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Fear of liberal politics

The offended Moeen Cheema takes exception to my criticism of the scholarship produced by him and his colleagues (22 Mar). Their scholarship objects to Pakistani liberalism as elite and narrow and, instead, invests hope in a ‘proletarian’ Islamist legal-political alternative. Since this body of work consciously takes a departure from modernist interpretations and liberal understandings of Islam in Pakistan, I maintain this to be both postmodernist and post-secularist.

Cheema is right in the title of his article that there are ‘crises of liberal ideology’ in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the title is the only accurate observation in what follows as a sweeping and rather anti-intellectual diatribe that equates Pakistani liberalism with anti-Islamism. Cheema subscribes to the misinformed populist definition of liberalism that Maulana Sherani and other conservatives associate as the liberal/modernist NGO type or, what many PTI followers have smugly coined as ‘fake liberals’. By isolating Pakistani liberals (but not conservatives) as anti-democratic elite, he manages to then make a case against their supposed anti-religious obsession.

First, the good news for Cheema et al. Relax. There is no danger of any imagined, effective, liberal revolution that is about to take over Pakistan any time soon. There’s more good news for Cheema. I assure him that most of the self-identified Pakistani liberals he seems to target are essentially a wavering and ambivalent lot who equivocate to the point of paralysis. They are not fearful of Islam, as he accuses them of being; rather, they seek to rescue an inclusive, peaceful, ‘Sufi’ Islam from the murderous, hate-filled, forced and exclusionary views harboured by many (certainly not all) Islamists.

Many such liberals want Pakistan to become a modernist Muslim state on the lines of Malaysia and Turkey and not an Enlightenment-inspired secular European country such as France. These liberals have no qualms heading Islamic banks, supporting Muslim charities, accommodating the right to religious symbols/worship in private institutions and even passively retracting book launches of little girls or textbooks that may attempt to expand religious instruction beyond Islam and jihadist teaching.

Cheema is also wrong in his unappetising suggestion that liberals need to “feed off” Islamists. Rather, their efforts have often been to fend off the latter’s influence over state and social discourse. In Pakistan, one can safely be a liberal without being a secularist and vice versa.

The futility of liberal progress is evident in the fate of the likes of Shahbaz Bhatti, Salmaan Taseer, polio workers and moderate Islamists who have attempted to practically inject liberal ideals into the body politic of the Islamic republic. The ineffective and benign liberal response to such a murderous political push-back has been to hold privatised cultural, literary and music festivals. Surely this is a most impotent attempt to reclaim public spaces dominated by faith based institutions, politics and expression. Still worried, Mr Cheema?

By labelling me as being “against Islam” in his article, Cheema unwittingly deployed a subliminal tool that makes recipients of such a charge vulnerable to accusations of blasphemy from enthusiastic defenders of Islam. Many liberals don’t ‘fear Islam’, their concern is over the Pakistani state’s unwillingness to defend the rights of minorities and women against those who wield religio-political identities or power. And religion is the most unregulated and powerful tool out there today.

Clearly, the Cheema type of scholarly critique stems from a post-9/11 anxiety. During Gen Ziaul Haq’s period, those of us who supported pro-democracy movements and resisted his Islamisation of state and society never claimed to be something called liberals. However, the defensive Cheema misses the opportunity to discuss the crisis of liberal democracy or its shortcomings and whether Islamists offer tangible alternatives. This would have allowed an accurate critique of those Musharraf-supporting lifestyle liberals who despaired of corrupt politicians and conservatism but would, nevertheless, support a reformed moderate Islam and laws.

Instead, Cheema’s limited interest is to expose liberal political activism as anti-Islam and, therefore, his thesis collapses. The main misleading and superficial myths in his reactionary article deserve some response.

Cheema’s incredulous claim that the CII is a ‘redundant’ body is bizarre in light of the impetus and credibility given to the Lal Masjid clerics and other Islamists in the recent peace talks with the Taliban. The attempt has been to make the Taliban’s conditional demand for Shariah seem valid and normative and the CII’s recommendations are simply an ideological preview of what a Shariah compliant state should look like. Some commentators claim that the CII is a critically supportive institution to this conservative government, which will enable it to tacitly, softly and ‘democratically’ theocratise politics and policies over the next few years.

