Pakistan: Can Pakistan become a theocratic state?

Religion, politics and the working class

After the murder of Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, many questions have been raised about the future of country and possible take over by religious extremist forces. A lot of material has appeared both in the local English media and international press about the rising tide of religious extremism and collapse of liberal and secular layers in Pakistan. Some articles even gave the impression that whole country is in the grip of religious bigotry and the entire liberal and secular layers have been silenced.

This impression is wrong and is an exaggeration of the current situation. There is no doubt that religious extremist forces have gone onto the offensive on the issue of blasphemy laws and the ‘liberals’ have mainly been on the receiving end. But it will be a mistake to draw the conclusion from the present religious offensive that religious political parties enjoy overwhelming support amongst the masses throughout Pakistan.

This would be a simplistic and one-sided analysis of the present situation. The situation is much more complex and contradictory than what most of the western commentators and experts have argued. The same religious parties, who are organising large rallies and protest demonstrations in some parts of the country, were routed in the last general elections held in February 2008. These parties got less than 3% of seats in parliament and less than 5% of the popular vote. It is true that the religious parties are better organised and have a better trained layer of activists compared to the capitalist liberal and secular parties of the country. It is also important to note that a majority of the participants in these rallies come from religious schools where nearly 2 million students are studying the religious syllabus.

There is no doubt that generally, Pakistani society has become less tolerant and progressive in last three decades thanks to the politics of deceit, hypocrisy and religious bigotry. But it will be wrong to assume that overwhelming majority of Pakistani people support religious extremism and its ideology. We need to differentiate the religious sentiments of the ordinary people from support for religious extremism in general. We also need to consider the fact that nearly 96% of the population is Muslim and a majority of them have been kept illiterate and backward by the reactionary and rotten ruling classes. The ruling classes have played with the religious emotions of the masses and used religion as a tool to justify their cruel and repressive rule over the years. The Pakistani state has mixed general religious beliefs and politics to the extent that it has become impossible to separate them on some occasions. The use of religion by the state to gain political mileage has made it easier for the religious parties and clerics to exploit the religious emotions of masses. That is what is happening at the moment. The religious clerics and parties have simply made the debate on the misuse of the blasphemy laws into the issue of protecting the honour and dignity of the Holly Prophet (PBUH). The religious hawks in the media help the religious extremist forces create this perception. They used this very sensitive religious issue to make political gains.

The question arises here of how many people have been killed in last few weeks just on the ground that they pointed out the misuse of blasphemy laws and proposed changes to these laws. The present wave of religious fever in some sections of society is a temporary phenomenon may not last long. But it does not mean that the phenomenon of religious extremism will disappear. It would also be wrong to dismiss the dangers it poses to the working class and society in general. The rising tide of religious extremism also poses serious dangers for the organised trade union movement and Left forces in the country. We have to accept the reality of the situation: that religious extremist forces do exist and will continue to exist until the system is that creates such reactionary forces is changed. The capitalist and feudal system is responsible for the conditions in which such forces flourish. The Pakistani ruling classes did not separate the state from religion to establish a secular state in last 64 years. They are also incapable of completing the tasks of the national democratic revolution (bourgeois revolution) in the country. They did not abolish feudalism and tribalism to solve the agrarian question. The Stalinist and Maoist left pin hopes with one section or the other of the ruling classes to accomplish the tasks of national democratic revolution as being the progressive wing of the capitalist class. It never happened because no such progressive wing exists in Pakistan.

What is clear is that our “liberal intelligentsia” is floundering. Both the substance and strategy of their campaign separate defence of these democratic rights from demands that related directly to popular grievances. And it is understandable why: many of the leading advocates come from either the bourgeoisie which had come to the fore during the lawyers’ movement, or from the PPP and its sympathisers—groups that have been in recent years, as a rule, consistent cheerleaders of war and neoliberal restructuring.

In fact, their role recalls Marx’s verdict on the Prussian bourgeoisie, after their betrayal of the revolution of March 1848. “Without faith in itself, without faith in the people, grumbling at those above, frightened of those below, egotistical towards both and aware of its egoism; revolutionary with regard to the conservatives and conservative with regard to the revolutionaries… Haggling over its own demands, without initiative, without faith in itself, without faith in the people, without a historic mission.” (The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution, December 1848)

It is a sad fact that, even while the blasphemy laws remain a barometer of the cruelty of life in Pakistan today, they do not figure in the everyday injustices faced by the vast majority, who remain centrally preoccupied by hunger, poverty, and war. The number of cases registered of the use of blasphemy laws in the last three decades is in the hundreds—less than the number of Pakistani children that die, daily, from malnutrition and related causes.

