Challenging ourselves

Posted on June 7, 2010 by


By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

The News, Sunday, May 6, 2010

150 years ago the French thinker Alexis deTocqueville wrote about the perils of majoritarian democracy. His reference point was white America, a society without a past to burden it, a land riven by ambition and the cult of the individual. DeTocqueville emphasised the inherent tension between freedom and the liberal notion of equality. He concluded that a society of individuals fiercely protective of their rights would forever be in danger of rule by tyrants.

Non-western societies such as ours have an entirely different make-up to that of new European colonies such as the United States. A radical individualism has emerged with the spread of capitalism but community identities remain deeply entrenched. The past — or at the very least what has been called invented tradition — casts its spectre over all social exchange. A regime of even liberal rights, best reflected in the existence of a meaningful social contract between citizens and the state, remains conspicuous by its absence (not that I believe that the acquisition of liberal rights is an end in itself).

Nevertheless, I find it remarkable how some of deTocqueville’s insights about American society from so long ago appear to apply to our society in the here and now. As such the gist of deTocqueville’s penetrating analysis is that the institutional dynamics of the modern state facilitate the tyranny of homogenous majorities.

In Democracy in America, deTocqueville writes: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America“. In the wake of the cold-blooded murder of Ahmadis in Lahore last week the lack of independence of mind and freedom of discussion in Pakistan has been painfully clear. How the tragedy was depicted in the media and the overall response to it — or lack thereof — on the part of political parties, the intelligentsia and ordinary citizens reflected just how deeply many of us have come to believe in the binary of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

On this occasion it is Ahmadis who are in the ‘them’ category. When we project ourselves as a united nation (which we clearly are not), we make Indians (or alternatively Hindus, along with their partners in crime, the Jews) into the ‘other’. Sometimes we are ‘Sunnis’ casting ourselves in opposition to ‘Shia’s’ (or vice versa). On other occasions, we assert our irreconcilability along ethnic lines.

I do not believe that it is possible to hold all those who project ‘them’ and ‘us’ identities equally at fault. So, for example, if the Baloch view themselves as separate from Punjabis and if this self-identification on occasion gives rise to retrogressive trends, then the fault for this state of affairs lies primarily with the ruling establishment which has deprived the Baloch of their rights (even though I firmly believe that there is a need for introspection within Baloch society as well so that xenophobic trends are nipped in the bud).

However, when a dominant identity is adopted by a wide cross-section of society, which is what has happened with ‘official’ Islam, then one has the makings of majoritarian tyranny. It is an indictment of all of us that very few Pakistanis — including those who hail from otherwise oppressed religious or ethnic minorities — have ever seriously questioned the statist judgment that Ahmadis are non-Muslims, thereby excluding them from the mainstream and creating tolerance for renegade violence against them.

The fact of the matter is that a majority of Pakistanis — the only exception being those who are male, and hail from dominant ethnic groups and sects — consider ourselves to be victims of some kind of discrimination or the other, if not outright subjugation. But surely it is time to recognize the contradictions of claiming victimhood selectively. Otherwise even if one of our many identities from time to time places us in the company of oppressed minorities, more often than not we will be complicit with majoritarian tyranny.

Returning to the United States and deTocqueville, it is important to bear in mind that the tyranny of the majority in American society is not solely a product of the ideological commitments/contradictions that prevail in that society. In fact it is just as important to recognise that the average American has become used to a level of material comfort that is unimaginable for most ordinary people around the world.

In this respect it is important to ask why the majority in societies such as ours is so easily moved by exclusionary ideologies. After all, unlike in the US where the tyrants at the top make sure that some of the goodies trickle down, here the self-proclaimed defenders of such ideologies share none of the spoils from their rapacious pillaging of society with the ordinary mass of people who respond to their slogans.

In short, there are two (related) aspects to be considered on this account. First, the state and dominant social groups have cultivated a culture of patronage so as to project inequality as part of the ‘natural’ state of affairs. Second, religion has been employed as the ideology of the state (and thus ordinary people have been encouraged to imbibe ‘official’ Islam). This means not only that the ‘natural’ state of affairs (inequality, injustice, etc.) is given divine mandate, but also that ordinary people are homogenized under the guise of Islam and easily mobilized in its ‘defence’.

In the final analysis, we are faced with the challenge of undoing the tyranny of the majority and building a society in which difference is acknowledged, and even celebrated, while the objective structures of material and ideological oppression are dismantled and economic democracy in its most expansive form established. Given our history, this is no mean task.

Finally, one more quote from Democracy in America: “The majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause, and there are certain truths that Americans can learn only from strangers or from experience”. One hopes that we Pakistanis do learn and do change. It may be difficult to be optimistic in the midst of all that is happening around us, but I am not sure that we have any other choice.

Posted in: Reformation, Society