The charge of the secular brigade

Published: July 16, 2011
The writer is consulting editor,
The Friday Times

The writer is consulting editor, The Friday Times

Much has been written about how the state’s writ has eroded, either by policy or by default. Critics of state-sponsored jihad are few and largely confined to the English press. The Urdu media continue to present jihad as central to Pakistan’s raison d’etre. After decades of paranoia about India, now the US is the new enemy.

The counter-narrative to this is weak and upheld by a handful of people who have been branded as traitors in the past and ‘liberal fascists’ in current times. This secular brigade is an endangered species, under attack from the state, militants and the mainstream public opinion shaped through three decades of the Islamisation mantra. However, the secularists are also bitterly divided.

Their instinct under General Musharraf was to believe that he was some sort of an Ataturk and a sizeable number of civil society mandarins joined his government. Sooner than later, they found out what our local Ataturk was all about and their frustration found expression in the lawyers’ movement leading to Musharraf’s ouster. However, it took nearly a decade for this process to happen and Pakistan suffered immensely.

The secularists cannot agree on anything. They are divided along several lines: Egotistical differences masked as ‘ideological’ battles; proximity or hatred of a ‘liberal’ PPP; and, of late, the fear factor which is now the greatest challenge to mobilising public opinion against the rising tide of soft-Islamism.

During the year 2011, three political assassinations — those of Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and Saleem Shahzad — should have spurred on activists to fight for secularism, moderation and a progressive Pakistan. However, this did not happen. The rightwing calls them agents of the US and India, but so-called secularists are not shy of calling each other spokespersons of the military and the ISI. The recent bubble of triumphalism created due to the intense scrutiny of military competence is a case in point. Individual talk shows or open letters mean nothing for they will be forgotten soon.

Salmaan Taseer had emerged as a towering figure for a secular, tolerant Pakistan due to his public profile and proclivity to not mince words against bigotry. His death could have been a rallying point. However, subsequent activism against his murder remained thin and ineffective.

Of course, these dividing lines are difficult to resolve. There are secular democrats who think that better relations with the US are essential. Conversely, there are many who think that America, the imperialist power, needs to be resisted, and if the Taliban can achieve that then so be it. Forget the political parties who are simply playing the power-game, the secularists are divided into little groups with their personal ‘charisma’ or an ideological ‘brand’ more important than the larger imperative of mobilising the public against extremism and pressurising the government and political parties for course correction.

The PPP and ANP have been major disappointments. Nawaz Sharif’s stance has sparked some hope, but the fissures within his party position have not inspired much confidence. Pakistan continues to straddle between powerful, larger than life militants and a retrogressive, unaccountable state. Worse, its so-called civil society is divided and incapable of forging a joint narrative. On the other hand, all the lashkars and tehreeks (barring the Shias and Barelvis) stand united under the al Qaeda banner. Nothing could be more worrying than this.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (39)

  • Jul 16, 2011 - 10:06PM

    The biggest problem is that the word “secular” has been equated with anti-religion or westernization. What it means is open to interpretation, and perhaps its a failure of Pakistani progressive forces to clearly define/explain what they mean by it?


  • faraz
    Jul 16, 2011 - 10:15PM

    Here everyone believes that Jinnah, who belonged to a minority sect, wanted a theocratic state run by clerics of the majority sect! And everyone knows what the majority thinks about that minority sect. Little can be expected in a country where secularism is seen as akin to atheism.


  • Usman Ahmad
    Jul 16, 2011 - 11:09PM

    Ah! the dilemma!…after all our secular lot too is Pakistani..and they can’t avoid those typical Pakistani habits i.e., Personal interests mean more, the desire to lead and stand separate from the crowd, oh-so-often personal attacks, inability to agree on a minimum agenda, outright cowardice…and the list goes on and on…….


