Much has been written about how the state’s writ has eroded, either by policy or by default. Critics of state-sponsored jihad are few and largely confined to the English press. The Urdu media continue to present jihad as central to Pakistan’s raison d’etre. After decades of paranoia about India, now the US is the new enemy.
The counter-narrative to this is weak and upheld by a handful of people who have been branded as traitors in the past and ‘liberal fascists’ in current times. This secular brigade is an endangered species, under attack from the state, militants and the mainstream public opinion shaped through three decades of the Islamisation mantra. However, the secularists are also bitterly divided.
Their instinct under General Musharraf was to believe that he was some sort of an Ataturk and a sizeable number of civil society mandarins joined his government. Sooner than later, they found out what our local Ataturk was all about and their frustration found expression in the lawyers’ movement leading to Musharraf’s ouster. However, it took nearly a decade for this process to happen and Pakistan suffered immensely.
The secularists cannot agree on anything. They are divided along several lines: Egotistical differences masked as ‘ideological’ battles; proximity or hatred of a ‘liberal’ PPP; and, of late, the fear factor which is now the greatest challenge to mobilising public opinion against the rising tide of soft-Islamism.
During the year 2011, three political assassinations — those of Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and Saleem Shahzad — should have spurred on activists to fight for secularism, moderation and a progressive Pakistan. However, this did not happen. The rightwing calls them agents of the US and India, but so-called secularists are not shy of calling each other spokespersons of the military and the ISI. The recent bubble of triumphalism created due to the intense scrutiny of military competence is a case in point. Individual talk shows or open letters mean nothing for they will be forgotten soon.
Salmaan Taseer had emerged as a towering figure for a secular, tolerant Pakistan due to his public profile and proclivity to not mince words against bigotry. His death could have been a rallying point. However, subsequent activism against his murder remained thin and ineffective.
Of course, these dividing lines are difficult to resolve. There are secular democrats who think that better relations with the US are essential. Conversely, there are many who think that America, the imperialist power, needs to be resisted, and if the Taliban can achieve that then so be it. Forget the political parties who are simply playing the power-game, the secularists are divided into little groups with their personal ‘charisma’ or an ideological ‘brand’ more important than the larger imperative of mobilising the public against extremism and pressurising the government and political parties for course correction.
The PPP and ANP have been major disappointments. Nawaz Sharif’s stance has sparked some hope, but the fissures within his party position have not inspired much confidence. Pakistan continues to straddle between powerful, larger than life militants and a retrogressive, unaccountable state. Worse, its so-called civil society is divided and incapable of forging a joint narrative. On the other hand, all the lashkars and tehreeks (barring the Shias and Barelvis) stand united under the al Qaeda banner. Nothing could be more worrying than this.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2011.