Karachi and the failure of Pakistan's multi-culturalism

We have become so religion-obsessed that we have forgotten cultural sectarianism mobilised by the MQM, PPP, and ANP.

Ali Ahmad July 15, 2011
The martial tradition of the Pakistani Army failed and the ‘’Islamization’’ drive of Zia which was the martial tradition merging with clerical power also failed . What did these processes fail at? They failed at creating some coherent narrative of Pakistani citizenship that was pluralistic and open enough to absorb the different ethnic, linguistic and indeed tribal affiliations of the Pakistani citizenry.

State sponsored Islam (which in itself is quite unprecedented within the body of Islamic history and literature) has not created any form of universal Pakistani citizenship.

The Karachi conflict is the result of decades long alienation, mistrust and hatred towards different linguistic-ethnic groups that has never been resolved but brushed under the carpet. The martial tradition never engaged with it and there was a lazy and naive presumption that ‘’Islam’’ as instituted by Zia’s rule would quash any sort of quarrel.

Conflict arises not because there is diversity but when society is unable to deal with pluralism. Conflict arises not because people hold different opinions but because people are unable to tolerate different opinions. Difference itself is never the cause of conflict but the inability to reconcile difference, to respect it and to cherish it is the root cause of conflict.

The lazy slogans of the Islamist parties in Pakistan deliberately try to confuse these issues. They deliberately try to portray 'difference' itself, be it ethnic or religious as the cause of conflict and gain much support by talking of an imagined, mythic, homogeneous and utopian Islamic identity. The result has been that in the words of AbdolKarim Soroush the Iranian philosopher, "the Islam of identity" has overruled and quashed the, "Islam of truth". Increasingly, appeals to an "Islamic identity" are becoming the normative justification for resistance to human rights legislation in Pakistan rather than reasoned debate on Scripture, ethics and theology.

But the Karachi conflict itself was always a time bomb waiting to happen.

Pakistan has never resolved the issue of pluralism and diversity. In essence,Pakistan suffers as much from a failure of ‘’multiculturalism’’ as it does from a failure of religious tolerance. We associate ‘’multiculturalism’’ as some sort of political development in Western societies but Pakistanis should also now grapple with this idea as a means to resolve conflict. Indeed multiculturalism is nowadays associated with the racial and religious tensions that engulf the main urban areas of European cities. It has become fashionable for European politicians to curry favour from the far right by smashing the idea of multiculturalism. Successively from David Cameron to Angela Merkel, European leaders have literally queued up to herald the failure of multiculturalism.

The European experience may not be encouraging but multiculturalism itself as an idea of coexistence and pluralism is worth defending. The policies and structural implementation can be debated of course but the idea itself is valid.  Also critics of European multiculturalism fail to notice the other relative successes of the idea in fostering harmony.Pakistan needs its own distinct brand of  multiculturalism now more than ever.

The choice of whether one is a "Pakistani" or a member of a particular ethnicity is a false choice. Having said that, in modern nation states, there is no one ‘’national community’’ instead we have many communities that are defined by the ties of faith, tradition, ethnicity or language. These differences can never be dismantled or eroded – this is the reality. But they can be resolved and you can foster an ethic of respect and pluralism, but politicians of each of the three political parties (MQM and ANP and to a certain extent the PPP) have to set an example. The underhand politics of each these parties have set fire to this deadly conflict.

This will require Pakistanis to radically rethink the role of the State. The State should not be ''large'' in terms of imposing a particular code of morality, faith or identity. The State should now be reconsidered as a legal mediator that can broker agreement between different groups - this is one point of what it means to be a ''secular state''.

Then there is the  issue of authority. Do the ethnic groups that form the bulk membership of the ANP, PPP and MQM believe that these parties represent their grievances and worries? Is it right that a political party should be the exclusive authority of representation for a particular cultural community? Are we not by assuming a single political party represents a particular community putting those people in a rigid ideological box and hence removing any possibility of dialogue?

We have become so obsessed with religion that we have forgotten cultural rivalries and cultural sectarianism that is politically mobilised by parties such as the MQM, PPP, and ANP. The collective cultural identity that encompasses ethnicity and language has become a political weapon that provides the underlying foundations for the logic of the ensuing political violence.

In my opinion the religious turmoil in Pakistan is a symptom, rather than a cause of the current crisis. Religious extremism and radicalism has been a response to the failure of developing a robust working democratic system that upholds liberal rights and abides by the parameters of the constitution. The constant interference of the Army has disrupted the political process and in many ways due to its action in Balochistan merely fuel the ethnic roots of Pakistan’s crisis.

The Taliban according to the reading of some scholars purports to be a Pashtun nationalist movement although it should be said that many within that ethnic community have vehemently opposed the Taliban and have some have lost their lives as well in the process. It should be remembered that Pakistan’s crisis has always been the inability to resolve provincial and ethnic tensions and that religious extremism is merely a response to these failures.

The failure to create a platform or some sort of public space where members of different ethnic communities can discuss their issues without fear of retribution or with a sense of deep mistrust and hostility has created a state of paralysis in Karachi.

We need to hear the voices of sanity from the different ethnic and linguistic communities caught up amongst this ruthless political violence.
Ali Ahmad A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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