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Pakistan: Clerical fascism rears its ugly head again

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The forces of clerical fascism, embodied by the Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan, TLP, have asserted their growing strength with mass demonstrations across Pakistan. The situation poses a potential danger for the organisations and struggles of the working masses, women and gender minorities, national minorities and all other oppressed layers of society.

At the centre of the mobilisations is the demand that Pakistan expel the French ambassador because the French government took no action against the "satirical" magazine Charlie Hebdo when it published cartoons of the Prophet. Last November, after TLP mobilised mass demonstrations, the prime minister, Imran Khan, promised to involve parliament in resolving the situation within three months.

As the deadline approached, the government had done nothing, Pakistani capital clearly has no interest in severing ties with the imperialist masters it serves, and Khan had even stated that quite candidly. The TLP's main leader, Saad Rizvi, released a video calling for supporters to prepare for a "long march" against the government. On April 12, the authorities retaliated by arresting Rizvi. Within hours, sit-ins began across the country, all major cities saw severe mob violence in which several people, including policemen, were killed. TLP members blocked many important highways and railways, disrupting all travel to and from the main cities.

The government then moved to ban the TLP, a move applauded by broad sections of the liberal intelligentsia. Police and paramilitary troops cracked down on the TLP and more people were reported killed, the TLP claimed 45. The government also disrupted internet coverage in major cities, including Lahore. It was in response to this that the TLP mobilised its mass support, taking 11 policemen hostage after storming a police station in Lahore. The scale of the mobilisation, effectively bring the country to a standstill, underlines the appeal and widespread support of the TLP.

Pressure mounted on the ruling right-wing PTI party as other religious parties supported the call for an anti-government countrywide strike. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan also extended support for the TLP, one of whose leaders not only welcomed the gesture but announced that they would take up arms alongside the Taliban if their demands were not met.

Fissures within the PTI also surfaced as one minister threatened to defect if the ban against the TLP was not lifted. Faced with this, the government decided to go into negotiations and the Prime Minister himself announced on television that his government and the TLP had the "same goal" of fighting blasphemy around the world, only their methods were different. Khan continues to believe that a united stance of the world's Muslim ummah could rationally convince the imperialist centres not to provoke religious sentiments by disrespecting holy figures of Islam. He either fails to understand, or chooses to ignore, the role of such Islamophobic incitements in countries like France when their right-wing governments find themselves under pressure from social movements.

Negotiations between the PTI-led government and the clerical fascists were finally "successful" when the TLP agreed to call off protests in exchange for the government's agreement to present a resolution against the French government in the Pakistan National Assembly. The government also agreed to withdraw some charges against TLP members.

Imran Khan and his government may have thought that their right-populist rhetoric would shore up their popular support, but the most likely consequence of their retreat will be to embolden the forces of clerical fascism. They may have agreed to cease their protests for now, but they will certainly not forget that they brought the entire country to a grinding halt in a matter of hours. The history of fascism shows how it always starts small and is emboldened by such victories.

In this scenario, the role of the so-called Opposition in Pakistan is not progressive either. Both the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz, PML-N, the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and the head of the Pakistan Democracy Movement, an alliance of mainstream opposition parties, Maulana Fazl ur Rehman, have openly supported the move to expel the French envoy. The illusions of the liberal-left evaporate as the supposedly progressive bourgeois opposition continues to pander to the right-wing consciousness of the masses.

The TLP protests have not occurred in a vacuum but in a period of heightened economic crisis that has seen brave resistance by different layers of the working class, women, and national and other minorities. In 2019, the PTI-led government went to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout but, of course, there were strings attached to the deal.

The crisis deepened even further the following year with the global pandemic severely hitting the working and lower-middle classes and the urban and rural poor. The common masses are dying with no access to quality medical treatment or vaccines while entire families of bourgeois lawmakers are getting vaccinated in their air-conditioned drawing rooms. Those who have not died of the pandemic are hit hard by mass layoffs and redundancies. Living standards collapse as extremely high inflation rates combine with a cut on all subsidies thanks to the IMF's "structural adjustments".

Meanwhile, the neoliberal government gave relief packages worth billions to big capital. The government claimed it could not provide even the basic necessities of life for the working masses, but it had enough to provide for the already immensely rich.

