Political identities formed by ideologies at the core of which is the hatred of ‘the other’ are fragile and volatile. Imagine a person in Nazi Germany whose political identity was crafted by an ideology, one of whose main planks was the detestation of Jewish people, communists, gypsies and physically or mentally impaired people. Take this plank out, and the identity that stood on it would collapse. The psychological impact of this on a person can be catastrophic.
A German colleague of mine, a scholar, who I befriended in Washington DC in 2018, once told me an interesting little story. He said his grandfather, who was a young man during Hitler’s dictatorship, embraced the Nazi ideology, despite the fact that he was a supporter of the centre-left German Social Democratic Party (SPD). He told me that once ‘democracy in Germany collapsed’ after failing to withstand the weight of a failing economy, his grandfather began to agree with those who wanted to see the coming to power of a ‘strongman.’
The grandfather still held centre-left views, but hoped that the strongman would emerge from the left – perhaps hoping for someone like Lenin or Stalin. His family lived in a middle-class Jewish neighbourhood in Berlin and was on friendly terms with the residents of the area. My colleague told me that most German Jews were not very demonstrative about their faith and considered themselves Germans first. But as the economy continued to slide, his grandfather, who had been hired as a teacher at a prestigious school, began to fear that he would lose his job. He had recently married and was planning to have children.
“He did not know how to handle his fear (of becoming unemployed),” the colleague said. “He liked being known and seen as a teacher,” he added. This was an identity he was most comfortable with. He liked it. But the fear of losing the job — and perhaps his wife and his dreams of becoming a father — drove him into the arms of the Nazi Party that was still struggling to become an effective electoral outfit.
My colleague said that there was no real danger of his grandfather losing his job because the school only accepted students from the ‘moneyed classes’ that were not being impacted by the economy as much as the classes below them. Secondly, the grandfather had married a woman who had risen to become an apprentice of a highly successful lawyer. So, there was no reason to believe that she would have left him, in case he lost his job.
“Many years later, my grandfather told my father, that his fears had made him feel helpless,” the colleague continued. “He told my father that he felt that he was not playing his role to save Germany, and that the party that he used to vote for had no future.” By the time of the 1932 German elections, the grandfather was fully smitten by Hitler and voted for the Nazi Party. His wife, though, was shocked. But he told her that, in Germany (apparently) there were more Jewish teachers, professors and lawyers than Germans. When the wife responded by saying the German Jews were German citizens as well, he told her she was naive, and that it will be a Jew who will take his place in the school where he taught.
Such manic episodes of ‘hope’ were often followed by days of depression in which the grandfather would ask his son, “Who am I and what is my purpose?” Once, when a Jewish friend of his son visited the house and tried to console the grandfather, the latter slapped him
When Hitler overthrew the parliamentary system, installed a totalitarian regime, and initiated a vicious campaign against the Jews, the grandfather began to get his Jewish neighbours arrested on false charges. Then he conveniently moved into a bigger house left behind by a Jewish family that he had reported to the authorities for being communist sympathisers. His wife secretly escaped to Sweden after fearing that he would report her as well for having ‘un-German’ and ‘anti-Aryan’ views. But he didn’t care. He was made the principal of the school and took an active part in designing the new curriculum that glorified the ‘supremacy of the Aryan race’ and demonised Jewish people as swindlers, cheaters, corrupters and vermin!
He then married another woman provided to him by ‘The Belief and Beauty Society.’ The society focused on teaching young Aryan women cooking, sewing and politics, in line with Nazi ideals. The society forbade women from seeking anything that would compromise their ability to conceive healthy Aryan children. These ranged from smoking to pursuing hiring education.
My German colleague said that his father was one of the four children that his grandfather had from his second wife. After the Nazi regime collapsed in 1945, the wife escaped to Uruguay with another man, without the children. They were raised in various orphanages in Berlin and Munich. The grandfather was briefly arrested by the Allied forces. The collapse of the Nazi government and Hitler’s suicide left him in a catatonic state. He didn’t know who he was anymore. He lost all sense of ‘the self’ when his identity of being a teacher (that was then fortified by an intense political ideology) crumbled. He spent a decade in a mental institution. In 1956, he somewhat recovered and started to live with one of his sons in Berlin, even though, according to my colleague, he was convinced that Hitler had gone into hiding and would return ‘to once again save Germany.’
