May Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

I asked my fellow biker if she wanted to go out for our usual bike ride around Islamabad. She gave me a terrified look and asked if it was safe at all for two women to bike in the times of growing religious extremism. Although we have continued to bike, it is not possible to escape the xenophobic environment created due to the outrageous acts of the danda-wielding Hafsa gang. The culturally liberal progressives living in the posh sectors of the capital city are fearful of what appears to be the growing power of the mullahs. Surely, something has changed in the environment of Islamabad, which no longer seems 30 minutes outside of Pakistan. In fact, the violence of the Hafsa brigade has brought Pakistan inside Islamabad.

The gang of extremist men and women occupying and managing the seminary have basically read out a riot act to the culturally liberal elite of the city by announcing a crackdown on anything deemed un-Islamic by the gang. Moving away from fighting a defensive battle to save their mosque and the seminary, which was earmarked by the government for demolition, the Hafsa gang has now launched an offensive by creating a sharia court and is taking upon itself the responsibility of punishing anyone they consider as violating religious norms. This has created fear among Islamabad’s elite — the fear of how life might change drastically as a result of the empowerment of religious extremists. The murder of provincial minister, Zille Huma, a couple of months ago by a religious zealot drew attention towards the problem of how the society is changing. The secular-liberal elements in the country, which are spearheaded by the country’s elite, suddenly awoke to the fact that there was something drastic happening around them. A visitor to the area around the seminary almost feels like he/she is in the unruly tribal area, with gun-toting mullahs standing guard in the middle of the capital city. Consequently, a few peace activists in Islamabad took out a procession in which they demanded stern action against the occupants of the madrassah.

But so far, nothing dramatic has happened. The regime seems to be using this as a ploy to discipline the secular-liberal elite of the city and the country. The message is crisp and clear: if one continues to demand political liberalisation then there will be a cost in the form of the mullahs and the only protection is the current dispensation. Reports indicate that besides the Hafsa brigade, people from the agencies have been visiting public places trying to scare common people. While a lot of people, whom I call the World Bank-IMF-corporate crowd of Islamabad, continue to be scared, a lot of foreigners have begun to see through the ruse. Like any other Third World country, Islamabad is using such a ploy yet again to divert attention from its political wrongdoings.

So, should one then remain complacent about the crisis? Certainly not! Although the handling of the crisis is questionable, there is no doubt about the fact that the seminary and the extremism around it have a life of their own and they will come back to haunt us in the years to come. The actual fear is that while this issue is being used as a diversion, the problem itself might develop into something bigger, which the establishment might not be able to control. Interestingly, there was a far greater number of Rangers and police personnel at the demonstration held by the peace activists than what is normally found during the various tamashas organised by the Hafsa brigade. For instance, there were hardly any police personnel the day the seminary and mosque management decided to publicly burn CDs and DVDs.

The government is certainly not keen to use force against these extremists for fear of blowing something small out of proportion. After all, these are a handful of religiously motivated men and women and taking them head-on will help them garner greater popularity. So, the better option, as imagined by the state, is to negotiate with the zealots. The problem with this approach is that it strengthens their moral standing, which, in the long term, does not bode well in the given socio-economic and socio-political environment of the country.

From the perspective of Pakistan’s socio-political environment, the Hafsa crisis indicates two things. Firstly, it denotes a ‘state within a state’ phenomenon, which in turn is indicative of the breakdown of institutions. People are generally forced to take up arms when state institutions fail to deliver. It would be foolhardy to consider the issue as something that will blow over either through the use of force or negotiations because it represents a deeper malaise than what the liberal civil society or the top decision-makers imagine.

Secondly, and this is connected to the first point, the crisis represents a class conflict couched in an identity conflict. The Hafsa brigade definitely has a constituency and these are the dispossessed people from the lower and lower-middle classes of Pakistan who view state institutions as having lost the capacity to deliver justice and ensure equitable distribution of resources. Just examine the incident of the storming of the brothel. Morality aside, the presence of the alleged whorehouse in that neighbourhood must have been bothersome for the local people who reportedly requested the police to intervene. However, there was no help forthcoming, as the brothel manager knew people who could talk to the police or pressurise them into taking no action. Or, perhaps, the police was bribed into doing nothing at all. At this point the neighbourhood people approached the Hafsa brigade, which was seen as an alternative source of justice. The question that people are asking is: why did these burqa-clad women take the law, into their own hands?

