The News, April 21, 2009
by Mosharraf Zaidi
The young lust that infuriates the fascist Flintstones of Malakand is only the beginning of the love chronicles that will extinguish the little ember that they mistake for a raging fire. The little ember they mistake for populist wildfire is disenchantment with the failing state in this country. Unfortunately for these comedic miscarriages of reality there is only one raging fire in Pakistan. It is the fire in the cities. Sure there are randomly distributed fascist mullahs in the cities too, and many of them have taken the choreography of Sufi Mohammad to heart. But if it was so easy to convert the madrasas of this country into the nodes of a bloody fascist Flintstone revolution, it would have already happened.
The real love affair that the Taliban and their ilk should be scared of is the incandescent passion with which Pakistanis, religious and irreligious, love this big, bulking behemoth of a country. March 15 may be a long and distant memory in the newspapers, but its markings on the DNA of Pakistan are still fresh. The scars that it has left are still raw, and the traditional elite in this country has not forgotten the humiliation of that day. Both the feudal politicians and the wannabe-feudal military leaders in this country grossly mis-underestimated (a Bushism all too appropriate for this Pakistan) the size and heat of the movement to restore the judiciary. The Taliban, the TNSM and the Lal Masjid Brigades repeat the mistakes made by the traditional elite, for good reason. Their DNA is imprinted with the “Made By The Traditional Elite of Pakistan” label. And let’s not be blinded by opportunism, paralysed by our romance for family dynasties or constrained by our personal politics. The defence establishment in this country that has cultivated irrational public discourse under the cloak of religion in Pakistan has not been alone in the endeavour. Their feudal dance partners have been central in enabling and facilitating the rot. Controlling the mosques with their left hands, and the triggers of civilian and military guns with their right–the traditional elite have caved in to the demands for Nifaz-e-Adl because they prefer the faux wrath of a perverted distributive justice agenda to the real and irresistible agenda for reform and renewal in Pakistan’s cities.
The MQM understands this urban agenda for reform and renewal better than any political party in the country, which is why, despite the clear and obvious threats that a free judiciary poses to the operational fidelity of the MQM, the party made a conscious decision not to allow another May 12 to transpire this March. It is also why the MQM has spoken loudly and proudly against the ridiculous handing over of Pakistani sovereignty to the Flintstones of Malakand. Most of all, the MQM’s depth of relationship with urban sentiment is evident in the starkly different rhetoric that defines engagement with the issues between Pakistan’s Gucci and Prada liberals on the one hand, and the MQM’s leadership on the other. Convening an ulema conference was a stroke of urban Pakistan genius by the party. No self-respecting secular, progressive liberal (sic) would be caught dead at such a convention. Hence the difference between the MQM (a serious power-player in this country), and cheese and cracker liberals (a loud but politically sterile minority). As much as the lawyers’ movement was an a-religious movement, it was not amoral. And Pakistan’s people (even the ones in nice cars in the city working for banks and educated in the American Midwest) still draw moral inspiration primarily from Islam.
Since handing over the mosque to the wretched of South Asia at Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s request, Muslims here have slowly but surely abdicated their faith to a newfangled clergy. Their primary instrument in sustaining ownership of the mosque and madrasa, and all the symbols that go with them, is a supremely confident ignorance.
The language of religious discourse is dripping with Islamic symbolism. There is no reason for Pakistan to be shy of engaging the clergy with the same symbols. Indeed, it is the uncontested monopolisation of those symbols that has enabled the current rot. More often than not, the mullahs will lose the argument. Ignorant rants have a very short lease of life. Simply put, there are more Hakim Saids in Pakistan’s Muslim history than there are Sufi Mohammads. Fought properly, there is only one outcome in the battle for the soul of Pakistan–victory for the peace-loving masses, and defeat for the firestorm-fanning agents of irrationality.
Of course, the MQM represents a deeply compromised flag-bearer for the political fight against the Taliban. Despite a much-reformed party agenda, the ethnic affiliation of its top leadership is an issue that has consistently kept it from growing beyond urban Sindh. Moreover, rather ironically, its political choices since 1999 have put it directly at odds with urban Punjab. Ultimately, the alliance between urban Sindh and urban Punjab is a natural and inevitable one. This inevitability was all too visible to President Asif Ali Zardari, and it is what inspired the unnatural alliance between the PPP and the MQM–two parties that were at opposite ends of the violence and mayhem of May 12. Despite the federalist benefits of the PPP-MQM alliance, and the dangers of a rural Sindh that has no allies in either Punjab or in Karachi, this political expedience has a limited shelf life.
Of course, the challenge in Punjab is the PML-N’s ability to continue to be a vessel for the articulation of urban Pakistan’s political ethos. Taking on the mullah without abdicating its centrist Muslim identity is a critical challenge for the PML-N. Traditionally, it has been assumed that the natural role of taking on the mullah belongs to the PPP. Today’s PPP, lacking the brilliance of a Bhutto as its field marshal, is hurting. It is unable to seamlessly integrate the feudal tendencies of its electoral strength with the urbane (not urban) sensibilities of its somewhat exceptional cadre of highly qualified advisors. The growing wisdom and alacrity of the prime minister notwithstanding, the PPP will take at least a generation to grow into a viable force in Pakistan’s new urban frontier. Until then, to stay alive, compromise with the most unpalatable negotiating-table partners is all the party can do. This is doubly true for the ANP, which has been unfairly burdened with the blame for the deal. In fact, the ANP has done what every party other than the MQM will do in the same situation. Without a military that is willing to take the battlefield heat, political parties have no choice but to find compromise solutions to intractable problems.
None of the Realpolitik of the day, however, alters the bottom-line truth about Pakistan in 2009. There is a big set of unresolved issues around which violent extremists are able to construct a rationale for their murderous campaign for power. The resonance and appeal of these issues is undeniable. The bloodshed at Lal Masjid in 2007, the covert sexual revolution that has taken place on the back of a massive telecom boom, and the collateral damage of drone attacks, all have serious play in mainstream Pakistan.
But these issues are not the sole informants of Pakistaniat–to use Adil Najam’s phraseology. They are among a larger galaxy of issues. Proof of this is in the political performance of the rightwing, even as recently as the Feb 18, 2008, elections. Despite the bread-and-butter nature of these issues in urban and rural Pakistan, the religious right failed to win back the gifts handed to it by the deeply flawed elections of 2002. The key question is not whether the religious right in Pakistan can mobilise meaningful numbers to actualise its vision for a strait-jacketed and irrational Pakistan. They cannot. Even though these issues are shared across a broad spectrum, the religious right is tone-deaf, and politically irrelevant. And if the JUI and JI and their cohorts can’t win the street, the Taliban don’t have a chance.
The key question, therefore, is not about the populism of the Taliban, the TNSM, or any violent extremists in Pakistan. It is whether Pakistani Muslims will remain hostage to their sense of religious inferiority to the mullah. In fear of violating the precepts of a faith to which most Pakistanis are still deeply committed, will the people give mullahs like Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid carte blanche to destroy this country? The MQM’s ulema conference may cause all kinds of squirming, but it answers the question unequivocally. No, they will not.
The love affair of the Pakistani people with their country is a firewall that will hold. Violent extremists can flog the odd alleged straying couple, but they cannot flog 172 million people. They cannot win this war, and that is why they’re so angry all the time.