Middle class myths

Published: April 8, 2012

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore khaled.ahmed@tribune.com.pk

The middle class is supposed to be good for a country, at least the economists agree on that. Others are divided. Vali Nasr, in his book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and what it will mean for our world (New York: Free Press, 2009) thought it has the potential for a positive transformation of all Muslim states.

Nasr says the Muslim middle class will be a force that will be in favour of openness, and trade, and commerce with the rest of the world and within the Middle East itself. “Some of this is true in Pakistan where economic growth has been very limited, but also where a new middle class seems to have emerged, energised and given a voice by the rapid expansion of electronic media, making the ordinary Pakistani far more aware of the world than before”.

Stephen P Cohen in his book The future of Pakistan (The Brookings Institution Washington DC, 2011) disagrees because he thinks that the Euro-centric slogan of “no bourgeoisie, no democracy” will not apply to Muslims. He sees no inherent connection between an urban middle class and pressure for democracy. Rarely unified or motivated by collective social interests, the middle classes across Asia and Latin America have shown themselves to be quite capable of backing illegitimate, autocratic governments for their narrow economic and material interests.

The Pakistani middle classes, he says, are no exception: “Moreover, any prospective material benefits of trade with India will not necessarily accrue to a particular class and could easily be counteracted by the anti-India psychosis that permeates popular media and the public education system where the middle class tends to be schooled”.

The Indian Constitution informs the attitude of the Indian middle class, which is tolerant of secularism. In Pakistan, the Constitution inclines the middle class to desire Sharia and consequently, prefer the ‘harder’ interpretation of al Qaeda over state ideology. It is the sentinel of the unchanging character of the medieval state presented as a utopia by state ideology, as interpreted by the clergy.

Many factors are common between the city-dwelling middle classes of India and Pakistan. The middle class lives in the city and votes rightwing. The Bhartiya Janata Party gets its vote in the city; the Congress party gets it from the rural areas. The PML-N gets its vote from the cities of Punjab; the PPP gets it from the rural areas of Punjab and Sindh. In Karachi, the middle class is conservative but its ‘secularism’ is strongly tinged with ethnicity, which means it is being unnaturally blocked from its internal dynamic by the leadership-in-exile of Altaf Hussain.

The middle class of Punjab disapproves of the middle class of Karachi and Hyderabad. Can we call the latter an ’unnatural’ middle class? If its conduct had not been dictated by an overarching force, wouldn’t it have persecuted the Ahmadis and other minorities or acquiesced in their persecution just like the middle class of Punjab as influenced by Pakistan’s Constitution? Or wouldn’t its lawyers — the vanguard of the middle class in the country — have celebrated the killers prowling the land under blasphemy law the same way as the lawyers of Punjab?

The Arab Spring has been betrayed by the Arab middle class. Olivier Roy wrote (Washington Post January 21, 2012): “Everywhere, the Muslim Brotherhood is benefiting from a democratisation it did not trigger. There is a political vacuum because the liberal vanguard that initiated the Arab Spring did not try, and did not want, to take power”.

The bazaar in Iran brought on the ayatollahs. Pakistani nationalism is tinged by Islam and anti-Indian passions. Nationalism is a middle-class exceptionalism.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2012.

Reader Comments (19)

  • BlackJack
    Apr 8, 2012 - 12:28AM

    This is a well-formulated article. I agree that there is a tendency to vote on nationalistic lines in the middle class (often represented by the right wing); however, given that the middle-class has relatively small size and the least propensity to go out and vote, they form the bankable vote base of no party. Further, with ref to India and the importance of caste dynamics, it is simplistic to say that BJP wins in the cities; India has only a 29% urban population and the BJP only has a presence in 14 of 29 states, so considering that it has 25% of the seats in the Lok Sabha, it must be relying on a significant base of voters from other segments (mainly Hindu forward castes); similarly, the Congress depends on the desire of Muslims to keep the BJP out – thus giving it a confirmed 5-6% vote base; it also has a presence in all states.

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  • Californian
    Apr 8, 2012 - 12:40AM

    The whole concept of Pakistan, based on the supposed “two-nation” theory is an illusion. People of all major religions live peacefully in one country, those in “a separate nation” have never figured out what that nation is. One thing is for sure, Pakistan seems constantly to be falling apart despite its birth based on the fallacy that one religion equals one nation.

