How Political Terms Like ‘Revolution’ Are Used To Mislead People
Umer Farooq writes on the misuse of political terms such as ‘status quo’ and ‘revolution’ in Pakistan. He argues that in Pakistan, the term ‘revolution’ has been misconstrued to project an image of an event which would bring utopia, which is not true in the historical context.
These days the term ‘status quo’ is unfashionable in Pakistani politics. Those who are dubbed as status quo forces are seen as decadent, corrupt and an obstacle to progress and development. Anti-status quo forces are seen as revolutionary entities who want to bring change in the society and aim to solve the problems of ordinary people.
Therefore, any political party, which succeeds in bringing a couple of thousand people to the gates of Islamabad to protest against the incumbent government describes itself as anti-status quo. They think that they can bring down the government and therefore they are the true anti-status quo forces in the country.
This is what happened in August 2014 when PTI leader, Imran Khan, started his famous Dharna on D-Chowk in Islamabad. He was demanding the resignation of the prime minister. There were attacks on the parliament, and on the state-owned television network. Anti-status quo became a buzzword in the vocabulary of the PTI in those days.
However, little did Imran Khan and PTI workers —who made the term ‘anti-status quo’ a popular refrain— realised that just by demanding fresh elections under the 1973 constitution, they are announcing their loyalty to the existing political, judicial and parliamentary structures in place and therefore are including themselves in the ranks of status quo forces.
Many a times during the 100 days of dharna, Imran Khan used to address empty chairs, and yet he continued to pretend and pose himself as a revolutionary like Vladmir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Imam Khomeini.
A little reading of history would have made him realise that the aforementioned revolutionary leaders had faced a situation which could make many people of ordinary audacity and courage lose their mind. They were not the product of affluent middle-class life, rather they were the product of ruthless oppression by modern state structures that can potentially dehumanise anybody under its surveillance.
Soon, Islamabad will witness Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, another pretentious ‘revolutionary’, block the paths of Islamabad in his opportunistic bid to bring down the incumbent government. We will have to listen to the prattle of his party workers and loyalists who will pose themselves as an anti-status quo force.
How can political parties, which have taken the oath of loyalty to Pakistan’s constitution, pretend to be anti-status quo? Are these political parties really anti-status quo? What is status quo and are there any real anti-status quo forces in the Pakistani context?
In Pakistan’s political context, status quo will be defined as constitutive of the existing political, judicial, parliamentary and security structures which came into existence, or which were provided legitimacy by the provisions of the 1973 constitution.
Any political force, which takes the oath of loyalty to these institutions or which agrees to function within the framework provided by the 1973 constitution are status quo forces in the context of Pakistan’s political system. All the mainstream political parties, including the one which plans to launch violent protest against the incumbent government, are status quo forces under this definition.
Are there any anti-status quo forces in Pakistan? Yes, there are two types of forces which could be described as anti-status quo in the Pakistani context. Firstly, these forces don’t recognise the 1973 constitution and secondly, they are part of two different insurgencies that aimed to overthrow the system that came into existence under the 1973 constitution; the Pakistani Taliban and the Baloch separatists.
Just by engaging in radical rhetoric and violent protest a political party doesn’t become anti-status quo. Just by vehemently criticising corruption or any other unpalatable aspect of the political system, a political party doesn’t become an anti-status quo party.
Moreover, could the violent terrorist and militant groups be counted as anti-status quo forces in Pakistani context? I would partially disagree with this. Of course. the terrorist groups, which are carrying out attacks against the Pakistani state machinery and society could be described as anti-status quo.
However, there are a large number of these militant groups, which have a dubious relations with various organisations within the state machinery and these organisations are not carrying out attacks against Pakistani forces or society. A glaring example of this is Lashkar-e-Taiba—it had been used by the Pakistani state machinery as a foreign policy tool, but even after the state turned against militant groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba didn’t attack Pakistani security forces inside Pakistan. Therefore, LeT could not be described as anti-status quo.
Status quo is necessarily not a bad thing—whatever level of social, political and economic stability we enjoy in this society is a fruit of the 1973 constitution, which is the basis of this status quo.
Opportunism prevailing in the political culture of the country is the biggest reason behind the misuse of this term by leading politicians of the country. In the initial years of Pakistani political history, the intellectuals and politicians both misused the term of revolution to befool the populace. Ironically, the term ‘revolution’ is popular among the most conservative parts of the country.