  • Irshad Khan
    Jul 16, 2011 - 11:59PM

    We have been cultivating culture of hatred and enemosity since beginning. This is in favour of rulers who divert attention of public from their misdeeds. Now the culture of hatred and killing has prevaled in the whole society on one or other basis—-linguistic, provincialism, tribe, sectarian, rligion etc etc. How to stop it. It will take decades if measures started just now . We should try to save our next generation from this menace.


  • Peace
    Jul 17, 2011 - 12:13AM

    To all the extreme secular lovers of India and America, please leave us poor pakistanis alone. Yes we are very bad people and ignorant, you are the best. We are backwards and are fundamentalists. Leave us alone please and keep bashing any Pakistani from outside who says something for patriotism, as it will hurt less coming from outside the border. While all this said, I am not a blind patriot, our country has many many faults which need to be corrected, Also I am not a blind hater of america and india. Both countries have many good things and I like their general public and also some parts of government. But I do disagree with some of their policies and I consider it to be my right and say so. God bless all of us and guide us.


  • Jul 17, 2011 - 1:34AM

    Very nicely written and I completely agree with you. I think, whether it is a liberal or a conservative, both should be concerned with the well being of our people and country. The problem with our liberals is that some of them give the impression of plane rebels against society and country. It’s good to be a rebel in so many ways, but I think even a liberal has to draw a line somewhere. When there is no line, then each liberal start labeling the other as conservative, because there is always one person more liberal than the other.
    I have friends in US and the majority of them believe that killing innocent people, by the name of collateral damage, in drone attacks is wrong and it should be stopped. But I have heard many of our liberals saying it’s not such a big deal, and there are more important issues to be addressed than this. Clearly these liberals have no feelings for the people living in the mountains and think of them as animals. I see NFP making fun of Imran Khan most of the time for his stance on Drone attacks in our tribal areas. I am not a fan of Imran Khan either and I don’t really like how he sounds like an extension of Jumaat-i-Islami some time, but when he talks against Drone attacks I think we should at least admire him for that. I don’t understand how can a Pakistani liberal think like a US conservative.
    A liberal should be a reformer, he should not just sound like a US a** kisser but someone who can change the people. This he can only do by coming close to the people and addressing them with respect. Gandhi was a true liberal, he was a true reformer. Jinnah was a liberal, he stood up for those who could not stand for themselves. Our so-called liberal would say F Islam and Pakistan, and this way they try to sound cool, so how can you expect them to do any good for the society and country. I, myself believe that Pakistan should become a secular state, and in my capacity I express my opinion through whatever way possible. I think that the reason our people are suffering is because of their own faults, but to bring a positive change in the society, you shouldnt just try to sound cool and think your job is done.


  • Meekal Ahmed
    Jul 17, 2011 - 1:40AM

    Very good, as usual.

    I think this secular lot are a bunch of insecure wimps.

    I hate comparisons with India but here goes. They stick together and support each other. They may hate each other but they will never show it.

    When Montek Singh Ahluwalia was amongst the candidates for the position of the IMF’s new Independent Evaluation Office, every Indian in the IMF, and I am sure the Bank as well, rallied to his support.

    He won and even Pakistan voted for him in tne end.

    If that had been a Pakistani, every Pakistani would have gone out of his/her way to tear him/her down!

    Mr Rumi, think of this fatal flaw we have.


  • Ali Wazir
    Jul 17, 2011 - 2:38AM

    “Liberal” in Pakistani has lost all meaning. At best It denotes certain preferences in language and dress up and identifier for a certain economic class. As a astute British former observer of Pakistan put it”Liberalism without the social economic justice is meaningless”. Our liberals are “liberals” in the sense Hosni Mubarik and Ben Ali are “Liberals”. At least in the English press and on TV, they are over represented, but their message is so myopic and disjointed that it never resonate with the middle class.

    See if you support a Drone war that extra judicially murder ppl in your own supposedly sovereign country and you cannot imagine a foreign policy out side Imperial dictats, Liberal “Fascist” is a very apt label. After all a central tenet of “liberal” discourse in this country is “Its all the Mullahs (aka any one with facial hear) fault & bomb em”.(Which examined casually is a false discourse with false generalizations e.g FYI Slaman Taseer killer was Barelvi).