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  • Falcon
    Apr 8, 2012 - 12:40AM

    Interesting point of view. I have come to understand from writings of Mr. Khaled over time that he tends to look for information out there that matches his own preconceived notions than reality on the ground. This might be a good op-ed exercise but raises questions about an intellectual’s objectivity. As for the content of the article, I would disagree with the thesis of Stephen Cohen because in my view, there is a middle class consolidation and ideological convergence at work. Rise of new urban political forces is testament to this counter-thesis.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 8, 2012 - 1:02AM

    Islam is the future sir………………

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  • john
    Apr 8, 2012 - 5:39AM

    The author is totally out of touch with the Indian politics.. I am an indian and i can tell you that there are many states in india where its the local party which are really dominant. Congress and BJP are national parties but not really the vote winners in many states.. Author must stop generalising india based on pakistan..

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  • Shakky
    Apr 8, 2012 - 8:34AM

    I do agree that the Pakistani middle class is completely screwed up and is tending more and more towards religious fanaticism. But the Karachi middle class is a bright beacon in the midst of all this conservatism. While it may have Mafia tendencies and operate protection rackets in Karachi, MQM has nevertheless managed to throw off the yoke of the feudals, the military and the religious extremists. Instead, this party of Karachi celebrates professionalism and education as embodied in the Mohajir population of the country. And that is intrinsically admirable and worthy of respect.

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  • raw is war
    Apr 8, 2012 - 8:43AM

    dear sir. accurate regarding India.

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  • S
    Apr 8, 2012 - 9:24AM

    Few from the Indian middle class vote either the Congress Party or the BJP. In most of the big states (UP, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Orissa, etc.) the middle class vote the local parties which are staunchly secular. The local parties are Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Trinamul Congress, Communist Party Marxist, DMK, AIDMK, etc. The localization of Indian politics has contributed to communal harmony, secularism, and has reduced the threat of a military takeover to zero.

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  • Apr 8, 2012 - 9:37AM

    Strong opposition to feudalism is the one thing that is common among the middle class voters in Punjab and Urban Sindh. It’s an important commonality because there can be no real democracy or any hope of good governance as long Pakistan’s political power is concentrated in the hands of feudal lords and feudal pirs from Sind and Southern Punjab.

    In spite of its claims to the contrary, the Bhutto family’s private jagir (property) of Pakistan People’s Party has been instrumental in preserving the feudal system in Pakistan, through perpetuation of its feudal democracy, controlled by the largest landowners in Sind and Punjab.Recommend

  • Feroz
    Apr 8, 2012 - 11:53AM

    The middle class everywhere is recognized as a big market feeding fuel to consumerism. It can play either a constructive or destructive role in orienting the direction the country takes. In India the middle class will stop in its track all forces that slow down Economic progress. In Pakistan too the middle class can play a positive role, the real question is will it ?

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  • wonderer
    Apr 8, 2012 - 11:54AM

    With all due respect to the writer whose articles I like very much and wait for, I have something to say, which I have noticed over a long period of time.

    Comparing themselves to India is something that comes naturally to all Pakistanis. There is nothing wrong with that, but in most instances the comparison is based on inaccurate information, and thus misleading. I would like to see such comparisons, if unavoidable, to be based on accurate and authentic information.

    India is a very fast changing society, besides being so diverse that there is probably nothing that applies to all Indians at any point of time. Pakistanis in general have some similarities with Indians mostly from North India, and no similarities with people from other parts of India. What applies to a Punjabi will probably never apply to a Tamil. and what applies to a Gujrati will not to a Naga. It is therefore advisable to be careful.

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  • Indian middle class
    Apr 8, 2012 - 1:30PM

    In last lok sabha elections, congress won ALL 13 seats on offer from Delhi and Mumbai. BJP is a right of centre party, while congress is a left of centre. The Middle class understands that the country can progress only if their is inclusive policy and the poor benefit from the economic growth of the coungtry. In that sense, the middle class is far more caring of the poor. Wealth does make people more positive towards their poor bretheren.
    Pakistan is 30 years behind India in its economic growth. That is why the middle class, which is living precariously too, defends its own agendaRecommend

  • A Peshawary
    Apr 8, 2012 - 2:54PM

    Why to wirte so difficult articles which ordinary person like could not understand what message it contains. I have to read at least three to four times to digest it. Your ideas and materials appears to interesing please make readable/understandable by me.

