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Archive for June, 2006

Islamic Fundamentalism : Fascism or National Liberation?

Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 23, 2006

Published in The Post 23/06/2006

Taimur Rahman

While “The War on Terror”, the surrogate euphemism for imperial conquest and re-colonization, was almost unanimously condemned, especially by those who live in Muslim countries or were on the left of the political spectrum, it simultaneously forced upon everyone the need to theoretically engage with religious fundamentalism, resulting sometimes in a fresh demarcation of ideological positions.

Fundamentalism has been likened with fascism, especially by scholars in the West. The inevitable conclusion from this analysis is that all democratic and socialist forces need to unite behind the ‘democratic West’, much like the broad unity achieved during the struggle against European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. However, there are obvious contradictions in this analogy. While both fascism and fundamentalism espouse extremely reactionary forms of capitalism, the former was an outgrowth of the development of economically advanced capitalism dominated by financial monopolies in states that were pursuing a redivision of the old colonial empires, and the latter is the product of extremely backward pre-capitalist areas of the world that have historically been colonized by the West. Therefore, Islamic fundamentalism bears more in common with tribal, feudal, or petty bourgeois culture and represents an attempt to roll back the wheel of history to a ‘golden age’ that economic modernization has destroyed in its wake.

Although Islamic political groups are really composed of two different types of movements with a vastly different social base of support, they often get bunched into the universal category of “fundamentalists”. In Pakistan, for example, the MMA is composed either of Islamic traditionalists (the Deobandi JUI, or the Barelvi JUP) or of Islamic fundamentalists (Jamaat-e-Islami). The traditionalists have their base of support in the most economically backward tribal areas of Pakistan, whereas the fundamentalists derive their support from the middle class in the cities. Thus as a whole they derive their base of support from pre-capitalist production tribal areas or extremely small retail and trade businesses in third world countries.

In sum, the analogy with fascism is inaccurate for the simple reason that these forces are neither representatives of an advanced capitalist country seeking a redivision of the (neo)colonial empire of the world, nor are they the product of the financial monopolies and cartels that gave rise to European fascism.

On the flip side, other writers have attempted to draw parallels between the Islamic fundamentalist movement and the national liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Here again certain very obvious contradictions stand in the way of this simplistic analysis. The class base of the national liberation movement was in the revolutionary section of the national bourgeoisie. The national liberation movement, therefore, was generally opposed not merely to imperialism and its associated big capitalist class within the neo-colonial countries, but also to feudalism and tribalism. On this basis the national liberation movement had a relatively progressive stance towards the question of the emancipation of women.

On the contrary, the Islamic fundamentalists have a history of opposition to this very national liberation movement. In fact, the history of several Muslim countries demonstrates that the Islamic fundamentalists were not only opposed to the national liberation movements in the third world on account of the latter’s socially progressive views, but also on the question of land reforms (for evidence see the opposition of the religious right to the land reforms introduced by the Pakistan People’s Party).

If Islamic fundamentalism is neither analogous to European fascism nor to third world national liberation movements, what then is the substance of its political programme? The essence of the Islamic fundamentalists’ political programme is so obvious as to sometimes escape our attention; it is the reinstatement of a theocratic state. Alliance or opposition to any power (socialist or capitalist, Western or Eastern) is based on the singular imperative of reintroducing “Islam” as the state religion. In that sense fundamentalism is not “anti-imperialist” in the same sense as the national-liberation movement, whose principle objective was to become economically independent of imperial rule; it is more accurately described as “Anti-Western”. Foreign investments, finance capital, multinational companies and so on are quite acceptable as long as they do not bring with them the “morally bankrupt culture of the West”, the epitome of the latter term captured by the image of jeans-clad women walking around unaccompanied or unsupervised by men. In that sense then, fundamentalism militates not against economic inequality but against political equality that accompanies the separation of religion from affairs of the state.