This is not to suggest that these laws are unworthy of urgent attention. But it is to argue that the task of making their repeal central to people’s understanding of progress is precisely that – a task. Progressives find themselves in a political context that requires them to make the case, as organisers and not just as commentators, that freeing the State from the grasp of religious bigotry is an important step in the struggle to transform the society along socialist lines. A progressive society can not be built on the basis of a rotten capitalist system, as many liberals and progressives believe. The struggle to emancipate society from the clutches of religious bigotry is not a separate struggle, but an integral part of the struggle to emancipate the working class and poor of the country from the shackles of capitalist exploitation and repression.

We will never win popular confidence without participating in and leading struggles against the cruelty of everyday life in our country—for a living wage, decent housing, jobs, land rights, meaningful and decent education, healthcare, public transport etc. The Pakistani masses want to live like human beings and demanding better living conditions. The so-called liberal and secular ruling parties and ruling classes have failed to offer anything to the working masses and poor. This has created a political vacuum which the religious right is trying to fill with religious slogans. This is indeed an ideological offensive from the religious right and so-called liberal and secular leaders and parties have no answer to counter this attack. The reason is simple. These parties and leaders have no ideology, vision, strategy, programme and manifesto to launch the counter-offensive. They also lack the courage and determination to take up the challenge. In this situation, these leaders and parties find it easier to appease the religious forces to calm them down. The parties like PPP, PML-N, MQM and ANP are more concerned to maintain their vote and thus avoid confronting the religious right. All these parties support one religious party or another to get their votes at elections. The religious right knows this and exploits the weakness of these parties and leaders to their advantage.

What the religious right want?

The ongoing movement of the religious right has raised some important questions that need to be answered.

Firstly, what is the real agenda behind this movement? It seems that the main purpose of this movement is to re-gain the ground that the religious right has lost in last few years. The suicide attacks and bombings carried out by the Taliban and their supporters against innocent women, children and the general public in the main cities have proved counter-productive. The overwhelming majority of the masses are against these acts of barbarism and the tactics used by Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked extremist groups. Many religious parties and groups directly and indirectly support the Taliban and other extremist groups. The results of the last general elections (and by-elections held in the last two years), clearly show that the religious right had lost considerable support amongst the masses. All the surveys conducted by foreign and local organisations before the beginning of the present right-wing onslaught confirmed this trend in the society. Jamat-e-Islami (JI), the main fundamentalist party in the country, contested two by-elections in 2010 in Lahore and Rawalpindi constituencies and lost significant votes. Traditionally, JI used to get at least 5,000-10,000 votes in both constituencies but only got 2,200 and 3,700 votes respectively, which was less than one percent of the polled votes. Now these religious parties are using the issue of Blasphemy laws to make the political gains.

Secondly, the right-wing fundamentalist sections of the establishment want to use this opportunity to form an alliance of the religious parties to campaign around the issues concerning them. This alliance will be converted into an electoral alliance along the lines of MMA (an alliance of main religious parties), which contested the 2002 general elections and won a considerable number of seats and over 11% of the votes. It is generally believed that the intelligence agencies were behind this alliance at the behest of General Musharaf’s military regime. The same people wanted to repeat the drama of the 2002 elections in the next elections to manipulate politics inside and outside the parliament. But it will be difficult for the religious forces to repeat the electoral successes of 2002 in the next general elections.

Thirdly, the present campaign is being used to bring together the rival religious parties belonging to the different sects. There was bitter division among the religious forces before the eruption of this movement. The religious parties belonging to the Braelvi sect were organising the protest demonstrations and large rallies against the attacks on the most respected shrines in Lahore and Karachi. No one ever imagined that anybody could attack the shrines of these most respected Muslim Saints. The Braelvis alleged that Deobandi’s armed religious groups and the Taliban were behind these attacks. All the religious parties belonging to the Braelvi religious sect formed an alliance called Sunni Ittehad Council (Sunni alliance council). They openly allege that some Deobandi religious schools are involved in the religious militancy and should be closed down. They also organise anti-Taliban rallies and demonstrations in different cities. The situation was very tense between these sects and there was the possibility of clashes and killings. These tensions are not entirely over yet, even though they have eased up a bit because of the blasphemy issue.

