The world is saying goodbye to liberalism. Right-wing politicians win elections by denouncing “liberals” and preside over self-centred states wearing the badge of aggression against “liberal fascists”. The US under Donald Trump, India under Narendra Modi, the UK under Boris Johnson, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and most East European states who maltreat “refugees” and shun foreigners — foreshadow the misfortunes of tomorrow. Pakistan is no exception.
In March 2009, addressing a lawyers’ gathering at the Rawalpindi Bar, lmran Khan belaboured a certain section of society as “liberals” who fly “in the face of national emotion” and hurt the state of Pakistan. He particularly condemned their interpretation of the phenomenon of the Taliban and their obedient following of dictation from the US in this regard. (Five years later in 2014 Taliban gunmen stormed the Army Public School in the northern city of Peshawar. More than 150 people were killed, 132 of them children.) He had also blamed the “liberals” for causing the massacre of Lal Masjid in 2007 by pressuring the Musharraf regime into taking brutal action against its “innocent” seminarians.
He called those who set great store by human rights “liberal fascists”, a label that resonated with most Urdu columnists in a predominantly “religious” or “ideological” Pakistan. Since Pakistan was never dominated by “liberal fascists” it is quite possible that he was attacking them in order to allow himself to ignore the violation of human rights by those who operated against the writ of the state in the Tribal Areas. But oddly, Khan never stopped being the favourite of the very liberals he berated. He was an icon whose achievement as a social worker they recognised to strengthen their own argument.
Where does extremism spring from? If you take liberal “uncertainty” and “doubt” as your norm, then one can say extremism 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 of standing 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 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 does not 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.
The liberal voice as the gnawing conscience of the nation has bothered others too. Pakistan’s top Urdu columnist published a plaint against the liberals on February 3, 2001: “The ‘liberals’ are busy demonising the Taliban and predicting Talibanisation of Pakistan. On the other hand, Islamic movements have a way of becoming moderate after reaching a certain level of intensity, as it happened in Iran and is bound to happen in Afghanistan”.
According to the above columnist, Pakistani society was altogether of a “different sort” and would not succumb to Talibanisation “after the Taliban have completed their conquest of Afghanistan”. In fact, Pakistan was a “cosmopolitan” society and would remain “cosmopolitan” and would never allow the religious fanatics to take over even if the latter became stronger than at present.
In his next column (February 9, 2001), the same columnist rebutted the “liberal exaggeration” that, after the jihadi outfits are done with Kashmir, they will turn upon Pakistan. He even quoted a Quranic verse in Sura Al Kafirun and its message of tolerance as proof of Islam being a “liberal” religion.
Eight years down the road, the marginal “liberal” was proved right. But judging from the way the critique of Talibanisation has spread around the country, one has to concede that liberalism is not a political creed but a bent of personality that may be found in elements in both right-wing and left-wing parties, and even among religious leaders.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 26, 2020, under the title “Liberalism In Crisis”. The writer is consulting editor Newsweek Pakistan.