If it can be said that the indispensable gains of the European Enlightenment were the liberation of science, politics, and art from the ideological fetters and dogmas of the Church, the Islamic fundamentalist movement represents an “anti-enlightenment movement”. It is the Muslim equivalent of the medieval reaction of the Church against “modernity”, with the exception that this entire battle is being fought three four hundred years too late and in the context of an extremely technologically advanced world, and further in the context of a world dominated by Western capitalism on the march for new colonial conquests. It is self-explanatory that without enlightenment the third world cannot possibly hope to build a scientific consciousness and develop economically in order to liberate itself from neo-colonialism.

The tactics of the fundamentalists are as primitive as their ideological apparatus. They seek the Islamic unity of the Muslim world by provoking a confrontation with the West. In their view, suicide attacks, whether of school children in a bus in Tel Aviv or of the symbols of US capitalist and military strength, bringing about a disproportionate response, will fill the Muslims of the world with religious fervour bringing about, inevitably, the final collapse of Western civilization and a new golden era of Islamic prosperity. However, the critical error in this scenario is the fact that although the disproportionate response from the West has brought about a religious reawakening in the Muslim world, Islamic fundamentalism, even if it were able to overcome its tendency towards sectarian clashes, lacks a concrete or tangible programme of internal social change. In fact, internally the movement seeks to ally itself to the very forces that are abhorred and despised by the teeming rural and urban poor of the third world. That is why, although fundamentalism may score temporary or regional victories, its historical trajectory fails to address the most pressing problem of common people: freedom from want. In the long view of history, the only political force that can successfully capture the popular imagination of the people is one that attempts to solve the most basic problems of people, the beginnings of which lie in an agrarian revolution that has the strength to uproot the foundations of feudalism.

Posted in Pakistani Politics | Comments Off on Islamic Fundamentalism : Fascism or National Liberation?

Ford Foundation, Cold War, and WSF

Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 20, 2006

Published in The Post 20/05/2006

Taimur Rahman

Most people are of the opinion that the World Social Forum held in Karachi March 2006 was a one-off event. Like most events in the political life of Pakistan, our public has come to expect that two months down the line no one will even care to remember what the fuss was all about. Aside from the fact that such thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, such selective historical and political amnesia is obviously also unfavourable to the development of an intellectual tradition built on a degree of continuity. The fact that the organizers of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Karachi are keen to see their efforts continue, itself calls for still greater debate on the issue not merely of the WSF but of ‘civil society’ and NGOs as well.

Even before the World Social Forum came to the backwaters of Pakistan, one had often heard in passing, mostly in an accusatory tone, that the entire process was funded by organizations such as the Ford Foundation. Not prone to believing gossip, especially political gossip, I decided see for myself the veracity of these claims.

On the website of the Ford Foundation (http://www.fordfound.org) one can find information about some of the major grants made by the foundation to various organizations around the world and a quick search with respect to the ‘World Social Forum’ revealed the following results. The Ford Foundation gave a grant of $ 500,000 to the Brazilian Association of NGOs “for the 2003 World Social Forum, where civil society organizations develop social and economic alternatives to current patterns of globalization, based on human rights and sustainable development.” In the same year the Foundation gave a grant of $ 153,000 to Canadian based Internews Interactive, Inc. in order to “bridge Initiative on Globalization”, that is the provision of a satellite means of communication between participants at the WSF and the World Economic Forum. The following year the Foundation gave a grant of $ 600,000 once again to the Brazilian Association of NGOs “for the International Council of the World Social Forum to develop and implement a learning agenda and evaluation process”. And in order to strengthen “…participation of marginalized communities in the World Social Forum process” in 2004, the Ford Foundation gave $ 92,850 to a Thailand-based organization Focus on the Global South. Further, to provide “general support to plan and market the first World Social Forum, create an online virtual forum and develop its institutional infrastructure”, the Foundation gave the World Culture Forum Corporation based in New York a grant of $ 700,000 in 2004. And last, to publish “a collection of essays discussing the eleven thematic terrains of the World Social Forum”, the Foundation gave a grant of $ 60,000 in 2005 to the Alliance of Independent Publishers based in France. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), one of the largest participants in the World Social Forum held in India, ensured that the Ford Foundation would stay out of the process of the Mumbai World Social Forum. Although the expenditures on the polycentric World Social Forum (one of which was held in Karachi) are yet to be published on the foundation’s website, given the fact that there is no equivalent organization in Pakistan with the manpower to substitute the funding provided by the Ford Foundation, it is fair to assume that the Forum held in Karachi also received assistance from the Ford Foundation.

