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Imitation and limitations of liberalism

In the aftermath of 9/11, the question about the compatibility of Islam with modernity, or to be precise liberalism, has become the burning question of the decade among intelligentsia belonging to liberal, progressive, leftist, atheist, moderate and Islamist persuasions.

Owing to the overall ambiance and the way production of knowledge is connected to different centres of power and ideologies, the discourse of liberalism projects itself as the sole emancipator of diverse human societies, which still live under different systems and follow different worldviews.

In the particular context of Muslim societies, liberal intellectuals tend to follow the linear course of history espoused by liberal discourse that took its contours in a Western context and spread across the world during the period of colonialism, cold war and globalisation. Though colonialism started to wane in the post-World War II period, its ideas about democracy, liberalism and freedom have become part of the collective history and memory of colonialised societies.

It is under the influence of liberalism’s deterministic narrative of history, which claims: ‘first the West and then the rest’, that our liberal intellectuals posit liberal Islam as a panacea to the threats posed by new militant groups such as Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram and Isis. Owing to this, our liberal thinkers attribute the radicalisation of Pakistan to the rejection of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s ideas and the adoption or acceptance of Allama Iqbal by state and society.

Other writers trace the roots of the current radicalisation directly to the Khilafat movement in South Asia in the early 20th century. This is not to deny that these and other intellectual ideas and political movements do not have an impact on the mindset of people, rather it is to show the multiple sources of the modern Pakistani self, society and state.

Scholars subscribing to the end of history thesis propounded by Francis Fukuyama think that ideologies, societies and states opposing liberalism are the one that still live within history and have failed to come out of it. The proponents of this thesis optimistically assert that with the expansion of economic and political liberalism in the age of globalisation, societies and ideologies antagonistic to the liberal system are doomed to be relegated to the dustbin of history. However, the resurgence of religion in politics and emergence of different political and social movements in various parts of the world nullifies liberalism’s linear narrative of history and even the postmodernist proclamation of end of meta-narratives.

Whether it is the experience of liberal thought in the colonial period or the Pakistan movement, dictatorships, political ideologies in post-colonial period and jihad in Afghanistan – all of these have contributed to our current way of thinking. Whatever went into our history has become part of our collective unconscious. The historical experiences during the colonial and postcolonial periods are writings on palimpsest that cannot be completely erased through a new narrative.

The new narrative may scrape old texts off from the page but it retains traces of old writings, albeit illegible. Thomas De Quincy refers to the palimpsest structure as an “involuted” phenomenon where otherwise unrelated texts are interwoven, competing with, and infiltrating each other. Similarly, the political and social domains in Muslim societies have become so complicated that they defy being explained away through a monolithic frame of reference.

One of the features of the narrative is that it explains the world or reality, while suppressing its contradictions to make reality amenable. What we are witnessing today in the world is the domination of the liberal narrative, which suppresses alternate narratives and worldviews by coercing them to follow the linear march of history on liberal lines. Unfortunately, our wishy-washy liberals prescribe liberalism as the right historical path to get rid of all the ills that afflict Muslim societies, Pakistan in particular.

Followers of liberal Islam do not realise that currently liberalism is a major player in the politics, conflicts and wars that have been waged in different parts of the world. The very status of the dominant narrative and power in the world constricts liberalism’s universality and implicates it in the web of vocabulary that it spun for domination.

Fredric Jameson in his book, ‘The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act’ describes such problems as one of “transcending the categories into which our existence as individual subjects necessarily locks us and opening up to the radically distinct transindividual perspectives of collective life or historical process.”

Those who deem that can take Muslim societies out of the current morass by dovetailing Islam with liberalism posit a simple solution for a very complex phenomenon with diverse manifestations at multiple cultural and social locations. Zaheer Kazmi from Oxford University in his recent article ‘Liberal Islam is not the answer to Islamic State’ (Prospect August 22, 2016) rejects attempts to fuse Islam and modern liberalism because these “represent little more than the ghost of a renaissance”. He thinks that “Muslim liberals tend to prescribe modern answers to postmodern questions.”

The form of militant Islamism that we are witnessing today does not stem from a dead past or imagined golden period of Islam, rather it is very much a product of modernity. One of the outcomes of movements like Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Isis is that they have challenged traditional Islam, which has succeeded to sustain itself against the onslaught of modernity.

In this regard Western liberalism and Islamism seem to be strange bedfellows which challenge traditional Islam and create ruptures in its continuity. By destroying the basis of traditional Islam and its spiritual manifestations and authority, they clear the way for new or alternate thinking to emerge. That alternate thinking cannot be offered by liberalism. Zaheer Kazmi is of the opinion that “the deeper problem is that Muslim liberals have yet to offer a clear alternative to both Islamist militancy and western secularism.”

Among the competing narratives about Islam, militant Islamism has assumed the role of destroyer. However, the creator of a new order of things in the wake of such destruction is marked by absence in Islamdom. Here we are witnessing a divorce between the destroyer and creator. This situation is contrary to what happened in the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions in which the destroyers of the old system laid the foundation for a new system.

Traditional Islam being pushed back will create a vacuum within the Islamic world if the intellectual class in Muslim societies remain poor in thought. Then that space will turn into an abyss of nihilism where anarchy will prevail. New ways of thinking are needed and, to bring about change in self and society, there is a dire need to intervene in every site of human life.

These sites range from state, religion, poetry, piety, hermeneutics, attire, morality to architecture, literature, women and aesthetics. In order to create a new self and society, the Muslim intelligentsia have to engage with the world imaginatively – not imitatively. In order to find new ways, it is imperative to muster courage to diverge from the versions espoused by liberals and Islamists.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.

Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

Aziz Ali Dad, "Imitation and limitations of liberalism," The News. 2016-09-07.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Al-Qaeda , Muslim societies , World war II , Taliban , Militancy , Democracy , Terrorism , Allama Iqbal , Francis Fukuyama , Pakistan , Afghanistan