The conservatives and politics of fear

Conservative parties in the US (and Pakistan) use politics of fear to maintain a strong grip on national decisions.

Maryam Jillani December 27, 2010
On Saturday, December 18, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, that was to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States (US) as children, failed to push through the Senate.

Although at the outset, the DREAM Act had strong bipartisan support, as the mood of the country towards immigration shifted, Republican (and some Democrat) senators backtracked, terming the legislation as a backdoor amnesty for lawbreakers.

These so-called lawbreakers are in fact, individuals who, through no volition of their own, entered and grew up in the US. America is the only country they know and care about and yet, they are destined to be both viewed and treated as ‘outsiders’ or worse, ‘law breakers.’

Last Saturday highlighted the current government’s failure to soften the Republican stance towards immigration reform by ramping up the number of deportations. It also highlighted Republicans’ repeated refusal to heed the concerns of minorities, be they African Americans, Latinos or Muslims.

Sadly, in Pakistan we aren’t strangers to marginalisation of minorities, which in large part is a result of the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy that inevitably finds its way to political discourse and subsequently, legislation. We also are not strangers to our elected governments kowtowing to the interests of conservatives, in the anticipation that maybe, just maybe, they’ll reciprocate.

So what is it that makes the conservatives so powerful?

So powerful that the Oxford-educated Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto caved into religious parties’ demands to initiate ‘Islamisation’ measures, that it ultimately took a military dictator to reform the Hudood ordinances, that not one directly elected MNA has backed Sherry Rehman’s modest efforts to reform the blasphemy law?

While the nature of realpolitik demands that governments negotiate with the opposition and powerful interest groups, one cannot discount the conservatives’ control over what Cornell University professor and academic, Theodore Lowi very succinctly called “Jesus and Fear.”

In the context of Pakistan, all one has to do is replace “Jesus” with “Islam.” The religious parties in Pakistan, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) and the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) have been remarkably successful in establishing their role as the vanguards of Islam in the subconscious of the majority of our voters and legislators.

With respect to fear, conservative forces have used fear throughout history to persecute minorities and justify repressive policies. From witch-hunts in the 17th century to the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide in the 20th century, we have seen not only how fear is the easiest emotion to manipulate but also the best way to whip people into action.

In the US, the political right has unabashedly played upon Americans’ fear of insecurity post 9/11: Islam, terrorists, immigrant lawbreakers, etcetera. In Pakistan’s case, it is little more confusing.

Efforts to block reforms that push forward the rights of minorities have little to do with real fear of our economically and politically marginalised Christian minority, or the silenced Ahmadi community. Rather the fear stems from religious group themselves and their power to brand you an ‘unbeliever’ if you decide to side with groups that call for an alternate interpretation of Islam.

The consequences of being branded a non-Muslim can be severe. A group may declare a ‘fatwa’ against you. While that in itself is not a death sentence, shadow groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba have a history of targeting people with a fatwa against them. Moderate clerics, such as Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi who spoke out against the Taliban, suicide bombings and other tactics used by militant groups have been killed.

This fear, therefore, is very real, and will continue to be a roadblock towards legislation that affords greater rights to minorities and the development of a national consciousness that has the courage to reclaim its beliefs.  While in the US, the mood of voters and legislators change depending upon political priorities and economic necessities, in Pakistan where personal security is increasingly becoming everyone’s immediate concern, what in your opinion is the best way to move forward?
Maryam Jillani A masters graduate in public administration from Cornell University who is currently working for an international development organisation based in Washington DC.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.