Of all the terms of political science borrowed from the West and in common usage in Pakistani society and media, ‘revolution’ is the most misused and misrepresented. There is an almost romantic aura attached to its usage among the media and the firebrand political and religious leaders. It is commonly believed – or to be more precise, Pakistanis are made to believe – that a revolution is a means through which the society can revert to some ‘Golden Age’ or one that it is a harbinger of a utopian age.
The Pakistani left has made an impressive contribution in romanticising the concept of revolution as a political change of cataclysmic proportion which can bring peace, prosperity, equality and justice to society. In the early decades of the creation of Pakistan, tracts were written, poetry was composed, and immensely impressive fiction were produced to bring home the point that Pakistani society was heading towards a change that will ultimately put an end to all the injustices and inequalities prevalent therein.
In this effort, post-revolution Russian society was presented as an archetypical reality, where the implementation of Marxist philosophy had done away with the injustices of capitalism, according to the narrative constructed by the Left.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 galvanised the Islamists in Pakistani society. The term ‘revolution’ became even more popular as Pakistanis watched on their television screens the fleeing of the “murderous” Shah of Iran and the triumphant return of religious leaders, all because of a revolution that was taking place there.
For many years, ‘All we need is a Khomeini’ became a refrain in drawing room discussions about the growing political malice in Pakistani society. Although the Iranian Revolution was led by a Shia clergy, the predominantly Sunni religious leadership in Pakistan – impressed by the Iranian model of making Sharia a public policy in Iran – began prattling about an ‘Islamic Revolution’, which would usher in a utopian age in Pakistan.
It never occurred to the Islamists in Pakistan that revolution is particularly a Western political concept, based in a history directly related to political developments in 19th century and 20th century Europe. This is not to say that adopting a Western concept is a bad thing in itself. Quite to the contrary, there is widespread support in Pakistan for political institutions borrowed directly from the West, especially parliamentary democracy. All one can say is that the Islamists in Pakistan were coming under the influence of Western concepts much before the Iranian Revolution.
Take, for instance, the example of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) founder Maulana Maududi. Him and his party workers did much to popularise the idea of an Islamic Revolution in Pakistan, even before the revolution in Iran took place. In popular speeches and through the right-wing media, the JI and its supporters started to talk about a political change that would make Pakistan a ‘truly Islamic state’, bringing about an era of utopian justice and prosperity. Many Western commentators have described Maududi as the ‘Father of Islamic Utopia’ in Pakistan.
Maududi’s biographer, Vali Nasr, however, argues that Maududi was strictly opposed to the Western concept of revolution in his serious ideological writings. The Western concept of revolution, as Maududi understood, was that mobilised masses or revolutionary forces in the society to dismantle the existing political and military institutions in the society through violent means and to construct new institutions in their place.
For this kind of change, underground activity and violence is a precondition, if the Russian Revolution or the Iranian Revolution are taken as archetypical models. Nasr in his book ‘Maududi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism’, quotes Maududi as saying that he was opposed to the use of violence and underground activity to bring a political change in society. And yet, when the JI and Maududi got into conflict with the Pakistani left to attract the professional middle classes and students to their cause, they made the term ‘revolution’ the catchphrase of their campaigns. This was seen as a tactical move to adjust to the new situation as the 1950s and 1960s saw the growing popularity of the left among the youth in university campuses, who were increasingly attracted to the idea of change.
The sum total of all these activities in the formative period of Pakistan was that the term ‘revolution’ came to occupy a highly romanticised notion in the minds of Pakistanis, a term that disregards the destruction and dislocation that comes in the wake of violent political change.
The romantic tracts and literature produced in Pakistan about the Russian and Iranian revolutions do not mention the fact that, in both these cases, the state structure which replaced Czarist Russia and the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran was even more repressive than the ones that were dismantled.
Revolutions, as a historical reality, never initiated utopia nor did they lead society to a golden age. They led to the creation of more repressive states and instead of creating classless societies, as the Marxists argued, created more parasitical groups and classes.
It is high time that Pakistan’s political groups stop befooling Pakistanis masses by the use of these misconstrued terms. It is with surety one can argue that if we put Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and Imran Khan in an October 1917 revolutionary Russia or 1979 revolutionary Iran, everything in their bodies would freeze with fear. So, it is better to stop befooling the people and start using the existing political institutions to improve the condition of life in Pakistani society.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.