Tyranny, Civil Society & Terrorism

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Sahar Pirzada*

*The author is an educationist and an editor of the journal.


We are all victims of tyranny in some way or another. Victims either of the state’s incompetence, kleptocracy or by the possibility of an unconstitutional extremist surge enabled by interest groups. We are perhaps even victims of the tyranny of demagogues masquerading as the dynamic of change because in the end all these elements employ cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power and control for action that is mostly centered around self-interest. It is for this reason that the play of civil society becomes even more essential. Civil society and democracy are closely linked though civil society is the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and the will of citizens including elements such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.1

Aristotle was the first to talk about ‘community’ which was comparable with the Greek construct of free, equal citizenry of the ‘city-state’ of individuals who shared a common ethos. It was introduced to Western political discourse after the translation of Aristotle’s work, ‘res publica’ into Latin during the Renaissance period. The concept of democracy then was developed in the 20th century highlighting that a democratic order must attribute a significant role to political culture and political organizations as it facilitates better-informed voting choices and this political element resultantly holds the government more accountable. “Even non-political organizations in civil society are vital for democracy as they build social capital, trust, and shared values which are transferred into the political sphere and hold society together.” 2 Needless to say they have and must exert this influence.

In modern history, Hegel redefined civil society as a market society as opposed to institutions of a modern nation state and his vision is centered around capitalist interests, protecting individual property rights and in being ruled by a civil code. For him it was a domain parallel to but separate from the state – a realm where citizens associate according to their own interests and wishes. This new thinking reflected changing economic realities: the rise of private property, market competition, and the bourgeoisie.3 This capitalist overtone of the structure of a Hegelian civil society was also endorsed by Karl Marx who agreed on a link between capitalism and civil society as a base and a superstructure encompassing a political society where civil society represented the interests and domination of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, as would even be highly applicable in our socio-political makeup today, he asserted that the “state cannot be a neutral problem solver…. Rather it is a defender of the interests of the bourgeoisie” and acted much like the executive arm of the bourgeoisie. This could only wither away once the working class took control of democratic society. And herein lies the tyranny of our present day civil society. It is an accomplice to the seemingly nefarious antics of those in government – present or past. The approach to governance and privilege in existing and past models within Pakistan is not too different. Each looking after the others gains -shrouded in a capitalist mindset – perhaps without forethought to the general public interest. And in either directly engaging in or supporting through a nonchalant silence, a growing kleptocracy.

The idea of Civil Society fell into disuse till the end of WW II when Antonio Gramsci revived the term to portray civil society as a special nucleus of independent political activity and a crucial sphere of struggle against tyranny. By the 1990s it became the mantra and catch phrase for political scientists.

In post modern history the approach within the political field is to use the idea of a civil society, rather than a political society, divided further into the ‘third sector’ which includes the family and private sphere. According to the Washington Consensus of the 1990s4, conditioned loans were given out to debt-laden poor countries like Pakistan by the World Bank & IMF in an effort to shrink pressures. This led to practical changes and an emphasis on civil society replacing the state’s service provision and social care.5 Optimistically speaking, perhaps this aid was designed with the best intent but the absolute tyranny of these international financial institutions in today’s reality is that they are doing exactly the opposite and sinking us deeper and deeper into the quicksand of debt servicing and additional loans. These take a vice-like grip on the citizens’ everyday life through increased tax collection and money rerouted indirectly from the struggling working classes back to impotent governments who surrender to international pressures in an effort to meet their wildly inflated commitments. The exact process designed for relief mainly to the Third Sector. in civil society has taken a death grip around its neck. Could we define this as global economic tyranny or political tyranny of short term gains for the survival and longevity of indigenous governments?

According to the German sociologist Jurgen Habermans, known for his theories on communicative rationality, the public sphere encourages rational will-formation, democratic and social interaction and “ civil society develops when it emerges as non-economic and has a populace aspect and when the state is not just represented by one political party.” In Pakistan this endeavor has been mildly successful though the political discourse has been dominated by mainly 2 major parties that oscillate the seat of power between themselves. Can it be assumed that the experience these two parties gained over the years will outweigh the stagnancy that comes in with the closure to fresh thought and recruits to the political process? Is it not a form of tyranny though that we are not afforded the option of change at all?

