Pakhtunkhwa Times

Politics as a redundant superstructure

Posted in 1 by ppfcanada on April 22, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009 The News
Shafqat Mahmood

A wave of fear is sweeping across the urban landscape of the country. Parents are worried about their school-going children, women fear random threats on the street, and men are trading sheepish jokes about how long a beard they will have to keep when the Taliban take over.

The threat to the schools is real. Reports are that some well-known among them have closed in Islamabad. In Lahore, threatening phone calls have been received by girls’ schools where men also teach or those that have co-education. As a result, they have begun to curtail their study periods so that the children remain on the premises for a minimum period. Security procedures, or what passes for security in the shape of untrained guards, are also being beefed up.

Women, unfortunately, always become the first target of religious zealots. In Karachi, there are persistent reports that they are being harassed. It also happening in other cities and these are not women dressed in any revealing fashion. Their crime is not wearing the veil, or going about their business without mail relatives in attendance. At least some have stopped driving. Others are all worried.

While girls’ schools and women are a particular target of extremists, families who have a normal, relatively open way of living are also beginning to develop fear. The general feeling is that an entire way of life is under threat. This is not just the worry of what the Taliban call liberal fascists. These are ordinary people who do not stop their women from going out either to work or for other business, people who socialise along with their wives and others who want to give equal opportunities to their male and female children.

This pervasive fear of creeping Talibinasation is not surprisingly, the main topic of conversation at social gatherings these days. I have never in recent memory heard so many people talk of finding safe havens abroad. Those that have already acquired citizenship in some western country, and there are many among the elite who have, are looked at with envy. Those who were not so astute are now trolling the internet to search for ways to get out.

An important reason for this panic is that absolutely no one believes the state can protect them or their way of life. The abject surrender of the National Assembly before the Taliban threat has further heightened this feeling. With the honourable exception of fellow-columnist and MNA, Ayaz Amir, and the abstention of the MQM, no one in a house that contains many so-called liberals had the courage to stand up and express their true feelings.

It is not so much the nizam-e-adl itself that is bothersome to people. Everyone recognises the deep flaws in our judicial system. Many also feel that this bluff of the Swat Taliban needed to be called because their real purpose is not the enforcement of an Islamic judicial system. They want to carve out an independent domain to rule. The real disappointment is that the Pakistani state, its institutions and its political forces have caved in so quickly.

The Taliban know the fear they are causing and are adding to it by targeting law enforcing agencies. The attack on the police check post at Charsadda is part of a careful strategy to demoralise the police. What stands between them and a total takeover of the country is a tottering state structure and the discipline of the armed forces.

The state has very little left, although no praise is enough for those brave policemen who for a meagre pay risk their lives and sometimes pay the ultimate price. The armed forces are disciplined and well-led but face a complex situation and a form of warfare they are not trained for. This is all we have to face, the rising tide of extremism.

The political battles among the elite, in fact politics in general, now seem to be a redundant superstructure unable to impact the reality on the ground. It was thought that political forces would be able to counter the menace of a minority Taliban through the support of the people. The debacle of the ANP government in the NWFP has put paid to this thinking. Either its support among the people is thin or it is effectively terrorised because it has just given up. It is neither able to mobilise the people to stand up to the Taliban, nor effectively use the force of the state to confront them.

Political response is critical because the problem of extremism is in essence a battle of ideas. Its overt manifestation in the shape of terrorism can be fought with force, if indeed such a force is available. But this alone is not a solution. It is the ideology that has to be exposed and rejected by a vast majority of the people. If this is done successfully, extremists can never win by terror alone.

It is here that the role of politics and political parties becomes critical. If they have a genuine mass base, they can mobilise it and present a solid wall of resistance to extremism. If they do not, they are just an elite superstructure that periodically goes to the people to get their vote. The size of their vote bank may suggest a mass base, but this would be misleading. People may vote for them because they like a particular personality or they are the least evil of the choices available. This does not constitute a mass base.

The MQM for its flaws consistently shows a mass base of support. People say that these gatherings, in which people sit like zombies to listen to the telephonic fulminations of Mr Altaf Hussain, are arranged through coercion. Or that the entire organisation survives on fear. Whatever the truth, the MQM has shown that not only is it able to sweep elections in Karachi, it can mobilise its support whenever it wants. Thus, it may be confined to just Karachi and parts of Hyderabad, but in these places it is a political force to reckon with. It will be able to mount an effective challenge to extremism in its political domain.

The other major political forces, the PPP and the PML-N have periodically shown a popular support base. The PML-N, in particular on March 15, demonstrated a huge following. But, so far, they have not been able to mobilise this base to fight the extremists menace. I have no doubt that both parties, and, yes, that includes PML-N although some people may not think so, are fundamentally opposed to extremism. But this opposition has to go beyond saying the right things. It has to be translated into grassroots opposition to the Taliban ideology.

Time is short for the major political forces to become relevant in this truly existential battle that Pakistan faces today. The Taliban are expanding and enlarging their area of influence. Their sympathisers have begun to terrorise major urban centres. Political forces have to stand together with the institutions of the state to fight them, or they risk becoming redundant. If they do, they will forfeit their right to rule.

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