The defiling gutter of political rhetoric

At age 48, I’m a veteran of political talk. As an anthropologist, a feminist, a Muslim, a student of global issues, I’m an avid consumer of political talk.

I’ve lived through many rousing speeches. As a child in Pakistan, I watched Zulfiqar Alibhutto.jpg Bhutto use Islamic Socialism and the slogan roti, kapra, makaan (bread, clothing, and a house) to strengthen his government. I remember ration cards. I watched as ready-cooked roti appeared in the market for purchase – supposedly as fulfillment of the promise of ‘bread.’

I watched General Zia-ul-Haq re-deploy Pakistan ka matlab kya? la ilaha illallah (What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no god but God). I watched him run a referendum that asked “Do you wish Pakistan to be an IsMuhammad_Zia-ul-Haq,_Ronald_Reagan_and_William_Clark_1982.jpglamic state?” and I watched his speech where he celebrated another 5 years as president of Pakistan. I remember speeches where democracy was framed as a stupid, Western, idolatrous project, and Reagan’s America was right behind Zia.

benazir.jpgI then remember the days of Benazir Bhutto, who did practically nothing for the protection of women except be one in the prime minister’s chair.

As a graduate student, I remember many Islami Jamiat Talba speeches – where the terms Islam, shariat, government, Quran, sunnat, risalat, iqamat-e-deen (the political establishment of religion in life) were deployed around to establish a worldview where Islam was a panacea for all our many problems. Where our main problem was the existence of people who wouldn’t commit themselves to purdah and Islamic discourse, and the fact that the politicians who could do the work of this iqamat weren’t actually in Parliament.

Now I hear other kinds of speeches.

I used to yearn for talk. Representative talk. Powerful talk. If only, I gasped inwardly, if only someone important, someone eloquent, someone with power, someone who mattered would use the right words.

If only someone would say Islam. 

If only someone would say human rights. 

If only someone would say Afghanistan. If only someone would say Kashmir. 

And then, as I grew older, and saw the micropolitics of gender, I wished, If only someone would say mercy. If only someone would say feminism. … 

But now, I’m like a teenager in a sulk. I don’t want to hear anything. I want to slam my door on all the adults and say, no more. I don’t want to hear your talk. Your talk is meaningless. Your talk over china cups and sandwiches means something completely different. When it enters the lives of the powerless, your talk becomes something else.

When you say The status of women in Islam in your pamphlets, it really just means patriarchal oppression with a paisley border of groundless optimism.

When you say Afghanistan or Kashmir or Waziristan or Syria or Iraq you’re using it for your own purposes, for your routes to oil, to sea, to mastery, to control.

And when you speak of melting pots and integration and E Pluribus Unum, you accept our laborers and our highly skilled professionals just so long as they come through the cultural crucible of assimilation.

You talk of countering violent extremism, when you really mean to enforce internal and external surveillance in our communities.

A British leaflet against radicalization

You mean to install outsiders in our mosques, those that will prey on the vulnerable, the persons with mental health struggles – so you will pull out the rabbit of a supposed extremist from your hat, voila! The machinery of the security industry has been rationalized. You create a binary of good Muslims and bad Muslims, so that the good ones – the ones in jeans and t-shirts, the ones in the nightclub, the occasional beer-drinkers, they will hate and fear the hijabis, the bearded men, the mosque attendees, the ethnic-garbed, the poor, the under-educated, because they are the problem.

The language of mysticism and Sufism are utilized to establish good Muslims, ones who recite Rumi and Hafez and consume art and biryani, and never contemplate the social reform possibilities of Islamic frameworks.

We are not people to you. We are merely means to your strategic ends.

And when you say feminism, you use it as a fanfare of trumpets, a red carpet rolled out for

Hillary and her hawkish support for war.

a woman candidate who, like Benazir, does almost nothing for women except be one. This feminism means one thing in a gentrified Boston suburb, and it means something else entirely when the Feminist Majority calls for the US to liberate Afghan women via military intervention. The White feminism you deploy is entirely non-intersectional.

Even a concern for all humanity is deployed primarily to erase the murders of black people in Chicago, via All Lives Matter

The language of hope is woven with open-ended promises to harness the energies of the Left, and they are left behind by the war machines, yet again.

How can we retrieve our dearest values from the political gutter that defiles them? 

How do we manage?

You could withdraw into the world of activism where you consciously decline to consume utilitarian political discourse. You could choose not to associate with opportunistic upwardly mobile “handy-men,” aspiring one percenters who are available for hire by the next biggest thing. You could choose to go micro, but how can you do so without being completely out of touch?

You could remain entangled in the larger political discourse, constantly struggling to rip your beloved values from the clutches of the hegemon. You could keep calling foul on the machine: no, that’s not feminism; no, that’s not anti-racism; no, that’s not human rights.

And plenty of people will insert themselves into that political discourse. They will cheer because feminism and human rights and universality still mean something to them. Not only that, but the glamor of power is infectious and irresistible. Many of these will become cogs in the machine, – but happy ones! Because, after all, if they are in the machine, surely it is changing? If they, with their fundamentally good values, are drawing paychecks, handshakes, grant moneys, and honors from the powers-that-be, then surely there must be something good about these powers. Some day, when they’ve had enough handshakes, they’ll be able to bring about real change. Some day, the great and gracious handshaker will turn to them and say, “But Shabana, what do you really think I should do? Change Wall Street? Stop interfering in other nations’ business? Support the troops by actually keeping 20-year olds in college rather than shipping them off to keep Lockheed in business? Do something about agriculture? Save the bees? Save the planet? Save our tomorrows? Well, now, of course I will!”


I now cringe when the capitalist market of political discourse picks up something new. I fear the political gutter that defiles everything I hold dear. I fear the political machine that bleaches agendas clean of meaning, and keeps putting them through the wringer until they mean their opposite. I no longer call for representation in political rhetoric. People get excited when Obama says hijab, and we snicker and cringe when Trump says Here’s my African American, but this is what power does with us: it uses us as a photo-op, and then tosses us in the gutter.

In fact, once an agenda becomes harnessed by political rhetoric, like diversity it is neutralized. Throw it around a lot, the theory seems to be, until the consumer of the ideology is sated. Light a fire under the term, make it into an Issue. Until polarized groups are exhausted with ideological tennis, hashing and rehashing its meanings. And while distracting battles are fought over terms, values, and ideologies, actual hegemonies of the 1% over the bodies and lives of the 99% will be reinforced. They will be marked by happy photographs of smiles celebrating an inch of representation in The New York Times. 

We have to demand more.

And more than anything, we have to be clear about what we want and why. If our personal ambitions to “make it” in the world are uppermost, let us be clear about that, and back away from those with a broader agenda. More and more, I am realizing that broader agenda of change has to be protected from not only many of my dear ones but myself.

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