    As for PPP ,ANP and MQM being some how “liberal” , I have never understood the categorization.PPP is a Sindhi/South Punjabi Feudal Party. ANP and MQM are ethnic or linguistic parties. Apart from a absolute belief in political violence and unhindered Corruption there “Ideology” is frankly,a cult of personalities,catchy slogans and foundation myths.They have come repeatedly in power; could someone point out a single “Liberal” policy which they have followed consistently? .Iraqs Baath party was probably more Liberal Ideologically speaking.


  • Jul 17, 2011 - 3:26AM

    The seculars are greatly misunderstood in Pakistan.The main misconception about them is that most consider them being tantamount to atheists for God knows what reasons. Second,seculars too are divided as pointed by article but there are many reasons for that as most are clearly part of urban elite who will talk all day but wont do anything.They are educated and one of the most brilliant people in this country but the fear for Islamists coupled with sheer ignorance of grass root problems faced by people hence they are’nt much of use. Third,secularism isnt tantamount to being western stooge and this is where Pakistan is deeply disappointed by both conservatives and liberal lot because on one hand,Pakistanis have ALWAYS elected liberal lot but the same liberal lot with secular tendencies sit ,walk and talk with Mullahs and spread with Mayhem. Fourth,we seculars dont realize that we OURSELVES have flaws like Salman taseer maybe was secular but who can forget his party convention and him inviting SSP stalwarts for speech ? so We all have problems but in the end,seculars must step up,save Pakistan and save Islam from these bearded fellows that have hijacked it.

    ALSO, Pakistan is a stooge of US and Mullahs and Liberals always been one hence it is better to have friends in China,russia and INDIA than to waste our time befriending Imperialists in west. Future is socialism,future is SCO !


  • Malay
    Jul 17, 2011 - 4:05AM

    What’s the conclusion?


  • Izhar ul Haq
    Jul 17, 2011 - 5:16AM

    So called secularists need to understand that they are nothing without political support from secular political groups which enjoy public trust and support. Damaging political parties like PPP and ANP is like indirectly strengthening militancy.

    These Urban intellectuals can postpone their dream of ‘idealistic’ political parties and strengthen present groups untill menace of extremism is countered. After that they can continue to achieve their idealistic politicians. At present so called liberals have not more support than extremists of JI. They should learn a bit of self accountability.

    Criticizing PPP-ANP collation for wrong reasons at this point of time will only help militants and endanger very existence of these delusional intellectuals. The reality which secularists are unable to understand and continue hiding in fear or extremists. They have only one option, support PPP-ANP collation for your own existence.


  • harkol
    Jul 17, 2011 - 10:21AM

    Religion is a matter of faith. You don’t ask for proof of anything that a religion says. It is almost akin to the faith between Mother-Infant. Infant doesn’t ask questions.

    All other relationships are best governed by contracts. Government and act of law making is a social contract. The law is an implicit contract between the people who are governed by them.

    Thus, it is absurd to take a matter of faith to the domain of contracts!! Secularism is not an ideal, it is the only practical way for people to make laws.


  • mind control
    Jul 17, 2011 - 10:43AM


    Please consider two of your statements

    **A. Leave us alone please and keep bashing any Pakistani from outside who says something for patriotism, as it will hurt less coming from outside the border

    B. But I do disagree with some of their policies and I consider it to be my right and say so.**

    So, while it is your right to disagree and say so.

    Mr Rumi must leave the country and disagree only from ‘outside the borders’.

    I hope you see the contradiction.


  • Jul 17, 2011 - 12:21PM

    Peter, Get your facts correct. You are wring about my employment details. Very sad, typically lazy conclusion without proper research/facts.


  • Rock
    Jul 17, 2011 - 12:52PM

    Since India is secular country pakistan will not become secular as it will go against their national interest.


  • Rock
    Jul 17, 2011 - 12:53PM

    Pakistani can live happily in secular countries of Europe and US but they don’t want their country secular.