Such manic episodes of ‘hope’ were often followed by days of depression in which the grandfather would ask his son, “Who am I and what is my purpose?” Once, when a Jewish friend of his son visited the house and tried to console the grandfather, the latter slapped him.
So why did he slap the Jew who was exhibiting kindness towards him? The grandfather was still holding on to an identity that was shaped by the Nazis. Hating the Jew ‘other’ was an important pillar of the ideology. Returning or accepting the kindness of a Jew would have negated the ideology. To the grandfather, it would have meant the defeat and erosion of ideas that his identity and sense of self were made of. He passed away as a bitter, confused old man in 1974.
Recently, a very capable scholar and activist from the left in Pakistan tweeted that despite the fact that most ‘liberals’ and progressives were condemning the PDM government for behaving like the ousted PTI regime, they were still being abused (on social media) by PTI supporters. Indeed, equating the PDM government’s crackdown against PTI workers with similar crackdowns that took place during Imran Khan’s regime is problematic for a lot of PTI supporters. To them, Khan’s actions in this regard were justified. To gain their appreciation, one has to outrightly censure the PDM government without mentioning that the PTI regime was no different. In actual fact, it was worse.
But one can also see the refusal (by PTI supporters) to acknowledge the condemnation of the PDM regime by the progressives as a way to safeguard the political identity that was formed for them by PTI and its charismatic leader Imran Khan. A majority of Khan’s largely urban middle-class supporters did not have a political identity before 2011. Most of them were entirely defined by their professions: teacher, doctor, lawyer, corporate executive, entrepreneur, etc. This, and that they were ‘Muslim’ and ‘proud Pakistanis.’
They also had a uniform fetish. They treated the military establishment as a sacred cow. So at the core of the ideology that was formulated for them was a hatred for mainstream democratic parties (because they were ‘corrupt’); abhorrence of the parliamentary system (that needed to be replaced by a ‘presidential system’); suspicion towards the US and Europe (because they were neo-imperialist forces working against the interests of Islam and Pakistan); and reverence towards the armed forces and the PTI chairman who was a ‘hero,’ ‘saviour’ and messiah. According to this ideology, liberals were khooni (blood-thirsty) because they were aiding western powers to eliminate Muslim brothers by labelling them as terrorists.
So, the identity formulated by this ideology would come into question if progressives and liberals were to be acknowledged or appreciated. As mentioned, losing a (political) identity can be devastating. One can grow out of it, though, and many do. But to some, it becomes something impossible to do because it provides them an existential purpose, and maybe economic benefit.
From the late 1980s, many young men in Karachi and Hyderabad began to join the Mohajir nationalist party, the MQM. Some of these men gradually rose from insignificance to ‘terrors,’ after proving their loyalty and passion for MQM and its chief Altaf Hussain. Hussain gave them an identity. They were told that they belonged to a distinct ethnic group, the Mohajir, who had had shed their blood to create Pakistan but were sidelined and forgotten by the Punjabi elite. The youth were also told that the Pashtuns were encroaching upon their economic and political interests in Karachi, and that the Sindhis wanted to throw them in to the Arabian Sea.
The once irrelevant young men who led the way to impose ‘MQM’s writ’ in various areas of Karachi and Hyderabad were given nicknames. For example, a Javed became Javed Langra. There was also Abdur Rehman Bhola, Zubair Charya, Nadeem Anda Fry and dozens more. From being no-ones, they had become men who were feared and had clout. Many were eventually eliminated by the police, many escaped into exile, and some quit the party and became no-one again. But there were still those who refused to let go of the identity that was programmed into them.
