MQM, the Empty Signifier?

The emerging rhetoric emanating from various sources in Pakistan in the wake of Karachi’s target killings is almost stunning in its unusual alignment against the MQM. TV Anchors, politicians [many of whom were otherwise at loggerheads with each other], civil society magnates, all of them seem aligned in their belief that MQM is on the wrong side. It might be so, but I say that MQM is yet another case of an empty signifier at work [See my earlier posts on empty signifiers herehere, and here]. What does that mean? Well, this becomes more comprehensible if you take your focus away from what MQM is and on what role it is playing in the current political rhetoric. That is to say, what place it occupies and what functions it serves in the mainstream rhetoric. It is not the reality of MQM, but its function as a potential unifier of the otherwise disparate political actors, which is suggested when we see MQM as an empty signifier. Lest I be misunderstood, I am only raising a theoretical point here and am not pretending to be a judge of MQM’s activities or of those of its political opponents.

As an empty signifier, it is not the content and substantive nature or the ‘reality’ of MQM that matters, but the work it is doing as a signifier for the rest of the political actors in Pakistan. Emptied of its content, it is working to bring disparate political actors together in a unifying rally against it. There is little common otherwise between PML (N), ANP, PPP, Jamaat-e-Islami, and those others speaking with the same voice, except their antagonism toward MQM.

After the recent press conference by Zulfiqar Mirza, almost all political parties in Pakistan appear to be competing with each other in taking potshots at MQM. My concern is not whether MQM is really guilty as accused or not.  Rather, it is with the ways in which MQM is being weaved into the mainstream political rhetoric in Pakistan. This rhetoric has the effect of making the MQM appear [as I said above, I am not concerned with what MQM actually is but how it comes across in the rhetoric] as a violent group engaged in extortion, torture, target killing, so on and so forth. The light shone on MQM has had the effect of taking people’ sights off, even if temporarily, the general malaise that afflicts Pakistani political and civil society at large.

MQM is working as a glue in bringing the strange bedfellows together as well as a rhetorical detergent with which they are busy washing their own sins. But the effects of empty signifiers such as MQM are transitory at best.  They do not become condensed in institutional arrangements. Those dancing in unison on the surface of MQM will splinter away from each other soon as this unifier is removed. Likewise, its detergent effect is also going to be transitory. The brute violence that is characteristic of political process in Pakistan will reemerge.

Let me take a step away from my empty signifier chase now–I keep trying to locate these signifiers by habit in any collective rhetoric–and reflect a bit on the need for the rule of law that many have pointed out in the past couple weeks.


About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

3 Responses to “MQM, the Empty Signifier?”

  1. I am not surprised at the unison that the Empty Signifier that MQM may be, has created among all political parties, institutions and the media. We must also note that, irrespective of its characteristics as an organisation, MQM’s leadership is largely drawn from low and middle income groups who obviously do not carry the articulate style or the sleek attire to match the otherwise sophisticated elite, which in some cases consists of graduates from the most expensive ivy league colleges. It is a misfortune for Pakistanis that organisations consisting of lower and middle class migrants has come to this pass. This is no secret that MQM was always despised by mainstream political parties which are typically led by the feudal and industrial bigwigs.
    Yet its significance in terms of being a popular regime in Karachi and holding sizable provincial and national parliament seats led to seemingly unnatural alliances time and again with different political parties, and a share in the power structures. That the lower middle class political leadership cannot create a strategic partnership with feudal masters has become obvious. With it have also become obvious the ways in which Pakistani society is deeply divided along socio-economic as well as ethnic lines. In the case of Karachi, the dividing lines are not just ethnic but also clearly socio-economic. Thus, the alliances between MQM and other parties always fail.
    Post Altaf Hussain’s press conference as I watched through Hamid Mir’s Capital Talk and listened to comments made by representatives of political parties, it sounded like an MQM bashing platform starting with personality comments on Altaf Husain. Seeing this programme, I would tend to agree that MQM is indeed working as a detergent. Clearly, it seemed that to me as viewer that none of the participants, who were representing parties and groups, had any share in the mess that we are in. They also seemed unified in hitting out, directly or subtly, at the MQM as a group of traitors, plunderers, extortionists. According to Zulfiqar Mirza anyone siding with them or standing by them should be dealt with like any traitor should be. This reminds me of the Bush’s rhetoric in the wake of 911, “you are either with us or an enemy.” Yes, the appearance of unison of ‘innocence’ against the evil that MQM is made to be is stunning.
    We should also pose the question of whether it is [or not] reminiscent of the drums that were beating in 1970 against the ‘traitor’ Bengalis. It might very well be that MQM’s genesis was a result of a complex mix of dictatorial policy making and the ways in which it used the demographics of Karachi in the 1980. But it is equally true of almost all major political parties in Pakistan. How are they any virtuous, each one of them being a product of dictatorial regimes and/or through shady agreements with foreign powers. Whether it was the East Pakistan debacle, or the army action in Balochistan in 1973, or the action against MQM in 1990s in Karachi, or the action in the name of terrorism against the people of KPK/NWFP over the last decade, it is the poor people which have been on the receiving end of the violence. The role of political elite in the atrocious events in the history of Pakistan is not remembered as much. To cut to the chase, Pakistan remains a deeply divided society along many different dimensions including linguistic, ethnic, and socio-economic. Moreover, these divisions are left unmanaged in the absence of the rule of law, as you rightly point out. The conduct of political parties and the political leaders is consistent with these deep divisions.

  2. Is 9/11 not an Empty Signifier???

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