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.