The Zia regime began to form an identity that merged modern entrepreneurial initiatives and disposition with Islamic ritualism. It was thus okay to partake in modern economic affairs as long as one strictly followed Islamic ritual obligations. This identity was then proliferated through textbooks. So, being a good Pakistani began to mean being a ‘proud Muslim’ who was ‘educated,’ and an active contributor to the country’s economy. But he had to look Muslim as well
They did not want to become a non-one ever again. There is a fruit vendor in Karachi’s Shah Faisal Colony who used to be a ‘terror’ of MQM in the early 1990s. He came from a lower-middle-class family and was a grade 10 student at a public school when he was smitten by MQM. I first met him when I was covering the 1992 military operation against in MQM for an English weekly. His name is Anwari. This Anwari, after joining the MQM as a common worker in 1990, soon became Anwari Jazbati. With a pistol and a reputation of ‘getting things done,’ he was brought inside the circle of important MQM musclemen in the area. He became ‘respected’/feared in his neighbourhood. He became someone.
Anwari was arrested during the 1992 operation. He was tortured and then imprisoned. He was released a decade later in early 2003. Due to his family’s pleas, he did not return to MQM. He did odd jobs before finally setting up his own fruit stall in the area. When I met him again in 2014, he was 41 years old. He had married and had three children. He met me well. From Anwari Jazbati, he was now simply Anwari Fruitwallah. He said his political past was history, but he did reminisce about the days when he was someone. He also told me that he often gets depressed (“udaas rehta houn”). He couldn’t understand why this was so. To me, the udaasi (sadness/depression) was probably due to loss of an identity that had made him feel purposeful, even if many of these purposes were rather questionable.
Societal change and personal life events sometimes make one feel uncertain about one’s self and identity. According to uncertainty-identity theory, this self-uncertainty can motivate people to identify with social groups — particularly groups that provide a distinctive and clearly defined identity. This process can make more extreme groups attractive as a source of identification. People may zealously identify with highly distinctive groups that have strong and directive leadership (MA.Hogg, From Uncertainty to Extremism: Social Categorization and Identity Processes, SAGE Journals, Oct.15, 2014).
Uncertainty-identity theory describes the motivational role that uncertainty plays in causing people to identify with social and political groups. It can be a harmless sporting group or a fan club. But since the motivator or trigger in this regard is a feeling of uncertainty, the theory is often applied to understand those who join radical or extremist groups. The researcher and author M. Amir Rana has carried out numerous surveys in which he interviewed dozens of young men and women who were radicalised by militant Islamists. The radicalised mostly came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds. They were young and dismayed by their static or uncertain economic existence.
They were provided a sense of certainty by militant outfits through cash handouts, and a sense of purpose through an ideology that glorified self-sacrifice as a means to create an Islamic state/caliphate that would wipe out poverty, corruption and immorality, and provide justice. In this case as well, a young person is made to create a ‘self’ in relation to an opposite or ‘the other.’ The other in this respect is heretics and infidels who are not only conspiring to destroy Islam, but are the reasons behind the person’s economic woes and ant-like existence. In his mind, his new identity as a jihadist transforms the ant into a giant with a cosmic purpose to cleanse the world of atheistic or heretical filth.
But as we have increasingly seen, jihadists can also emerge from ‘educated’ middle-income groups. Members of Hezbollah’s militant wing who were killed in action in the 1980s and early 1990s, were at least as likely to come from economically advantaged families and have a relatively high level of education as they were to come from impoverished families without educational opportunities (D. Francis, Poverty and Low Education Don’t Cause Terrorism, National Bureau of Economic Research, Sept.2002).
In February 2002, the Pakistani police arrested Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-Pakistani accused of facilitating the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan’s sprawling and chaotic metropolis Karachi, by militants allegedly associated with al Qaeda. After being taken to a hideout in Afghanistan, he was slain. A few eyebrows were raised when details of Sheikh’s background began to trickle in. He wasn’t your ‘regular’ militant Islamist. He was highly educated, middle-class and had lived a relatively comfortable life in England and Pakistan. Most Pakistanis didn’t know exactly what to make of such a revelation.
In 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a young, middle-class Pakistani-American unsuccessfully tried to blow up New York’s famous Times Square. In 2015 one Saad Aziz assassinated a progressive activist Sabeen Mahmud. Aziz had graduated from an elite private school and then joined one of Karachi’s finest business schools, the IBA. His father owned a trendy restaurant, and Aziz also had a girlfriend. But for some reason, he was drawn to a society formed by an Islamic student group at IBA. The society was a kind of reading club where members read and discussed works of well-known Islamist ideologues.
