The Problem with Political Tags: A Rejoinder to Pervez Hoodbhoy

Trapped between Arundhati Roy and Malala, I squirm at the labels.  

How does believing that icons are vulnerable to capitalistic co-opting make me or anybody a communist? The purpose of this piece is, therefore, not so much about Malala Yousafzai as about how she and other issues serve to pigeonhole people. Pervez Hoodbhoy is a respected academic and liberal commentator. He recently wrote an article titled, "Why does Malala Yusufzai’s Nobel bother so many on the Left?"

While quoting from my 2013 piece, he refers to me as a "left-wing author and activist". When did this happen? I do not have a problem aligning with left-wing thought, but I cannot claim to be left-wing simply because I have had no real engagement with the Left politically or in any tangible manner. Also, the word activist should be used judiciously. Indeed, I worked with two NGOs, and many of my earlier feature pieces could be deemed activist in nature. But, again, ethically one does not deserve these appellations.

Labelling is not unlike name-calling, especially if it is aimed at specific individuals. Apportioning tags to groups is less irksome because the name represents an idea that is manifested in the group in some manner. I am guilty of referring to supporters of the rightwing as "Sanghis", and my explanation is that by default they adhere to the RSS philosophy. If one were revolted by it, one would not imbibe the wine in new bottle, so to speak.

Digression aside, I have interacted with Hoodbhoy several times, and met him in Islamabad. He features rather prominently in my book in the section on rebels, including Ahmed Faraz and Ardheshir Cowasjee. His being in it is as normal as my featuring him there. If it reveals his liberalism, then why should it not reveal mine?

He says I "lashed out" at Malala for not realising that she was a victim of child labour even as she spoke about it. I am surprised at such hyperbolic expression from him that reduces my detailed analysis, whether you agree or disagree, to an outburst. His anger against my "leftist" views comes out thus:

"But hang on a bit! This “kid” and “cocooned marionette” did not achieve world-wide admiration for opposing US-led wars or child labour or for a thousand and one other such good-and-great things. The bullet that smashed through her skull came because she opposed the Pakistani Taliban’s edict that all education for girls must end forever in the Swat valley after 15 September 2009, and her vigorous campaign for every girl child’s right to education."

If child labour was of no consequence, why did he point out my "lashing out" at her for it? There were schools in Swat; there are schools in Swat. Why does it always have to be a bullet that awakens Pakistanis?

The dismissal of opposition to the US-led war as among the "thousand and one other such good-and-great things" is disappointing. The worst form of terrorism that common people face has been after US intervention. It does not mean there was no terrorism before, but it was confined to marked areas; it did not spill out into the urban streets as it has in its present form. Hoodbhoy knows all this and more. Has he forgotten? Not quite.

He starts by mentioning Arundhati Roy, and her rather tame and obfuscating quote on Malala after the Nobel. Why anybody would interview her on this subject beats me. Having hemmed and hawed, she manages a few things. Hoodbhoy says, "For one who has championed people's causes everywhere so wonderfully well, these shallow, patronizing remarks were disappointing."

Only disappointing.

It is rather uncomfortable for me to share the page with Roy, even if it is on the subject of Malala. This is the problem with labelling. We end up with people we may not want to have any truck with who enjoy the perks of basking in titular titles.  The supra Maoists, supra Ambedkarites, supra Islamists, supra Media who use all these labels to their advantage knowing well that these labels will not stick. There is a pecking order even in labels.

Public conscience seems to belong to those who gatecrash into causes and do with them what the urban intelligentsia does with Malala — ride on it, but ensuring that they are not left to hold the baby. Their left-leaning is to get a nod from the imperialist sub-sect that looks after the intellectual 'exile'. They come late to the party, and reiterate what has already been said. That is typical capitalist behaviour of doing a recce before investing.

Then, there are the neat halves as exemplified in Hoodbhoy’s quotes that need to be rebutted:

"Unsurprisingly leftist critiques of Malala’s Nobel have been eagerly seized upon by right-wingers ... In the weeks after she was shot, several students at my university told me they see Malala Yousafzai as Malala ‘Dramazai’, an ‘Illuminati Psy Op’, and a willing tool of the West who is out to badmouth Pakistan..."

If it is wrong to blame the holy scripts for fundamentalist inspiration, then why is it so easy to apportion blame on the Left? If the Talibs are not reading the Quran before hitting their next target, then why would they be reading Marx or Chomsky? The few non-standard views I have read have not called her names or doubted that she was shot at. However, it is not really about whether "the West is out to badmouth Pakistan" but the West choosing heroes convenient to it.

