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Hollow Piety And Brute Force: Pakistan’s Sacred Games

It’s been a K.K. Aziz-ian year for education in Pakistan. The policy of theocratizing education through the Single National Curriculum; the purging of ‘unIslamic’ material by the Punjab Textbook Board; the institutionalizing of Sufi sciences; and the constitutional amendment designed to dismantle an independent Higher Education Commission (HEC), have all been rationalized on the pretext of producing pious Muslim subjects and defending Pakistan’s precarious ideology. 

The inexplicable cancellation of the LUMS conference on the events of the 1971 breakup of Pakistan, and Atif Mian’s disinvite from the IBA, were state reminders to private sectors that they are mere amateurs at the 21st century cancel-culture game. While such policies would put General Zia’s era of de-secularising education to shame, it was General Musharraf who evaded overt censorship with the use of the political prophylactic that he labelled, ‘enlightened moderation’. 

Under the liberal mask of madrassa reforms, moderate Islam, and the corporatization of piety and evangelism, the core contradictions remained unresolved and the politics of piety replaced the politics of dissent.

The futile madrassa reform projects peddled by Musharraf’s regime resulted only in the uprising of the Lal Masjid and inspired the activism of the women of the Jamia Hafsa and Al Huda. The logical result of this is that today, these devout women rally behind the pious PM’s disapproval of culturally alien demands for women’s autonomies. They perform the politics of their piety by staging Haya Marches to oppose the Aurat Marches or western freedoms. 

Scholars who launched their academic careers in the time of Musharraf’s duplicitous projects had defended piety politics as benign self-empowering searches for Islamic virtue. They refuse now to revisit their analytic fantasies and correct the intellectual record. Meanwhile, radicals – who were righteously indignant about the liberals’ compromised methods of negotiating with the state – have responded to the pietist backlash with retreat, dilution of demands, and appealed for protection from the same oppressor state. 

The recent inauguration of the Sufism, Science and Technology Research Centre may have the spiritual backing of the current first lady, Bushra Imran, but was a brainchild of Gen Musharraf’s government, enthusiastically supported by Anglo-American donors who cheered the idea of a mystical buffer to ‘radical Islam’. Instead, science became a mockery while every day piety became radicalized and sowed the seeds for mobilizing even docile Barelvis into the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).  

Empowered by Musharraf’s privatization of media, televangelism became a lucrative profession as did piety game-shows. Today, countless YouTube tableeghi channels are run by self-taught religious entrepreneurs of all classes. Young muscled men in tight Harley Davidson t-shirts hybridize pop-Islam with wiki sourced sociology, and in American jargon, preach patriarchal gendered norms and reinforce anti-minority biases and tropes. These are supported by TV plays that promote defeatist gendered submission and inspire young men to reenact Al Quds marches in didactic costumes and pageantry.

Piety politics thrives in the crevices formed in the Musharrafian years of terrorism, enabled by the sponsorship and scholarly rationalizing of faith-based projects across all institutions. These stabilize and strengthen patriarchal norms, corporatize religious brands, and celebritize proselytization. They have been shielded by a generation that deflected scrutiny with slogans of ‘imperialism’ and ‘epistemological violence’, often from the safe havens of Empire while suffering western education and aspiring for employment and publications in the imperialist west. They maligned any analysis that argued that piety politics is the ‘B’ team of religious orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, assisted by the power of street piety movements, the constitutional piety clauses of 62 and 63 dislodged an elected PM. All public discussions are now premised with the essentialist logic, ‘if one is Muslim, then…’ and prescribes things halal and haram. These are underwritten by misogynist script writers who glorify women’s suffering, and trolls who are devoted to hating the ‘impious’ Malala, Meesha, and Marches. 

Just as piety movements are offended by liberal and secular freedoms and any criticism of religious politics, the establishment too, is highly sensitive to critique and has no tolerance for freedoms of expression, consensus-building or debate. By definition, militaries are not democratic institutions but after posing as political actors for so long, our establishment now believes it is the government. Members of the establishment are offended when constituents ridicule them as they would any average politician. 

The irony of passing legislation, pursuing defamation, and seeking redemption in courts to defend their good name, while maligning parliament and the judiciary as venal, corrupt and seditious civilian outposts, obviously inspires memes. Appealing for democratic respect while threatening, intimidating, punishing and censoring the different estates begs scornful satire.

A younger generation of Pakistanis, by no historic fault of their own, face the worst legacies of two dictatorships hybridized into a political climate that rests on the performance of hollow piety and the brute and intolerant force of military supremacy. They can’t meme their way to freedoms or rely on ‘soft’ alternatives – a real resistance movement is needed to contest against the sacred games played by our hallowed institutions.

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Naya Daur