In search of liberalism

Is being westernised liberalism? If so, do the liberals wish to colour Pakistan’s social landscape in western colours?

Shahzad Chaudhry January 11, 2011

Is being westernised, liberalism? If so, do the liberals wish to colour Pakistan’s social landscape in western colours? The aftermath of Salmaan Taseer’s murder has set the intellectual discourse alight with these and other related issues.

The dilemma of Pakistani society lies in its transitory nature. It may have a lot to do with the Ziaul Haq period, in the manner which religious laws were forced onto people. However, most of it came around in the closing days of Bhutto’s regime when an overtly rightist PNA (Pakistan National Alliance) movement challenged his dominating leftist philosophy. For political convenience, significant space was ceded to the right and there has been no looking back; this despite the fact that in most cases the political dispensations were a centrist mix and did not share much with the right. The same thing happened under Musharraf, as a matter of convenience, despite his largely progressive credentials.

What has remained amiss in Pakistan’s political landscape is the enunciation of clear political philosophies of each of the main political players. Other than the politico-religious parties, who understandably remain right of the spectrum, only the ANP and the MQM can claim leftist political leanings, if not secular and, therefore, stand clear in their political ideologies. Others wish to play on both sides of the spectrum for political expedience, giving space to competing leanings. In the absence of clearly identifiable political philosophies, the electorate remains stuck in its traditional preferences and voting patterns, without ever realising the inherent democratic dividend of claiming a share in shaping the evolving nature of the society. Hence, we remain an ideologically confused nation.

Relative western-ism in Pakistani society is more a product of selective prosperity among a few who don progressive colours without having fomented the essential internalisation process and developed clear political beliefs. They remain largely untrained because of the absence of a guiding liberal political dispensation and tend to project only an externalised dimension of what may be popular to their acquired creed. A popular resort is to be seen fighting for democracy. Democracy is not a western phenomenon alone and neither is it the sole repertoire of liberalism. In Pakistan though, democratic struggles, more so in the backdrop of frequent military interventions, have come to be recognised as the predominant underpinnings of progressive, liberal approaches. Pakistani society remains a traditional society with large segments stunted in social mobility, increasingly overwhelmed with the odds of eking a survival. In such modes of existence, political philosophies remain the realm of the privileged few.

As political and social scientists will, however, tell us, it is possible for a society to remain socially neutral with resident conservative values while being politically liberal. In the Pakistani context, this will mean accepting the fact that religiosity resides in the make-up of the society, and not in necessarily fighting to dislodge it. Religion in the Pakistani societal experience, till the extremist strand took hold, was never retrogressive in social and cultural terms.

Overt aversion of religion, other than of the extreme type, is a failing recipe for liberalist credentials in the current environment. It must find a broader politico-economic meaning. A Pakistani liberal must not restrict himself to social liberalism alone, nor attempt to impose labels on types of thinking. Instead, an inclusive plural context, coexisting in a socially neutral environment, will be a good pedestal to stand on before popular emancipation can be realised. A political leadership committed towards such modalities of evolution remains paramount before we can claim liberalism as a prominent socio-political theme.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2011.


Ani | 11 years ago | Reply At face value the Air Marshal sounds very logical and incisive. However, the Pakistani society at every level, including personal , has not accepted pluralism. That runs against the reason for the creation of the state. It was founded to be a place for Muslims. Religion was the basis and the argument. Liberalism , secularism, acceptance of non Muslim minorities are seen as unislamic and fwestern concepts. Secularists are the handle and extremists the blade - it is one sword - all Muslim. That is the rationale of the state. So called secularists did not raise their voices in support when Mr. Jinnah called for inclusion of all in the evolution of Pakistan. In fact they supported repeatedly the murder, ouster and emasculation of their leaders, people and laws. They only want to meter the Islamization of the society not stop it. Liberalism will remain elusive and a search. It will remain confined to English media, manicured lawns and dinner parties. It makes for interesting conversation for the resigned and retired.
R S JOHAR | 11 years ago | Reply Well, a good article but I may like to request the author to write in simple english language which can be understood by a normal person though I am not including myself. The gist is that liberals must do a tight rope walk without looking right or left as they cannot bring any change in black laws or in society which is highly polarised by clerics and extremists. The Pak govt has already given up on almost all fronts and the country is slowly but surely heading towards anarchy.
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