Making Of A Messiah: The Emergence Of Political Religion In Pakistan

Making Of A Messiah: The Emergence Of Political Religion In Pakistan
Sacralising the Secular

The shift from pre-modern societies that were deeply rooted in religious beliefs and rituals, to modern ones in which religion was ousted from political and public spaces, was a long and complex process. This procedure began in earnest in the 18th century, gaining momentum through events such as the American Revolution (1765-84) and the French Revolution (1789-99). The US Constitution (effective from March 1784) recognised the existence of a Supreme Being and a place for religion in society. In 1791, through an amendment, the Constitution granted certain freedoms which included the freedom to exercise religion, but also stated that “the government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The clause is often interpreted to mean that the Constitution requires the separation of church and state.

The French Revolution was directly pitched against the monarchy, the landed elites and the political power that the Catholic Church enjoyed there. The revolutionaries wanted to wipe out organised religion and establish the ‘supremacy of reason.’ Yet, the French political theorist and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings inspired the Revolution, spoke about the need of having a ‘civil religion.’

The object of civil religion for Rousseau was to foster sentiments of sociability and a love of public duties amongst citizens. To Rousseau, religion could play a constructive role in society and in nation-building, but this religion could not be the one that existed in France because it was “useless in fostering the spirit of patriotism and social solidarity necessary for a flourishing state” (JJ. Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762).

Rousseau’s civil religion recognised the existence of a Supreme Being and of the afterlife, and that laws are sacred. By laws Rousseau meant those enacted through a social contract between a state and its citizens. After the Revolution succeeded in toppling the monarchy and the Church, the revolutionary regime established ‘worship of reason’ as a state creed. But this was quickly turned into the “Cult of the Supreme Being” when the regime decided that a belief in a Supreme Being was necessary to maintain social order. Renamed “Worship of the Supreme Being,” it borrowed heavily from the writings of Rousseau by recognising the existence of the Supreme Being and the “Immortality of the Soul.”

It declared that the best service to the Supreme Being was the practice of man's duties to the state and nation. The most important of these duties were the detestation of tyranny, punishing tyrants and traitors, caring for the unfortunate, respecting the weak, defending the oppressed, doing unto others all the good one can, and not being unjust towards anyone (M. Alpaugh, The French Revolution: A History in Documents2021).

In the ‘civil religion’ of revolutionary France, the Supreme Being to be worshiped was Liberty

Western societies that were undergoing drastic political, economic and social changes in the 18th and 19th centuries were wrestling with the long-established presence of religion. To them, religion as it was practiced, and the mindsets that it had produced, had become impediments on the path to material and mental progress. They needed to be evolved and aligned with the momentum of change and/or of modernity. This required the disenchantment of religion through a ‘rational’ reading of the holy texts. It was concluded that there was no need for the Church to get involved in the matters of the state. The secularism which was born from this began being enshrined in constitutions.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, influential sociologists such as Max Weber were announcing “the disenchantment of the world.” This called into question all the superhuman and supernatural forces, and the gods and spirits that were ubiquitous in non-industrial/traditional societies, and to which these societies attributed responsibility for natural and social phenomena. The disenchantment of faith and the rise of modernity introduced a competing cosmology: the modern scientific interpretation of nature by which only the laws and regularities discovered by the scientific method were admitted as valid explanations of any phenomena (“Secularisation and Rationalisation,Encyclopaedia Brittanica).