Recently, a very capable scholar and activist from the left in Pakistan tweeted that despite the fact that most ‘liberals’ and progressives were condemning the PDM government for behaving like the ousted PTI regime, they were still being abused (on social media) by PTI supporters. Indeed, equating the PDM government’s crackdown against PTI workers with similar crackdowns that took place during Imran Khan’s regime is problematic for a lot of PTI supporters. To them, Khan’s actions in this regard were justified. To gain their appreciation, one has to outrightly censure the PDM government without mentioning that the PTI regime was no different
Omar Saeed Sheikh and Faisal Shahzad were ‘acculturated natives’ who had rebelled against cultural mores that they had adopted as citizens of UK and US (Patricia Crone lecture at Institute of Advanced Studies, Dec.2, 2009). Acculturated natives embrace cultural norms of their adopted societies. They do so to advance their status in these societies. These natives live in regions where they do not have ancestral roots. But when, despite integrating foreign cultural ethos, they feel that their progress is being restricted by the producers of these ethea, they walk out from their acculturated selves, rebel against it and adopt their ancestral culture.
But what they believe is their ‘authentic/ancestral culture’ is often a romanticised concoction, or even an unintentional caricature. In their rebellion against their former acculturated selves, they may begin to dress in the manner they believe people in their ancestral culture do (or ought to), or they may begin to follow their religion in a more overt manner. The acculturated non-European native’s anger, triggered by his inability to achieve prestige and success despite adopting the ethos of a dominant western culture, is a rebellion against modernity (P. Crone, ibid).
It is a matter of identity again. An existing identity seems unsatisfying and, in this case, alien. Existentialist angst triggered by uncertainty about who one really was, attracts the person to start identifying with ideas that seem ‘whole’ and certain. Shiekh and Shahzad found such ideas in the moral and political absolutism of ‘militant Islamism.’ Perhaps same was the case with Aziz. He wasn’t a citizen of a Western country, though. But he was provided a modern, Westernised education and lived a Westernised lifestyle.
Ever since the 1980s, various sections of Pakistan’s urban middle-classes have struggled to convincingly find a place for themselves within modernity. The confusion in this regard was largely caused by a state that had begun to describe itself as a ‘bastion of Islam’ — especially after the country lost its Eastern wing in 1971 in a brutal civil war. Westernisation and modernity began to be derided as being entirely alien to ‘Pakistani culture’ despite the fact that South Asia was a British colony for over a century and Pakistan’s founders were Westernised modernists.
During the General Zia dictatorship, Westernised Pakistanis were denounced as being artificial and ‘mental slaves,’ even though their capitalist-entrepreneurial prowess and education were highly regarded. The Zia regime began to form an identity that merged modern entrepreneurial initiatives and disposition with Islamic ritualism. It was thus okay to partake in modern economic affairs as long as one strictly followed Islamic ritual obligations. This identity was then proliferated through textbooks. So, being a good Pakistani began to mean being a ‘proud Muslim’ who was ‘educated,’ and an active contributor to the country’s economy. But he had to look Muslim as well.
Therefore, the shalwar-kameez suddenly became an ‘Islamic dress,’ beards and hijabs became common and those who were not proud-educated-economically-viable-Muslims, either became mental slaves or, on the other hand, jahils (illiterate). This identity was steadily adopted by middle-income groups. Two decades later, Imran Khan emerged as its poster-boy. This is when one saw the urban middle-classes begin to fully embrace an identity that was originally shaped by a reactionary dictatorship in the 1980s. This identity, too, was constructed in relation to ‘the other.’ The other was a cluster comprising of modernists, liberals, progressives, and the jahil awam (illiterate masses).
Now, unless one of these fully espouses the ideology and the identity of a staunch PTI supporter, he or she will never be accepted as a sympathiser, no matter how empathetic he/she tries to to be towards the supporters. Valuing a gesture of ‘the other’ is like betraying the (concocted) self.