This incomplete total, which does not include either the expenditures on the last forum nor the vast amount of funds provided by the Ford Foundation to NGOs around the world on a regular basis, alone brings the official total up to $ 2,105,850. Why would the Ford Foundation be interested in spending two million dollars on developing alternatives to capitalist globalization and building “another world”? The answer is provided by intellectuals such as James Petras and Joan Roelofs.

Petras alleges that, “The CIA uses philanthropic foundations as the most effective conduit to channel large sums of money to Agency projects without alerting the recipients to their source” (http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/FordFandCIA.html). He contends that a 1976 US Congressional investigation showed that “nearly 50 percent of the 700 grants in the field of international activities by the principal foundations were funded by the CIA” (Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders, Granta Books, 1999, pp. 134-135). Richard Bissell, who became President of the Ford Foundation in 1952, had an extremely intimate relationship with the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles. Bissell and Dulles shared the vision of global US hegemony that could only be established in the context of a victory over communist, socialist, and national liberation movements. In fact, in 1954 when Bissell left Ford Foundation, he became a ‘special assistant’ to Allen Dulles.

But Bissell’s departure did not mean a severing of ties with the CIA. The next president of Ford Foundation, Mr. John McCloy, was just as much a man of the US establishment. Before joining the Ford Foundation, McCloy had been Assistant Secretary of War, president of the World Bank, High Commissioner of occupied Germany, chairman of Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank, Wall Street attorney for the big seven oil companies and director of numerous corporations. In fact, McCloy institutionalized the relationship between the Ford Foundation and the CIA by creating an ‘administrative unit’ within the Foundation specifically to deal with the CIA and personally headed a three person consultation committee with the CIA. Whatever the original intentions of the creators of the Ford Foundation, the Cold War had transformed this once purely charitable organization into an organization of the Cold War with the objective of countering the ideological influence of revolutionary movements.

Similarly Joan Roelofs in her book Foundations and Public Policy charges the Ford Foundation with having financed the counter-insurgency operation in several countries, most notably in Indonesia, which resulted in arguably the worst massacre since Hitler. In a much publicised and ground breaking article “The NED, NGOs and the Imperial Uses of Philanthropy” (http://www.counterpunch.org/roelofs05132006.html) she contends that civil society’s ‘democratization’ always includes “…an open door to foreign capital, labour contracts, resource extraction, and military training.” Directly attacking the World Social Forum, which she considers to be “the peak of international NGOs”, she concludes that global philanthropy is part of the system of ideological hegemony and therefore that the ideals of democracy, justice, or equality are not attainable by such means or through such organizations.

Given that the Ford Foundation has an investment portfolio of some $ 10.5 billion annually, about half of which is given out in grants, and given also the history and deep connections of this organization in Cold War politics, unless the process of the World Social Forum can extricate itself from the enormous network of Western ‘philanthropy’, its activity is destined merely to reproduce the world that already exists: A world in which three billion people live below the international poverty line.

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The plight of bhatta workers

Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 16, 2006

Published in The Post 16/06/2006

Taimur Rahman

This last week I got a strong taste of the connection between law enforcement and economic power at the grassroots level. Last week Baba Feroze, Chairman of the Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz, who has been organizing bonded brick kiln workers since 1967, was picked up by the thekedars of the bhatta maalik Hashim Ali Khan in district Kasur. With him was also picked up a bhatta mazdoor by the name of Liaqat Ali who had fallen foul of his employers.

