Liberals are dangerous

Updated 12 Dec 2017


PAKISTAN’S liberals ought to be utterly flattered now that a potential prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has suggested that they are the most dangerous constituency in the country, and that these liberals are so well organised and politically relevant, that they ‘seek blood’. These words must sound particularly reassuring to Pakistani liberals, each morning, as they read their English-language newspapers and the many articles and editorials which have been written about and after the Faizabad dharna.

Almost without exception, every newspaper has lamented the fact that Pakistan has lost its purpose and direction, that the non-state actors and right-wing Islamic parties have taken over both political and public spaces, and that the state of Pakistan has capitulated to the demands of such Islamists. Reading such editorials and articles, Pakistani liberals must breathe a huge sigh of relief, and offer thanks, for being recognised as such a powerful political and social entity, at a time when, one presumes, they were thoroughly heartbroken and despondent. Imran Khan has given them hope and much-needed reaffirmation.

The term ‘liberal’ is much used in the public sphere, but is often misunderstood or misconstrued in its meaning and use. Liberal and liberalism have emerged from a political philosophy which dates back some centuries and encapsulates numerous meanings and connotations in what the terms mean. Liberals, to start out with, were against an absolutist state, against the monarchy, and one can in today’s world assume that political liberals are also against the authoritarian government of the military.

Liberals also, on account of being against such absolutist oppression, believed in the will, or sovereignty, of the people, which made them at least democratic, or favouring the representation of the people through individuals who were usually elected. By this minimalist account, Imran Khan and his ally, the Jamaat-i-Islami as well as Maulana Samiul Haq, are also part of the liberal frame, even though they have supported military interventions and military dictators in the past. By this definition of the term, Gen Pervez Musharraf is anything but a liberal in the substantive sense, and is merely a lifestyle-liberal.

Imran Khan has given the liberals hope and much-needed reaffirmation.

It is here where things get complicated. Most people, even trained scholars, end up using the term ‘liberal’ only in a lifestyle sense, where they think that someone who supported or promoted certain behaviours and lifestyle choices, often supposedly ‘western’, would be considered a ‘liberal’.

But such simplistic definitions often make matters worse, even when one examines something as straightforward as sartorial choices. For instance, if some women wear jeans or trousers, they would immediately be labelled as liberal, even though, as in many Muslim countries, women wear jeans often with a hijab indicating their religious inclination or cultural beliefs. Many Pakistani women, when they go abroad, do exactly the same. So, getting mixed signals — jeans with a hijab — makes the declaration of someone’s lifestyle being ‘liberal’ quite meaningless. Other examples would only emphasise this point.

Being a liberal in a wider sense brings with it far greater attributes than what one wears or drinks. For example, there are clear demarcations of what a liberal, or increasingly neoliberal, economic policy is, compared to one which is conservative. All political parties, including Imran Khan’s as well as all Islamic parties, believe in free markets, privatisation, the World Bank’s good governance, less government involvement in the provision of public goods, all of which are attributes of a neoliberal economic order.

By these standards, Imran Khan and the Jamaat-i-Islami are also ‘liberal’, for they do not advocate closed borders, economic nationalism, state ownership of assets, or other indicators supposedly of an illiberal economic policy.

Imran Khan doesn’t understand how bechara Pakistan’s liberals really are in today’s world. They give a call on Facebook about some political cause such as about the disappeared, and perhaps five of them turn up at some press club to have their picture taken. They are not like the supporters of the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, who braved the rain and sat on the roads in Faizabad for three weeks, nor like the supporters of Imran Khan or Tahir ul Qadri who sang and danced at D-Chowk in Islamabad for four months.

Liberals would never have had the stamina, resources or commitment to last as long. At best, liberals can write op-eds, light candles for some deceased comrade killed by a militant, or now write blogs. Clearly, the political activities of Pakistan’s liberals, which are supposed to be so dangerous, are limited to Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.

They barely have a real political presence, since there is very little differentiating between conservative and awami political parties. These parties have the same economic and social agenda and programme, their representatives bend over backwards trying to appease religious lobbies, they believe that the IMF can bail out Pakistan, and their whole faith rests in CPEC. Occasionally political parties and their representatives might take some positions which are termed ‘liberal’ in a broad political sense, but these are increasingly infrequent.

Yet, one can understand why Imran Khan considers liberals to be dangerous. For one, they want society to be tolerant of differences, even religious belief, and they would want religious minorities to be equal citizens having equal rights. Some, sadly though not all, liberals might even want equal rights for women in society, while many others want peace in the region supporting better relations with India.

Liberals might even advocate for better and increased public services. But these are just well-meaning desires, and unless liberals represent themselves as organised political actors and entities, not only will they not be dangerous, they will continue to remain completely irrelevant.

The writer is a political economist.

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2017