Our liberal friends seem concerned that the anti-imperialism of the Left could somehow resonate with the xenophobia and hypocritical anti-Western posturing of the religious right-wing. They needn’t worry
Let nobody question Professor Hoodbhoy’s optimism. At the conclusion of his piece for Viewpoint on the 19th of July, 2012, he asks for the General Staff of the Pakistani military to abandon their pretensions to “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. He asks for the US to bring Iran on board for a solution in Afghanistan. As a helpful ally, no less. He asks that a rising Beijing and an assertive New Delhi stop eyeing covetously the strategic and economic windfalls to be gained from the situation in Afghanistan. He hopes that the lamb and the wolf can drink from the same stream, in rational “realist” harmony.
This, from an individual who has otherwise been vocal in taking a stand for democratic legitimacy and for promoting the scientific method of enquiry over obscurantist and particularistic interpretations of Islam.
To use his own words, the Professor makes bold to ask for the moon itself. It is, as he reminds us, a time of despair. And yet in such times, he cannot consider a far more modest proposal from his “comrades”: i.e. the Pakistani and Afghan peoples can find an indigenous solution based on popular democratic expression and a renegotiation of the social contract on terms of greater social equity.
Now if “realism” is to be defined as a worldview free of ideological blinkers, that Holy Grail of contemporary liberalism, the views expressed by Professor Hoodbhoy are fairly “ideological”. No less “ideological” than that caricature of the Pakistani left-wing analysis of the Af-Pak conflict, which he so effortlessly demolishes. And therein lies the tragedy of his call to his “comrades” to “get real”. Representative of a sizeable chunk of liberal-secularist opinion in Pakistan, this is a worldview in which GHQs can be reformed or tamed, and one can entertain the most fantastic hopes about US-Iranian cooperation. But popular social change cannot be on the cards. Unless, of course, it be an apocalyptic Islamist revolution, or worse.
In his article, Professor Hoodbhoy reproduces a line of thought which views Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other countries as being trapped in medieval notions of “honour” and tradition, inherently antithetical to science and progress. It is for this reason that our liberal friends see little chance of emancipation through mass movements in these societies. Let us ignore, for a moment, that this idea is a highly flawed ideological construct. We will not bore our friends with a critique of Orientalism. Instead, let us ask a somewhat different question. If Professor Hoodbhoy insists on juxtaposing the liberal-democratic ethos of the United States and Western Europe with the tradition-bound backwardness of our region, he must demonstrate how US foreign policy is free of such considerations as “collective honour”.
Consider, for a moment, the brilliantly-executed US Navy Seals’ raid on Abbotabad, in the teeth of the Pakistani military. If the US could patiently track, locate and eliminate Osama bin Laden in 2011, surely it could have done the same in Mullah Omar’s Afghanistan, in 2001? Instead it declared war on “Terror”, the legality of which is null and void. International law recognizes belligerence only between sovereign states in the Westphalian sense, not wars against abstract concepts such as terror or dishonesty, which then enable a superpower to turn diverse regions from Morocco to the Philippines into theatres of combat. One must ask: what is it that made the US carry out such a costly invasion and occupation, if its vaunted intelligence network and Special Forces could have handled things without such a bloodbath? What is it, if not the wounded pride of Washington, which felt forced to demonstrate to American voters (and the world) that a great superpower is not to be trifled with? What is it that happened in October 2001, if not a rain of fire to avenge a mythical notion of national “honour”? And how is this any different from the hollow “ghairat” (honour) and Islamo-nationalism promoted by the Pakistani state or by jihadists?
Our liberal friends seem concerned that the anti-imperialism of the Left could somehow resonate with the xenophobia and hypocritical anti-Western posturing of the religious right-wing. They needn’t worry. We present to them three small examples.
Just a few weeks ago, the National Students’ Federation (an iconic a left-wing students’ organization in Pakistan) wished to hold an event in Chiniot. A letter went out to local authorities, signed by right-wing student organizations (including the Jamiat e Tuleba) and even the PSF (supposedly affiliated with the liberal-democratic PPP). This letter denounced the NSF as “communists” who stood opposed to the Pakistan ideology and its Islamic basis.
