COMMENT: Fighting in the shade —Saroop Ijaz - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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COMMENT: Fighting in the shade —Saroop Ijaz
The visible liberal in Pakistan is either the utopian revolutionary or the inveterate cynic; conspicuously absent is the critical thinker. The liberal in Pakistan, like the conservative, conveniently compensates for the dearth of serious academic work in political theory, anthropology and sociology by ‘stereotyping’

In an inaccurate account of the Battle of Thermopylae in a Hollywood movie, the emissary of the Persian King Xerxes says to the Spartan King: “When we attack, our arrows will blot out the sun!” “Good; then we will fight in the shade,” replies the Spartan.

Recently, a video of a young political activist in Pakistan, it appears, has attained some notoriety. The video shows a young revolutionary at a protest against the release of Raymond Davis. The gentleman laments the police obstruction of the protest, makes a comparison between a right-wing ideologically confused cricket commentator-cum-politician and Che Guevara, and most significantly cites the scorching heat as being a major impediment to achieving his unflinching objective of bringing about the revolution. Although the youth seems perceptibly misguided, the video itself is mundane though amusing, hardly articulating a novelty in the patterns of urban political thought. What is truly extraordinary is the “liberal” reaction to the video. As a disclaimer, my sample size is restricted to the reaction that I have witnessed. Nonetheless, the energy apparently spent on mocking the video is astounding. The reaction, both qualitative and quantitative, may be of deeper significance. The sentiments of the youth starring in the video and the response of his detractors have one glaring commonality: they are both patronising.

Santayana once wrote that there are two Americas, of which one is European, and the other American. Similarly, it seems there are two Pakistans, both of which are self-righteous and condescending. The Raymond Davis fiasco is a classic example. Raymond Davis should have been released once the heirs had compromised under the prevailing law of the state. Hence the chest beating, wailing and the hysteria by the rightists is utterly irrational. Equally bizarre is the brazen displays of delight at the liberation of Raymond by the liberals. Assuming that the elation is not on the application of the Islamic law of diyat (blood money), the only other plausible explanation is that the liberals are celebrating a rare moment of triumph, a moment where the clergy were administered a taste of their own medicine. The temptation to rejoice the failure of the adversary is almost a primordial instinct yet can become particularly precarious in political discourse.

The intellectual blinkers donned by both sides make any dialogue tedious at best and impossible on most occasions. Critical discourse between the opposing sides is futile most of the time because when one side fails to capitulate to the destructively intelligent, yet universal and self-evident arguments of the other, it only proves they are immune to reason, beyond redemption. I am not advocating reconciliation or the maintenance of a pretence of neutrality. I believe that the liberals are, for the most part, right and the religious zealots are entirely deluded. The absence of prejudice is overrated. One needs to be prejudiced against oppression and idiocy. Mark Twain writes, “I know that I am prejudiced on this matter, but I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.” However, to mechanically adopt the position diametrically opposed to the other side results in atrophy, making critical opinions and nuanced arguments unnecessary.

To argue that something is believed or not believed by someone and act as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument or a counter-argument is textbook fundamentalism. The Raymond Davis episode highlighted the complexity of our societal problems, and the fact that they are incapable of binary, blanket answers. Appeals to unreason and parochialism are equally deplorable when mocking a television actress in a reality show or an injudicious fair weather revolutionary. I admit that the comparison is not entirely fair as there is no threat of violence in the latter case. The youthful activist made statements that were stupid, and I have no inclination to defend him for that. I also believe that the party to which he belongs is dangerously delusional. However, unintelligent statements are not that rare in our public discourse to usually mandate this inordinate amount of attention. There may be an additional reason for the focus.

Sigmund Freud in his brilliant book Civilisation and Its Discontents writes about “the narcissism of the minor difference”. He writes, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.” The boy in the video looks to be in his 20s, urban, middle/upper middle class, apparently educated yet advocating the revolution of the faithful. The minor difference, which in his case did not turn to be that minor after all, was that he was not a “liberal”. And being a liberal ostensibly does not require the formulation of thought out opinions; vehement denial of the mindless ramblings of the other side is sufficient. Had the same statements been made by a bearded student of a madrassa, the liberal reaction would have been dismissive and it would have been unlikely to elicit a response of this magnitude or any response at all. But it was the fact that he was one of their own, gone astray, that irked them: almost a “class traitor”. The mocking exercise at a subconscious level is directed at reinforcing their own revolutionary spirit; it is aimed as much at reassuring themselves as it is of exposing the patently erroneous statements of the boy. The association of liberal thought with a particular demographic is not only patrician, but also breeds insulation, mimicking the clique formation of the religious fanatics. The cocoons of protection allow the liberal and the conservative to avoid critical debate and engage in internal backslapping.

The assumption of moral and intellectual superiority amongst the liberals is not completely unwarranted given our peculiar circumstances. Yet feeling morally superior to people condoning wanton murders, is no reason to gloat; it should be a part of being human. The liberals have begun to define themselves entirely in opposition to the religious rightists. The problem with this negative definition is that it allows them to buy their liberalism ridiculously cheap. Christopher Hitchens once paraphrasing Wittgenstein said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” If the liberals are right it is because of historical, moral and rational arguments and not only because the fanatics are wrong. The visible liberal in Pakistan is either the utopian revolutionary or the inveterate cynic; conspicuously absent is the critical thinker (with sparkling exceptions of course). The liberal in Pakistan, like the conservative, conveniently compensates for the dearth of serious academic work in political theory, anthropology and sociology by ‘stereotyping’.

The winter revolutionary, the religious rightist, the Spartan and the liberal in Pakistan have one thing in common, i.e. all of them prefer to fight in the shade, albeit in their own respective shades.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and can be reached at

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