Monday, January 10, 2011

Liberal War Drum

It occurs to me that we are in a perpetual state of internal conflict. Salman Taseer’s murder got the ball rolling for 2011. This time, during the dispute over amendments to the Blasphemy Law, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri took a drastic route in expressing his opinion on the matter. So now, the battle lines are drawn between the ‘liberal’, secular side and the conservative, religious one. Because I get my news from the Express Tribune and Dawn, I am inundated with news and blogs denouncing the Mullahs and celebrating the heroic life of the controversial Governor.

So this time, we all stand together and decry the hard-line stance of the Barelvi sect in Pakistan. Last year, of course, we liked them, because the main villains were the Wahabis who have been gaining some notoriety by being blamed for suicide bombs and whatnot. We were told that their brand of ‘fundamentalist’ Islam was inevitably going to cause trouble. Sufiism was the way to go.

I have spent most of my life only marginally aware of the existence of such sects. Now, of course, they are all the rage.

Sectarianism wasn’t the only issue in the year that was. Mobs and violence were associated with religious violence against religious minorities. There was a host of problems along ethnic lines. The Sialkot incident shook the country. And of course, politics has also become a source of violence recently.

It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that all these incidents could be related. While bloggers compete with one another in their condemnation of each event individually, these ‘liberal’ voices are fast losing ground in the physical world. The fact that Qadri is being treated as a hero in certain sections is a shocking indictment of this situation. So, why are liberals losing ground? In my opinion, it’s because of their failure to relate to the on-ground realities in the country. It is their misdiagnosis of a basic problem stemming from an inability or reluctance to ask the basic question: why are people so willing to turn to barbarity?

Try this on for size. Pakistan, as a state has failed miserably to cater to the needs of its population, and to provide it with the basic necessities needed for growth. Among the musical chairs played out between military and civilian rule, neither has succeeded in providing people with a truly representative government. Time and again, an autocratic, pro-US military government has been replaced with a disconnected, even more pro-US civilian government. In successive oligarchic (or colonial) governments the well-being of the people of Pakistan has at no point featured in the equation. This, of course, is becoming more and more apparent with the crumbling infrastructure, the rising inflation, the mass unemployment and the total despondency of the ruling elite and the upper classes to these issues.

The root of all this evil, in my opinion, is the one dirty word that it is now unfashionable to quote in liberal audiences – corruption. The atmosphere of social, moral and financial corruption ensures that people have little or no faith in the working of the state machinery and have no one to turn to for protection of their rights and property. Since there is no supreme arbiter in the land, everything is up for grab and/or sale, sending out the very dangerous message of ‘every man for himself’.

This gives birth to what I call the Scavenger Mentality. The Scavenger Mentality is on display everywhere in the country, and among almost all strata of our society. It’s on the roads, where people are more willing to crash their cars than have to give way to someone. It’s at any social gathering you have to form a queue. Our newspapers are littered with stories of one person killing another over a minor altercation. We are not willing to give an inch because we live in perpetual fear of exploitation, and therefore always ready for confrontation.

With government institutions rendered impotent by their corruption, as well as their reputation for such corruption, there is a vacuum in the market for providing their functions. No longer possessing the moral right to govern, these institutions cede control of many of their functions to other groups, such as feudal structures, jirgas, mafias or religious groups. These groups are now free to exploit those that subscribe to them for their own purposes. Religious groups are in the unique position of being able to offer a better afterlife.

The government, like all governments, is eager to play up the terrorism/religious extremism issue. It provides a good distraction from their day-to-day corruption and incompetence, and absolves them from any culpability in causing the situation. Following suit from the Americans, it chooses to turn this into a battle of good versus evil, rather than a predictable outcome of the states inability to enfranchise and provide for its citizens. People aren’t being pushed towards extremism by rampant social injustice; the Mullahs just have a magic sermon that turns people into savages.

The upper and upper-middle class (of which I consider myself to be a member) ‘liberal’ voices are repeatedly talking of going to the mattresses. The language in recent blogs is of war: war against the extremists, war against the Mullahs, war against intolerance. We will not tolerate the intolerant! But the intolerant aren’t reading these blogs, and even if they were, they are beyond caring.

The fact of the matter is these classes have not been pulling their weight in the country. We study in private schools, go to private hospitals, and work in multinational companies. Matters concerning law and order are dealt with by some uncle or the other. Our political and social opinions are formed in a culture isolated from the vast majority in the country. We are not politically active, and have never taken on the task of questioning our leadership. The educated elite that was to protect the rest of the country from exploitation at the hands of foreign and domestic powers has completely dropped the ball in enabling both.

Now, our little fortresses are under attack. The chaos outside the city walls occasionally finds its way inside our comfortable little worlds, and we respond violently. Someone complained recently about not being able to ‘live and let live’. Unfortunately, the educated elite have spent too long living and letting live or die. Now, the time is to act for the collective good of the country, and not just for the protection of our own lifestyles. Instead of trying to ignite or escalate a conflict between liberal and conservative that will only result in strengthening the corrupt leadership on both sides, this elite should be moving to correct the basics.

Telling a population that is steadily losing everything to turn away from extremism and violence is an exercise in futility. The liberal elite need to stop beating the war drum and start asking their government institutions why the situation has come to this, and what they are doing to correct this. We need to educate ourselves as to what is going on in the country, and try to get some perspective as to the causes of our current predicament. We need to stop condoning corruption and sacrificing honesty and practicality for the sake of liberalism. And we need to get out of this confrontational stance. The battle lines along beliefs are a distraction from what really ails the country.

Unless we are some extremely unlucky exception, genuine psychopaths are statistically rare. While the support of militancy and religious extremism by previous governments (again both civilian and military) has been a strong contributor to their rise, the growing polarisation in our cities has deeper reasons to it. Growing violence in countries is the hallmark of states that fail to function cohesively in economics, social welfare and in providing justice. These should be our focus if we are to find a way out. Liberals should be more concerned with actively strengthening our institutions by purging them of incompetence and corruption.

After living in isolation for a long time, liberals have been thrown into the deep end. They may now choose to pick a romanticised fight that will further polarise the country, or try to tackle the major practical problems that face its common population. I have long written off the idea of revolution in the country as impractical, but the rising violence is making me revisit my stance. While I condemn the killing of Salman Taseer, I am more worried that the rising wave of frustration and discontent may result in even more frequent and indiscriminate attacks.

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