Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

Gandhi, bin Laden and the Global Chessboard

May 12, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The thought of any connection between Osama bin Laden and Gandhi would not have occurred to me were it not for a remark in the much talked about biography of the latter by Joseph Lelyveld. At one point in the book, I am told, Lelyveld writes that “it would be simply wrong, not to say grotesque, to set up Gandhi as any kind of precursor to bin Laden.”  The remark piqued my curiosity especially given the fact that it was written before the recent discovery and elimination of Osama. Clearly, Lelyveld was not cashing in on a coincidence. So what was it that provoked the comparison even if it were to be dismissed?

Let me state my conclusion at the outset: the personalities bear no comparison but the contextual similarities highlight major political issues that bear exploration and attention. (more…)

Pakistan after the Arab Insurrections

February 7, 2011

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.

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Another Country, Another Election

September 8, 2009

Well, there has been an election in Afghanistan and (surprise, surprise) tensions have risen about large-scale fraud. We have just been through an exercise in Iran whose repercussions are still being visited on the dissidents locked up in jails. And last year there was an election in Kenya in which thousands of people were made homeless in inter-tribal warfare.

Kenya? Really? Yes, and already forgotten. Time to move on to the next election. What’s going on folks? Is there really no need to figure out what happened in Kenya? What happened in Iran? No need to pay heed to the mud flying in Pakistan where tattletales are spilling the beans that virtually every election has been fixed (as if people did not know already)? Not only that; political parties have been manufactured and thieves bought and paid off to populate them. Should any of this cause someone to think that something might not be quite right in the Cuckooland of governance? (more…)

Iran and the Dilemma of Democracy

June 22, 2009

The only significance of the events in Iran is the proof that when it comes to politics even Ayatollah’s cheat. Otherwise, everything remains the same.

But the proof is of immense significance because it demolishes some strongly held beliefs about religion and democracy. Think about it. If those whose vocation it is to tell the truth, who insist they represent God’s will on earth, who claim they will have to answer to God for their doings in this world, if even they have been forced to cheat, something very compelling must be going on.

But whatever it is, it is not new. Let us begin from the beginning. (more…)

Obama in Cairo: Ten Weak Points

June 5, 2009

I did not watch President Obama’s address in Cairo because I did not wish to be influenced by his obvious oratorical skills. But I have the speech in cold print and would like to highlight ten weak points from the perspective of a non-Western audience in order to start a discussion on its wider implications.

The reason for this approach is that every audience brings with it a different baggage of history, a different template for interpretation, a different metric of credibility, and a different set of expectations. Thus the reaction of an American audience is likely to be quite different from that of a non-Western audience especially one that has been at the receiving end of America’s pursuits of its national interests. (more…)