Civil versus political society

By Raza Rumi

Several self-styled analysts on ‘civil society’ have articulated contrarian views about the kind of choices they face, particularly with respect to forging alliances with political parties and avoiding the vigilantism that is the preserve of the extremists. The lawyers’ movement is being repeatedly cited as reference point without much introspection. Save a few exceptions, one is yet to hear a forceful condemnation of Islamabad lawyers’ love for Qadri.

We are faced with a deeper challenge today: Surviving as a plural society against a sectarian tide getting out of control. This is why engaging with the ‘political society’ is all the more important. We know that moderate parties such as the PPP are reticent to mobilise the cadres against extremism. Hence, the need to pressurise them into taking action to re-establish state writ. Condemning the PPP, the MQM, and the ANP may be the easiest recourse for many analysts but the truth is that we cannot work in isolation. No agenda for change, unless mullahs and the unelected saviours articulate it, is possible without the support of political society and grassroots cadres of political workers.

Pakistan’s political society is admittedly polarised on the issue of extremism.The state and its proxies have indoctrinated millions in the recent decades. Yet, Pakistanis have instinctively rejected their brand of societal framework, governed in part by the dictates of modernity and economics. A large number of students in Pakistan’s major universities are women who are increasingly visible in the workforce. There is a wider constituency in Pakistan, which is integrating into a global information economy and disagrees with the opportunist mullahs. This trend is likely to be irreversible.

The pejorative use of the term ‘liberal’ is also problematic for it is something not rooted in our historical trajectories of socio-economic development. It has captured the phony discourse by its misuse. Thus we have witnessed the emergence of a disparaging term, ‘liberal fascist’. Instead of fighting on this false binary of liberal-vs-conservative, we may have to get back to the essential question of seeking tolerance in a society scarred by violence, marginalisation and sectarianism.

Within the civil society debates, monitoring hate speech has been termed as mirror vigilantism. Again, this is a spurious argument for the extremists are killing people and there is no space for incitement to violence under the laws of our land including the Islamic laws that have been blended into our legal system.

Therefore a new agenda has to emerge in this existential battle for Pakistan. There is no alternative for the miniscule cadre of ‘civil society’ activists to engage with political parties, labour groups, moderate ulema and other professional associations to rally around the agenda for moderation. Without the involvement of political workers, the vigils and rallies of concerned citizens will remain footnotes in the tragic history of Pakistan. In any case a civil society is meaningless if not engaged with the larger citizenry.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2011.


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