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Rally, faith, & ideology

March 26, 2013

SINCE October 30, 2011, the organic sprouting has been replaced by synthetic organisation.

The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI)  is no more the romantic idea which drew men, women and families to the Minar-i-Pakistan then. It is a political party which not only has clear power ambitions but which also has committed cadres to pursue this cause. Making its own compromises, it has caught the fancy of a large number of people and, importantly for a contender for power, it has investors that are willing to put money into turning this dream into reality.

Imran Khan’s is increasingly a faith-based combination whose time, he hopes, has arrived. He is not shy of asking people to follow his example: of a man who is steadfastly moored in convention but who knows how to beat ‘them’ at their own game. To his followers, he is an honest soul rooted in the tradition of great leaders who learned the rules from the very forces they were to later fight.

Before the manpower and financial support for the PTI can reflect in votes, no less significant is Imran Khan’s willingness to play the game according to rules issued by the keepers of morals. That is where he is so dangerous for the PML-N, which also chooses to adhere to Taliban parameters.

The Taliban’s advisory to the Pakistani people carries no ambiguity. They warn Pakistanis against getting too close to the PPP, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. The threat of bomb attacks on the rallies of these three parties pretty much sets up the ideological framework within which Pakistani politics are to be conducted this election. This practically leaves only two contenders for the mantle of leading the country, the PTI and PML-N, and corroborates the theory that the tussle between the PML-N and the PTI in vast parts of Punjab can be described as a fight between two members of the same camp.

There are PTI supporters who, despite the overwhelmingly religious tone of Imran Khan, believe that they can steer their party towards a course of moderation. Just as the critics speak of hypocrisy and predict that it would be impossible for Imran to suppress the mullah in and around him, this group of PTI supporters is willing to wait and see how it shapes up in the election and after.

All parties in Pakistan claim they have the best mix of religion and worldly needs to serve to the people. The PTI solution claims to be based on a more pragmatic understanding of Pakistani realities and the primary need to bring the hardliners into the mainstream. This has a lot of appeal for militant-wary people who desperately want peace.

In the Pakistani context, old terms are changing. Some diehard PTI supporters not only see the change coming, they proudly speak of its “socialist aspects” or more strongly, about the “socialist essence” of Imran Khan’s ideals.

This latest experiment is not peculiar to Pakistan. In its composition it is not impossible to liken the PTI or at least a large section within it with the Muslim reformists Reza Aslan discusses in his best-selling No god but God. The book is a much-acclaimed attempt by an American citizen of Iranian origin to rediscover the synthesis between Islam and progress.

Aslan finds in the pluralism to which the new generation of Muslims is exposed the logic that must keep Muslims moving forward. He celebrates the availability of varied fatwas, spawned by the internet, for Muslims to choose from. He is keen to distinguish secularisation from secularism, drawing upon Protestant theologian Harvey Cox to bring home his point: “…secularisation is a process by which ‘certain responsibilities pass from ecclesiastical to political parties,’ whereas secularism is based on eradication of religion from public life.”

Most significantly, Aslan asserts that if democracy is an expression of popular aspirations and religion is what a people hold dear, democracy must carry the influences of a people’s religious preferences. Instead of cherishing secularism as an ideal, he puts his faith in pluralism — reflected, for example, in the variety of fatwas that he reads as a sign of diversity rather than division.

Inevitably, then, Aslan wants the hardliners, even their militant brand, included in the democratic processes in the Muslim world. He is all too ready to find a socialist character in Islamic movements in Muslim countries and finds Muslim capitals — Cairo, Jakarta, Tehran — connecting to Paris and New York in creating a spreading reformative movement.

Of course, those who — like Aslan — have migrated to the West from Muslim countries have a central role in this drive. They are not at all dissimilar to the core which brought about the PTI: Imran himself, the foreign educated associates who initially helped him, the expatriates trying to bridge the gap between where they live and where they come from, the head of a multinational who gave up his job for the cause. This is where the PTI appears to many, predominantly young, sections to be different from the PML-N.

The PML-N additionally has to explain what it has achieved in power and politics so far — unlike its alternative, the PTI. Due to its long presence in power and politics the PML-N cannot totally absolve itself from a role in bringing the country to its present state.

Pakistan and the violent religious groups which reign here are given a miss as Aslan’s book searches for a pluralistic solution. But just as the country does figure quite prominently in his historic context for the present-day problems of the Muslim world, Imran Khan’s campaign is useful for comparison with new-generation Muslims’ latest experiment in synchronising faith with modernity. Some of us may not like it but where I live, a lot of people are willing to give it a chance.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.