Prime Minister Imran Khan has made no secret of his admiration for male tribal warriors and their norms and traditions. Recently, in the Maneka versus DPO Pakpattan case, the Supreme Court had remarked that the provincial chief minister, who hails from South Punjab, should observe formal law and not tribal norms. The subtext in the comment was important.
The anxiety is palpable — there’s a growing realisation that the PTI has a popular Big Chief but his Little Chiefs have no clear economic or foreign plan. Overnight epiphanies and lengthy meetings at GHQ lead to perplexing announcements the next morning. Far more dangerous, social justice, the supposed core philosophy of the PTI (in name, at least) is not a domestic concern but geared to populist grandstanding and an opportunity to make global political statements while pandering to local blackmailing religious lobbies.
Social justice is linked to economics but not to visible specular stunts or charity — it is about giving rights and autonomy according to domestic laws and international agreements. As the PTI non-plans fail, their best defense is to play the victim (22 years of “struggle”, that is, losing at the ballot box), and a dependence on the tribe and trolls to close in and snap and snarl at criticism or simply label critics as traitors and thieves for daring to disagree with the chieftains. Such blindness doesn’t even allow the reminder that optimism is not a policy.
In a country that is geographically still partly ‘tribal’, the term and metaphor is a loaded one. Associated with insurgency, the tribal areas remain a symbol of anti-modern insularity. Tribal communities have been romanticised as proud, martial and vengeful or, demonised as savage and brutal. Cultural stereotypes aside, tribal practices rely on a deeply hierarchical governance, archaic treatment of women, endogamy and retributive justice. Religious tradition seals all these norms as inviolable.
Pakistan has preserved its tribal areas for a host of geopolitical reasons; as long as the tribal peripheries are contained, they are convenient. But the fragmentation of tribalisation and the spread of its norms across the country rightfully makes people and the SC bench anxious. South Punjab has been tribalised by the infiltration of religious insurgents from the tribal areas. This has been enabled through the network of madrassas well-funded by Arab countries and financed by the warlords who extorted monies from local and provincial administrations.
Three key areas serve as accurate early warning systems to signal the tribalisation of society: attitudes towards democracy and media, status of women and minorities, and justice based on tribunals or jirgas.
The new government’s shoddy first steps are not surprising. Its inclusion of overused experts, absence of women in leadership, faltering public relations, contradictory foreign policy statements, and absurd rationales regarding austerity drives are reminiscent of its days of container politics. Under these cosmetic wars and attempts at optic respectability lie the PTI’s deeper contradictions, which are resurfacing and which betray signs of tribalisation.
Finding sufficient offices for the party’s zealous members is a difficult task and it means appointing some hawks to doves’ nests. The human rights ministry has many international commitments but launching a clumsy protest against an attention-seeking Dutch politician on behalf of the entire Muslim world did not achieve any substantive rights for the people of Pakistan. The foreign minister, too, pandered to our own far-right lobby and encouraged a tribal mentality. To take credit for the cancellation of a cartoon competition reveals a desperate attempt to claim victory over the enemies of the ‘tribe’, but it doesn’t take care of Islamophobia in China, Myanmar, or our own domestic problems.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law has become weaponised to the extent that the state has no control over its abuse. To make Quranic studies compulsory in schools, lawmakers would have to take into account the fact that there is virtually no regulation over false accusations, no tolerance for mistakes, no room for reasoning, and forgiveness is decided on the basis of religious patronage rather than legal right. Consider the normal bullying behaviour and practice of corporal punishments in our schools and colleges; now imagine the toxic addition of blasphemy accusations that children have seen adults misuse.
The highest number of overseas Pakistani prisoners rot in the jails of Saudi Arabia and yet, Afia Siddiqi imprisoned in the USA is deemed a human rights priority for this government. There is no announcement for the repatriation of the thousands of women trafficked to Arab countries or concern about minority women in Pakistan’s jails, such as Aasia Bibi. The PTI reinforces populist faith-based politics as the driver of their human rights concerns and not the provision of urgent justice for our own underclasses as a priority.
Quashing occasional Ghaseet Pura incidents does not take care of the systemic prejudice and insecurity they face. In fact, unresolved injustices return to haunt, as in the PTI’s expulsion of Atif Mian from the economic council purely because of his faith. The tribe that closes its borders and exiles its most accomplished citizens will only be left with mediocre relics. Worse, this tribalism will encourage persecution and purging of minorities because others will imitate and offer such a virtuous sacrificial ritual to please the Chief – after all, he is the one who set this ‘good’ example.
Despite his abusive attitude toward women and minorities over the years, Punjab’s new information and culture minister, Fayaz Chohan, has been rewarded with this position. His empty apology for castigating women artists is not reassuring. As tribal women will testify and the prime minister has confirmed in his views, women’s support is only valuable up to the ballot box, and then it is time for them to return to their primary tasks of motherhood.
The PTI regularly invokes Jinnah’s spirit but deliberately ignores his secular and cosmopolitan politics. This whack-a-mole governance that promises overkill policies on the one hand, and regressive politics on the other, does not inspire confidence. The only antidote to tribalisation is an aggressive democratisation, promotion of diversity, autonomy for the provinces, rejection of vengeance justice, attention to a critical media, and prioritising women’s and minorities’ rights. These are pragmatic policies that do not rely on some mirage of a welfare caliphate with a capricious tribal Chief in charge and Little Chiefs who depend on the blind faith and absurd justifications provided by their cult-like tribe.
The writer is author
of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.