The editorial team of PTH is highly grateful to the prominent liberal journalist and cultural critic, Nadeem Farooq Paracha, for giving this interview to PTH. In this interview, NFP gives his candid views on Pakistani establishment, religious extremism and negotiations with TTP, Pakistani urban middle class and its intellectual orientation, Imran Khan and PTI, and liberalism and liberal parties in Pakistan.
Raza Rumi and Raza Habib Raja
1. Do you agree with this assertion made by some quarters that establishment itself is actually directly involved in terrorism particularly the type which is directed against minority sects? Or do you think it is Frankenstein monster gone out of control?
It’s quite clear now and has been for almost a decade that what we’re dealing with in the shape of extremist and sectarian outfits are largely the Frankenstein monsters that the establishment began to assemble from the mid-1980s. These violent creatures and theological mutants are now mowing down their creators and everything that stands between them and their rabid thirst for anarchic violence.
However, there are analysts and activists who would suggest that some parts of the establishment are still using these monsters to negate nationalist sentiments in Balochistan and Sindh. If so, then God help us. We are being consumed by our own fire.
2. Some of the critics have accused that liberal coalition consisting of MQM, PPP and ANP is also responsible for failing to check the growth of terrorism in the last five years. Moreover, they are also claiming that the ideology of the current ruling party, PML (N) is actually conducive to extremism. How would you respond to that in the context of civil-military establishment relationship? Should the blame be apportioned between political class and establishment or it is simply the latter?
Indeed, the former coalition government of the PPP, MQM and ANP failed on a number of fronts. But it would be a rather knee-jerk thing to suggest that it was solely responsible for failing to check the growth of terrorism.
All three parties remained on the front line in the state’s struggle against terror. But how much could one have expected from a wobbly coalition? Not only was it a shaky coalition, it was up against a constant barrage of intrigues from certain military institutions, the judiciary and the electronic media.
A lot of its time and effort was exhausted in simply trying to survive the onslaught from this barrage. Nevertheless, the coalition partners themselves couldn’t agree on many common agendas. MQM’s attitude in this context was the worse.
But look what began to happen only weeks before the elections. Dozens of MQM, ANP and PPP candidates and workers were slaughtered by the extremists. One just cannot trivialize such tragedies by putting all the blame on the last coalition. They lost a number of men and women just for holding a certain view about the extremists.
The opposition and the state just sat there and did nothing. But when it did decide to support the government, better things happened, like the Swat operation.
The government became a favorite punching bag of the nation. Meaningless issues were raised like the Kerry-Lugar Bill and Memo gate by the establishment, the opposition and the media while the terrorists ran wild and free.
Well, now that punching bag has gone. What are we going to punch now? The invisible third force?
3. Are you completely against negotiations with TTP? Or do you think that under some circumstances negotiations can still take place and if so then what are those conditions?
Nobody in his or her right mind would oppose negotiations. But how does one talk to men who only speak the language of violence? The results of our supposedly most serious attempt at negotiations are already in front of us. The extremists have just refused to stop killing. They are making a mockery of the state and the government. How many more civilians, soldiers, cops and politicians will have to die for the state and the government to finally come up with a more meaningful way of stopping this violence?
An operation alone is not the answer. But neither is sitting on ones backside and doing absolutely nothing. The negotiations should not become something to mask the government’s apathy and confusion. But that’s exactly what they have become. The violence must stop.
4. Supporters of negotiations particularly Imran Khan and his PTI, say that emergence of TTP has a lot to do with Pakistani state’s action in the area and they interpret it as a reaction ( albeit violent). In their opinion, prior to 2003 there were no suicide blasts in Pakistan and Mushrraf’s decision to side with USA and launch an operation in that area set a chain of dynamics which eventually led to emergence of TTP. In their opinion, a full-fledged military action would be completely counterproductive and would lead to further alienation and bloodshed. In other words, TTP is a violent reaction to US war on terror and somewhat like BLA ( which is a reaction to Pakistani state’s atrocities). How would you respond to this assertion?
I’m not quite sure yet whether Khan’s grip on history is simply weak or he has convinced himself that to be a successful politician it was okay to lie. It’s easy to get away with lies in a society that is not quite trained to question and investigate what its rulers, politicians, religious scholars and media tell them.
There were suicide attacks before the first drone strike in 2004. There were at least four suicide attacks between 2002 and 2004. Secondly, I wonder what Khan talks about when he says our military has been fighting the extremists for years. It hasn’t. Swat was the only prominent action by the military in this respect. The military’s stance has been largely reactive. As a force it has only conducted operations in reaction to the attacks by the extremists. It has never undertaken an all-out operation, except in Swat. The state’s reaction to terrorism has been constipated, uncoordinated, unsure and only reactive, so what decade-long war is Khan talking about?
Khan is still repeating a narrative that has worn thin. There has been no drone attack this year and yet one saw an unprecedented wave of terrorism in the KP, Balochistan and Sindh. The apologists’ rhetoric has become a joke. They have become a joke or worse, an insult to the thousands of Pakistanis that have been slaughtered by the extremists.
We all know if there ever is an operation by the army against the extremists, the violence will increase. Who knows what we will achieve, but can Khan kindly elaborate the price we are now paying for letting mad men run wild in the name of negotiations, or sharia or whatever?
