970s, [the] Modernist Muslim project survived. However, after the acrimonious departure of East Pakistan in 1971, the Modernist Muslim project began to erode and was gradually replaced by a new ideological project that was close to the idea of Muslim nationalism of the third, more theocratic, tendency. This created an opening for the once marginalized line of thinking to enter the country’s evolving ideological canon. By the 1980s, it had managed to completely overpower the Modernist tendency.”

Raheem ul Haque, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Public Policy & Governance, Forman Christian College-University, Lahore, bemoans the dominance of the extremist discourse in Pakistani media: “The narrative of the fringe mosque is reproducing itself on television, unfiltered and without a scholarly base. In the space of the TV, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has taken a lot of steps that could establish some reporting norms; however, the courts have often blocked or reversed those actions. The far-right gets a lot of representation on television that goes unchallenged. In fact, the airing of adverse or sensationalist remarks is encouraged because, perversely, hate happens to have a commercial value as it makes television-viewing exciting. This far-right influence on the media is one of the reasons why Pakistan, as a country, has been unable to develop a consensus against extremism. The narrative-makers distinguish between pro-Pakistan and anti-Pakistan extremist groups, and the former tends to get a laudatory profile in the media for focusing on Pakistan’s neighbors.”

Similarly, Rubina Saigol, an independent researcher in social development, discusses nation-building as psychic violence: “The process of nation-building by attempting to foist upon people new identities, to which they could not comfortably relate, was a form of psychic violence against the very ‘self’ of people, who felt threatened by a state overwhelmingly representing the Punjabi identity. Religion was never the sole source of identity of the people; language, culture, ethnicity and other markers of social differentiation were equally strong, if not more. Furthermore, even within religion there has been a vast complexity of sects and sub-sects, with each one eager to transfer its own set of values, beliefs and ideas to its future generations.”

A land of the landowners

In his contribution, I.A. Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan surveys the many doomed efforts at land reforms—forbidden by state ideology—which have filled the country’s legislatures with feudal landlords: “The most powerful legislature in the country, the National Assembly, remains dominated by the landed interest. Out of the 293 new, directly elected MNAs whose profiles were culled from their statements filed with the Election Commission by the Free And Fair Election Network (FAFEN), 24 identified themselves as landlords, 79 described themselves as agriculturists and another 19 said they were agriculturists-businessmen. That means 122 MNAs out of 293 belong to the landlord lobby. Similarly, the newly elected provincial assemblies are also dominated by members identifying themselves as landlords, agriculturists, livestock breeders and agriculturists-businessmen. According to FAFEN, the landlord lobby accounts for 49.67% of the directly elected members of the Sindh Assembly. The comparable figures for the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan assemblies are 33.1%, 28.4% and 21%, respectively.”

Charles Amjad-Ali, a founder of the executive committee of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has similarly stark statistics about Pakistan’s labor policies: “Pakistan has gone through 6 major labor policies: 1955; 1959; 1969; 1972; 2002; and 2018. They were seldom, if ever, followed by requisite legislative and administrative policies and reforms. Beginning with the first 1955 labor policy, all the policies contained solemn pledges and assurances of full compliance with the principles of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions. However, the actual laws promulgated—whether by military dictators or “elected governments”—have continually negated labor and human rights.”

Akmal Hussain, Distinguished Professor and Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Lahore’s Information Technology University, surveys the phenomenon of high growth under military rule, noting that unlike civilian rule, it suffers no “intervention”: “The evidence shows that while during the Ayub-Yahya period (1960-73), there was high economic growth (6.3 percent annually), during the subsequent Z.A. Bhutto period (1973-77), the growth rate declined to 4.9 percent annually. Again, in the Zia-ul-Haq period that followed, there was an acceleration in economic growth to 6.6 percent annually, but was followed once again by the low growth period of the 1990s (about 4 percent annually). There was another pendulum swing to relatively high economic growth during the Musharraf period (6.3 percent annually) followed by a decade of slow growth and virtual stagnation of per capita incomes. Over the long run, despite the spurts, economic growth in Pakistan is on a declining trend. This is in sharp contrast to the growth performance of China and India, who have not only achieved sustained high growth but are on a rising trend.”

Tariq Banuri, chairperson of Higher Education Commission, has a more general overview, outlining the various challenges facing Pakistan through the perils of climate change: “Pakistan has become a water scarce country and needs to invest in water efficiency. It should do so with an eye on the potential for exporting water efficiency technologies and practices to other countries. The government should support industries in developing solutions for exports. One of Pakistan’s most dynamic sectors in the recent past has been the livestock and dairy industry. Since it, too, will be affected by climate change, the government should support this industry in finding climate-friendly solutions not only for maintaining its profitability but also, and more importantly, for exporting these solutions to other countries.”