The carnage witnessed during the First World War (1914-18) set off a thorough intellectual scrutiny of modernity. To various European intellectuals, the erosion of religion had left a gaping hole in peoples lives because religions had been stripped of spirituality, leaving only a wilted understanding of faith that was unable to conjure a sense of morality that regulates human behaviour towards greed, power, selfishness, etc. And even though, certain movements emerged, calling for a return to the emotional and fundamental understanding of religion, the material fruits of modernity were just too great to ignore or reject. But, at the same time, the exploits of traditional religions in the pre-modern era were too brutal to be romanticised as a way out of amoral modernity.
Sacralisation is an attempt to inject fervour in secular nationalist beliefs and acts

Thus emerged the ‘sacralisation of politics’ and of ‘political religions’ (E.Gentile, Politics as Religion, 2006). Sacralisation is when a secular reality (the nation, citizenship, and inalienable rights to life and freedom) is treated as sacred (J. Casanova in Dynamics in the History of Religions Between Asia and Europe, 2012). As we saw, sacralisation was active in the US Constitution, and during the French revolutionary regimes. Nationalism, national duty and ideas of political and individual autonomy and freedom were termed sacred. They were understood as modern extensions of Christianity before it was adulterated by greed and power, and was exploited to keep the masses illiterate and superstitious.

Sacralisation also constitutes certain rituals as scared, such as love for the national flag, the singing of the national anthem, the celebration of national days with ‘national zeal,’ etc. The roots of these can be found in Rousseau’s civil religion in which laws enacted by the state and governments are deemed sacred, and the best way to serve a Supreme Being. The Supreme Being itself is not entirely described as belonging to a particular faith, rather, it is understood to be an elusive creator of nations. Sacralisation is an attempt to inject fervour in secular nationalist beliefs and acts. Therefore, founders of nations too are treated as sacred figures, just as traditional religions treat their saints and founders. The idea is to demystify traditional religions and fill the post-demystification space with secular ideas, but ones that have been sacralised. Nationalism is perhaps the most prominent example of this.

Yet, this is not always successful to neutralise an urge to feel something that could not be scientifically explained or rationalised through the senses. Concepts such as intuition, and the belief in a ‘sixth sense,’ for example, look to transcend reason and the empirical reality to ‘feel’ a ‘spiritual’ state of being, and gain a purpose defined by this state. This often manifests itself on an individual or collective level through ‘New Age’ spiritual movements, pseudosciences, belief in magic, fantasy genres of art, and even through religious revivals but in which traditional religions mutate to keep pace with modern lifestyles. From within these can emerge people who politicise the aforementioned urge, and create a political religion.

Nationalism is often understood as a ‘civil/secular religion’ in which the exhibition of patriotism is treated as a ‘sacred’ act


Birth of the Political Religion 

A political religion is not about the politicisation of religion – even though, it is often mistaken as that. The religious pulse that drove the Islamic Revolution in Iran, or the pulse that has given rise to Hindu nationalism in India, and to the ‘cultist’ following of former Pakistani PM Imran Khan, had more to do with the formation of a political religion. But how is a political religion different from a civil religion?

The latter can lead to the formation of the former, but the former is always dogmatic. Political religion can also be explained as a more intensified and dogmatic version of civil religion. This is mostly because, sociologists and political scientists who have studied political religions have rooted its origin in the erstwhile fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, and during two communist dictatorships in Soviet Union and China (Stalin and Mao).

The creation of new symbols and rituals to evoke belief in a higher cause are central to fascism and communism. Fascism drew out genuine belief from wide sectors of society that lived under fascist regimes or were attracted to fascist movements (P.Jackson, Political Religions and Fascism, Open Democracy, July 29, 2019). With the rise of fascism and ‘Bolshevikism’ in the first half of the 20th century, many became alarmed by the manner in which communist and fascist dictatorships were manipulating religion. These new systems were appropriating elements of Christianity’s symbolism to create new types of collective affinity, based either on national identity, race or class (E.Voegelin, Modernity Without Restraint, 1999).

Communist and fascist totalitarian states tried to develop a type of absolute certainty that was offered by pre-modern Christianity. Nazism, for example, united the rationality of modern bureaucratic systems with the power of the irrational through new symbols, mythology and rituals. The era of totalitarian regimes was defined by leaders who manipulated the masses through a modern form of collective fanaticism (R.Aron in Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, April 1939). To some, this new conception of faith emerged in response to modernity (W.Gurian, ‘Totalitarian Religions,’ Review of Politics, January, 1952).

