Pakistan: the liberals’ dilemma

During Zia’s years, liberal forces presented the most radical opposition to the theocracy-military collusion and oppression. Today, we witness a liberal democratic government, with a secular alliance that is paralysed and besieged by its lack of vision and inability to govern, says Afiya Shehrbano Zia
Afiya Shehrbano Zia
1 February 2011

Very often, the analyses and activism of liberals in Pakistan still uses General Zia’s Islamisation era as the sole point of reference. So it was predictable to hear and read statements that attributed the cause of Salmaan Taseer’s faith-motivated murder to General Zia-ul-Haq’s legacy of Islamisation.

Even if we accommodate the metaphoric point offered, which is that the insidious spirit of intolerance and politicised religion are products of the Zia years, it still misses the mark to seamlessly link the nature of contemporary militancy and religious extremism to the 1980s. If anything, the Taseer murder is a product of the enlightened moderation philosophy of the liberal dictator, General Musharraf.

The political failure of Musharraf’s purported goal to liberate Pakistanis from their ‘corrupt civilian leaders’ can be equated only to his half-baked Ata-Turkish ambition to counter radical Islam with moderation, and not, as is sometimes falsely alleged by right wing religious parties, secularism. The moderation theory was a more acceptable and neutral proposal, as most Pakistani liberals squirm at the notion of any radical shift in the status quo, including secularisation of state and society.

Pakistan is a testament to the predictable failure of both of Musharraf’s political and social plans. It’s worth noting that there was no intention, or pressure, to liberalise the theocratised military and intelligence agencies, nor to sever the umbilical cord between them and militant groups. Thus the false consciousness built up amongst the liberals in Pakistan that we were on some enlightened path, didn’t just further divide the country between liberals vs. extremists. It also exposed the shallow aims of liberals, for whom progress meant superficial personal freedoms rather than structural changes in the nature of the state or class based oppression.

During that decade, nascent and growing local conservatism embedded itself, engineered, cultivated and unchecked, through steady grass-root level social work and through piety movements. This perhaps has contributed most effectively to this dangerous cocktail of sectarianism and religious fascism in Pakistan. The consequences of this have permeated so deeply, that unanimously, the political parties in and out of government today have refused to out rightly condemn the assassination. Just this week, parliamentarians and senators have refused to offer for Taseer, the token Muslim funeral prayers usually recited at times of death.

Meanwhile, the religious parties continue to demonstrate their moral outrage through street rallies. Media commentators often raise the rhetorical question that since the government (and even its non-religious political alliance) has agreed that the Blasphemy Law will remain untouched, there is nothing really to agitate against. However, the opportunity is too good to pass and as some religious leaders admit in television interviews themselves, it is the single issue on which all the disparate and hostile religious groups are agreed upon. Hence, the political mileage from this issue is being milked for maximum populist benefit.

Simultaneously, the legacy of Musharraf’s brand of military-led democracy is fast bearing fruit. The quasi-democratic but none-the-less, liberal, policies and laws keenly grafted by his liberal, technocrat supporters are being revoked as quickly as they were passed. A Federal Shariat Court’s judgment in December 2010, upheld challenges petitioned against the Women’s Protection Act that had been passed under Musharraf’s rule. The FSC judgment sees some clauses as contraventions of Islamic law and is an example of one recent reversal of liberal reform.

Politicians who had opportunistically supported Musharraf’s ‘clean’ political agenda have swung their loyalty most expediently to share power with a government led by his civilian nemesis. Musharraf’s touted gift in the form of a free media has turned not just reactionary but in some cases, outright bigoted.

Simultaneously, even the nature of extremism has remained unfaithful to Musharraf’s agenda. Religious extremist acts are not just being committed by non-state, external enemies or ‘foreign’ militants but in fact are rivalled by an internecine and competitive sectarian bloodbath, amongst and between urban religious groups. The targets are no longer state offices but in fact, mosques, shrines, public places and symbols of piety and moderate detractors. Hence, many are feeling trapped, as if in a mine that is about to implode– that is, if it survives external attacks. Meanwhile the only sector that still defines the ‘real external threat’ to be India, is the army.

So the proposition is that it has been the failure of concerted secular resistance or liberal politics, to deliver a progressive development agenda and/or, counter religious conservatism in sociological terms. This failure has allowed the wedding of political militancy to social conservatism and has led to the escalation of illegal and extradicial acts such public whippings, stoning in tribal areas and now murder in the capital, as faith-motivated crimes.

