Is Pakistan becoming more radicalized and intolerant with each passing day? This question is becoming more and more befuddling, embroiling our society into a perpetual abyss. Most observers believe, with Salman Taser’s assassination, yes, we definitely have. However, around every corner, pops up an event that points towards a different direction. The case study of women empowerment and their growing space in the public sphere through the realm of education and, subsequently, their participation in the labor market, is a move towards the right direction. Then the continued growth in the urban entertainment industry, entailing, film, music, and television, coupled with the sporadic growth of lifestyle liberalism in facets such as life choices, inter-gender relations and leisure time activities.
However, the mechanism used to tilt the balance in one direction or the other is grounded in the fact, who can shout the loudest; the right or the left. Hence, trapping us in a never ending vicious cycle. Both sides draw solace on the majoritarian rule; implicating that the cultural values and aspirations of the largest chunk, over time, would eventually bring the house down, which would then in due course transpire through state’s policy framework.
Though, both sides have their share of pessimists and optimists. The pessimists, often observe that the overall tendency is tilted towards a theocracy, empowered by radical ideology accepted by large swathes of the population. The optimists, however, paint a different picture on the canvas, refuting the claim by highlighting our communal and ethnic makeup. The notion further sheds light that the intricacies of our society will ensure no one brand of Islamism ever wins out, further, the ever-perennial disillusionment with violence might actually lead our society towards a more serene society.
Empirical evidence exists for both sides of the argument, which in retrospect is not surprising at all given Pakistan is a country of over 200 million, experiencing both social and demographic change on a significant level. However, in trying to predict the future with a varying degree of accuracy using the majority rule, one major risk would continue to impede or haunt sustainable development. The risk of missing out on the way things change or happen or will continue to happen, plus what regular people are doing or thinking.
Let’s take 2017 as our starting point; we have covered great grounds in becoming even more discriminatory and intolerant. There are laws being made banning people from following their religion on their own terms, and others that perpetuate vigilantism. Though, the perturbing point in this realm remains, none of these developments are the outcome of majoritarian decree, but unfortunately, it was the state elite politicians and military personnel championing them. Some did it out and out for their own usefulness, though, some in their naïve shell; really felt it would help our society. All in all, the actual driving force was a small cohort of ideologues and their radical followers. This particular pathway of winning ideological battles, as demonstrated in the recent Faizabad dharna, is anything but benign. Though, with all its perils, it has proved to be a winning formula for radical ideologues in Pakistan. All you need are a few thousand dedicated followers coupled with phrasing your cause in such a way that it resonates religious proximity with enough people. This has further proved to be a winning formula, as a driving rationale of Pakistani politicians and the military establishment is retaining office rather than being committed to their ideological base. Electoral success and popularity has always taken precedence over everything else.
The religious zealots, for their part, have out done themselves in capturing little pocket of votes which are ideologically charged and motivated across Pakistan, and further discharged perception that they can swing few constituencies. This point emphasizes why politics of appeasement have become a norm, even in the face of violent protestors. This also further emphasizes, during the Faizabad dharna, the ruling party, including Punjab’s Chief Minister, and subsequently, the opposition parties kept themselves aloof from condemning the protestors outright.
In this toxic environment of deception, expediency, lies and street protests, the biggest causality remains that of our society. Plus, in recent times, especially after the Faizabad dharna, which culminated with a minister’s scalp, and an agreement that elevated a bunch of radicalized religious zealots to the position of valid stakeholders, has all but made us move ever more alarmingly towards the right. It has also reaffirmed certain fault lines in our institutional and legal make up of our state.
In the depth of all this, lies the mechanism, which is purportedly used to establish new limits and then push them further to the right. One thing that is favoring them in all this chaos is the dearth of left wing activists shouting back at them. Political parties are either too insecure, scared or ideologically incompetent to salvage pride back in our society. It is even fairer to say this about the establishment as well. On the other end of the spectrum there is no organized civil society capable of laying siege to Islamabad in the name of tolerance, nor are there any visible pressure groups capable of swinging few constituencies, just as the right does. Hence, it can aptly be said the game is rigged in such a way that the only way in sight is moving, ever more, towards the right.
The relevant question, whether most Pakistanis want to live in a system run by the fundamentalists, is becoming perennially irrelevant, as the fundamentalists themselves do not want to run the state and society together. And to their sordid credit, they have found a way that does not involve winning elections nor the minds and hearts of the populace.