By Anjum Altaf
What do the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt portend for Pakistan? The question is on many minds. One approach to attempting an answer might be to try and infer it from below by investigating the morphology of Pakistani society and noting any significant similarities and differences in the process.
A convenient point of departure is the elementary error that most people make in their characterization of Pakistani society. It is often argued that the portrayal of Pakistani society as religious is incorrect because people do not vote for religious parties in elections; the latter hardly ever get more than five percent of the votes cast.
This error flows from an uncritical conflation of religious beliefs and voting behavior. The fact that people are religious does not mean that they are oblivious to their material interests. A defining characteristic of Pakistani society is that it is hierarchically structured along relationships of dependence. People do not have impersonal access to their fundamental rights, social protection, services, justice, or employment. The individual who represents them politically also acts as one of the patrons who negotiate their interactions with the state.
It is therefore not surprising that in electing a representative people opt for the patron with the most leverage vis a vis the state. Such leverage, by and large, is possessed by the owners of capital (land in the rural constituencies) and not by the clerics. Hence, individuals from the same politically influential families are chosen in election after election. Voters do not mind if their representatives change political affiliations as long as they retain their access to privilege and patronage.
The fact that voters prefer a particular set of political representatives does not mean, however, that they are under any illusions regarding their moral probity. On the contrary, virtually every voter characterizes the representatives as thieves – “they are all thieves” is the most frequently heard phrase in the country. Even staunch supporters of a party do not disagree with this verdict; they just prefer their own set of thieves to someone else’s.
Given this perception, what form of governance would the people prefer instead? It is here that things get complicated and the main differences from Egypt and Tunisia become clear. Pakistan has not been frozen in time under authoritarian rulers who have been around for three or more decades, who routinely get elected by over 90 percent of the vote, who have crippled all secular opposition, cracked down on the religious parties, and muzzled the expression of popular opinion.
Quite the contrary: the media are free, political parties form and disband at will, elections are held from time to time, and religious elements are patronized and given extensive leeway in the service of power. Over the 60-plus years of its existence virtually all modes of governance have been tried in Pakistan – feudal, military, populist, left socialist, Islamic socialist, technocratic, corporate, etc. All have failed to deliver tangible benefits to the vast majority of the population that in economic terms is now gasping for survival.
One implication of this is that the overwhelming yearning in Pakistan, unlike the Arab countries, is not for freedom or release from suffocation. People in Pakistan are quite free – they may be free to die of many preventable causes but they are free nonetheless. The latent demand is for good governance.
At the same time, since the mid-1970s, a major investment has been made in the Islamization of Pakistani society and institutions of ideological reproduction ceded to religious forces by so-called secular rulers. Over three decades of indoctrination have limited the intellectual vision of the kind of change conceivable in Pakistan. It is now religious dogma that drives the political imagination and the ensuing vision harks back to the golden age of Islam.
It is this imagination that has fueled the surge in fundamentalism, the emphasis on rituals and the insistence on literal adherence to divine commands. Pakistani society is religious in the sense that an overwhelming majority would, if asked, approve of stoning for adultery, amputation for theft, the separation of the genders, the restoration of the caliphate, etc. This is not to say that individuals would not accept alternatives or are any more pious in their daily lives than they used to be – many Quranic injunctions are casually violated where personal gain is involved. The crucial point is that the normative vision of the desired society is now couched in a religious idiom and confined to the one that flows from dogma.
As a consequence, the situation differs from Tunisia and Egypt where the lead has been taken by the young demanding freedom with religious forces having to adapt to the popular sentiment or risk being marginalized. Pakistanis have not agitated for freedom or jobs; they have protested to demand death for blasphemy, for declaring various groups un-Islamic, for promulgation of Shariah, and for recording religion on passports. It is the secular elements that have had to adopt the religious discourse couching their message in the language of Islamic values – truth, justice, and compassion – consonant with their platforms.
In this context the situation in Pakistan is much closer to Iran before 1979 than to Egypt today – the secular groups are in the slipstream of a latent religious challenge to authority. But there is crucial difference as well – unlike Iran there is no unified theocratic hierarchy that leads the religious challenge in Pakistan. If and when the Pakistani population is forced into the streets by unbearable economic realities the dominant ideology would be that of Islam but without a united leadership to channel the energy.
Like Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets, the various Islamic factions would be unlikely to agree with each other or over any one interpretation of the divine message. A period of chaos would ensue that would most likely be ended by the intervention of external forces and the imposition of a Karzai-like figure to provide the breathing room for more feasible solutions to be explored.
This analysis of the morphology of Pakistani society acknowledges the likelihood of popular unrest but concludes that its nature would be different from what is being observed in the Arab world. The initial trajectory would likely follow the Iranian pattern but in the absence of a united religious hierarchy it would lack stability and dissolve into chaos. In brief, a period of anarchy centered in religious strife seems to be looming for Pakistan.
This article was cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily on February 13, 2011.