As we near the end of the first decade of the 21st century — or what the neocon ideologues propping up the Bush administration triumphantly call the New American Century — the contradictions of capitalist imperialism are becoming more and more acute. The most recent fallout of Bush’s policy is in Pakistan, where a movement against the US-backed regime of General Pervez Musharraf has been brewing since March 9, 2007 when the general dismissed the Chief Justice (CJ) on charges of corruption and nepotism.
Amongst third-world states that have been greatly influenced by the machinations of US imperialism, Pakistan arguably stands apart. Whereas military rule in the third world was far from an aberration till three decades ago, in recent times the military has withdrawn from the political sphere in one country after another. But not in Pakistan. Indeed, since the coup of October 1999, the military has consolidated its historical domination of Pakistani state and society, especially after the events of September 11, 2001.
It is more than a cruel stroke of misfortune for the Pakistani people that all three of the extended periods of military rule in the country’s history have been marked by an intimate alliance between the US and Pakistan. In 1958, General Ayub Khan became the first Pakistani military man to directly take over the reins of government, a development that was welcomed in Washington. The Pentagon had been doling out millions of dollars of aid and technical support to the Pakistani military since 1954, and the Eisenhower administration proclaimed Pakistan to be the United States’ “most allied ally.” Washington viewed Pakistan as a major anti-communist bulwark in the larger west Asian region, along with Turkey and Iran. By the time of the Sino-Indian border dispute in 1962, which marked a shift of American foreign policy in South Asia away from Pakistan, the military had established itself as the preeminent force in Pakistani politics.
In July 1977 when General Zia ul Haq overthrew the first elected government in the country’s history, he initially faced international isolation. But when the Reagan administration decided to banish the policy of containment to the dustbin of history and make the Afghan jihad into the largest proxy war in American history, a Pakistani general once again became a cherished ally of the “free world.” The Zia regime brutalized Pakistani society for the entire 11 years that it held power, and enjoyed immense material and moral support from its imperial patron. In typically hypocritical fashion, the US considered dictatorial rule in Pakistan to be a necessary trade-off in the cold war stakes.
And so it was again with the Musharraf junta under the pretext of the “war on terror.” For two years after the coup in 1999, the military regime was by no means an esteemed member of the so-called international community. But the dramatic geo-political shifts engendered by September 11th changed all of that, and for the third time in the country’s chequered history, in an almost eerily similar manner to the previous two periods of military rule, Pakistan became, in Colin Powell’s words, America’s closest “non-NATO ally.” There have been a multitude of cumulative effects resulting from successive episodes of American-supported military rule in Pakistan, the most obvious of which is now being widely depicted in the Western world as extra-state (Islamic?) terrorism.
Quite apart from the utterly irresponsible manner in which the corporate media projects images of the “war on terror,” the current brand of religio-political movements in the Muslim world do not enjoy widespread support, being, after all, relatively recent products of collusion between Muslim states, imperialism, and the forces of the religious right. Whether in Pakistan, Algeria, or Egypt, the religious right has emerged as a contender for power in the formal sense — or at the very least as a major player in the political stakes — in spite of a relatively limited social base. Nevertheless, with ruling classes in these and other Muslim countries still unwilling to provide a level playing field to political forces on the left, and sometimes even those with vaguely liberal commitments, the right continues to make ground.
It is under this backdrop that has emerged in Pakistan a quite spontaneous — albeit limited — popular movement against military power. The movement has significant implications given Pakistan’s continuing centrality to American imperial designs in the region but also because it increasingly appears to be directly challenging the military’s self-proclaimed mandate to rule Pakistan. When General Musharraf fired the CJ, with as much arrogance as has become typical of the man, the government was not facing any immediate problem. The CJ had been making a bit of a nuisance of himself in the previous few months, most importantly by annulling the privatization of the state-owned Pakistan Steel Mills, and by ordering that the omnipotent intelligence agencies produce hundreds of “missing persons,” the vast majority of them victims of anti-terrorist legislation in the post-September 11 period. Yet the CJ is one of the coterie of judges that took oath under Musharraf’s provisional constitutional order (PCO) and can hardly be considered a lifelong champion of democracy. Nonetheless, spontaneous movements such as this one throw up the most unexpected of heroes, particularly in societies where, after the end of colonialism, politics still remains heavily personalized.
Indeed Pakistani politics has still not recovered from the last period of US-supported military dictatorship in the 1980s. The state and propertied classes committed to oligarchic rule came together under the patronage of the US to not only fulfill American geo-strategic goals in the region but to also institutionalize in society a patronage-heavy political culture that stood in stark contrast to the populist politics that had emerged in Pakistan in the late 1960s and that brought the Nasser-like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to power. It was Bhutto’s government that Zia toppled; the populist leader was eventually hanged by the dictator in 1979. The military dictatorship saw the repression of student and trade unions, journalists, the intelligentsia, and even art and culture. In the place of a relatively vibrant political culture was introduced Kalashnikovs, heroin, and sectarian and ethnic violence.