Fourthly, the blasphemy issue is also being used to divert the attention of the working masses and poor of the country from the real issues faced by them in every day life. The acute energy shortage, skyrocketing prices, unemployment, increased poverty and hunger and crippling public services are the real issues faced by the masses. There is growing anger and desperation among the masses. The massive protest demonstrations, rallies and blocking of railway lines and main roads for hours by angry people in many cities in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwah provinces against the long hours of power and natural gas cuts sent shock waves through the ruling class. The ruling class is frightened of the prospect of a mass movement on these issues. They could get out of control and pose serious threats to the status quo. Even the religious right is very careful in their mobilisation. So far, they have organised big rallies and processions only in Karachi but have not so far issued a single call for national demonstrations. They are also afraid of a mass movement that might start on the religious issues with a dominant religious colouration but which could turn into a mass movement against the corrupt and rotten elite and repressive state machine. Once the economic and social issues come to the fore of the movement, the religious right will be pushed aside and loose control of the movement. The government is happy that the religious right has successfully diverted the attention of the masses and provided a breathing space for the government.

Fifthly, the religious forces want to maintain their superiority over the parliament in making or amending any Islamic law. They want to kill any debate on such issues, inside and outside the parliament. Various right wing political parties and extremist groups have succeeded in their malicious agenda of rendering the elected parliament ineffective by not allowing it to debate major political and social issues confronting the country. The hate-mongers on the other hand, have been allowed to talk freely about whatever their perception of Islam is, and how and under what laws they want the people of Pakistan to reel under. The religious right want to keep their tight control over religious issues, which they established during the General Zia’s military regime.

The final and the most important factor in the situation is that the mainstream religious political parties are under immense pressure from Al-Qaeda linked groups and other developments that are taking place in these religious parties. The Pakistani and international media and intellectuals are just discussing and analysing the increased tensions between religious extremist forces and liberalism. But tensions are also developing within the religious right and extremist forces. Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Aimanul Zawahri, has written a long article that is being distributed among the religious groups. In this, he declares that the Pakistani constitution is un-Islamic and asks the Muslims in Pakistan not to accept the constitution. He also said in his article that all the religious leaders who signed this constitution made a mistake. This decree from Al-Qaeda’s top gun has put the three main religious political parties in a difficult position. JI, JUI-F and JUP leaders signed the consensus constitution in 1973. New extremist groups and hardliners within these parties are now posing new challenges to the leadership. Religious political parties are standing at the crossroads on the ideological front. New discussions are taking place and the formation of new and more hardline groups is taking place.

The mainstream religious political parties are part of electoral politics and also an integral part of power politics. The religious leaders have become part of the ruling class since 1977 and are enjoying all the perks and privileges of the ruling elite. Their declared aim is to bring the ‘Islamic revolution’ about through ‘democratic methods’. Now groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda with their increased influence and ideology have started to challenge the credibility and integrity of these leaders and parties. New groups are campaigning against democracy and elections and argue that the constitution is un-Islamic. They are arguing that the only way to establish an Islamic state is the armed struggle. Many hardliners have already split away from JI and JUI-F and joined the Taliban. Some people have also been expelled from JI and JUI-F for spreading Al-Qaeda and Taliban ideology in these parties. These leaders and parties have launched a movement to save the honour and integrity of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to prove their credentials as the true leaders of the religious right. On the one hand, these leaders are putting pressure on the liberal sections of the ruling class and, on the other hand, they are struggling for their own survival within the religious right.

Middle class and religious right

Some liberal intellectuals and commentators are painting the picture that the majority of the educated and professional middle class are supporters of the religious right and that religious extremism is deep rooted in this class. Before we draw any conclusion in this regard, it is important to analyse the middle classes in Pakistan. Traditionally, the middle class in Pakistan consists of traders, landed rural petty bourgeoisie, professionals like doctors, engineers, professors, lawyers and managers, and civil and military bureaucrats. The middle classes are not as stable in Pakistan as they are in the advanced industrialised countries. Every economic boom creates an artificial layer of the middle class that disappears with every economic crisis. Every economic boom enables some lower middle class layers and some better off layers of the working class to enjoy a relatively high standard of living for few years. Then the onset of a new crisis throws them back to their original position. Even lower layers of the middle class fall back to the level of the working class. The economic situation changes very quickly and thus changes the position of middle layers.

Traders are the most conservative and religious section of the middle class and also the largest section of middle class. Traders are conservative both politically and socially. Their political affiliations differ from province to province and area to area. For instance, a majority of traders in Punjab supports the PML-N in the elections and only a small minority supports the religious parties in the elections. In Karachi, MQM and Jamat-e-Islami (JI) get a major percentage of the traders’ votes. The PPP and pro-establishment landlords enjoy support in rural Sindh and small towns. In Baluchistan, Baluch and Pashtun, nationalist parties and the fundamentalist JUI-F get the largest share of middle class votes. In Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, ANP, JUI-F, JI, the PPP and PML-N get the votes of traders. Traders provide much-needed financial support to the religious political parties and some sections of traders even generously supply money to religious extremist groups. Jihadi groups also collect a major share of their money from the traders. Historically, traders back almost every reactionary movement launched on religious issues and oppose every progressive movement. The upper layers are connected with the ruling class, as their class interests force them to become allies of the bourgeoisie. The middle and lower layers are close allies of the religious right. They are at the forefront of the ongoing religious movement. General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship provided political patronage to the traders and strengthened them. Traders were allowed to organise their associations and elect their leadership without any intervention by the state throughout the period of that dictatorship. On the other hand, trade unions and progressive parties were attacked and subjected to the worst kinds of repression and torture. Large numbers of traders not only share the world view of the religious right but also follow the strict moral and social code imposed by religious clerics. The interesting fact is that being one of the most religious sections of society, traders miss no opportunity to maximise their profits. They even use human tragedies like floods and earthquakes to earn super profits. When it comes to profiting and earning money, they forget all the teachings of Islam on ‘morality’.