About two weeks ago, in order to escape the wrath of his overlords, Liaqat Ali ran away from his bhatta maaliks. In retaliation the bhatta maaliks not only registered a case of theft in the local police station (Mustafabad Kasur), they also abducted his 9 year old son. Baba Feroze fought this case in the Lahore High Court and won it. The judge strictly ordered the police to find the 9 year old boy and present him in court. After a few days the police managed to procure the 9 year child from his aunt’s house. The defence argued that the boy had never been in the custody of the accused. But this could not be ascertained as the little boy was so frightened in court that he just kept weeping and did not say a word.

Last week, on June 7th, when Baba Feroze and Liaqat were visiting the house of another bhatta worker Nazir as part of their regular organizing activities, they were jumped by 30 to 35 of Hashim’s men (apparently some of whom were armed with rifles). After receiving a thrashing they were handed over to the local police at Mustafabad where so far they have not been beaten up. The police asked the magistrate for a “Remand” (custody for up to 14 days without pressing charges) but the latter refused, setting a date for their bail hearing. On the day of the bail hearing, however, the police simply did not produce the record in front of the magistrate and instead registered yet another case for a remand notice in front of the session judge.

This apparent desperation of the police seems to be motivated not by the desire to uphold the law, given that the magistrate had already taken a decision on the case, but by more sinister motives. In such instances it is frequently the case that the police and the local bhatta maaliks have an extremely strong connection with each other. Bhatta maaliks and local police officers are often from the same caste (which plays an extraordinary role in rural power politics), if not directly intermarried or related to each other through blood. Police officers in rural or semi-rural areas are often extremely ill-trained and possess only an extremely rudimentary knowledge of the law. In most circumstances they bring all the baggage and ideological biases of their class and caste into their police work. The bhatta workers, who are traditionally considered kammis, are mostly looked down upon as “backward”, “unethical”, and “sly”.

During my visit to the police station at Mustafabad for the release of Baba Feroze and Liaqat Ali, I struck a casual conversation with the constables about the issue of bhatta mazdoors. They replied (translation) “Janab, without the peshgi system (debt bondage) the business of making bricks simply cannot run.” Further, “The bhatta workers are very sly, they take the money and run away. If they have taken the money they are obligated to pay it back.” But the cake was taken by the investigating officer Shaukat Ali who remarked, “This is not a false case, I will call the bhatta maaliks into the police station and they will swear on the Quran that a donkey and donkey cart was stolen from their bhatta.” When my friend Rafay Alam, who has a foreign law degree and is about to begin teaching law at LUMS, heard these remarks he was totally flabbergasted. He said, “Can you please give this [method of investigating] to me in writing.” In response, we were all treated to an inchoate volley of hot words with the intention of intimidating us.

We had taken with us a translated Urdu copy of the decision of the Federal Shariat Court and we tried desperately to generate an interest in reading what the law states about the peshgi system. The Federal Shariat Court had upheld the 1992 decision of the Supreme Court for the complete abolition of the peshgi (indentured) system of forced labour. But the poor document received as much attention from the enforcers of the law as the constitution of this country does at the national level by the power-brokers of this country. It will take a lot more than the mere penning of a certain decree to uproot this age old system of exploitation: It will take a mass social movement.

Given that the local police in Pakistan is so utterly devoid of any sympathy for the bhatta workers and any sense of professionalism together with the strong personal (not to mention financial) connections with bhatta maaliks, the police station merely begins to act as yet another conduit for the continuing oppression and enslavement of indentured labour. The remand notice frequently serves as nothing other than a legal cover for extracting confessions through violent and brutal means. The real purpose of this entire process is neither to uphold the law nor to investigate the real facts of the case, but rather to ‘teach bhatta workers a lesson’. It matters precious little if the police, after several days of inflicting beatings, is unable to come up with a single confession: The ‘work’ is already done. The bhatta mazdoors have yet again been taught that, no matter what the law states in writing, their proper place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is one of continuing abject slavery.