  • Rock
    Jul 17, 2011 - 12:54PM

    Secularism is “all religions are equal and religion is personal thing.”


  • Truth Prevails
    Jul 17, 2011 - 1:37PM

    The problem lies in the most basic understanding of reader and those who are commenting. Their argument might have basis as long as things remain within the limits of religion but, with due respect, Every secular man/woman will need to fight a gruesome war with the true followers of ‘Islam’ before they could think of a dialogue with Islamist, in which secular might want to convince them that ‘Islam’ is just a religion. Which It is not.

    Islam is a system in totality which has got deep roots in spiritualism that vows a society based on justice, moral hygiene, education (the vote of an educated person in not equal to uneducated person is Islam), peace and security.

    You will find a close correlation in all the attributes of Islamic System mentioned above that all of them are controlled by the men running the state. And those men can control them effectively only if there soul is clean from inside. And this is what Islam guarantees.

    All critics, please get aside (i mean get a side) as there is no chance of vain writings can turn the tide. Its either Black or White and no Gray would survive.


  • Jul 17, 2011 - 1:54PM

    @Meekal – I agree with you. And I find this so frustrating about Pakistanis – their readiness to tear any compatriot down to size. When it came to BB, I was thinking – wow what a brave woman to go back to her country – and one pakistani friend was talking about how BB only went back to get Khulla from her husband and the other kept ranting about her alleged corruption. The same with Zardari. The non-sindhis refuse to see anything good in him – so he was 10 per cent or something – but he has managed to keep democracy chugging along. Now if only he would pay taxes. It cant be black and white in politics.


  • Salman Arshad
    Jul 17, 2011 - 3:46PM

    Secularists don’t necessarily have to have the same ideology, but they need to be honest to their own ideologies which they are not.


  • P Das
    Jul 17, 2011 - 5:08PM

    Why have you left out Sherry Rehman.She is Aun sang Sui od South Asia.


  • Mutazalzaluzzaman Tararr
    Jul 17, 2011 - 7:08PM

    “The secularists cannot agree on anything”


    why should they? it’s secularism not fascism we’re talking about. it’s diverse. if they don’t fit in your narrative, you should change your narrative rather than changing the meaning of secularism


  • Frank
    Jul 17, 2011 - 7:47PM

    Raza Rumi

    .> After decades of paranoia about India,

    now the US is the new enemy

    So when India was supporting the Mukhti Bahini in East Pakistan Pakistan was ‘paranoid’? When Indian soldiers invaded East Pakistan Pakistan was ‘paranoid’? When Indian and Pakistani soldiers were in combat East Bengal Pakistan was still ‘paranoid’?

    Reading the opinions of Pakistan liberals I feel like I have entered a parallel universe where all the rules of logic and commonsense are entirely different to the ones in this universe. Liberal secularists here claim that their philosophy has a bad name in Pakistan because it is associated with atheism. In actual fact liberal secularism is discredited in Pakistan because it is associated with intellectual and moral spinelessness. Good grief!Recommend

  • Comic
    Jul 17, 2011 - 10:10PM

    @Frank: No Sir, you are not paranoid. Not when it comes to comparison with most Pakistanis. Mukti Bahini was India’s instrument in carving out Bangladesh. The peacefull, Pakistan loving citizens of East Pakistan were brainwashed and forced to give up their Pakistan owned homeland on the directives of India. Even now, given a chance, most Bangladeshis would love to integerate back with Pakistan. They yearn for the good old days when they were being masscared on a daily basis by the army.
    Today their country is being lauded for economic growth and literacy rate gains; but what is all this compared to the action they are missing out by not being part of Pakistan. It sulks to mot have Taliban and mujaheedeens of variuous hues all over the country. It is so boring without daily blasts and loss of life. No minorities to pester and chase out of the country. No daily blame game to point fingers at America – “You sir are holding us back!”.

    You have to say paranoid. For the sake of Indian designs in Balochistan, Afganistan and may be even FATA and Sindh.

