Is Pakistani society more conservative now than it was, say, 30 years ago?
This is a question that has been raised a number of times over the last 10 odd years, by analysts, part-time academics, and, generally speaking, left-of-center segments of our population. I write about this particular question today because a year ago, 88 people lost their lives in a terrorist attack on two Ahmadi mosques, and, while the event was in itself a great travesty, societal reaction that followed brought the above stated question into sharp focus. Media channels and several journalists jostled to prove their puritanical credentials, mainly by ensuring ‘proper’ terminology was used both for the deceased as well as the sites of attack, and were accompanied by a not-too-thin veneer of acceptability emanating from urban society in general.
On a number of other occasions, there has been general consensus of opinion that present-day society is a lot more conservative, and is so because of geo-strategic politics, state policy, and the legal framework - especially those parts introduced by General Zia.
As far as general opining is concerned, a broad-based consensus is all that is required to bolster a point or initiate an argument. There is no need for academic frills and fancies, and little need for rigorous statistical verification, especially in dealing with, what is essentially, an attitudinal quality of society. However, this question, if tackled properly, would not only reflect societal behavior, it would also tell us where this behavior grows from and, ultimately, how it can, if needed, be curbed.
Conservative as a standalone quality reveals very little unless or until you attach it to a particular context and a particular form. Politically conservative and economically conservative could mean different things in different parts of the world. However, in Pakistan, and especially in the context of this particular question, conservative signifies an attitude towards religion - largely concerning its practice, enforcement and perpetuation in society, and its subscription as the primary marker of identity.
Secondly, the question, and the generally accepted answer are primarily temporal statements. They rely on the fact that at some point in the past, Pakistan was at a different level of conservatism, and that, if you go by the consensus, this conservatism has been adequately measured and found to be less than where we stand today. This in particular is quite problematic given the fact that no such objective measure can be created, and any judgment passed on the past or present would, at best, rely on nuanced anecdotal evidence.
Thirdly, our conception of Pakistani society is largely limited to our own observational space. We sport not only an urban bias but also a class bias to a certain extent, since our interaction extends, at most, from the lower-middle classes to the upper class.
Given these assumptions and factors in mind, Pakistani society’s relationship with religion has become the subject of debate, not only because of global terrorism and the western media, but also as a symbol of sovereign defiance. Given current discourse, a closer look at the situation will try to enhance our structural understanding of Islam in Pakistan.
Zia’s laws have been in place for a good 25 years now. The objectives resolution and Bhutto’s Islamic injunctions for even longer. Yet, the question of conservatism only gained currency over the last few years, primarily due to the proliferation of social and electronic media. People have become more aware of what others are thinking and it’s easier to find sources of information and discussion that mirror one’s own opinions or stand in complete opposition. So at one level, we judge Pakistani society to be more conservative because we can observe more of society these days than in the past.
Secondly, the proliferation of religious organizations has been ongoing for many years, yet now it seems they’ve had a greater impact on urban society. More and more people from the middle and upper classes are sympathizing with and participating in movements like the Tableeghi-Jamaat and Al-Huda. This remains a definitive marker for the more-conservative camp. The level of involvement in such revivalist movements has been immense, and by my own accounts, most of it is driven by a need to understand ‘true religion’ and to reject our culturally shaped beliefs and practices.
Thirdly, reaction by segments of the middle classes in the aftermath of both the Ahmadi mosque attacks and Salmaan Taseer’s assassination have revealed that people are unwilling to compromise on what they perceive to be religious truths. Refusal by the media and people in general to use the term ‘mosque’ and ‘shaheed’ in the case of the former, and the valorization of Mumtaz Qadri in the latter are strong examples of public defense of religion.
Fourthly, growing anti-Americanism, both against its cultural paradigm, as well as its perception as a threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty and prosperity, is defined in terms of ‘our Islam’ vs. the USA. Whereas previously, this anti-Americanism was largely confined to the Jamaat-i-Islami support base, it now finds itself amongst a larger section of society.
These and other factors on one side provide strong evidence for growing conservatism in Pakistani society. Out of those listed above, three are related to the public domain, while one is based on actual practice of religion.
On the basis of what is observed, especially the 4 markers given above, the collective left-of-center perception is now almost completely homogenous in terms of its situational appraisal: Pakistani society is becoming increasingly conservative.
