Liberals in Pakistan have been an endangered species for quite a while. How many dodos remain? Nobody quite knows, but a day after the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011, the press secretary of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Farid Paracha, snarled at me during a TV programme that today the only people in Pakistan unhappy (at the murder) are the 300 liberals like you who still remain in this country.
Only 300? Mr Paracha vastly exaggerated; there are tens of thousands others. Still, he’s right that liberals in Pakistan are becoming fewer — as elsewhere. Brexit in Europe, and the rise of India’s BJP, shows illiberalism is aggressively marching. A foul-mouthed Muslim-hating casino owner is running for president of the United States and poking holes into liberalism just as Jean-Marie Le Pen, Recep Erdogan, Geert Wilders, and other political entrepreneurs have done for much longer in Europe. The open societies of the West are in free fall.
For many at home this is joyous news. Imran Khan has already declared liberals ‘scum’, and his allies in the Jamaat-i-Islami are suggesting that liberals, like Ahmadis, be registered as a separate minority. Recently a popular TV anchor suggested that students should record on their smartphones those of their teachers who teach liberal ideas in class and then post their videos on the internet. Presumably, that teacher’s fate would then be decided by the type of people who keep Bangladesh clean.
Inspired by visions of past greatness, several political-religious movements are out to recreate the Madina state.
Hugely popular among our TV anchors, and in the Urdu press today, is the abusive term ‘liberal fascist’. Intrigued, over the years, I have asked students and various others to name such people. Mr Jinnah being long dead, none may dare accuse him. But I recall one student saying Gen Musharraf was a liberal fascist for having allowed a mixed marathon in Islamabad. Girls and boys running together, he said, is against our values and hence fascism. Several others said that liberal fascists want to ban religion, hang mullahs, and close down mosques and madressahs. However they couldn’t recall a single person who might have said that.
But who are liberals anyway? The confusion begs a definition.
Broadly speaking, liberals are a diffuse bunch wanting a freer world for themselves and others, both personally and politically. Some are faithfully religious, others indifferent, still others atheistic. Some drink, others don’t. Liberals value choice and freedom of expression saying you have the right to dress and wear the clothes as you wish. Covering a woman’s face or head should be optional. She can have a job if she wants, or stay at home if she wants.
Extended into the public sphere, liberalism is about the intrinsic equality of men and women from all races and religions, religious tolerance, and the protection of political and civil liberties. Liberalism is admittedly a Western project dating to the Age of Enlightenment. Nevertheless its many premises — such as the rejection of hereditary privilege and absolute monarchy — have won universal acceptance.
But that’s it. Unlike Islamists, liberals are not terribly brave. With no ideology to defend and no daawah mission, they could be inclined either towards socialism or laissez-faire capitalism. Ditto on matters of social inequality and poverty: should education and health, water and sewage, be the responsibility of the state? There are liberals who say agriculture, industry, and business should be taxed but other liberals believe in zero taxes and no state controls.
Now for the key question: why is liberalism suddenly imperiled everywhere? The reasons appear different in the Muslim world and in the West. But at the core lies largely one thing — a rate of change too large to absorb.
Forty years earlier, Alvin Toffler, in his famed book Future Shock, had warned of unpredictable consequences of rapid, technological change and its unsettling psychological effects. Western society is undergoing a revolutionary structural change from an industrial society to a post-industrial society. Basically the world has suddenly shrunk and is spinning too fast. The dizzying acceleration, he said, leaves people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” — future shocked.
Future shock makes things difficult enough but the recent mass migration has tipped, or almost tipped, the balance. Once homogeneous societies of the West are being forced to instantly incorporate and assimilate diverse peoples. Tolerance, multiculturalism, and liberalism are under stress. Western populist leaders reject open borders, instead promising to defend ‘traditional’ values and ‘make the country great again’. Hence, Brexit and Trump.
Illiberalism is far stronger in Muslim countries. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and now Bangladesh, people care less about ‘freedom’ — as defined by liberals — and even more about national identities, historic enmities, sectarianism, tribal bonds, territorial symbols, and traditional cultural values. Far from dying out, such atavistic attachments are becoming stronger.
Again, this comes from excessively rapid change. For millennia, Muslim societies had been in more or less steady equilibrium but the systemic transformation made possible by technology and communication has destroyed the autonomy of life in villages and towns, and forced diverse peoples and individuals to live in close urban proximity where they now compete with each other. The Green Revolution allows far larger populations to be sustained than once imaginable.
In today’s complex and uncertain world Muslims, more than others, try to conjure up some perfect golden past. Many want to turn the clock back by 1400 years. Inspired by visions of past greatness, a multitude of Muslim political-religious movements are out to recreate the Medina state. Daesh, Al Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram, and Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen are some notable entrepreneurs in this business. With terror as their strategy, these holy warriors have spilled far more Muslim blood than that of others.
Liberals everywhere are fighting an uphill battle — and winning only rarely. It is so much easier to be backward looking, narrow, prejudiced, parochial, tribal, sectarian, and nationalist rather than be accommodative, global, and universal. It is even more difficult in Pakistan. While erasing the last 300 liberals may be a noble goal in the eyes of some, it is unlikely to solve a truly large and vexatious problem.