Why liberal politics is no answer to prevent the disappearances of activists
31.01. 2017, Updated about 11 hours ago
One of the most common liberal responses to the excesses committed by the powerful in Pakistan is to call for people to ‘speak out’.
This familiar refrain, voiced often in the aftermath of the January disappearances of liberal activists, is in most cases understandable and necessary. In the context of a society like Pakistan’s where critical speech and political outspokenness can be a death sentence, speaking truth to power is vital to break the grip of fear and expand the sphere of political possibility.
However, in light of the recent abductions and the vicious, coordinated campaign to malign the activists, there is an urgent need to reevaluate this approach. We must begin to conceive of a horizon to progressive politics that lies beyond the exercise and defence of speech and reactive protest.
The call to ‘speak out’ is a cornerstone of liberal pluralism the world over, often understood as a necessary antidote to the inequalities and prejudices perpetuated under authoritarianism. As an approach to political action, it is inherently tied to liberal political philosophy, exemplified in Hannah Arendt’s essay Truth and Politics.
This approach sees politics as being principally about debate, involving contestation between different ideological positions where citizens play the passive role of passing judgment on the course of society through the exercise of their free opinions (hence the inviolability of free speech within the liberal framework).
As an activist tactic, it has gained particular prominence in the age of social media, where words can be shared and weaponised at the service of political agendas with a speed and scale that was unimaginable some years ago.
The present decade has produced millions of social media activists who politically participate mainly through memes, videos, blogs and tweets, often with the sole purpose of ‘calling out’ the ideological deficiencies of their opponents and then measuring success in shares and retweets.
In reality though, politics is not just about conflicting viewpoints – it consists of concrete social and economic forces with material interests that are aggregated under various class, ethnic, racial, religious and ideological groupings. To be a political subject is not just to debate and express opinions, it is to engage in the organisation of collective forces that can advance those ideas and interests.
And organising involves much more than articulation of opinions; it is about creating political organisations, formulating long-term strategy, building institutions, forming coalitions and taking collective action to achieve specific goals. As one theorist of collective action defines it, organising is about turning a social bloc into a coherent political force.
Rarely though are instances of bigotry, terrorism and authoritarianism in Pakistan met with appeals to organise – a word that is conspicuously absent from the vocabulary of liberal politics of the country.
While the country’s liberal minority is relatively well-represented in the speech-heavy spaces of electronic media and civil advocacy, few tend to be engaged in the messy business of organising in a strategic, political sense.
One principal reason for this is class. Most liberals and progressives today tend to come from relatively comfortable and better-educated segments of society for whom political organising is not a survival need as it is for say, residents of informal settlements constantly at the risk of arbitrary eviction.
However, there are also distinct historical reasons for this stark oversight. Part of it has to do with the deeply-ingrained suspicion of political organisations, whereby anything remotely to do with mass politics – including the task of political organising – is seen as being inherently corrupting.
This is not simply a consequence of disillusionment with rampant political corruption; it is the result of the deliberate inculcation of anti-democratic attitudes by the state – through education, historical revision and media manipulation – that has served to undermine the very idea of political participation itself.
This mindset has seeped so deeply into liberal circles that it has bred a stubborn insistence on remaining apolitical even if the issue at hand is intrinsically political. At a meeting held by local activists last year to decide upon the response of civil society to the mob of pro-Mumtaz Qadri clerics that had descended upon Islamabad, a friend suggested involving local political parties in counter-mobilisation efforts. In response, a lady, who is a prominent civil society activist, immediately responded, “No, we don’t want to make this political.” One wonders how it is possible to take on the menace of oganised extremism if one doesn’t even see it as a political battle.
Another critical historical factor is that progressives have largely lost the spaces in which they used to organise at a mass level in the 1960s and 1970s – universities and factories. Student politics, the backbone of most progressive movements in Pakistan’s history, has been illegal for 33 years since Ziaul Haq’s student union ban in 1984. An entire generation has passed through the education system without an iota of engagement with organised politics.
Trade unions have been under constant attack since the Zia era, further weakened by the onset of privatisation, occupational fragmentation and informalisation, with the result that now less than 3% of the Pakistani labour force is unionised.
