Violence In Karachi And The Challenge Of The Left

Try convincing a middle class or poor citizen of Karachi that the most pressing problem the megacity of 20 million faces is Islamic extremism. They might agree with you to some degree. But if you ask them, rather than telling them, what their problems are, they will respond from a fairly standard list:

1) Intense ethnic conflict expressed through political parties warring in the streets.
2) Brazen and widespread violent crime.
3) Police abuses, particularly taking bribes from poorer citizens.
4) Consistent load-shedding and the total absence for days on end of electricity and water from several areas.

There are more things to add to this list, but as far as random violence is concerned, the most pressing threat comes from warring political parties and gangs, and from criminals, not from religious extremists. This is despite the attack by armed Islamist militants on Pakistan Navy and Pakistan Air Force targets earlier in 2011, and despite the bombing at a significant Barelvi shrine in October 2010.

It is the violence of armed Islamic militants that garners international headlines, but it is the other forms of violence that people in Karachi have to deal with on a daily basis.

Many elements of the so-called "left," the so-called "progressive," the so-called "civil society" have declared political Islam the greatest threat to Pakistan's people. At least in Karachi, this is a serious error of analysis, and a serious error of practice. Karachi's left should look into the considerably complex causes and consequences of violent conflict in Karachi, and examine how people in other Third World countries (for instance, in Latin America) plagued by considerable violence have tried to curtail it. A peace campaign specifically and concretely targeted atKarachi's citizens could, however, risk making the left relevant to the masses. (More seriously, it may also expose such a movement to not inconsiderable violence, and those risks have to be assessed.)

The alternative is to watch as Karachi's citizens slide either toward greater ethnic fractionalism as a means of securing lives and livelihoods, or towards "law and order" solutions most commonly bandied about by the military and paramilitary. Consider the defence from some middle class quarters of the Rangers' extrajudicial killing of an armed robber. This kind of defence, as incorrect as it may be, is rooted in a real feeling of impatience over the tense situation in the city. Militarism and quasi-fascism are, obviously, not ideal solutions to the problem.

So, for the sake of the people of Karachi, more analysis of the causes and consequences of the conflicts in the city is necessary. What are the intersections of political economy, ethnicity and geography that lead to variousforms of violence?

One thing is clear from the outset: it's hard to blame this one on political Islam. This is not to say that political Islam, violent or not, is not a serious problem. It is, and it must be contested. But it is to say that the left, at least discursively if in no other way, needs to expand its repertoire. By - Akram Javed

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