Glory, Piety and Politics

Posted on March 14, 2010 by

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By Nadeem F. Paracha
DAWN – Sunday, 14 Mar, 2010

Many young Pakistanis, who in their reactionary worldview cannot relate to the conventional make-up of the long-bearded and mullah-looking hawkers of intransigent ideas, have found their man in the dashing (Che Guevara-meets-Saladin) shape of Zaid Hamid. But this phenomenon does not begin or end with Mr Hamid.

Back in the early 1990s the army and the intelligence agencies of Pakistan were high on the way they — with the cosy help of US and Saudi money and weapons — assisted Afghan Islamists in defeating the Soviet Union. Consequently, not only were the victorious Islamists sure of turning each and every Muslim country into an Islamic state, this fantasy was also harboured by a host of their comrades in the Pakistani intelligence apparatus

The disastrous economic, political and social fall-outs of Pakistan’s involvement in the so-called Afghan jihad were conveniently blamed (by the agencies and their mouthpieces in certain sections of the media) on the return of civilian politicians. In other words, had Gen Ziaul Haq not been assassinated and democracy not returned to Pakistan, the country truly could have become the strongest bastion of Islam.

This was the message the military-establishment seemed to have been giving in the face of the struggle that Pakistan’s democratic parties such as the PML-N and the PPP were locked in during the 1990s. It was a struggle that was a combination of their own blunders and what was clearly an attempt by certain resourceful remnants of Zia’s Afghan jihad to keep both the parties constantly reaching for one another’s throats to stay in power.

On the social level, when a generation of young Pakistanis who had gallantly fought against the military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq in the 1980s came of age, this generation was replaced by a more inward looking batch of young Pakistanis who were successfully made to feel repulsed by the whole concept of populist democracy. With Pakistan’s two main political parties looking exhausted by being made to play a continuous game of cat and mouse with the establishment, the new generation of young Pakistanis began to look elsewhere.

Instead of finding a tad more rational and progressive avenues of expression and belonging, this generation, already brought up on the glorious myths of jihad and Pakistan’s frontline role as the ‘saviour of Islam’, eventually found itself venturing into spacious drawing-rooms buzzing with a new kind of Islamic preachers. These preachers were largely apolitical, perhaps disgusted by the populist mindsets of the country’s rural and working-classes, and they went straight for the emerging youth of the new middle class.

Their message has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of reformism contemporary Muslim thought is in a dire need of. On the contrary, what these preachers, ranging from the likes of Farhat Hashmi to Zakir Naik, do is to continue upholding traditionalist, frozen tracts of Islamic history and law; they dress them up with modern bourgeois symbolism. In other words, the message remains the same traditionalist, but the way this message is delivered has now changed.

The seeds of neo-religious traditionalism disguised as ‘modern Islam’ were thus sown, and a contemporary identification tool for a number of not-so-clear-minded middle-class youth was discovered. Hijab and beard became ‘cool’; so did the idea of trendy and hip looking folks sounding like 21st century versions of Abul Ala Mauddudi, or worse, yuppie adaptations of Mulla Omar! The tragic 9/11 episode, Bush’s diabolic invasion of Iraq, another military dictatorship in Pakistan, and the rise of the Taliban in the country, all this (and more), eventually began to politicise the otherwise apolitical wave of neo-traditionalist piety, attire and thought that had started sweeping across large sections of Pakistani middle-class.

TV personalities like Zaid Hamid and Aamir Liaquat, and politicians like Imran Khan and Munawar Hussan, are pegs of this new trend, mixing neo-traditionalist trappings of exhibitionistic piety, dress and claims with political discourses that may sound populist and radical, but in fact they are nothing more than the kind of reactionary and myopic mindset that sections of Pakistan’s military establishment started being plagued with during the Afghan jihad under Zia and after. Today society stands clearly polarised.

On the one side are those we call the masses and who play the most direct role in politics of democracy; whereas on the other side are large sections of the middle class whose youth it seems have completely fallen away onto the right, lapping up fanciful myths of glory and power and punchy reactionary oratory that is fed to them by the new set of preachers, private TV channels and fringe politicians. This class, believing in pious and patriotic proclamations expertly wrapped in delusions of grandeur and conspiracy theories, stands completely isolated from the ongoing masses-based democratic process that is underway.

This continues to fall inwards; it is a psychological introversion that may well be making a number of educated young men and women hold somewhat xenophobic, chauvinistic and at times completely irrational ideas about glory, piety and politics. And what’s even more worrying is that maybe very few of them are aware of the bundle of spiritual and ideological dichotomies that the emerging trend has turned into.