The reality of today’s Pakistan is that its socio-economic and socio-political system is largely elitist. Justice is delivered as long as you know someone at the top or in a responsible position. Those who have connections frequently break the law and it is the people with no connections — the common man or the ‘man on the street’ — who suffer the most. Such a situation not only creates resentment but also gives strength to the extremist forces.

In Pakistan’s case, it is not just an issue of the impotency of military regimes to deliver, but it is also about the ruling elite in general — and this includes the senior echelons of the armed forces — who share common economic and political interests. The civilian regimes have also failed to deliver and improve governance. An elitist state becomes problematic in a situation where the primary ideology is that of a single religion. Successive civilian and military regimes have sharpened the people’s appetite for religious ideology by using religion as a political tool. Furthermore, in the absence of an alternative ideology people have begun to see a return to sharia and the rule of Islam as the only way out for an embattled common citizen. Just consider what the common man in Pakistan is looking for under the garb of the rule of Islam. It is justice, fair play, better law and order and access to opportunities. We suffer from a system where the state and its resources mean one thing for the poor and another for the rich. Under the circumstances, we are reaching a point where people are increasingly willing to abandon secularism to attain a state that can deliver to the common citizen.

Let me cite an example from my own elite neighbourhood in Islamabad’s F-8 sector, which has both an elite school and an illegally constructed religious seminary. While the authorities have gone out of their way to facilitate the opening up of an elite private school in a residential area, which is an illegal act in itself, the seminary might be demolished because it is illegal. The government is also getting fatwas and opinions from all kinds of educated mullahs suggesting that a mosque or seminary constructed without state permission can be demolished. The fact is that if the seminary is razed to the ground while the elite school is allowed to function, the lower and lower-middle class people spread in pockets within the sector will view this as being a discriminatory attitude towards non-elitist institutions. The signal that is being sent out is that the government has colluded with the pro-West elite against the children of the poor studying in the seminary, who, in any case, were never the beneficiaries of the state’s education system.

Such distinction creates greater resentment and provides motivation for the poor people to side with the religious extremists who seem to have the ‘moral’ courage to stand up to the authorities. Unfortunately, the top leadership continues to think of the crisis as the work of a handful of rogue elements and not as an indicator of the need for a change.

The problem is that Hafsa is just the beginning. The continuation of the existing socio-economic and political structure will result in the proliferation of centres of extremism which, in the future, might make the secular-liberals think of religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami or Jamiat-e-Ulma-e-Islam as a better option. The primary discourse of the Hafsa brigade is violence, which they are willing to use to fight a political system that is not only elitist but also smells of collusion of the elite with the west. The discourse of the religious parties, on the other hand, is electoral politics, which is still more acceptable than the former.

It must also be explained here that the elite is not being treated as a monolith. There are multiple divisions, but the more prominent divide is between the pro-West elite and the socially conservative elite. While most of the pro-West elite is an urban phenomenon, the latter category pertains to the new capital that has moved from rural to urban centres. The geographical movement has not resulted in snapping ties with the conservatism inherited from their rural background. And the situation has certainly not changed due to the poor quality of education. What Pakistani educational institutions sell is literacy and not education; they do not have the capacity to contest religious extremism. However, what is common between these elite groups is their combined interests. Over the past 60 years, Pakistan has experienced an integration of elite interests.

These converging economic and political interests of the elite marginalise the poor, who face multiple economic pressures. Some of the problems are created due to growing urbanisation, without any corresponding creation of resources and opportunities for the poor. As opposed to the past, about 44% of Pakistan now lives in urban areas without the necessary amenities or strengthening of state institutions. The poor do not have access to health care and clean drinking water, or education that would provide them with upward social mobility. This creates a yawning gap, which is then exploited by religious extremists, such as the managers of Hafsa and Lal Masjid.

The bigger problem is that the elite tend to see this as an issue that should be dealt with through the use of force. This is certainly one approach, but it will not work unless it is accompanied by a corresponding correction of the socio-political and socio-economic imbalance that the state and society suffer from. No matter what people say about the slim possibility of a revolution in Pakistan, we are already heading towards an evolutionary process of a semi-revolution in which there will be more states within a state to challenge the writ of a government that refuses to deliver.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter