Few thoughts on debate over relgious extremism
Over the past many months, the Left in Pakistan has discussed the issue of Taliban over and over particularly in the context of the extremist escalation in Frontier province and following military operation. The difference between members of the Left, with two sides, who are contending over the aforesaid issues is very apparent: one side is pushing a consistent military operation against the religious extremist operations while the other is demanding an immediate halt to the military operations and its roll back from affected areas in the Frontier. The polarity of opinions is known well to any observer and the Left in particular for they have read and heard the detailed arguments from both sides on more than a dozen occasions. Therefore, I don’t intend to present my approach to the question again. My stance, proposing a demand of military operation against Taliban and an opposition to surrender or cease-fire, is known well and shall be clear from the offset.
I want to talk about something different in this email. My intention shall not be construed to create further divide in the already small and dispersed Left of our country, but only a humble call for clarification. It shall be my greatest pleasure to be corrected. As a humble student of Marxism-Leninism, I am always willing to welcome criticism with firmness and my motivation behind the instant article is the desire for a higher unity built through consensus rather than further divisions.
The recent turn in the debate over the Taliban suggests that the difference between the leftists in Pakistan exist at a more fundamental level than we understand the case to be. There is a disagreement, though I am not sure about its sharpness, at the most basic level of the debate. There is usually little utility, in terms of strengthening unity through dialogue, in clashing over the conclusions where there is a difference over premises of the discussion. We have a disagreement over the premises and let’s recognize that to be the case. Unless we form a consensus over the premises, stand assured that an agreement over the conclusions will not result.
I shall be clearer. I sense that there is a difference between the leftists in Pakistan over the form of the political activism that we as a movement want to adopt. In the context of the debate over religious extremism, there is a difference over whether we want our struggle to take up an anti-fundamentalist political posture or not. This is where the disagreement lies. Should we openly adopt an anti-fundamentalist stance or not? I hold that we must. Others in essence are saying, I will follow by how they say this, is that we should not take an overtly anti-fundamentalist stand.
We all agree that the broad policy of the Left is governed by four broad guiding principles: anti-military, anti-imperialism, opposition to pre-capitalist remnants, and anti-fundamentalism. These principles are not mere words for our satisfaction but the foundations of our political activism. We follow these principles not only in our rhetoric but also in practice.
However, some comrades think that we should not be very openly taking a stand against religious extremism and fundamentalism, that we should not criticize Taliban in the workers’ quarters, that there is no use in finding allies and be building a campaign which targets Taliban or in combining an explicitly anti-Taliban agenda with other issues or, may be, that such an effort will result in unnecessary loss of our energy and resources. In essence, this boils down to the assertion that we should be anti-fundamentalist in words but not in practice. We should tackle them covertly and not overtly. Some even go the extent that an alliance between overtly religious parties is also possible or necessary for the Left. If that is the case, my dear comrades, than let me first request you to please give an end to your hypocrisy and say very honestly that you are no longer anti-fundamentalist. Be steadfast in saying that you don’t consider the issue of anti-fundamentalism to be at par with other three guiding principles of our struggle. Please, for the basic moral requirement of sincerity, give an end to this two-faced talk.
Various grounds are often given regarding why we must not criticize fundamentalism openly. Let me get to them briefly. The first contention against bringing the anti-fundamentalism to the forefront with other main principles and issues is that working class people, the constituency for socialism, will find no relevance in the debate over extremism. This is only based on an assumption that working class does not find any relevance in the political issues of the country. That is not the case. Even if that is the point, then we must struggle to engage the working class in the political struggle. How are we to do this while ignoring this flood of right-wing political and social propaganda and without emphasizing the issue and need of secularism? Any political activism in Pakistan that ignores the right-wing fundamentalism and extremism is not worthy of being termed as progressive. If we agree that political struggle needs to be taken to the working class, than criticism of fundamentalism has to be a vital part of our message that shall identify us from the right-wing. And when we criticize the religious right-wing, we must start with the Taliban for they are the most extreme manifestation of the religious right.
The second argument is that the anti-fundamentalist activism will be highly unpopular. There is a level of truth to this argument and this should be entertained to reach the correct strategy and tactics to tackle the menace of extremism. There is general orientation towards fundamentalism in Pakistan particularly in the province of Punjab. However, this should not deter us. The Left does not test its argument on the touchstone of popularity alone, lest they are like other double-faced politicians. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels stood alone but did not compromise into appeasement. The Bolshevik Party took an immensely difficult position of demanding peace in 1914 at risk of complete isolation from all political trends. The Left in Pakistan has stood bravely at many occasions for peace in the region and has been humiliated for doing so. There are countless examples and one can go on and on. Instead of following popularity, our positions must emanate from an analysis of objective situation and shall seek the promotion of the interest of the working class.
Another point that greatly troubles our friends is that we might find allies in the liberal ‘civil society’ if we explicitly push the agenda of anti-fundamentalism. I am greatly perturbed to say that our friends think that these “low-character-elitist-women”, as they are known by the ordinary people for these ‘civil society’ women refuse to cover their heads, can make us even more unpopular. This is highly disturbing. Firstly, the popular morality is not a lamppost for us to take our activism forward. We want to change this popular morality, which is under the hegemony of religious patriarchs, and for this we have to take issue with them rather than stay silent about them. Secondly, this argument completely ignores the rightwing NGOS that have continuously received funding from orthodox Muslim countries. They are not targeted as elitist? So, are they fine? Secondly, as leftists, our contention with the NGOs, etc., is not based on their lifestyle decisions but because they receive donations from imperialism and attempt to diminish the responsibility of State in providing crucial services by substitution. Our comrades are more perturbed by the lifestyle of civil society rather than their connection with imperialism, which is clearly not different from the right-wing criticism of the NGOs (I hate to say this). And then they say they are not giving in; that our words should not be taken as a compensation to the rightwing!
The point very simply boils down to this question of principle: do we want to explicitly target extremism or not? Please, if you may, don’t cosmetically agree on this only as a matter of ritual but only if there is a will to do something about this. We will spend countless days and nights in going over our strategy and tactics, rest assured, but only if there is an agreement over the principle in the first place, only if we settle that we have to tackle this extremist menace immediately.
One last point: a few days ago a comrade proposed that we should either build schools or demand that schools be rebuilt and education be provided. Some comrades think that blowing up of schools in Swat is not a very big issue that demands our attention. However, since we worry greatly about popularity, according to one 1998 survey, education is the second greatest demand of people in Pakistan after clear drinking water. Very generally, any parent can tell you about their greatest dream: to have their children educated. And yet we think it’s a non-issue!
Comrades and friends, extremism in Pakistan is now raising its head like never before. Schools, colleges, CD shops, and cultural stations at every corner of the country are receiving threats on daily basis from those who want to reverse the social order. Victory of Taliban in Frontier is a great boost for extremists everywhere. These extremists are flexing their muscles at every major center. Can we afford to remain silent? The time to do something actively against the extremist menace is now.
So many deeds cry out to be done, And always urgently;
The world rolls on, Time presses.
Ten thousand years are too long, Seize the day, seize the hour!