According to the post colonial political theory of Edward Said, the notion of civil society, which is a western construct, in our part of the world was introduced as an instrument of social legitimacy for colonial rule. In the non-Western world, as a consequence of the turmoil of decolonization and the nation-state as its consequence, the dominant role of civil society, as based on the idea of Gramsci’s capitalistic class system, was applied to a wider construct of colonizer and colonized non-Western underdeveloped societies.6 During the colonial era indirect rule, a kind of power-sharing was established with the local leaders where legal and political powers were given to them. “ As a result the western constitutional and legal framework of the nation-state was the preserve of the settlers of urban life only.7 This dichotomous rule resulted in power struggles between the rulers and ruled as it excluded rural, tribal systems and indigenous social arrangements deeming them backward and ‘uncivil’. This proved unfavourable especially since in the politico-legal context the citizens were ruled by civil law. This Western model proved inorganic and thus did not result in local social movements or a cultural renaissance, nor any economic or financial transformation and was driven by an ethno-centric model of the nation state, though it was a liberation movement.8

Through this struggle one thing became clear that ethnic nationalities within Pakistan could not unite in the new nation-state as all maintain their separate identities with irreconcilable geographical claim based on ethnicity though they all fought the same battle against British colonizing agents. Thus indigenous civil society could not evolve as a single force for socio-economic transformation in Pakistan. This can also be explained as a phenomenon described by Prof. Mehmood Mamdani (as explained by Amir Hussain) as “decentralized despotism”. In Pakistan this dynamic is used by local despots to strike deals and bargains with the central government. These very same people with the collusion of the government have arrested the development and emergence of an organic and transformative civil society movement.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of this miscalculation in the evolution of civil society in Pakistan, the “Western urban civil society movements dismissed the local voices of dissent as chauvinistic and backward.” This proved to be a cruel, myopic act of presumed superiority of one form of governance and civil character over another. The result of this action is the alienation and suppression of the conservative, Islamic voice in the country. It is this exclusion which has been a part of the cause in the formation of extremist expression in the country. These view-points, for a lack of free self expression, and due to a certain civil and social ostracism have morphed to become extremist agents who consider the “Westernized nation state and its civil society as their enemy.” We are suffering the consequences of this decision in contemporary Pakistan in spades. This is a case of one form of state terrorism, that of exclusion and neglect, leading to a multi-faced extremist terror.

In response, first of all, we need to take them seriously. As cited in a previous article by the author in Criterion Quarterly 9 that there are reasons for behaviour especially for extremist action “ because all action takes place within a context and it is no longer enough to label them (Islamists) with the dismissive moniker of ‘fundo’. Labels placate our perturbed minds but contribute nothing towards an understanding of the situation with intent to improving it.” We must look at it from the psychological perspective put forward by researchers at Cambridge University of “integrative complexity” i.e seeing an issue from multiple view-points. Our application of a Western civil society model has failed to play its role, bred terrorism and has been unsuccessful in triggering social reconstruction. For any design to work it must be rooted in local realities and be sensitive to the mindset of all spheres of indigenous people. Otherwise we will arrive once again to the same place where we are now. Or worse.

Civil Society is meant to be inclusive and according to Carothers in Foreign Policy magazine the arrangement is not always “warm & fuzzy.” “Recognizing that people in any society associate and work together to advance nefarious as well as worthy ends is critical to demystifying the concept of civil society.” Commentator David Rieff wrote “If one limits civil society to only those actors who pursue high-minded aims, the concept becomes a theological notion, not a political or social one.”10

There are many roles of a civil society and surely over time civil society has evolved. If tuned to optimal caliber it can go a long way in correcting social imbalances. It can restrain the powers of political parties, expose the corrupt conduct of public office holders, lobby for good governance reforms and promote political participation. In addition it can help develop values of democratic life such as tolerance, moderation and compromise making it possible to champion and advocate the needs of different groups, especially the marginalized sectors of society. Most organically, it can be the training ground for future political leaders as it is the perfect conditioning environment for such an endeavor.

