For long Karachi has been known as one of the country’s most liberal cities. But its liberalism is of a Nietzschean sort: what doesn’t kill Karachi makes it stronger.
It would be obvious to proclaim that no place is safe from the brutality of terrorism in Pakistan. There are no safe havens here where the barbarians can’t and won’t strike. However, over the last couple of years, what was once the most troubled city has remained nervously quiet (if not entirely peaceful).
As suicide bombers go off with audacious frequency right across Khyber Pakhtun-khwa, Punjab and Islamabad, comparatively speaking Karachi has remained largely peaceful, save politically motivated targeted killings. Karachi has always been known as the only truly cosmopolitan city in the country with strong liberal and pluralistic overtones. But ironically, till 1984, it was also the only major city where fundamentalist political/ religious groups such as the JI and the JUP enjoyed their finest electoral hours.
The JI’s and JUP’s influence in Karachi was solely political — a case of reactive politics on the part of Karachi’s majority community which, unlike Sindhis, Baloch, Pakhtuns and Punjabis, was not inherently linked to the hinterland, and thus, they identified with Pakistan by supporting the country’s non-ethnic ‘Islamic’ credentials.
The politicised Islam displayed in the rhetoric of the JI and the JUP appealed to the mohajirs’ landless refugee status, whereas as a social, cultural and economic entity, they were largely liberal in outlook. That’s why, though the JI and the JUP continued to enjoy widespread political support in Karachi, this did not affect Karachi’s status of being Pakistan’s most modern, diverse and liberal centre of activity.
Till the late 1970s, Karachi was the entertainment capital of the country, having nightclubs, bars, cinemas, amusement parks, social clubs and the beaches. The city has also remained the country’s economic hub and bastion of higher education. On the other hand, Karachi also has the biggest slums. The widespread slums also meant that Karachi had the most pronounced crime rate in the country.
It is interesting to note that political/ religious parties had been more popular among the city’s middle and lower-middle-class areas (before the emergence of the MQM in 1985); whereas the voting that takes place in the city’s (Pakhtun and Baloch/ Sindhi dominated) working-class areas favours left-leaning parties, mainly the PPP and the ANP.
The emergence of the MQM as a distinct, mohajir party happened at a time when Karachi had started to teem with a number of administrative, economic and social problems, mainly due to overpopulation and the arrival of thousands of Afghan refugees who started pouring into Pakistan at the start of the ‘anti-Soviet jihad’ in Afghanistan in 1979. Many of the Afghan refugees also brought with them huge amounts of weapons and drugs.
Unchecked entry of Afghans, introduction of sophisticated weapons to settle scores and commit crime (kalashnikov culture), along with rising drug mafias and utter lack of road sense and concern by transport companies run by the richer Afghans in the city, all upset the social and political landscape of the city. It put a tremendous burden on the once thriving economy of the metropolis.
The consequential emergence and popularity of the MQM meant the fading away of the political support for conventional political/ religious parties like the JI and the JUP. This also meant the beginning of another process, in which relative social liberalism of mohajirs began to impact the community’s otherwise conservative politics. Throughout the 1980s Karachi struggled with intense ethnic and sectarian strife, an unprecedented crime rate, a serious heroin problem, and a collapsing economy — a trend that failed to reverse itself even across the ‘decade of democracy’ in the 1990s.
The city had become a cultural and economic graveyard, and paled in comparison to what it had been before 1980. But in contrast to this, the last 10 years have seen Karachi unexpectedly regenerate itself — during which the MQM also began to peel off its overwhelmingly ethnic and exclusive character. The pace of the social, economic, and cultural regeneration picked up after 2004, and the city started to regain confidence and maturity.
Though still one of the most complex and diverse cosmopolitan entities, Karachi’s relatively peaceful decorum in the face of the havoc being perpetrated by extremists elsewhere is due to some admiring compromises that the people and politicians of this city have struck in the last few years. A delicate but promising compromise was struck between the secular political expressions of Karachi’s mohajir, Punjabi, Pakhtun, Baloch and Sindhi populations, namely the MQM, the ANP, and the PPP.
The city’s diverse population understood the importance of social and political plurality and tolerance as a means to experiencing a strife-free and economically benefiting survival. The withering away of the political support that religious parties such as the JI and the JUP once enjoyed has also helped. For example, the JI’s recent politics that encourages a myopic and isolationist worldview can be detrimental to the people of a cosmopolitan city like Karachi.
An overriding consensus against the Taliban in Karachi was reached long before such a consensus was struck by Pakistan as a whole.