IT is telling that last week, 19 years to the day since the so-called ‘war on terror’ was initiated with the US invasion of Afghanistan, a massive rally was held in Karachi by religio-political parties of an explicitly sectarian nature, harkening to an era of hate-mongering that Pakistani officialdom insists is now in the past.
Since 2001, successive Pakistani governments have claimed that the state’s official policy vis-à-vis the religious right has changed definitively. Our current prime minister had himself said that Islamist militancy had its genesis in official state policy — from at least the 1970s, not to mention external patronage by the US, Saudi Arabia and other front-line anti-communist states. Over the past two decades, both the external patrons and our own strategic planners, we were assured, have changed tack.
In truth, the so-called war on terror has been both cause and consequence of further polarisation, the opaqueness of state policy at the heart of a crisis with deep historical roots. Seen through a comparative lens, the state here is not all that different from the rest of the world; its coercive and surveillance apparatuses have been empowered everywhere under the guise of containing terrorism that is nebulously defined.
While in Pakistan these apparatuses have used these enhanced powers to suppress progressives who have always been considered threats to ‘national security’, they have also targeted at least some former protégés on the right of the spectrum, predominantly of a religious ilk, but also, as in the case of the MQM, those of a more secular variety.
A small spark can spiral into a raging inferno.
What this suggests is that right-wing forces are not simply puppets that can be manipulated at whim. Nevertheless, the establishment continues to play a major role in shaping novel organisational and sectarian phenomena like the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan.
Put differently, the religious right has continued to survive, and in some cases, thrive, in part because of state patronage but also because it maintains organic linkages to young people in contemporary Pakistan, particularly amongst the toiling classes.
This is a lethal combination. Young people — of whom there are 150 million in Pakistan — want economic security and dignity. As the recent upsurge in sectarian mobilisation suggests, the way in which such aspirations are moulded by religio-political organisations is potentially devastating.
On an everyday basis, we hear regularly about religious functionaries abusing minors, girls and women being treated as barely human on account of supposedly religious mores, as well as accusations of apostasy and blasphemy against almost completely invisibilised religious communities.
Perhaps some amongst us don’t care about such matters. But how long can we turn a blind eye to rallies in which thousands come onto the streets of Karachi, or Islamabad, chanting slogans against the biggest non-Sunni sect in the country? Or the fact that leaders of various sects are employing strong-arm tactics to lodge cases against and incarcerate leaders of other sects?
Let us not forget that the so-called Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s also had a specifically regional context. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 triggered a chain reaction that weaponised both Shia and Sunni identities within Pakistan due to the competing strategic interests of Iranian and Saudi theocracies. Needless to say both states continue to exercise influence beyond their borders; Saudi Arabia in particular remains a kingmaker in Pakistan’s domestic politics. Even if one argues that Shia-Sunni sectarian violence that peaked in Pakistan in the 1990s subsided, a small spark can once again spiral into a raging inferno.
Today as in the past, the establishment still perceives itself as the ultimate arbiter, able to unleash chaos upon society yet still manage it effectively enough to both ensure its monopoly over power and neuter any meaningful transformative impulses. It has certainly managed to weather any number of geopolitical storms in the past, and clearly believes it will be able to do so in the future.
Seen from the perspective of oppressed castes, genders, ethnic-nations and the working masses more generally, the weaponisation of religion has been an unending disaster that continues to have untold effects on our individual and collective genus. Crucially, however, some of the most exploited elements in our brutalised society seek mobility through religio-political movements, not to mention the promise of salvation in the afterlife.
The genie that was let out of the proverbial bottle more than four decades ago continues to haunt us till this day. We can continue to shout ourselves hoarse about it, screaming into the ears of strategic planners and religious leaders who will never listen. Or we can undertake the much more difficult task of building an alternative politics to transform state and society.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2020