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Smokers’ Corner: Divided they preach

March 05, 2011

A lot of young people wonder why last year Zaid Hamid was chased out from Peshawar University by the students. He had gone there to speak and spread his call for a ‘revolution’ that (not so surprisingly) was squarely based on the usual right-wing clichés about patriotism and pride. A call aimed at a generation brought up on the historical and ideological narratives manufactured by some in the military and theocratic elites.

Why then was Hamid hounded out from a state-owned university but was successful in finding a more receptive audience at private colleges and universities? The answer to this is not all that complex. The right-wing in state-owned universities and colleges in Pakistan has always been represented by the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) and Muslim Students Federation (MSF), while the progressive sides on state-owned campuses have been reflected by such student groups as National Students Federation (NSF), People’s Students Federation (PSF), Baloch Students Organisation (BSO), All Pakistan Muttahida Students Organisation (APMSO) and Pakhtun Students Federation (PkSF).

All these groups are largely political in orientation with controversial histories in which each played a leading role in various democratic movements but at the same time also got embroiled in some serious violence. History has not been very kind to them as far as the new generation of Pakistanis is concerned; most simply see these groups as thugs. This is also the generation that in the last 15 years has opted to join the many new privately-owned universities and colleges that do not allow conventional Pakistani student political groups to operate.

But does this mean that the private educational institutions are completely apolitical? Not exactly. The truth is that whereas politics on state-owned campuses is still a highly charged ‘Islamist/conservative vs. progressive/liberal affair between conventional student organisations, on private campuses it is being subtly and silently penetrated by some elusive socio-political groups. These groups were unsuccessful in getting a foothold on state-owned campuses, mainly due to the presence of conventional student parties there.

The target audience of these new groups are the new urban middle-class (supposedly) caught between a ‘corrupt democracy’ and politicised clergy. That’s what their analysis was as they saw the new generation open up to ‘new ideas’. These groups (at least in educational institutions) do not operate like the conventional student groups. In fact they claim to shun politics and pretend to help the students become better and more successful Muslims.

Yes, Muslims alone. This is so because the two main groups having access to private-owned campuses are both Islamic in orientation. One’s the Tableeghi Jammat and the other is the Hizb-ut-Tahrir. According to Matthew J. Nelson’s in-depth research paper on religious politics in the universities of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Tableeghi Jammat and the Tahrir have been making deep inroads into privately-owned universities and colleges for the last decade or so.

Conscious of the repulsion students demonstrated for the violence associated with the established student groups on state-owned campuses, the Tableeghi Jammat and the Tahrir slipped into private educational institutions with a more social agenda. Instead of preaching political ideology, these groups emphasise on ‘social behaviour’. For example, students are given tips on how to sound and look like better Muslims by adorning the hijab, growing a beard, replacing English/Persian words of thanks, greetings with Arabic ones, offering regular prayers, etc.

The consequences of this are not entirely apolitical because at least the Tahrir is a political organisation with an agenda to ‘unify the ummah’ (through a modern-day caliphate). It is also supposedly banned in Pakistan. Even though it was Maududi’s political Islam that was introduced into the once secular Pakistan army by Ziaul Haq, by the early 1990s the Tableeghi Jammat began having a bigger impact, turning the politics of the institution into a strange fusion of Maududi’s political Islam and the Tableeghi Jammat’s social aspirations.

Thus, the political impact of the Tahrir and the Tableeghi Jammat’s preaching in private universities and colleges sees the affected students eventually coming close to the worldview peddled by the some in the military establishment. That is why men like Zaid Hamid were so successful in finding receptive adherents in privately-owned educational institutions compared to the state-owned ones.

So there should be no surprise also in the fact that Hamid was resisted at the Peshawar University by both the liberal-left (PSF, PkSF) as well as the right (IJT), with none of them being able to relate to his establishmentarian politics dressed as revolutionary dynamism. As one Peshawar University student (a PkSF member) wrote to me after the incident: ‘People like Hamid remind us of a well-fed and stylish Islamic elite trying to behave like Mehmood Ghaznavi, while his fans, both modern and plain, are all products of Hizb ut Tahrir propaganda.’

As a consequence private and state-owned campuses remain ideologically polarised. It’s a tussle between an upstart and media-savvy socio-political conservatism that is pretending to be revolutionary (on private campuses), and the traditionally rustic politics of left and right (on state-owned campuses).

The line between the two is anything but thin.