Cheema’s generous advice to liberals and women’s rights activists (instead of to conservatives and Islamists) to quit their exclusive obsession with religion and focus on other matters is a typical attempt to exonerate responsibility in cases of faith-based violations. By deflecting criticism of elitism, the apologists for such crimes then start preaching how poverty and imperialism is the cause of child marriages and misinterpretation of religious decrees.

Ironically, Cheema shares this false analysis with many liberals themselves, who see education and Islamic charity as the panacea to all evil by subscribing to a blame-the-poor/uneducated-victim philosophy.

One doesn’t have to be a liberal to deal with Cheema’s prescribed list of issues such as water, health and education as the Jamaatud Dawa well knows. But will Cheema then defend those ‘liberal/secular’ ones such as the Orangi Project workers, polio workers and girls’ school principals who pay the price for delivering such basic services?

A narrow, ahistorical perspective leads Cheema et al to advise liberal activists that reform lies “beyond law”. Hardly an original observation. Rights-based liberals have historically worked against customary practices including honour crimes, jirga ‘justice’, tribal practices and sexual harassment cases against (liberal) professors and other employers. They also run massive awareness campaigns exposing patriarchal and discriminatory practices in hostile conditions.

Ironically, in cases of faith-based crimes, women’s rights activists are accused of being anti-Islamic liberal-secularists by Cheema and friends. When they fight cases of custom-based discrimination and violations, these liberals are accused of being anti-Pakistani culture-cleansers who want to westernise society. Both these efforts are deliberate status-quo-ist attempts to delegitimise local activists as native informers and disconnected elites.

Cheema reinforces the myth that ‘The Liberals’ is some elite class in Pakistan. From drone warfare to polygamy and inheritance, religio-nationalist issues have supporters and detractors across all classes, genders and provinces. Liberal thought is neither the privilege nor the political aspiration of the bourgeoisie alone.

A second common myth is that Islamists/fundamentalists are anti-western and anti-liberalism. Many Islamists selectively invoke liberal legal and political freedoms (right to expression, worship, politik as well as, habeas corpus) for Muslim men. Despite opposing women in public service they still usurp parliamentary reserved seats. The only time liberal anxieties are invoked is on the issue of women and minority equal rights or land reforms but not neoliberal economics or technology.

A third myth is that Islamophobia is a western conspiracy. What is euphemistically called sectarianism in Muslim majority countries is based on a foundational hate for each others’ Islam by Islamists – not liberals.

The fourth myth – that Islamic laws cannot co-exist with liberal, modernist-defined human rights – is belied through the hugely populist reception of moderate scholars such as Javed Ghamdi and Zakir Naik. Those who make academic noises against the liberal perspective of Islam don’t have to endorse its limitations but should stop pretending that it doesn’t capture the imagination of the non-elite as much as other Muslims.

But clearly, Cheema et al need to fabricate some entity he calls ‘Pakistani liberalism’ exemplified as the “English language press”, in order to delegitimise the entire ambit of liberal rights-based efforts in the country and clear the space for Islamic alternatives.

Before that, though, it is time for such critics to do a little more homework before dispensing such erudite, long-distance, whimsical instruction. Or, they could just direct their energies and expertise to address the multiple problems that threaten the western liberal-secular contexts that they live in and may be more familiar with.

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: afiyazia@yahoo.com

Afiya Shehrbano, "Fear of liberal politics," The News. 2014-03-27.
Keywords: Social sciences , Human rights , Social rights , Religious issues , Islamic laws , Social ethics , Sexual abuse , Child Marriage , Democracy , Taliban , Violations , Islam , Politics , Poverty , Gen Musharraf , Moeen Cheema , Zakir Naik , Maulana Sherani , Javed Ghamdi , Shahbaz Bhatti , Salmaan Taseer , Gen Ziaul Haq , Pakistan , PTI , NGO , 9/11