After the Zia dictatorship, there was no regeneration of the organic bases of politics that the state had destroyed. And so politics remained a cynical game determined by one’s access (or lack thereof) to the state. Meanwhile the religious right continued to be given implicit state support to ply its trade. As suggested above, the Pakistani story resembles that of most other Muslim countries where secular, nationalist, and often radical politics was deliberately undermined. But this story supposedly took a decisive turn after September 11 when General Musharraf was said to have committed to breaking with the religious right by signing on to America’s war on terror. The regime has propagated notions such as “enlightened moderation,” projecting itself as liberal and democratic and making overtures time and again to a free and fair political process.
Yet almost eight years into Musharraf’s rule, it appears as if the more things change, the more they stay the same. And while even the Bush administration has come under some fire domestically for its continuing support to the regime in spite of the fact that it is now clear that militancy on the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border is increasing rather than being tamed, it is the Pakistani people who have the biggest gripes against the military regime. There has been growing resentment at the government’s pandering to empire’s interests, and uproar against the almost blatant capture of resources and power by the military within the country. Yet the legacy of the highly successful Ziaist project continues to haunt Pakistan: the bigger political parties do not represent the public will, alienation and consumerism are rife, and most importantly there is a patent lack of belief amongst working people that they can actually challenge status quo. Thus there was, prior to March 9, a collective gritting of teeth and resignation that military rule was likely to continue indefinitely, with Uncle Sam very much on board.
It is ironic but not unusual that such phases of collective inertia are often interrupted by contradictions within the corridors of power. As pointed out, the CJ was at best a mediocre judge that was not a principled democrat by any means. Yet it is in the nature of dictatorial rule that even small fallouts within the ruling junta can precipitate serious crises. The initial response to the CJ’s suspension was restricted to demands for his reinstatement and remained limited to the legal fraternity. Lawyers were careful not to “politicize” the issue by maintaining a distance from political parties in particular. Soon, though, it became clear that the movement was going to take on a life of its own, symbolized by the masses of lawyers, political activists, professional groups, and many others that would gather outside the Supreme Court on the occasion of every hearing of the government’s case against the CJ. The CJ then started to accept invitations to address bar councils around the country. These became occasions for massive shows of strength — on May 5th the CJ and his supporters traveled to Lahore from Islamabad to address the Lahore High Court Bar association, mobbed by hundreds of thousands of people on the way, eventually reaching the provincial capital of Punjab in 26 hours (the journey usually takes 4 hours); on June 16th, a similar procession took even longer to get from Islamabad to the industrial city of Faisalabad (this journey also usually takes no more than 4 hours). The list could go on.
It is telling that working people come out onto the streets to catch a glimpse of a judge who has become a symbol of the resistance to military rule. No major political party has been able to mobilize such crowds, at least partially because they have not tried. Over the past decade and a half, working people have become ever more cynical about politics in general and the major parties in particular. On the one hand, this reflects the unwillingness of these parties to challenge the military-dominated political system, but, on the other, it shows that, in such a system, regenerating the bases of organic and people-centered politics itself becomes the primary objective of progressive intellectual and political efforts given the manipulations of the state and its allies over the past couple of decades.
There is also the fact that consistent state patronage to the religious right has permitted the latter to arrogate to itself the mandate of anti-imperialist and anti-establishment politics. It has been helped in this endeavor by the empire-building aspirations of the United States in the post-Soviet Union world, particularly since the coming to power of the neocons. As anger and indignation has grown in most parts of the Muslim world over the perceived targeting of Muslim populations by the Western powers, both the Bush administration and various right-wing forces in the Muslim world have propagated the notion of a civilizational war. Hence religio-political movements in countries like Pakistan have seen their public profile increase dramatically as no other mainstream political force has made the protection of Islam from imperialist attack the centerpiece of its political program. Intriguingly, a large number of Pakistanis view the Islamists in Pakistan with a great deal of cynicism, but due to the vacuum created by the repression of people-centered politics, the right has prospered nonetheless.