Political religions reject pluralism and seek to monopolise belief and the total commitment from those who live within them. They are diametrically opposed to liberal notions of individualism. Political religions have a sense of messianic mission, binding leaders and followers together in a shared project. They develop new rituals that make a leading individual the personification of the political religion’s mission, and a wider mythology that allows societies to engage in activities that express their collective belief in the sacred cause espoused by the new faith (E. Gentile, ibid).

Nazism was a political religion with a sense of messianic mission

After the collapse of fascist regimes, and the rolling back of ‘Stalinism’ and ‘Maoism,’ formations of political religions did not end. They mutated through more subtle ways of sacralisation. In pre-Revolution Iran, the Shah’s social and economic modernisation gave birth to a new urban middle-class. But modernisation alienated the old middle-classes whose economic base were the bazaars. As stylish malls and factories began to squeeze out the importance of the bazaars, the old middle-classes, who were always conservative, began to invest even more in politically empowering the clerics. And, even though, the new middle-classes benefited greatly from Shah’s modernising policies, intellectuals from within this class emerged to denounce modernisation as a Western tool to enslave Iranians who were once part of a great ancient civilisation.
Political religions reject pluralism and seek to monopolise belief and the total commitment from those who live within them

The Shah tried to neutralise this perception by holding gaudy festivals glorifying ancient Persian empires. This, in turn, now saw new middle-class intellectuals bring forward the greatness of the Iranians to the point when Islam arrived in Persia. Yet, these intellectuals, unlike the old middle-classes of the bazaar, were modern and secular. The intellectual trajectory of the famous Iranian scholar, Ali Shariati, is a case in point. Shariati received his PhD in sociology from a university in France. Over the course of the next decade, till his demise in 1977, he fused Marxist, liberal and Existentialist ideas with Shi’ism to form what he called ‘red Shi’ism’ (V. Nasr, The Shia Revival, 2009).

Shariati was aware of how Shah’s policies were creating commotion within the Iranian society, especially among the old middle-classes, the landed elites and the growing number of proletariat and the ‘lumpenproletariat.’

He was also conscious of the feeling of ‘rootlessness’ that the demystification of Shi’ism had created among the new, more educated urban middle-classes. These classes were core consumers of Shah’s modernisation, and the Shah saw them as his constituency. Shariati saw the new middle-class going through the motions without any ideological purpose, other than being mere consumers. On the one hand, this feeling of purposelessness had pushed a lot of young middle-class Iranians towards leftist ideologies, such as Marxism and socialism, or towards secular Iranian nationalism. But a majority from the new middle-classes could not identify with any of these. Nor were they willing to follow the ‘fundamentalism’ of the clerics, mainly because this fundamentalism was largely associated with the beliefs of the old middle-classes that were seen as being regressive.

Shariati’s aforementioned fusion delivered through lectures (instead of sermons), by a man dressed in western attire, and often speaking with a cigarette in his hand, managed to draw the attention of thousands of men and women from the new middle-classes. They saw in him a refined, and highly educated man, who was well informed about Western as well as Islamic philosophies, and had a surety of purpose which they were lacking.

The Red Shia: Ali Shariati

Shariati’s ‘red Shi’ism’ was about giving traditional Shia thought and rituals a revolutionary twist through modern revolutionary concepts. For example, Shariati explained the Shia ritual of the matam(beating the chest in grief) as something a lot more than an annual ritual, but a revolutionary act enacted to challenge tyranny. Red Shi’ism was a political religion. It was utilised as such by the clerics to topple the Shah in 1979.

