View Full Version : Blind spots in rhetorical fogs By Mosharraf Zaidi - 8th March 2016

8th March 2016, 11:12 AM
The writer is an analyst and

It is not easy to locate the spectra of liberal or conservative, moderate or extreme in this country. This is not unique to Pakistan. In the information age, in the midst of an existential war against terrorists using Islam as their justification for violence, it is not supposed to be easy to draw lines between these broad, clumsy categories of ways of thinking and living.

Over the weekend, my dear friends Cyril Almeida and Feisal Naqvi both wrote eloquently about the political spectrum. Almeida correctly lamented the space available to what he called “liberals”. Naqvi correctly divided the country’s parties into various categories, in accordance with what would represent social and economic lefts, centres and rights.

These categories are useful markers of where political parties stand on various issues. But perhaps they are not particularly useful in helping us discern the degree of separation between the kind of discourse that I, and many friends in the English-language oped pages indulge in, and the discourse represented by the rage expressed against the state at Mumtaz Qadri’s funeral last week.

For many Pakistanis, especially those that can easily access the global discourse, through the ability to express themselves, and read the English language, this divide is characterised as a divide between reasonable, pro-state, pro-rule of law, and at least marginally ‘liberal’ Pakistanis on one side, and a horde of unreasonable, angry, violent, hateful, illiberal Pakistanis on the other. This is not wholly inaccurate. Especially if you have to deal with the trepidation of your physical security every time you consider speaking freely and openly.

Yet it is also a little clumsy. It is certainly not an entirely accurate taxonomy, nor one that can help us understand what is happening to the vast space that we call the left, the centre, and the right. Most importantly, the categories that we adopt from a Western academic discourse – liberal, right, conservative, left, centre, moderate – all fail to fully account for the richness of our culture, and the accompanying vastness of anomalies, that we must at least try to understand, if we will have any chance to bridging the divides that we saw so starkly last week as so many Pakistanis were split on whether to congratulate the state, or to condemn it.

One of the more complicated and difficult functions human beings attempt to cultivate is empathy. Let us ask some questions to explore this thing we call empathy.

Can a member of the Sunni Tehreek be persuaded to see the argument being made by constitutionalists? Maybe. Why use the word constitutionalist? Because the word ‘liberal’ has been so deeply undermined as a descriptor of credible voices. Does this represent a betrayal of liberal values? Maybe. Is the rigid adherence to a certain language more important than the project of engaging people from different sides of an issue? Maybe. Is the proliferation of “maybes” a useful way to try to navigate around an issue of morality and legality? Maybe.

Can an English-speaking, coffee-drinking Pakistani “liberal” be persuaded to see the argument being made by those that are mourning the execution of Mumtaz Qadri? Is it even possible? Maybe this is too far a journey. Let’s start with something a little easier. Can the same Pakistani liberal be persuaded to listen to Atif Aslam’s exquisite re-imagination of Maqbool and Ghulam Farid Sabri’s Tajdar e Haram more than once? Whilst paying attention to the lyrics? Maybe? If this is possible, the conversation could open up.

In this exercise to cultivate cross-aisle empathy, there is only one condition. We cannot allow the poisoning of the environment. We cannot engage in name-calling, and divide-enhancing rhetoric. We cannot expect others to understand us better whilst we beat them over the head with words that are designed to inflict pain. We have developed a deep tolerance for the use of terms like mullah, and liberal as pejorative terms. This shorthand was never going to remain restricted to the madressahs, or the coffee tables of Pakistanis divided by how they think about and deal with the world.

During the last two weeks, this shorthand has exploded into the national discourse. Those small numbers of Pakistanis that are deeply invested in a genuinely liberal Pakistan are besieged, no doubt. But responding with acerbic wit serves little real purpose. This is important because Qadri’s hanging is not the only issue dividing Pakistanis.

Over the last three weeks, another issue has caused as much of a convergence of traditional foes within the right-wing, as the Mumtaz Qadri hanging has. This is of course, the honour killing debate sparked by the brilliant, Oscar-winning documentary work by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. The adoption of a law in the Punjab has been met with cold resistance from mainstream right-wing parties. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar win was met with red-hot rage. The attempt to fashion a conspiracy out of the brilliance of women like Sharmeen is not an accident. It is a response to a political challenge. Many liberals celebrate the existence of this challenge. The bigger question is: what next? This weekend Barelvis, Deobandis, Ahle Hadeeth, Ahle Sunnat, Shia and Sunni all came together to express their distrust of the efforts to protect women from tribal violence and brutality. And as they did so, they proclaimed not only a desire to protect women, but also to resist a grand conspiracy to reform the blasphemy law. Confused? So are they. Kind of.

A single, low-level security guard has now become both the beginning and end of a conversation about the ideological split within the country. Yet this characterisation itself is clumsy and ineffective. This is because we are living in a deeply dichotomous and schizophrenic ideological environment.

Pakistan has never allowed the religious discourse to determine who will be president or prime minister. Yet Pakistan has adopted some incredibly forceful constitutional mechanisms to define religious boundaries.

The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and the Sunni Tehreek are ideological foes, to the extent of sometimes being in a state of urban warfare. Yet the ASWJ and ST took over security of the Qadri funeral jointly. Together.

Political parties branded with religion have incredible power within parliament, despite their small numbers in the assembly. Yet they have incredibly limited power over the religious discourse, which is now controlled by quasi-political groups (rather than political parties) like the ASWJ, Sunni Tehreek and Jamaatud Dawa.

Most Pakistani liberals are deeply immersed in the culture of glorifying the memory of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) through the uniquely South Asian devotional art called Qawwali. Yet many also have great resistance to affording legitimacy to the devotion of Barelvi hardliners to the sustenance of the concept of blasphemy prevention.

Most Pakistani conservatives are driven by the Seerat-un-Nabi. Yet the anger, outrage, and bitterness so many regularly deploy against their political foes offers an incredibly stark contrast to the legacy of love, tolerance and humanity that is definitive of the Seerat-un-Nabi.

This is not an apology for either Pakistan’s ‘liberals’ or Pakistan’s ‘mullahs’. It is an appeal to invest, at our individual levels, to at least try to think empathetically about those that oppose our respective specific politics, and how that opposition is expressed. Are we doing enough to limit the damage from difficult conversations? Is bitter and divisive language helpful?

There are two great blind spots within this fog of disruptive and crass rhetorical warfare. The first is violence. One side has the ability to intimidate the other, as the right-wing so regularly does. The second is class. One side tends to smell more like Armani, and less like a tough, sweaty day in the sun.

We must never compromise on our ideals or principals for the sake of appearances. But finding ways to empathise with those we disagree with, even strongly, offers the only hope of fixing the cracks and fissures in a society that has so broadly and so deeply normalised fatal violence, against minorities, against women, against policemen, and most of all against itself. Does the journey begin within our own selves? Maybe.