The bigot brigade

November 02, 2018

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

WHAT has followed Aasia Bibi’s acquittal should not surprise anyone. The stick-wielding hordes that once again seek to paralyse the functioning of our cities, the incendiary rhetoric of their leaders, the desperate pleas on the part of the prime minister to not be misled by the ‘fanatics’ — all of it is very, very familiar.

As Khurram Husain noted on these pages yesterday, the prime minister perhaps forgets that he too led such disruptive protests for months on end when trying to unseat the previous government, and in particular that he has not refrained from stoking religious sentiments when it has suited him and his party.

To be sure, the latest dharna shenanigans simply confirm that successive rulers — or more accurately a coherent state policy of using religious as a political tool — have gotten us into a situation that no one now seems to be able to control. Judgements like the acquittal of Aasia Bibi are a welcome relief, but no more, because the genie has been out of the bottle for a while now, and a consistent and systematic response at the highest levels of officialdom that addresses extremism in all of its guises — including within the state apparatus itself — remains conspicuous by its absence.

At the same time, it is important not to get into the habit of lamenting how uniquely bad Pakistan’s problems are. While our rulers and their lackeys in the media and education sectors never tire of reminding us of Pakistan’s exceptionalism, the truth is that reactionary forces are gaining ground everywhere. This knowledge is not comforting, but in comparing and contrasting our situation with others we may be able to equip ourselves better to chart a way out of the morass.

Reactionary forces are gaining ground everywhere.

The latest poster-child of the global bigot brigade is Jair Bolsanaro, the firebrand who was elected to the presidency of Brazil this past weekend. Bolsanaro will not actually take power until the new year, but the reactions to his election, both in Brazil and across the world, indicate the great significance of his ascent to power.

There was a time prior to the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency that pundits and ordinary people alike laughed off the prospect of such rabid individuals coming to power in liberal democracies. Trump’s rise made clear just how disillusioned ordinary people are with the established systems of government in the most ‘advanced’ countries. Bolsanaro coming to power less than two years after Trump simply confirms that voters in ‘developing’ countries are just as willing to put their faith in far-right demagogues because they are sick and tired of status quo. To take another ‘advanced’ country example, take a look at the recent results of Germany’s general election.

That citizens in democratic systems are actually voting in individuals and parties that openly profess reactionary ideas is certainly alarming, but there is a need to go beyond the visceral reaction that many of us have to such news and think about how to think about and then possibly develop a coherent response to such developments.

In my understanding, contemporary forms of government, however they differ from one another, are all very much aligned with a globalised political-economic order in which states and corporations are hand-in-glove in the pursuit of profit, power and a monopoly of information. The proverbial citizenry has been duped into a way of life that involves working under increasingly precarious conditions for a living, and then consuming conspicuously on the basis of their income constraints.

Of course, aspirations are rarely met, at least for the median segment of the population. In a handful of cases, this median segment looks to new left alternatives like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. But more and more people are being attracted by the hate-mongering of populists who seem to be winning support on the basis of their claims of being ‘anti-establishment’.

The situation in countries like ours is a specific version of the general story. We have our dissatisfied median segment of the population crying hoarse about corruption and the rule of law, willing to bring in an ‘outsider’ to fix the problem.

But we also have a significant segment of the population still very much on the margins, without anything like the pretence of being middle-class citizens.

In a best case scenario, this marginal population is mobilised around progressive causes. But because our state has actively patronised religion in the political sphere, a large chunk of this subordinate segment is drawn to emotive causes and movements that are spearheaded by various factions of the religious right. These days a version of Barelvi extremism is in vogue, and so it is that we are watching yet another dharna play out on our TV screens.

Will something emerge to buck the trend? Only if we recognise that our complacency is a big part of why we find ourselves here

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2018