The landed rural petty bourgeoisie are not as religious as the traders but hold conservative views. This layer of the middle class is more stable as it owns large and medium sized land holdings. This layer also produces professionals and military and civilian bureaucrats. This layer mainly supports two main political parties, the PPP and PML-N. It holds no particular political ideology. This layer is renowned for changing political loyalties in no time at all. This is one of the most opportunist layers of the middle class. In feudal dominated areas, this layer is an ally of the feudal lords. In central Punjab, it is closely linked with the bourgeoisie and military establishment.

The educated professional urban middle class is the layer that is often linked to religious extremism. There is no doubt that in recent years, this layer has inclined more towards religion than the past. In the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, this layer was considered more liberal and progressive compared to other layers and sections of the middle class. The students belonging to this layer dominated the progressive students’ movement in that era. National Student Federation (NSF) was the largest student organisation in the country, which was a left student organisation. Thousands of college and university students used to join NSF every year. The majority of them came from this middle class layer. However, after the collapse of the left and student movement in the 1980s and the rise of jihadi culture and the religious right, the situation changed. This layer produced outstanding writers, poets and intellectuals, who were part of the working class movement. NSF activists played an important role in the development of the trade union movement that flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The absence of the left as alternative force in the political arena paved the way for religious fundamentalist organisations like JI to make inroads on the university campuses. In recent years, a small minority of the educated professional middle class has joined new militant organisations. But it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that whole layers have embraced the ideas of religious extremism. Once the working class starts to move and enters into the political arena, big sections of this layer can be won to the ideas of Socialism.

Role of the Working class

The other missing link in the analysis of western commentators and the Pakistani liberal intelligentsia is the role of working class. None of these ‘experts’ ever mentions the existence of a powerful working class. According to the official figures, of a population of 170 million, 49 million are from the working class. If the workers in the informal economy and rural women workers in agriculture are included, then it numbers 69 million. That is nearly 40% of the population. The middle classes are around 34 million.

Not only the numbers but also the traditions and history of the working class are important to keep in the mind when discussing the future course of the country. The intervention of the working class in future events can bring a qualitative change in the situation. The role of the working class is decisive to determine the future of the country. The working class has the potential power to challenge and stop the march of the reactionary forces.

It is true that at this stage the working class in general appears as a mere spectator. It is also true that the trade union movement is weak and isolated. The working class in general is not involved in the political process because there is no party which represents their interests.

But this situation will not last forever. The working class will be compelled to take part in politics as it did in the 1960s, when it appeared on the scene like a thunderstorm. Nobody thought that the working class could take on the powerful military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan and defeat it. The working class did it in 1968-69. The working class also took on the religious right and defeated it in the first general elections in 1970. A little before the first general elections in 1970, more than 100 leading religious leaders, clerics and spiritual leaders issued a decree that anyone voting for the political parties carrying the banner of socialism would cease to be a Muslim and if he or she is married then his or her marriage would be annulled. The working masses ignored this decree and voted overwhelmingly in favour of the PPP in West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and the Awami League in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) both of which described themselves in words, if not in deeds, as “socialist”. The religious right was routed in the elections. It was the political mistakes of founder of the PPP, Z. A. Bhutto, in the middle of the 1970s that gave new life to the religious right.

The religious right can not take power in Pakistan and make it a theocratic state until either the majority of working class people embrace the ideas of religious extremism or the working class is crushed in a thumping defeat. Neither has happened so far. The overwhelming majority of the working class has not yet supported the ideas of religious right. As soon as class struggle starts to take develop and political class-consciousness and radicalisation start to develop, the whole scenario can begin to change.

The setting up of the Progressive workers federation (PWF), which brings together hundreds of thousands of workers from various trade unions, is another example showing that the working class is still very strong in Pakistan. Furthermore, there have been a number of strikes and protests taking place in number of areas. The recent workers’ response to Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation (KESC) sacking 4000 workers is one such example.

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January 2011