If right-wingers in Pakistan are reading Leftist works, then what are right-wingers in India doing that they seize upon the liberals in Pakistan to justify their stand? The moment a Tarek Fatah (Canadian Pakistani writer and "liberal activist") posts a link to the Hoodbhoy piece, Hindutva proponents find an opportunity to gloat. Their other hero is Taslima Nasreen who has absolutely no compunction about being hosted by the right-wing in India and keeping pretty much silent on the atrocities committed by them in the country she chooses to live in, and live off.

"A puzzle: why does such savage bestiality often find no, or only cursory, reference in today’s left-wing discourses? Boko Haram’s sex captives, ISIL’s beheadings, Taliban suicide attacks against civilians, and scores of atrocities by multiple Islamic groups should appall and disgust all those who believe in human equality, decency, and freedom. The Left is most certainly built upon these strong moral foundations, so why the near silence?"

There is certainly no silence, although I accept that they are less vocal. Speaking for myself, one reason I don't jump in is because there is politically-driven pressure to do so. My response is less leftist and more about being tagged as a Muslim. As I've said often, why should Muslims bear the onus of such groups when others do not? My moral foundation and decency also want to know about drones and Abu Ghraib. The mainstream media is owned by the rich and the imperialists, not the Taliban or ISIS. They will not overly oppose the West's indecency.

Does it not strike Hoodbhoy that some of the victims of the ISIS are aid workers and supporters of civilians in the region before the Caliphate was even formed? Some are converts. I find it intriguing that this aspect is rarely highlighted.

"The explanation has two parts. First, a portion of the Left has a wholly negative view of western agendas, uncritically rejecting everything as self-serving and hypocritical. Second, many progressives today do not wish to leave a comfort zone where all global problems can be safely blamed on to the West. Having two baddies – America and Islamism – threatens to muddy up the waters. They would prefer to keep life simple."

Rejection itself is criticism, so there cannot be uncritical criticism. "Everything" is too much of a hold-all explanation. One might be charmed by the Manhattan skyline or the weekend bohemia of San Francisco, or even pay a nodding tribute to Silicon Valley as one bows before a gadget. Why, one admires the many protest movements in the streets, including protests of American policies in the world, by Americans. So, what are we not besotted by about the US? That which pisses off the people of the country too.

It makes life about as simple as liberals trying to fix their blinkers as they bolster one more hero to save themselves from doing anything about the issues on the ground. Take the Blasphemy issue. Weep over cases, but do nothing to push for reform of laws.

To be fair, Hoodbhoy has conceded the US role in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, his alternative idea is unsettling:

"Constraints on their still callous corporate and political elites have steadily grown. Therefore western agendas and interests can sometimes be intelligently leveraged for furthering what is important for peoples everywhere: education, peace, female emancipation, freedom of thought and action, labor rights, and all that the Left holds important. Malala has played this game with the West well, giving us hope that in these bleak times there are still some among us who have their heads screwed on right."

This means that one tolerates western agenda in Syria for it to benefit Pakistan. To take aid for education even as the educated are reduced to live in camps elsewhere. I would not expect Malala to speak on everything, but since she does so the selectivity can be telling. The Boko Haram girls have to be brought back, but what about the girls in Pakistan? The general words against drone strikes are not as clear-cut.

Hoodbhoy’s overall sentiment is:

"It is surely time for one-track leftists to learn that we live in a multiple-tracked world, to recognize that there can be more than one baddie, and to resist from simplifying at the cost of accuracy. Else they do grievous wrong to all."

Those singing Malala’s praises do so mostly without reading the subtext of the satellite areas. It may be pertinent to ask why one must probe the depths of what is not of immediate concern. The reason is that we are dealing with a teenager who is sought to be made into a saviour fighting against terrorism in Pakistan almost single-handedly from Birmingham. The general belief is that marketing of Malala has made more people aware. Aware of what? The need for more schools, less terrorism? Aren't they aware of it already? There are so many loose ends that should be tied up instead of waving tasseled flags.

Aside from this is the fact that if icons are not of an age to be accountable, then it is the job of those propping them up to display some modicum of maturity and probity.

It would be interesting to know where the non-right, not-left belong, and whether that naturally gives them a multi-track worldview. Besides, if opinions are to be gauged by the yardstick of accuracy, then whose version of accuracy is it to be? I, in fact, believe there are more than the two baddies accounted for here. It includes several kinds of right-wing and left-wing, as well as centrists. There are varied types of conservatives and liberals. And there are also those who go along with the herd. Some of them even manage to get hailed as shepherds.


My earlier one on the Nobel: Politicising Satyarthi and Malala