Khan’s attempt to understand the issue of extremist violence through his understanding of history is not very convincing. His political thinking is like that of a twenty-something student at a UK or US university who goes through books and essays by Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundaty Roy and the likes. But at the same time he is also the guy who got most of his political training from parties like the fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami! He’s turned into a mess and it has started to show.
5. Apparently the support for negotiations is coming up from our Media and a large section of Urban Middleclass. And yet many of them want operation against MQM and BLA. What in your opinion is wrong with the urban middleclass in Pakistan that they have a soft corner for extremists and yet hate MQM which is a political party with grass root support?
Absolutely. The problem is simple. The bulk of the urban middle-classes cannot comprehend the nature of the threat and that of the threat-maker as far as the extremists are concerned. They can’t see the suicide bomber in their immediate vicinity. They can’t see him on TV or in the parliament. They are not threatened by something they can’t comprehend. And when they can’t, they bank on their trusted and liked TV anchors, politicians, columnists and preachers to help them comprehend this threat.
But since bulk of the middle-classes – for various economic and ideological reasons – fancy what are called apologists or people on the rightist sides of the divide, they get an almost entirely distorted information and image of the threat.
They are quick to whack Bilawal, Zardari, Nawaz or Altaf, but suddenly go silent when there’s a terrorist attack, or worse, begin to repeat like parrots what they hear from their favorite apologists.
Most of them are quite ignorant of the history of their own country’s politics. Yet, they believe that by voting just once last year, they have become experts on politics. It’s hilarious at times
6. Historically the role of middle class in the Western societies has largely been progressive with respect to democracy and even liberal values. What is your assessment of Pakistani middle class in this regard?
Has it? Historically, yes, but some two hundred years after the French Revolution, the middle-classes became natural economic and political allies of the right-wing. But what separates them from the emerging middle-classes in non-Western countries is the fact that they have invested a lot in their respective democratic systems and institutions. And there have been dividends.
That’s why governance and the running of the democratic system in Pakistan should be such that it benefits the economic interests of the middle-classes. Otherwise this class will always be looking for inflated messiahs, dictators and even nut-cases who reflect their already warped and frustrated understanding of politics.
7. To what extent, narrative of Imran khan is complicating matters? Cyril Almeida in one of his articles has made an assertion that Imran sold Pakistan by mainstreaming extremism. His supporters say that he does not control anything and it is grossly unfair to blame him.
That was a harsh piece by Cyril. But was he off the mark? Not quite. That’s what Khan has become. A frustrated man who is willing to spout irresponsible gibberish just to prove that the narrative he’s been peddling for years hasn’t collapsed and is still relevant.
Khan needs a lot of self-reflection. He has to understand that he has become his own worst enemy, no matter how much he continues to rant about American agents being against him. He continues to punch himself into a corner. He is going against the tide of history. He’ll be swept aside.
8. Political parties normally arise out of some ideological, religious, class or ethnic cleavages in the society. These cleavages become the core support base of a party. What in your opinion is the core support base of PTI considering the fact that it got votes from all the major urban centers of Pakistan and from major ethnicities? Is it class, Ideology or a hybrid?
Mainly class-based. Middle and lower-middle. Mostly urban. The blocked elite, that in the last decade in a half has enjoyed more economic benefits than before and influence in the new media, but has failed to find any room among the traditional ruling elite.
They saw Khan as their vehicle that would take them there. He didn’t. But should they be there? Well, with the kind of attitude they are exhibiting on major issues like extremist violence, I think they should stay where they are.
As we have seen during the Arab Spring, and during the Anna Hazare and Aam Admi Movements in India, and what is happening in Thailand, middle-class-driven movements are spontaneous eruptions. Their agendas are those of the blocked elite. These are not revolutionary movements. They are reactive movements that eventually slide towards the rightest sides of the ideological divide. Also, they burn-out as quickly.
9. MQM, ANP and PPP, all three lost votes in Urban Pakistan to PTI in the last elections which negated the original perception that the PTI would actually split PML (N) vote. To what extent the liberal/quasi liberal parties are to be blamed for failing to capture the imagination of the youth and urban middle class? Do you find weight in the argument that incompetency of the last coalition, particularly PPP, may also be somewhat responsible for the overall shift towards the right?
One can investigate this but it would be a superficial analysis because only two parties were free to openly campaign during the elections. PPP, MQM and ANP were under the sword of the extremists.
10. You seem to be supportive of MQM despite its apparent violent character. What is the rationale for this support given the fact that MQM has even targeted PPP and in fact continues to target it?
Let me just tell you that no matter what, considering what is coming up to be one of Pakistan’s greatest existentialist war, the MQM and the PPP will continue to be tied together. In Sindh one cannot move without the co- operation of the other. Both will remain to be major forces. If one thinks both will squabble the way they did in the 1990s, that someone is still living in the 1990s.
MQM-related violence is now only a minor issue compared to the violence being exercised by the new boys in town. And these boys don’t run for elections or sit in parliaments. They blow.
11. Any advice you would like to give to those who identify themselves as Liberals?
The extreme right-wing is collapsing. This collapse is expressing itself in an extremely violent manner, but at the same time it is exhausting itself.
Another thing that is coming out of this collapse is how the extreme right-wing’s apologists have begun to try attracting the sympathies of the liberals by suddenly talking about human rights issues. Beware. They are a hoax and a fraud.