Lunch with Asma Jahangir: A critique of Pakistani liberalism

Published: October 23, 2013
The writer is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books and articles on Islamic social and intellectual history

The writer is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books and articles on Islamic social and intellectual history

I must confess that I had some trepidation about meeting Asma Jahangir. The issue was really that, as an academic, I generally tend to be a rather direct and critical person; evidence and nuances matter to me; and bad analysis frustrates me. And I am afraid that Pakistani liberalism in its current form suffers from maladies that do not sit well with these discursive demands. This had been amply demonstrated for me in the past, especially in my recent public exchange with another Pakistani liberal, an exchange that has been made viral — and sometimes vitriolic — by internet surfers.

I knew that Asma has been a staunch supporter of women’s and minority rights her entire life and that she has bravely jeopardised her life and limb for her beliefs. But what was her philosophical framework? As the media never goes beyond the upshots, I had a disturbing blind spot.

Pakistani liberals today confuse the particular manifestations of liberalism that are specific to a time and place with liberalism itself. Here are some examples: wearing jeans, being clean-shaven, drinking alcohol, being fluent in English — these and other accidental qualities of a person are taken to indicate that he is a liberal. This interpretation of liberalism is generated by confusion between the intension and extension of the term. When looking to the West, Pakistanis may have noticed that those to whom the label ‘liberal’ applies usually manifest these phenomenal qualities. Thus, the particular type to which the term historically applied has been taken to be the content of the term itself.

This confusion over the intension and extension of ‘liberalism’ also results in a certain parochialism that deeply divides Pakistani society. When a term is defined only with reference to the available set of particulars, in faulty usage, it ends up excluding all other particulars that may actually fall under its meaning. Put differently: if I do not know the content of the term ‘flower’, but have always seen it used with reference only to roses and tulips, I would not count lilies and daffodils among flowers. By analogy, since liberalism is defined in terms of particular ‘liberals’, historically observed in a secular context, it would naturally exclude the burqa-wearing, pious, housewife. Yet, to be liberal is not much more than to develop one’s agency and to grant others the full right to do so. This proper understanding of the term would allow for different types of contexts and frameworks to generate multiple modes of agency. Liberals in one place may decide that the cultivation of agency means burning one’s bra in public and, in another, donning the burqa. Indeed, in one and the same place, liberals may manifest both these outward qualities, if the performative aspects of agency require it. This understanding of liberalism would also mean that Pakistani liberals, were they to recognise matters in this fashion, would find their numbers to swell exponentially.

I am sure that now the reader understands my apprehensiveness. Surely, a professor of Islamic Studies does not quite fit the stereotypical liberal mould. At lunch the next day, therefore, I quietly listened as my friend and wife engaged Asma (these were welcome presences that must have added some complexity to my person — my friend is an Ahmadi and my wife a professor of sculpture at the prestigious CalArts). And then, there was an awkward silence and I could not resist. “Asma,” I said, “I am a little worried about what you said yesterday at your lecture about religion and piety and how you set these as one side of a binary to liberalism. Under what assumptions are you operating?” She responded, “I think you misunderstood. I support human rights as a general principle. For me, the right of a woman to wear the burqa is just as important as her right not to wear it. In fact, I have made a lot of enemies among feminists who naively take the burqa as a sign of oppression and want to ban it by law. Every human has the right to their agency.” This was good! She went on, “Most people don’t understand what liberalism is. These days in Pakistan, staying up all night, drinking alcohol and sleeping during the day, is considered to be liberalism. I am not sure how. Liberalism is a certain mode of existence. It is openness to the freedom of others and a consciousness of one’s agency. It cannot be equated with specific modes of behaviour.”

She went on for a while, opening up more and more in her complexity. At points, it seemed that she had read my colleague Saba Mahmood’s groundbreaking work (recommended to all Pakistani liberals — The Politics of Piety). She constructively criticised some comments of my Ahmadi friend, yet was clearly a supporter of the rights of his community as a matter of principle. “The beliefs of the Ahmadiyya are really irrelevant to me. The only thing that matters to me is the issue of their rights.” When I expounded on my critique of liberalism, especially in my lament that the parochialism of Pakistani liberals has meant that they do not recognise the larger membership of their set, she agreed. And then we talked about the sorry state of affairs in Pakistan, where an entire generation has been stripped of its language, culture and historical moorings. It was as if she had read my thoughts. “Even those whose views we ultimately support do more damage than good. They don’t understand the complexity of the matter. They project slogans. And then, since they hold the same final positions on important issues as us, we have to go out and clean up after them!”

