When bodies start piling up in Karachi, the gut reaction of the Pakistani mainstream outside Karachi is to blame the MQM. This is a twenty-five year old problem. The MQM’s reputation did not emerge from thin air, but its sustenance is the stuff of three decades of political grandstanding by the GHQ of the Pakistani military, by the PPP, by the mainstream parties of the Punjab (a la the various PMLs), and the opportunism of the ANP. Politics is all about making the best of opportunities. The MQM’s sustained strategy since 9/11 has been to position itself as a secular and liberal political party. This too is opportunistic. Both the demonisation of the MQM brand through associating the party with violence, and the laundering of the brand through associating the party with the “secular” and “liberal” labels are bad ideas. It is time for Pakistan to grow up about the MQM, and time for the MQM to take the lead in helping its brothers around the country come to a new consciousness about the MQM, about Mohajir identity, and about the centrality of Karachi to the Pakistan’s economic, social and political future. Lahore may well be the heart of Pakistan. Karachi is its wallet, its Blackberry and its cologne. Karachi is Pakistan’s mojo.
The mythology being constructed on a daily basis about the MQM’s roots is stupefying. Day after day, leaders of the MQM are given free reign to speak unchallenged about the gloriously secular and liberal foundations of the MQM. The notion of the MQM being a secular and liberal force in Pakistan has tremendous appeal among diplomats assigned to Pakistan and eager to report to headquarters that they can indeed find people that “we can work with”. There is nothing, despite the current obsession with conspiracy theories, sinister about this. But there is something desperately stupid about it. Diplomats who are aching to hear what their memos and briefs already tell them are dangerously pre-programmed to perpetuate their own views of Pakistan. Too often, because of the stakes involved and the dangers of working in Pakistan, history, even very contemporary history, is almost entirely absent from these views. Luckily, anybody that had a pulse and could read in Pakistan during the 1980s and the 1990s should be more than capable of distinguishing between the fantasy of convenient “secular and liberal” talking points and the uncomfortable reality of the MQM’s genesis.
The MQM is an incredible and thesis-worthy object of attention and intellectual affection. Altaf Bhai is not an ordinary political talent. He is, hands down, the finest political mind ever produced by this country (outside the Bhutto family). Period. The PML-N has its Ahsan Iqbals, and though it hasn’t cherished them properly, the PPP has its Aitzaz Ahsans, sure. But the MQM has truckloads of political talent almost always ready to go. Whoever had heard of the administrative juggernaut, Mayor Mustafa Kamal, before he became mayor in 2005? That’s not a one-off thing. The MQM develops young political talent in ways that are more sophisticated and sustainable than any political party in the country.
The MQM’s unique legitimacy as an urban political party is a reality. Its organisational skills and its potential for a serious reform agenda that is deeper and wider than any previously conceived in the country is a reality. The empowerment of disenchanted, disengaged and disenfranchised young men during the late 1980s and early 1990s in Karachi and Hyderabad is a reality. The vibrancy of the MQM’s original agenda and its appeal for the empowerment of Urdu-speaking Mohajirs is a reality. The MQM’s uncontested dominance of the Karachi vote-bank (notwithstanding three iffy seats) is a reality. Most of all, despite desperately wanting to move on, the MQM’s Urdu-speaking Mohajir identity is a reality. Love it or hate it, you cannot ignore it. The MQM cannot be relegated to the political periphery. That is a reality.
Despite its genuine credentials as possibly the most modern and urban political party in Pakistan, the MQM does not have the history, the character or the genetics of a party that can legitimately claim to be secular and liberal. More importantly, the conflation of these two terms is not a demonstration of the MQM’s own politics, but the confusion of Pakistan’s political language, which in turn is informed by Pakistan’s multiple existential crises. There are much more organic things that the MQM can claim to be, including a rare expression of middle-class assertiveness in a country that is all about how much patronage the elite can transfer to a massive underclass that is perpetually in their social, economic and political debt. What it mustn’t claim are things that it is not.
The secularism of the MQM is fantasy because opposing the Taliban does not make you secular. By very definition and instinct, it is a political party that is a manifestation of a centuries-old South Asian Muslim political narrative. The foundation of the Mohajir experience was not a commitment to the South Asian secular dream. The forefathers of the young men and women that made the MQM what it is today would not have needed to change addresses at great cost to get that brand of politics. A strong dash of Muslim identity does not render a people radicals or extremists, obviously. But it does problematise the notion of their secularism. It happens to form the core of the MQM’s ethos. No amount of wordsmithing the MQM’s background can extricate it from its original name. This was, is, and will forever be, the party formerly known as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement.
The liberalism of the MQM is a fantasy because the galvanisation of young Mohajirs in the 1980s was not a spontaneous combustion of liberal ideas in Karachi and Hyderabad. The kids that helped form the All Pakistan Mohajir Students’ Organisation (APMSO), and later the MQM, were actualising their identities. And they were doing so in a very assertive manner. Violence is an inconvenient truth in the MQM’s search for a broader national role in Pakistani governance. That the MQM can achieve that broader role without deconstructing and explaining its violent genesis truthfully is a fantasy. Perhaps most importantly, it is a fantasy that such an explanation can be made without defining what drove the rage of young Mohajirs during the 1970s and 1980s. That rage and its violent expression have scarred the impressions of Pakistanis outside Karachi of what it means to be Mohajir. The idea that words like bhatta and curfew can be separated from the MQM brand because of a series of flattering interviews that feature the secular and liberal credentials of the MQM is a fantasy.
Luckily circumstances offer the MQM a chance for sustainable and long-range rehabilitation. Helping resolve the issue of decentralisation, creating an effective police force in Sindh and negotiating a grand political bargain with the PPP that ends the bickering between these existentially antagonistic entities are just three of many ways that the MQM can start on the road towards an elusive broader national role in Pakistani governance.
Sindhi nationalism’s romance with the Bhutto family is at its lowest point ever. There is unprecedented goodwill between the MQM and Baloch nationalist parties. The PML-N is interested in having a working relationship with the MQM. Most of all, as I’ve written before, the MQM’s degree of comfort with religion and religious symbolism is unmatched. That is not the mark of a so-called secular party. It’s the mark of a seriously tuned-in urban Pakistani political party. If the MQM will expand, it will do so by becoming a trusted brand in the long strip of cities that dot the Indus River in Punjab. Faux chest-beating about secular and liberal values might be hot in the Diplomatic Enclave, but they won’t fly in the heart of Pakistan. The heart knows what it wants. And it doesn’t want fantasy. It wants reality. MQM: reality vs fantasy, Friday, January 15, 2010, Mosharraf Zaidi
The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. He can be reached through his website www.mosharrafzaidi.com