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  • Anonymous
    Apr 8, 2012 - 4:42PM

    Dear sir
    I hope that you are fully aware that before rise of MQM Hyd. And Karachi were voting for Mullahs. Those parties catered all political needs except open ethnic hatred. So in my opinion urban non Sindhi is still closet/ nonviolent fundamentalist.
    I fully agree with Mr. Cohen that in Pakistan there is no connection between middle class and democracy. To be honest with you in last 40 years of my active life I yet have to meet a person, face to face, from your land, who will prefer good democracy to bad democracy. They always prefer gunmen to democracy. This is evident some times on TV ,when PhDs get agitated that if PPP wins elections again. No body says that they will bow their head to will of people.
    This does not mean that there are no rational people in your land. There must be many but relatively non-existent.
    For the sake of argument let is suppose you have Punjab only!!! Over night you will change. India will be your best friend . You will become most secular land. Mullahs will be cut to size . You don’t need the gunmen rule,militancy and hateful religious discourse to exploit any one.

    This religiosity, love for gunmen and hatefulness to democracy is with purpose, to provide your elite to benefit the most.Recommend

  • shakrullah
    Apr 8, 2012 - 5:22PM

    Cohen , as the writer points out . finds ‘ no inherent connection between an urban middle class and pressure for democracy ‘ . This is abundantly borne out by what we see
    in Muslim societies . The explanation for this phenomenon ?
    In an important sense , the middle classes in Muslim countries are souless : they have no
    worldview or ideology of their own .They continue to be shackled by the patriarchal-tribal
    worldview of the bygone ages . A middle class unarmed by an ideology is spineless and barren : it lacks the wherewithal to lead any real and lasting social change .
    The Aligarh movement in the Sub-continent , launched ideological chages to meet the needs of the Muslim middle class emerging during the colonial period . Armed with a reformed ideology , this clas pulled out Muslim from their stagnant past .Unfortunately ,
    we sidelined and have buried Aligarh after idependence .
    What happened to the Iranian middle classes after the uprising against the Shah , and is
    happening to Egyptian middle classes now after exit of Mubarak tells us a lot about the
    middle classes in Muslim societies .

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 8, 2012 - 6:45PM

    @Shakky
    Are you kidding man karachi is so civilized and educated that every other month few hundred peoples get killed and MQM is against the feudals but allways form govt with them and last
    twenty to therty years members of MQM who elected in election became multy millionare in $
    and education institutions in karachi are located only in muhajirs area where other communties some time can not enter even what u talking about man and karachi west has more pukhtoon and other ethanicity lives and there are not even one college located there should be a university they needed compare to populations.

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  • fus
    Apr 8, 2012 - 11:13PM

    @Ali Tanoli… . How many universities or Colleges were opened in last 30 years, and how is MQM responsible for it? Please grow u, complan to your favorite PPP education minister. Your or my comment is not even related to this article but I had to reply to your comment which is far from truth. Frankly even with all the issues in Karachi there are opportunities for people who have will and passion and don’t blame others.

    As far as article is concerned, this is my observation of 40 years, a middle class person from Karachi or Hyderabad, irrespective if he is urdu speaking, Pashtun,Balochi, Sindhi, Punjabi, Memon or any other ethnicity, tends to be more open minded, opened to diversity, whether in religion, sects or ethnicty. Most of the people may not accept this based on target killing and issues that exist in karachi but if you go to any middle class neighbour hood ppl of different ethincity are still living together, go to office, schools you will see people of all colors, religions and ethnicities together. And this is something which will keep Karachi and Hyderabad stand out and give hope to whole Pakistan.Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 8, 2012 - 11:44PM

    @fus,
    my friend fus u are talking of 1970 karachi not the 2013 karachi which is totally diffrent and by the way go visit where peoples got killed and houses burned in mix neighborhoods.

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  • cynical
    Apr 9, 2012 - 3:04PM

    Every time I come across the term ‘middle-class’, I wonder where exactly is the ‘middle’.

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