Pakistan: Liberalism and extremism - a society divided?

Daily Times
"Liberalism can only flourish when socio-politics becomes free of top-down constraints. Let the society breathe naturally and both politics and culture will become more normal."
Many viewers have applauded a recent BBC documentary on Pakistan as an effort to present a soft image of Pakistan. Among other things, the documentary showed transvestites and eunuchs and dancing girls. The idea seemed to be to show that Pakistan has sufficient space for things and behaviour other than religious extremism.
Like expatriate Pakistanis, particularly liberals, I was also happy at this positive image building. But some questions kept nagging my mind: why is the soft image debate restricted to dancing women and eunuchs? Are we trying to tell the world that despite what people think about us we are actually quite cool in our attitudes towards sexual preferences? Does, indeed, a society’s reaction towards an individual’s sexual preference dictate the extent of its liberalness?

Perhaps there are other ways to present Pakistan as a vibrant, complex, and liberal society different from some of our neighbouring states, especially Islamic ones. There is the outcome of the Chief Justice issue. The manner in which the civil society took to the streets in support of the rule of law and for their liberties; the way the judiciary protected the honour of its institution; the acceptance of the decision by the government; the freeing of a political leader; the judiciary’s position over the missing persons’ case etc can all be cited as reflective of a vibrant civil society and the available political space in the country.

There is much distance to be travelled but the tidings are good. Also, on the plus side, recent crises have not only indicated the strength of civil society but further strengthened it and thereby enlarged the space for dissent and political action. This is far more promising than what we see happening in Iran, for instance. That country simply puts away all dissenters and critics whether they be journalists, academics or politicians.

The second issue relates to the definition of liberalism itself. It is interesting to see the presentation of soft image in the framework of the larger debate of liberalism versus extremism. A society that does ‘cool’ things culturally is liberal; that which does not is extremist.

It is this narrow definition which is being used as a benchmark to judge individual and societal behaviour. What goes hand in hand with this projection is another concept, i.e., those who are not culturally liberal are automatically extremist or conservative. In a country such as Pakistan we tend to go a step further by suggesting that those who support the action against Lal masjid are liberals and therefore supportive of the government.

Such a narrow definition does not leave room for those who want to support action against Lal Masjid and yet do not have a desire to support the politically extremist agenda of the regime.

There is a huge problem of the lack of space in defining liberalism. It almost seems that there is very little possibility of talking about political liberalism in Pakistan. People take recourse to presenting liberalism from a very narrow perspective of a certain kind of culture. This perspective is not entirely the fault of the society but of the larger post-9/11 international intellectual discourse which conflates religious conservatism with extremism.

This makes it easier to divide societies and to fight the battle against terrorism. A narrow definition of liberalism or extremism makes it easier for government bureaucracies including the militaries to focus on their potential targets. Why bother about cultural nuances and the painful exercise of identifying the minor but important differences between people and ideologies?

Talking about the Pakistani establishment, a narrow definition of the aforementioned terms makes it easier for the regime to package certain political solutions as liberal. The other day I was talking to a politician about the extremism of certain leaders. A couple of years ago I had met a Pakistani politician in the US who had tried to convince me that the jirga system and honour killings were perfectly kosher because they were part of a tradition.

The politician I was conversing with about this incident said that this constitutes making a personal choice. In this person’s opinion the leader we were discussing was otherwise culturally liberal. My problem, of course, was that I saw the earlier comment as an expression of both cultural and political extremism of the said leader.

At the end of the day, liberalism in a society is deeply connected with political liberties. What, in fact, generates extremism in a society is when sufficient spaces are not available for expression of the political will. I am also reminded of the debate a small group had during the course of writing and discussing a certain segment of the Vision 2030 paper organised by the Planning Commission of Pakistan. Some of the members were of the view that multiple visions could not be afforded in a state and that the government must only endorse a culturally liberal agenda. Surely, such members had Turkey in mind where powerful state institutions are committed towards secularism at all costs.

I have no problem with secularism; that is my own belief as well. However, I would not want the state to take positions for or against a particular vision. Have a look at Turkey and we can see that the deliberate positioning of the state has resulted in people voting for religious parties. A state and its institutions must remain neutral and allow multiple visions without siding with one or the other in order for liberalism to take root. Once the state and its coercive institutions become party to one ideology or the other, it draws reaction from the people.

Examine Pakistan’s history and we can see that extremism grew due to the government or the military’s involvement in encouraging extremist options in support of geo-strategic goals. Even certain political governments encouraged extremist elements for limited military-strategic gains. In the past seven years, the non-religious political parties were pushed aside to make room for religious groups and parties. Again, the regime is taking position to push a certain kind of liberalism which has divided the society almost sharply into two.

Liberalism, as mentioned earlier, can only flourish when socio-politics becomes free of top-down constraints. Let the society breathe naturally and both politics and culture will become more normal.

By: Dr Ayesha Siddiqa

6 August 2007