Outside the Hyderabad press club, not too long ago, activists of the Labour Party Pakistan confronted mullah aggression on the streets, as they led the against the forcible conversion and rape of Hindu girls.
In neighbouring Afghanistan, meanwhile, Malalai Joya carries on her politics of popular mobilization and opposition to warlords and Islamists, while remaining vocally critical of the NATO occupation, and calling for an immediate end to the latter. Her unwavering defiance of brutal Islamist criminals is recognized all over the world, including Western countries.
In all these three instances described above, leftists in Pakistan and Afghanistan have stood unequivocally in support of a tolerant, democratic, inclusive society. And they courted the hostility of the religious right, despite being openly opposed to US imperialism. The mullahs do not embrace the activists of the Left, in the mistaken impression that they share the GHQ’s narrative on NATO. Why, then, does Professor Hoodbhoy himself make that mistake about his “comrades”?
The left-wing, anti-imperialist analysis of the Af-Pak conflict has been examined in great detail by numerous publications and writers all over the world. It is a sober analysis, full of debates and worthy of serious consideration. This analysis far more nuanced than a wish for an imaginary Afghan proletariat to raise and change everything, contrary to what Professor Hoodbhoy criticizes.
Liberal friends must forgive Pakistani leftists for a lack of faith in the possibilities for socio-economic liberation opened by NATO firepower. While Professor Hoodbhoy laments the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, his “comrades” don’t celebrate the circumstances that led to the NATO invasion, nor those that led to the withdrawal. They chafe, instead, at the weakness of institutions of popular power: unions, peasant committees, student movements, progressive media outlets, etc. If rooting for the NATO forces in Afghanistan did not do much good for ten years, then lamenting their departure won’t bring their civilizing mission to Pakistan. Nor would such a civilizing mission do Pakistan much good, as the Afghan experience shows. The Professor points out that “Afghan women” as a category are better off today than under the rule of the Taliban. He knows that the sustainability of social gains for a few urban women under a hated occupation is highly doubtful, especially since all the seeds for a Taliban backlash have been effectively laid. Yet he insists on making that point about “Afghan women”, as if leftists were unaware of the bleak, ultra-misogynist social vision of the Taliban.
As I write this, popular movements of the Left are once again rising: in South America, in Western Europe and in many parts of the Global South. The Greek people came within an inch of electing a “Coalition of the Radical Left”. Spanish police are at the moment fighting to restrain protesters rising against the neo-liberal capitalist policy paradigm. A Maoist-led People’s War engulfs a quarter of India. These are but a few of the scenes of global anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist resistance. And yet Professor Hoodbhoy can only ask young progressives in Pakistan to regret the circumstances of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A cruel choice between NATO barbarism and Taliban barbarism: such is the choice Professor Hoodhbhoy paints. Surely that cannot be the essence of the advice from an inspirational scientist and eminent public intellectual to the Pakistani left? And surely it cannot be the message he passes on from giants such as Eqbal Ahmed, who famously confronted Empire in the most eloquent terms?
The Pakistani left, just like its global counterparts, rejects such a “cruel choice”, for tyranny always poses cruel choices. The Pakistani left wishes to walk a path of popular mobilization, confronting the religious right and resisting NATO imperialism: all as inseparable elements of one political programme. These men and women dare not ask for the moon, as Professor Hoodbhoy does. They simply ask for what is factually and ethically justified, given the circumstances. And if this is the folly of youth, it is a glorious folly, for it has brought down Empires in the past and shakes them even today.
Ziyad Faisal is a student of economics and social theory. He is currently completing a degree in Economics at the Universita Bocconi, in Milan, Italy. He has been a features writer for national publications and has worked with the Friday Times. He is affiliated with the Workers' Party Pakistan and the National Students' Federation.