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Smokers’ Corner: Shifting attentions

March 31, 2012

Anti-Americanism is one of the most overtly used marketing ploys of various political outfits in Pakistan. Once the sole fixation of radical left-wing groups and student organisations (NSF, DSF, BSO), and of progressive mainstream parties such as the PPP, NAP/ANP and others (especially during the Cold War), anti-American rhetoric and posturing began to be adopted by conservative political parties and Islamist outfits after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ever since the late 1990s, or more so, after the 2001 terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda on American soil (9/11), it was those conservative and religious groups in Pakistan which had sided with the US during its Cold War against the Soviets that became most vocal bearers of anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Now that American patronage (and dollars) had been diverted to forces opposed to Islamists and conservatives, such forces once allied to the US steadily became vehemently anti-American.

However, it wasn’t until the strengthening of anti-American sections within the country’s armed forces and intelligence agencies during this period that the bludgeoning new electronic media uncannily became the populist mouthpiece of these sections.

Consequently it helped turn the post-9/11 anti-Americanism in Pakistan into a widespread and largely knee-jerk social reaction.

But as the more militant and violent expressions of this new-found anti-Americanism in the shape of jihadist and sectarian outfits failed to gather much sympathy from most Pakistanis. In fact, a gradual sense of repulsion against these outfits began to emerge — mainstream conservative parties such as the PML-N, Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and eventually the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) jumped in to ride the anti-American wave sweeping across Pakistan.

This was the period when Army Chief General Kayani was in the process of successfully repairing the image of the military that was battered during the Musharraf dictatorship. However, clearly lacking in Kayani’s agenda was the reigning in of the country’s intelligence agencies and those sections of the armed forces that were now using anti-Americanism as a bargaining chip with the Americans who were attempting to shift at least some of their focus and funds in propping up a receptive democratic government and civilian projects.

The whole hue and cry about the Kerry-Lugar Bill in 2009 is a case in point in which not only conservative and Islamist parties were used to destabilise a so-called anti-military and ‘pro-American’ civilian setup, but sympathetic TV news anchors, newspaper reporters and columnists were also allegedly brought into play by the politicised pockets operating freely within the country’s intelligence agencies and the military. But as these agencies and the military began to stumble from one embarrassing episode of incompetence and interference after another (Raymond Davis, OBL killing, the reopening of Mehrangate scandal, etc.), the electronic media began to willingly spin out of the orbit of the military/ISI-backed rhetoric and sentiment. What was left at the agencies’ disposal were the staunchest buyers of the said spiel in the media (many of whom have now been facing declining ratings and reputation), and Islamist political outfits that have been loitering outside parliament.

Also coming into this loop was the rising ‘third force,’ Imran Khan’s PTI, that, at least before it actually began sensing itself as a mainstream political force (as opposed to the charismatic installment in the local lunatic fringe), was clearly given a helping hand by the agencies to help them keep their sullied game with the Americans going. But as PTI learns more and more about the nitty-gritty of Pakistan’s electoral politics in which anti-Americanism may get you cheers but not votes, there is a likelihood that the staunchly pro-establishment PTI too will eventually break away from its dappled benefactors’ orbit.

This is why anti-Americanism as a political positioning in Pakistan today is being competed for mostly by old-school Islamic parties such as the JI and the JUI-F on the one hand and by new right-wing entrants in Pakistan’s evolving electoral scene such as the sectarian Jamatud Dawa (JuD), the Salafist Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DePC), and the Barelvi-oriented Pakistan Sunni Tehreek (PST).

The DePC and the JI are close to the country’s military-establishment, but it is interesting to note that ever since late 2011, Islamist outfits of all shades have decided to prove themselves to be the most committed opponents of the American drone attacks and of the resumption of Nato supplies from Pakistan. It is interesting because nearly all of these outfits have serious sub-sectarian differences amongst them. They may now be organising to get themselves voted into parliament, but their programmes lack what is required to get the voters to vote for them.

That is why PTI, JUI-F and PST have now wisely decided to pad their anti-Americanism with calls for an ‘Islamic welfare state’ (in varying degrees) but JI and DePC seem to be content mouthing a ubiquitous and empty anti-American/pro-establishment idiom that can hardly garner any serious voter interest. The most interesting is the emergence of the Shia platform, the Majlis-i-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWeM). Constantly harassed and targeted by their Salafi counterparts, Shias finally managed to hold a large religious gathering in Karachi to protest against what many of the MWeM’s leaders assert are the unrelenting murders of Pakistan’s Shias at the hands of the ‘establishment-backed Salafi/Deobandi jihadist outfits.’

The odd thing about this rally was that even during this gathering aimed at Salafi groups and the establishment, many Shia leaders did not miss the opportunity to attack the United States and Nato! This further confirms the fact that anti-Americanism, at least as a political ploy, is now squarely a narrow ruse of Islamic parties and groups of varying sects and sub-sects in Pakistan.

The mainstream political parties are now concentrating more on economic and social issues, rightly conscious of the fact that these are what get the most attention from the voters.