    You sir are totally right about the thinking of Pakistani liberals. They may one day end up making peace with the neighbors! They may start trading commerce with them! All that peace dividend may end up bettering lives everywhere! People may have more to eat, literacey rates may go up, religious factions may respect each other, travel will ease, optimism will crowd the headlines – all of this which is happening in Bangladesh. Haven’t we learnt from our prior mistakes! No Mr Frank, you cannot let the Liberals and the secualists to make this happen. Our present day society, our current morals, our current prospects are far more precious to lose!


  • pakman
    Jul 17, 2011 - 11:06PM

    In muslim history all great thinkers and social reformers have been called “Kafir” – from Ibne Khuldun to Iqbal to Jinnah. Why seculars think they should be treated differently ;-)


  • White Russian
    Jul 17, 2011 - 11:10PM

    By the way, how many secularists of any significance are there in total? I suspect, they number even fewer than core Alqaida Arab fighters (estimated to be about 200) holed up in FTA.

    Conservative, liberal, secularist, blah blah, and all of it boils down to semantics. I say secularist, you say liberal, and they say atheist, but actually a little wish-washy crowd of non-committed dogmatists of non-religious kind.


  • AN
    Jul 18, 2011 - 12:26AM

    Author! I don’t understand that what you are trying to say? Like any other society we have our own set of liberals, conservative and moderate people and they have always lived in harmony. Why people like you are hell bent on dividing society into seculars, liberals? Main point is to develop a consensus which could give space to every view. It’s better if seculars, conservatives don’t impose their agenda on each other and learn to tolerate each other. Fact is value everyone. Value the diversity in your society and be flexible to accept the other person. I am myself a very liberal person but i have no problem in accepting and considering views of conservative people even. Unfortunately in our country on one side seculars are hell bent on changing the society in a single day and other end of the spectrum there is stiff opposition from conservative people. Find some middle ground. Recommend

  • harkol
    Jul 18, 2011 - 9:42AM


    When Indian soldiers invaded East Pakistan Pakistan was ‘paranoid’?

    Do read independent history. West Pakistan (Bhutto & Army) was indeed paranoid in East Pakistan, and refused to yield power to duly elected party! Resulted in Mukthibahini declaring independence, much before India had anything to do with it. Pak Army started to kill people by thousands, and people started fleeing to India. India was strained but didn’t start a war.

    The war indeed started when Pakistan sent its Airforce to pre-emptively strike at Indian territory. Now, was that paranoia or sane action? Itching for a confrontation with a far larger army, far stronger nation – on a fear that it might attack?!!


  • Jul 18, 2011 - 2:26PM

    Why has Mir Agha’s comment been approved? Is Tribune endorsing hate speech & threats? I am not advocating censorship, but you guys need to moderate your comments more responsibly. Mr Agha has issued an actual threat to the author.


  • atif
    Jul 18, 2011 - 2:33PM

    During the year 2011, three political assassinations — those of Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and Saleem Shahzad — should have spurred on activists to fight for secularism, moderation and a progressive Pakistan.

    I am wondering how Saleem Shahzad’s assassination is related to secularism , and in the end again wondering how Nawaz’s stance is sparking hope for secularism.

    Writer is very much confused, cant get what he is trying to say.


  • ChotaShakeel
    Jul 18, 2011 - 2:43PM

    Raza Rumi hits the bulls eye..NOT


  • Rohail
    Jul 18, 2011 - 2:46PM

    A brilliant piece.Moderates are really uncertain and divided while extremists are united and certain of their ideology.


  • Frank
    Jul 18, 2011 - 3:57PM


    Mukti Bahini was India’s instrument in
    carving out Bangladesh. The peacefull,
    Pakistan loving citizens of East
    Pakistan were brainwashed and forced
    to give up their Pakistan owned
    homeland on the directives of India.
    Even now, given a chance, most
    Bangladeshis would love to integerate
    back with Pakistan. They yearn for the
    good old days when they were being
    masscared on a daily basis by the

    I didn’t say Bengalis had it good in Pakistan. We discriminated against them and their language and culture. But none of this is relevant to the present discussion. You Pakistani liberals must try to control your emotions and to engage your minds (if you have any). You people are insufferable!


