Rejecting defeatist arguments

In a verse, Ghalib observes that beyond a certain degree, what is painful and difficult becomes easy to endure. In itself, though, this second line of the fine, soulful couplet, one of the most quoted lines in Urdu poetry, leaves the following question open: Easy in what sense – to surrender, or to overcome? Today, Pakistan is faced with the need for finding an answer to this.
Some say we have already given our answer and thereby “easily” sealed our fate as a nation. We are either too helpless and scared to resist our fate, or we personally feel “all right, mate,” and do not see our own fate tied to that of our nation. Others say it has now become “easy” to decide that we have no option, despite all the difficulties and dangers, but to take on all the obscurantist and violent forces that threaten the survival of Pakistan.

So how do we interpret this line – indeed, Ghalib?

Can we make the transition from a soft and failing state to a viable and sailing state through policies of surrender to neo-con militarism that terrorises us from abroad and domestic religious extremism that terrorises us at home? We have become a battleground between the two. Our fate, accordingly, will be that of the grass under the feet of two rutting elephants fighting each other. We surrender to them in the hope that the elephants will eliminate each other and the grass will grow again. We are unable to see that they are in effect both aligned against our future as a country.

Class exploitation generates class hatred, and the violence we see today in the garb of religion. This is especially the case in times of economic crises when the poor, and even the middle, classes are driven to the wall, while the rich flaunt their power, corruption and callousness. Religion provides solace to the poor. But it can also be exploited by religious and other zealots who despise the corrupt, liberal and Westernised elite. They are able to play on the anger, frustration, faith and ignorance of the exploited classes.

In such circumstances, far from being merely an opiate, as Marx considered it, religion can become a violent stimulant for the masses and a power play by the religious classes in accordance with their political agendas. They are able to inflame the more conservative and religiously-minded sections of the urban middle-class and power classes because these classes are being increasingly impoverished and dispossessed. The intimidation of the hated liberal elite, who are seen as largely responsible for their economic and emotional plight, provides them a measure of consolatory satisfaction, as well as a false sense of empowerment. This attitude affects even the educated among the exploited classes.

Unless we address ourselves to this class exploitation, hatred and violence will progressively consume our civil society, and thereby undermine the foundation for the future of our nation? Salmaan Taseer’s murder has highlighted this most perilous situation. The argument about the blasphemy law, furious and inflammatory though it has been, is just a symptom of a much deeper malaise. Unless that malaise is earnestly tackled, the question of obscurantist forces being taken on does not arise. The problem is that our exploitative power elite sees their survival interests in accommodating aggressively religious, obscurantist forces, as well as their murderous violence, as long as it is not directed at them. Accordingly, the underlying problem of a deeply dysfunctional and unjust political and socio-economic order is simply ignored.

But wasn’t Taseer part of that elite? Yes and no. He was part of the civilian, moderate, liberal and English-educated political elite – the junior partner. He was one of those whom my late friend Sikander Jamali perceptively described as the political “Anglo-Indians” who are rapidly becoming an endangered species with the reversion of our society to “tribalism.” This phenomenon includes new “tribal” institutions such as the military, the intelligence, and the nexus of Saudi- and Gulf-assisted seminaries and mosques. The “Anglo-Indians” of today may still wield influence. They do not wield power.

The non-liberal power elite – the senior partner – do not feel threatened by Taseer’s murder. Only the relatively moderate, liberal and educated segments of civil society do: If one of their number is targeted, it is deeply regretted. But for the power elite it is not seen as a threatening game-changer. So will the power elite forbid decrees and other public calls for the killing of targeted individuals in the name of protecting the honour of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)? The general impression is that they cannot, even if they wished to.

This has America and other “friends and allies” of Pakistan worried. They are aware of the internal strain to which they have already subjected the Pakistani army, by continuously asking it to “do more” in FATA; at the expense of alienating, among others, the religious establishment and withdrawing its troops from the border with India, from where it sees its main threat emanating. The recent assertion of power by the religious establishment – which has influence in military circles and is profoundly anti-America and anti-India – will raise further concerns in Washington and other NATO capitals about the “reliability” of the Pakistani army, as America steps up its counterinsurgency ground operations and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan with inevitable civilian casualties. These operations are also vehemently opposed by the religious establishment in Pakistan because of its ties to the tribals and strong empathy for the insurgents. Similarly, the perceived growing political influence of extremist forces will further deepen Western concerns regarding the longer-term vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and materials.

The murder of Salmaan Taseer, therefore, has significance much beyond its perpetration. Our response to it will portray the quality of our response to the challenges that beset our country. As of now, it appears that our response will be determined by the interplay of short-term domestic political interests, which is likely to result in an elaborate-looking matti pao (bury the matter) solution.

Several justifications will be proffered: This is not the right time to take on additional challenges; we should not further divide our society; we need to make compromises for domestic stability; we have to focus on more urgent issues; Taseer may have been innocent, but he was needlessly provocative; freedom of speech in safety is our goal, but it cannot be realised immediately; we must be realistic; we are not yet sufficiently educated; if justice is not done in this case, or in other cases, it does not mean that we are not pursuing a more just society; have patience. Etc., etc.

If these arguments collectively carry the day, as they seem most likely to, it will signal to the world that Pakistan is fast approaching the status of a failed and dangerous state. The first priority of Western strategy will be to contain the “fallout” of Pakistan’s implosion which will be seen by the US and other regional countries as a far more serious development than the evolving situation in Afghanistan. A fundamental review of our domestic and external strategies and policy measures has become an urgent necessity.

Taseer’s murder has confronted us as a nation with the question raised in Ghalib’s line. Will we find it easier to surrender to forces that are considered too powerful to overcome even though they threaten our existence? Or will we find it easy to see why we have no option but to overcome challenges that threaten to destroy us as a society and as a nation? If in practice we continue to give the wrong answer, we will tackle none of the political, security, social, economic and external challenges facing us today.

Class hatred will deepen. Religion will be used as a political explosive. Violence will spread. No one will be secure. In such a situation, progress will be impossible. We will serve neither faith nor country. The direction we will have chosen for Pakistan will be set in stone. Time will not be on our side. External military intervention will become certain. All our difficulties, indeed our fate as a nation, will be made “easy.” Our choice of answer, accordingly, should be easy to make. That is how I read Ghalib’s line.

The writer is Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States and India. Email: ashrafjqazi@yahoo. com