In defense of liberalism

Minorities are not treated well in Pakistani society. Apart from religious minorities, ethnic and cultural minorities are also discriminated. One such minority is the ‘Pakistani Liberal’. Like most other things in this country, there is no consensus on what constitutes ‘Liberalism’ in Pakistan. Are people who fancy a drink in the evening liberals? What about people, who enjoy sexual independence, or those who wear the latest designer brands and adorn the glossy Sunday magazines, or the people who studied abroad? Is liberalism a reaction to religious extremism? There is no set criteria for this classification and till date, anyone who wants to call themselves liberal, is a liberal. Khaled Ahmed—with his infinite wisdom—once defined liberals as someone ‘who lacks certitude’. He pleads for those who are victims of the certitude of others. He also has self-doubt because it is through doubt that he gains independent thinking and altruism in speaking for the underdog.’

Columnist and political commentator par excellence, Fasi Zaka, once divided liberals in Pakistan into political liberals (as defined by Khaled Ahmad) and lifestyle liberals(or Shabnam Liberals, the kind you are going to find in Sunday magazines frequently). Mr. Zaka also outlined the dilemma of defining liberalism in his article: ‘As the space for discourse in Pakistan has narrowed, with rising levels of sympathy for extremist thought in this country, the tragedy is that nuances of many positions and variants of the political left have become superfluous, leaving liberalism as a straightjacket defining everyone.’ After partition, ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ were in opposite camps but the decimation of Pakistani left has resulted in ‘liberalism’ remaining as the last strand of opposition to religious fundamentalism.Apart from a problematic identification issue, the ambiguity about liberalism serves as a big target on people’s back. Right-wing media and columnists effortlessly blame the mythical ‘liberals’ for most ills in the country. Some of the ‘names’ used by the right-wing media for liberals include ‘Mom-Batti Mafia’ (because of candle light vigils organised by some liberal groups) and ‘agents’ of friendly countries such as India and Israel.

A new terminology to taunt liberals was introduced in the market by Hamid Mir in one of his columns. The term ‘liberal fascist’ was first used by HG Wells—the prolific science fiction writer—in 1932. Wells saw no difference between communism and fascism and during that time, both these ideologies were being practiced in Russia and Italy respectively. The term was resurrected by an American conservative writer Jonah Goldberg in hisbook ‘Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left’, published in 2008. Mr. Goldberg’s book was regarded by historians as ‘poor scholarship’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘not scholarly’. This particular title was appropriated by Hamid Mir in one of his Urdu Columns.

In his column published on January 20, 2011, Mr. Mir defined the term as “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.” In this ‘definition’, Mir not only used multiple generalizations but also created a whole new binary by equating intolerant religious extremists with relatively benign liberal intelligentsia. This terminology was lapped up by right-wing media and was used in talk shows and columns. I am pretty sure about the fact that none of the champions of this term ever heard the name ‘Jonah Goldberg’ including Mr. Hamid Mir himself.

During last month, two other commentators pitched in with their views on ‘Liberal mafia’ in Pakistan. One of the gentlemen was Mr. Amir Rana who discussed ‘relevance’ of Liberals in national discourse. He made some interesting generalizations about ‘liberals’ and ‘pragmatists’. The other view came all the way from New Jersey with the title ‘Welcome the self-hating Liberal Extremist’. The writer used a unique terminology ‘Liberal Nazis’ in the fourth sentence of his piece. In the article itself, the writer used the ‘two extremes’ binary introduced by Mr. Mir and decried the lack of a ‘middle ground’.

He defined a ‘liberal’ as someone who blames Pakistan for all the problems in this world. He went on to accuse the ‘Pakistani Liberal’ as someone with ‘little room for self-doubt or nuance’. Mr. Taha Najeeb should probably have opened the dictionary instead of wasting his time on writing, as he would’ve invariably found definitions of the word ‘liberal’ and the meaning of the term ‘introspection’. A quick google search would have also revealed what a ‘Nazi’ actually meant (and No, the ‘Soup Nazi’ in Seinfeld was not how Nazis actually behaved).
First of all, there is no such thing as liberal-fascism, in spite of the best efforts by right-wing media. Liberals are not blowing themselves up outside (and inside) mosques and at public places. Liberals don’t attack children’s schools or blow up girls’ educational institutes. How can they be ‘fascist’ when all they ask is the elimination of terrorism from the country while advising caution against military’s overreach?There is no ‘other’ extreme in this debate. Hamid Mir should’ve publicly apologised for his introduction of this epithet after the same people whom he called ‘fascists’ rose up in protest when he was targeted in a firing incident. Liberals do question the state’s narrative on history and the prevalence of religion in public discourse. Liberals tend to question the role played by the military in running the country’s affairs. By targeting liberal voices, an attempt is being made to silence the occasional voices of dissent. George Orwell wrote decades ago, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt