Obituary of liberal-secularism — I

The problem is that liberals are ill-equipped to deal with religion in a religious ideological state.

Ayesha Siddiqa August 20, 2011

The government seems inclined to launch a countrywide de-radicalisation campaign. Seemingly, the inspiration was an army-organised seminar in Swat to showcase its de-radicalisation campaign for which Rs6 million were sought from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government. The event brought together military men, politicians, journalists and academics to ponder over ways to de-radicalise the country.

But this may be too little, too late, as liberal-secularism is almost dead. Radicalism is going to be the future of a country where the religious and political right are increasingly gaining strength and followers. It’s the emerging culture in which the battle-lines will be drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’ on the basis of religion and a specific interpretation of religion. While post-modernist academics have infested national and international universities and are trying to popularise the radical right-wing narrative as representing the people’s popular instinct, the fact is that these academics base their analysis on elite ethnographies. Moreover, they forget that radical views acquire the arrogance of divine sanction and thus are difficult to counter.

Besides the religious parties, radicalism is now nested in all mainstream political parties such as the PPP, all versions of the PML and the MQM as well. The intellectual base of some of the top leaders of all political parties is the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). They might have shed the affiliation but not the thoughts. Similarly, we have a significant portion of the media which is affiliated or sympathetic with the religious right. To top it all, the fashionable post-modernist narrative is inherently right-wing. The Pakistani post-modernist academics are in the process of creating a narrative that will eventually replace any existing liberal narrative which, in any case, is scant.

The issue here is not of militancy but radicalism. While militancy translates into violence against pockets of people, radicalism destroys a society internally. It forces people to think of those who do not subscribe to their religious interpretation as being the ‘other’, which results in segregation and ‘ghettoisation’ of a society. While we remember Ziaul Haq’s dark era, we forget how radicalism spread in the country during the 1990s as a social movement denoted by organisations such as Tableeghi Jamaat and al Huda. Moreover, while the so-called liberals were happy that the Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties did not gain much in the elections, the influence of the religious right sneaked into the society at all levels. Today, even the begums of elite families are connected with al Huda-type movements. For example, the Leghari household reportedly invites al Huda to hold an annual milad ceremony for the wives of their political workers. How much more elite and fashionable could this get?

Nevertheless, it’s only the liberals who are reputed to be elite mainly due to their failure to connect with people across the socio-economic spectrum or offer a pluralistic political, social and religious narrative. The protest of the begums of Islamabad in 2008 against the going-on in Lal Masjid is a case in point. Another problem is that the liberals are ill-equipped to deal with religion in a religious ideological state. As a resultant, they can’t gather people behind them with the same force as the radicals. Sadly, the liberal elements have tried hiding behind the argument that radicalism has no future due to the preponderance of the Sufi culture without understanding that the essence of Sufism is against all forms of injustice and not just religious bigotry. Nor do people realise that the machinery that operates Sufi culture now suffers from major problems and lacks an alternative to counter the post-modernist radical narrative.

But can we even imagine fighting radicalism on the basis of a flawed historical narrative? Reportedly, some senior retired military officers at the Swat seminar were indignant about the idea of recognising that they had a hand in creating the jihadi Frankenstein. The alphabet of terrorism in South Asia starts with Pakistan fighting someone else’s war during the 1980s at its own expense. Dictator Zia opened the doors to Afghan refugees, weapons, drugs, jihadis and all sorts of intelligence agencies. The jihadi proxies were never discarded, not even now. Can de-radicalisation work when jihadi outfits and the support structure remains intact? Who says that hundreds of murders later leaders like Malik Ishaq, Masood Azhar, Hafiz Saeed and others will change?

And can radicalisation be countered without recognising that we can’t ‘have our cake and eat it too?’

Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2011.


Moderate | 11 years ago | Reply

I can understand expressing concern over millitancy and violent forms of religious groups. But when people like the author raise disproportionate amounts of hue and cry over non violent orthodox religious groups it presents not only a huge problem for those who are moderate but also that these views tend to get packaged and advertised to the West.

There are even concerns in the West that exaggerated focus on no violent religiosu group is not only racist but ultimately hurting the cause of fighting the real extremism as seen from the op-ed in todays Guardian:

Stop having a problem with anyone who is devoutedly(butpeacefully) religious!

Deb | 11 years ago | Reply


If religion goes, then where does it leaves Pakistan?Pakistan without religion is like 'life without water'. Isn't it?

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