God bless liberal fascists

Published October 19, 2019
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

INDIAN liberals have taken on the champions of Hindutva jingoism by documenting their multiple crimes against India’s religious minorities and now the Kashmiri people. Because they are actual witnesses their testimonies bear extraordinary weight. And, yes, the world is listening. Key American presidential candidates — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris — have expressed “deep concern” over India’s mistreatment of Kash­miris. The US-based Hindutva brigade is outraged and is calling for their defeat in the 2020 elections.

The Indian liberal is unpopular and will likely get still more unpopular because public opinion is against her/him. Donald Trump successfully deactivated the conscience of most Americans but Narendra Modi has done still better with the man on the street. Not too long ago, most Indians agreed that citizenship bestows equality as a constitutional right. But a one-sided media soft-peddles abuses of executive authority and heaps abuse upon those who insist India’s constitutional obligations must be fulfilled.

The Pakistani liberal has faced a still harder time and for much longer. For an entire decade, 2004-2014, mainstream Pakistan was in a state of collective delusion. Our soldiers, policemen, and ordinary citizens were being slaughtered, schools blown up, female education banned, and polio workers killed. But the mantra ‘this is not our war’ was popular. Ten years ago, Imran Khan denounced those advocating action against religious extremists as “liberal scum” in America’s pay. He was hugely applauded.

‘Liberal fascists’ was then a common term. Popularised by a well-known television anchor who still has his show, it was then picked up by Urdu newspaper columnists. Intrigued by how ‘liberal’ could be married to ‘fascist’, I had asked many at the time what the term meant. Some said that liberal fascists want to ban religion, hang mullahs, and close down mosques and madressahs. However they couldn’t name a single well-known liberal person saying that. When liberals mourned the victims of suicide attacks, right-wing columnists denounced them as ‘candlelight mafia’.

Mr Prime Minister: welcome to the liberal camp! You are saying now what we liberals have said for 20 years.

Pakistan’s liberals tried hard but the country was in a drunken stupor. It kept snoring even after the Pakistani Taliban’s takeover of Swat in 2008 and daily executions in Mingora’s Khooni Chowk. The late Lt Gen Hamid Gul, a regular figure on TV, would flatly state that suicide bombers were actually Hin­dus and Jews because they hadn’t been circumcised. How he knew he never said during the many spirited TV sessions I had with him. Unlike today (2019), back then some contrary opinions were allowed on the screen.

The mass slaughter of students at the Army Public School in 2014 by raging fanatics — who insisted that students recite the kalma before being shot to death — changed everything. Thereafter it was bang-bang! Operation Zarb-i-Azb was followed by Operation Raddul Fasaad aimed specifically against religious radicals. Poof! Soon we had peace. No captured Hindu or Jew was ever paraded as a failed suicide bomber. The liberal had been right.

Even as some things changed, others did not. Until someone invented the FATF danda, extra-state actors were a desirable but deniable means of conducting foreign policy. Liberals knew they would not be hea­rd but they shouted anyway saying this won’t help liberate Kashmir, that it delegitimises the struggle of Kashmiris and makes them appear as terrorists.

And now? This liberal stand was vindicated on Sept 19, 2019, when Imran Khan, now prime minister, said exactly what disempowered liberals have pleaded for 20 years. Any bid to “wage jihad in Kashmir”, he said, would be an act of extreme enmity towards the Kashmiris adding that: “Anyone, who thinks that he will cross the border to join the Kashmiris is a big enemy of them and Pakistan.”

Mr Prime Minister: we welcome you to the liberal camp! We hope you will remain with us even if Mr Hafiz Saeed is unhappy. Please stay the course.

Indian liberals have a hard fight ahead as they challenge Hindutva’s discrimination against Muslims, Dalits, and Christians. But at least they have a constitution that in principle guarantees absolute equality to all citizens. Modi has made a mockery out of secularism but until he succeeds in reversing the constitution, India remains officially a secular country. Pakistan, however, has always abjured secularism. Its Constitution explicitly discriminates between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Every applicant for a Pakistani passport must dec­lare himself to be either a Muslim or a non-Muslim. Taking the second option doesn’t come free because the applicant then has reduced citizenship rights. Constitutionally a Pakistani Hindu, Christian, or Ahmadi cannot have all the rights enjoyed by a Muslim. Our prime minister can give grand speeches about Islamophobia before the UN General Assembly but how seriously is the world going take a leader who welcomes discrimination in his own country and has attended several khatm-i-nabuwat conferences?

I am proud of my liberal friends in Pakistan and India but feel just as friendly to those in Israel, Europe, and the United States. In Israel they fight for the right of Palestinians to their own state; in Europe against religious or racial bias; in the United States for fair treatment of Mexicans and Muslims and much else. Some liberals are financially crooked and bad people. They need to be dealt with as such. But liberalism is an ethical project built upon notions of personal freedoms and fairness to all. We form a large, fractious family where not everyone knows everyone else and we often quarrel. Some are faithfully religious, others indifferent, still others atheistic. Some drink, others eat beef, some think socialism is better than capitalism or vice versa. But what makes us a family is respect for diversity, pluralism, and belief in human equality.

And who are the illiberals? White supremacists, Nazis, Islamophobes and religious fundamentalists of all faiths: Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Muslim — and even ‘peaceful’ Buddhists. It’s far easier to be backward-looking, narrow, prejudiced, parochial, tribal, sectarian, and nationalist than to be accommodative, global, and universal.

Some say morality in politics is dead but hopefully it’s just having a longish nap. Monsters like Trump and Modi are strong today but they won’t last forever. So let’s keep our faith in the better world to come.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2019


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