There is another major explanation for what appears to be the rapid Islamization of political discourse in the Muslim world. From the Maghreb to Indonesia, there has been for many years a consistently growing gap between the sensibilities of people and the political alignments of anti-people states. As pointed out already, the latter are mostly clients of the empire and rely for their survival on Washington. Once upon a time, the sensibilities of Muslim peoples were represented by the Nassers, Ahmed Ben Bellas, Sukarnos, and Bhuttos of the Muslim world. The personality cults that revolved around such figures were problematic as were many other aspects of their politics. Nonetheless, the populists that prevailed in the Muslim countries until the 1970s had a finger on the pulse of their people. Since the rise of political Islamism, secular elite groups have grown alienated from working people, both in terms of lifestyle and in terms of their worldview. Whereas once upon a time the intelligentsia of the Muslim world was a part of progressive political movements, it is now cut off from real class struggle. The growing mistrust amongst working people for what are easily dismissed as “Westernized” elements in society has also been a major factor in the rise of the right.
Shockingly, a large number of “liberals” argued in favor of the American invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks under the pretext that this was the only way to be rid of the forces of religious obscurantism. Needless to say, the optimism surrounding the American invasion has dissipated, but the fact remains that the alienated elite in Muslim countries such as Pakistan do not offer a coherent solution to the nexus of military-religious right-imperialism because it is obsessed with the spectre of “Talibanisation” and is unwilling to put the politics of Islamism in the proper perspective. That having been said, the
ahistorical manner in which the corporate media and Western governments have portrayed the right as being the preeminent political and social force in the Muslim world — including Pakistan — is criminal. Islamist politics — both its more militant and mainstream versions — must be understood as a product of real history and the need of Muslim states and imperialism. It still does not enjoy a widespread popular social base, and will not in years to come either, if only because it too, like the alienated liberal intelligentsia, does not offer a coherent alternative to neo-liberal imperialism.
At the same time, however, it is essential to recognize that the role of Islam in societies such as Pakistan is real. It cannot and should not be marginalized. The right cannot be opposed by invoking a brand of politics — in the name of secularism — that dismisses religion altogether. This is a sure route to isolation. Progressive forces in Pakistan — and the rest of the Muslim world — will regain the influence they once enjoyed only if they are able to acknowledge the Muslim sensibilities of the people and offer a coherent alternative to the status quo. The fact of the matter is that the objective conditions currently exist in Pakistan for a truly popular movement to emerge along the lines of the various people’s uprisings over the past few years in Latin America or more recently in Nepal. There is great disillusionment with a military once considered the savior of the nation primarily because it has acquired massive economic stakes and thus is coming into conflict with working people as it attempts to take control over more and more resources, some of which, such as land, remain the major source of livelihood for most of Pakistan’s people. At the level of policy, the current government has subscribed to an extremely radical program of neo-liberal orthodoxy replete with unmatched incentives to multinational capital and a voluntary rollback of the state from the economic sphere.
To a certain extent, all of the frustrations that working people have endured over the past many years have transformed the lawyer-led movement into a popular one, at least insofar as it has garnered the sympathy of a vast majority of working people. It would be inaccurate, however, to say that there is a mass movement in Pakistan just yet. Yet a quite remarkable situation has emerged in which a CJ has become a popular folk hero and lawyers are effectively playing the role of political parties. This has much to do with the fact that within the legal fraternity one finds many political activists who understand the need to take the movement beyond a narrow demand for the reinstatement of the CJ. Yet this means that the prospects of the movement expanding remain limited because mainstream parties are still not playing the proactive role they need to, preferring to use the unrest as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with the US state department; Washington continues to be the major arbiter in power politics in Pakistan, as indeed it is in the politics of most Muslim countries.
Meanwhile the religious right is trying hard to keep up with the momentum being generated by the lawyer’s movement, and is having to live down its reputation as being pro-establishment, in spite of its anti-imperialist ravings. After five years running the provincial government of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the right can no longer claim to be a principled defender of people’s rights opposed to an undemocratic state propped up by the empire. Instead, the lawyer’s community, along with an increasingly assertive community of working journalists and the rank and file of small and big political parties, are the default leadership of the movement, and are carrying the hopes and expectations of working people fed up with an obsolete state structure and opportunistic pro-establishment political parties.
Arguably, it is at times of major struggle such as the present one that newer and more dynamic forms of politics come to the fore. There is a growing feeling within progressive circles that the present movement could precipitate the emergence of a broad popular political front that espouses a fiercely independent politics that is anti-imperialist, anti-military, and moves towards a coherent political and economic program that can address the real crises of neo-liberalism in the periphery. For the very first time in Pakistan’s history, in the popular consciousness of the people, the army is no longer a sacred cow, the national security imperative has been relegated to an afterthought, and there is a recognition that all available major political options — including the right — are unwilling and/or unable to provide an answer to the many questions that the fledgling movement has posed. Popular forces must now translate this intangible change into a tangible political challenge to status quo. This will take time, but there is optimism in the air. For empire and its “terrorist” challengers alike, this is a worrying prospect.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is a political activist associated with the People’s Rights Movement (PRM), a confederation of working-class struggles. He also teaches colonial history and political economy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.