With the near-elimination of these incubators for progressive politics by the state, most mainstream political parties remain in the grip of unaccountable feudal and capitalist dynasties and organised traders, for whom progressive principles are rarely a priority.
On the other hand, the organising spaces of the country’s rightwing, including those using religion for financial and political gain, are now a multi-million dollar industry with deep-rooted material interests, from political parties to television channels to charity empires, protected by strength in numbers and arms.
This is hardly a political enemy that can be taken on through a mere ‘war of ideas’. The events of the past weeks are a particularly pressing reminder of both the vulnerability of a politics of self-expression and the necessity of concrete organising in this deeply uneven political arena.
The abductions and blasphemy accusations are a clear sign that critical speech on social media is now a target for violent repression.
At the same time, it is also evident that the protest campaign against the disappearances has only been made possible by the organised Left networks that Salman Haider, who was recently confirmed as “fine and safe” by his brother, was part of. Without these networks, the abductions may well have gone unnoticed like they are in Balochistan, Fata and Sindh.
In these bleak and dangerous times, there are no quick fixes to the fascism plaguing Pakistan. To begin to fight back, all citizens – not just existing progressives – who oppose the present state of affairs must overcome their political inhibitions and begin to organise; build political organisations or join existing ones; recreate and build new spaces for collective action; conceive and implement strategies to redistribute power and wealth, and forge empathetic and cooperative human and political relationships across class, ethnic and gender lines.
Yes, speaking out and protesting must also continue, but not simply in its reactive form; it must be tied to a strategy to build organised political power. Only if we undertake this process will we eventually build the popular political alternative required to push back the fascist tide. If not, we will simply be left counting the numbers of the disappeared and silenced amongst us.
The writer is an independent researcher based in Islamabad and a member of the Awami Workers Party.
Times of iron and fire: The case of Pakistan’s missing activists
Updated Jan 14, 2017 08:48am
In a letter to his mother soon after he was incarcerated by fascists in the 1920s, Antonio Gramsci, reflecting on the political and cultural age of his time, described it as the age of "iron and fire". This was not the moment for sentimentality and softness, he told her.
Gramsci was perhaps referring to the imminent threat of a fascist takeover of Europe. While he wrote it in an entirely different context, the phrase captures, to a certain extent, the essence of what we are witnessing right now in the Land of the Pure.
Number of activists and bloggers critical of the prevailing socio-political and religious discourse, and state policies, including the poet and academic Salman Haider, have been ‘mysteriously’ missing for the past few days.
Authorities have said nothing definitive about their whereabouts so far, but the pattern of the disappearances points to an existing trend
The story of missing persons in the peripheries, and Balochistan in particular, has been known for a long time. Sometimes, these disappearances are justified by terming them ‘RAW-funded’ ethno-nationalists who are out to dismantle Pakistan.
But this appellation isn’t just reserved for Baloch nationalists and other political groups; the plague has spread to the internet where regular citizens critical of the prevailing order are being targeted in urban areas.
From Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Habib Jalib, clamping down on dissenting poets has been a Pakistani tradition. The practice has now been extended to the internet, which could mark the beginning of a new chapter in this shameful tale.
We should not take this lightly. This kind of aversion to critical thought, ideas, and speech is characteristic of totalitarianism. Though Pakistan is not a totalitarian state, targeting intellectuals is a disturbing trend and has dire consequences for society. The country has already been suffering from its effects for a long time.
Salman Haider and other missing comrades represent the polar opposite of what power, ideological apparatuses and forces of obscurantism symbolise. If Pakistan is to have a better future, we need more activists, story-tellers and poets like them.
Our response must not be one of indifference. Putting aside feelings of softness and sentimentality, this is not the time to mourn, but to act, to organise and demand for the immediate release of the bloggers, as well as an end to such targeting of intellectuals.
Those who have come out on the streets in protest have been brave. Those who are writing blogs and opinion columns are courageous.
We need to maintain the pressure, and hopefully the voices raised would be enough to secure a safe and quick return of the abducted.