It is important however, to realize that civil society despite its multifaceted roles and purposes is not simply an agent of tension with the state. Simply because it is independent of the state it does not mean it must always criticize the state since such actions are not corrective but wear down the state machinery and legitimacy diverting attention from real issues of development, governance and foreign policy to petty issues of self-preservation on both ends. Upon saying this one cannot help but focus on the dire political scenario that has unfolded in Pakistan in the recent past. Is it not a form of both State and civilian terrorism to hijack the whole country for debate only on one issue regarding the incumbent government which uses all state resources for its defence while the civil agitants, for political gain arrest the working of the state through this movement? Both practices are criminal when viewed keeping in mind the losses incurred to the common man. Both state and civil agitation agents are responsible for this apathy towards the general public, which is nothing short of inflicted tyranny from positions of power.

It seems as if a particular political party has taken it upon itself to defy and denounce, through civil agitation, anything initiated or even touched by the incumbent government. Perhaps they have taken to heart Vaclav Havel’s explanation of the purpose of a civil society as “a call for living within the truth, with oneself and for tolerance towards others: a vision of society that is not just independent from the state, but opposed to it.”11 Even with the best intent at heart constant opposition to the state wears thin public patience and expectation of larger goals and outcomes.

And according to Gyorgy Konrad, “ Energies generated by sheer civic activism do not necessarily feed into the politics of tolerance and inclusion. They can just as well be utilized for repressive ends. Civil mobilization is also capable of fragmenting societies into different pillars or milieus.” We have perhaps seen this phenomenon unfold right before our eyes with the youth especially, taking on an aggressive, almost anarchist approach to politics and governance.

Perhaps the aim of such constant and sometimes mindless agitation on perpetually all action taken by the government is an attempt at ‘social entropy’ of generating organization through chaos. One can say this perhaps for both the party known for agitation and also the Islamic radicals where on one end, the former are perhaps seeking a scientific justification for social revolutions with expeditious results and the latter, on the other end, applying annihilation for new social construction and religio-political order. In the minds of both, this rush toward social entropy is an attempt at reconstruction, a better order through annihilative chaos.

If it works we might be forced to readjust our understanding and reaction to it. But if it fails it is nothing short of tyranny, a failure of the role of an ill-constructed and erroneously motivated civil society. All three i.e present day and past multi-faceted tyranny, an inept and misconfigured civil society and induced reactionary terrorism are interrelated and interdependent. All three are responsible, each bearing the onus of the injustice, violence and misadventures of our times. All three are our fault.


1- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_society

2- ibid

3- http://www.osf.am/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Carothers-on-Civil-Society.pdf

4- Though there is denial by Williamson of the assumption by many critics that the purpose of the 9-point Washington Consensus proposed by him was to reduce the powers of the state. – The Washington Consensus as Policy Prescription for Development by John Williamson Senior Fellow, Institute for International Economics in “A lecture in the series ‘Practitioners of Development’” –pg 2, delivered at the World Bank on January 13, 2004.

5- http://www.osf.am/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Carothers-on-Civil-Society.pdf

6- The Paradox of Civil Society- Amir Husain 24th April 2017. The News.

7- ibid

8- ibid

9- A Missing Counter Narrative for Terrorism by Sahar Pirzada http://www.criterion-quarterly.com/missing-counter-narrative-terrorism/

10- http://www.osf.am/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Carothers-on-Civil-Society.pdf

11- Civility, Violence & Civil Society by Sven Riechardt – pg 139 https://books.google.com.pk/books?id=C4t-8cqE5FwC&pg=PA139&dq=Civility,+Violence+%26+Civil+Society+by+Sven+Riechardt&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjo0-ihk8zUAhVBvI8KHf53DOMQ6AEIHzAA#v=onepage&q=Civility%2C%20Violence%20%26%20Civil%20Society%20by%20Sven%20Riechardt&f=false