But by then, the clerics had stripped away its Marxist elements and added to it ‘fundamentalist’ Shia dimensions to put the control of this political religion in their hands. Even though, the new middle-classes participated in the revolution against the Shah, they were mostly doing do so as ‘red Shias.’ The main foot soldiers of the clerics, on the other hand, during the Revolution, were the old middle-classes of the bazaars, and the lumpenproletariat (M. Milani, The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, 1994).

The new middle-classes thought that they had discovered a purpose outside of consumerism, but they failed to stop the clerics from hijacking this purpose. The clerics re-engineered it to mean the establishment of a theocratic leviathan. Thousands from the new middle-classes were executed by the theocracy that came to power; thousands went into exile; and thousands of others now lived in a new form of tyranny.

Middle-class women who were radicalised by Shariati against the Shah, protest against ‘hijab laws’ introduced by the post-Shah theocracy. They were thrown in jail and the hijab was made compulsory as a sacred piece of cloth


Political Religion in Pakistan

Recently, a lot has been written on the manner in which Pakistan’s urban middle-and-upper-middle-classes have demonstrated unhinged support for the recently ousted PM Imran Khan. According to political economists such as S. Akbar Zaidi, these are ‘aspirational classes,’ and core consumers of economic modernities. Within these classes are also lifestyle liberals. But like their more socially conservative contemporaries, they too cannot identify with the dynamics of Pakistani democracy that are largely based on the politics of patronage, and more inclined to address the needs of the classes below who have larger number of votes.

Zaidi calls them politically conservative because they have always invested more in trying to sustain military dictatorships as a way to protect their economic interests. Therefore, to the political commentator Najam Sethi, the mentioned classes are more willing to following the ‘Islamic nationalism’ that was aggressively formulated and proliferated by the General Zia dictatorship in the 1980s, and which is being re-enacted by Khan. According to the scholar and author Afiya S. Zia, the reason why so many modern urban middle-class folk are falling over each other to demonstrate their love for Khan is because they’ve reached a point which I am positing here: Khan just might have created a political religion.
The so-called revival of interest in Islam from the mid-1970s onwards was mostly witnessed within the growing middle-classes. That is why we saw an explosion of Islamic evangelical groups whose core purpose was (and remains to be) to weave feel-good narratives for the mentioned classes

According to Afiya, to religious-nationalists, moral rhetoric is valued over material results, which is why PTI supporters mock governments that build bridges and roads, and cherish dharna performances and grand rhetoric’ (A. Zia, “False Radicals,” The Friday Times, 06 May 2022). So, in a way, Zaidi, Sethi and Afiya agree that it was religious nationalism that was driving the pro-Imran politics of the mentioned classes. This is something I have been stating as well. I tried to look at the phenomena through views of certain political economists and sociologists. But the way Afiya sees it, gives me enough substance to posit that Khan has created a political religion. Therefore, it would not suffice to call him an Islamist. He is an Islamic nationalist, but one that has converted it into a messianic entity.

As discussed, many political scientists and sociologists saw Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism and Italian Fascism, as political religions in which symbols and rituals of established religions were appropriated and then used to conjure devotion to a new religion whose purpose was a dogmatic obedience to the state, its ideology, and to its messiah. We also saw that, the space for such an emergence was created by the demystification of traditional religions and an emphasis on rationality and science.

The political religions that resulted were not anti-rational. They used rational means to proliferate irrational ideas and myths. In doing so, they sacralised internal and external secular spaces caused by the retreat of religions. But political religions did not revive traditional notions of religions, as such, because these would not have become a source of power outside the clergy. They adopted religious symbolism and emotions associated with traditional religious myths and messiahs to produce a living political faith that the people could not only feel, but see as well.

