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Pakistan: Extremists winning in competition with the state to use religion as ideology

by Ejaz Haider

Sunday 27 July 2008, by siawi

(Published in the: The Friday Times, July 18-24, 2008)

No buyers for state’s narrative

by Ejaz Haider

A narrative is a story. A story is a construct because it rearranges, redefines and makes sense of events through selection. Selection is a careful process of omissions and commissions. What needs to be forgotten or deemed unnecessary is dropped; what is required is retained and even embellished.

Families, clans and groups create narratives; army regiments have their narratives; even individuals create their own narratives. For states, imagined communities where membership goes beyond organic, biological bonds, narratives are vital for group cohesion.

At the level of groups, small and large, societal or statist, a narrative, a story, iterated through generations, creates a discourse, a way of thinking about the world and one’s place in it. Discourse, or more appropriately, “discursive formulation”, has invited various scholars to analyse and describe it, to use Michel Foucault’s term, as an institutionalised form of thinking.

Institutionalisation implies boundaries; what can or cannot be said. It not only limits speech, it also billets thinking. On the plus side, it allows group identity and cohesion, organisational integrity in the face of external pressures, and the ability to counter internal and external threats.

More robust states and societies allow multiple discourses within the ambit of a meta-narrative. These discourses may compete and clash but do not go beyond being battles of ideas. They can also beget competing notions of politics. But if a state and society are agreed on the fundamentals that are codified, the competition takes non-violent, legal-political forms.

Not so in Pakistan. Here’s a bird’s eye-view.

The country does not have an entrenched tradition of constitutionalism whose basic attributes relate to a higher law (constitution), a pre-specified arrangement for the expression of people’s will (elections), separation of power, independence of the judiciary (legal reasoning and judicial review) and finally, but perhaps most importantly, a process of law-making that is a check on arbitrary conceptions and implementation of laws.

Constitutionalism opens space for competing notions of politics; in fact, beyond a certain point, it makes even the meta-narrative irrelevant to a large extent by allowing political processes and economic activity to become the primary reasons for binding even ethnically and linguistically diverse peoples. A good example is India, which, while beset with problems in the periphery, has developed a stable, expanding centre.

Pakistan used religion for its meta-narrative and the state put down any discourse that did not gel with that narrative. The state created its laws, practised its politics, conceived both its national security strategy as well its national military strategy on the basis of an identity underpinned by religion.

Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and General Zia-ul Haq’s Islamisation process. Together, they threw up elements that hijacked the state’s narrative and extended its logic. These elements penetrated the social fabric; they impacted laws; influenced politics; took over strategy ¡V in short, by doing this, and helped in this by Zia’s process of Islamisation, began to capture the state. They also sacralised the state and put the final nail in the coffin of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speech to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947.

These elements were helped in this process by successive governments, including the left-of-centre government of Pakistan People’s Party. The army was big on this, focused as it was on the need to expand its influence in the west in Afghanistan to better fight and neutralise its eastern neighbour.

The process was in its advanced stage when 9/11 happened. For reasons of national security, the state had to change course. The elements the state had used became a liability. Seven years down the line, the state is pitted against these elements and losing, not just militarily but ideologically.

The current breed of extremists, intellectually much inferior to the original Islamists thinkers but far better networked and, in some ways, far more capable of creating chaos, have fought this war well. They have successfully created and defended their havens inside Pakistan while winning the war of ideology. There is no buy-in for state policy among the people. This, despite the fact that extremists have no agenda other than the destruction of the current order; what is to be built in its place is merely informed by shibboleths.

What is most interesting is the clever perfidy of this extremist discourse. Even as the extremists accuse the state of moving away from the supposed deontological essence of Islamic ethics and foundational texts and plunging into teleology, their own conduct draws on the convenience of both. This is how it goes.

Deontology focuses on the rightness or wrongness of an action rather than the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of that action. In other words, even if an action is likely to produce good, if deemed wrong, it is to be condemned. Deontology, therefore, tends to lean towards moral absolutism, though not all deontologists are moral absolutists.

Teleology, on the other hand, is an approach that focuses on the rightness and wrongness of the consequences of an action rather than the action itself. While these are pure philosophical categories and one tries to compartmentalise them for better understanding, practical life is a mix of these two and other approaches. Moreover, matters become even more complex when one moves from the ethical and other requirements of an individual and his/her actions to larger social entities, their requirements and what is good or bad for them, including the crucial question of survival.

Extremist groups have leaned on the deons to condemn the state’s pragmatism ¡V reference the state’s capacity to do or not do certain things in view of the current global architecture of security and myriad other constraints ¡V and call for a global jihad through an exegesis that can be challenged at various levels. But while employing deontological arguments to show the state up as immoral, in terms of fighting the war, they have relied as much on a teleological approach as the state ¡V spreading terror through violence etc.

Even so, it is a measure of their success that there are no buyers for the state’s case; and the minority that does understand and appreciate the threat presented by violent extremism is shrinking in size and exposed to extremist violence.

What makes the state’s task increasingly impossible is the fact that the narrative competing for space draws on the state’s own meta-narrative whose primary reference point was religion. Moreover, the state itself has lost credibility with almost all the societal groups in its fold. To employ a term from judo, extremists have used the state’s own weight and movement for the throw; they have not had to create the narrative.

Leaving aside the factors of strategy and geography, this is one of the primary reasons why Pakistan, of all the Muslim-majority states, is the worst impacted by this millenarianism and why it may be easier for extremist Islam to win its ideological battle here more than anywhere else, including in Afghanistan.

Ejaz Haider is Op-Ed Editor, Daily Times