There is much talk these days of pro-poor budgets and democratic elections in 2007. In my opinion, real and meaningful democracy for the three million indentured labourers will only begin with the elimination of the system of bonded labour. This requires, especially on the part of society in general, a burning commitment for the emancipation of the oppressed.

Posted in Pakistani Politics | Comments Off on The plight of bhatta workers

The plight of bhatta workers

Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 16, 2006

16/06/2006

Taimur Rahman

This last week I got a strong taste of the connection between law enforcement and economic power at the grassroots level. Last week Baba Feroze, Chairman of the Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz, who has been organizing bonded brick kiln workers since 1967, was picked up by the thekedars of the bhatta maalik Hashim Ali Khan in district Kasur. With him was also picked up a bhatta mazdoor by the name of Liaqat Ali who had fallen foul of his employers.

About two weeks ago, in order to escape the wrath of his overlords, Liaqat Ali ran away from his bhatta maaliks. In retaliation the bhatta maaliks not only registered a case of theft in the local police station (Mustafabad Kasur), they also abducted his 9 year old son. Baba Feroze fought this case in the Lahore High Court and won it. The judge strictly ordered the police to find the 9 year old boy and present him in court. After a few days the police managed to procure the 9 year child from his aunt’s house. The defence argued that the boy had never been in the custody of the accused. But this could not be ascertained as the little boy was so frightened in court that he just kept weeping and did not say a word.

Last week, on June 7th, when Baba Feroze and Liaqat were visiting the house of another bhatta worker Nazir as part of their regular organizing activities, they were jumped by 30 to 35 of Hashim’s men (apparently some of whom were armed with rifles). After receiving a thrashing they were handed over to the local police at Mustafabad where so far they have not been beaten up. The police asked the magistrate for a “Remand” (custody for up to 14 days without pressing charges) but the latter refused, setting a date for their bail hearing. On the day of the bail hearing, however, the police simply did not produce the record in front of the magistrate and instead registered yet another case for a remand notice in front of the session judge.

This apparent desperation of the police seems to be motivated not by the desire to uphold the law, given that the magistrate had already taken a decision on the case, but by more sinister motives. In such instances it is frequently the case that the police and the local bhatta maaliks have an extremely strong connection with each other. Bhatta maaliks and local police officers are often from the same caste (which plays an extraordinary role in rural power politics), if not directly intermarried or related to each other through blood. Police officers in rural or semi-rural areas are often extremely ill-trained and possess only an extremely rudimentary knowledge of the law. In most circumstances they bring all the baggage and ideological biases of their class and caste into their police work. The bhatta workers, who are traditionally considered kammis, are mostly looked down upon as “backward”, “unethical”, and “sly”.

During my visit to the police station at Mustafabad for the release of Baba Feroze and Liaqat Ali, I struck a casual conversation with the constables about the issue of bhatta mazdoors. They replied (translation) “Janab, without the peshgi system (debt bondage) the business of making bricks simply cannot run.” Further, “The bhatta workers are very sly, they take the money and run away. If they have taken the money they are obligated to pay it back.” But the cake was taken by the investigating officer Shaukat Ali who remarked, “This is not a false case, I will call the bhatta maaliks into the police station and they will swear on the Quran that a donkey and donkey cart was stolen from their bhatta.” When my friend Rafay Alam, who has a foreign law degree and is about to begin teaching law at LUMS, heard these remarks he was totally flabbergasted. He said, “Can you please give this [method of investigating] to me in writing.” In response, we were all treated to an inchoate volley of hot words with the intention of intimidating us.

We had taken with us a translated Urdu copy of the decision of the Federal Shariat Court and we tried desperately to generate an interest in reading what the law states about the peshgi system. The Federal Shariat Court had upheld the 1992 decision of the Supreme Court for the complete abolition of the peshgi (indentured) system of forced labour. But the poor document received as much attention from the enforcers of the law as the constitution of this country does at the national level by the power-brokers of this country. It will take a lot more than the mere penning of a certain decree to uproot this age old system of exploitation: It will take a mass social movement.

