In June 2008, on the eve of the Long March against General Musharraf, protestors and activists in Lahore were busy sorting out the logistics of their journey. At one point, after the participants of the March had assembled at their pre-determined meeting point and were making their final preparations before departing for Islamabad, a convoy of vehicles suddenly appeared bearing several prominent members of ‘civil society’. One of these individuals, after surveying the arrangements, proceeded to tell all who would listen that the success of the March would now be assured since he, and ‘civil society’, had arrived. This was news to many of the lawyers, students, workers, journalists, and academics present that day; they had been labouring under the misapprehension that their efforts at organization and mobilization had been crucial to the success of the anti-Musharraf movement. They could also have been forgiven for thinking that they themselves were a significant part of ‘civil society’.

‘Civil society’ has always been a vague and notoriously difficult concept to pin down, at once signifying everything and nothing. Broadly speaking, it could be called the space that exists between the state and its institutions, and individual citizens; the network of associational life and organizations that articulates and pursues a variety of different ideologies and interests independently of the state and political parties. Following from this, civil society has often been conceptualized as being both distinct from, and opposed to, the state, existing as an important means through which citizens can participate in the democratic process while holding governments accountable. In the past three decades, civil society has become an umbrella term for NGOs, advocacy groups, social movements, the media, and other entities representing various sectional interests, with a more general belief that all of these play an important role in fostering democratization and promoting liberal values.

However, the pluralistic nature of civil society, and its liberal democratic underpinnings, is also arguably responsible for the conceptual confusion demonstrated by the anecdote mentioned above. In a context where everyone can potentially be a part of civil society, obvious issues arise when attempting to delineate the contours of a movement, and the roles of its participants. For the self-proclaimed messiah of the anti-Musharraf movement, ‘civil society’, and its associated values were restricted to his own organization and those of his friends and allies; by definition, those that did not fall within this narrow categorization were simply not a part of ‘civil society’ and, hence, occupied a space defined by different values and objectives. The very act of attempting to define civil society, or what it believes in, immediately throws up problematic questions about who can or cannot legitimately be part of a movement, and what such a movement stands for.

The problem is compounded when it comes to questions of political strategy. On Friday, in cities across Pakistan (and, indeed, the world), ‘civil society’ organized protests/vigils for the victims of the Peshawar tragedy. In Lahore, at Charing Cross opposite the Punjab Assembly building, a diverse collection of political parties, NGOs, and activists came together to denounce the forces of religious extremism in Pakistan, and to present a charter of demands asking for greater regulation of hate speech, the protection of those attacked in the name of religion, the monitoring of seminaries and madrassahs, and the provision of education to all the citizens of Pakistan. Present at the venue were contingents from the PML-N, the PTI, the PPP, the PML-Q, and the APML, NGOs such as The Association of Disabled People, Concerned Citizens of Lahore, and the Voice and Accountability Program (among many others), representatives from the Women Worker Helpline and the WAPDA Hydroelectric Workers Union, and leftist parties including the Awami Workers Party and the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party.

While the organizers of this rally are to be lauded for the success in mobilizing such a large number of people to press for such an important set of demands, and while it is also refreshing to see the gradual emergence of a relatively broad consensus on the need to combat religious extremism in Pakistan, there are questions which must necessarily be asked in the interests of building on this momentum and taking this movement forward. For one, it should be immediately apparent that not all of the parties and organizations coming under the umbrella of ‘civil society’ in this instance are on the same page. Even as some participants at the rally called for greater military accountability in the ongoing campaign against militancy, others pledged their unflinching and unquestioning support for the military. Partisan political loyalties also surfaced as accusations were traded about the culpability of the government and different political parties. On a day when rallies were being staged across the country to denounce Charlie Hebdo, leading to one journalist being shot and seriously injured in Karachi, there was also a lack of clarity on questions such as the right to free speech and expression. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was a telling lack of attention being paid to the formulation of a comprehensive anti-terror strategy aimed at eliminating the scourge of religious extremism in Pakistan; the Charter of Demands presented at the rally in Lahore identified important areas in which the government needs to take action, but did little more than echo the public discourse that has emerged post-Peshawar. On broader, more fundamental questions of economic and social justice, and the way in which they are tied to the root causes of terror in Pakistan, there was little to be said.

This is not the fault of the organizers or those who attended the rally in Lahore. Indeed, particularly on the Left, there is a deep-rooted commitment to critiquing the extant political and economic system and the way in which it contributes to the creation of extremism and intolerance. Instead, the broad and vague nature of the demands being made, and the lack of reference to more ‘controversial’ issues, is a necessary outcome of attempts to build a movement that focuses more on breadth than depth. It would be ludicrous to expect parties like the APML to criticize the military, just as it would be unfathomable for the PML-N to subscribe to a list of demands calling for radical economic reform. Similarly, NGOs wedded to a neoliberal political framework predicated on the assumption that the state is inefficient and incapable of reform can hardly be expected to look to the state for solutions to Pakistan’s myriad problems. Bringing such discrete groups together necessarily requires ideological compromise, with the lowest common denominator being subscribed to as a source of unity even at a time when they may be needed for a bolder, more radical stance. It is important to demonstrate a broad commitment to opposing the Taliban, but is this sufficient when it is clear that there must also be a complementary and corresponding commitment to holding the military accountable, pressing for economic reform, demanding social justice, and defending progressive values?

Successful as it was at dislodging a dictator, the anti-Musharraf movement lacked a blueprint for fostering broader socio-economic and political change in Pakistan. Had it possessed such an agenda, it could have arguably helped to create a much more substantive process of democratization post-2008. At a similar juncture in history, at a time when it seems possible to finally challenge the discursive hegemony of the military and religious right in Pakistan, it is crucial to take advantage of this opportunity to build a movement committed not just to a narrow anti-clericalism, but also to a broader campaign of reform aimed at challenging the power structures that foster the emergence of militancy and extremism.

The writer is an assistant professor  of political science at LUMS.

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