Friday June 21, 2024

Descent into fascism

By Hussain H Zaidi
May 17, 2023

The violence, arson and pillage that followed the arrest of populist leader Imran Khan is emblematic of Pakistan’s descent into fascism. The way mobs ran rampage across the country may be staggering for many. Yet, it was the logical outcome of the carte blanche given to one political party in recent years.

Democracy can be looked upon in two ways: a voting system based on the majority rule, and a culture resting on certain core values like equality of opportunity, liberty, and peaceful conflict resolution. While an ideal democracy will represent a blend of the majority rule and the supporting culture in the right proportions, in practice in a given polity the latter aspect may lag behind the former. The chasm between the two often prepares the ground for the rise of such sister and sinister movements as fascism, populism and cultism.

Fascism generally refers to the advent of totalitarianism in Italy and Germany after the First World War. The intellectual foundations of fascism were provided by Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who also served as the minister for education under fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Gentile asserted the primacy of the mind and described the world including society as its creation or manifestation.

Such a premise, which by no means was a novel notion and can be traced back to 19th century European philosophy, is susceptible to different, if not mutually contradictory, interpretations. The interpretation that Gentile drew upon was that all social values and standards are mere mental constructs lacking any objectivity.

Now, if there are no objective values to which one may refer to in case of a disagreement or dispute, force or rhetoric must be the sole arbiter. Hence, the standard or value which comes to get ascendency over others is ipso facto the right one and must perforce command absolute submission from the society. To put it simply, might is right solely because it’s might.

But who sets the standards or values which will ultimately rule the roost? The answer is: the top leader. Being the best and wisest of all, his words and actions become the criteria for all that is good and legitimate. He wields unchallenged authority, because to question something is to make an appeal to an external standard, but in the world of fascists there is no legitimate standard external to the will of the top leader.

However, to lend greater credibility to his authority, the leader may present himself as being on a messianic mission, which may take the form of reviving a mythical or actual golden era of yore or setting up a heaven on earth. At any rate, the notion of national cultural decadence and resurgence under the top leader forms a key component of fascist ideology. Institutional changes are not a priority. In fact, institutions are deliberately weakened to make room for the rise of the cult of the leader.

Since all standards and values are deemed a mental construct, it follows that the difference between one set of values and another – for example, between the individual and society, between the public and private sectors, or between religious and political authority – is arbitrary and must be suppressed. A leader who is otherwise secular in private life will make abundant use of religion publicly for his advantage and seek to provide a religious sanction to his position – ‘If you don’t support me, you will be consigned to hell’. In the same garb, he is both the prince and the pope.

Not surprisingly, Mussolini and other fascists had zero tolerance for dissent and opposition and embraced the use of violence to put down their opponents. Once they were in government, they put in place a fascist state based on these notions. The fascists made Italy a one-party state through a combination of a reign of terror and propaganda to annihilate any opposition to the regime.

Later, national socialists under Hitler adopted the notions of fascism in Germany. Although the Nazi Party entered the corridors of power through the ballot, once firmly in control of the government, it put the constitution in abeyance and declared Germany a one-party state governed by the decrees of the Fuhrer. No surprises: being merely a mental construct or a phantom, the opposition wasn’t entitled to exist.

The seeds of fascism in Pakistan were sown during the General Ziaul Haq period (1977-88). In the name of Islamization and with a view to giving itself legitimacy, the despotic regime sought an overhaul of the national culture and decimation of political institutions. Pakistan’s role as a frontline state in the Afghan war, which was sanctified as jihad, aided the regime both financially and ideologically in its mission of cultural ‘resurgence.’ The consequences of that endeavour have been disastrous.

It made the country a hotbed of international terrorism; enthroned love for ‘jihad’ as the most sacred duty of every citizen and setting up an ‘Islamic’ society as the noblest duty of the state; set the stage for the sacralization of politics in which one is either a believer or a heretic, either clean every inch or corrupt to the bone; and introduced a political culture in which the rivals are branded as morally bankrupt, wicked, and traitors, who couldn’t be trusted with the reins of the government.

It also laid the foundations of a sanctimonious society in which those who profess a different creed or practise a different moral standard are looked upon as an incarnation of evil, who must either be forcibly converted or eliminated; and encouraged as well as patronized the rise of private armies or lashkars both to wage jihad and encourage others to do so.

Such effects as outlined above combined to provide a fertile ground for the rise of two types of organizations: One was terrorist outfits like the TTP, which look down upon both aspects of democracy: majority rule and culture and aim to set up an ‘Islamic’ state by force. The other was mainstream political parties, which owe allegiance to majority rule but in practice dismiss democratic culture as a sign of moral weakness.

Both types of organizations show zero tolerance for the opposition, brand their opponents as heretics or traitors, eschew conflict resolution through a dialogue, seek to subordinate the institutions to their whims and agree to play ball with them only on their terms, and claim on being a noble mission to rid society of all evil (which is to say: overhaul the national culture). With so much in common, the two types of organizations are natural allies.

While the Zia regime set the stage for the rise of fascism, it was the 2014 dharnas staged in the heart of the capital, orchestrated by some powerful quarters, that enabled the foul movement to get a foot in the door by allowing a political party to act with abandon. Mobocracy is a key component of fascism. Although in 2014 the mobs were unable to pull the government down, the party leadership was convinced that no matter what they did, they would always beat the rap. With such a heightened sense of their power, which only racked up in subsequent years on the back of the exceptional treatment that they have received, it was only a matter of time before the fascists would bite the hand that fed them. Unless stopped, they would also, for sure, hammer the hand which is currently shielding them.

Fascists regard appeasement, concessions and compromises as a sign of weakness. Therefore, any such overtures on the part of the other side only serve to harden and strengthen them. The only way to deal with fascism is to go the whole hog against it without any ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’ Half measures, as the last few years, especially the last one year, amply bear out, will prove counter-productive. It’s a game in which the winner takes all. It remains to be seen who triumphs in the conflict at hand. The outcome will determine whether Pakistan will be a democratic or fascist state.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: