SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE POPULISTS' RHETORICAL TRAP

Updated 17 May 2020

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In the anthology Beyond Swat, the American anthropologist Charles Lindholm writes that young men in Swat coming from less well-to-do families were radicalised by the ‘combative socialist message’ of former prime minister and chairman of the PPP, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Lindholm’s essay was based on his on-field research in Swat from the late 1970s onwards. 

According to Lindholm, youngsters in Swat voted in droves for Bhutto’s party in the 1977 elections (that were declared void by the Gen Zia dictatorship after that year’s military coup). His study suggests that these youngsters worked actively against religious parties and conservative groups who they accused of being in league with the landed elite of the scenic region. 

Lindholm goes on to say that in the 1980s — when politics based on religious populism began to peak, and then 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 leftist rhetoric, started to colour their angry stance with equally angry ‘Islamist’ points of view.

This phenomenon of belated political violence, instilled by an earlier rhetoric but erupting much later in a different scenario, can be explained with the help of two detailed studies conducted by a group of American psychologists and political scientists. 

The studies were published in 2013 by Springer, an academic publishing group. The studies explain this phenomenon as ‘exponential change’. This was in contrast to what researchers described as ‘linear change’, or one that is visible and can be predicted because its patterns are well known. Exponential change, in the context of violence, seems sudden, but its causes are rooted in past emotions that were not as visible at the time.

Fiery political imagery and polarising words may not necessarily show results immediately, but can pave the way for violent eruptions later

The studies concluded that this change is thus about perceptions, ideas and emotions triggered by rhetoric that do not necessarily produce immediate reactions, but quietly simmer ‘until a threshold is crossed’ and the reaction emerges, as if out of the blue. 

This idea is also elaborated in the book Islam in Pakistan by Princeton University’s Professor Muhammed Qasim Zaman, in which he reproduced a section of a report authored by a worker of Jinnah’s All India Muslim League (AIML), during the 1946 provincial election in Punjab. 

The worker writes that, to get rural folk and the petty-bourgeois of the province to vote for AIML, some workers of the party instilled in these sections of the region an image of Jinnah ‘as a maulvi with a beard who was working to create an Islamic state’.

Of course, Jinnah was anything but. As Professor Qasim rightly mentions, Jinnah and his close comrades were all steeped in the tradition of ‘Muslim Modernism’ that was committed to an idea of Islam and a Muslim state that the clergy and various Islamist groups found repulsive. 

But Qasim added that the manner in which the idea of Pakistan was sold (through fiery rhetoric) to certain conservative sections of Punjab in 1946, continued to circulate in these circles. According to Qasim, disappointed that the Muslim League was nothing like it was propagated to be, the 1946 sentiment that had continued to brew in Punjab, finally crossed a threshold and resulted in the deadly 1953 violence against the Ahmadiyya in the province. 

The state of Pakistan was taken aback by the violence. But if one understands this violence through the conclusions of the mentioned studies and Qasim’s thesis, one will be able to see that it was not sudden at all but was instilled years ago by a particular tone of rhetoric which came home to roost years later.  

In her 2018 book The Field of Blood, the American historian Joanne Freeman demonstrates how decades of combative and polarising rhetoric by politicians finally led to the eruption of the American Civil War in 1861. Nathan Kalmoe, in the October 2018 issue of Politico, writes: “Hyperpartisan vitriol, conspiracy-mongering and threats (by politicians) led directly to the Civil War.” This is again a case of aggressive rhetoric sowing the seeds of a future conflict and the eruption of violence. 

In a November 2019 essay, the behavioural economist Thomas Zeitzoff writes that the use of violent language (by politicians, dictators, etc.) polarises the populace, exacerbates existing ethnic and political tensions, and paves the way for future violence. He adds that violent rhetoric captivates and receives “outsized attention”. It also provides a way to signal to supporters a politician’s steadfastness on policy positions and that they will not “sell out the ingroup”.

Even though combative rhetoric has been present in modern politics since the 19th century, Zietzoff noticed a considerable increase of violent imagery and words by politicians in the last decade or so that can lead to sudden eruptions of violence in the near future.

This brings me to what a good friend of mine recently told me. A Pashtun, he said that an elderly relative of his in Peshawar who supported Imran Khan’s PTI, did not hold back his fear that Khan’s aggressive rhetoric, laced with violent metaphors over the years, has risen hopes of a lot of young Pashtuns. But once these hopes are not realised, it will turn these youths into ‘anarchists’ with no respect for political or social norms. 

We are already seeing how all this is playing out in Modi’s India and Trump’s America.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 17th, 2020