On Blind Faith: The Politics of Liberal Guilt

Mar 2014

Issue 6  Essay

ALI_Drinking tea

Photo credit: Asadullah Tahir | Tea pose

“Shameful,” “disgusting,” “madness.” Comments like these were not uncommon on social media after the incident at Badami Bagh in 2013 where dozens of Christian homes were torched.

After a separate, unrelated incident in 2010, a prominent columnist referred to the attackers as “human cockroaches.” Indeed, it has become common to hear such comments from English-speaking liberals. The visceral reactions to such mob violence are, of course, understandable, but it is worth asking where Pakistan’s English-speaking liberals are situated when they make such statements. On what basis do they articulate such moral superiority?

It is hardly uncommon to see liberals cheering on military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including US drone strikes; at best, they take rather ambiguous positions on these issues, masking their indeterminate stances as positions of ‘nuance’ and ‘complexity.’ Even when some oppose drone attacks, one rarely, if ever, hears anyone refer to the CIA as mad savages.

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The inevitable question then is: what is so peculiarly repugnant about the violence of the mob to a class of people who do not explicitly reject other forms of violence? After all, the goal of mob violence often is dispossession or expropriation, practices that are familiar to Pakistan’s over-consuming urban liberal elite. What differentiates them from the mob is that expropriation by the urban elite is performed in ‘civilized’ ways—they use the pen, not brute force. They run NGOs, industries and businesses. They have high-paying jobs as professionals in private companies. They are bankers and academics. For all that, they live near the top of a deeply underdeveloped and dysfunctional political economy. They fail to see the connection between that political economy and their livelihoods, and so give their own acts of dispossession and gluttony a veneer of civilized rationality.

Little wonder, then, that the liberal moral register when they refer to the poorer classes is imported from imperialist and colonial narratives. After all, the very category of the irrational, religious fanatic was invented by the British colonizers when facing armed resistance from their Muslim subjects, not least of all in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Over time, Western society has developed a host of dichotomies to separate itself from those of the Third World. Rationality vs. irrationality, civilization vs. savagery, good vs. evil, and so on. Repetition of these tropes reflects mental colonization more than any kind of critical reflection.

The liberals blame religious madness when they should blame the structures that create the conditions for such frustrations—structures which support the privileged position of the elite.

To be clear, this is no apology or excuse for the actions of mobs. However, the need to mobilize against such phenomena should not undercut the need to understand them and their origins. The question is always one of asking on what terms such mobs are to be combated, and that requires understanding them. Since we, upper middle-class types find ourselves restricted to our literary rationalities, we try to find some intellectual basis to the actions of mobs. Finding none that satisfy our conditions of engagement, we move on to declare them irrational. We then make demands of the state, criticizing it for not doing what it ought to be doing—that is, protecting minorities.

Yet this is the very conceit of liberalism. The failure of the state to protect minorities is presented as an abdication of its duties, rather than understanding this so-called failure as the very function of the state. The state is ruling class power and ideology, and it functions precisely to pit sections of the masses against each other, using whatever ideological raw material is available. Fascism, after all, is fascism precisely because it mobilizes popular classes into reactionary and anti-people stands. Extremist madrassas have been a conscious strategy of sections of imperialism, and of Pakistan’s ruling classes, to assert their control over society and to destroy bases of social solidarity among the people. Very importantly, madrassas serve as an ideological cover to preserve social and economic structures. (With that said, madrassas cannot, in all cases, simply be reduced to instruments of ruling class power.)

Perhaps the more dominant sections of the ruling classes are not directly involved in these madrassa circuits, but that hardly makes their ‘democratic’ and ‘secular’ credentials any less violent or anti-people. (And, in fact, our liberals are trenchant defenders of these ‘democratic’ and ‘secular’ rulers.) It is hardly a secret that civilian and military elites alike use their influence in the state to advance their own business interests, and that criminal syndicates as well as corrupt police forces are tied in with them. These rulers are also dependent upon imperialism, particularly led by the US and Gulf states, to keep the Pakistani state running in such a way as well as to keep their own pockets lined. The ways in which several fractions of these semi-feudal, capitalist classes are organized and institutionalized leads to considerable intra-class conflict, radiating from the very top for control of the state apparatus to base level politics in rural areas and cities.

What the ruling class has done with Pakistan’s economy, given its own looting and the structural imperatives of an underdeveloped, semi-colonial, semi-feudal polity, is evident for all to see. Not least of all is the development of an expansive informal sector in which there are millions of underemployed young men, saddled with social expectations of provision but no gainful outlets to actually be able to provide—even after a considerable portion of our population has gone overseas. There is plenty of frustration, and the level of criminality has increased to such incredible proportions that fear feeds into frustration. In this context, we must not forget Marx’s dictum that religious suffering is real suffering, and that religion is the sigh of the oppressed. Even devolved of direct state control, the leaders of various religious groups mobilize to carve out spaces in this informal economy and to build links into the networks of the ruling classes. The links into criminal networks no doubt also develop from these urges.

