Benito Mussolini’s infamous quote on fascism, adapted to Pakistan, reads, “Everything for the Taliban, nothing outside the Taliban, nothing above the Taliban.” The quote accurately captures the remarkable hubris of fascism, its frightening, xenophobic and coercive impulses. Fascism brings with it a thick set of assumptions about the world’s past, present and future. It represents a complete vision of life that crosses class divisions and carries no pluralist opposition. The objective, unchanged through time, is to establish control over the people, its main thrust to remake society and rule over every dimension of life. Like their predecessors in history, the new fascists draw their allure from their anathema towards half measures and compromises, their simplicity, their appeal to the imagination and their zest for action but also their intolerance and their cruelty toward opponents. They are unyielding and display little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.
The Taliban also speak of attaining social justice in the equitable distribution of rights and duties, the infusion of public life with moral principles and the affirmation of religious values in society. Perhaps the one difference is that, unlike past major fascist movements, which were an unholy alliance of racism and nationalism, the central tenets of Pakistan’s new fascism are anti-state, reactionary and pan-Islamist.
The Taliban also rely on time-tested fascist techniques of disinformation and surprise as they seek to transcend the mundane complexities of democratic politics. They represent a virulent and dangerous ideology, their murderous and violent actions propagandised as noble, dynamic and muscular feats. They tout a decisive break from the corrupt and weak present, and express the wish to create a ‘perfect’ society where they can impose their will as a fait accompli. The new fascists stress the greatness of dying for the cause, highlight the dignity of heroism and the willingness to struggle against all odds. On the other hand, opponents are dismissed as soft, unreliable and cowardly.
Tapping an arsenal of suicide bombers, the fascists thrive in the constant state of fear and anxiety they have created in society at large. Their culture of irrational barbarism is reflected in acts like shooting schoolgirls, blowing up unarmed policemen and killing captured paramilitaries. The Taliban have successfully absorbed the initial wave of public protests, until dissenting voices have abated, and people have exhausted themselves having to deal with the concerns of their daily lives. In response to this brutal sordidness, the state and society exhibit a strange mixture of denial, befuddlement and numbness.
In the early days, on those rare occasions when there was concerted negative reaction, the Taliban would back off a bit. However, as they grew bolder and more voracious they continued slicing away at civil society. More and more people have found it easier to look the other way. With sheepish submissiveness the people seem to have accepted reality, each one of them expect to lose what little personal freedom and dignity guaranteed by the constitution by meekly acceding to the slow destruction of their country’s institutions of law and social harmony. Agreeing to compromise solutions with the Taliban, in the face of daily atrocities, is a telling sign of the acceptance of this newly imposed reality. Given the realities, it seems unlikely that the Taliban will collapse and end up as another cruel episode of history as similar movements did because they became more extreme. In fact, the growth of a parallel power has reached a point where it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that it is poised to become stronger than the paralysed state and democracy itself. The predictable next step in fascist progress is to impose regulations that slice away at citizen freedoms — usually aimed at small, vulnerable sectors of society such as women and minorities under the guise of sharia enforcement.
The new fascists are winning the ideological war by feeding of the resentments bred from festering inequalities in society. The message of the Taliban resonates as they speak of their honest desire to transform society without materially benefitting themselves. This is in sharp contrast, they say, to the rapacious policies of the elite and their super-exploitation of the population. What also plays in the hands of the fascists is that the country’s political and military leadership is considered inept and feckless, arrogant and obsessed with expensive pet projects and ridiculous strategies, while ignoring the massive social problems surrounding them. It seems that fewer Pakistanis view the acceptance of a dangerous and regressive fascism as a slide towards the abyss. Instead, many see it as a vehicle towards the idealistic quest to establish a just, ethical and egalitarian society.
This trend has greatly to do with the end of any democratic illusions about social change in the minds of many. Regrettably, this is in sharp contrast to most of the world, which is going from strength to strength, drawing on the invigorating changes that are sweeping aside the past: advances in technology, the transformation of public institutions, the rise of individual freedoms and responsibility, and the arrival of the slippery concept of modernity.