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Left, right, about-turn!

November 17, 2013

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Recently in Pakistan there was some talk (and tweeting) on social media when a local news channel claimed that the rigid and violent Taliban leader, Fazlullah, was once a member of the student-wing of the left-liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Many social media hacks expressed surprise at the news. I think very few of them realise that the act of moving from left to right (or vice versa) in one’s political thinking is not such an odd happening.

There are a number of prominent cases and examples in the West that one can present in which leftist/liberal ideologues rebounded to become some of the leading defenders and advocates of right-wing causes and outfits (and vice versa).

But we will only discuss examples in this context related to Pakistan. Fazlullah wasn’t the first. As a former madressa student and a young man who seems to also have had some connection with non-religious educational institutions, he was born into a conservative family.

Before he married the daughter of a hard-line religious leader, (now banned the Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi’s Sufi Mohammad) he, (according to the TV report), was a member of the Peoples Students Federation (PSF).

In Beyond Swat (edited by Magnus Marsden), Charles Lindholm in his paper for the book based on his on-field research in Swat from the 1970s onwards, suggests that young men in Swat coming from less well-to-do families were first radicalised by the socialist message of former prime minister and chairman of the PPP, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

They voted in droves for the party in the 1977 elections (that were declared void by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship after that year’s military coup).

These youngsters worked actively against religious parties and non-religious conservative groups whom they accused of being in league with the landed elite of Swat.

Interestingly Lindholm then goes on to inform that in the 1980s, when politics based on religious populism began to peak and was bonded with militant jihadi groups that had begun to spring up during the Zia regime, young men from Swat’s working and lower-middle-class backgrounds who had been radicalised by Bhutto’s populist and leftist rhetoric, started to colour their angry leftist stance with an equally angry ‘Islamist’ point of view.

So Fazalullah might have found his first radical expression in the PSF in the late ’80s but soon discovered that by the end of that decade men with similar class backgrounds were bagging a more receptive audience after replacing their radicalism that was initially rooted in the populist-leftism of the Swat of the 1970s with the jargon and militancy of the religious right.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the 41-year-old cleric of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) who was killed by the military in 2007 in an operation was also once associated with a secular anti-Zia progressive student group at the Quaid-i-Azam University in the ’80s.

He became an extremist after leading the life of a left-leaning student activist and educationist and only became a militant cleric after his conservative father was assassinated by a rival group in 1998.

The current chief of the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI), Munawar Hassan, was also an active member of the Marxist student outfit, the National Students Federation (NSF).

He had joined the then thriving NSF as a student of a medical college in Karachi in the late 1950s. But by the time he got admitted to the Karachi University in 1961, he was persuaded by the student-wing of the JI, the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), to quit NSF.

Hassan not only quit NSF, but became a active member of the IJT, later going on to join the JI. Thus the man who last week declared the former head of the TTP, Hakeemullah Mashud, as a martyr, was reading and quoting Karl Marx as a medical student.

Author and journalist, Raja Anwar, who joined the centre-right PML-N in 1995, was a radical leftist student activist in the 1960s. He then joined Z A. Bhutto’s PPP government in the ’70s and was also a member of Murtaza Bhutto’s clandestine left-wing urban guerrilla outfit, the Al-Zulfikar Organisation (AZO) in 1980-81 before he had a falling-out with Murtaza and escaped to Europe.

Another member of the PML-N, Parvez Rashid, who is the Minister of Information in the current government, was also a radical leftist student leader in the 1960s. He was also active against the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s.

Politician Kashmala Tariq who became a prominent figure in the centre-right PML-Q during the Musharraf dictatorship was a vigorous member of the PSF as a student in the 1990s.

But it’s not always been about folks shifting from the left to the right sides of the conventional ideological divide.

Altaf Hussain, chief of the volatile Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — one of the most overtly secular political parties in the country today — was also once associated with the fundamentalist IJT.

As a university student he worked closely with IJT members during the right-wing protest movement that erupted in March 1977 against the Z. A. Bhutto regime. He broke away from IJT in 1978 to move towards the other side of the divide and formed the secular APMSO and then the MQM.

By the late ’80s APMSO and MQM had wiped out IJT’s influence in most of Karachi’s colleges and universities and in the politics of the city.

Author, professor and former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, Husain Haqani, who has been a member of the PPP since 1993 and a leading liberal voice today, was a prominent member of the fundamentalist IJT and was elected as the head of the student’s union at the Karachi University on an IJT ticket in 1979.

Javed Ahmed Ghamdi who today is one of the most respected and informed voices in the fold of liberal Islamic scholarship was a member of the JI before he fell out with the party’s founder, the conservative Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Maududi, in 1972.

Notorious left-wing militant, Salamullah Tipu, who was a central figure in the Al-Zulfiqar (AZO) began his career in politics at college as a member of right-wing religious student groups.

However, in 1974-75, Tipu quit and joined the NSF. By 1976 he had moved into the PSF. He rose to become PSF’s Karachi president before escaping to Kabul in 1980 and joining the AZO that was based in Afghanistan which was under a Soviet-backed communist regime at the time.

Ironically, in 1984, he was executed by the Kabul regime after he had a falling-out with AZO’s chief, the late Murtaza Bhutto.

There is not enough space here to go into the details about why some people shift their ideological leanings from left to right or vice versa. The bottom-line however is that such shifts are common in many countries and that the reasons are not always entirely ideological.

Pragmatic political aspects, personal evolution and even economic considerations also play their due roles in the shifts.