My father, the fundamentalist
I am writing this from Toba Tek Singh, my home town, situated in the central Punjab 300 kilometres from Lahore. It is a peasant-dominated area. There is no big feudal landowner and the main income of the area comes from crops like cotton, wheat, sugar cane and maize. In the 1970s, it was a hub of the peasant movement led by the Stalinist Left. On 23 March 1970 over 500,000 attended a peasant conference in the town.
Now the town is in the grip of religious fundamentalists. In the town centre we see the paintings of the ‘martyrs’ (those young people who have been killed during the ‘holy’ war in Kashmir in the last few years). Religious madrasas (schools) can be found at every street corner.
The fundamentalists have not yet taken over the town by vote – the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League, the two main bourgeois parties, still have the majority. But on the street power is in the hands of the religious fundamentalists. Many young working-class men have been recruited in recent years by the Jihadi (holy war) organization to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Young people with no possibility of finding a job can at least find the basic necessities at the religious schools and in the training camps.
I was told by Javed Hashmi, regional president of the Muslim League, that he has been invited many times to visit those families whose sons have become martyrs in Kashmir. When he arrives at each house, he is asked not to condole with but to congratulate the family for this ‘great achievement’. Then sweets are brought, tokens of the family’s happiness.
Javed Hashmi comes from Multan, a city around 100 kilometres from Toba Tek Singh. It is the same sad story in most of the central and southern Punjab, from where come the bulk of the recruits for these religious organizations.
I was in Lahore for four days after the terrorist attack on American cities. In Lahore, the mood among many workers and ordinary citizens was of joy that the Americans have at last been taught a lesson. But there was also sympathy for those killed in the terrorist attack. It was not a mood of fanaticism, of all-out support for the religious fundamentalists. The two-day meeting of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, on 14 and 15 September, condemned the attacks while also warning the Americans that they should not attack the innocent citizens of Afghanistan.
But at Toba Tek Singh, the mood was one of fanaticism. When I arrived here after a six-hour drive from Lahore to see my ageing father, he bombarded me with questions. A trader all his life, he is now fighting with the banks to repay the loans he once took out in the hope that his agricultural income would improve. All those hopes were disappointed. All his initiatives to enhance his ever-decreasing income came to naught. All his life, he remained loyal to the Muslim League, a conservative party.
When I condemned the terrorist attacks and said they had endangered the lives of Muslims across the globe, he was unmoved and said I was probably the only person talking this way in the town.
‘No-one would support you here,’ he told me. ‘The whole town is happy about the incidents.’ He was of the view that the Taliban would teach another historic lesson to the Americans. He also said that the military regime in Pakistan have little time left in power as they are playing into the hands of the Americans. ‘I am very happy at what has happened in America,’ he said. ‘IMF and World Bank has destroyed my life and I am in the grip of the banks as my whole farming business has been destroyed by these institutions.’ He said that since the state subsidies are gone [a standard IMF and World Bank condition] he cannot afford to pay the price of the pesticides and his orange garden has therefore been ruined.
Shortly after, I spoke to Mumma, a local peasant. He said that someone had at last taught the most powerful nations on earth a lesson. ‘How could this happen?’ I asked him. He told me that it is the work of God and no-one can intervene.
Today, on 17 September, I went to Chack Number 291, Lahorianwala – the village where I was born – and spoke to one of my cousins, Afzal. He has a small shop on the main road in which he sells little grocery items and buys from the village women the share of the crops they receive for their day’s work – they are paid not in cash but in kind, with some of the cotton they pick.
Afzal told me that there is no way the Taliban will be defeated by the Americans. ‘How can they defeat the Taliban when they cannot defend their own cities?’ he asked. ‘It is great what has happened.’
He also told me that many will demonstrate if the US attacks Afghanistan. ‘There is great hatred of the military government’s capitulation to the Americans.’ Others sitting there in the shop had the same feelings as Afzal.
Six days after the attacks on American cities, it seems that in general many Pakistanis are happy and even proud that at last someone has done the job that they should be doing. It shows an extreme hatred of US imperialism among the general population. But it shows more: the tide is turning in favor of the fundamentalists. Once the attack by the Americans starts here, the military regime will face protest demonstrations and rallies on an extraordinary scale led by the religious fundamentalists.
One villager compared the incident in America to that of a peasant who stands up and fights against the feudal lord of the village. No-one in the village had ever thought of fighting against their feudal lord before but when this peasant wins his fight everybody is very happy. So too, he said, we must celebrate when America, the big feudal lord of the world, loses a fight at the hands of someone without any resources.
Whenever I raised the issue of innocent Americans losing their lives, the normal reaction was, yes we sympathize, but what about those millions of Palestinians, Sudanese, Vietnamese and others who have died at their hands? Another question raised immediately by everyone is ‘who supports Israel?’
Given the strength and unanimity of the feelings I encountered on my visit home, it is very clear that those of us in the progressive movement are among very few in Pakistan who are prepared to condemn terrorism both at the individual and the state level.
*SOME IMMEDIATE PAKISTANI RESPONSES WHEN FAROOQ'S ARTICLE WAS POSTED ON THE INTERNET:*
For God’s sake, Farooq Sahib! You are treading an extremely dangerous path. Thru this long droning story of your travel to the village, what message are you trying to send to the world outside? The one I could gather is that ‘fanaticism has taken roots in most parts of Pakistan and that the people are happy over these attacks. So, if America wants to root out terrorism, it should bomb the hell out of Pakistan…’ Did I miss something? This is not only dangerous but also utterly against facts.
The fact is that most Pakistanis are kind-hearted, tolerant and open-minded Muslims. They have high regard for human life and almost everyone is sad about the events of 11 Sept and against terrorism. Yes, it is also true that we feel that terrorism is the ‘effect’ and not the ‘cause’. So we urge the powers-that-be to try to understand the factors that compel the oppressed to resort to terrorist attacks. In a unipolar world, rightly or wrongly, America is blamed for all international injustice and inequity. And so it is all the more important for the US to deal with nations and individuals fairly and equitably if it really wants to eradicate terrorism for the world.
God bless you all.
Farooq’s assessment is among the very few that gives an idea about what Pakistanis really feel. The city centres may still be in the grip of the major parties but the jihadis are fast growing in the suburbs and even more in rural areas… Fanatics grow not because some agency conspires but because of the massive poverty in rural and suburban areas. While that poverty lasts there always is the possibility of backwardness growing within it…
One way of opposing imperialism and its war has to be the anti-war movement which we all should build... The other, and I think more long-term, option is to build a challenge to the imperialism via the IMF/World Bank which Farooq’s father is so much opposed to. I think in the near future it may well be in the fight against companies like Cargill and their GM foods that we will find our allies in the peasantry. And perhaps it is this common struggle that may allow us to counter the challenge of fanaticism. Like the Taliban our fanatic brothers hail from the rural areas and the imperial war and its devastation is only going to swell their ranks.
What would have been the reaction had we been shown a white American (someone like McVeigh) on CNN instead of bin Laden? Same joys? No, certainly not.
The last few years we have been hammered every Friday that God is going to get the Americans and the West through ‘us pious Muslims and our holy war’. This hatred has nothing to do with IMF/World Bank, the hatred is built on religious grounds and moral values. I have never heard my mullah discussing politics or globalization on Fridays, but he always talks about the azaab [divine punishment] on the West and on women who do not cover themselves. And now the people could see it live on the TV, the destruction that such a crazy act has brought on the US.
The American media has played it well. Surprisingly, all self-proclaimed liberals and socialists have so readily accepted the version from CNN. There is no proof that it is not done by any white American; there are many who’d just do it for the fun and adventure of it. After all it is in America that affluent kids resort to killings in schools for the heck of it. Had they flashed a white face, the story would have died the very next day and the guy would have been quietly under trial somewhere remote. Our poor Muslim population would have said that the West is crazy and Bush and the US would not have got this chance to escalate their defense budget, industry never would have got such a good reason to lay off people, our jihadis would have been busy propagating hatred instead of hiding and our ‘intellectuals’ would not have risen from their slumber.