Overall, in the words of the few detractors, from amongst the large number of Musharraf’s upper class supporters, this was a period of “lifestyle liberalism” and not political liberalism. The splintering of liberal thoughts and confused notions led to dissipation of liberal activism and defeated any meaningful change towards progressive goals. Out of practice, lulled into the false consciousness of enlightened moderation and the necessity of improving the ‘image’ of Pakistan rather than tackling its structural issues, liberal activism was co-opted by the state and completely blunted in the process.

Thus today, when civil liberties are threatened on every front, from life, security, mobility and expression, liberal activists fumble around contradicting every principle of their own liberal construction.

A year ago when a Parliamentary committee was formed to look into reforming the Blasphemy law, a long debate ensued amongst liberal activists on whether there should be outright repeal of the law or only amendments. Some of the points argued included the practical/strategic need to gain the (non-elected and non-representative) right-wing approval and another suggestion was that an amendment should extend the death penalty for wrongful accusers. Meanwhile, Gojra burned, Ahmedia mosques were bombed and shrines were attacked. Appeasement politics and reversion to anti-human rights call for the death penalty became momentary markers of the new liberal solution.

Realising that NGO-ised politics cannot mobilise large numbers for effective street activism and that they do not have meaningful geographical outreach, the liberals have found refuge in a virtual substitute by way of cyber activism. However, they now have made the rude discovery that Facebook is not quite the vanguard of progressive communication but in fact, has been captured equally by the rearguard. So when thousands of fans applauded the murder of Taseer on Facebook, the liberals welcomed the removal of such pages from Facebook that support and therefore, condone the act. But how does this compare when in May 2010, Facebook refused to remove the pages of an alleged drawing competition that was considered incitement to commit Blasphemy? It was only due to the pressure by religious lobbies that the government of Pakistan shut Facebook down for some weeks only to be allowed to run again after a Lahore court adjudicated on the matter. This opens up the unresolved debate of when freedom of expression may be considered injurious – when it offends the moral sensibilities of liberals, or of the conservatives too?

The politics of vigilantism is another troubling strategy being discussed within some civil society groups. The idea of laying vigil at mosques to monitor sermons is one such reckless suggestion. It raises the issue of whether the Right-wing then has an equal right to conduct vigilantism at public parties, fashion shows and study groups which it suspects of being anti-religious?

The boundaries of extremist rhetoric, fatwas and incitement have to be dealt with through legal discourse and linked to criminal consequences. This cannot be done by arbitrary reports by political enemies accusing each other of something called extremist speech.

The concern over the downward slide of liberal resistance has also to do with its form and expression. When a crowd of 500 to 1500 (reports vary) lawyers rushed to the Anti Terrorist Courts to garland and support the remanded guard who murdered Taseer, and to pressurize the courts not to change the venue of the case to the Islamabad courts where there would be more vigilance over religious lobbies, the liberal activists were busy holding low-attendant candle-light vigils in various cities.

The stark contrast in political activism is also a result of years of back-door access into the corridors of power. Leading liberal activists and NGO leaders have cultivated a social relationship with liberal politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats and donors. These activist leaders have social access to sympathetic parliamentarians whom they ‘lobby’ in the comfort of offices and private spaces. Such practices have resulted in the relinquishment of public spaces where collective pressure tactics or activism used to be enacted. Instead, the liberals’ public discourse has now been replaced by ‘track-2’ confidential agreements and recommendations for changes to laws and policies.

Liberal activists have also lost their appetite for debate or critique. They remain hopelessly defensive about the only self-acclaimed liberal hope for Pakistan, at least in theory, in the form of the PPP. The leadership’s isolation of Taseer and Sherry Rehman who represent some kind of continuity of Benazir Bhutto’s liberal vision, has disappointed some die-hard apologists. Still, there remains a reluctance to pressurize for a plugging of the fast haemorrhaging liberalism of the PPP leadership and an increasingly acquiescent alliance.

During Zia’s years, liberal forces presented the most radical opposition to the theocracy-military collusion and oppression. The Musharraf years split and co-opted liberal politics, such that many abandoned secularism for ‘moderate’ alternatives, and directly supported military over civilian rule. Today, we witness a liberal, democratic government with a secular alliance that is at best, paralysed and besieged by its lack of vision and inability to govern. Across the board, all political parties including the one Taseer was a loyal member to, have disowned him and his cause altogether. This leaves the polity completely vulnerable to the military headquarters which continues to orchestrate state politics and the theocratic lobby, which continues to swallow social spaces, killing, maiming and destroying individual efforts to resist its multiplying membership and competitive agenda.


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