09 Jan The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal
By Anjum Altaf
Like no other political assassination in Pakistan, the recent brutal murder of Salman Taseer should throw into sharp relief the nature of the Pakistani liberal, a condition whose complexities and conflicts belie the simple narratives reflected in headlines like “Pakistani reformer dead” or “Setback for liberals in Pakistan.”
Salman Taseer reflected the essence of a certain segment of Pakistani liberaldom – liberals who are highly educated, articulate, erudite, dynamic, successful, affluent and well connected. It is from this group that the most could have been expected in the struggle for reform, but they have been marginalized to the point of irrelevance. Seen through the lens of conflicted loyalties and aspirations, this phenomenon becomes less opaque: No matter how progressive, the stereotypical liberal harbors a visceral antipathy for the “enemies of Islam,” which leads to knee-jerk responses blind to what is progressive or retrogressive within the implementation of Islam itself or what is in the long-term interests of the majority of the population.
The principal manifestation of this was the response to the Islamization of society that began at the tail-end of the Zulfiqar Bhutto era and acquired momentum under Zia ul Haq, with wholesale changes in the realm of education. Very few of Mr. Bhutto’s liberal supporters resigned in protest or were able to articulate the long-term implications of the transformation of education into indoctrination. Rather, there was a vague acceptance of the argument that a little more Islam was harmless in a Muslim country.
Feeding this, and also providing a rationalization, was an unremitting hostility towards India, for which the liberal leadership committed the nation to “eat grass” if necessary. Anti-India sentiment also required the construction of a particularly Muslim nationalism, and for the inculcation in the population of a new, distinct identity. There was little protest by liberals against the extensive use of public media for such an endeavor; jokes about the “mullah in the idiot box” circulated in private, but never came together in a liberal counter-offensive of any significance.
A similarly muddled attitude prevailed towards the Taliban, who, as long as they were seen as fighting for the greater glory of Islam against godless communists, deviant imperialists or oppressive neighbors, were in fact the beneficiaries of much sympathy. It was only when the Taliban arrived at their own gates that the implications of such sympathy began to be recognized.
At the same time, the stereotypical liberal found it impossible to resist the attraction of political power. Leading liberals joined hands with political parties that were, at best, unprincipled, or of unrepresentative governments for whom principles mattered not at all. It is believable that such liberals genuinely felt they could be more effective as reformers from the inside than from the outside, but whatever the intentions, they did not bear fruit – their track records were marked by acquiescence, accommodation and the usual hardball politics of power and patronage.
There was also a certain hubris, dating back to before the creation of Pakistan and running through Zulfiqar Bhutto and Musharraf (who had delusions of being the next Ataturk): the belief that their intellectual endowments would always allow liberals to outsmart the unsophisticated fundamentalists when the chips were down. Instrumental accommodations with retrogressive forces were always fair game, because they could of course be trumped when the time came to do so.
The conflicted stance rendered this segment of liberals completely ineffective in terms of the leadership of political reform that was needed by the other segments, the foot soldiers, of liberalism. They left themselves no alternative but to resort to the occasional, brave gesture – gestures that were grand but could not substitute for a coherent and cumulative political strategy and achieved little except to salve the egos and sustain the illusion of liberal beliefs.
The obliviousness the Pakistani liberal class showed to the nature of the long-term relationship between religion and politics has had tragic consequences. Their complicity, naiveté, blindness and hubris paved the way for three cohorts of graduates to complete a high school education resting on dogma and indoctrination; a takeover of institutions and media by conservative forces; and the empowerment of political parties with a literal religious message and agenda. Little surprise then that even as they participated in power and governance, the space for liberals continued to shrink, until even their own guards turned their guns against them, to then be celebrated as heroes by “educated” citizens of the country. It was also little surprise that the forces with which the liberals had aligned themselves, and for whose welfare they deployed their considerable skills and accomplishments, failed to rise to their defense.
On closer examination, the Pakistani liberal turns out to be a breed apart. The easy transfer of ideological labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – across political and social contexts obscures the nuances and complexities necessary for understanding the juncture at which we have arrived in Pakistan today.