Urban Middle Class’s Steady Descent into Hyper Nationalism and Political Right

Raza Habib Raja

Pakistani political landscape is still reeling from Hakimullah Mehsud’s assassination. Hakimullah despite having killed scores of Pakistanis, is being “mourned” as a missed chance for peace. It is pretty clear that the only reason for anger is that USA killed him. The fact that he has murdered many more Pakistanis than US citizens is simply overlooked.

Right now instead of an army action, many of our leading politicians are calling the militants as “stakeholders” and many people particularly those who are from urban middleclass are still in denial with respect to the extent of danger that lurks.
Much more than the population directly under Taliban, the urban middle class’s behavior is perplexing. They until very recent past have actually been hailing the Talibanisation and have been knitting every kind of weird conspiracy theory to absolve them of all the brutal suicide attacks.

Some would argue that now everyone has realized that Taliban are too hard line and consequently this class would stop their open support. But the problem is that now this segment is forcing for an accommodative policy on the media. The latest stance being that terrorism is just a “reaction” to US atrocities and nothing else.

The most banal argument is that if Pakistan moves away from attacking their “own” countrymen, the hardliners will throw weapons. This argument fails to accommodate the fact that Taliban are actually ideologically motivated and this kind of policy does not bear fruit. Moreover, such policy of appeasement emboldens the Taliban and further enhances the conducive environment in which they can freely breed and multiply. People like Imran Khan, are the chief spokesmen of this lot, despite the fact that right now it is his own Ministers who are being killed.

In my opinion, any analysis which aims to look into Talibinisation has to look into this drift of middleclass, particularly urban middleclass into hyper nationalism and religious right. The actual birth of Taliban owes a lot to army and it’s so called strategic depth. But the mindset of the middleclass has a significant impact as to why this strategy of patronizing Taliban to create “strategic depth” was adopted by the armed forces (which are mainly drawn from this class and largely remain conservative).

Even Musharraf who comparably is considered a “liberal” had no qualms using these fighters along with Pakistan army in Kargil. Moreover, the middleclass mindset also explains that why Pakistani newspaper reading public was fully supportive of the rise of Taliban in mid 1990s. In fact print media of those days was painting a “robin hood” picture of Taliban.

In any society, particularly a modern democratic society, middleclass provides a critical as well as decisive mass. Moreover it’s an extremely important contributor to intelligentsia, media and services sector, particularly critical services such as bureaucracy and armed forces.
In our side of the world, the middleclass particularly urban middleclass eventually is the major determinant of the dominant opinion and even the official policy. This influence is not merely through electorate (where they are always numerically less strong), but through other institutions such as army, judiciary, media and civil bureaucracy as well. The middleclass opinion actually shapes the national discourse in a very disproportionate manner. They may not dent the elections but they do influence the way policies ( both domestic and foreign) are conducted much more than the electoral strength suggests. Their dominance in media enables them to constantly pressurize the government in power.

So what has caused this drift of Pakistani middleclass into this brand of nationalism? Partly the answer lies in the natural predisposition of industrial era capitalistic middleclass towards conservative side. Even the liberal segment in the middleclass is more skewed towards centre rather than towards the left. The religion comes hand in hand with conservative set of economic as well as social ideals. The social ideals include sexual morals, justice, and non acceptance of corruption. These social ideals are often drawn from the religious doctrines and are consistent with economic system of capitalism.

Moreover, generally in a developing country due to better education and greater sense of “belonging” to a nation state, this class is generally more “patriotic”. In countries like Pakistan, this is the class which has been successfully tutored in state cultivated nationalism. This brand of nationalism has been fed on a fusion of religion and deep suspicion of the outside world, in particularly of neighbouring India and also of Israel. Hatred of USA is actually an outcome of hatred of Israel on the perceived unconditional support of the latter. This explains as to why nothing moves the sympathetic nerve of Pakistani urban middleclass like the Israeli act of aggressions. Of course, most of the Pakistani middleclass individuals also believe in the moral superiority of Muslims which explains the seeming inability to believe that a Muslim cannot indulge in suicide blasts.

In Pakistan this brand of nationalism and religiosity has evolved over time and is the result of the interplay between the state sanctioned laws, educational curriculum and also international developments which have heightened the Muslim identity in Pakistanis. Over times, nationalism has become more and more intertwined with Islam. It is this fusion of nationalism with religion ( which comes with a sense of moral superiority) that has actually caused this present collective mindset which is in denial and deeply suspicious of the outside world. And this is why when Pakistan is under critical microscope of the outside world, our urban chattering classes become extremely sensitive as they perceive their identity to be under attack.

Thus Malala is hated because due to her ordeal the nature of extremism in Pakistan is being highlighted at the global stage. It is this mindset which is super sensitive when Pakistan is under the critical microscope of the outside world. The negative spotlight instead of forcing self introspection has made Pakistani overly defensive and seeking conspiracy theories to explain the extremism in their midst.

