By Khaled Ahmed
September 24, 2014
Standing in the heart of Islamabad, Pakistan’s most televised politician, Imran Khan, fired the president of his party, Javed Hashmi. In Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah, fired his lieutenant, Khalid Khorasani, who in turn has fired him and formed his own terrorist group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. Altaf Hussain, who runs his party, the MQM, from his house in London, had ordered all his elected members to resign from parliament and provincial assemblies. (He has since temporarily rescinded his fiat.) In his incoherent long-distance telephonic address to the “general workers assembly” in Karachi, he encouraged the rank and file to denounce his inner cabinet, the coordination committee, as renegades.
Hitler, too, periodically “fired” his Nazi lieutenants, who then had to die. Stalin simply sent his “rebels” off to Siberia. Both Hitler and Stalin were admired in South Asia because they challenged the British Raj. In the case of Hussain, blackballed MQM leaders tend to fade away mysteriously.
Charisma has its downside, and its worst trait is the way it shapes the party that follows it. Cult leaders are invariably violent because of their tragic flaw of overreaching. The party they shape reinforces their hubris and preordains this overreaching, which then becomes the very basis of their public acceptance. The excess in their personalities is expressed in their pledges of extreme change. They announce drastic change because the people want it. When conditions of life become tough — in our parts, often because of a mismatch between population and resources — the slogan of gradualist democratic change will not work. You have to announce revolution because you can’t announce “violent change” with a straight face.
The Taliban is more sincere in its action plan. It is based on carnage, justified by bending Islamic exegesis. In united India, Muslims were at pains to portray the concept of Dar-ul-Harb (house of war) as non-violent. But the Taliban today is straightforward: it will kill for change. Taliban commander Fazlullah is a psychopath who won his spurs in the carnage in Swat, the valley that produced the best in gifted, mild-mannered Pathans, the kind lionised by Rabindranath Tagore. The man he has fired is even more demented. Khorasani was earlier known as Omar Khalid, a minor warlord from the tribal agency of Mohmand. He is intensely loyal to al-Qaeda and has the distinction of having beheaded scores of Pakistani paramilitary troops last year. The Pakistan army hates him but can’t get to him because, like Fazlullah, he fled to Afghanistan.
Why Khorasani? Meaning region of the rising sun, it refers to the area where, according to religious traditions, final army of god will rise under Imam Mahdi to conquer the world. When you say Khorasan, you negate the existence of three modern states: Iran, Pakistan and parts of India. First we had Fazlullah, who killed Pakistanis; now we have his fired lieutenant, who also kills Pakistanis.
The violence of the Taliban has rubbed off on Muslims around the world. The worldview favouring human slaughter was born in the seminaries of Pakistan and transmitted to Afghanistan. The schools that Boko Haram destroys in Nigeria were first smashed in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda loved and spread this globally: now al-Shabaab in Somalia is the best exemplar of this “revolution”.
Those of us who embraced “revolution” as utopia — I used to watch old Indian movies propagating “Kranti” for social change — are cowering before religion-driven “Inquilab”. It is not difficult to see how Pakistan has identified with its killer under a kind of Stockholm syndrome. We have become violent. The best lab demonstration is in Karachi, where the Taliban slaughters people from its “no-go” areas at the rate of 10 per day. Much of the homicide is imitative. Common criminals carry weapons and kill where they made do with intimidation in the past. Sons of Sindhi feudal aristocrats living in apartments with a dozen guards kill their rivals; sons of higher-ups in the police hierarchy imitate them. In the cities of Punjab, women have to bear the brunt of this male attribute. They get thrashed, have acid thrown on them, and then get roughed up by cops if they make the mistake of approaching a police station. Killings for honour have skyrocketed, driving up the suicide rate among women.
Imran Khan takes recourse to verbal violence because without that teeth-gnashing discourse, his followers will not be consoled. He says he will punish the rich, whose wealth lies hidden in Swiss vaults. He will be rough particularly on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who he says doesn’t pay his taxes and lines the pockets of his family. He pledges violence against bureaucrats and police officers loyal to the government and paints a scary picture of what he will do after coming to power. He has an unrealistic economic vision, which no one in his party dares oppose, not even those who know a bit of economics, for fear of being ousted like Hashmi. Pakistan owes $80 billion in foreign debt, an amount he says he will extract from the Pakistani “fat cats” after he takes over.
Tahir ul Qadri, whose followers have demonstrated how violent they can become on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad, is supposed to be peaceful because he is not a Deobandi like the Taliban. But his speech is extremely aggressive, like Muslim clergy anywhere in the world, which rouses the rougher elements in his flock. They have thrashed more policemen than Imran Khan’s followers have.
What is common in both is endless self-reference. One refers to his body, the other to his mind. Imran Khan says he is in his 60s but his body is still that of a man of 30. Qadri says he has written 1,000 books, out of which 500 have been published. Qadri makes up for his lack of looks with his powerful rhetoric, for which the popular mind has been prepared by the sermonising cleric. Imran Khan’s looks making up for his pathetic verbal talent.
Both have charisma. And there is violence there, too. Both, however, are linked to god. Is charisma then really nothing but the “spiritualisation of violence”? And are those who bend to charisma living in a time warp? In Europe, the day of the charismatic leader is long past. In South America, it is still visible but not universally accepted as such. Looked at from the outside, the comic is often very close to the charismatic. Most great leaders who swayed nations in their prime were reduced to belly-laughs by comedians after their exit.
It is not democracy that has cut charisma down to size. In fact, democracy in the third world may have increased the lure of charisma. It is without a doubt the economist, whom you can ignore at your peril, who has killed the cult leader and his charisma. In India, he was cruel to Arvind Kejriwal; in Pakistan, to the Imran Khan-Qadri duo. To unhappy people, charisma is transformational. But if change is possible only as a crawl to uncertainty, then what should we do? Have we come to a point where only “adjustment” is change? Can we leap to “certainty” as promised by the charismatic leader? Or should we tackle the present that we don’t like gradually?
Khalid Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’ firstname.lastname@example.org