Who is a liberal Pakistani?

Published: February 27, 2012
The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali

The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali

The most common word that has become a proverbial double-edged sword in the press is ‘liberal’. By progressive forces in Pakistan, it is presented as an accolade to many who aspire to associate themselves with modernity. On the other hand, it is dismissed as an epithet for an individual who is somehow too ‘Westernised’. And then there are other variations which challenge authenticity such as ‘fake liberal’, ‘pseudo-liberal’, perhaps most paradoxically ‘liberal Fascist’. In this miasma of liberal confusion it is important for Pakistani readership to know the various connotations of liberalism in political discourse.

Since definitions are often coveted by Pakistani readers, the one offered by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is perhaps the most comprehensive: “A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the humans, and the autonomy of the individual.” So let us unpack this definition into its three key constituents:

a) Willingness to change human behaviour and tradition is the first test. By this measure, liberalism requires us to question entrenched traditions regardless of who may espouse them. In Pakistan, this can mean undertaking the difficult balance of respecting benign cultural attributes but questioning more malevolent ones, and also knowing what impact that challenge may have on wider actions of society.

b) A normative view in basic human propensity for good is the second test. Thus liberalism assumes that all humans have inherent opportunity for positive action. Therefore, a liberal would believe in the potential for redemption of even a vile criminal. In a Pakistani context, this would mean being willing to look at the core humanity of even those with whom we may vehemently disagree (particularly on theological matters).

c) The third and perhaps most important test of liberalism is respect for individual autonomy. Political interpretations of how to operationalise individual choice diverge. Some economic interpretations have taken this view to the extreme to allow market forces to operate with minimal intervention (neoliberalism). Whereas, egalitarian approaches to liberalism posit regulation to prevent entrenched power dynamics from preventing individual choice.

The social manifestations of all three attributes of liberalism in Pakistan need to be better understood and appreciated. The reason why democracy goes hand-in-hand with liberal ideals is that it allows us the most transparent way of reconciling individual choice and collective action. Thus, regulation of individual behavior can be undertaken based on a process that the majority of society can agree upon. But this process has a dark side. As Brookings scholar, Shadi Hamid, commented recently to me on his views regarding the Arab Spring: “Democracy is the right to make the wrong decision!”

Thus, following true liberal ideals may pave the way for the erosion of liberalism itself, as exemplified by what appears to be happening in Egypt. The only way out of this paradox is to enshrine clear structures in the political and legal systems that prevent irrational ‘mob rule’. Constitutions in liberal societies are supposed to play that role to some degree but they too must be malleable. In Pakistan, the Constitution has theological roots which are inherently contrary to the structure of a liberal society. The only way for moving forward with a ‘liberal’ agenda for Pakistan is then to either change the constitution and make it non-theological (highly unlikely to happen); or for the state to clearly promote a pluralistic and inclusive vision of Islam (which is still regrettably far from the mainstream). The second option still seems plausible but will require brave legislative decisions that depart from dominant orthodoxy of most Islamic sects. Perhaps, the closest example we see of such a vision is the rise of Tunisian Islamic pluralism under the leadership of scholar Rashid al-Ghannushi. But as with Tunisia, Pakistan will need to make the changes at the grass roots (education, family norms and local politics) to get systemic change.

All those who believe in the fundamental goals of liberalism in Pakistan will need to approach political change with clarity in their agenda. This will be a generational struggle but one which must be pursued with tenacity and courage.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (31)

  • Torrent
    Feb 28, 2012 - 12:26AM

    Good to see Saleem back on ET.


  • Falcon
    Feb 28, 2012 - 12:33AM

    Good article. The suggestion to move towards a more inclusive right before transition to left is certainly pragmatic.


  • John B
    Feb 28, 2012 - 12:37AM

    And who will tie the bell to the cat, political parties or the army ?

    Democracy and secularism go hand in hand at least as we have come to understand it. The idea of Pakistan and the constitution of PAK is a theocratic one, however much one may wants to quote Jinnah’s speech.

    PAK needs a new constitutional principle but we all know how difficult it was in previous attempts.

    There is no such philosophy as ” Separate but equal”. US tried and abandoned it. Unfortunately, PAK is trying to enforce this philosophy in her founding and in her present constitution, by defining the rights of non Muslims while upholding the rights of Muslims.

    In my view the present radicals are only attempting to enforce the principles of PAK constitution by violent means, whereas PAK state machinery(that includes the society) is opposed to the idea of violence by radicals but is open and fully cooperative with them in non violent terms.

    Certainly the present constitution and the state machinery evolved around it is not secular. So, by extension who is liberal in PAK? None, I might say. Liberal in PAK term is “non violent radicals” who hold the PAK constitution in high esteem, whereas “violent radicals” (non liberals or conservative) are those who hold the theocracy in high esteem. Since, PAK and PAK constitution principles are based on theocratic principle, by definition no one is liberal in PAK, at least as the term implies today.