Ah yes, a Pakistani liberal I can stand behind! If only the other side, her detractors, knew that she fights for them too. If only her liberal supporters could learn from her. Then perhaps, new partnerships could be formed and the discourse could shift to a different level.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (37)

  • Patriot
    Oct 24, 2013 - 12:08AM

    We should embrace Asma Jahangir, a human right activist, as daughter of Pakistan in stead of Aafia Siddiqui, a convicted terrorist.


  • Amin
    Oct 24, 2013 - 12:43AM

    Professor Ahmed, shouldn’t it be part of your “discursive demands” not to stereotype Pakistani liberals, to whom you apply the same stereotypes that the Pakistani right-wing does? (I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you haven’t lived in Pakistan for any extended period of time, at least not in the past decade and a half).
    Also you might want to read the preface to Mahmood’s book, where she says that it is a product of Zia’s Pakistan. Well, professor, Mahmood may not have been able to move beyond that dark period, but many parts of Pakistani society are now trying to. Against us is an aggressive and murderous religious authoritarianism, for whom you are unwittingly providing apologia.
    Finally, I don’t think you realize how rude you are being to Asma Jahangir in this piece, assuming she will only be interested in people with “interesting friends.”


  • Tariq Ahsan
    Oct 24, 2013 - 12:47AM

    Interesting, though a tad patronising towards Pakistanis.

    I find that critiques of liberalism as a political force and as an examination of conduct of people who claim to believe in liberalism as a political creed ignores structural features of society that severely restrict the constituency of liberalism in Pakistan in all of its dimensions. These are mass poverty and illiteracy. Given the prevalence of these, liberals will have a severely restricted constituency in society, as it is unable to sustain mass readership of books, magazines, and newspapers, and its trade unions do not have enough of a financial base to become an effective countervailing force to the economic, political, and military elite. Unfortunately, the restricted and elitist English medium education of the elite and the middle class furthur restricts and subverts the healthy development of popular liberal forces in Pakistan.


  • Zarmeena
    Oct 24, 2013 - 1:19AM

    She fights for everyone. She has dedicated her life to secure fundamental rights of humankind. Asma Jehangir, we love you. We love you. We love you.


  • Jamal
    Oct 24, 2013 - 3:14AM

    I have some issues with this piece, but I am confused by a lot of what you say. For example: “Against us is an aggressive and murderous religious authoritarianism, for whom you are unwittingly providing apologia.” I am not sure how the piece is providing apologia for the right wing. That is a pretty heavy charge! Can you explain? A murderous religious authoritarian is not liberal, by the definition provided by the professor. Like Jahangir, the professor is asking all sides to acknowledge the freedom of others. I understand him to be saying that we should not look at specific ways people live in complex societies, but at the general notion of freedom they embrace. So I am confused by your claims. I thought the point was to show that liberals like Asma Jahangir are able to embrace the basic idea of human rights, regardless of the person and type. I also read the piece very differently than you on other points. Isn’t he showing that he was wrong in assuming things about Jahangir and that she turned out to be a very different kind of liberal? I am not sure how that is offensive towards Asma Jahangir. You just seem upset at the idea of his critique, not its substance.


  • Asim
    Oct 24, 2013 - 4:05AM

    The author writes about Pakistan that it is a place “where an entire generation has been stripped of its language, culture and historical moorings.” Presumably he is referring here to the urban upper-middle class, whom he is accusing of being de-racinated (unlike himself, since he is no doubt an organic son of the soil). But he ignores the fact that biggest force un-mooring Pakistani society from its traditional cultural practices is precisely the religious puritanism emanating from the Gulf countries, which is generating novel kinds of intolerance and cultural amnesia and encouraging forms of ethnic cleansing that would have been unthinkable a century ago.


  • ModiFied
    Oct 24, 2013 - 4:24AM

    Asma Jahangir is a woman of steel. She fearlessly defends truth. She is truly a patriotic Pakistani.


  • Rex Minor
    Oct 24, 2013 - 4:35AM

    Nicely laid out article, though still leaves the question unanswered. What is the liberism in Pakistan?

    Who is everyone she fights for and what are the fundamental rights of human kind? To a foreigner like me it sounds like a thousand and one Nights story.

    We are free is proven by our existance and this is our right; we must respect the rights of the majority as well as the minority in a democracy without one being dependant on the other.

    Rex Minor


  • Ahmed
    Oct 24, 2013 - 5:22AM

    “It is openness to the freedom of others and a consciousness of one’s agency”
    If this is liberalism, then what is Islam?


  • Zahra
    Oct 24, 2013 - 6:42AM

    What does the article have to do with “unwitting apologia” for “religious authoritarians”? Why are the comments mentioning Aafia Siddiqui? Basically, the comments are implying that a critique of liberalism is tantamount to an embrace of extremism. These are perfect demonstrations of what the article might expect the liberal class to do! They just see black and white. Have people forgotten how to read and engage arguments in a sophisticated fashion?


  • Javed
    Oct 24, 2013 - 9:35AM

    You have already answered your question. Clearly, to be a Muslim is not to be liberal. What nerve of this guy to think that a pious Muslim could be liberal. To be liberal is to be secular. Period. If you say otherwise, you are an extremist.


  • sidjeen
    Oct 24, 2013 - 10:51AM

    interestingly in pakistan people will call you liberal if you are not conservative. the term Liberal is not used by many liberals themselves it is actually used by the conservatives in our society for anyone who is not one of them. so for example many of my friends call me a liberal even though ideologically i am closer to being a socialist. spot the irony :)


  • SK
    Oct 24, 2013 - 11:29AM

    @Javed: And obviously, secularism and Islam are two opposites for you (?!?)
    Are you sure you’re not confusing secularism with atheism?


  • sajida
    Oct 24, 2013 - 12:31PM

    i have always admired Asma jehangir,not because she is a strong advocate of women rights,but because she irritates many ,who know whatever she is saying is right.


  • Oct 24, 2013 - 12:52PM

    We need more woman like Asma.Recommend

  • Imran Bashir
    Oct 24, 2013 - 1:18PM

    Professor, if you truly want a sense of Pakistani liberalism at its core, then not visit, but live amonstg the poorest rural villagers of southern Punjab. Very liberal people. That is where it stems from and that’s what is at its core.


  • Rex Minor
    Oct 24, 2013 - 1:46PM

    A load of nonsense! Secularism is paganism which is the extreme form of Governance and without the religion influence is fascism pure. The secular form of Government was first introduced in Europe by Hitler and Mussolini after a concord with the Vatican. This is still valid, whereby both institutions namely the Church as well as the Government function independent of each other. The country’s constitution, however, adopted after ww2 reflects the values of the Ibrahimic religion.

    What seems to be occuring in Pakistan, one could call it anarchism, the majority being suppressed by the minority which benefits no one.

    Have a nice day.

    Rex Minor


  • powvow...
    Oct 24, 2013 - 3:50PM

    @Ahmed – “If this is liberalism, then what is Islam? “

    Ahmed…pleaseeee!!!!!! Spare us this retrofitting of everything good or hindsight wisdom with Islam…


  • Request
    Oct 24, 2013 - 4:07PM

    Both Indians and Pakistanis complain their comments are mostly blocked by you. But you allow so many comments from Rex Minor which are an insult to common sense and embarrassment to this paper.

    I skip reading when I see the name Rex Minor, I ended up reading the comment today accidentally. Please consider marking them separately. Thanks.


  • piddler
    Oct 24, 2013 - 4:52PM

    Wow. From the reaction to this piece I can truly say all pakiastanis are political science grads


  • Ishrat salim
    Oct 24, 2013 - 5:52PM

    @ModiFied: yes ! She is a women in steel,because she defended a liar Husain Haqqani, who although had given an undertaking to come to Pakistan as and when called by the SC in Memo issue, never came under different pretext…..she was one of the legal team defending Mr H H….Ms Asma a hipocrite of the first order defending people’s rights when she herself defending people who are liars…..come on guys grow up…..she is the most critic of our Armed forces….American establishment has done more harm then all the nation of the world put together, but not seen any American of Ms Asma stature criticizing them…..