The Pakistani middle- and upper-middle-classes had unconsciously been craving for a political religion. The so-called revival of interest in Islam from the mid-1970s onwards was mostly witnessed within the growing middle-classes. That is why we saw an explosion of Islamic evangelical groups whose core purpose was (and remains to be) to weave feel-good narratives for the mentioned classes. These narratives suggest that amoral materialism and religious morality are not opposites. Like the Protestants/Calvinists of yore, accumulating material wealth could be conceived as God’s way of rewarding the believer, as long as one continues to follow the core tenets of the faith.
It is not that their political or economic survival depends on it. It is about their spiritual survival. This scares them. The more Khan’s political position erodes, the louder, cruder and angrier they get

There was enough space in Pakistan for a Shariati to emerge and give the middle-classes an ideological purpose that was compatible with consumerism. The evangelical outfits only ended up making the modern middle-classes more ritualistic. The ideological purpose in this respect was produced by the military establishment and proliferated through textbooks. Islamic nationalism was that purpose, but it had no messiah. Khan became that messiah. In a hodgepodge manner he took bits from Shariati, Islamic evangelist Tariq Jamil, Islamist ideologues such as Dr. Israr Hussain and Abul Ala Maududi, the American scholar Noam Chomsky, and from a plethora of contemporary ‘anti-colonial’ and postmodernist thinkers to create an Islamic nationalism that had him at its centre, as a charismatic messiah.

PTI rallies are rooted in this. They are modern, festive, almost pop in nature, yet stuffed with populist religious and ‘anti-West’ rhetoric. They are designed to make the believers feel the spectacle of the spirituality and ‘knowledge’ pouring out of the messiah. A messiah they can see. A messiah that belongs to their class. This is important. This class has never had a political messiah. General Musharraf came close, but despite having huge political ambitions, he seemed uncomfortable to venture into the messiah territory. And anyway, the former dictator wasn’t all that keen to being photographed while performing an Islamic ritual, or delivering moral sermons. General Zia did that, but he lacked charisma.

Khan had charisma. He was a sporting hero. He was a playboy who became a born-again-Muslim after retiring from cricket. He positioned himself as an incorruptible man who had shunned offers of power given to him by corrupt politicians. Of course, the fact is, he always lusted for political power, but just didn’t want to go through the grind that one needs to go through to acquire it. He wanted Musharraf to make him PM. Musharraf thought Khan was a “closet mullah” (P. Musharraf, In The Line of Fire, 2006). The next few military chiefs would finally grant him his wish – mainly because they too came from middle-class backgrounds that detested conventional political parties.

One can claim that a portion of the country’s middle-classes had come to terms with the dynamics of Pakistan’s electoral politics. For example, these portions aligned themselves with PML-N in Punjab, the PPP in Sindh, and the MQM in Sindh’s capital city Karachi. But the other portion, that also has the largest number of lifestyle liberals, remained detached. So much so that a fissure appeared within this class after Musharraf’s departure. What we are seeing now is not really a clash between different economic groups, but the result of a tussle for power within the country’s expanding middle-classes.

Khan’s political religion does not sit well with the other portion that has found their religious purpose in the Islam preached by evangelical outfits, while others among these keep their faith to themselves. Evangelical outfits failed to plug the spiritual void that the pro-Khan portion seemed to have developed. They didn’t mind when told by the evangelical outfits catering to this class that, material wealth and materialistic lifestyles are compatible with religious ritualism and morality. But the fact that many from this portion also increasingly became clients of yoga institutes and of businesses selling products of ‘New Age Spiritualism,’ suggests that they still felt a spiritual void. That void was filled by Khan and his PTI.

They sound as jumbled and contradictory as their messiah does while speaking about morality, religion, wealth, modernity, tradition, etc. Like him, they are all this and at the same time nothing. It is a matter of belief that cannot be rationalised. Any attempt to do so will (and does) expose the contradictory nature of this belief.

It is not that their political or economic survival depends on it. It is about their spiritual survival. This scares them. The more Khan’s political position erodes, the louder, cruder and angrier they get. Some are hoping he will return to power. He won’t. While others are already preparing to frame his story as that of a messiah who took the fall for his supporters while fighting against tyranny and evil. Even if he just ends up in London in exile.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.