COMMENT: Reviving Pakistani liberalism — I —Ahmad Ali Khalid - Thursday, March 24, 2011

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COMMENT: Reviving Pakistani liberalism — I —Ahmad Ali Khalid
Liberals have abandoned the discourse of anti-imperialism to the religious right at great expense. The religious parties have identified an honest set of grievances and exploited it for their own ends, whilst Pakistani liberals refuse to even acknowledge what these grievances are

Liberalism in Pakistan is an island, removed from public life, absent in popular media discourse and absolutely overwhelmed by the rhetoric of the religious right. It is time for liberals in Pakistan to assess why it is that the religious right are so much more effective in spreading their message, increasing their influence and appealing to the imagination of quite a substantial segment of Pakistani society. We also need to get back to basics — what is liberalism? But first the problems.

Why is it that the urbanised university educated youth of Pakistan are veering towards the ideas of the religious right? Why is it that conservatism is on the march among the Pakistani youth? We should put the old complaints about General Zia, the deficiencies of the Pakistani state, the madrassas and the radicalism of the Taliban to one side. These are of course critical factors but there is something else on a much deeper level I think that explains the demise of Pakistani liberalism.

I think it is simply that liberals are totally out of touch with the Pakistani people. It is simply an ideological failure of the highest order; tie this in with the epic failures of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and there has been created an intellectual and political vacuum that has been filled by the religious right. Why is it for instance that the PPP (a self-proclaimed bastion of liberalism) is merely a feudal estate of the Bhuttos with no transparency and a total lack of robust, internal democratic mechanisms? These are difficult questions that have to be asked to prevent Pakistan from drowning under a wave of theocratic fervour as a result of liberal failure.

Liberals will and still do complain about the institutional bias of the Pakistani state, the murky dealings of the army and mullahs, but the bottom line is that liberals in Pakistan are simply not communicating with their audience.

For Pakistani liberalism to succeed there needs to be a total re-imagination on the issues of religion, anti-imperialism (American interference), inclusive democracy (a viable party system) and the economy.

The first factor I find is a total lack of emotional intelligence and utter misreading of the public mood by Pakistani liberals. Frequently, I read and converse with liberal writers who argue in quite a patronising way that the Pakistani middle classes are fundamentally irrational and are making issues of out of “non-issues”. The “non-issues” that so many liberal writers in our media are so fond of quoting are the drone attacks, the recent Raymond Davis case, national sovereignty and “honour”. Other issues include American interference in Pakistani domestic affairs. We must be critical and consistent; Pakistani liberals have turned a blind eye to these honest grievances and instead have chosen to mock them and satirise them. This condescending and patronising attitude by some of our liberal writers has alienated so many of our urban educated youth who do feel quite strongly about these issues. It seems as if Pakistani liberals inhabit another Pakistan. Just talk to everyday Pakistanis and many will hold quite passionately an unfavourable view of American interference, the drone attacks and feel genuinely hurt and distraught about the state of Pakistan’s national sovereignty. Why is it that these educated people feel so helpless when they are supposed to live in a democracy?

What liberals need to realise is that you cannot alienate your own audience if you want to spread your ideas and principles. You have to make bridges, alliances and reach out to people to find common ground. Liberalism needs to be universalised and presented as a philosophy of hope to a Pakistani nation that is thirsting for social justice and equity. At the moment, liberalism is an odd eccentricity held by an unconcerned elite. It is critical that the current political, moral and intellectual vacuum be filled to counter the lure of theocracy hanging over Pakistan.

Liberals in Pakistan have not shown enough emotional empathy as seen in the Raymond Davis case. There has been a complete disregard for the popular public mood. These candid criticisms must be made of the liberal discourse in this country because the danger is that liberalism in Pakistan will become an exclusive island rather than a viable political ideology.

Too often our elites conflate liberalism with a lifestyle choice. Pakistani blogger Asad Badruddin highlights this controversial issue of class and status brilliantly:

“Even if one has a progressive agenda, there is an apparent issue of class within this debate, which has been ignored by most commentators. Religion presents a platform where the lower-middle class find themselves for the first time powerful enough to impose an issue on the English speaking, Pajero driving, whisky drinking elite of this country. This is as much an issue of power as it is of principle.”

Even on college campuses and universities there is such an unhealthy atmosphere where students are defined by their choice of lifestyle rather than their principles and ideals. Liberals as well as those on the religious right are equally guilty of this. There are self-professed “liberals” who think that having an English accent, drinking, smoking, wearing jeans and listening to rap music is the height of civilisation and modernity. However, the religious right too makes this mistake by focusing on the outward signs of religion such as the beard and hijab at the expense of Islamic principles.

Pakistani liberals have taken an inconsistent stand on many issues. There is a perception among many Pakistanis that so-called liberal writers are merely apologists for American ambition. The old anti-imperialism of some Pakistani liberals like Eqbal Ahmed is disappearing from liberal circles. Liberals have abandoned the discourse of anti-imperialism to the religious right at great expense. The religious right have totally distorted the meaning of anti-imperialism to portray a “clash of civilisations”, and this can be seen in the massive protests raged by the religious parties. The religious parties have identified an honest set of grievances and exploited it for their own ends, whilst Pakistani liberals refuse to even acknowledge what these grievances are.

In his work, Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy, Nader Hashemi writes about Eqbal Ahmed, the late Pakistani liberal intellectual: “The late Eqbal Ahmad once observed, a primary lesson to be learned from the European experience of political modernisation that is relevant to a Muslim context is that ‘no significant political change occurs unless the new form is congruent with the old. It is only when a transplant is congenial to a soil that it works’.”

Put simply, liberals need to speak the language of faith and take seriously concepts of national honour, virtue, dignity and anti-imperialism to appeal to their audience in order to spread their esteemed ideas. Liberalism in Pakistan has to become Pakistani and indigenous rather than an awkward western import as it is currently perceived to be.

(To be continued)

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at

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