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Friday, July 18, 2014

A Dispatch from Okara

On 18th of July 2014, just a day back, 10 hour shoot out took place in Raiwind, in suburb of Lahore, climaxing in the death of two terrorists. One of the terrorists,it was reported, belongs to Okara. It was also revealed that associates of the terrorists in Okara revealed to the police about the identities and location which resulted in the shoot out.

I am a resident of Okara. I would like to share some of my reflections which are based on my own observations, and which, are meant to shed light on the relationship, a very strong relationship, in my opinion, between capitalism and religious radicalism.

Okara is located in central Punjab, with a population of almost 2 million, and in popular culture known as the city of cows and milk. Al though it has remained a predominantly agricultural city, however, the development of agriculture economy of Okara does not go back much into time.

Okara was a mere jungle glut with Okaan tree, from where the word Okara was eventually derived after the British formally built the city. There was a very famous Textile mill in the city as well, once a hub of Left activism during the 1960's and 70's although nothing of it survives anymore.

As i look back into last 15-20 years, there are fundamental changes i have observed in the city. First is the rapid rise petty bourgeois, a term in Marxist doctrine to describe a class associated with economic activities such as small scale manufacturing, retail exchange, semi autonomous peasantry etc which, although, is not bourgeois in real sense of the term, but in  political and moral ideals seeks to imitate it. There has been a considerable rise in small manufacturing, services sector and retail exchange business over the years in Okara .Al though historically Pakistan People Party, a party that claims to be secular, has remained strong in the area, but i believe beneath the facade of such politics, a new pattern of political allegiance is emerging.

Okara has not remained immune to religious extremism. In fact during 1990's the city experienced a number of sectarian targeted assassinations. There has always been some seminaries propagating religious extremism but they were more on outer fringes of the society. This is changing now. I have observed a remarkable increase in the activities of religious right in the city. For example, there is positive increase in walk chalking around the city by known sectarian organizations, increase in number of gatherings organized by the organizations openly known for their violent credentials. While driving through the city, quite often you will come across banners propagating radical extremism.

An example will be helpful in understanding how the politics of the city is changing. For example twenty to twenty five years back, the sectarian terrorism would largely exported from outside the city. Except for couple of place, one could not clearly identify places within the city which could be term as "headquarters" of extremism. However, 5-6 years back, during Muharram, Shiite procession was nearly assaulted by the band of extremist youth right in downtown Okara. If the situation had not been controlled, it would not be much exaggaration to say that we would experienced in Okara much earlier than what happened in Rawalpindi on Muhammad, last year.

How do we understand with these seemingly diverging trends? For, on one hand there is a rise of petit bourgeois seeking profit and influence, secular in outlooks, fond of Television and travelling on weekends to Lahore to have expensive dinners, and on the other hand a similar rise in religious extremism.

I do not believe these two trends are opposed to each other and more importantly not in Muslim societies. It is this very petit bourgeois which is the supporter of the organizations which promote extremism. For example, the petit bourgeois in our society is a class that has grown in religiously conservative culture but whose economic ends are the maximization of profit and influence. This is the class which is likely to support extremist organizations for the follow reasons

a) Capitalism has very deep psychological implications. An economic system which is essentially driven by profit motive and interest seeking, is likely to have a direct bearing on people psychology. This petit borgeois
 class which is inherently insecure due to its place in the economic system becomes supportive of
 extremist organizations and religious radicalism because, it provides a sort of spiritual relief, an access to divine favor and overcome of "guilt." Market has no morals. Success in the capitalist market is contingent upon how clever and cunning you are. For the reason that this petit bourgeois class has grown in religious tradition but find itself in a overtly uncertain and immoral  market, and is compelled to follow it, supporting radical organizations provides a psychological sense of security and a relative freedom from the guilt.

b) Secondly, in our societies, mechanism to negotiate power with the State through such means as mainstream political parties with popular goals is rapidly diminishing. I do not mean to argue that political organizations are being replaced by religious organizations, rather, a trend which is observable at
 micro level, for example, people pursuing power through elections may be part of some mainstream political organizations, but the trend to appeal to voters for some national agenda is diminishing. Mostly issues are local and in some situation they can be as radical as sectarian too.  This is more widespread in some cities of Southern Punjab, as  radical religious groups have considerably taken place as the negotiator with the State for power on behalf of community. Although power contender may be a
 part of mainstream political party, but it is also likely that being a petit bourgeios himself his capacity for political maneuvering  is very much determined by support from radical religious organizations on whom he rely for political and economic support.

In a number of constituencies in Punjab, the main voting trend is based on sectarian affiliation. Okara is no immune to this effect. Appeal of popular politics is  diminishing, and people in general are  looking towards right wing, in whom this petit bourgeois has found a new ally. These organizations helps petit bourgeois in not  just negotiating power with the State but also within the society. As these organizations have been historically tolerated by the State, and have grown substantially within the  society, their strength appeals to petit bourgeois to make such organization as their " armed wing." This is no hidden secret that such organizations are used for such purposes as land grab, extortion etc.

A mere foot trip to downtown Okara is enough to find support for this argument. It would not take one long to sight those "charity boxes" belonging  to radical  organizations   placed at the counters of petit bourgeiois outlets in a very celebrate manner.

I am planning to write in detail about this phenomena in future but this is true, that more, i deeply observe, more i keep getting convinced of the fundamental relationship between capitalism and religious radicalism in Muslim societies.

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