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Pakistan’s new-age analysis

Can the new-age internet progressives sacrifice their political egos and engage in real life activism?

Pakistan’s new-age analysis

I have always maintained that the Lawyers’ Movement (2007-2009) has been the most decisive influence on Pakistan’s political landscape in recent times. It galvanised a pro-democracy resistance from multi-generation activists and it signified the coming of a new age of political activism. Despite its success, the period following this movement saw the turn of a confrontational people’s movement into a more accommodating ‘civil society’.

From resistance to accommodation

The politics of successive dictatorships in Pakistan have been well-documented but there has been little analysis of the changing forms of resistance to them. Opposition to General Zia was near impossible because of a hegemonic censorship and the silencing of those disappeared, jailed, exiled or executed. A mute but compelling form of subversion thrived through art, poetry and underground social science research. Street politics peaked with the convergence of feminists, leftists and democrats who shared a common purpose to change the structural base for a people’s state. NGOs became the natural address for alternative politics and pushed for radical rather than accommodative change.

Musharraf’s successful strategy was not about censoring but of co-option of all sides. By the time Emergency was imposed in 2007 and the Lawyers’ Movement swung in, social media and communications had encouraged a new generation of Pakistani (foreign-graduate) activists to experience the street. Their art, blogs and smart phones mobilised a country-wide curiosity, conversation and politicisation, no doubt.

But equally, confusion was borne from their freshly raised consciences over cappuccinos in newly-sprung coffee-shop sessions. Their disparagement for neo-liberal NGOs — the latest political meme on US university campuses — meant they had no address to return to after the PPP struck a deal with Musharraf and effectively took the steam out of the movement.

The fact that it was Zardari in 2008 rather than a Benazir of 1988 that emerged from the other side of the struggle literally left those who dreamed of some revolutionary change suspended in political limbo. The older generation settled quite comfortably in the old school defense of the PPP as saviour of liberal democracy. Shamefully, they refuse to accept their role — not just Zardari’s — in the subsequent political flat-lining of the party. Some younger loyalists even wrote desperate eulogies of praise in 2013 for the astuteness of a Zardari who ‘managed’ to see his term through.

Political analysis is now measured through thumbs-up ‘likes’ and mutual admiration ‘shares’ rather than subjected to peer reviews.

Disappointed by the ‘moral bankruptcy’ of old democracy, the Naya PTI Insafian was born out of a political menagerie of Facebook politics, blog-born commentary and upwardly mobile professional chattering. For all the scathing criticism reserved for the debacle that is PTI politics today, there is something to be said about the fact that members who have disagreed with the party leadership have made the principled decision to leave, rather than hang on under the disguise of self-righteous commitment to some higher cause.

New-age analysis

Today, against the cacophony of an older generation of several TV anchor-journalists who lie, cheat and incite political drama, we have a younger generation of politesse English language journalists and newspaper contributors. These ubiquitous ‘graduates’ and ‘researchers’ offer weekly self-plagiarised sections from their own PhD theses or insights from quasi-ethnographic funded development work (their anti-neoliberal stance aside). The first set of “senior journalists” thrives on conspiracy theories while the new commentary relies on a stream of consciousness voyeurism. For different reasons, both sets are disinterested in debate or difference of opinion.

The line between observational narrative and investigative journalism has thinned so much that any anthropological visit to FATA and Balochistan can serve as info-tainment with an empathetic political message lurking somewhere deep within it. The military and state is mocked with careful insinuation rather than political courage. As “orthodox Marxists” tell me with no irony at all, that to be confrontational is not a political asset these days. This shift has been enabled by a change of guard at the gate-keeping position of editors, too. Additionally, with the burst of internet politics, there is of course, the ultimate new option that is selfie-journalism. This is where you are the all-in-one (or two) founder, editor, writer, and commentator at the tail of the text.

Marxist politics has been replaced by magic realism analysis. Social scientific work on class identity has been sidelined in favour of easily digestible ethnographic accounts of religiously empowered Muslim women in Punjab, or the tribal child victim of imperialism in FATA. Since these are now, so last season, the attention deficit impatience means we must look to resolve Kashmir and Balochistan through the lens of political selfies. New-age analysts may empathise with the mundane issues of maternal mortality, malnutrition and education but these are neoliberal hangovers and do not make for sexy readings. The same liberal, English language writers are loath, meanwhile, to comment on the dismal state of Sindh. The recent tributes to the last chief minister are testament to the crime of self-censorship.