As class inequalities become all the more stark, and the working class has no revolutionary party to defend its interests, the forces of reaction can appeal to the sensibilities of the common masses looking for a way out of the madness of the crumbling economy. In 2017, when the Sharif government was struggling with a similar social crisis and the TLP had also mobilised, the PTI emerged as an alternative not just for sections of capital but also as an answer to the frustrations of large sections of middle-class youth and young workers who wanted a way out of the misery of unemployment and poverty.

The popularity of the PTI cannot be understood as just a conspiracy created by powerful sections of the state. It was a combination that attracted support from different layers of society turning way from the PML-N and PPP. The military elite also needed something new to sustain class rule, a job at which the PML-N and PPP were increasingly failing. The PTI promised jobs for the burgeoning population. Combined with Khan's opposition to US drone strikes, the PTI presented itself as a party that was going to build Pakistan independent of US foreign policy.

There is no doubt that the 2018 elections were marred by unprecedented rigging but that is not to deny that the masses saw the PTI as an alternative to the rule of the PML-N/PPP. In the absence of a revolutionary working class party, it is no surprise for the toiling masses to be swayed by one or the other 'new' bourgeois alternative. Because such parties do not represent the interests of the class, it continues to suffer at the hands of each successive government. An alignment of the class with its own interests can only be achieved when the ripening objective conditions are accompanied by an ideologically revolutionary subjective factor.

The current social crisis clearly indicates a shift to the right, which was further fuelled by state violence that was happily celebrated by middle-class liberals. This shift to the right has begun to govern the consciousness of not just sections of the middle classes and lumpenproletariat, but even the most downtrodden layers of the working class.

When it comes to the clerical fascist TLP, it is clear that, given the Barelvi Sunni sect's numerical superiority, it is not difficult for this party to mobilise even those layers of the middle classes and lumpenproletariat that have never been organised before. All it needs to do is peddle the narrative of the danger that Islam supposedly faces. Again, without a revolutionary alternative, the existing conditions of a squalid semi-colonial state such as Pakistan ensure that religion holds sway over the masses.

The fact that fascism can become the ideology even of workers should not come as a surprise, particularly in the specific conditions of Pakistan that combine the continued sway of religion with an ongoing social crisis. As Trotsky pointed out with regard to Mussolini's Italy: "The fascist movement in Italy … issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses".

Marxists are not liberals, which is why we exercise caution in defining fascism. Not every capitalist reaction is fascist, and Marxists have long maintained that. In order to understand fascism, we have to look at its social base, its form, the class interests it serves and its specific characteristics. We have to analyse the rise of fascism as a process and not as a one-off event. You do not suddenly wake up one day to find yourself living under fascism. We have to understand it in its development.

The way the TLP has been able to mobilise masses, indulge in mob violence and weapons training, even go on to attack police forces, is a cause for concern. What is more concerning, however, is the class interests it serves. In the name of Islam, the clerical fascists flatten class differences and call for a unity between different social classes with antagonistic relations. Such a flattening necessarily means choosing the interests of one class over another. As can be seen from multiple struggles, it is never the interests of the working masses that these forces defend. In fact, as Trotsky pointed out, the key purpose of fascism historically has been to annihilate workers' organisations and to "frustrate the independent crystallisation of the proletariat", reducing the proletariat to an amorphous mass.

A key feature of fascism is its deep penetration into the masses to frustrate this independent crystallisation of the proletariat. What could that look like in Pakistan? The clerical fascists have gained a strong foothold in the slums, the "katchi abadis", in different cities and small towns, particularly in Punjab province. If they were to begin controlling the entry of socialists into these districts, that would be an obstacle to the workers crystallising into a class through common action.

Of course, objective conditions would still exploit and oppress the vast majority of these populations, but their misery would be explained to them either as punishment for their own, or society's, sins and lack of religiosity, or as a test of their patience and gratefulness to God, for which they will receive a reward in the Hereafter. The common masses would be reduced to helpless worshippers who have to pray for forgiveness or betterment of conditions, instead of becoming active agents of social change against class rule. Meanwhile, any socialist organisation that attempted to enter these districts would face harassment if not physical beatings and real threats to their lives. This would effectively mean that socialists (or, for that matter, any kind of social activists) could not enter the katchi abadis and other districts controlled by the clerical fascists.

