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Talking Point: Small Film, Big Issue?

Liberals, losers and spoilsports

The ‘liberal’ in Pakistan is under siege; he must fear for his life as the national consensus swings in favour of the Taliban.

The Taliban are not Taliban for nothing: the Pakhtun have the most aggressive single identity as a group and will reject other identities most readily. (Reuters) The Taliban are not Taliban for nothing: the Pakhtun have the most aggressive single identity as a group and will reject other identities most readily. (Reuters)

In an increasingly Talibanised Pakistan, ‘liberal-fascists’ are being attacked for not falling in line.

After his visit to Lahore in February, K. Anis Ahmed, a Bangladeshi intellectual, wrote in Newsweek Pakistan about the tough Pakistani textbook narrative against the birth of Bangladesh and the refusal of Pakistanis to even acknowledge what the Pakistan army had done to the people of East Pakistan in 1971: “Bangladeshi intellectuals have long known and appreciated the opposition mounted by Pakistani liberals during 1971.

What was interesting for me to discover on this trip is the abiding hold of that liberalism across generations. As a narrative of extremism has come to dominate global perceptions of Pakistan, the fact that there is a durable, indigenous tradition of liberalism has fallen by the wayside.

“In my university days, I regularly came across Pakistanis who, liberal on most counts, simply could not square the globally mainstream narrative about 1971 with their sense of identity. Education in the world’s best colleges, or living in the most cosmopolitan capitals, was not enough to open up the space that was required to question received narratives. But in Lahore I came across many young people from local colleges who did precisely that with ease.

“Is this tiny but deep strain of liberalism any match for the more ferocious ideologies that seek to crush it? I know too little about Pakistan to make any pronouncements let alone predictions. I can only say that an encounter with this country that I had long resisted proved to be more full of surprises, and pleasanter ones, than I had expected.”

The Lahore Literary Festival is a rare annual gathering of the “liberals” in a notoriously conservative city. On Facebook, however, Ahmed’s article received the typical barrage of “India-did-it” kind of response from Pakistani readers, accusing East Pakistanis of betrayal of their state.

The “liberal” in Pakistan is under siege; he must fear for his life as the national consensus swings in favour of the Taliban. Judging from what the Urdu columnists write — mother tongues, alas, have become toxic in our day — they will all be lynched when the sharia is finally enforced. But the liberal is anathematised all over the world.

To be clear, let’s quote The Economist (February 5, 2009): “Barack Obama shuns the L-word. But his speeches brim with liberal ideas and ideals. What is it about the doctrine that dare not speak its name? Authors who defend liberalism must often struggle just to get the word out without facing incomprehension or abuse — even today. To the left, particularly in Europe, liberalism means the free-market dogma of clever simpletons who created the present financial mess. The American right’s complaint is quite different.

Forget that Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison fathered liberalism in the United States. For nigh on 30 years conservative Republicans persuaded American voters that liberals were godless, amoral, tax-happy hypocrites.”

In Pakistan, the ideological state is in the process of becoming more hardline, and the liberal is the one who “rejects religion and is willing to work for the CIA to undermine his own country”. People who defend women’s rights and Pakistan’s beleaguered non-Muslims are identified as agents of America and India — and Israel, for good measure — and the subliminal message is: “there are liberal-fascists in our midst”.

Popular anthropologist-author Akbar Ahmed, whose book The Thistle and the Drone has made an impact in Pakistan, defines these “elitist” liberal-fascists thus: “There is also the failure of the elite to come to grips with the problems of Pakistan. Many of its members, like Pakistani liberal commentators, reflect ideas picked up from Washington or London think-tanks, such as the War on Terror. They simplify what is happening in Pakistan as an Islamic movement.

Their analysis is replete with words and concepts like jihadis, Islamists, and Salafis which explain little and add to the confusion. Not fully understanding the problem, like their Western colleagues, they are incapable of offering solutions.”

Is liberalism a creed? Liberalism is not an ideology; it is a moment of conscience, an attitude. You can find a liberal Muslim Leaguer, even a liberal cleric, but you can’t find a coherent group or a party calling itself liberal and then acting consistently on the basis of consensus.

A dog-in-the-manger liberal stymies planned revolutions, questions immaculate creeds, and advocates tolerance towards elements making the ideological state impure. He is often considered below contempt by revolutionaries who will not allow his doubt to challenge their certainties.

Is it right to place the extremist and the liberal in opposition to each other? The liberal at best can get pummelled from both sides of an extreme divide. He is despised for being what he is, a loser and a bit of a spoilsport, introducing shades of grey when the situation is Manichean. The latest development is the invention of an oxymoron as a label for him: liberal-fascist. Greatly put off by the liberal’s habit of speaking up for the underdog, the hard conservative has set him up as an extremist together with the terrorist.

According to a very popular Pakistani TV anchor, “Liberal-fascist is he who supports the US drone attacks on Pakistani territory, opposes the Islamic articles of the 1973 Constitution, supports Musharraf in his rule and is now supporting Zardari, and is in the habit of designating his opponents as friends of the Taliban.

The extremists and liberals are in the same category because they both don’t accept the Constitution of Pakistan. One lies after drinking wine, the other lies after saying Namaz.”

Let us first clear our mind about the categories we are talking about. Where does extremism spring from? If you take liberal uncertainty and doubt as your norm, then one can say it springs from certitude. In doubt, there is freedom to make concessions to those who think differently. Doubt here includes self-doubt, to allow for a measure of altruism. It is also from doubt that moderation emanates: the instinct to stand in the middle when everyone is taking sides and is getting ready to clash.

The conservative is surer of his thinking because it is connected to the known past; the liberal is less sure-footed because he wants to question the entrenched attitudes of the past. It is the ask-no-questions certitude that inclines us to punish those who don’t agree with us.

The liberal will appeal to us to consider his argument but will not threaten us if we reject him. The misapplied term “liberal-fascist” implies “power” that the liberal doesn’t wish to possess because he knows that his thinking is too individualistic for the formulation of a group capable of wielding the power to punish.

There is also the thesis of multiple identities within one person made popular by Amartya Sen, which should make a person generous and tolerant as opposed to a person with only a single identity on the basis of which he “includes” and “excludes”.

The Taliban are not Taliban for nothing: the Pakhtun have the most aggressive single identity as a group and will reject other identities most readily; and this rejection will usually be done through violence.

Anis Ahmed will always be embraced by the liberals of Pakistan recommending that Pakistan apologise to Bangladesh for the atrocities of 1971. But he is right; the liberal also faces accelerated obsolescence as the Taliban phenomenon looms.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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