Maulana and his non-state audience


By Muhammad Ali Ehsan

There are many stakeholders involved in the continuity of Maulana’s dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad. Internally, the opposition parties are having a joyful political time and externally, the enemies of Pakistan. The whole sit-in conveys an extremely negative image of our country. It has a political utility for Maulana but for him to escalate it beyond the point of political utility in our fragmented political environment becomes a dangerous game that Maulana is playing. So far, the government has dealt with this sit-in with the patience it deserves but could just being patient be termed as a strategy?

The Mossads, RAWs and the NDSs of this world are not conventional battle-seekers. They live amongst the people and have agendas and objectives to achieve for which they deploy and use their assets. The dark forces operating in any country including Pakistan are easily exploited and facilitated to create political situations that we all are very familiar with. The civil-war like situation in many countries in the Middle East post-Arab Spring is obviously not a natural phenomenon. Maulana’s dharna is high-risk activism and is like an “unexploded bomb” that needs to be defused. Waiting for it to explode cannot be termed as a strategy. The enemies of the state can trigger any unpleasantness or horribleness in that crowd which can dramatically transform how people may get involved and respond.

Maulana’s outrage is uncontrollable and the worst thing he is doing is targeting state institutions. The politically discarded and discredited leadership which lost the elections and stand on the container to deliver their “enemy pleasing political sermons” suffer from a political disease called “institutional accusation syndrome”. What the national institutions including the military, intelligence and all law enforcement agencies have achieved for this country has been at a great cost that demanded huge sacrifices performing their duties 24/7/365 throughout the length and breadth of the country. Maulana appreciates his crowd for weathering Islamabad’s thunder and storm but he has no clue how the military and other security agencies weathered the thunder and storm of terrorism that targeted the very roots and foundation of our state.

Maulana’s emotional outrage and uncontrollable speech making is creating an irrational narrative that seeks to only spread negativity. This negativity is strengthening the beliefs of the non-state audience that identifies more strongly with their given identity (in this case the Maulana-given identity) rather than the identity of the state. The state represents rationality and the core audience (the majority of the people) that identifies with the state believe in their rise, fall, victory and defeat together with the state. The unquestionable political mistake that Maulana is making is estranging and alienating himself and his followers from the state. His political method of creating a non-state audience can please Pakistan’s enemies but can in no way enhance and compliment his own political credibility. To this extent, the government’s strategy of allowing him more political exposure looks right because the further he speaks or gives interviews the more he exposes himself and the dark side of his movement that projects state hatred. Maulana, who had, for a long time, been hiding under the attire of his politics, is now giving some very confusing statements. On the one hand he talks about the “non-violent nature” of his movement and on the other hand threatens the state with how ‘”there can be violence and killing and how his accumulated crowd is ready to fight and sacrifice lives”.

Malcom Gladwell, the famous Canadian writer who writes for The New Yorker, divides the audience in political theatres like the one currently going on in Islamabad into two types — engaged and participatory. The participatory audience is created by social media and this audience is the creator of the related excitement, hysteria, propaganda and hype. If this audience could correctly recognise its responsibility, much of the melodrama and sensationalism being generated can be controlled. The tragedy is that this participatory audience, few members of which are actively involved in adding fuel to the already burning fire, will not be there if and when the engaged audience may face a crackdown by law enforcement agencies. The engaged audience which is the “staying there audience” which is not participating from the comforts of their homes and studios, is so far demonstrating norms that speak of disciplined behaviour. Yet these norms may change with the change in situation. In a greatly changed situation, people tend to resort to the norms that are condemnable yet may think about them as absolutely reasonable. During Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was decimated and people were trapped without supplies and no way to evacuate. In those circumstances what the outsiders (the participatory audience) showed and shared through social media as looting was an emergent act carried out by the engaged audience to seek much needed supplies for survival.

Our engaged audience in the dharna is equipped with solar energy panels and so their mobile batteries never die. They also remain in contact with the participatory audience that continues to give them feedback on the righteousness of their cause. History will judge not only the role of the political leaders and the direction in which their politics is taking this country but also the role of both the participatory and the engaged audience. Those not condemning Maulana’s anti-institution and anti-state tirade are doing no good service to the state. Some of the great champions of democratic azadi (liberty) are showing little or no responsibility towards the state. They are part of that non-state audience which is unprincipled, purchasable and corruptible.

Maulana is entitled to his media exposures but if he doesn’t stop using foul language against the state and its institutions then it is the combined responsibility of all pillars of state to ask whether he deserves such media exposure for what he is saying? A state of emergency was imposed in France in November 2015 when militants killed 130 people in coordinated attacks across Paris. Two years later it was replaced by President Macron with anti-terrorism law. France hasn’t lowered its guard against the threat it faces regardless of its purge against civil liberties. Pakistan also experienced a horrendous attack on APS Peshawar in December 2014. The subsequent National Action Plan (NAP) which was approved and signed by all political parties, including the Maulana’s, hasn’t so far met its determined goals.

Unlike France, in Pakistan the propagators of civil liberties are actually the very proliferators of our insecurities. While they also have the option of taking a flight abroad, we don’t have such luxuries and are left to deal with Maulana and the non-state audience that he and the participatory audience on his side continues to create.