Given that the local police in Pakistan is so utterly devoid of any sympathy for the bhatta workers and any sense of professionalism together with the strong personal (not to mention financial) connections with bhatta maaliks, the police station merely begins to act as yet another conduit for the continuing oppression and enslavement of indentured labour. The remand notice frequently serves as nothing other than a legal cover for extracting confessions through violent and brutal means. The real purpose of this entire process is neither to uphold the law nor to investigate the real facts of the case, but rather to ‘teach bhatta workers a lesson’. It matters precious little if the police, after several days of inflicting beatings, is unable to come up with a single confession: The ‘work’ is already done. The bhatta mazdoors have yet again been taught that, no matter what the law states in writing, their proper place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is one of continuing abject slavery.

There is much talk these days of pro-poor budgets and democratic elections in 2007. In my opinion, real and meaningful democracy for the three million indentured labourers will only begin with the elimination of the system of bonded labour. This requires, especially on the part of society in general, a burning commitment for the emancipation of the oppressed.

Posted in Pakistani Politics | Comments Off on The plight of bhatta workers

Whither Capitalism? : Towards a 21st century Socialism

Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 12, 2006

Published in The Post 12/05/2006

Taimur Rahman

While some intellectuals wishing to defend the dominance of private property may ask this question in order to deflect criticism of capitalism, most people around the world wish to know whether there really is an alternative. The propaganda barrage of neo-liberal capitalism has been so one sided, especially since the defeat of socialism in the Soviet Union, that in this typhoon of cacophony most people are liable to become apathetic and resign to their fates muttering beneath their pessimistic breath, “There is no alternative.” Those who openly express glee at the fact that there is no alternative to privatization, liberalization, supporting the war on Iraq, US hegemony, and so on, and beckon us to prostrate ourselves before the mighty altar of the modern God, money, have clearly made their peace with the world of exploitation and are racing, falling on top of each other, for a larger piece of the pie in this dog-eat-dog world. Let us leave such people to their devices and address those who are genuinely concerned about the fate of a world where 900 million don’t have enough to eat in the context of a world where there is excess capacity for food production.

Let us look at the options carefully. The first thing we have to recognize is that the roots of the most serious problems in the world today are not merely cultural, political, or social. Instead the cultural, social, political problems are manifestations of a society in which the economic system is set up by the rich, for the rich, and of the rich. The cultural, social, and political problems can only be addressed simultaneously and in conjunction with the economic problems of society.

Of all the diverse cultures, political and social systems in the world today, one thing is common to them all (with the exception of a handful of countries): they are dominated by a system of production at whose heart is private property. This system of production, that we call capitalism, operates according to certain laws. In the capitalist system it is inevitable, despite the efforts of even the best developed welfare state, that the rich get richer and the poor remain poor, and relatively become poorer. The most pressing problems of our times owe their existence, in one form or another, to the vastly increasing social chasm between the world of poverty and the world of wealth. This growing social chasm will lead, inexorably, to a growing conflict between the rich and the poor. As long as the motor of the market continues to drive the economic foundations of the world, no matter how many times the rich manage to suppress, cajole, or deceive the poor, an ever greater number of people who daily lose their social position to the world of wealth will continue to ensure that the conflict continues. The cynic might be apt to point out all the various mechanisms that the ruling class is able to utilize in the service of maintaining its class hegemony — for the last hundred years or so, not merely democracy, human rights, peace, and civil society, but even religion has been in the service of capital — but even they would be forced to concede that the contradiction will continue to resurface indefinitely as long as the social chasm between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Given the ever-growing proportion of the relatively poor (though the number of absolute poor may even be fewer), each successive upheaval against the world of wealth is bound to meet with a continuously wider base of support from society. In the long view of history, therefore, it seems inevitable that at a certain point in time the ever growing proportion of the relatively disenfranchised, whom Frantz Fanon poetically referred to as the “Wretched of the Earth”, will be the heirs to the final destruction of a society dominated by class privilege.

