Whither Liberal Pakistan?

Salman Tarik Kureshi sets out to question some common beliefs held by liberal Pakistanis

Whither Liberal Pakistan?
“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)

Let me begin this brief essay by asserting that, in the popular usage of the term in the time and the country in which we live, the author of this piece and, indeed, this publication itself, are considered ‘liberal’. The term implies a worldview that is tolerant of other beliefs and opinions and broadly on the left of the political spectrum. Here, liberals are under deep suspicion of being subversive of traditional values, morality, and orthodox interpretations of religion. They are even seen as bordering on being unpatriotic.

The first dilemma of the liberal is perfectly illustrated in the quotation above from the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. Does liberal tolerance also extend to those with violently illiberal views? How, for example, should someone who professes liberal views – who is therefore a proponent of parliamentary supremacy and freedom of speech – react to the appalling recent diatribe against the members of an already beleaguered minority by the former Prime Minister’s son-in-law? Or, on the other side, to the numerous claims to representing “enlightened moderation” made by our fist-waving military ruler of yesteryear?

For liberals have a hard time here – particularly those who lack both a certain tough fibre at the core and the tough outer hide necessary for survival in our harsh political climes. With ideals sorely battered, the liberal has, in fact, had less than a paltry impact on our 70 years of history as a state. And yet he/she gets referred to by political leaders like Imran Khan with the oxymoron “liberal fascist”!

Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah's speech from the 11th of August, 1947, is often cited as a blueprint for a liberal Pakistan

The problem lies with certain fond (in the sense of ‘foolhardy’) beliefs underpinning the folklore of many who place themselves to the left of the political centre, but somewhere to the right of “damned communists”.

These beliefs that lie at the heart of the ideals of the Pakistani liberal are threefold.

First, it is held that the Two-Nation Theory, on which the founding of Pakistan was predicated, had little or nothing to do with Muslim faith or Islamic 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 periodically 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, they hold that 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 liberal secular nationalism.

As PM, Nawaz Sharif expressed interest in developing a liberal 'counter-narrative' for Pakistan

The Muslim League successfully campaigned in the 1946 elections, not on a nationalist platform, but on the slogan “Islam is in danger”. In August 1946, the Quaid 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 immediately, the context of the speech included the demons of extreme communal violence rampaging across the land. The Quaid had to shift gears, first because of the needs of creating a nation out of what had been a movement of communal protest and, second, because of the need to restore order and reassure 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. It is important to 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 sport 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 IJI to confront a resurgent PPP in 1988. Despite the charisma of the late Benazir Bhutto and widespread disgust with the horrors of the Zia years, the IJI secured as many as 55 seats against 92 of the PPP, denying the latter a clear majority. We have also seen the recent overwhelming proportion of the vote that went to candidates to the right of the PPP in the recent by-elections of NA 120. So much for the fond belief that Islamists have little or no electoral following!
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, classrooms, bazaars, political exchanges or on the media – unchallenged by a counter-narrative. Many of our 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.

The articulation and promotion of a counter-narrative to different segments of society is the kind of task that falls to political parties claiming 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 choices not unlike those faced by Turgut Bey in the passage from Orhan Pamuk that we provide at the beginning.