COMMENT: Fond liberal beliefs —Salman Tarik Kureshi - Saturday, March 05, 2011

Source :\03\05\story_5-3-2011_pg3_2

If there is a silent majority, the bets are off on that majority being liberal at heart. Public opinion is not a fixed inertial mass; it is constantly being influenced and modified by events and by the ideas being communicated

“Yes, but if I don’t attend this meeting, it has to be through principle, not because I’m scared,” said Turgut Bey...“The question is…what should I put first – the enlightenment or the will of the people? If I believe first and foremost in…enlightenment, then I am obliged to see the Islamists as my enemies and should support this military coup. If, however, my first commitment is to the will of the people…then I have no choice but to go and sign that statement” — from the Turkish novel, Snow, by Orhan Pamuk.

Whether failure to control inflation or the Sarajevo-like portents of the Raymond Davis fiasco or the tragic assassination of Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, examples of governmental dysfunction are multiplying. Change has to come and that change, in the paradigm now eagerly advanced, involves either “revolution”, by which is implied a successful Islamist uprising, or another “patriotic” military coup d’état. Either way, constitutional methods and liberal perspectives are nowhere in contention.

One needs to pity those souls whose credo lacks both the tough fibre at the core and the strong outer hide necessary for survival in our harsh political climes. With ideals sorely battered, the liberal has had less than a paltry impact on our 63 years of history as a state and yet he gets referred to by the oxymoron “liberal fascist”!

The word “fond” in the title of this piece is used in the old sense of “foolish” (as in “fond lover”). It refers to the beliefs underpinning the folklore of those who place themselves to the left of the political centre, but somewhere to the right of “damned communists”.

The fond beliefs that give heart to the ideals of the liberal are threefold. First, it is held that the Two-Nation Theory, on which the founding of Pakistan was predicated, had nothing to do with Muslim faith or values but sought a secular national homeland for India’s Muslims. As proof, the Quaid’s speech of August 11, 1947, in which he preached secularism, is quoted. Second, liberals point out that, whenever Pakistani people have voted, the religious right has failed to win more than a fraction of the seats. Third, there is a huge – if silent – majority among the people of Pakistan that actually favours liberal ideals and abjures both Islamist and military authoritarianisms.

Was the Quaid a liberal? Certainly, in the earlier part of his political career. Mr Jinnah was deeply influenced by the ideas of Sir John Bright, one of the leading lights of the British Liberal Party. Every word and action of Mr Jinnah and the kinds of political issues he championed pointed to his powerfully liberal, secular frame of mind; at least, prior to 1929. Remember that he was also a member of the Congress Party up until that time, albeit concurrently with the Muslim League after 1916. But great leaders are entitled to change their views and the programmes they propose. As we all know, Mr Jinnah became disenchanted with the Congress, with what he came to regard as Hindu perfidy and, by implication, with secular nationalism.

The Muslim League successfully contested the 1946 elections on the slogan “Islam is in danger”. In August 1946, he moved still further away from his earlier political leanings with the bitter words, “Today we bid farewell to constitutional methods.”

Now, to the speech itself. The context, let us remember, included the decision by the British Raj to divide and quit, announced suddenly only two months earlier. More immediate, the context of the speech included the daemons of extreme communal violence rampaging across the land. The Quaid needed desperately to shift gears, first towards the needs of creating a nation out of what had been a protest movement and, second, towards restoring order and reassuring all citizens of fair treatment in the new country.

Not much grist for the liberal mill in that, is there?

Now, on the issue of the people of Pakistan never voting in large numbers for the Islamists, this is simply untrue. Understand that the Islamist parties have not been a unified entity but have been divided across some two dozen Jamiats and Jamaats, as well as – and please note this – the various Muslim Leagues and some smaller parties of the right. All of these have a more or less Islamist agenda, even if their adherents do not always wear beards. Now, if the conservative vote were not divided across these various entities, what would in fact be the position? We saw something of this when General Hamid Gul masterminded the formation of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) to confront a resurgent PPP in 1988. Despite the charisma of the late Benazir Bhutto and widespread disgust with the Zia years, the IJI secured as many as 55 seats against 92 of the PPP, denying the latter a clear majority. In 1990, the IJI secured 105 seats against only 44 by the PPP. So much for the fond belief that Islamists have little or no electoral following!

As for the third fond belief, let’s face it. If there is a silent majority, the bets are off on that majority being liberal at heart. Public opinion is not a fixed inertial mass; it is constantly being influenced and modified by events and by the ideas being communicated. A pseudo-Islamist national narrative was contrived by the establishment, most comprehensively during the Zia regime. It is this which has furnished the master narrative and terms of reference for all discourse, whether in pulpits or classrooms or bazaars or political exchanges or on the media, unchallenged by a counter-narrative. The so-called liberals, secure in the environment of their drawing rooms and intellectually smug in their English-medium educations and familiarity with world opinion, are simply out of touch with the ordinary people. Therefore, no meaningful counter-narrative has been communicated.

As I suggested in my last article in these pages, the articulation and promotion of a counter-narrative to different segments of society is the kind of task that falls to political parties avowing a left-liberal programme. And it is this task they have failed to fulfil. The liberal in this country today, having lived too long with the fond beliefs discussed here, could indeed be faced with the choice between another bout of army rule or an Islamist uprising, the first shots of which have been the recent assassinations.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

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