“A welfare state is charity, not equality”

Is the rightwing radicalization of Pakistani society giving birth to a genuine leftist movement? Ali Madeeh Hashmi speaks to political activist Dr. Shahnaz Khan about her collaboration with singer Jawad Ahmad to unite and reinvigorate the Pakistani left

“A welfare state is charity, not equality”
Dr. Shahnaz Khan, a Pakistani doctor settled in the US wants to bring about a revolution, a word so abused in Pakistan that most people who hear it only respond with cynicism and derision. Dr. Shahnaz, along with singer and songwriter Jawad Ahmad, founded Rise for Pakistan, an organization dedicated to raising awareness in Pakistan and internationally about wealth inequality, workers’ issues and problems with the educational system.

The left being generally perceived as either a dead entity or one in tatters in Pakistan (and around the world), I was intrigued by Dr. Shahnaz and Jawad Ahmed’s rather offbeat ambitions, so I grabbed the opportunity to interview Dr. Shahnaz while she was in Lahore recently in connection with May Day activities.

[quote]We don't use the word socialism in our literature [/quote]

Could you describe your organization and the kind of work it does? 

I started an organization called Rise For Pakistan (http://www.riseforpakistan.org/) with Jawad Ahmad, whom most people know as a singer. Registered both in America and Pakistan, our organization has started the International Youth and Workers Movement (IYWM) which aims, in the long-term, for a classless society, free of exploitation. To help us realize our mission, we are working on three main areas: Mass sensitization of the public toward leftist ideas, turning the trend of depoliticization amongst our youth and helping workers whom we believe to be the most exploited class of the society. Young people in our colleges and universities are totally depoliticized. All they seem to be aware of is what the headlines say, if that. They have little understanding of the political and economic system of the country and the world at large and its influence on their own lives. Right now we are working on the sociopolitical awareness and training of youth studying in our urban educational institutions but in the future we hope to reach out wider, especially to the youth living in rural areas.

It seems quite a jump for a Pakistani doctor practicing in the US to become interested in these causes. How did it come about?

I worked as a volunteer for many charitable organizations in the US before realizing that despite so many people doing “good work” in terms of education, healthcare, free food, women’s groups and various other social services, nothing really seemed to be changing. I started talking to people in Pakistan – university professors, doctors, lawyers and journalists, to get ideas and then finally I met Jawad, whom I knew from before. We decided we wanted to work with the youth and that is how we started our work. We could of course have involved the youth by helping connect them to NGOs and different charitable projects but that would have achieved nothing because it would just be one more addition to a pre-existing network of such organizations.

Bringing about social change seems like a very ambitious agenda, especially nowadays when most of us identify neither with the Left or Right. It seems that we are all just ‘consumers’...

We knew we had to do something radical if we wanted to make a difference. I realize what we are doing is difficult. We don’t usually use the word ‘socialism’ per se because it has been maligned so much that it has acquired huge, mostly incorrect, negative connotations. We refrain from using it in our literature as well, bringing it up mostly while talking personally to groups of people. It doesn’t matter what you call it though, the idea is the same: social justice, equality and equal opportunity.

Like you, most people feel strongly about the inequality of wealth and want to do something about it. Recently we saw a huge youth phenomenon in the election campaign of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Of course they prefer a different label, Islamic welfare, not socialism. How would you describe your work as different from what so many other people are trying to do in their own way?

The concept of welfare is quite different from that of equality. Welfare tends to keep the wealth where it is and then gives from it where it is needed. To me, that is charity not equality. A welfare state does not address the root of the problem, which is the inequality of wealth accumulation and its transference through inheritance. That is why we see people born in poverty stay in poverty for generations, while those born in wealth stay wealthy, which is not only happening in Pakistan but worldwide. This is what happens when our natural as well as wealth-generating resources are controlled by a wealthy few. The excess capital is used to generate more wealth by interest and rent-seeking activities, ultimately getting transferred through inheritance which results in accumulation in fewer and fewer hands. Our organization wants to break this cycle by ensuring that the wealth-generating resources are owned by the public, eliminating interest and rent and putting a limit on inheritance.

You pointed out that what is happening in Pakistan is part of a larger, global process. Is it possible to bring about a change in Pakistan while globally no such change seems imminent?

A. Pakistan in isolation obviously cannot change the status quo, since economic systems are connected through globalization. However there is a hope that through the International Youth and Workers Movement we can start a process in Pakistan, which will eventually connect internationally and will transfer the same ideas to a global audience.

[quote]At present, society has moved so much towards the right that people are actually looking for an alternative[/quote]

One reason for the Left’s weakness in Pakistan is the continuous repression and harassment of leftists by the state and its various agents ever since the country was founded. How do you propose to tackle that?

I’m hopeful about this issue. For starters, state-repression does not exist in the same form that it did during General Zia’s regime, for instance, and part of the reason for that is the continuing weakening of the state itself. They certainly hassle you if you become too big of a threat but I believe that at present, society has moved so much towards the Right that people are actually looking for an alternative. Even politicians are lamenting the demise of the left since there exists a natural alliance between the left and local industrialists, progressive feudals etc. The left is, and always has been, in favor of indigenous development, industrialization, using the resources of the land etc. for the benefit of local people instead of transfer of wealth abroad.There is thus a huge vacuum which can be captured by the left. I am very optimistic about the possibility of that happening.

Please say something about the “NGO culture” that you mentioned before. The well known left activist Tariq Ali has called NGOs ‘WGOs’ (Western Government Organizations) since they are usually funded from abroad. What would prevent you from becoming just another NGO?

That is a very important question. The NGO culture exists because the funding that NGOs receive by international organizations mostly comes with strings attached. Such an NGO cannot do what it wants to do since it must fulfill the agenda of its funding sources. Therefore, for now we are working on the principled decision not to accept any money from such organizations. Jawad, a few other friends and I are funding our organization ourselves. The answer is very simple. People who believe in what we are doing, in the ideas we talked about before such as economic equality, social justice, equal opportunity etc. should come forward and lend financial support to these organizations. At present, everything that is being said and done through the electronic media is in support of rightist ideologies which by definition want to maintain the status quo. The left needs similar vehicles to promote its ideas. Ideally, we should have our own TV channels and newspapers, which should be run professionally and for this, we need money. Those people who believe in these ideas need to support them either by givingtheir money or their time or both. This is the only way to change things. And,remember, if you don’t give your time or money to these causes, then, by definition, you are supporting the other side by buying, consuming, watching television, reading their books, whatever. Pretending that one is ‘neutral’ is a convenient fiction. It absolves us from the responsibility of doing something.

Ali Madeeh Hashmi is a Psychiatrist and a Trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust. He can be reached at ahashmi39@gmail.com or via his Twitter @Ali_Madeeh