  • Mariam
    Jul 18, 2011 - 4:41PM

    Nawaz Sharif’s stance has sparked some hope, – how>? the maulvi is totally conservative and fascist.


  • Patrick
    Jul 18, 2011 - 4:47PM

    The world would like nothing more than leave you alone( Like North Korea) … The problem is you are exporting terror and hatred in name of religion that is the reason the world is interested …


  • Peace
    Jul 18, 2011 - 7:53PM

    @Patrick: Yes sir, Ok tell me one good reason why u attacked libya ??? When you kill mercilessly all over the world , tell me who is the real exporter of hatred and terrorism. Pakistan had no hate against anyone unless you people pushed us to the corner. Think objectively and try to view the situation from different perspectives. May be you will be able to see truly. Anyway if you dont agree, does not matter, time is the best judge of all. Peace


  • Shoukat Khan
    Jul 20, 2011 - 1:42AM

    I am totaly agree with Peace’s view that how many times we liberals, seculars and athiests have asked about the innocent civilians(Childs, Ladies, Olds and Youngs) who have been killed either by bombing, shielling or Drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan and Palastine. Ok! it’s very good we have taken the revenge for those deceased who had been killed in the 9/11 attacks but what ramidies we seculars have so far suggested for the ransom of Iraqis, Afghanis, Libayns, Pakistanis and Palastanians??? I think None. So please revise your way of thinking and set aside single ideology and think for the walefare of humans.


  • m Hussein
    Jul 24, 2011 - 11:23AM

    This country was doomed the day it was made for “the Muslims of the subcontinent”.
    What followed was no surprise, Throughout history no state has been viable along religious lines, as religion is a divisive force. the coming disintegration will be no surprise either.


  • amir jafri
    Jul 26, 2011 - 4:52AM

    This has been one of the great eye-openers for me. I salute the very young generation for voicing a concern which has been my lifetime angst and anguish. english may be taught, but URDU must be not only the medium but also the language of all intituitions Govt . or Otherwise. I am myself the product of this ba ba blacksheep, toat-maina, monkey donkey fact I was taught by whites in Pakistan, missionaries. It took me a lifetime to recover from the damage they inflicted on our society and me in particular. English medium like Beacon House is a FASHION not education. Can any one name a single brilliant mind from there? I’m not talking about JOb wise like CCEO or Managers..but LEARNED people..ALL of them were from URDU medium or madressas. Even here in Canada the top most people are from madressaas or urdu mediums.

    The chief editor of Canada’s Largest english daily is from Urdu Univ. Hyderabad Deccan. He did his MA in journalism from there…& did not study anywhere else…and a Hafiz-i Quraan too. He was awarded Canada’s highest honor..ORDER of CANADA. He speaks in thaith deccani accent..not tota-maina accent.

    The other muslim who holds an Order of Canada is Dr. Ali Rajput from Pakistan…a proud Desi, looking and talking; no monkey-donkey from english-medium like beacon-sheacon..from a madressa taat school of the village. Brilliant pioneer in Parkinson’s disease research.

    NO self-respecting nation conducts its business in an alien tongue..and they all are ahead of us..even in english…let alone a former coloniser’s tongue whom we supposedly drove out…Iran China Turkey, Japan, Russia , all Europe and South America…in fact the entire non-enslaved world.

    For Allah’s sake, get rid of ghulaamaana is getting us zaleeled at every border in the world. You do not impress a gora by becoming his only laughed at. Canada’s former ambassador to Pakistan, a gora, fluent in Urdu & pashto,( he was raised in Pakistan) made fun of Pakis conducting their business in English and chided and zaleeled them at a recent convention by saying ” what is wrong with you guys; do you not feel any shame?”


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