This intertwining started to occur in 1970s under the rule of Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto. ZAB, was a charismatic person who despite being from feudalistic background had managed to galvanize support of the left wing as well as masses. At the same time unfortunately his personal conduct, lifestyle and manner of dealing with sensitive issues dearer to the middle class, actually started this descent of Middleclass towards the more conservative side of the political spectrum.

Another error which Bhutto made was a very rapid move towards left without actually creating a conducive environment for this kind of transition (the biggest being not purging the army from hard liners like Zia, instead he promoted him).

But the strangest step or rather series of steps which Bhutto took was concomitant projection of Islam along with socialist economic policies. Unfortunately both in their own way contributed towards increasing conservatism. Nationalization angered the Bourgeois shifting it towards the Right whereas Islamization of constitution and social life ( i.e. banning of liquor) introduced a religiously conservative strain in the society which continued to grow and pressurize every subsequent government to do more.

Bhutto was also a nationalist, a fact which is often conveniently overlooked by some PPP “liberals”. And his brand of nationalism actually tried to propel Pakistan as the spearhead of the Islamic World. The fusion of Islam with hyper nationalism actually started with Bhutto and subsequently Zia further intensified it.

In the 1977 elections, although the opposition included ANP, but it was conservatives like Asghar Khan and religious parties like Jamat –i- Islami and JUI which provided the main mass. The alleged rigging conducted by ZAB merely added fuel to the fire and created huge scale dislike which was evident in street protests in the urban centers. Pakistan army which draws its rank officers from the middleclass was also agitated and finally intervened. Many say that it was mere opportunism of Zia. But a little deep insight would reveal that Zia’s intervention also represented this class’s interests.

Not surprisingly Zia once in power started to appease this class by pursuing religious and conservative policies. The entire curriculum was revised to instil religiosity and state apparatus as well as censored media was used. Moreover, Afghan Jihad also gave him the opportunity to further intensify religious fervor. Because of the combination of International events and draconian domestic policies aiming at Islamization, the middleclass became more and more conservative and the nationalist cum religious identity became the dominant identity particularly of the Punjabi middleclass.

However, this conservatism particularly in the 1990s and this decade also owes to the way liberal parties have actually conducted themselves. Whenever there was an opportunity to address a genuine and moderate middle class concern in an effective manner, the liberal parties failed to deliver completely. Moreover their reluctance was seldom ideological but often stemmed from short sighted personal gains. PPP’s role unfortunately has been thoroughly counterproductive. A main stream liberal party has to adhere to some middle class ideals with out compromising on its liberal agenda as not all ideals are contrary to liberal agenda. Freedom of judiciary and lack of corruption have never been anti liberal ideals. And PPP during its successive governments has kept on scoring very low on these grounds.

The election results are a clear indication. In May 2013 PPP was wiped completely out from Urban Punjab. In cities like Lahore, Faisalabad, Islamabad, and Pindi, PPP was often a distant third behind PML (N) and PTI which has emerged to be party of the white collared middleclass in the major urban centres.

In the post Zia period the hyper nationalism was further buoyed by international events such as 9/11, subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq war, continued Israeli aggression in Palestine particularly Gaza , OBL raid and drone attacks. All of these have all ended up strengthening this collective religious cum nationalist mindset.

The impact of the international developments has of course been amplified manifold due to emergence and subsequent rapid rise of the electronic media. The talk show hosts and the themes of their shows have been increasingly nationalist and religious. Moreover Pakistani media’s hard earned independence has unfortunately come at the time where it has actually become ideologically reactionary. Consequently rather than playing any meaningful progressive role, it is merely reinforcing delusional hyper nationalism and fabricating all kind of weird conspiracy theories.
Literally everyone has to defend himself/herself against the allegations of being a US sponsored person and call USA an imperial power bent upon exploiting Pakistan. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, the anger was not on the incompetency of the armed forces but on USA’s “invasion”. Likewise right now the media thrust is more on drone attacks rather than suicide bombings. When Hakimullah Mehsud was killed, the entire spotlight is on the drones rather than mustering collective political will for a military action. Supporters of military actions are being called Western stooges.

Even a nobody like me has been taunted as a sell out who wants to get his education financed from the US government!

While actual Taliban are not affected by all this as they come from totally different section of society, but these opinion shapers are actually instrumental in formulation of engagement policy with the hardliners. Right now media is playing the most dangerous role in perpetuating this accommodative policy. It is reinforcing a prevalent opinion rather than debating anything on it. Over the years, electronic media has become overly commercialized and airs what now this TV watching urbanites instinctively want to watch. Opinions are not changed or even challenged, just reinforced and strengthened.

As Pakistan faces a serious question of extremism, the overly conservative urban mindset can hardly contribute to any serious solutions. The task ahead of us is very long and huge. Unfortunately at this important juncture, we are still under illusions. Mindset changes over a long time, but opinions and viewpoints can change. Right now the least which liberal elements can do is to conduct efforts to change opinions. We have to at least show that Taliban are threatening everything and should not be trusted.

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