Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


A liberal Pakistan?

April 04, 2012


AGAINST the backdrop of creeping radicalisation in Pakistan, the vision posed in the title above may seem a utopia restricted to the imagination of delusionary liberals.

However, since even totalitarian regimes could not constrain dreams and since dreams often sow the seeds of progress, it may be worthwhile to evaluate the prospects for a liberal Pakistan.

The immediate difficulty in doing so relates not to Pakistan’s inhospitable terrain but to defining liberalism, which means different things to different people. Liberalism comes from the Latin word ‘liber’ (free). Thus, the hyper-free market economies espoused by the likes of Reagan are often defined as economic (neo) liberalism, even though they are antithetical to liberal left-wing thought. Consequently, a clear definition of liberalism is essential.Political liberalism was the first liberal strand to emerge, as a movement against absolute monarchies. It is often seen as emerging during European Renaissance although its roots go back much earlier and spread more globally to the various uprisings against tyranny since antiquity. Thus, democracy, equality of rights (especially for minorities and women) and individual freedom represent the core of political liberalism.

Economic liberalism includes economic individual freedom, equity and equality of opportunity. This economic vision rejects both Reaganism and communism. Among existing economic systems, the ones in Scandinavia, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka and Bhutan come closest to true economic liberalism.

Cultural liberalism encompasses multiculturalism and a willingness to evolve cultural norms in line with changing societal needs. Liberals also espouse secularism based on the long history of manipulation of religions by governments and the unspeakable horrors committed against religious minorities. Secularism aims not to banish religion but to get the state out of the way to allow people to practise religion freely according to their own wisdom. While liberals reject Taliban-style religion, mystical interpretations of religion are primary sources of inspiration for many liberals.

The common philosophical foundations for these different strands are provided by liberalism’s vision of human nature. The main focus of lower animals in life is on material consumption and on competing with others to access the natural resources needed for it. However, liberalism believes that the main determinants of high quality of human life are non-material pursuits, e.g. aesthetical interests, cooperative endeavours, scientific investigations and altruistic and spiritual concerns.

Consequently, unlike with lower animals, the pursuit of high quality of life by humans is not in conflict with but is intrinsically linked to ensuring the rights of other groups, societies, species and generations. Thus, conservatism, with its focus on power, materialism, domination and xenophobia, is humanity’s evolutionary inheritance from lower animals and a puzzling desire to cling to those anachronistic origins. Conversely, liberalism reflects a desire to transcend those origins and attain humanity’s full potential and hence the focus on equality, cultural diversity and democracy under liberalism.

Liberalism is often rejected as a western import in Pakistan. However, liberalism’s origins are highly diverse. Its central tenets like human rights, equality, and above all the emphasis on spirituality are also emphasised within non-western religions and philosophies such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Moreover, while liberals embrace many western practices (e.g. the emphasis on human rights), they reject others, e.g., over-materialism, over-individualism and neo-imperialism.

What are the prospects for liberalism in Pakistan? In line with the liberal creed, my focus here is on investigating the electoral prospects of liberal parties, for liberalism can be achieved not through revolutions or dictatorships but through democracy only. Viewed so and surprisingly, many liberal beliefs provide powerful strategies for winning elections in Pakistan.

Liberal positions on economic justice and equality could find a sympathetic audience among the majority of Pakistani systematically deprived of fair economic opportunities since before Independence. A party that develops cogent positions on the mechanisms utilised by the elites to deprive the majority of their rights and practical strategies for overcoming them (beyond populist but empty slogans about reducing corruption by half in nine days) stands a good chance electorally.

The emphasis on equality of rights and cultural diversity are also relevant for the majority of Pakistanis, who are a collection of minorities and lack a majority group since no ethnic group constitutes 50-plus per cent of the population (once the Seraiki are treated separately). Unsurprisingly, ethnic parties are quite popular in Pakistan. Moreover, since dictatorship leads to the dominance of one or two ethnic groups in Pakistan, democracy can also be sold as the best way of ensuring the rights of all ethnic groups.

Other liberal tenets may unfortunately find less sympathetic reception within Pakistan, e.g. women’s equality, cultural relativism and secularism. However, people do not vote for a party only if it reflects their worldview on every issue, for such complete consonance is rare. They normally vote for parties which address their most important concerns.

Moreover, the most important electoral issues globally are usually economic and political ones rather than cultural ones. Thus, a party which resonates politically and economically with the majority could win even if it is culturally somewhat out of sync. Its economic and political resonance can also provide it with a solid platform to gradually influence people’s positions on other issues.

Thus, the biggest obstacle for liberal parties in Pakistan is not an out-of-tune agenda. It is that they have failed to develop a strong grass-roots presence in villages and slums. Marginalised people can only be weaned away from patronage-driven and right-wing reactionary parties if liberal groups and parties demonstrate the superiority of their agenda through community-level work and then use that foundation to sell an agenda stretching up to the national level. A liberal Pakistan may then no longer remain a distant dream.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.