Pakistani neo-conservatives —Rafia Zakaria

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While neo-conservatism may have lapsed into a coma in the United States with the arrival of the Obama administration, the hawkish rhetoric emerging from a new breed of Pakistani conservatives suggests that it may be reincarnated right here in Pakistan

The long awaited departure of George Bush from the White House has signalled to many the demise of the American neo-conservative movement. Those in Pakistan especially are avidly watching the new Obama administration to see how it will ideologically differentiate itself from the arrogance and military expansionism that so typified its predecessors.

 When Leo Strauss generated the ideas that would later become the cornerstone of the neo-conservative movement in the United States, his project was simple: he wanted to stop liberalism’s incipient attack on collectivist national identity by edifying the individual. In an effort to recapture the moral basis of leadership, he identified a few key ideas as essential to reuniting America and recasting its position in a world.

First, the American people had to be collected around the idea of American greatness and the exceptional destiny and responsibility of the American nation.

Second, Strauss calculated, a nation could only really unify against the world if it coalesced around a hated enemy, an oppositional force that would define the greatness of the nation and the depravity of its enemies.

Finally, Strauss thought it was integral to create a national myth around which the people could unite. In the American case, it would be the goodness of America versus the evil of the rest of the world.

Strauss’s plan made room for religion as a tool to advance patriotism and give credence to a higher calling to spread American ideology around the world. Neo-conservative ideologues may not themselves have been believers, but they saw in faith a useful and convenient ally to propagate the sort of political power that believed American nationhood should demonstrate.

While Pakistanis have been resolute critics of neo-conservatism in the American context, recent years have seen the burgeoning of an indigenous form of neo-conservatism, which is equally grandiose in its vision and manipulative in its rhetoric.

One example of this homegrown brand of neo-conservatism can be found on a local television news show. Its presenter, who describes himself as a “defence and strategy analyst” and has a particular penchant for quoting Allama Iqbal, is a dramatic example of the Pakistani Straussian.

As per Strauss, he begins nearly every discussion with a revised version of Pakistani history, which edifies the creation of Pakistan as a triumph of good against evil. Following the recipe he contextualises Pakistan’s creation not as an end to British rule in India where the leftovers of the Empire were used to construct the Pakistani state, but rather as a culmination of a two-hundred year old struggle (including within it the efforts of Tipu Sultan). Pakistan, he reminds his audience over and over again, is the “historical launch pad of the renaissance of Muslims, a sacred trust for the entire Ummah.”

It is thus a duty incumbent on every Pakistani to grab the moral leadership of the Muslim world and come to the aid of Muslim brethren everywhere. Familiar words: we have been hearing some version of this argument from the religious right for decades, but its restatement by a clean-shaven man purporting scholarly credentials is worthy of notice. Not only is it ideologically close to American neo-conservatism but is also ingenious in its repackaging of Islamism in a supposedly “scholarly” form that can be digested by middle class audiences fishing for pseudo-intellectual discourse.

This presenter is not alone in pandering this sort of rhetoric. In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, this kind of martial oratory of using our nuclear weapons against every enemy of Islam, be it Israel or India, has become rousingly popular.

One article penned by another Pakistani neo-conservative pines on and on about the American conspiracy to neuter the Pakistani military and the pandering of apologists in Islamabad (despicably trained in US think tanks) to the United States. Another article is entirely devoted to discussing how Pakistani missile capability now surpasses that of India.

Numerous other articles on this author’s website are devoted to virulent critiques of the current government’s policy of appeasing the United States. Not a single article on either suicide bombings or the campaign of terror being wreaked by the Taliban in wider and wider swathes of the country. When ethnic bloodshed is mentioned, it is presented unerringly as a conspiracy hatched by India and the United States, twin evils devoted to the aim of destroying Pakistan.

Those who partake of Pakistani political talk shows will be familiar with the content described above. It reflects the arrival of a new era in Pakistani conservatism, one that takes the discourse of ultra-nationalism, combines it with Islamism and presents it to the “educated” of the country as a heady dose of absolution from considering the ills plaguing the nation.

Unlike liberal critics that have been pointing to deficiencies in the rule of law, the inadequacies of institutions, the lack of due process and the general devolution of Pakistani civic sensibilities, these Pakistani neo-conservatives want to edify our violent capabilities into moral superiority.

Drawing on Straussian ideas, they preach a military aggressiveness borne out of our success in developing the “Muslim” bomb, encourage an intolerant nationalism that justifies hatred of all difference and, finally, use Islam as the basis for righteous interventionism in all sorts of conflicts. Issues like the crisis in Gaza and the trampled rights of Muslims in Iraq are all rallying cries designed around the central myth of Pakistan as the glorified force of good avenging the trampled of the world against imperialist America or expansionist India.

While neo-conservatism may have lapsed into a coma in the United States with the arrival of the Obama administration, the hawkish rhetoric emerging from this new breed of Pakistani conservatives suggests that it may be reincarnated right here in Pakistan.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at 

Article reproduced by permission of the Author and DT.\02\07\story_7-2-2009_pg3_3


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