Fascism in government is a form of class rule that is imposed upon society when "normal" forms of government are unable to contain society's contradictions. It is the consequence of the incapacity of the working class to install itself in the driving seat. At present, we do not think that big capital, either local or imperialist, wants a TLP-led government, which is why its chances of gaining such power are slim. However, as long as such forces can rein in workers' and women's mobilisations, break picket lines and attack the real democratic struggles of the Pashtuns and many other minorities, they are acting in the interests of big capital. The TLP is a fascist force that is growing and increasing its power. Its aim is to mobilise the masses to destroy the remaining democratic rights of the people in general and the working class in particular.

The left groups in Pakistan either have no analysis to offer on the current situation (take a look at the Awami Workers' Party, AWP, website for evidence) or they downplay its significance as a conspiratorial "launch" of a reactionary party, as Adam Pal of the International Marxist tendency, IMT, put it. According to him, the TLP has no popular support, and its leadership has failed to mobilise the masses. It seems the comrade has written his analysis with his eyes closed. Others think they can safely, and complacently, look on as the state kills some of these anti-social elements. Imran Kamyana, a leading member of The Struggle, for example, wrote on Facebook: "When fascism is clashing with fascism, it is not necessary that you should intervene with the opium of your non-violence. Sometimes, one can keep mum."
These "leaders" fail to realise that state violence in such cases only adds to the popularity of the clerical fascist forces. More importantly, such state "responses" are often a pretext for state persecution of its real enemies, as we saw with the racial profiling of Pashtuns in the name of fighting the Taliban terrorists. Already there are reports of Sunni men in Punjab being picked up by the state.

The kind of mob violence that the TLP engaged in, challenging the writ of the bourgeois state, clearly shows that it is not just another organisation. It is a party that emerged out of the glorification of Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard who shot dead the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, because he defended a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy. Had workers created the chaos that the TLP created in the past few days, they would certainly have been shot down in a matter of minutes. The dangers posed by the rise of the clerical fascists of the TLP are very real. They are an immediate, physical threat to the interests and organisations of workers and poor farmers as well as women and national and social minorities.

We cannot depend on the bourgeois state to counter these forces, we must rely on our own strength and class independence. Yet, in doing so, we have to recognise the realities on the ground. The picture is not a happy one, to say the least, but burying our heads in the sand of romantic ideas about the working class will help no one.

The first task of all working class and progressive forces who want to stop the rise of clerical fascism, is to ring the political alarm bell. One must not be complacent about the immediate and future danger. The deals struck between the TLP and the government will boost the morale of the right wingers, this will encourage future organised attacks on the streets and attract new forces from the desperate petit-bourgeoisie, the lumpen-proletariat and even backward sections of the working class.

This danger is particularly great because the economic, social and political crisis, which gave rise to these forces, will continue and the living conditions of millions get even worse. The clerical fascists will try to present themselves as a pseudo-radical alternative to the governmental parties and the bourgeois opposition. The mass movements of the nationally oppressed and the rising women's movement will be key targets of the right wingers in the coming period. The same will apply to workers in struggle, once their demands and strikes become branded as "anti-Islamic".

Therefore, the trade unions, the left parties and organisations, the women's movement, the students and youth, the movements against national oppression, must lose no time, they need to start building an anti-fascist united front now.

In this scenario, we call on the organisations of workers, students, women and gender minorities, poor farmers and national and religious minorities to form an anti-fascist alliance on the basis of commonly agreed action. This would be a first step in the direction of the formation of an anti-fascist united front.

An information campaign about the current danger would be a key task of this alliance, in which the real designs of the clerical fascists are explained and exposed before the common masses. More importantly, it needs to be an alliance to defend the working class organisations, to defend communities, women, socially and nationally oppressed by forming organisations for self-defence.

For its success and development, however, understanding such a united front as part of the general class struggle is key in ensuring its effectiveness. To stop the rise of clerical fascism, the working class and its allies also need to address the social crisis, economic misery and political oppression in the country, they need to link the struggle against fascism with the struggle against capitalist crisis and plunder.

Therefore, we think that besides calling on the existing organisations, we have to develop a strategy to overcome our weakness in numbers by actively building mass organisations of workers and a revolutionary party of the working class. The social crisis in Pakistan continually throws the working class and oppressed layers of society into spontaneous action. These spontaneous actions, however, lack the capacity to take power. To effectively defeat capitalism and thereby the rise of fascism, we need workers' power. And to ensure the materialisation of this victory of the only revolutionary class over the bourgeoisie, we need a revolutionary party to lead that strategy and organise our revolutionary plan of action.

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