France vs Pakistan’s elite vs the TLP – Mosharraf Zaidi

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Organizations like Charlie Hebdo, institutions like laicite and politicians like Emmanuel Macron can pretend all they like, but their attitude and approach to Islam is rooted in a tradition of racism.

Worse, rather than using his centrist perch to bring different strands of French society together on an issue as explosive as blasphemy, Macron has sought to opportunistically engage with right-wing voters in France, by deliberately inflaming the sentiments of Muslims in France, and around the world. In short, France has a lot to account for, and it should never be given a free pass for the appalling behaviour of elected officials like President Macron.

The existential anxiety of baby boomers in advanced Western economies, and the exploitation of these identity jitters by mainstream politicians like Macron, is neither innate to France nor new. All around the world, social media has enabled an unprecedented rise in what I call ‘voice without accountability’. This increased voice and the concomitant absence of any responsibility for what this voice manufactures are causing new political challenges to old political orders. One of the orders that is suffering most acutely is the unique and dysfunctional Pakistani elite and its dominance of resources and discourse in the country.

When he won a controversial election in 2018, PM Khan was seen by his voters and optimistic observers, at home and abroad, as a uniquely gifted and privileged politician who could bridge the gap between East and West like few others could. But these generous perceptions of the pinup hero were informed by a foundational disconnect between who they imagined Imran Khan to be and what he had to become in order to rise to the office of prime minister in a country ravaged by a brutal violent extremist insurgency and a military fresh in the afterglow of a victory against those insurgents.

The conflict between the terrorists of the TTP and the defenders of ordinary Pakistanis – cops, soldiers, spies, airmen and seamen – has generated questions and answers around Pakistani identity that the Pakistani elite is not particularly interested in exploring. The reason is the country’s skewed discourse. Rigorous social, political and economic academic inquiry is almost non-existent within the country. Rigorous political discourse is seemingly rich and robust – but limited by a range of no-go areas that have increased substantially in the last three years.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is one of many chickens coming home to roost. An abandoned urban working class, no mass deradicalization programmes, a reduced space for dissent, the frowning down upon challenges to the status quo and low-cost access to a slow but working internet have produced social, economic and political responses to a post-conflict society in a country that cannot pay its bills. Only the most delusional of apparatchiks would feign any surprise.

What does France have to do with any of this? Well, France is the perfect object for Pakistani rage – the legitimate rage of Muslims distraught by the cheap and racist attacks they endure on their religion, and the less legitimate but even more incandescent rage of the Pakistani state, distraught by the handcuffs that adorn its fiscal, technological and geoeconomic capability.

France owns 203,009 votes at the IMF, which makes its share of the total votes, just a touch over 4 percent. This makes France the fifth most powerful nation at the IMF, trailing behind the US (16.51 percent, Japan 6.15 percent, China 6.08 percent, and Germany at 5.32 percent). Pakistan is in the midst of a disjointed IMF programme – one that has cost two Pakistani finance ministers their jobs so far, with a third one to follow soon enough (welcome, Shaukat Tareen).

France is the headquarters of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Pakistan is currently grey listed by the FATF. No country has had to endure the rigour of the due diligence of the FATF process as fully and comprehensively as Pakistan. Pakistan’s greylisting, generated by its inability to demonstrate effective action against terrorist groups, riles up Pakistanis – understandably.

Pakistanis have been convinced that the 2014 operations to rid the country of the TTP were the end of the war. Those that have sought to remind Pakistanis of the liability that UNSC 1267 listed groups represented, have been tarred and feathered as traitors. The FATF listing is unlikely to be changed, as the US and its allies (like France) prepare to draw down from Afghanistan; almost all of them, to a man and woman, blame the Haqqani Network (a 1267 listed group) for the lack of success their mission suffered from in Afghanistan for two decades.

France is the manufacturer of the Dassault Mirage III and the Dassault Mirage V fighter airplanes. Of Pakistan’s 395 fighter jets, 125 or over 30 percent are French. Pakistan is in the process of replacing these jets with planes it manufactures in partnership with China. But even at an accelerated retirement pace, ‘Pakistani’ Mirage IIIs and Mirage Vs will continue to protect the homeland from the threat of attack until at least 2030, or another nine years.

France is one of the leaders of the European Union. Its vote on issues like which countries are included in the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) for trade, and which are not, is vital. Pakistan has been included in the GSP Plus, which affords Pakistani exporters privileged access to the entire European Union.

France manufactures ships and submarines that are highly coveted by navies around the world. Being a professional navy, Pakistan is no exception. All three of Pakistan’s mine-hunting ships – PNS Munsif, PNS Muhafiz and PNS Mujahid – are French. All five of Pakistan’s attack submarines – PNS Khalid, PNS Saad, PNS Hamza, PNS Hashmat and PNS Hurmat – are French. Of these eight vessels, three were built in Karachi, in partnership and under licence from France, whilst five were built entirely in France.

This list of Pakistan-relevant French capabilities is far from exhaustive. France enjoys enormous global relevance on issues like climate change, and its emphasis on science and technology in recent years has placed it at the forefront of many important debates that will shape the global discourse for years to come.

Pakistan’s elite – its wealthy business families, its landed aristocracy, its generals, its judges, its bureaucrats, its politicians and its religious clerics and leaders – have long faced a dilemma that geopolitics has helped them avoid tackling head on. Pakistan’s 220 million people, and in particular its over 110 million under-25 population, are vassals to this elite. But the social contract between this elite and the wider population is at best broken and, at worst, non-existent.

Every so often, whether in embittered linguistic or geographical terms, or in explosive sectarian or religious terms, the pain caused by the absence of a coherent and manifest social contract makes itself known. In places like the post-conflict districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, anger at the Pakistani state has been growing for a decade. In Balochistan, an insurgency instigated by the assassination of a Baloch leader in 2006 continues to claim victims. In Pakistan’s cities in the 1980s, being Sunni became a source of claimed victimhood. As a result, Shias were victimized. Those divisions have been exploited by the many geopolitical and geostrategic interests that converge in and around Pakistan.

Today’s Pakistan features a fiery TLP on the streets, and a fumbling, helpless national discourse chasing its tail. The state’s behind-the-scenes hope is that a combination of appeals to France’s better senses, and appeal to ordinary Pakistanis’ patriotism will quell the crisis. But neither France nor the ordinary Pakistani get very much from the Pakistani state these days – so neither may be inclined to listen.

This is what happens when a vacuous elite’s insatiable appetite meets the cold hard reality of its intellectual hollowness and its fiscal incapacity. We don’t know how long the current crisis will last, or what its outcome will be, but there is one thing we can bank on: when all is said and done, there will be no reform in Pakistan. This is the Pakistani elite’s credo. This is what was, what is, and will be.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.