  • Shahbaz Asif Tahir
    Oct 24, 2013 - 5:55PM


    You speak non sense


  • I second that
    Oct 24, 2013 - 6:39PM

    @Request: I second what you said.


  • Sophya Khan
    Oct 24, 2013 - 6:49PM

    Asma Jahangir and a human right activist? it must be included in the top10 oxymorons of all time :)

    how many times has she led any movement for drone victims? oh yes they are not human… even if Amnesty International said so…still they are just bunch of backward pathans living in caves…

    how much has she struggled for free and fair elections? oh yes she is in the supreme court immediately if it concerns Gillanis or zardaris…but not the common humans…

    in Pakistan…the problem is the pathetic liberals cannot differentiate between extremism and islam and liberalism… like what is allama iqbal?a liberal or an extremist?and what about Qaid Azam? but for Pakistani liberals, you have to be against islam to be called a human and a liberal… sorry guys but that is not how liberals are like in the west … the liberals are always anti-war but in pakistan, liberals cant talk anything besides drones and bombs and operations…


  • Mohammed
    Oct 24, 2013 - 9:06PM

    Amazing how so many of the comments show that the article’s claims are correct. People are jumping down his throat because he is suggesting that liberals live up to their name and acknowledge different kinds of freedoms. Pakistan has two kinds of extremists: the militant puritans and the liberal oppressors. Good luck. You are a doomed people.


  • observer
    Oct 24, 2013 - 9:30PM

    I think the principal reason why this Op-Ed’ was written, was to portray Liberals as ‘ Jeans clad, Clean Shaven, Drunkards’. And the writer has laboured rather hard to prove it.

    Just look at the Second and Third paragraphs of the op-ed, you will find it is all about Jeans, Shaving and Drinking- AND- the futility of it all.

    And the pain of deviating from his love even for a couple of sentences, in the Fourth paragraph, proved so unbearable that the author roped in Asma Jahangir on his side. Sample this,
    She went on, “Most people don’t understand what liberalism is. These days in Pakistan, staying up all night, drinking alcohol and sleeping during the day, is considered to be liberalism.

    And then, the icing on the cake is that the writer has claims to ‘Nuance’ too.

    Intensions, Extensions, and Pretensions galore.


  • Shahbaz Asif Tahir
    Oct 24, 2013 - 9:54PM

    Asma Jahangir, is a liberal fascist, and as Imran pointed out in his interview,
    such people are the scum of society. She has a planned agenda against Islam,
    Islamic ideology, the military, and ISI, all of which are essential aspects of our lives,
    in Pakistan. Her meeting with Baal Thackery, in his terrorist uniform, and speaking ill
    about Pakistan, in India, are serious issues, that should have banished her from this
    country. How ever it is strange how in the world this author, found time to write about
    this insane lady. Shame on her and shame on all those who support her secular,
    liberal, anti Islam agenda.


  • wonderer
    Oct 24, 2013 - 10:29PM

    Much can be said, both for and against, this intellectually honest piece of writing. But one thing is undeniable; not many in Pakistan, both liberal and others will understand it fully. This unfortunate situation is a result of one, and only one factor. We have not yet discovered ‘ignorance’. May be, you will not comprehend what I mean. I shall try to explain.

    The present day world consists of all that is built by those who have discovered ‘ignorance’. They are also the ones who are changing our world on a daily basis. Our contribution, both past and present, is negligible because we think we are not ‘ignorant’ and know all. My purpose is served if I have been able to arouse your curiosity. It is for you to satisfy it by some effort, which involves no more than watching a few videos that are Lesson#11 in an online FREE course. The lesson is called ‘Discovery of Ignorance’ in a course on ‘A Brief History of Humankind’. You can download or view the 4 Segments of the lesson on this link:

    By the way, if you feel inclined, you can still join the coarse. All previous lessons are available. It is FREE and there are no examinations for those who do not need a certificate. If it worries you that the course is being run by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Teacher, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, is a Jew, postpone you judgment till you finish the lesson.


