By Syed Mansoor Hussain
November 17, 2013
Minorities, non-extremist Muslims and remnants of the old left can get together on a platform that opposes radicalisation of religion and a fair distribution of wealth
Recently, I had an interesting discussion with two good friends and former colleagues. These two also happen to be good friends and have been from the time they graduated from medical college more than two decades ago. It is not unusual for classmates from college to become lifelong friends but the more interesting thing about them is their ‘political’ pedigrees. One of them comes from the family of one of the most famous ‘leftist’ personalities of his time who spent many years in jail for his politics. The other one is the son of one of the founding members of arguably the most famous rightist/Islamist political party in Pakistan and his father spent time in jail for his political opinions also. And as expected the scion of the leftist family is still liberal left in his politics while his friend is reliably conservative right.
Besides the fact that they are both good friends, for me their friendship is also an illustration of something I have often written about in these pages. Devout Muslims from religious backgrounds who support religious parties during elections often have much in common with people who represent an opposite political point of view.
From an historical perspective it is important to remember that of the three most active ‘Islamist’ political parties at the time of partition, at least two, namely the Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind that in Pakistan devolved into the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Majlis-e-Ahrar (Ahrar) were supporters of the All India Congress and its secularist ‘Fabian Socialist’ agenda. The third party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), though anti socialist, supports trade unions, a social safety network and is entirely egalitarian albeit under its interpretation of Islamic law. Much has changed since partition. The Ahrar have disappeared as a political entity, and the JUI has drifted towards an obscurantist/extremist religious point of view while the JI after many losing forays into parliamentary elections has slowly lost its ideological vigour.
Coming back to the ‘discussion’ I alluded to earlier, my ‘leftist’ friend brought up the point that the ‘left’ in Pakistan is in a state of total disarray. As all three of us sort of agreed about this, my rightist ‘Islamist’ friend then said that the JI is also now finished as a political force and within five years will become totally irrelevant. Coming from somebody who essentially grew up within the JI this came as a surprise. The reasons he gave were interesting. First, he felt that the present party no longer attracts the well-educated middle class professionals that were once its backbone. Second, he said that the ‘waiting period’ to become a member had been shortened and as such many who were not really committed to the ideology of the party become members. And finally, he felt that the original political ‘space’ the party once occupied was being taken over by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI).
This, of course, brought up for discussion the interesting observation that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is at present particularly worried only about the PTI. Clearly, the PTI is not a hardline Islamist party but so far it has acted as one. Combining the personal appeal of Imran Khan with the populist and religious agenda of the PTI, the PTI is at present probably the only party around that can attract the PML-N voters who are being rapidly disenchanted by rampant inflation. Such a movement of support towards the PTI will probably occur at the expense of some of the ‘social liberals’ (the ‘mummy daddy types’) that presently support the PTI. The upcoming local body elections will help define this further.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for almost 40 years was the major left-of-centre party in the country. It has now been pushed back into Sindh, and more importantly, it has lost much of its former leftist credentials. The PPP’s former coalition partner, the Awami National Party (ANP) is another centre-left party but was limited to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. It has also been virtually decimated. However, these two parties still remain unwilling to compromise with the extremist Islamist groups, and in time could regroup and offer both the PTI and the PML-N some competition. Here again the upcoming local elections might offer some insight into this possibility.
That brings me back to the original point I was trying to make that well educated and professional religious conservatives and members of the old left can find common ground if they can put aside the question of ‘piety’. Considering the onslaught of the religious extremists such a coalition might become necessary since at this time both the PTI and the PML-N have embarked on a policy of total ‘appeasement’.
So in my opinion the only possibility of fighting against the creeping tide of religious extremism and the sectarian violence that goes with it must come from a coalition of the sort I have mentioned. Minorities, non-extremist Muslims and remnants of the old left can get together on a platform that opposes radicalisation of religion, supports a social safety network and a fair distribution of wealth. This could happen under the banner of a resurgent PPP especially in Punjab and under the aegis of the ANP in KP.
If the PML-N and the PTI continue their policy of appeasement then we just might see the scenario depicted in A Short History of the Saracens by Syed Amir Ali as he talks of the waning days of the Abbasid Empire under the Caliph Muktadir: “The reactionary Hanbalites acquired great influence during Muktadir’s time. Their unruly fanaticism led to frequent riots in Baghdad. Encouraged by the weakness of the government, they assumed the position of public censors. They invaded the privacy of houses, and during these domiciliary visits, forcibly took and destroyed whatever offended their fanatical tastes. Their special hatred was directed against philosophical and scientific works, which they seized in the shops of booksellers and publicly burnt.”
Syed Mansoor Hussain has practiced and taught medicine in the US.