Historically tracing the evolution of this conservatism has more often than not led to people looking at Bhutto’s pandering of the religious right, Zia’s Islamization program, and the security establishment’s strategic designs, coupled with their grip on public narrative. Such a view would suggest that prior to Zia, urban Pakistan was tolerant, more secular, and decidedly less conservative.
This, as history tells us, was not the case.
Urban Pakistan was much smaller back then but had borne the brunt of a partition, which, all things considered, was principled on communal difference. It had seen anti-Ahmadi riots as early as the 1950’s, and had witnessed the gradual strengthening of religious parties as electoral forces in both Lahore and Karachi. When you look at this from a historical perspective, we can’t be one hundred percent certain about new-born conservatism, but we can – empirically – argue in favor of two things: increasing urbanization and capitalism, and historically embedded principles of communal difference.
The former is what needs to be studied in greater detail. Pakistan has seen urbanization rise from a paltry 14 percent to 35 percent officially, and according to some, 40-45 percent unofficially. Contribution of manufacturing and urban services to the GDP stand at around 74 percent, and the corresponding labor force statistic is around 63 percent. The middle to upper middle consuming class, much discussed, rarely measured, now stands at around 15-20 million by the most conservative estimates.
There is no need for anecdotal evidence to legitimize this reality; it is, and will remain, the absolute truth.
The connection between urbanization and perceived conservatism can be taken as, given statistical constraints, coeval. One has gone up for sure, the other has appeared to grow as well. The tricky bit is trying to prove causation, or at the very least correlation between the two.
One relatively simple way of looking at this is by observing at the question of identity for urban classes, and how this has been tackled in Pakistan.
For the former, academic work on identity formation links it very closely to the emergence of more widespread capitalism, especially of the print variety, and with issues of resource scarcity. As more claimants to power/resources emerge, collectivization occurs around myths, ideologies, and figures.
For the latter, with the identity exigencies of a state like Pakistan, you can sort of understand why Islam gets thrown around in large doses, especially in urban centers where other identities are not prevalent (Lahore vs. Karachi). Instead of looking at the rise of a public Islamic identity as a product of the 80’s, it’s probably a lot more useful to look at it as a direct consequence of the particular narrative adopted in 1947 by a newly-independent state, which has achieved fruition as urban-capitalistic developments become further entrenched.
At this point it is important to differentiate between terrorism, which is practiced on the margins, and conservatism, which is mainstream, and might or might not give space to condone terrorism. The former is disconnected from the currently agreed rules of the game (functioning state, modernist capitalist economy), while the latter wants to work with religion within these very constraints.
This leads us to the second part of this argument. The 4 markers of increased conservatism mentioned at the start, are coupled with a parallel development: i.e., the adoption of a globally prevalent consumerist culture. Since Pakistan has increasingly submerged itself in the global economy, it has also become submerged, through default rather than design, in the culture associated with the world economy. A proximity to the US, both economically and in the media culture, has helped fashion this particular development, which now sees middle class youngsters juggle public proclamations of Islam vs. the West, with a mouthful of McDonalds. Similarly, the demands and the culture of capitalism have encouraged female education and participation in the work force, dismantled biraderi/extended family networks giving way to individual voice and participation, and mainstreamed non-familial cross-gender relationships. All of these are, in essence, far removed from the increased conservatism that is taken as a given.
It is also this particular contradiction, between the markers on one hand, and increased submergence into the culture of the global economy, that could ultimately prove to be vital as far as the spread of Islamization and conservatism in urban society are concerned. The debate now leaves us with 3 possible conclusions. The first is that these contradictions will continue to function the way they currently operate, leaving Pakistan stuck in a perpetual state of hypocritical public proclamations and consumption of global capitalism. The second is that we’ll see the rise of a more fascistic, and culturally more Islamic rise of capitalism (somewhat like Iran). The third is that as the entrenchment and dissemination of capitalism continues, religion will ultimately give way, both in politics and public voice, to the whole scale adoption of the global economic culture of capitalism and consumption.
While the first seems to be the most likely, the other two or any other result can also not be ruled out completely. What remains to be seen is how these various tensions play themselves out in coming years, and whether a more desirable equilibrium can be achieved.
Published as a two-part column in Pakistan Today. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here