Dogma vs Reason

The title of Distinguished Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Lahore Forman Christian College-University Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy’s input, Do Not Mix Religion and Science, is self-explanatory: “Demanding that science and faith be tied together has resulted in national bewilderment and intellectual enfeeblement. Massive doses of religion are injected today into the teaching of science, a practice that began under Zia’s regime. It was not just school textbooks that were hijacked. In the 1980s, as an applicant to a university teaching position in whichever department, the university’s selection committee would first check your faith. The failure of this system is evident. Millions of Pakistanis have studied science subjects in school and then gone on to study technical, science-based subjects in college and university. And yet, most, including science teachers, would flunk if given even the simplest science quiz. Tying faith with science does disservice to both. Science has no need for Pakistan; in the rest of the world it roars ahead. The attempt to create an “Islamic Science,” which began at the time of General Zia-ul-Haq, has never been completely laid to rest and exists in various forms even today.”

Ascendancy of the Army

Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, discusses the spread of the power of the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate, the publicity wing of the Army: “While military, and its civilian supporters like Shireen Mazari, assert that the organization has better accountability systems, others have challenged this claim. It was during this period that the armed forces launched itself in the media industry, financing films and theater and setting up television and radio channels. The development of a role in the media was done primarily to control the national narrative and change the direction of the discourse. This narrative management was not tactical but strategic, as it catapulted the Army into becoming a societal player.”

Reema Omer, a lawyer from Pakistan specializing in public international law, discusses the taboo subject of “enforced disappearances” by “you-know-who”: “The Supreme Court first took up the issue of the widespread practice of enforced disappearances in Pakistan in December 2005, when it took suo motu notice under Article 184(3) of the Constitution of a news report citing the growing numbers of enforced disappearances in the country. Soon after, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan petitioned the Supreme Court under Article 184(3) to take notice of more cases of enforced disappearance. The HRCP submitted a list of 148 “missing persons,” individuals allegedly subjected to enforced disappearance, to the Supreme Court. During the hearings, the Supreme Court acknowledged evidence, establishing that many of the “disappeared” were in the custody of the security agencies and summoned high level military intelligence officials before the Supreme Court to explain the legal basis of the detention and to physically produce the detainees.”

Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter, who was kidnapped and tortured for writing critical stories about the government, talks about the limitations on the freedom of expression in Pakistan: “In January 2017, in a secret swoop across the country, four prominent social media activists were picked up by security agencies for being critical of state’s actions and policies. While all of them were eventually released after weeks of hue and cry in the media, they came out tainted for life with the allegation of having committed blasphemy, a baseless allegation that endangered their lives and forced them to move abroad. In the months that followed, there were two more cases of a similar nature: Gul Bukhari, a columnist for The Nation and a commentator on Waqt TV, was picked up in June this year while the house of Marvi Sirmed, a columnist for Daily Times, was burgled by mysterious intruders who were only interested in taking away her laptop and passport.”

Rafiullah Kakar, a public policy professional and political analyst points to the “majoritarian” nature of the state as a major issue: “With Punjab accounting for 56% of the country’s total population, the centralization of power only resulted in the ‘Punjabization’ of Pakistan. For example, the Punjab had more seats in the National Assembly than all of the other three provinces combined. The Upper House, where all provinces had equal representation, had the potential to balance out Punjab’s majoritarian influence, but this was prevented by the fact that the Upper House (Senate) had lesser powers as compared to the Lower House (National Assembly). The Senate had no control over money bills and little influence over matters affecting the federation such as the appointment of high-level executives. Moreover, the indirect election method for the Upper House made Senate elections prone to vote-buying practices, especially in Balochistan. In short, Senate hasn’t been effective in guarding against the over-bearing power of the Punjab-dominated National Assembly.”

Malevolence of the Muslim male

Afiya S. Zia, a feminist researcher with a doctoral degree in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Toronto observes how women suffer in patriarchal Pakistan: “Piety in Muslim contexts has accelerated because of its embrace by celebrities and women. Against this backdrop, in 2015-16, Pakistan witnessed the mercurial rise of celebrity and social media star, Qandeel Baloch (Fauzia Azeem), who threatened to subvert this pietist trend as she embraced and symbolized sexual impropriety. Apart from posting risqué online videos, Qandeel incentivized a victory for Pakistan’s national cricket team by promising a strip dance if they beat arch-rivals India. Qandeel’s defiant threat-promise sabotaged the male gaze and destabilized sexual politics in the Islamic Republic. But her ingenious impropriety caused confusion and political tension—not just for the pious conservatives but also for feminists and progressives. Also, Veena Malik’s case represents a peculiarly Pakistani version of the Madonna-whore complex—one which accepts seductive performances, capitalist enterprises, game shows and other profane ventures, as long as these promise to entice audiences towards piety, rather than self-gratifying pleasure. Such performative piety is simply part of the market that offers Islamic consumerism but depends on the same gender dynamics where the male gaze dominates and objectifies women. In contrast, Qandeel forfeited marriage, undressed, and her performances challenged religious actors and exposed their double-standard hypocrisies. [Actress] Veena [Malik] won salvation because she now seduces believers into piety, while Qandeel paid with her life for asserting and encouraging female sexual independence.”

