Political morality

February 09, 2020

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The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.
The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

THERE’S no denying the economic collapse under the PTI, or the capitulation of all parties that squandered the opportunity for a democratic corrective by passing the amendment to the Army Act. Gen Musharraf was right — our Constitution is an easily discarded piece of paper. No wonder Pakistanis fixate on spiritual promises.

Imran Khan has admitted that his is probably “the first government that has been totally supported by the army and that there are no differences between the civilian and military leaderships”. It seems that the PTI’s purpose is not to end elite capture or govern but to discredit the opposition, stifle dissent and to instal an authoritarian civil-military rule. But without delivery, how will this happen?

Post 9/11, there is a conscious effort to privilege Muslims’ religious identities and merge neoliberalism with Islamic regimes. This has given rise to the ‘pious Muslim leader’ whose aim is not to restructure the economy or strengthen civilian rule but to impose governance as a moral duty rather than by democratic consensus. As in Turkey, this project is dependent on convincing the masses that it has been the moral corruption of past leaders, and not unequal distribution of wealth or lack of democratic economies, that caused inequalities. Instead, citizens are promised some imagined faith-based modernity/democracy as guided by piety.

There are no structural changes — just deflection and pious talk.

The solution is simple — grand narratives on saving religion from Western conspiracies and Muslim lands from infidels’ brutality and, defending Muslim women’s right to the veil while rejecting liberal freedoms. There is no need to challenge global economic elites or religious power groups or amend laws that aid hegemony.

This explains why our human rights minister is consumed by foreign human rights violations but appears disinterested in domestic violence, honour crimes, forced conversions, or censorship.

The PTI’s pre-poll outrage has not translated into any practical steps to prevent child pornography that infests Kasur, or enforced disappearances, or stunting in children. There is no commission for minorities and lapsed human rights and women’s commissions have yet to be revived. Civic protests in India win admiration. Peaceful ones here result in brutal silencing.

Under this government, spiritual pursuits are privileged over practical matters. When the prime minister speaks extempore rather than from policy scripts, his lack of preparation is hailed as a virtue. Even if there is no substance, rhetoric appeals to supporters’ sense of righteousness and vindicates their lingering sense of historical injury against all infidel enemies.

Vengeance against opposition leaders, diminishing provincial autonomy, crushing peaceful dissent and crippling censorship is the agenda while firewalling military and monied interests. There are no structural changes — just deflection and pious talk.

Engineered piety requires careful gender planning. Men and women are allocated very specific roles and convinced that it is their patriotic duty to conform to these. This is why select women celebrities have been recruited as spokeswomen for state narratives on external matters only — Kashmir, global Islamophobia, Bollywood.

Meanwhile, the PTI’s partisan decision to erase Benazir Bhutto’s image from BISP cards is driven by its overall disinterest and disregard for political history. No matter how flawed one may consider her leadership, the attempt to expunge her legacy compares with the pettiness of the BJP and its proposals of renaming Muslim-rule monuments in India or deleting them from tourism books.

In a country that hovers second last in global gender indices and where the women’s labour force participation is abysmal, privileging female piety over their politics is critically important. It is far easier to focus on abstract moralities such as, Muslim women’s outward identities, external lifestyles, domestic duties, rather than ensure their equality, mobility, protection or employment. Piety stabilises the patriarchal gendered order.

With no self-irony, the prime minister preaches the importance of avoiding divorce and rejecting liberal freedoms to preserve ‘our culture’. In this patriarchal framework, the virtues expected of good Muslim women are modesty, obedience, sexual abstinence, compliance with less inheritance, and rejecting ‘Indian culture’ and feminism. Such an approach allows for welfare, not equality.

Faith-based leadership is not invested in delivering governance or rights but simply in reframing politics within a self-styled moralistic model. There is no worldly accountability to be held to. As long as we feel, look and sound Muslim in a male-defined manner, corruption, economic or social progress are irrelevant. Led by a pious leader, this government’s only in­­ten­­tion is to sit back and pray, while ­condemning legitimate criticism or democratic disagreement as sacrilege or sedition.

The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2020