VIEW: Ending the culture wars —Ahmad Ali Khalid - Thursday, March 10, 2011

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Secular and religious activists who both agree on the principles of liberal democracy but justify liberal democracy using different cultural values should no longer ignore each other or be hostile to each other

There is an unusual fracture stretching from the middle classes right up to the elite. The fracture is the series of pointless and divisive culture wars that have engulfed the burgeoning middle classes and affluent elite. As the nation is going through an existential crisis on many levels, it is amazing that our penchant for culture wars has not abated.

The reason there are no moderates in Pakistani public life is because we do not talk to each other; we either talk at each other or down to each other.

For instance, Valentine’s Day passed recently and the amount of columns, chat shows, contemporary affairs programmes that one single question got was shocking. It seemed that our media and middle classes had only one burning question, “Is Valentine’s Day haram?” There was such passionate discussion and heated argument — it seemed our national future was dependent on the validity of Valentine’s Day.

The great litmus test in contemporary Pakistan of whether you are ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive’ is whether or not you celebrate Valentine’s Day. This extends to every other thing. Whether you wear a beard or not is now the test for virtue. Or whether you wear jeans or not, of course, is the test for how ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’ you are. Another great debate is whether you speak English or not, or how strictly you practise Islam. There is that usual discussion on whether praying five times a day makes you a better human being. Basically, we as a country love to discuss superficial issues but when it comes to real issues of substance, there is a shocking silence.

There is a moderate faction in Pakistan, that much is sure. But it seems to be more interested in engaging in culture wars rather than forming a coherent front against radicalism. The tragedy is that there are those who consider themselves ‘liberal’, who have decided the ultimate sign of being ‘modern’ is adopting a western lifestyle, whilst those who consider themselves guardians of Islamic virtue consider wearing a beard or hijab (headscarf) as the deciding factor of whether a person is moral or not.

These culture wars are obsessed with the idea of symbols and images. But the problem is that if you are going to base your politics on superficial notions of image and lifestyle, then you miss the chance to build bridges and come to a consensus. We simply do not talk to each other; as a nation we have not learnt the art of democratic conversation.

Broadly speaking, it is time the democratic Left in Pakistan build bridges with religious leaders, organisations and religious intellectuals like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi. Disagreements on a cultural level may persist but there is full agreement with the principles of political liberalism.

Political liberalism is difficult to define, but we can say it has a tendency towards human rights, constitutionalism, rule of law, social justice and equality. These concepts can find justification in secular philosophy or within Islamic thought, but the point should no longer be how you justify these principles but whether you accept them. We should accept that secular democrats feel uneasy about using religious values to justify democracy, but at the same time these very secular democrats must reach across the divide and accept their Islamic counterparts as allies in these dangerous times.

Ghamidi may not characterise himself as a liberal or secularist but he does prefer the label ‘Islamic democrat’. There are similar ‘Islamic democrats’ present within the middle class and elite, who express their democratic aspirations in the language of faith. Instead of disparaging them, the Left needs to reach out to them. At the same time, the Islamic democrats need to realise that they need to make a broad base coalition to protect the values that they so dearly hold. Clearly, Islamic democrats like Ghamidi are under tremendous pressure by the radical religious right and need to make alliances with left-leaning organisations.

The great challenge facing any country is how to come to sensible decisions on issues of grave public policy by transparent, clear and equitable methods. How do we make good decisions on public policy with the involvement of citizens? That is the basic dilemma of democracies, the art of public reasoning. Democracy is more about process, about the way we come to our decisions, and how we use our human reason collectively.

For all the pessimism abundantly around, there is a moderate core in Pakistan among the middle class and elite. The problem, it seems, is that the Islamic democrats and secular democrats are too busy arguing with each other about trivial issues and not having a deep discussion about the principles they share.

Another classic example is the bickering over whether Pakistan is an ‘Islamic state’ or a ‘secular state’. This discussion should now be shunned. Why? Because these two terms are meaningless, and we need to have a discussion on principles and values, not labels. For instance, many among the middle classes who speak of an Islamic state envisage a state that upholds equal and fundamental rights, democratic rule, the rule of law and a strong judiciary. Similarly, secularists would find these principles acceptable as well. The point is that if we go beyond labels and stereotypes, we will find there is actually quite a lot of agreement.

Secular and religious activists who both agree on the principles of liberal democracy but justify liberal democracy using different cultural values should no longer ignore each other or be hostile to each other. The culture wars that have ravaged the Pakistani middle class should be shunned. Now is not the time to discuss whether wearing jeans or listening to rap music is a sign of ‘enlightenment’.

Ghamidi recently said in an interview, “I am neither Islamist nor secular. I am a Muslim and a democrat.” We need to grasp this attitude. It should no longer matter what we call ourselves, but what we believe and what we stand for. Ghamidi’s work does not have any references to secular authors or philosophy, but Ghamidi is braver than most politicians who profess to be ‘liberals’ and are part of parties like the PPP.

Pakistan is now drowning under a clerical tsunami, and one of the best courses of action left is if Islamic democrats and secular democrats come together and talk to each other. There needs to be genuine engagement and serious discussion on establishing a democratic charter that unites the religious and secular moderates.

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

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