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Reinventing an alternative

November 13, 2012

OVER the last decade or so, the challenges posed by religious fundamentalism and militancy have produced a wide variety of reactions within the Pakistani polity.

The spectrum and form of these reactions, ranging from knee-jerk, non-contextualised alarmism, to downright refusal of acknowledgment, have in turn bred their own micro-politics.

Some time ago, it was far less common to see people being identified as  ‘fundo’ or ‘secularist’ — value-judgment attached — but in contemporary Pakistan, these terms have somehow evolved as markers of personal belief systems, lifestyles and even basic intelligence.

The polarisation in discourse bred by religious militancy in Pakistan is, at the end of the day, a divide over the lenses used to process large amounts of information and an insistence on arranging this information into pre-existing outlooks of how the world works.

Similarly, the solutions proffered for what happens to be a very real problem are also outcomes of these various information-processing algorithms.

Under both strands, i.e. advocating for a military solution, or advocating for ‘talks’, an end to drone attacks and a withdrawal of American troops from the region, the solution offered remains precise and singular, not dissimilar to the removal of a tumour.

This insistence of looking at solutions as precise, targeted acts is quite symptomatic of our political discourse in general. The recent factory fires in Karachi and Lahore, for example, elicited a flurry of reactions related to workplace safety, and government negligence, yet very few people, outside of progressive circles perhaps, were willing to talk about the larger problem of labour rights in Pakistan.

Even where a certain segment exhibits a sophisticated and coherent understanding of the country’s problems (gender inequality, faith-based discrimination, economic inequality), the solutions are often contingent on a top-down induced change in the way the state and the legal system functions — repeal the blasphemy law, protect the rights of women through legislation, stop courting militant groups — as opposed to creating a demand from below.

There are several reasons behind this preference for using religion or state institutions — many responsible for the problems themselves — to solve various issues. Firstly, there is no conception of an alternative form of politics — public or personal — apart from what the country has seen in the last three decades.

People ascribing to a religion-dictated worldview will revert to rejuvenation of faith, internal purity and closeness with ‘true’ religion as a way of resolving worldly problems. On the hand, people advocating a different state of affairs will talk about the urge to ‘convince’ state officials, judges, politicians and army men that they need to stop doing what’s wrong.

Secondly, the sheer scale of the task of social organisation, and this is specifically true for liberals/progressives/secularists, is immense, and sufficient to dissuade people from even considering it as an option.

The idea of ‘taking back’ public space, from the radicalised clerics, the bigots and the intolerant many, carries great currency, yet its actualisation will have to be done through on-the-ground politics.

This has resulted in an odd form of cynicism where people, while paying rhetorical homage to certain ideals, are generally wary or even downright dismissive of alternative pathways to achieve those very ideals.

Nothing, perhaps, captures this reality better than the attitude of the intelligentsia towards the idea of leftist politics in Pakistan, and more specifically to news of the recent merger between three left-wing political parties.

The newer generation, specifically those who grew up during the 1980s, see the idea of a vibrant left in Pakistan as a relic of a particular past that ceased to exist once the Berlin wall fell. Hence, many associate contemporary members of the left as people suffering from a long-standing Soviet hangover, outdated and out of touch with a world that’s moved on very rapidly.

The truth is, however, that the process of reinvention within the domain of progressive politics has been taking place in many parts of the world, such as Latin America, and some in Pakistan are now waking up to this intellectual and practical exercise as well.

This reinvention acknowledges the failures of the past, specifically with regard to the question of Cold War-era totalitarianism and oppression, and seeks to redevelop a more humane, just and democratic view of what it means to be progressive in the 21st century.

From a personal vantage point, one can posit that there was and is a need to revisit the idea of what exactly constitutes progressive politics within the context of Pakistan, and then evaluate whether any of our existing mainstream options cater to its parameters.

This discussion, in turn, would have to shift the goalposts from precise incidents — Malala, factory fire — to broader categories such as Islamic fundamentalism, economic inequality, and produce coherent, workable responses from within the domain of politics.

Naturally, no one would deny that there aren’t problems with the thinking or the actual politics of the left, but this is exactly what a broader discussion, with more participants, would address over time.

A merger between the three parties (Workers Party, Awami Party, Labour Party), each with varying ideas of the term ‘progressive’, shows that at least some are willing to enter into this much-needed discussion at a practical level.

In turn, the larger cause of addressing Pakistan’s socioeconomic problems will only be served once even more people join in and help assemble a viable alternative.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.