Bina Shah, a Karachi-based author of five novels asks Is Islam Compatible with Feminism? Her view takes special interest in the Pakistani context: “Islam embodies many of the principles that feminism fights for: equality, dignity and respect for women. At the time of its birth, Islam was a revolutionary force in terms of the social and personal rights it granted to women. However, in the lands where this religion took hold, patriarchy was the norm. So what we see today, I contend, is a massive distortion of what Islam was meant to be, for women as well as men. But Islam is not to be confused with feminism. Feminism is the mechanism by which women can fight for the rights that have been taken away from them. And, in Pakistan’s case, these rights have been usurped by men and in the name of Islam. For example, if Islam gave women the right to own property, patriarchy in Pakistan makes it difficult—if not impossible—for women to technically and legally administer and maintain the property they own. If Islam gave girls the right to go to school, patriarchy ensures that girls remain without safe and easy access to schools or abandon school in favor of an underage marriage or, if they manage to complete school, abandon higher studies and career aspirations to bear and raise children. In short, Islam and Sharia becomes shorthand for patriarchy in Muslim countries. This is the reason why, according to a report published in The Lancet journal, Pakistan performs abominably in maternal, adolescent and child health indicators, lagging behind even other Muslim-majority countries such as Iran and Bangladesh.”

Foreign policy fiascos

Raza Rumi, Director of the Department of Journalism at Ithaca College, New York, talks about the fatal India-Pakistan binary that has, and continues to, hurt only Pakistan: “Pakistanis and Indians desperately need to revisit the confederal ideas that Jinnah advocated (right until the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946) for the mutual benefit of their poverty-stricken, ill-governed and violence-torn nuclearized countries. History repeats itself and the course of history is determined by incremental changes made along the way. The populace of India and Pakistan are hostage to the ‘national’ fallacies that spawn conflict and create further insecurity. This is a grand decolonization project that we need to embark upon. It is not an easy journey, but there is no other choice. Pakistanis and Indians owe it to their freedoms and the million lives lost in Partition to take charge of the present. And the best way to achieve that would be standing up for and selecting peace as the only way forward.”

Muhammad Ismail Khan, a researcher at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), believes Islamabad must work to fix its foreign policy: “Pakistan needs to expand its foreign policy options. For one, the prism of viewing everything through Indian lens can be revisited in a more sophisticated manner. While no one expects Pakistan-India relations to iron out in a day, overcoming India fixation can help Pakistan ease its ties with Afghanistan and Iran and even put realistic expectations from the U.S. and China. This fixation can partly be overcome by streamlining internal political voices; the knee-jerk reaction of discarding those voices and suspecting their links with India put question marks over the acceptance of major foreign policy decision. Numerous scholars and policy practitioners have concluded that Pakistan’s foreign policy largely pivots around India. India’s friend is our enemy, and India’s enemy is our friend, goes the argument. The center of gravity for Pakistan, to use military jargon, has been India. A rejectionist response towards India is evident even in societal attitude, so much so that Pakistani nationalism is criticized for being a negation of India, rather than having its own feet to stand on. The remedy to Pakistan’s foreign policy is often found in freeing out from the competition with India. As per this thinking, Pakistan should not match India stick-by-stick and gun-by-gun, given India’s greater size, economy and ambition. Pakistan, otherwise, will be exhausted; instead, it should invest its energies inwards.”

Heat for the heterodox

The heterodox opinions expressed above are not banned in Pakistan but are nevertheless marginalized because they can only be expressed in English. Most Urdu publications would be scared of carrying the message of these writers because Urdu as an agent of state ideology cannot fully accept the logical-sequential discourse of English. Pakistan predominantly expresses itself in Urdu through the spoken word on television. The printed word is in decline even in Urdu which further queers the pitch for the discourse still available in written English.

TV channels dominate the information market, and the medium of communication is Urdu, with peripheral channels using regional languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and Pashto. There are 127 TV channels in Pakistan out of which 36 transmit news. Publication of the English-language newspapers in the country remains minuscule with even the highest circulated dailies ‘boasting’ approximately 60,000 copies. Urdu as the purveyor of the twin ideological-nationalist knowledge epistemes has replaced the rational discourse of the “colonial” English language. Ironically, this same lack of communication between Urdu and English encourages marginalization by also saving the purveyors of the heresy of “marginal” discourse from being punished.

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