In its first hundred days, the PTI government has demonstrated a single consistency — at every crisis or blunder, Prime Minister Imran Khan resorts to his grand vague vision of converting Pakistan into a Riaysat-e-Medina. He uses it as a crutch, rather than explaining the administrative or legal specifics of this blessed imagined state. Clearly, Pakistan is at the mercy of yet another experimentation in the relationship between state and religion.
As compensation and reward for their violent reaction over the acquittal of Aasia bibi, the prime minister has decided to outsource the architecture of this Medina project to ‘the ulema’. The irony is not just that, in seventy-one years, the disparate clergy in Pakistan has contributed nothing of academic, economic or political value or, that they are deeply divided on the very centrality of Medina itself. The paradox is that by authorising the unelected clergy to redefine the state today, Khan is undermining his own promise to rebuild Jinnah’s Pakistan. He has the right to change his mind but it’s a grave folly to think that this is just temporary appeasement or, inconsequential eye-wash.
In the 1990s, Imran Khan had diagnosed his spiritual lapse to be the result of his westernised and secular lifestyle. Discarding his hedonism, he sought redemption through piety, religiousity and charitable work. This self-fashioning is a popular trend in recent piety movements around the Muslim world. Personal metamorphosis is well and good but how does one baptize a nation-state and make it virtuous?
Recent theories argue that ‘Western’ liberalism is the enemy of Islam. Unfortunately, Imran Khan confuses economic liberalism which he is actively pursuing, with a liberal lifestyle of pleasure-seeking decadence, which he claims to have spurned. In a globalised world, the repeal of liberal ideals without restructuring the economic base only results in social conservativism and majoritarianism. A clear example is the current crisis of illiberalism that is surging across America, Europe and India. This also challenges the myth that liberalism is inherently Western.
After the Arab Uprisings of 2011, the replacement of liberal freedoms with the freedom to be religious resulted in a tide of social conservatism. Hyper-nationalism, tribalism, racism, bigotry and misogyny are consistent global challenges but under illiberal regimes, they are justified and celebrated as virtues, even necessary historical revenge.
The expulsion of Atif Mian for being an Ahmadi, the reversed promise of citizenship to Afghan and Bengali refugees, the street ‘agreement’ with the TLP after the Aasia bibi verdict, and the continued embargo on INGOs to work in Pakistan, indicate this government’s neo-conservatism and opposition to liberal ideals and its ‘khooni’ supporters.
In Pakistan, liberal ideals do not call for exceptional, kind or charitable treatment of religious minorities or women but demand their equality under an inclusive Constitution. Instead, they have become casualties in the conflicts based on perceived dualities of Islam/West, tradition/modernity, liberal/religious. Political groups of all persuasions have used these tensions for their benefit. Take the example of women; General Musharraf first trafficked Afia Siddiqui to America; the Islamists exploited her cause for their own political ends; the PTI used her as an iconoclastic symbol for elections, just like the Jamaat-e-Islami.
To negotiate for the repatriation of the convicted Afia Siddiqui after Aasia bibi’s acquittal, as some perverse barter, compensation, or Jirga justice that exchanges women for restoring peace, is tribal. It reinforces the divisions between liberal rights versus Islamic victimhood, rather than stressing on the importance of uncompromised justice. The acquittal of Aasia bibi was an opportunity for the prime minister to claim the verdict as an example of justice in an Islamic state, if, that is, the prime minister even knew what his Medina state was to be.
The NGO phenomenon in Pakistan is part of the broader neoliberal economic order but it has also produced and empowered activist-subjects. It has provided increased jobs especially for women, encouraged political participation, expanded consciousness, and has fostered new and creative agendas for human rights and women’s reproductive health.
Human rights are not gaming chips to cash in for religio-nationalist populism, or to score points on geopolitical issues. PTI has to decide whether to preserve and deliver these rights, or dismiss, discredit and purge human rights advocacy and surrender all space to illiberal alternatives.
In old Medina, there was a religious consensus because identity depended on religious affinity but in Pakistan or any modern nation-state, by definition, difference, freedoms, skepticism, and democracy are core ideals that go against the hegemony of a ruling tribe or clerical authority.
Pakistan doesn’t need to be replaced by a pre-modern or theocratic state, it just needs democratic strengthening and equal rights. The ulema were not part of the original freedom project called Pakistan and certainly have not earned the right to decide on the nature of those freedoms for its citizens today.