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Pakistan: How to deal with the foot soldiers of campus censorship and violence?

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Recently, a number of mainstream Pakistani leftist leaders have publicly shown an openness towards two mainstream right-wing Islamist forces. The idea has been introduced that there is a “need for dialogue” with those that currently present themselves as opposition parties. In the midst of an anti-government Azadi March led by blasphemy-touting Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leftist leaders’ participation in the ‘grand debate’ of Islami Jamiat Tulaba, IJT, Jamiat as it is commonly known, has sparked a debate amongst leftist students and youth about how we should relate to Islamists on and off campus. This article is a comradely contribution to that debate.

In 2016, the National Students Federation (NSF) Karachi organised a protest against a 70 percent increase in the semester fee at Karachi University. When protesters arrived at the administration block, Jamiat members warned them to stop their protest, even though Jamiat had taken up the same issue itself just two days before. The “commonality” of the issue held little significance for a proto-fascist force that was more interested in ensuring that campus remained the exclusive domain of fundamentalist forces. To do that, they had to deny this space to progressive forces at all costs.

Jamiat is the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a right-wing, Islamist party in Pakistan. Student unions have been banned in the country since the dark days of the Zia regime. Despite this ban, Jamiat has continued to flourish on all campuses across Pakistan.

The ban is justified on the pretext that student political activity came to be associated with campus violence. Yet, the forces that introduced a culture of violence against left-leaning student organisations on campuses in the 1970s and 1980s enjoy state patronage to continue their operations. They sustain an environment of violence and censorship on campuses including, for example, the lynching of Mashal Khan.

In reality, the ban on student politics was not to prevent campus violence but to thwart the development of any meaningful, revolutionary youth uprising against the crumbling capitalist system. The fact that, despite the ban, Jamiat has continued to flourish and enjoys state patronage reveals whose interests it safeguards. It is one of the first lines of defence of an authoritarian state that is launching racial profiling offensives against ethnic minorities as well as acts of systemic discrimination against women and people belonging to minority religions and sects.

It is right-wing forces like the Jamiat and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam - Fazl, JUI-F, that are currently presenting themselves as a “viable” opposition to the government of Imran Khan. And there is this idea on the Left that “we have to relate to that”. That is the context in which to consider the recent participation in the Jamiat’s Grand Debate. While comrades Ammar Ali Jan and Ammar Rashid no doubt had the best intentions, sharing a platform with clerical fascists is wrong at any time, but particularly now and in the given conditions. It ended up lending credibility and an image of ‘tolerance’ to those who have long been the foot soldiers of censorship and violence on campuses. 

Instead of having a dialogue with those farthest away and openly hostile to us, we have to focus on gathering the sections of the working class, and those women and gender, ethnic and religious minorities connected to it, who are currently looking for a progressive solution to the crisis in Pakistan. Sharing a platform with forces opposed to any such solution, will only confuse, if not alienate, those whom the Left should be trying to organise. This has been illustrated by members of religious minorities declaring their estrangement about current events.

A glance at the track record of the Jamiat and Jamaat-e-Islami’s tradition will be helpful in reminding us of what kind of party we are talking about. In an interview with The Diplomat, the head of the Jamiat at Karachi University said last year that “the main objective of the IJT is to have an Islamic welfare state like that of Medina and shape the students’ lives according to the teachings of Islam”. Some of the ways that Jamiat ensures the enforcement of this stated aim is by beating up female students for playing cricket despite being warned, beating up members of ethnic minorities for holding cultural events and suppression of all expressions of love.

The mother party of Jamiat maintains a tradition similar to that of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam in opposing laws granting democratic rights to the country’s citizens. To the utter surprise of literally no one, it was the leaders and members of JI and JUI-F who welcomed the release of students involved in Mashal Khan’s murder after their acquittal. One of those acquitted openly issued a threat, vowing to strictly punish those who allegedly commit blasphemy in the future.

