COMMENT: Reviving Pakistani liberalism — II —Ahmad Ali Khalid - Thursday, March 31, 2011

Source :\03\31\story_31-3-2011_pg3_4

COMMENT: Reviving Pakistani liberalism — II —Ahmad Ali Khalid
There is always (whether we like it or not) an unbreakable link between our political decisions and our personal moral beliefs. Even those advocating individual freedoms do so by adopting a moral and philosophical belief

To revive liberalism in Pakistan implies that an ideology of liberalism was once alive in Pakistan. Let’s not get nostalgic about the “good old days” (partly because the majority demographic of this country, the youth will not have any memory of these times) when, as our esteemed liberal writers reminiscence, no one wore beards and hijabs (head scarves). Part of the problem of liberal discourse in Pakistan is that there is a genuine misunderstanding of religious faith. Imran Khan makes this point abundantly clear time and time again, that the liberal elites of this country fail to do two things. They do not understand their environment (their audience) and they do not understand their faith.

It is painfully obvious to outside observers of Pakistani society that liberalism in Pakistan fails because it does not speak in a viable political language. But was this always the case? Pakistan is the birth of an idea — an idea that Javed Iqbal calls “ijtihadi Islam”. Mr Jinnah and Allama Iqbal, two figures who loom large in Pakistani public life and consciousness were not adherents of traditionalist Islam. Jinnah sought to integrate Islamic values into a modern form of republican and liberal democracy, whilst Iqbal strived to reinvigorate Islamic thought by rethinking philosophy and ethics. Iqbal’s work till this day influences religious reformers from Iran to Malaysia who seek to build a democratic future. It is clear both of them wanted Islam to have a public role in nourishing and supporting democracy.

But our liberals ignore this. For instance in an article, columnist Ishtiaq Ahmed dogmatically claimed that, “Only a secular democracy can be a liberal democracy,” and furthermore wrote that there are no Islamic roots for liberal democracy. If that is the case then Mr Ahmed has fantastically alienated the vast majority of Pakistanis. Why on earth should we abandon faith to believe in liberal and democratic values? One can be devout and liberal and pluralistic at the same time.

How can one say there are no Islamic roots for liberal democracy? What about the values of considered judgement, sympathetic imagination, self-restraint, the ability to cooperate, and toleration which do not arise spontaneously but require cultivation? Liberal democracy does not emerge in a vacuum; it arises when certain virtues such as tolerance are given support and historically religion has provided these virtues to sustain liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is a moral project not something cold, abstract and informal.

One has to inspire people with ideals and values to generate real democratic and liberal activism, and faith can help in this. Perhaps the good Professor should read Alexis de Tocqueville, who famously remarked about American democracy, “Liberty cannot be established without morality,” and more importantly, “The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.” American democracy has always been supported by the moral values that religion inspires, so why on earth has the Professor taken a hard, French-style line of secularism in the context of Pakistani politics?

Tariq Ramadan, the reformist scholar, says values such as rule of law (key), egalitarianism (key for liberal democracy) can be found within the Islamic tradition. Hence liberal democracy can have moral and religious roots. Conservatives and those on the right effectively mobilise and popularise notions of community, faith and tradition whilst liberals are left grappling with abstract and theoretical platitudes about “rights” and “constitutionalism”. This is a problem that plagues most liberal thinking, especially in the Muslim world, where powerful forces like community illicit potent reactions and evoke strong memories revolving around loyalty, patriotism and identity.

In his work titled Public Philosophy — Essays on Morality in Politics, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political philosopher, argues that all citizens should come to the public sphere and be allowed to use religious/moral and metaphysical arguments in public discussion as it has done much to tear down these simplistic dichotomies. The civil rights movement in the US was primarily a moral and religious project arguing for the liberation and equality of all American citizens. It was a powerful statement of faith but also equality, justice and freedom.

In short, there is always (whether we like it or not) an unbreakable link between our political decisions and our personal moral beliefs. Even those advocating individual freedoms do so by adopting a moral and philosophical belief. Sandel’s message in his work is clear: fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread. The answer for liberals is not to flee moral arguments but to engage them. And that: a politics whose moral resources are diminished with disuse lies vulnerable to those who impose narrow moralisms.

The only alternative left for Pakistan today is an “Islamic liberal democracy”, which is a form of liberalism that does away with the obsession of rights but takes claims of morality, religion and community more seriously.

Liberals in Pakistan should take concrete steps in forming bridges and institutional alliances with scholars such as Javed Ahmed Ghamidi and even Tahir-ul-Qadri. Qadri and Ghamidi represent a reflective and scholarly vision of traditional Islam. Whether we like it or not, Pakistanis are by and large still religious and for all the talk of radicalism, classical and traditional Islam with its Sufi devotions and legal reasoning is still the major denomination. Modern day classical scholars like Qadri believe in an Islamic state (and more importantly in ijtihad), but their Islamic state has many similarities with the vision of democracy that Pakistani liberals have in mind. There is a real opportunity for converging on some key principles if only those from the classical tradition (Qadri), progressive Islamic discourse (Ghamidi) and Pakistani liberals join together. In other words, we must transcend the politics of lifestyle to embrace a politics of principle. On issues of political principle Pakistani liberals have much more in common with Qadri and Ghamidi than the PPP, which actually has been shockingly regressive, but there needs to be serious democratic dialogue. Ultimately, the uniting principles can be boiled down to political reform, social justice and intellectual exertion (ijtihad). Civil society groups should reach out to these type of scholars, and reach some form of consensus with the increasingly religious urban youth. By combining civil activism with deep religious knowledge, liberalism could be universalised in Pakistan. Like-minded religious scholars/intellectuals (like Khalid Zaheer for instance) and religious institutions (like Al Mawrid) should be invited into partnership with civil society groups to reinvigorate Pakistani liberalism. That should be the future civic politics to revive Pakistani liberalism by connecting the urban youth to religious thinkers and ideas that are conducive to liberal democracy.

The youth in Pakistan are becoming more religious and clearly wish to see Islam play a positive role in making Pakistan a strong modern democracy. Liberals must cater to this aspiration by going back to Pakistan’s founding principle, which was Islamic liberalism.


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

No comments:

Post a Comment