    Who is non violent radical (conservative) in Pakistan is an appropriate question. My comments are meant only as a food for thought and not meant to be offensive. That is not my intention. Will PAK accept the JI, and HuT and other religious parties, if they win their election in the name of democracy ? If the answer is yes, then no one is liberal in PAK.


  • Talha
    Feb 28, 2012 - 12:56AM

    Name me one Pakistani liberal who fits the above description and I will eat my own chappal.


  • Mirza
    Feb 28, 2012 - 2:01AM

    A good Op Ed on a much talked but mis-understood topic. I am proud to be a liberal and would not change a thing. The other options are, what we are seeing in Pakistan and dreadful future (I hope not). Thanks a lot for this precise Op Ed.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Feb 28, 2012 - 2:10AM

    Good to see Mr Saleem back and really enjoyed reading your article.Recommend

  • Cynical
    Feb 28, 2012 - 2:52AM

    Pakistani or not, a liberal is just another, who is less bigoted than the other/s.
    Very few are truly liberal.Most are prisoners of their own belief system and therefore not truly liberated.


  • Mustafa Moiz
    Feb 28, 2012 - 5:12AM

    Those who twist or make up facts to try and fit their view and promote their goals, which they call “liberal” are not liberals either.


  • Mustafa Moiz
    Feb 28, 2012 - 5:12AM

    The Tribune is not liberal.


  • Aviator
    Feb 28, 2012 - 5:57AM

    Agreed.Pakistan needs to look at Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey to see what a progressive Islamic society can be.


  • Mustafa Moiz
    Feb 28, 2012 - 7:32AM

    Unfortunately, most of these Pakistani “liberals” do not show actual tolerance, and are only pushing their own agendas ahead. They will support their ideology over the masses and good of the people.


  • Feb 28, 2012 - 7:47AM

    In the whole article he assumed that Liberalism” is good without giving any solid backing to the claim. It is just a faith.

    All the three attributes of liberalism contradicts each other. So, it is a separate task to to reconcile between these three attributes and every individual or group would do it in a way that suites them. So, it is not possible to reach a balance between these three attributes which are common to all individuals/groups.

    The first attibute, that is progressiveness is an issue that negates any definition of liberalism. Can we progress from traditional liberalism…? or as a part of progressiveness can we reject liberalism? of course liberals won’t like that.

    So, even after reading his article, liberalism is still an ambiguous term which is useful only to use against those who are precieved as less liberal than you.


  • truth seeker
    Feb 28, 2012 - 9:12AM

    Hate supplier is back.


  • Bilafond
    Feb 28, 2012 - 9:21AM

    Liberal means adjustment. We are impatient and not good listeners. Liberalism will take time. The only question have we started towards the path of Liberalism-that is first step.


  • SharifL
    Feb 28, 2012 - 10:45AM

    I defrine a liberal somebody who has bdeliefs but respects other beliefs. Based on that I think there a handful liberals in Pakistan, no more. Some keep their mouth shut for fear of persecution.


  • an
    Feb 28, 2012 - 10:51AM

    So you have based your whole article or debate of a political ideology on websters definition? Seriously? Seriously!Recommend

  • BlackJack
    Feb 28, 2012 - 12:04PM

    @John B:
    Well written, but the assumption that civil society is part of state machinery seems a bit simplistic – instead the state machinery and its actions can be seen as a reflection of society (which I agree is increasingly dominated by the non-violent conservatives). The liberal is one who questions (at least in Pakistan) the dominant narrative and eschews the prism of religion and dogma to understand his relationships with fellow human beings (inside and outside the country). It is on this count he/ she is seen as anti-Islam, and subject to vilification as pseudo-secular/ liberal fascist and other such colorful epithets. Second, I don’t think that a majority of these non-violent conservatives care about the actual content of the Pak constitution – they only care about seeing that it doesn’t change; they see it merely as a document that enshrines the rights to their current way of life – to be established and enforced through the state machinery (the constitution supports them and not the other way around).


  • Shah
    Feb 28, 2012 - 12:37PM

    Great to see you back Saleem…..great article..! People like you are attempting the most difficult job by changing the entrenched beliefs and traditions. Keep up the good work. Thank you Tribune for bringing Saleem back.


  • M Baloch
    Feb 28, 2012 - 1:13PM

    So the hate monger is back, congrats Express tribune, only they can manage this with Maya khan!


  • Zeta
    Feb 28, 2012 - 2:57PM

    Internationally accepted definition of Liberal is who continuously bashes and buries Islam.


  • MarkH
    Feb 28, 2012 - 4:39PM

    It’s not contradictory, it’s a hierarchy of values. One may take more precedence, but the others are influential. It’s a multi-level view of the world, but the other side is that if someone does not have multi-level values, they’re not going to get it at all. If they did, they’d have them. Most of Pakistan doesn’t operate on that level, not even close to it. It’s just one way, one answer. Be Muslim, the rest be damned.


