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The great divide

January 13, 2011

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THE brutal murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, and the acceptance of the accused Malik Mumtaz Qadri as a necessary and inevitable consequence, is a defining moment for both the psychology and politics of Islamists and liberals in contemporary Pakistan.

But what is the basis and consequences of such a divide between Islamists and liberals? And does this divide really represent Pakistan?

The philosophical and ideological basis of this divide is two-pronged. Firstly, the Islamists want Islam to play a central role in state and society. The liberals do not agree with this view. Secondly, both Islamists and liberals have a self-righteous attitude, in which the other side is necessarily considered to be on the wrong path — the 'I am the Truth' mentality. The murder, and the acceptance of the self-confessed killer as a necessary and inevitable consequence, has transformed this theoretical divide into a potentially violent confrontation.

After their political defeat in the 2008 elections, Islamists have gained their first major victory by their successful mobilisation on the blasphemy law issue. This victory has two major consequences. Firstly, prior to this instance the Islamists were not a monolithic entity and were politically divided into three main groups, i.e. the constitutionalist (JUI, Jamaat-e-Islami, etc), the extremist (Sipah-e-Sahaba, etc), which tactically use violence to achieve political objectives, and the various jihadi groups who have an international and national militant agenda to infiltrate, or take over, state structures. The blasphemy law controversy has united these three groups which until only recently were violently opposed to each other. Secondly, in view of the unification of these three groups over this issue, there will be less room for negotiation and compromise over such sensitive religious issues with the constitutionalist Islamists.

After a purported liberal agenda gained momentum post-9/11, and gained further momentum after the 2008 elections, liberals consider the murder of Salman Taseer a major setback. This perceived setback has three major consequences. Firstly, the political liberals (for example, individuals such as Mr Taseer that are in various political parties and within civil society) have suffered a strategic political defeat within mainstream democratic politics. As a consequence, lifestyle liberals (i.e. individuals within the business, professional and cultural class with liberal lifestyles) will become more alienated from mainstream democratic politics.

Secondly, in order to advance its liberal agenda, the reliance of the liberals on the army and Americans will increase, who will be considered the last barrier against an Islamic fundamentalist assault. Thirdly, the shaming of Islamists will increase and all Islamists will be put in a single, 'bad', category. In short, after this murder, Islamists will be considered as being beyond rational dialogue.

But does this division between secular/liberal and religious forces exist at the societal level? Or is Pakistani society ideologically divided along religious lines in other ways?

On the basis of a reading of the political history of Pakistan, two conclusions can be drawn. First, the religious right with its theocratic agenda and liberals with their secular agenda are both not representative of Pakistani society because both groups have never been able to defeat the centrist political forces (centre-right or centre-left) in any elections after 1971. Secondly, in view of the nominal strength of both the religious and secular forces, centrist political forces have been able to reach negotiated settlements on the difficult issue of the role of religion within state and society through the framework of constitutional democracy. For example both Shariah and modern law, both the Council of Islamic Ideology and modern legislature, both Muslimness and the protection of minorities are part of the constitution.

The electoral victory of centrist forces and the above negotiated settlements signify that the great divide in society is not about the exclusion or non-exclusion of religion but about whether religion should have a central or secondary presence in state policies. In other words, the great divide in society is actually between conservative and anti-conservative groups in society.

The conservative group in terms of its ideology is non-theocratic (not anti-theocratic) and believes that class interest (economic rights) and identity issues (ethnic/provincial rights) along with Islamic identity issues should have a central role in state and society. The religious right is only a small part of this conservative group. On the other hand, the anti-conservative group believes that class interest and identity issues should play a central role, with religion having a secondary presence, in state and society. The liberals are only a small part of this anti-conservative group because the majority does not envisage the total exclusion of religion.

This great ideological divide is classically represented in the 1973 Constitution, which has two distinct foundational features. Firstly, it contains both secular and religious provisions and both modern and traditional provisions, with neither sort of provision dominating the other. In short, the 1973 Constitution is a non-theocratic and non-secular constitution. Secondly, the resolution of religious issues through negotiated constitutional settlements clearly shows that although the ideologically opposed political forces vigorously disagree in their objectives, they at least agree on the process and principles of constitutional democracy.

What are the consequences of trying to substitute this divide between the Islamists and liberals in place of the above great divide? Such a substitution will have three obvious winners. First, the Taliban-style jihadis who desire such an ideological civil war in this country in order to influence or control state policies; second, American imperialist forces that are impliedly pushing this country towards such a civil war because of their imperialist war in Afghanistan; and third, the generals who will be called in to settle such a civil war and will again be crowned as the saviours of Pakistan.

Can the above consequential winners be avoided? Possibly, but only if centrist political and centrist societal forces intervene and dominate these religious debates. This is the only way to avoid any further murders of people such as Salman Taseer and any further reproductions of the extremist mindsets of people such as Mumtaz Qadri.

The writer is a Karachi-based lawyer.