If all this is true, and it is difficult to find a plausible reason to reject the inexorable march of history in this direction — the destruction of the Soviet Union notwithstanding — despite all the infinite permutations and combinations of cultures, political systems and social relations, the essential question of our historical epoch boils down to, essentially, the struggle against an economic system based on private property. Or in other words, the struggle for the establishment of an economic system based on collective property — which would, strictly speaking, imply the end of property as such.

A centuries worth of cold war propaganda against all the historical advances of the oppressed may have momentarily convinced millions of people that the alternative to capitalism is significantly worse, but that is no long term guarantee that people will not attempt to find a path to their liberation. Socialism, which is nothing other than the manifestation of the struggle against private property, may well begin in the 21st century with the outward trappings of a relatively non-revolutionary or non-threatening movement, especially from the point of view of capitalism, but with growing confidence in its historic mission will no doubt take on colours that begin to reflect, if not in letter, certainly in spirit, the Red tinge of ages considered long past by the Fukuyamas of the world. Whereas all eyes have turned to Latin America where one country after another finds itself in the midst of a landslide left-of-centre victory, crucial social movements are poised to emerge or have already emerged in the industrialized north. The ‘Battle of Seattle’ shattered the quiet, sounding the opening salvos of a renewed struggle against capital in the era of globalization. The strength of labour, compressed like a giant spring, is bursting forth once again and their renewed energy can be gauged by the enormous rallies this Labour Day 2006.

Let us first turn to the heart of capitalism: the United States of America. The Associated Press reported at least 1.1 million people took part in the Chicago protests but that estimate was based solely on police accounts. As many as one-third of students didn’t go to school and the protest was estimated as the largest protest in the history of Chicago. Over a half million marched in Los Angeles. In Denver, at least 75,000 people — about one-sixth of the city’s population — participated in a march on the state capitol. 50,000 people gathered in a series of protests in Florida. In New York City, over 100,000 marched from Union Square down Broadway. In Los Angeles about one in every four students was absent. In Germany, the heart of capitalist continental Europe, conservative police estimates indicated that more than half a million Germans took part in about 500 Labour Day rallies. Police estimates in Russia recorded 1.5 million participants in demonstrations. In Manila, Philippines, 5,000 anti-riot policemen had to be called out to control the hundreds of thousands of people calling for the resignation of President Gloria Arroyo. In Indonesia about 13,000 anti-riot policemen were called out to protect President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who was denounced by thousands as an “enemy of the working class”. Tens of thousands gathered in Japan against the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

May Day 2006 proves that the question now is not whether the working class or socialism will arise Phoenix-like from the ashes; that is increasingly being considered a given. The question now revolves around the form of socialism that will become dominant in the 21st century.

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25 years of WAF

Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 4, 2006

Published in The Post 04/06/2006

Taimur Rahman

I was eight years old but I distinctly remember holding my mother’s little finger while we marched in a protest called by the Women’s Action Forum against the Hudood Laws enforced by General Ziaul Haq. I was too young then to really understand the politics of what was going on but I do remember thinking to myself, “I must defend my mother against the police. I’m old enough now.” However, when the police came charging at the WAF demonstration I was overwhelmed with fear. As the police baton charged the women who were demonstrating for equality, I gasped with wonder at how all the women fought without any kind of fear, often charging into a volley of lathis. This profound experience politicised me. Later when I was sitting in front of a TV screen watching a speech by General Ziaul Haq I asked, “Ma, what is Martial law?” She replied, “Martial Law is the worst thing that can happen to a country. It means that the country is under a dictatorship and the people have no rights.” That was 25 years ago. Things haven’t changed much.

