Culture agonistic

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

guest-contributorTo understand the dynamics of our present cultural conflicts we need to go back to General Zia’s way of playing politics. His commitment to a self-interpreted Pakistan ideology and his martial power in super-imposing it on his subjects –- for that is what citizens become in a dictatorship –- had a profoundly disruptive impact.

He controversialised religion, making it into an instrument for repression and domination. Thus, legislation in the cloak of Islamisation haunts us in the blasphemy laws and Hudood Ordinance. Selected religious bodies and clerics gained a new voice, latent with intrusive powers, to guide public morality and personal conduct. He formulated distinctions between shura and parliament which often took the form of a dissociation from or incompatibility with “westernis ed” political and social practice and inevitably enhanced bigotry.


The other toxic impact was intellectual and artistic. In an atmosphere where free inquiry and diversity were impermissible, intellectuals and artists may not have been exterminated or annihilated, but they had no way of connecting with society. Where there was not stagnation there was a vacuum.


And that is but some of the baggage we carry today in jihad against “jihadism”; where Carter’s and Zia’s Mujahideen — having served the purpose of fighting down godless Communists in Afghanistan — evolved from rather quaint Taliban into a formal government that hosted Bin Laden and al Qaeda. Since its dislodgement, insurgent and resurgent Taliban are projected as on the verge of processing into the horrific IS or Daesh mode — which the world has been familiarised with as reviving barbarism and strife in the Middle East with the avowed purpose of defeating and replacing democracy globally.

Interpreting and explicating manifestations of Islam has become a weapon and tool of global geopolitics. The cultural ambience and emphasis in Pakistan’s religiously animated norms and choices are now no longer merely Pakistan’s concern. Presently, any brand of Muslim culture, let alone a nuclear Islamic Republic’s, has global relevance.  In consequence, most if not all, resolutions of issues bearing on Pakistan’s security and policy orientations, are emotionally loaded with real and perceived impingements on the sovereignty of the state and the dignity of its ethos. Change and progress, proposed shifts or reforms, are fraught with alien challenges and affronts to a definitively beloved native tradition and orthodoxy. To the collective Ego it sometimes appears cultural direction and identity is being revamped by and for “others”.


If we juxtapose Dr Afia Siddiqui and Dr Shakeel Afridi, it becomes easier to understand the construct of a popular paradigm that posits that national and global-alliance needs and objectives can and do diverge in specifics. Standards are dual as well as selectively applied on both sides.


And Pakistanis have to live with the repercussions of civic rage within and from both sides.


A few years ago the PPP luminary and governor of Punjab, Salman Taseeer, was gunned down by one of his bodyguards for what the latter considered the governor’s heretical defence of a Christian woman charged with blasphemy. Some months ago, the State eventually implemented the death sentence given the assassin. But the thitherto obscure relative of the “avenger” was not frustrated in the effort to make obsequies a demonstration of mass sentiment where the State was implicitly deemed evil and the man that had been judged as criminal a holy martyr.


That was an example of religious fanaticism. But we also have cultural zealots: Sabeen Mahmud was targeted and shot to death a year ago for providing an open platform for cultural activity and expression. Sentiment among the thinking and educated in Pakistan’s is conflicted; and our people are mutually alienated to the degree where a difference of perception or in a value judgment can have lethal consequences.


Mistrust and suspicion also invade and infect popular assumptions. Champions of human rights; and NGOs with agendas of social emancipation, service and reform — especially in the spheres of education, healthcare, rural or urban development  —  may be assumed as being, not just supplementary or critical of local and domestic authorities, but as being funded to incorporate activities and individuals that purposefully or unwittingly serve external donor interests.


The starkest aspect of narrow mindsets is visible in the response to Malala Yousufzai. On the basis of the schoolgirl’s projection in and by the foreign media, she became the same kind of symbol and personification of a stance –- intolerable to some — that Taseer was. Those who deemed themselves custodians of “true” religion and “appropriately observant Muslim” social mores felt morally licensed to kill.


Does this bring us back full circle to President General Zia and the madressa culture and xenophobic dogma he energised? President General Musharraf with his contrapuntal social culture of “enlightened moderation”, could not exorcise the phantoms of his action against Lal Masjid, despite his apparently unassailable military and political clout.


Cleansing madressas that may also be arsenals; and restraining demagogues and obscurantists who fail to publicly abjure vigilante justice — let alone those who demand and incite corrective violence — demands both institutional and social commonality of purpose. At the moment we lack anything approaching comprehensive consensual political commitment: Religious positioning is still viewed as leverage by competing political players, even if we have a non-Bonapartist COAS fighting terror and a Chief Justice who upholds the Supremacy of the Law.


Parties with mass followings need to stop thinking in terms of electoral gains and victory or defeat; and focus dispassionately on healing the divides tearing apart civil society. At the moment political leaders are merely seeking to exploit the power of the demo for party advantage rather than focusing on apolitically and constructively directing their adherents.


And, equally important, if not most important of all: global powers operative in the region will also have to abjure secular manipulations that link religious tweaking with political objectives: Whatever its intention, that kind of activity radicalises rather than de-radicalises.