April Issue 2009

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 12 years ago

It is the age of Isms: cosmopolitanism, Islamism, secularism, institutionalism, Guantanam-ism, globalism. Everyone in Pakistan has one these days. The norm, it seems, is to either associate yourself with an Ism, or better yet, invent one.

Fashionable nowadays, is to write a novel or two and recruit yourself into the sweet-talking, sherry-sipping, all-knowing Pakistani intelligentsia. They all look and act the same. They disassociate themselves from religion, they identify themselves as ‘contained liberals,’ they are superstitious, they are tastefully underdressed. And they are inherently good people for all their harmless pretence. They criticise injustice when they see it, they are excellent conversationalists, they have all spent a few hours in jail as political dissenters and actively spend time getting in touch with their ‘roots.’ There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of these things. After all, why should there not be a dominant intellectual culture?

The tragedy of our society, however, is in the fact that our intellectual elite are also our only socialite class; the scandal-savouring, party-loving, ‘progressive’ face of our nation. Certainly, there is nothing inherently wrong with that either. And of course, not all our intellectual icons partake in this. Certainly, we can lay claim to a few minds that any society would be proud to possess. There are a handful of them scattered across our cities, observing the times in silence and sadness, speaking to people about the state of affairs and allowing second opinions, even savouring them. But when a society repeatedly confuses her Derrida, Levinas and Foucault with her Paris Hiltons and Hugh Heffners, then there is, most definitely, a problem. This is the first of many signs of a society deep in the throes of an ideological crisis with absolutely no means to reconcile both images, but pathetically struggling to make peace with them.

There is much ‘secular’ literature going around these days that reflects a dimension of exactly this problem. It is coming from these enlightened individuals, who push for cosmopolitanism, globalism and westernism. And they all seem to have something deliciously urgent to say about Islamism. It is a lethal battle between the Isms. It is only spoken, however, in the language of the former, cosmopolitical variety.

It only rotates round and round the dining tables of the most ‘progressive’ among us. It does not engage with other voices and actively rejects their content to preserve the decorum of sophisticated dialogue. It comes from people who believe they are participating in a grand intellectual revolution by repeating the same old anecdotes about finer days, more ‘secular’ ways.

The unfortunate dimension of violence from religious militancy (which is both a reaction to and reflection of neo-liberal, economic, socio-military aggression) has made it difficult to argue purely conceptually. The representative liberals, whose defining feature should be open-minded tolerance, are equally guilty of contributing to the intellectual catastrophe they accuse the “uncouth” mullahs of generating.

I urge anyone who reads this to have a look at an article by Mohammed Hanif, “The Power of the Pulpit” that was published in Newsline’s January 2009 issue. It is the perfect example of the ideological crises of our self-proclaimed ‘liberal’ classes.

Hanif writes critically. He cannot comprehend the visual and verbal explosion of religious symbolism, explicit preaching on TV, Quranic verses as cell phone ringtones, women dressed in western attire observing Ramadan. Indeed, he is wary of ‘beards on TV.’ It would seem that they have no place on broadcast. (I suppose one could call it his fear of beard-ism).

I don’t blame him. Some of these mullahs preaching on TV are downright terrifying. But what I simply cannot wrap my mind around are the clean-cut binaries of right and wrong that he constructs, while seeking to criticise just that. I do not want to delve into the minimalist vision of the world he holds, wherein he finds it obnoxious that a Nike store could digress from the tunes of Santana and instead, play verses from the Quran. He is cynical of a woman in jeans and a T-shirt holding a religious opinion, because he finds the two concepts morally irreconcilable. He sneers, irritated at a radio broadcast from the Al Huda Trust, because its offices are located in what he calls, the “upscale Defence Housing Area” of Lahore.

But what does this mean? That he finds it morally troubling that the more fortunate classes could have any entitlement to religious teaching? Is that a role reserved for some other social group? The mullahs he criticises, perhaps?
I am amazed at these views, coming as they are from of a so-called ‘liberal’ thinker. That liberalism and religion are somehow mutually exclusive, that you cannot be one if you are the other, that they naturally cancel each other out, has come to acquire common sense status in Pakistan.

This is, perhaps, the most narrow-minded observation of our dominant intellectual discourse. We have all learnt to take a conveniently myopic view of things, as we criticise Islamism with our ‘liberalism.’ We fail to see that this rise of Islamism is in its essence both a moment of, and a reaction to, neo- liberal globalisation. Either way, it is simply one aspect of globalisation. Westernise leads to Islamise. What led us to expect that Islamists could partake in an isolated culture and not react, resist and reaffirm the new traditions of this stunted modern world? Whether or not religion should change face is a different debate, but to argue that the human faces of religion can remain unaltered as the world changes — that is a truly narrow understanding of people.

Hanif proclaims at the beginning of his piece that religion is a private matter between man and God. He lovingly recalls an age when the friendly neighbourhood mullah was just another nice guy who happened to lead the Friday prayers once a week — not the face of an enraged preacher you saw on mainstream television, publicly invading your privacy.

If it really is about opinions on private matters, then I wonder if he is equally unforgiving of other persistent infringes on human privacy; the commercial culture, where someone is always throwing their opinion at you. Certainly, these preachers don’t have angry, bearded faces. They are usually more aesthetic than that. But beyond the facial hair, they are preachers all the same. The message is identical: do what we say.

It also makes me wonder if he is equally nostalgic for a time when everything else used to be a private matter; when all your lifestyle choices used to be a private matter and you could walk down a street without having some logo trying to sell you expensive ways to look more socially acceptable. I wonder if he is as nostalgic for an age when sex used to be a private matter, before the female body became the international symbol for popular culture and entertainment. I wonder if he feels exactly the same way about magazines that implicitly and explicitly command young girls into starving themselves to be more desirable to men. I wonder if he is equally critical of the MTV culture that indiscriminately sings out at all of us, all the time: sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

These are richer, powerful, more glamorous preachers. And they are everywhere; but to pardon them because they are in line with one interpretation of a more ‘liberal’ order? Here, I must loudly exclaim: Hypocriticism. Nothing is a private matter anymore.

Certainly, I am not taking the liberty to judge if any of the things I have listed above happen to be right — or wrong. But I argue that what our progressive classes find so incomprehensibly perverse about religion taking on aggressive, active roles in society, is just one phase in a logical sequence of intellectual and physical violence through what Habermas has called a breakdown in ‘communicative action’ — the absence of common relatable backgrounds to the extent that no one can imagine being in the other’s shoes anymore. Without this mutual perspective-taking, human communication dies and violence naturally sets in.

If this certainly is the age of the Ism, then it is all really about one Ism: extremism — neo-liberal, Islamic, economic, global extremism.

Speaker’s Corner is a forum for reader’s views. Readers are invited to send in contributions on any subject under the sun. Contributions should be between 600-1,000 words and may be edited for space and clarity. The views expressed in these columns do not necessarily reflect Newsline’s editorial policy.