Tuesday, July 24, 2007

'Enlightened Moderation', per force


Maryam Sakeenah

Flipping through some official data presenting the achievements of the Era of Enlightened Moderation, I could not help noticing how cosmetic the ‘reforms’ talked about were. There was a sameness about all the achievements listed. Yet the booklet made such a big deal out of these cosmetic successes_ perhaps because each of these was related directly or indirectly, to the policy of Enlightened Moderation. After all, the singlemindedness with which this ‘vision’ has been implemented is the triumph of this government, its crowning glory.

The present regime has taken this nation to new heights by virtue of its ‘enlightenedly moderate’ vision in areas such as culture, media, women, showbiz, entertainment. As if to affirm what I was thinking, the pamphlet seemed to talk about particularly these as in fact this government’s major successes_ barring the usual few rhetorical exceptions.

For one, you can measure this success by the extent to which the media has been allowed ‘freedom of expression.’ Plug into any of the myriad private channels licensed by this government, and get entertained by women in skimpy dresses; get ready ‘fatwas’ on any juristic issue under the sun from the worst ignoramus on the street. Watch values you held dear all your life being lambasted by scatterbrained hardcore ‘moderates’, and keep your mouth shut_ we believe in ‘freedom of expression’ for anyone whose tongue can wag, provided he be ‘enlightenedly moderate.’

The emphasis on media and culture in the pamphlet seemed to be sending a message somewhat like this: forget the street ramblers drowning their misery in overdoses of narcotics, forget your two square meals a day: Cross-border intercultural exchanges, actresses hopping across the border for jointly-produced blockbusters and ‘Sufism’ conferences are the major government policy headways that need to be celebrated.

Back in October 1999, the General struck the right keynote in his inaugural address to the nation, talking about issues that really matter to the masses. However, becoming the U.S’s ‘major non-NATO ally’ post-9/11 has brought about a phenomenal re-alignment of priorities. Enlightened Moderation rests at Number One on our priority list, literally overhauling state policy so that cosmetic fringe concerns have assumed the forefront while central issues pertaining to public welfare stand eclipsed. And so, trivia like a hyped-up national celebration of Basant, joint Indo-Pak movie ventures, giant hi-tech cinema complexes, International Sufism conferences, mixed gender sports events have risen to the fore as major issues that matter and deserve government attention and massive financing. Why? Because they are part of a greater agenda, and fall directly in line with the government’s guiding principle of ‘Enlightened Moderation.’ The singular aim is to present a ‘soft image’ to the world around, therefore everything the government does or intends to do has to serve this aim. It is women running marathons in shorts that present that ‘soft image’_ you lump it if you don’t like it. Poverty alleviation, public welfare, health and education, lower down on the list, can wait. Rhetoric is enough to keep the simple masses silenced, waiting eternally for the Godot.

The pamphlet did reserve some space for economics as well. Privatization has been done like never before, so that owners are given the freedom to churn out profits from the poverty-stricken nation unabated. And don’t you know? The Telecommunications industry is thriving like never before. Who says this nation is poor? Even the fruit vendors carry mobile phones these days! But one just wonders_ how exactly is this going to bridge the gaping divide between the filthily rich and the miserably poor? The government may be right about economic indicators showing signs of growth. However, the fruits of that growth are not reaching the masses who are worse off than perhaps ever before. The only true indicator of the health of your economy is social conditions, which, sadly, are in no way benefiting from the ‘boom’ if there is any. If there are thousands of mobile phones in use and several more internet connections, how exactly is this going to help the proliferating sidewalk sleepers or the numerous beggars rambling in the streets with vacant eyes? Is it not a meaningless triumph, keeping in view the much graver, much more real problems that the ordinary faces? But then, I forget_ mobile phones and internet connections, and their massively financed marketing and advertisement campaigns, those huge billboards with jazzy painted smiles of pretty ladies holding cell-phones to their ears are the hallmark of an enlightened and moderate society. The rambling shabby roadside sellers in the shadows can be ignored, as we proudly commit ourselves to present a ‘soft image’ abroad.

In pursuit of Enlightened Moderation, the government is committed towards presenting a Westernised exterior for the country, doing up the frills and flounces with devotion to secure acceptance. The change in priorities it has brought about is far-reaching in its actual effects on society. Ground realities and the weeping sores of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, provision of basic civic necessities and health conditions are being grossly neglected as the government busies itself on other fronts. That is, fighting wars of another people and doing their dirty-work, crushing ‘militants’ in Waziristan, (who sometimes turn out to be women and children), cracking down on seminaries, sealing up mosques, closing down charity-based public welfare projects run by religious organizations, banning publication of Islamic literature, and flimsier still, holding marathons (that count for more than just a benign ‘sport’), financing regional T.V channels in Pushtu language in the hawkish north to ‘moderate’ and ‘enlighten’ the unruly Pathans, and building million-dollar IMAX cinema complexes on M.M Alam Road. These are the successes the government is very vocally proud of, because they help convince the world looking from without how enlightened and moderate we really are. However, the basic question keeps lingering: Whose agenda are we following? Whose interests are we serving? What is being sacrificed in the process? Sometimes, rhetoric alone to placate and silence does not do the job.

It is good to be enlightened and it is good to be moderate as a principal of personal conduct. However, when the two are tailor-made as grandiose political jargon and become ‘policy’, or as a high-sounding euphemism designed to clothe a naked reality, Enlightened Moderation becomes a cruel goddess at whose altar public welfare, civil rights, meaningful progress, values, ideology, liberty, civil security and human rights are sacrificed. Enlightened Moderation may be the President’s dream_ but it sure is this country’s worst nightmare!