By Afiya Shehrbano
March 26, 2016
It feels like it’s 1999 again. Gen Musharraf did it then and like Brittany Spears, he’s done it again. The former usurper of democracy gets away with violating the constitution (yet again) with the assistance of the judiciary. This time the state enables the general’s exit strategy from the very country that it helped him to steal in 1999.
Musharraf’s former allies, the opportunist Islamists, have again made an alliance of convenient nuisance. They smell a crisis or wind of change – just as they did before Musharraf’s referendum and the 2002 elections – and sweep into counterrevolutionary blackmail mode.
This time they converge for the worthy cause of defending an anti-state murderer and representative of violent Islam. Bored with Afia Siddiqi, these ‘rational’ and ‘moderate’ Islamists glorify Mumtaz Qadri as the symbol of proper Islam, wrongly executed by the secularising state of Pakistan.
Religious political outfits realise they have no voting power but they do have the unregulated weapon of mass deception, which is religious misinformation. The otherwise hate-filled, sectarian, fratricidal political community has united to go after their most common and favourite punching bags (literally) – women. Some 35 organised religious outfits have decided to protect Muslim men’s right to inflict violence against women. They are pooling their constructive energies to protest the democratically legislated, Punjab Protection of Women Act.
Where are those independent thinking Islamist women leaders and Islamic feminists that post-9/11 anthropologists have spent millions of dollars studying? Where are those academic studies that assured us that these women are challenging and shaking religious organisations from within?
There have been many optimistic and apologetic myths promoted in the post-9/11 years about Islamist political parties. These have painted Islamists as paragons of authentic postcolonial Muslim politics. In some of this scholarly literature, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat ud Dawa are presented as the appropriate agencies that will secularise Pakistan. The Taliban have been portrayed as persecuted only because they are ‘practising Muslims’. And the Lal Masjid actors are described as civil society victims attacked by the state for protesting drone warfare and the case of disappeared peoples. These are the Disneyland versions spun in some of the most reputed Western academic institutions.
Since 2001, however, these theories and anthropological peep shows have consistently been unravelling at their artificial seams. Early on, several members of Al-Qaeda and later, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan were found to have had origins in the Jamaat ranks. Many other terrorists and insurgents were found to have links with madressahs while others were involved in funding the terrorists.
The Jamaat’s consistent sympathy with the Taliban under former ameer, Qazi Hussain was categorically confirmed by their later ameer, Munawar Hasan, who declared them more authentic Muslims than the Pakistan military. Defensive commentators and researchers have buried the vocal and tacit support by the mainstream ‘moderate’ Islamic parties for the militants. They subsume this in the conspiracy theories that drones attack only “practising Muslim men” who are only “doing politics” or engaged in “defensive jihad”.
Such has been the spin of diasporic apologia from the exiled Left and the clueless, that it has refused to study or comment on the militants’ systematic attack on working class women, tribesmen and state authorities.
The religious alliance of the MMA (2002-2008) was borne out of a moment of state crisis, with mainstream parties atrophied and democratic leaders exiled. It was not some anti-imperialist, Arab Spring fantasy as promoted by these apologists. Gen Musharraf provided the Islamists with a mutually beneficial deal and both were mirror images as interrupters of democracy.
The MMA’s decimation of the cultural and political fabric of the province was unprecedented. The shutting down of women’s shelters, disallowing women to vote and their vision as laid out in the Hasba bill laid the welcome mat for religious militants who played out this narrative in their murderous regime in Swat and adjoining areas.
The Jamaat turned a historical corner in 2006 when, after 26 years of objecting to the Zina law, it started protesting any reform or change of the law. This, despite its prosecutorial record against women of the working classes. The Jamaat’s only other advocacy interests have been to prevent reform of the blasphemy law that has become a tool of persecution. They also protested the execution of war criminals within the Jamaat in Bangladesh. Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami offered no protest against capital punishment in Pakistan for juveniles or paraplegics.
The narrative of the Jamaat and the absurd regressive pronouncements of the CII today are ideologically and politically intertwined. They are an insult compared to the earlier scholarly thinking of both these religious sources.
Post APS, the Jamaat neither protests nor asks for any accountability from Operation Zarb-e-Azb or drones. Current Ameer, Sirajul Haq, has decided the real and pressing danger to Pakistan comes from the liberalising and secularising of Pakistan by the centrist, conservative and pious leadership of the PML-N.
We can agree that all our political parties carry a very poor record on democratic norms or in delivery of people’s rights. However, post Musharraf these parties have been pushed to compete and raise the bar of extending some basic rights to the people. They realise that true democracy is the only way to gain any independence from military intervention.
However, the Jamaat-e-Islami has gone the other way and has become complicit with the far-right Islamists’ threatening, discriminatory and non-pluralistic religio-political agenda. They make controversial any democratic legislation passed by the traditionally conservative Punjab Assembly. They call the government ‘liberal-secular’ while dumber analysts consider pro-women laws as ‘foreign-funded’. These are deliberate and desperate attempts to derail democracy in Pakistan and prevent progress.
Progressive or liberal forces have been accused of creating binaries between the religious and secular. No responsibility is placed on the religious or nationalist forces for obstructing the most basic rights – land reforms or equality of minorities and women.
It is no wonder then that the NGO, Pildat, should award the prize for the most democratic party of 2016 to the Jamaat-e-Islami. Pildat devices a formula based on parties’ internal voting as the main litmus test. The fact that women and minorities are not equal members in all parties, is a fact – that they are ideologically, biologically and constitutionally disqualified from being equal leaders or decision-makers is exclusive to JI and Islamist parties.
This is not innocent math. Instead, it is very much like those diasporic academics who spin theories about the religious parties based on ‘internal’ dynamics but conveniently ignore their external, real-life political acts, rulings and promotion of gender apartheid. These experts have successfully redefined democracy, Islam, secularism and even politics.
Let’s be clear. Whether we like it or not, the Punjab’s Protection of Women Law has become a defining test for democratic rights versus theocratic blackmail. We can’t do much about generals who murder democracy and get away with it but the people can resist being held hostage by civilian anti-democratic forces. Support for the women’s protection bill will go beyond supporting women’s rights…it will send out a message that we will fight for democracy, and we do not plan to become Syria.
Afiya Shehrbano is a sociologist based in Karachi.