Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Temptations of Regress

The Temptations of Regress
M.J. Akbar

The story is funny, but not that much fun. On the first Friday, rage was free. The Pakistan government, mixing business with pleasure, declared a holiday so that young men could vent their anger against a virulent and scandalous film on the Prophet of Islam, made by an obscure American crook, who has now been re-arrested for breaking the terms of his probation after a bank fraud conviction. The collateral violence on symbols of sin, like cinema halls in Karachi and Peshawar, not to mention a few vehicles along the way, elicited little more than a shrug. Boys will be boys. To be fair, one of the theatres, in Peshawar, did have a reputation for showing porn to the starving hundreds. Its owner was a minister, who immediately did penance by announcing an award of a substantial amount for the head of the filmmaker.
American embassy and consulate officials were more apprehensive about the subsequent Friday, September 29, for the police tend to relax during a repeat performance. The turnout was not as high after Friday prayers, but they did turn out to shout slogans promising death to various eternal enemies. And then, suddenly, instead of frenzy, as if in response to some unseen signal, everyone in the crowd began to melt away. A puzzled journalist asked why. The answer cleared a great fog. They were all heading home to watch television, for Pakistan was playing in the T20 World Cup tournament that afternoon.
So, can celebrations begin? ‘Cricket defeats God’ is a pretty neat headline as well. Perhaps we can hold the glee. This neat story obscures a larger picture.
There should be no illusions. A significant length of the Muslim street across the globe has bought the narrative that America and its European allies are determined to dominate the Muslim world in an agenda that resonates back to faith-based crusades a millennium ago. American and Nato military boots on Muslim ground are a visible fact. The soft, ngo face of western intervention is dismissed as duplicity.
Critics gleefully note that ngos spend 80 to 90 per cent of their funds on themselves, which is largely true.
But whether in Libya or Egypt or Pakistan, there is a parallel message being conveyed by the aggressive crowds to their own government: They will be in charge of the national agenda, and they will calibrate the response to provocation as well as determine the shape of the country’s politics and polity. This is part of the internal debate for power, not just a voice raised against “Christian imperialism”. Media will amplify the slogans.
 The subaltern debate will command the attention of history.
A nation state evolves through process. Change does not sprout instantly into a full-grown tree. Even democracy as we understand it today took at least two centuries of change to reach where it has, even if we brush aside the British assertion that it all started with the Magna Carta in the 13th century (the Great Charter that whittled down
the absolute power of kings and gave barons some rights). When India decided to adopt adult franchise, in Gandhi’s Congress Scheme for a future country written in 1931, French women could not vote.
Democracy is much more than a chance to vote every four or five years. It is a set of freedoms built around equality, individual and collective, as in the exercise of any
faith, or it is nothing at all.
The Arab Spring could not institute overnight: It must mature into the full four seasons to achieve stability. Much of the Arab region slipped from Ottoman imperialism to British neocolonisation, where princes elevated from oasis to throne were given absolute power as reward for a strategic alliance with the West. This pattern was partially broken in the 1950s, but the military officers who promised socialism only led their nations into dynastic tyranny. The glimmer of change is visible, but there is some way to go.
Pakistan was created from a different dynamic, and remains a work in progress—or, as it often seems, a journey in regress. It is still grappling over the meaning of an Islamic state. Where do you draw the boundaries as extremists push excess in the name of Islam into all aspects of governance and all corners of society? The ulema’s search for a “pure” (Pak) state has only ended up creating a sub-set of minorities: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Qadiani, Memon and heaven knows how many other sects who are as loyal to their own brand as they are to the common faith.
The questions of a post-colonial age will not be easily resolved. Turmoil will often camouflage itself in more rational headwear. Theocrats, with a mass base and popular institutions, will promote themselves in the guise of idealism, even as a dwindling band of liberals squabble and compromise in the complexities of the short game. But this is not a fast T20; it is life-and-death Test that will span the coming decade.

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