  • notzia
    Oct 24, 2013 - 10:57PM

    This article was a great read, but scrolling down to see the comments really put a bad taste in my mouth. Why are people criticizing the writer for calling out pseudo-liberals? They exist, and many people still think that they are what defines the liberal mindset. This article is attempting to change that. That in no way provides apologia for the extremists. Liberalism is defined here as the freedom to practice one’s faith/beliefs. Period. Extremism is the exact opposite of that. As for the guy here claiming that liberalism and secularism go hand in hand, I have a feeling you meant to say Atheism. If this is the case, then you are absolutely right. Atheism and liberalism DO go hand in hand, as do liberalism and Islam, liberalism and socialism, liberalism and practically any kind of belief system. Pakistan is, at the heart of its ideology, a liberal country.


  • Rex Minor
    Oct 24, 2013 - 11:09PM

    You and your fellow travellers should learn to respect the opinions of others even though they may not reflect your knowledge..Move on and comment on the article instead of others comments. .ET moderators do not have to provide any explanation for trashing comments for one or other reason..

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • mind control
    Oct 24, 2013 - 11:41PM

    The English language has a proverb for this – The Devil Quoting the Scripture.

    And Nuance be Damned.


  • Javed
    Oct 25, 2013 - 12:22AM

    I was being sarcastic!


  • Imran
    Oct 25, 2013 - 7:19AM

    @sofya khan

    how many times has she led any movement for drone victims?
    how much has she struggled for free and fair elections?

    Asma Jahangir has time and again said that she is against drone attacks, even in Musharraf’s time while IK was rooting for referendum. Has she ever protested against them? No, because she’s not a politician and has no claim to street power. For the same reason she has not struggled for ‘free and fair’ (pro-IK) elections.


  • joe
    Oct 25, 2013 - 8:57AM

    social scientists know the art of conveying 0 sustance in a million words. i do not know what the article said? any help from anyone? what mind numbing triviality is this article?


  • Zeeshan
    Oct 25, 2013 - 9:04AM

    Quite a defensive article against the whole species called “Pakistani liberals”

    “Against us is an aggressive and murderous religious authoritarianism, for whom you are unwittingly providing apologia.”

    Liberals are quite touchy despite possessing bunker mentalities. They also like to imagine themselves as the good force surrounded by evil people. Hence, you could hear voices from a bunker mentality like the above.

    @Tariq Hasan,

    So, when you start attending your elite English schools, you’ll just naturally transform yourself into being a liberal. The rest of Pakistanis, because they are illiterate and poor, could not become liberals like you. Might you want to think beyond those “structural features in society” and think that maybe Pakistanis just don’t believe liberals and liberalism worthy of mimicking? Just pointing out your “tad patronizing toward Pakistanis”.


  • powvow
    Oct 26, 2013 - 9:42PM

    @Request – Couldn’t agree more with you… Any regular reader of the Dawn newspaper would come across this guy AbbasToronto who floods the website with his lengthy, incoherent posts. (Strangely he has kept away from ET or probably ET mods have not allowed him)…
    This person RexMinor reminds me of him… Indeed RexMinor is the AbbasToronto of ET.


  • Zarmeena
    Oct 27, 2013 - 2:00AM

    @ Rex Minor

    She is world renowned human rights activist. She is one who even raises voice in support of those who declare her a heathen. Asma has clear understanding of Human freedom.

    Fundamental rights vary from country to country. However, Foundations of fundamental rights are common to every one. Human Rights can be defined as those basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity as human beings. Human rights are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. Their respect allows the individual and the community to fully develop. They are “rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled”. Human rights are
    certain moral guarantees that people in all countries and cultures allegedly have simply because they are people. Calling these guarantees “rights” suggests that they attach to particular individuals who can invoke them, that they are of high priority, and that compliance with them is mandatory rather than discretionary.

    We call humanity as a singly unity. Everyone encompasses all of us as represtation of singular entity, that is Humankind.


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