Comrade Ammar Ali Jan wrote on Facebook after the ‘grand debate’ with Jamiat on November 12: “I hope today's discussion allowed for illuminating the points of commonality and difference between political Islam and socialist politics.” To be frank, this idea of finding commonality between a clerical fascist party and socialist politics, and then carefully weighing up the differences, is the first step towards disaster. During the debate, Shahnawaz Farouqi, one of the two Jamiat speakers, launched an attack against sexual minorities in the name of morality. He attacked Christianity and Hinduism for finally accepting forms of love which are not in accordance with his patriarchal ideology. At the same time, he tried to portray Islam as a monolithic, eternal and inflexible moral code. While it was almost ironic how he presented Islam in the same fashion as the Islamophobes in the West, except that he thought it was positive, the leftist comrades were on the defence because of the character of the debate and their opponents.

When such clerical fascist forces are actively working for the elimination of (not just) gender and sexual minorities, not challenging them contributes to their work. The fact that such hateful sentiments towards the oppressed cannot be publicly opposed should be taken into account before sharing a platform with the proponents of such views. To then present this particular debate as a dialogue in which “commonalities” could be found is not just a tactical mistake, it is also strategically very dangerous. While the Jamiat can make every chauvinist attack and sexist comment without any risk, Leftists would be faced with the choice of seriously endangering themselves or staying silent in such a “dialogue”. Under such conditions, there is nothing to gain from sharing such a platform and it is wrong to promote the idea that there is a “dialogue” happening at all.

What are these supposed “commonalities” after all? What possible basis of agreement could socialists find with a fascist force? Is it Jamiat’s critique of “modernity” and “globalisation” or its promise of a “welfare state”? In that case, we could find commonalities with nearly every bourgeois party. All of them have their particular criticism of the current age. While they all make promises, socialists have always understood one of their key tasks to be unmasking these promises as false and hypocritical, as well as unworkable because none of them want to, or can, overcome the capitalist system that is the base of their politics.

This is particularly true for forces like the Jamiat. Every fascist organisation has a “social” programme that has a “people-centric” or even “anti-capitalist” appearance. As Marx and Engels already showed in the Communist Manifesto, the political and social programmes of these reactionary forces do not look forward to overcoming either capitalist exploitation or the alienation and social oppression it creates. Rather, they look back to the “good old days”.

Of course, those forces cannot turn the clock back, any more than they can reverse capitalist development. What they do instead is attempt to strengthen all those oppressive institutions and beliefs that capitalist “modernity” has inherited from earlier societies. The consequences of such a “romanticism of the past” and promises of “bringing those times back” can well be seen if we look at different authoritarian regimes, from the Catholic and far right party PIS in Poland, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan’s Turkey or India under the BJP.

Apart from that, we have to look deeper and understand that, while these forces claim to represent “the people”, what the Jamiat understands as the subject of action is a specific section of middle-class, Sunni men who they attempt to win for their fundamentalist politics. Their aim is to organise that subject into a political force that can crush every attempt to crystallise the working class into a political force in its own right with its own programme. In contrast to the monolithic subject that the Jamiat tries to create, the working class encompasses the home-based female worker, the Christian factory worker, the transgender retail worker and so on. The Jamiat, or any other right-wing force for that matter, does not have a programme for these layers of the working class. When leftists suggest that there is the possibility of “common grounds” with forces like the Jamiat, they actually deny the need for working class political independence and legitimise the false claims of some of its worst enemies.

The most crucial task for the Left is, in fact, not only to show how these forces oppress minorities, but to explain the real content of their entire social programme. At most, that programme grants privileges to certain sections of the lower classes, often through patronage systems, whose purpose is to prevent the workers’ movement consolidating itself into an independent political force. Looking for commonalities with such forces in the midst of a right-wing attempt to capture the political momentum is not a smart move that can win over “the people”. It only serves to confuse our own forces, the youth and the workers’ movement, and thus creates an obstacle to our own advance. 

