On the evening of November 20, when Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the founder and chief of the radical Islamist party Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), suddenly passed away, a majority of Pakistanis were taken aback. Understandably, the man’s supporters were quick to exhibit their sorrow. Those who did not belong to the Sunni sub-sect (Barelvi) that Rizvi belonged to and claimed to defend, and were opposed to his ideas, delivered token condolence messages. But he was even more disfavoured by the social media variety of liberals and the left.  

Most intriguing was the manner in which some liberals and leftists seemed to have been plunged into an existentialist crisis after his death. Rizvi had, during his brief firebrand career, galvanised thousands of people to condemn those arrested through the country’s controversial blasphemy laws; had protested against the acquittal and release from jail of a downtrodden Christian woman; hailed the murderer of a former governor of Punjab; had raged against an already besieged Ahmadiyya community; and mocked the universally celebrated philanthropist, the late Abdus Sattar Edhi. Many liberal and leftist communities on social media weren’t sure exactly how to word their tweets and Facebook posts about Rizvi’s passing. 

Many struggled to express their moral obligation to condole the death of a fellow human being. Eventually, after much existentialist anguish, they coupled their condolences with condemnation of what he had stood for. Their’s was a conditional condolence. Debates broke out, especially on Twitter, about what was the right thing to do.

This was a far cry from how things had panned out when, in January 2011, a disciple of Rizvi had shot dead Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, allegedly for deriding Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Those opposed to Taseer’s line of thinking did not hesitate in celebrating and hailing his murder. Liberals were shocked. 

Personally, I neither condoled Rizvi’s passing nor condemned him. I simply alluded to the fact that mortality is neutral and can strike at any time and against anyone, even those surrounded by thousands of admirers. But this is not to suggest that’s how the death of a controversial figure such as Rizvi should have been treated. This was just my way of doing it. I wanted to negotiate, for myself, a space between condolence and condemnation. Nevertheless, after following the aforementioned debates on social media, I wondered, how would Rizvi’s supporters have reacted had death come to a popular progressive or liberal figure. 

Controversial preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s sudden death threw liberals into a conundrum over how to talk about him at a time of grief for his followers. But what it also showed is that policies of appeasement and co-option do not work to resolve moral conflicts

In my large circle of acquaintances, are also men and women who entirely disagree with my ideas of politics, faith and morality. Some of them also voted for TLP in 2018. Their idea of morality and the ethos that motivates their thinking, are different to the ones through which I operate. Their ethos does not oblige them to condole any misfortune befalling those they see as enemies. Their mental and emotional dispositions are not wired the way they are in what are understood as liberals. 

In the January 1, 2015 issue of Philosophy Now, author and economist Francisco Mejia Uribe writes that liberalism’s strength is the manner in which it is able to resolve moral conflicts (between secularism and religious fundamentalism). It makes both meet half way to strike a compromise and find a common ground that is beneficial for the collective good of a nation, as long as both respect each other’s views without one imposing these on the other.

Therefore, according to Uribe, liberalism, instead of banishing religion, pushed it in the private sphere, leaving it to the individual to determine his or her own idea of faith and morality. It was not to be imposed through state policy or government legislation. Liberalism works towards securing a neutral state that assures that this neutrality remains intact and moral conflicts are contained through democratic pluralism. 

But Uribe finds this to be a problematic arrangement. He writes that, when liberalism becomes deeply embedded in the body politic and places religion in the private domain, much of the polity struggles to come to terms with an upsurge in religious sentiment in a society. Uribe believes that this is why a recent upsurge in contemporary forms of Christian fundamentalism in the West has left the overarching liberal order in many Western countries perplexed.

In a 1992 essay for the Western Journal of Communication, S.A. Freeman writes that, historically, moral conflicts have triggered violence and discord. Liberalism devised a way in which conflicting parties develop a new framework for understanding each other’s positions and respecting each other’s space. But as Uribe writes, in a liberal paradigm, this means that the agreed spaces remain private.

This, according to Uribe, constrains the liberals because the fundamentalists are more likely to move outside their agreed space and disturb the arrangement, thus creating a fresh moral conflict in public. But liberals are ill-equipped to fight such conflicts, because liberalism insists that such conflicts in public are irresolvable and can only be contained if conflicting parties are given their own private pockets of influence and the state remains neutral.

As often happens, religious groups are more assertive about resolving moral conflicts on their own terms and are not obliged by the liberal ethos to maintain a pluralistic arrangement. Uribe advises that liberals become as assertive. However, when some do, they not only get flak from their fundamentalist opponents but also by their liberal contemporaries for radicalising the liberal ethos. We saw this happening in Turkey in the 20th century, and recently in France, where French secularism is being attacked for being extreme. 

Uribe was writing about moral conflicts in the West, where the state is committed to remain neutral. In Pakistan, especially from the late 1970s onwards, moral conflicts have been addressed by the state and governments through legislation and narratives that seek to co-opt and appropriate positions taken by the ‘fundamentalists.’ 

Consequently, this has led to the creation of laws and policies of appeasement that have not only weaponised the political-Islamist segments of the polity, but have also made debate between Islamists and non-Islamists almost impossible.

When those opposed to Rizvi were facing a moral dilemma in wording their reactions, they were operating in an inward intellectual space, which expected them to retain their liberal ethos of plurality but an outward reality where there was little or no place left for such an ethos to exist. 

This should be a cause for concern for those desiring to strengthen the roots of democracy in the country, and also those within the state who are now clearly finding themselves feeling cornered and toothless when it comes to resolving moral conflicts.

Policies of appeasement and co-option have not worked. Open debate needs to return as it was present before the 1970s. Only then can moral conflicts in Pakistan be resolved in an amicable manner and without the fear of violence and actual violence.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 29th, 2020

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