Pakistan: Reacting to war

After much posturing and threat issuing, the most popularly opposed war in human history is now underway. To the chagrin of its American and British propagators, it appears that the takeover of Iraq will not be as straightforward as initially advertised. Moreover, with each new casualty, the American and British leaders leave themselves more vulnerable to public outrage.

Many say that the invading powers should have been better aware from the outset of the potential resistance they would face in Iraq. And, among those who say that this war will be the beginning of the end for American imperial ambitions is the multitude of radical Islamist groups operating with a multitude of stated objectives. The truth is that American and British public relations efforts have been as extensive as the accumulation of military might in the Gulf, and the rhetoric of a quick and painless war primarily reflected apprehensions in the American and British public rather than realities on the ground.

Nevertheless, the reaction of radical Islamist groups across the globe has been predictable. References have been made to the now all-too-familiar clash of civilisations, the inevitable downfall of the satanic US empire, and warnings have been issued to Muslim countries still allying themselves with Washington that there will be hell to pay if they do not reverse the policy.

MMA benefit
In Pakistan too, this has been the response of the main alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). The MMA has newfound legitimacy since its unprecedented showing in the October 2002 general election, in which it garnered almost 20 percent of the vote. Given that religious parties in Pakistan had never taken more than five percent of the popular vote prior to the 2002 election, the MMA's strong showing allows it to present itself as a new force in Pakistani politics.

In the response to the war on Iraq, the MMA is unfortunately the only political force that has articulated outspoken and consistent opposition. It has organised a series of large marches, including one in Lahore on Pakistan Day, 23 March. These marches have had the expected effect of influencing the government to water down its support of US ambition. One should remember that the religious lobby has been nurtured by the Pakistani state for the last two decades, and ultimately neither is likely to upset that relationship.

It is not surprising that the religious parties have mobilised large numbers of people against the war. Neither is it alarming; many of the hundreds of thousands who have taken part in these massive protests have done so not because of any particular fondness for reactionary sentiments but because of the absence of alternative political platforms from where to engage with the war on Iraq.

Just as the state has supported the religious right over the years, so has it systematically dismantled many mainstream secular parties, including the two largest, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). After years of interference in their affairs, the establishment has co-opted them, and the PML (neither the Nawaz nor the Quaid) and the PPP can now hardly be said to represent the needs and concerns of common people. The PPP has publicly refused to participate in any rallies against US foreign policy, an indication of whom it hopes to score brownie points with in its attempts to reclaim state power. The PML and other parties have participated in, rather than led, the marches, demonstrating the right's greater ability to mobilise the public.

People politics
Notwithstanding this sad state of affairs on the political front, popular opposition to the war is widespread in Pakistan. As in most parts of the world, there is unanimity across the cross-section of society that the war on Iraq is unjust and based on the narrow self-interests of the US. Resentment about the role of the Pakistani state in the US-led farcical "war on terror" in Afghanistan continues to simmer.

However, common people in Pakistan have no real political voice. Political and apolitical organisations have made attempts to mobilise the public against the war, but the response has been lukewarm. This is largely because most groups tend not to speak to the everyday needs of common people, and therefore have not established the trust that is required for mass mobilisations.

Further, serious political discourse has failed to relate the war to the economic agenda of Northern corporate interests and international financial institutions, or to the complexity and history of the Pakistani military's willingness to play handmaid to the US. The religious parties which know how to milk public anger by engaging in sloganeering, need do no more, nor be more responsible, in the absence of serious political competition.

The political vacuum in Pakistan is exposed dramatically by international crises such as, currently, the war on Iraq. A somewhat similar state of affairs prevailed when the US started its bombing of Afghanistan. It is worth noting that the war in Afghanistan rages on today even if no one is noticing, and chances are that US plans to occupy Iraq will also entail a long and drawn out conflict there.

So, as US militarism gains momentum, it can be expected that polarisation along religious lines will continue in Pakistan and across the world. The completely understandable resentment of ordinary people in Muslim countries such as Pakistan will intensify. And if it is the religious parties that continue to be the only viable option for those wishing to ally themselves against US claims to global hegemony, the consequences for state and society will be dismal.

It is therefore essential for progressive forces in Pakistan to take a page from the book of the resurgent global anti-capitalist movement, and start to provide Pakistanis with alternatives to the religious right. The massive mobilisations by progressive forces across the world have given the right (religious or otherwise) something new to think about. As soon as 'serious' politics is initiated in Pakistan, with the everyday struggles of people at its core, the reactionary nature of religious politics will be exposed.

Perhaps the US military's advance will not stop at Iraq, and neither will the advance of global capital through the international financial architecture. More than ever then, politics in Pakistan needs to be rejuvenated and made the vehicle for democratic advancement, as it should have been since the end of the colonial era.

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Himal Southasian