Utopian Illusion-I
By: Umar Farooq


Radical political thinkers of early 19th century used to criticize the ideals of French Revolution for its systematic flaw of looking into past in search of utopia and attracting the masses on the basis of that utopia. The main line of argument of radical thinkers was that since the French bourgeoisís thought at the time of revolution and its ideals were short on content, they started to rely more and more on idealized past to attract the masses to their cause. So the French revolutionaries idealized the Roman Republic for its values of liberty and freedom and presented its utopian image as panacea for all the problems that were being faced by the French proletariat and lower middle classes before the advent of French Revolution. Karl Marx has termed this the utopian illusions and had said somewhere in his writings that real revolution will not feed on the idealized images of the past, but would build and construct its own future.
Apart from Marx, other radical thinkers of early 20th century have also talked about and explained the phenomenon of utopian illusions. This was understandable because imagery of most of the revolutions in the modern times relied quite heavily on the idealised past to achieve their political objectives. They used idealized past to mobilize the masses for their cause. However in the classical radical literature one hardly finds any reference to the fact as to what happens when the reality hits the masses in the post-revolution period and when masses realize that what had been presented to them as idealized past was not ideal at all. Or that the idealized past is figment of somebodyís imagination. Take for example Roman Republic, which was presented to masses in pre-revolution France, as the hub of freedom and liberty, and whereas in fact these values were available only to the free citizens of Roman, who number was far smaller than the slaves and those residents of roman empire who were not free citizens.
Pakistan would have been an ideal place for such radical thinkers to look for answers to these questions which they had ignored in the context of post-revolutionary Russia or Post-Revolutionary France. I think Pakistan is the ideal place to search the answer to these questions. I agree that Pakistan has not witnessed any revolution and had not even come close to any revolution in more than 60 years of its existence. But there is no dearth of revolutionary writings, literature and propaganda about an idealized utopian past. Let me first precisely rephrase the primary question before we proceed to take a peep into the utopian literature that idealized the past: What happens when the masses, which are fed on the imagery of idealized past, come face to face with the reality?
In Pakistani society there is no dearth of utopian literature on idealized Islamic past. Every religion-political group has produced plethora of such literature and has been disseminating it into the society over the years. Itís true that Muslims always had very idealized image of their past, in fact it is central to their religion to idealize the past. But the religio-political groups in Pakistan (and in pre-independence British India) initiated a process of idealization of the past which is totally distinct from the way traditionally Muslims have been idealizing their past. First of all under the influence of western modernity with which they had an encounter within the framework of colonialism, Muslim intellectuals started to present Islam as a distinctive economic and political system. This was the time when industrial revolution had taken roots in the European societies and this had given rise to well-regulated and with definite shaped political and economic systems in the western societies.
Traditionally Islam as a religion was idealized by the Muslims for values which were universal and which revolved around ethical acts such as compassion, philanthropy and piety. But the revivalists turned all of this on its head. In their attempt to create an idealized past-a golden age-they put forward a hotchpotch, a mixture of modern western concepts about politics and economy and Islamic principles. The west had by now developed the obsession with systems and mechanical running of their social and political life and this obsession travelled eastward to the societies under western occupation in 19th and 20th centuries. It is not difficult to discern this obsession to present Islam as a system in all the attempts of the revivalists (read Islamists) to create an idealized past or to create a golden age in the literature produced by the Islamists scholars and religious leaders.
Thus philanthropy was replaced by an idealized version of the past, where economic problems didnít exist. Compassion as a religious value received the hardest hit and it was replaced by aggression and use of force and disruption caused by the use of force was presented as something akin to the early military expansions of Islam. Piety was relegated to the secondary importance as attainment of political glory became the primary objective of religious observance. All this was put together into one package and presented as a panacea for eradicating all the economic, social and political problems of the society on the one hand, and on the other hand as a force that can reverse the tide of western military and political dominance and to replace it with Muslims societies as a dominating force on the world stage.
None of this happened in the real world, not even in societies in which something close to Islamistsí program was put into place. Pakistan is a case in point where Islamistsí program was put into place under the aegis of military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. Serious attempt was made by the military regime to put in place, what they described as ďIslamic Economic SystemĒ. Interests or mark-up was banned; the government started deducting Zakat from the accounts of wealth account holders. And yet the economic problems kept on worsening and poor becoming poorer in the process. Militarily, the regime started sponsoring Jihad in neighboring Afghanistan under able sponsorship of American CIA and started amassing weapons systems coming directly from Washington. And yet Pakistanís military vulnerabilities and security problems kept on increasing with each passing day.
This was the time when reality hit the Pakistani masses, who had been fed on the images of idealized past, the hardest. For the professional and urban middle classes this amounted to failure of Islamistsí program. This explains the rise of right of center party like PMLN in Pakistani politics (in the wake of military dictatorship of Zia-ul-haq), whose politics is defined more by patronage networks than by any ideology that harped on theme of any idealized past. On the other hand was the fringe element for which anybody could be wrong except the religious principles as defined by their ideologues.


Published in Herald