Political analysis is now measured through thumbs-up ‘likes’ and mutual admiration ‘shares’ rather than subjected to peer reviews. In fact, peers who may have critical thoughts or who are unimpressed dare not disagree or point out clear flaws or contradictions in what is presented as analysis or informed opinion. The fear of being unfriended means that at best, one can anonymously click the thumbs-down option rather than ask the question that; under all the feel-good beauty of a prose well-turned or high resolution film, where/what is the political message that differs from previous/existing analyses?

Even more interesting is how ‘research’ in Pakistan has become an ambiguous term. Increasingly, studies are not just non-empirical but do not even have to adhere to any recognised or disciplinary methodology. Any method that is randomly agreed on by Islamabad-based donors and the ‘researcher’ for hire will do.

Similarly, the new-age journalist did not earn a degree from a foreign university to start careers at low-level beats for media houses. So, like the roaming researchers, they too free-lance their way to where no rules apply and no critical review determines what qualifies as a report. While there is no single methodology that guarantees great or even politically-savvy results, it does hold them up for scrutiny and separates social scientific study from journalism, or the experiential from sourced information.

The implications

What are the implications of this new trend of immediately gratifying political activist-analysis which is rewarded by likes? For such a form of analysis, there is no standard to be measured against and the public intellectual may be borne with no specialist knowledge, training, discipline but most critically, no accountability to any political ideology or collective. They write for readership not political change. The best litmus test of this is whether a writer has ever been censored for causing discomfort or offense, rather than for wrongful sourcing or lack of evidence.

Even Pakistani conscientious objectors who live abroad, leverage their background to offer analysis on their birth-land. They do so for our local newspapers as well as offer the native perspective to the papers of their host countries because they cannot be authorities on issues of their adopted homelands. This has become acceptable practice and unverified, anecdotal, select data-driven analysis is simply dependent on how well you can master the English language which further submerges the politics into a sea of words.

The accommodating nature of political analysis has meant that the demand for repealing any discriminatory laws has successively settled into a compromised agreement for reform. This adjustment is not because the dangers of resistance have increased — just ask those who have lived in fear for decades and continue to, just for existing. It is simply that the targets are not protected by class position anymore. This has created greater fear which mistakenly considers even the mildest of opinions to be an act of great courage. This fear — that pushing the limits of acceptable political opinion may lose us a project or cost us ‘likes’ or even our lives — is unfortunate. Worse, it insults the legacy of those who have died because of their direct activism and consciously challenging opinions.

According to the modes of new-age politics, confronting the state, military and clerical patriarchy does not define political activism. Neither is there any discretion for the individual-victims being ‘rescued’. The style of new-age activism is one that is less challenging but competitively performative. These activists promote their causes loud and shrill and leave their distinct individual signature under their promotional material.

Twitter, Facebook, blogs and international media are platforms they use to advertise their cause and themselves with a bold lack of humility. Somehow, the pursuit of their cases and causes, of media freedoms, capital punishment and state atrocities does not qualify them as ‘native informants.’

Direct or collective activism or challenge is no longer the modus operandi. Instead, Oscar film producers gently encourage the government to amend the Qisas and Diyat laws; civil society is willing to assist law-makers pass progressive legislation; consultants help enroll children into schools; lawyers urge environmental caution; activists get NoCs to protest against the state.

Very few opine openly against the blasphemy laws, or expose religious politics, or hold press conferences demanding the terms and specifics of CPEC, or point openly to the structural crimes committed by capitalists, land-grabbers and mafias. Fewer still work as collectives. Such old school political work remains the lot of the investigative journalist, low-paid lawyer and native activist who will not know how to turn a metaphor nor refer to Foucault nor run a populist twitter or FB account.

The conservatives realise this well and their energy and collectivism have enabled them to lead by way of virtual and real life activism. Can new-age progressives sacrifice their political egos to do the same?

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is the author of 'Faith and Feminism in Pakistan; Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy.

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