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Beyond sound and fury

Part - I
Not beyond military rule: Gen Musharraf’s greatest contribution to Pakistan has not been

By Afiya Shehrbano
June 05, 2014
Part - I
Not beyond military rule: Gen Musharraf’s greatest contribution to Pakistan has not been his military service nor his coup to rescue us from ‘corrupt’ civilian democracy. It has not even been his gift of a decade of enlightened moderation that led to genocidal militancy, civil war and a boost to sectarian and militant outfits. Rather, the best thing that Musharraf has done for the country has been to return from exile and get indicted by a Pakistani court.
It is no coincidence that, thereafter, the military establishment has had to reflect on its image, public opinion, symbolic standing and genuine worth as a security force. It has also felt the pressure to observe its constitutional limits. As long as the Musharraf case is pending, he remains an opprobrious reminder of a Pakistan scorched by military adventurers and overreach. Moreover, just like a decade ago, the side that one picks on the Musharraf Question still serves as an important litmus test and demonstrates divided opinions regarding civil-military relations.
Even today, some analysts hold the military and its patronage and collusion with religious militant groups responsible for the retardation of democracy in the country. Opponents insist that it is liberal democracy itself and corrupt, vested interest politicians that are the true obstructions towards a revolutionary, peoples’ utopia.
Islamists are a secularising force: Historically, the objection to dirty oriental politicians used to come from the privileged elite and urban upper middle classes. They would deride patronage politics and decry the corrupt and parochial, oppressive ways of uneducated feudals, political Islamists and middle-class extortionists who organised themselves into participatory political players in a modern democracy.
However, in the post-9/11 period, stung by Islamophobia, several Pakistani scholars in the west became invested in an anthropological rescue of Islamist politics and piety in Muslim-majority contexts. But they did so by devoting their academic energies towards resuscitating Pakistan’s faith-based politics and politicians while deriding and scorning liberal-secular ones.
Some of these argued that the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaatud Dawa were secularising Pakistan (once you redefine secularisation). Others insisted that Muslim women were quite happy with their pietist escapism and didn’t need to be rescued by the imperialist west with its liberal agenda. Yet others vowed that the military-mullah nexus is dead. Even more argued that Islamic law is the only effective solution despite the Gen Zia period and that all lay legal entities must be replaced by divine ones.
The underlying premise of this body of scholarship has been that while the military may be a side problem and Islamist politics is oppressive but only if viewed by liberal eyes. Yes, maybe Islamists have a systemic affinity with the military’s jihadist ambitions and paranoia. Still, these scholars maintain that it is primarily the Pakistani liberal intelligentsia and its preoccupation with an equality-espousing human rights agenda that is the obstacle towards an authentic, postcolonial Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Islamism is liberalism: In similar vein, yet another collective of Pakistani students and scholars in North America is now also holding liberal intellectuals in Pakistan responsible for blocking out the importance of the ‘people’s movement’. These academic-activists seem to consider themselves new radicals compared to liberals and they insist that Pakistani liberals are oblivious to peasant and working class movements in the country. Further, these ‘liberal pundits’ are reprimanded for recalling “Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as a paragon of social democratic virtue rather than the anti-Left, anti-Bengali demagogue that he was.” (
Different from the first group of scholars, these activist-academics as they position themselves, may not think Islamists are secularising Pakistan but they insist that Islamism is liberalism – and since there are so many different forms of liberalism, why not?
So, the verdict is in. Islamists are actually a secularising force and Islamism is liberalism. Therefore, it is liberal-secularism and not Islamists nor their politics and nor their institutionalized nexus with the security establishment or global Muslim sectarian networks that are any threat to Pakistan. Ergo, we are Beyond Bombs, Burqas, Terror and Tremors (the titles of their meetings and conferences).
The only questions that remain are: if Islamists are secularising Pakistan and are rooted in liberalism, what exactly happened to conservatism, particularly the faith-based kind? And what is the impetus and source that propels faith-based violence, hate-crimes and which assists in the deployment of institutionalised, legal ways of persecuting minorities and getting away with murders of women?
Most of all, what gives faith-based actions complete and utter impunity, even when they directly violate the law or use its moral base to take people’s lives? Also, given that we’ve had Islamists and Islamism forever, why doesn’t Pakistan look like any of the other, apparently horrific exemplars of liberal-secularism that dot the globe today?
Missed revolution: New radicals in North America wish to inform Pakistanis who are in denial that the anti-liberal hope of Pakistan (the Taliban) were engaged in a class warfare even if it didn’t turn out that well. Presumably, the people of Swat are a bunch of whining compradors who don’t know a good revolution when they see one. Encouraged by the liberal sell-outs who would deny the revolution (including, one supposes, the majority of those tribal leaders and Fata citizens who were not killed by drones but mass murdered by the Taliban), the working class peoples of Swat were lured by false consciousness and turned into counter-revolutionaries.
Apparently, in an attempt to subvert the bad press on the Taliban and flip it onto an indicting focus on Empire only, some of these radicals have documented the war in Fata by deliberately not even naming the Taliban. A novel technique that obviously by-passed the Spielbergs of the film world. If lay Pakistanis can’t understand such radical gimmickry, that’s their problem.
These west-based scholarly endeavours to delegitimise liberal values in Pakistan have borne fruit. By naming and shaming some of their favourite punching bags by way of Asma Jahangir, Najam Sethi, Khaled Ahmed and some blogger journalists, these young ‘academic-activists’ paint a landscape that is Punjab-centric, both by way of the sites of their research interest as well as in the membership of this club.
Aitezaz Ahsan and Asma Jahangir are named in their meetings as liberal sell-outs because they object to the Supreme Court’s attempts to regulate sugar and CNG prices which would have benefitted the poor masses. The Punjab-centricity of this body of scholarship is a notable point and deserves further discussion.
This article is based on observations at a recent conference, Beyond Tremors and Terror, held at York University, Toronto, May 2014.
To be continued
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: