Relevance of the liberals
BY M U H A M M A D A M I R R A N A | 9/3/2015

DO liberals matter in national policy discourse? Do they have anything in common with other segments of society? And who are they and what do they want? These are not difficult questions to answer.

However, at times, the optimism of the liberals and the question of their relevance in both social and policy discourses create ambiguity.

We do not find distinctive shades of liberalism in Pakistan. Sometimes business and political elites, which favour liberalisation of trade and economic policies, are also mistakenly deemed as liberals.

Who are Pakistan`s liberals? One simple answer could be: all those who are not extremists (although for some right-wingers they would be `fascists`).

Their bitterness and critical attitude make them different, but they do not believe in violence. They do not follow any particular ideology or philosophy on the basis of which they could be described as a `cult`.

Another simple distinction could be that those who believe in the vision of Pakistan`s founder, as espoused in his Aug 11, 1947 address to the constituent assembly are liberals. They dream of a modern, progressive and accommodative state. To a certain extent, they are idealists, and their competitors are not right-wingers, conservatives or the `forces of darkness`, but `pragmatists`. The latter seek inspiration from religion and religion-based nationalism.

The Pakistani establishment had crafted a vision of the state with their help, based on certain principles. The `pragmatic` forces conceive `liberals` as a non-religious body and against the ideological identity of the state.

The confrontation between liberals and pragmatists is not new in Pakistan. It had started instantly after Jinnah`s speech on Aug 11. The pragmatists worked hard to become custodians of Pakistan`s ideology and successfully developed relations with the establishment.

The establishment is also aware that these forces hold the key to meeting ideological and political challenges. For example, if a terrorist group, such as the self-styled Islamic State can create a security challenge, the establishment knows who can provide a fitting response in terms of a counter-narrative, and it would hardly be surprising if the likes of Hafiz Saeed of Jamaatud Dawa, along with his allies Masood Azhar, Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, `stood up` against the evil. The Jamaat-i-Islami, all factions of the Jamiat Ulema-iIslam, small and relatively new religious parties etc would be on the streets to support and strengthen the narrative.

Pakistan`s liberals cannot provide a response to such challenges. They would rather demand a ban on the pragmatic forces which have proved their `loy alty` to the state many times. Whenever Pakistan faced a challenge on its borders, these forces extended their support. If they had caused any problem in the past, or their affiliated/supported miscreants had created difficulties for internal security, the pragmatists knew how to fix that. They would eventually find a solution with collaborative efforts.

One should not ignore the fact that it was the JuD which had issued the fatwa against suicide attacks and terrorism inside Pakistan. The group had taken a firm stand against internal and external terrorist groups of takfiris and kharijis, who had initiated war against the state. These are the forces of pragmatism which run an extensive social and welfare network across the country. The state cannot `ignore` the services of these organisations. Can liberals maintain such big networks of social welfare? The establishment does not need liberals` support, which it deems counterproductive for the fulfilment of its ambitions despite the fact that in times of crisis liberals try to extend their support to the establishment, especially when differences emerge between the latter and the pragmatists.

They see such moments as an opportunity to expand their space and influence with the establishment.

But all that is of no avail as witnessed during the recent civil society demonstrations outside Lal Masjid in Islamabad to protest against the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar last December.

The liberals always talk about counter-narratives and rational thinking, but the reformists among the pragmatists argue that an anti-thesis can come only from the religious-ideological discourse which they own. They say `outside` engineering of counter-narratives cannot lead to changing the extremist outlook.

The establishment and their pragmatic allies see liberals as a tiny misled segment of society, influenced by the West intellectually and socially. Most importantly, they think liberals have nothing in common with them when it comes to the national discourse.

The establishment always avoids any engagement with liberals. The reason is that it does not want to annoy its natural allies among the pragmatists. The establishment also confuses liberals with Western funded NGOs and looks at their activities suspiciously. The NGOs provide shelter to a few liberals, but their focus largely remains on structural reforms in the social sector in which the government has hardly invested. The establishment brackets all those as liberals who criticise its policies, approach and vision.

The pragmatic forces, however, know the art of criticism, and try to maximise the gains through criticising certain polices of the state. The religious leadership constitutes a major proportion of the forces of pragmatism in Pakistan. The establishment does not see any harm in their criticism as it never challenges their vision and does not demand structural reforms. In return, the religious leadership wants an entry in the elites` club of the country.

Their alliance serves each other`s purposes. The religious elites exploit such opportunities and further expand their influence and support base through strengthening their religious institutions.

Is an alliance possible between the establishment and liberals? It has happened a few times in the history of Pakistan. In the recent past, we saw one during the early years of Gen Musharraf`s rule, but it proved short-lived and further disillusioned the liberals, who had sought a shortcut to achieve their objective through such alliances.

Pakistan`s liberals have a long way to go. One thing is clear: they have to build their intellectual discourse on their own, without external or the establishment`s support. •
The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn