ANALYSIS: Liberal revolution —Anthony Galli - Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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As I see it, we have before us three future directions in Pakistan. Either the status remains the same, despite how much people grumble about it. Or, there is a revolution that drastically changes the structure of the state. Or, there is a slower evolution towards a better democracy

A lot of people use the word ‘liberal’, but not everyone agrees with the definition. According to the dictionary, it is: “A political or social philosophy advocating the freedom of the individual, parliamentary systems of government, non-violent modification of political, social, or economic institutions to assure unrestricted development in all spheres of human endeavour, and governmental guarantees of individual rights and civil liberties.”

It is important to think about what that means. In the current climate, liberalism basically refers to fairness towards minorities, freedom of religion and freedom of expression. This use of the term is a little more restricted, but does not contradict the standard definition above. Certainly, a republic or representative democracy can exist without the latter, as the full title of the country is in fact the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’. But can you really have a democracy with a government that favours the rights of one religious group over another?

Apparently, the founder, Quaid-i-Azam felt that was not so, as there is the well-known quote from his policy speech on August 11, 1947: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed; that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” However, there is the counter-claim that Mr Jinnah explicitly stated that Pakistan was founded on the basis of Islam. Of course, what Islam was to him is not necessarily what it is to many using his name to promote theocracy. I do not know if Jinnah really wanted Islamic law in Pakistan’s constitution, but I am not a Jinnah scholar, and his words can be cherry-picked to make opposing arguments. His vision and will of the country is certainly not a trivial matter, but if Pakistan is to remain a democracy at all, there must be a healthy debate about what is right and fair on the merits of a good argument, and not just parsing through the speeches of Jinnah to find out what his will was.

Obviously, the vast majority of Pakistanis are Muslims. But do they all agree on the role of Islam in the country? Is there a basic agreement on where the line is between religion and government in Pakistan? Do the people agree on how clear the line should be? What I hear, from self-described liberals in Pakistan is that the majority of Pakistanis are not liberal. If that is true that means the majority support a greater role of Islam in politics, and the version called for is different from what moderates say Islam actually teaches. The number, and intensity, of protests against Aasia Bibi is much higher than that in support of the slain governor, Salmaan Taseer. Further, it looks like there is more support for his murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, than disapproval in the public, despite the official statements of politicians. This is certainly so for Islamic organisations, including the more moderate Barelvis.

It may be that the majority of Pakistanis are more liberal than what this portrayal suggests. It may be that they would speak louder, and more often, but are drowned out by the non-liberals who, by definition, are not ones to mince words, keep their angry impulses in check, or push for fairness. Given the violent, authoritarian nature of these theocrats, the liberals must, sensibly enough, be hesitant to say what they really feel. Who knows how many liberals there actually are in Pakistan?

Whatever the number of the silent majority — or minority — is, there are definitely liberals who have had enough. The assassination of Salmaan Taseer, and the fate of Aasia Bibi, who may become the first person to receive the death penalty under the blasphemy laws — via the state, that is — has lit a fuse. These liberals refuse to be silent.

These firebrands are brave, and I support them. I have even heard calls for a revolution.

Pakistanis need to see workable solutions to dire poverty, tribal conflict, illiteracy, crimes against women, lawlessness, etc in a secular context. Or else they will continue to turn to a more radical, politicised Islam that offers the prospect of empowerment to those who want justice now, at all costs. Unfortunately, the slower it takes to fix social problems in Pakistan, the faster, it seems, extremism grows.

As I see it, we have before us three future directions in Pakistan. Either the status remains the same, despite how much people grumble about it. Or, there is a revolution that drastically changes the structure of the state. Or, there is a slower evolution towards a better democracy.

Currently, we see many well-educated, talented, and ethical Pakistanis, who could make great contributions to their society, emigrate to seek better futures for themselves and their families elsewhere. This does not bode well for Pakistan.

A revolution could work, in theory. The shift would be drastic, and painful. And is not a revolution just what the more radical Islamists call for? Something along the lines of Iran, but for Sunnis? Clearly, they are not happy with the status quo, and as was the case in Iran, there are problems in the country that much of the public, including liberals, want to seriously tackle.

While the French Revolution appeals to our romantic notions of egalitarianism, the reality of it was far from smooth. There was a bloody reign of terror throughout the country, which was, in fact, the period during which the word ‘terrorism’ was coined. After France established a constitution, there was the dictatorship and imperialism of Napoleon. It is only in hindsight, two centuries later, that we can see the benefits of a system where protests, discourse, and voting, rather than guns and bombs, contribute to a healthy French society. This was in a nation much more unitary than Pakistan.

If there is to be change, then a slower evolution is probably the best route to go. That means, in the decades to come, we can expect to see progress lurch two steps forward, one step back. There will still be abuses of power. Corruption will not disappear. The military will continue to be the strongest institution in the country. The economy will expand slowly, if at all. The arts and culture will remain marginalised.

Do liberals have enough patience to see such a slow change? While stability at all costs is a poor option, the cost of instability in Pakistan may be too high for the country, the region, and frankly the rest of the world, to stake a gamble on a hot revolution.

A stable Pakistan, slowly moving toward more efficient and accountable institutions and more equality before the law, in a piecemeal fashion, might be our best hope. Social order is the soil where the much-needed, deeper democratic reforms can be nurtured and take root.

And let us hope they do!

The writer is an American who has lived in Pakistan for four years, working as a teacher and media person

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