WHENEVER some political or ideological crisis engulfs Pakistan, liberals too are dragged in — although irrelevantly, as they neither created the crisis nor will they resolve it. They have already been pushed to the margins, and are no longer a part of the country’s power struggle.
Yet our power players — including the security establishment, political elites and even the media — frequently employ the terms ‘liberalism’ and ‘liberal’ to discredit their opponents. It appears as if they are either short on vocabulary, or tend to exploit most Pakistanis’ disdain for liberals and liberal ideologies.
The ‘liberal’ label is also put on those who do not share the majority of people’s sociopolitical and ideological viewpoints. Genuine liberals may also have views different from those held by the majority, but they are active participants of any academic discourse both in the West and East. But in Pakistan, the term ‘liberal’ has acquired multiple shades and expressions depending upon the context in which it is used. It is also used to refer to the so-called open-minded segments of society, including the upper classes of which the country’s establishment is a part.
Being labelled a ‘liberal’ in Pakistan is tantamount to being accused of treachery.
In the 1960s, the phrase ‘limousine liberals’ was used for wealthy and influential liberals in the West, who would express their distress regarding status quo forces but only in a narrow political spectrum. In Pakistan’s context, the term can be changed to ‘Pajero liberals’ as it is this vehicle that is synonymous with power in this country. However, a major difference is that the ‘Pajero liberals’ want social freedom for themselves but conservatism for the majority, which is a source of their social and political strength. And then there are the so-called desi liberals, who are criticised by a certain political group for being desi and yet behaving like ‘liberals’.
However, the most dangerous context in which the attributes of a liberal change completely is that of patriotism. In this typical Pakistani context, being a ‘liberal’ is considered the polar opposite of being a ‘patriot’. Liberals in Pakistan are usually stigmatised by being marked as anti-state, foreign agents and sometimes traitors. One can imagine the consequences of such stigmatisation.
The implication is that they are either already on the payroll of the West, or have the potential to be. For Pakistan’s power elites, the West should not be a source of political, social and cultural inspiration. Similarly, although they like Chinese investment and geopolitical and economic cooperation, they do not like Chinese sociocultural values.
Interestingly, the label of ‘foreign agent’ is not used for religious actors who receive financial assistance from Gulf countries and openly promote their foreign donors’ sectarian and political agendas.
In this paradigm, those following the country’s religious and social norms are considered patriots, while those who don’t consider these norms obligatory are thought of as traitors.
Critical minds are also often tagged as ‘liberals’ in Pakistan. A rational religious mind is immediately labelled as a ‘liberal mullah’. This had led to spaces for free thinking rapidly shrinking, as evident in the dearth of intellectual discourse in the sociopolitical disciplines offered by our academic institutions.
Meanwhile, campuses are busy engaged in internal politicking or hunting ‘liberals’ down. The brutal killing of Mashal Khan in Mardan University this year is only a reflection of the deteriorating situation on our campuses. Recent arrests of university graduates in Karachi in connection with terrorist activities are also suggestive of what is going on in our institutions. But the state is camouflaging this fact, fearing that it would have to confront the religious organisations operating on campuses once the cat is out of the bag.
Individuals who use their right of freedom of expression are thus discredited as ‘liberals’ and sometimes ‘liberal fascists’. The next step is to paint them as ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-Pakistan’. Does our state really believe in democracy along with it all essentials and values? Or are democratic governance and constitutional guarantees to freedom of expression merely empty slogans used for internal and external consumption?
Usually, a dichotomous phrase is also used in this context: democracy in transition. Interestingly, this transition has been going on for several decades now, and it is not yet certain how long it will continue. One can only hope that this transition helps develop democratic institutions and a democratic culture. But for that to happen, the foremost prerequisite is that all accept democracy from their hearts, and not merely as a matter of expediency.
So why does the issue of ‘liberalism’ become relevant in chaotic times? To answer this, let’s look at the debate from another angle.
Along with our political elites, the security establishment is considered a major power actor in Pakistan. For the common folk, the latter is a saviour and political stability is its top priority. Politicians are largely perceived as being linked with looting and corruption; the only exceptions are those who ally themselves with the establishment.
The third major actor is the mainstream media and social media. Diverse in all of their sociopolitical and ideological shades, formal and informal media exercise their right of expression and also raise questions about the first two and other actors. But recently, some media groups have been nurturing the perception that the patriotic credentials of those who do not ally with the country’s ‘saviours’ should come under question, and these people would be classified as ‘liberals’.
Since liberals also talk about human rights, including those of women and minorities, they are also considered agents of social anarchy. Demanding political rights or supporting ‘corrupt’ political parties are essentially their major sins. This is the perspective that justifies silencing critical voices on social media, and attacking and killing journalists.
This perspective is irritating for many, but Pakistan’s whole political and ideological paradigm is built on certain perceptions and there is no let-up in sight. The liberals will have to suffer more.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2017