We have to break with concepts, often inspired by a misreading of Gramsci, which forget about class and programme and simply aspire to the creation of ‘blocs’ to counter the prevailing hegemony. The undemocratic bourgeoisie is not going to fall by the Left engaging the ‘critical’ and ‘dissenting’ Maulvis, and, if it should fall at their hands, the outcome can be seen in Iran. Those who think this example is outdated can look at examples where leftists attempted to form such unprincipled blocs in opposition to governments, be it over Brexit in the UK, the Maidan coup in Ukraine in 2014 or more recent developments in Bolivia today.

Instead, we have to talk about class, and the politics and programmes of the different political parties. The simplest meaning of “programme” is what a force will actually do once in power, and what consequences that will have for the advance or retreat of the working-class movements and revolutionary politics. With regards to a potential conquest of power by forces like the JUI-F or the Jamaat-e-Islami, simply to ask the question is to answer it. What kind of treatment can we expect for the Left, various minorities and in fact the working masses of Pakistan should these ‘critical’ Maulvis come to power? Even if we set aside for a moment the Jamiat’s historical tradition towards minorities, women, the trade unions and the Left, Shahnawaz Farouqi and Mugheera Luqman have answered the question very clearly during the so-called grand debate.
Some proponents of the dialogue with Jamiat have argued that it is important to engage with such forces because they are in the mainstream. One could as well say that, since Islamophobia is mainstream in Germany, we should have a dialogue with the Nazis! How would this advice for “dialogue” be interpreted in our neighbouring India? Imagine Comrade Shehla Rashid engaging in debates with the Sangh Parivar. The only thing it would achieve would be to relativise the crimes of Hindutva forces against all those that they directly attack, and thus alienate them from the Left.

Nothing speaks against engaging on a personal level with rank and file members of racist organisations with the aim of convincing and winning them to our politics, although whether that should be our current priority is another question. But that cannot be conflated with sharing an exclusive platform with the leaders of such clerical fascist parties, platforms on which we never will be equal contenders, and even less in a political environment in which we are weaker than them. Calling forces like the Jamaatis “mainstream” forgets, above all, that despite all their claims, they luckily do not currently represent the majority population’s views, even though their militant politics have long been successful in suppressing a meaningful socialist alternative. 

The ruling classes and their state are prepared to back clerical fascist forces like the Jamiat for exactly that reason, even in times of ‘normal’, more, or rather less, democratic bourgeois rule. To assume that we will win space and popularity in the public domain by sharing space with such forces is suicidal for the Left. The only thing such tactical disasters will achieve is that the fascists win more territory by proving their ‘tolerant’ credentials by inviting leftists to their events. The need of the hour is not to have “dialogue” with the fascists. It is to develop our own clear strategy, that is, a socialist programme, which we have to deeply embed in our own ranks and sink deep into working-class consciousness. 

Currently, a significant radicalisation of the youth is underway, and some sections of it are moving leftwards. Workers in different sectors have been engaged in strike action and different social movements have made their appearance. Fascists like the Jamiat will fight tooth and nail to prevent the crystallisation of such movements into a truly progressive mass movement. If any statement should have been made at the “dialogue”, it should have been exactly this.

While the proposed “dialogue” with forces like the Jamiat is a mistake, the Left itself needs to create a healthy culture of dialogue, critique and united action. Therefore, while disagreeing with the comrades’ participation in the ‘grand debate’ and making that clear, we should mobilise together with them for the Student Solidarity March on November 29 and make this day a success for the rising Left youth movement. At the same time, the prime task is not only to do everything in our power to mobilise for the Student Solidarity March, but to offer it politics that will encourage those students from the middle class, who see no future in this system, to engage themselves in understanding socialism, not just as a slogan but a theory and a practice that can only win if we manage to reorganise the trade unions, build up workers’ organisations that address the specific problems of women and oppressed minorities and, finally, the building of a revolutionary workers’ party that firmly opposes all that oppresses us and holds us down.

The Jamiat might not be the ones who created the capitalist system in Pakistan, but they are one of the worst nightmares it can offer and we should not be playing into their hands by sharing platforms with them.