Given this context of underdevelopment, fear and frustration, imbricated with religion, criminality, and struggles over resources flowing in and out of the state, it should be no surprise to see that the rhetoric and analysis offered by many Sunni extremist groups mirrors Hindutva and Nazi rhetoric of blaming the ‘Other.’ Here, it is the Shia or the Ahmadi who is presented as the enemy of the organic unity of Islam, responsible for grave disruption, even control over the political, social and cultural fabric of society. It should come as no surprise, also, that this kind of conspiracy theory is lapped up by thousands of frustrated people seeking answers. Conspiracy theory serves to give people a sense of security, surety, even belonging and power in frustrating times. It also serves ruling classes to distract the masses from the real, evident and present problem—the political economy produced and reproduced by the semi-feudal capitalists and their imperialist sponsors.

There is no need to resort to a crass, vulgar materialism that locates the starting point of each and every single such mob activity in some kind of dispute over property. Given the floating populations of the underemployed and frustrated, and the well-organized networks of semi-religious leaders and groups, there are enough sparks for many fires. But, it is still rather remarkable how often conflicts involving ‘mob’ violence over minorities end up—when all the dust is settled—having emerged from disputes over property or finances. The reason they acquire the color they do is because of the deeply entrenched structures of caste and class discrimination, combined with explosive mixes of fascist conspiracy ideologies.

Indeed, this is why, if not religion, then some other excuse or ideology will be found for mass riots. In 2010, a mob lynched two youth in Sialkot, supposedly for a robbery, but there was no religious drive behind this violence. No doubt, there are many such cases of mob violence, devoid of any religious color. Typical elitist commentary begins by blaming the people and the masses for their lack of education and awareness, or their savagery and backwardness. Liberals tend to combine this with attempts to blame all such violence on Islam or Islamization, however tenuous (and even non-existent) the connection. But to blame the problem of violence on religion (or madness) is to ignore the many ways in which violence is mobilized and employed in Pakistan—the vast majority of it has nothing whatsoever to do with religion; ethnicity, nationalism and even secularism are used to promote violence and the rule of the elites.

The anti-religious crusade also ignores that positive, pro-people initiatives can well be grounded in religion. Iqbal’s point should be well-taken:

گلا تو گھونٹ دیا اہلِ مدرسہ نے تیرا
کہاں سے آئے صدا لا الہ الا اللہ

The question that faces us is not one of ascribing madness to religion, but of assessing the ways in which religion is used and mobilized by different social groups and classes.

In declaring religion itself to be a ‘fundamental contradiction’ in our society, liberals deflect from the real, evident and present problems of the ruling compact that sustains the underdeveloped political economy. That is, liberals deflect from their own privilege, granted to them by this very political economy, by pointing to their ‘Other’—the mad, disgusting, shameful (and poor) masses who have been so misled by religious extremism. There is no need to examine the varieties and roots of anti-people violence, for it can all be blamed on madness of religion.

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Certainly, there must be vigorous defence of those vulnerable sections of the masses preyed upon by others who have taken up reactionary ideologies. There must also be demands placed upon the ruling classes and the state to protect minorities—but not in the naïve hope that institutions and the rule of law will bring about such a resolution in a society where the ruling class and state are so decrepit and degenerate. In fact, it is crucial to point out and combat the relationship of apparently irrational and ridiculous acts to the very rational and solid structures of power in Pakistan. What is most necessary is the construction of a new politics of a national-popular project that unites popular-democratic class forces against elites.

This people’s democratic project will have to avoid the liberalism fostered by imperialist political economy and culture—a liberalism that, whether in its civilian or military face, detests Pakistan from the outset as a savage, disgusting, shameful country full of people given to religious madness. The people’s democratic project will also have to avoid the reactionary ideologies of sectarianism and nativism, again, whether in their civilian or military faces. Indeed, the very question is to understand and to combat how those very same imperialists and liberals are deeply implicated in protecting the structure of a society in which semi-feudal capitalists use fascists (religious or not), mafias and other groups to maintain the political and economic structures that facilitate their looting of, and hold over, a people who are more often than not proud, cultured, beautiful, and reasoned.

Noaman G. Ali is an organizer and writer with BASICS Community News Service, Toronto, and a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto. His dissertation focuses on peasant struggles and agrarian change in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

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2 Responses to On Blind Faith: The Politics of Liberal Guilt

  1. Issue 6: Mobs and Movements | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 10:38 AM

    […] G. Ali takes aim at the liberal narratives about “mob violence” in Pakistan along with Umair Javed who […]

  2. […] The Politics of Liberal Guilt | Noaman G. Ali (Photo: Asadullah […]

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