This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) — Pakistan’s only feminist movement to date. Of course there was the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) long before WAF emerged, but APWA not only lacked the radicalism that was gripping the young in the late 1960s, it was also not “feminist” but merely an “association of women”. The association with feminism of WAF implied an attempt to develop a new way, or, more accurately, a non-male-centric way of looking at the world. It implied the development of the concept of ‘patriarchy’ and the struggle against it. The high point of WAF began in 1983 when the first demonstration against the Safia Bibi case was launched. Safia, a blind girl, was gang raped, but since she could not identify her rapists she was charged under the Hudood laws for Zina. WAF’s signature campaign, protests, letter writing, and public campaign forced the Shariat Court to back down. Later the same year WAF protested against the newly pronounced Islamic law of evidence. In the general political situation of the time, the MRD had launched its second massive agitation against military dictatorship and the Ansari Commission, under the rhetoric of Islam, suggested the banning of women from holding high public office (Prime Minister or President) in addition to barring women below age 50 to participate in elections — clearly aimed at Benazir Bhutto. This small but vocal and militant demonstration against the law of evidence was lathi charged by the police, sending shock waves all around the world at the sight of women being beaten on the streets of Pakistan. Women were carted off to the police station under section 144 (that infamous British colonial law), although released soon after.

WAF, shooting into the limelight in the struggle against military dictatorship, instantaneously became ‘a movement’ with all the associated problems, dilemmas, and ironies that accompany success. There were questions of direction, strategy, tactics and democracy. “Should WAF be political or apolitical?” “Should WAF transform into a mass organization or remain a small ideologically clear pressure group?” “Should WAF challenge the religious right on the ideological territory of the right-wing Islamists or should it remain entirely secular?” These and so many other issues were hotly contested and at one point WAF split into two organizations: WAF and WAF (National). Despite these differences, sometimes acute and sharp differences, WAF continued its journey until the arrival of NGOs.

One would have thought that foreign funding would have transformed this small organization into a massive conglomerate but unfortunately the impact was the opposite. The movement splintered into dozens of teeny tiny organizations that continue to speak in the name of women’s rights or feminism from their individual platforms. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the public image of NGOs in Pakistan is largely associated with the original group of WAF. Although the fissiparous tendencies within WAF could, in fact should, have found a creative synthesis with each organization specializing in a specific aspect of women’s rights while operating collectively under the larger banner of WAF, this was not to happen. Ironically, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) is today composed almost entirely of the same group of old WAFers, and to some extent has assumed the role of the larger umbrella organization, but JAC simply does not have the necessary cohesiveness to be anything more effective than a sounding platform. However, it would be unfair to conclude from this final result that the WAF experiment was entirely a failure. Nearly all the founding members of WAF can easily be identified as leading lights in their respective diverse fields that range from education, law, business, arts, research, and literature to name a few. The fact that these women have excelled to the top of their fields in an otherwise male dominated society is a tribute to the continuing spirit of the jute-bag carrying hippie WAFers of the 1980s.

They say history is the version of events written by the victor. Once in a while, other voices can also be heard if one concentrates carefully enough. Rumour has it that old WAFers are getting together on the silver anniversary of the organization to celebrate/remember the contribution of the movement towards women’s emancipation. This event could be an opportunity for a new generation to learn an aspect of our history from a viewpoint other than that of the victor. Given the continued influence of religious extremism, the relevance of the struggle for women’s equality, and the need to eradicate discriminatory laws against women, minorities, and oppressed people in this country, the best contribution this Silver Jubilee can make is to pass the torch to another generation of activists and intellectuals yearning for freedom and equality.

Since women today face the same problems as they did 25 years ago, it seems appropriate to say that ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. Despite this superficial observation, the world has changed so much since the ‘heady days’ of the struggle for democracy that every movement, save the Islamists, finds itself hard-pressed to pass the baton to the next generation, not to mention the fact that people find it emotionally difficult to let go of an organization that was such a vital part of their youth. Nonetheless, the Women’s Action Forum will only have lasting significance in the longer view of history if it can lay claim to a generational continuity.

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