  • Akhtar
    Feb 28, 2012 - 5:49PM

    @saleem. Before going into words like secularism & liberalism, I want to know isnt it a fact that Pakistan has been created for Muslims in the name of Allah? if the nation was supposed to be secular, then why a separate country?

    So what’s the fuss of secularism/liberalism? & Sir, I respect your views, but may not agree with you!


  • Ak
    Feb 28, 2012 - 8:05PM

    That is what the problem is. You just cannot separat religion from anything in Pakistan as the reason for its creation was religion. Unfortunately the idea of the country is based on bigoted ideology (no matter how you present Jinnah and the two nation theory) and it will take an enormous effort to set it to change its track.


  • Vasanth Pai
    Feb 28, 2012 - 8:59PM

    A theocratic state can be liberal. Look at Thailand. They are going to proclaim it as a Buddhist country. Monks reign supreme. But see how they have progressed as an Asian Tiger though geographically and popoulation-wise smaller than Pakistan. It all depends on the will of the powers that be as to how they complement/blend/adapt religion with individual liberty and progressive liberalism


  • John B
    Feb 28, 2012 - 11:33PM

    Thank you. I can go along with your thesis. However, in the end those who want to protect the present constitutional principles are also not liberals. They maintain the status quo. Those who advocate a secular society are true liberals, but they are anti-constitutionalists.

    “Separate but equal” is the present constitutional principle of PAK, and this principle is not secularism. Secularism is “all are equal” and falls under the definition of liberalism.

    No society in the world is truly liberal. However, the flavor of liberalism could be sensed in a progressive society of the past and of the present. The present quagmire of PAK is not that violent radicals increased in numbers, but the non violent conservative radicals have increased in numbers and have become too accommodative with the violent radicals.

    One just have to watch the discussions in the PAK TV to know how accommodative all are.


  • John B
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:02AM

    You nailed on the subject and touched the Achilles heel of what is PAK.

    PAK was created on the basis of “separate but equal” philosophy-Jinnah was very clear in his few speeches and writings.

    Indian leaders of that time advocated for “All are equal” principle. Of course, for British politicians (for that matter for all white ruled nations, including US) of that time, the idea of “separate but equal” seemed to be reasonable since that was the very idea of colonialism and hence was the British support of creation of PAK, among other things.

    If all “are equal” is understood, it does not matter, if your president is black or white or grey or orange. In a separate but equal concept the idea of you maintain your business and I maintain my business creeps in, and of course ZA Bhutto had the guts to say it openly in the case of PAK in 1970s, and Jinnah said it in 1947 in a different flavor.

    “Separate but equal” in the name of religion, race, language, caste, creed, and /or sex segregate society and segregated society becomes ideological.

    In today’s Pakistan the society is segregated between two extremes of conservatism and hence the ideological conflict, sometimes violent.


  • HRD
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:28AM

    The article suffers from logical inconsistency. The author mentions that ‘true liberal ideals may pave the way for the erosion of liberalism itself,’ and hence there has to be political and legal structures in place to protect this from happening. But structures in place mean that there is no complete individual autonomy and so there never was a true liberalism to protect.
    As I understand from author’s reasoning, the erosion can take place when the majority of the populace is not true liberal. In other words there are chances that the ‘irrational mob’ will make a wrong decision (how condescending is this!). So there has to be structures in place to stop the ‘irrational mob’ from expressing their individual autonomy in a ‘wrong’ choice.
    This thinking seems to be closer to Plato’s Aristocratic Republic ruled by Philosopher King and wise men with souls of gold rather than a state based on the given definition of liberalism. It is not difficult to see why the ‘irrational mob’ will often use the terminology of ‘Liberal Fascist’ regarding such thinking.


  • B
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:02PM


    You’re either not from the West or completely ignorant. The conservative parties consistently run on the anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-minority platforms. The liberals are often the sole voice of reason in issues involving Muslims and Islam while the conservatives try to portray the Islamic world as ruled by terrorist to spread fear and hate and to push their war agendas on the people.


  • sidjeen
    Feb 29, 2012 - 10:11PM

    @ abdus salam:

    liberalism is only ambiguous to those who are not liberals themselves just as faith based bigotry is ambiguous to us liberals.


  • Cynical
    Mar 1, 2012 - 2:51AM


    “liberalism is only ambiguous to those who are not liberals themselves just as faith based bigotry is ambiguous to us liberals.”

    Brilliant articulation.
    What economy of words! And what an expanse in import.
    It’s not a comment.It’s a statement of iconic proportion.You said so much in so few words.
    Hats off!!!


  • Mustafa Moiz
    Mar 1, 2012 - 10:15AM

    Let’s assume you’re right, and let’s assume you’re not Indian. So Partition was based off a flawed idea which means religion is attached to everything in Pakistan. What should we do now?


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