By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
10 January, 2014
AS the ongoing stage drama that is the Musharraf trial continues, an all too familiar sub-plot is also unfolding. It features the proverbial ‘foreign hand’, and will likely culminate in a well-choreographed conclusion to the play. The sub-plot has neither received a great deal of attention nor generated any major reaction within the political mainstream or in media circles. But why?
This ‘foreign hand’ is not of the American, or any other Western, variety. The ‘conspiracies’ hatched by this external power are presumably home-grown enough that our otherwise paranoid makers of public opinion simply do not feel the need to raise a ruckus. As such, when it comes to Saudi Arabia (and its clone Gulf kingdoms), we declare a holy exception.
It makes perfect sense. Ours is a state created in the name of religion, and Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest site. But when we consider the net impact that Saudi interventions have had on Pakistani society, our refusal to adopt even a mildly critical stance is mind-boggling.
It is true that Saudi Arabia — and the Gulf more generally — has been a major destination for Pakistani migrants, and that the remittances sent home have greatly boosted the economic fortunes of many families. But then there are millions of Pakistanis settled in the Western world as well, sending back as much if not more money than the Gulf migrants.
The truth is that public opinion — at least that which dominates in our towns and cities — has been fomented over the past two decades or so such that there exist very few constituencies willing and able to sustain any kind of critical position on anything that fits into the category of ‘Islamic’. This includes Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, laws that are said to derive their mandate from Islam, and just about every act and/or movement — individual or collective — conducted under the pretext ‘defence of Islam’.
Thankfully a large number of people in this country of all colours and stripes do not share in the ‘consensuses. There has been, and continues to be, contestation in various spheres, both public and private. But the odds are stacked heavily in favour of the pro-establishment position, in large part because of the long-term initiatives that were undertaken under the guise of ‘Islamisation’ during the Zia years.
It is thus that the media and mainstream parties are relatively quiet as history repeats itself with Saudi Arabia emerging from the shadows to broker a settlement between the two principal protagonists of the current drama, just as it did between the same two individuals 13 years ago.
Of course this is about much more than Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf. It is about the structure of power in Pakistan and the fact that foreign powers are so elemental to it. What I want to emphasise is that our ranting and raving about the ‘foreign hand’ is selective: we keep mum when the intervention is being made by our holy Muslim brethren from the Gulf.
If there’s an imperative to liberate Pakistani politics from agendas hatched in foreign capitals, it is not served by such duplicitous manipulation of ‘public opinion’. In some ways, this selectivity is akin to proclaiming that we’ve moved on from the messiah complex which facilitates coup-making generals yet at the same time egging on Supreme Court judges to save the country.
Certainly, we will have to get over our phobia of speaking up against anything done in the name of the faith. The problem is that those who over the years have been brave enough to challenge the taboo are simply not organised as well as they should be to take on the juggernaut that starts with Saudi Arabia (and Qatar, UAE, etc.), works its way through the institutions of the state and media and ends with the firebrand maulvi in the local mosque.
The reasons for this incapacity do not lie only in the machinations of the powerful right-wing lobby. The fact is that progressives are divided both about the real cause of the problem and the possible ways to deal with it.
I have written on many occasions in the past that too many progressives are alienated from the very society that they wish to help transform. Hence their critique of mindless subservience to the ‘defence of Islam’ is not couched in the everyday struggle of ordinary working people. Relatedly, their critique can be easily dismissed as part of a ‘Western agenda’ to defang this holy fortress of the faith.
Anyone with an iota of intellectual honesty knows that insofar as there is a ‘Western’ agenda in Pakistan, the ‘Islamic’ agenda of Saudi Arabia & co. is just as damaging, if not more so. The question, as ever, is how to rid ourselves of this holy exception.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad