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The crises of a liberal ideology

In an opinion piece published in The News on March 16, ‘The Crisis of an Ideology’, Afiya Shehrbano criticises a particular brand of scholarship, mislabelled as ‘postmodernist’, for adopting a stance that essentially sides with the Council of Islamic Ideology’s recent pronouncements.

The author calls upon people like me, whose work has been cited as examples of such a brand of critical scholarship, to celebrate and own the defeat of the “modernist, liberal” viewpoint that the recent pronouncements of the CII represent. Not only does this article grossly misrepresent my positions, it also provides a representative example of the multiple intellectual and political crises of the liberal viewpoint in Pakistan.

There are longstanding criticisms of political liberalism in the ‘west’. A broad range of leftist scholars critique political liberalism for masking existing power imbalances in society and legitimating the status quo through the rhetoric of democracy, fundamental rights and rule of law. The validity of such critique aside, political liberalism can nonetheless be credited with espousing an aspiration of equality, if only at a formal level. Pakistani liberalism, on the other hand, has no such compunctions. It is blatantly elitist in its ethos and politics.

Liberalism in Pakistan appears to revolve primarily around one issue, that of religion. The liberal agenda centres exclusively on efforts at secularising the state and its law, and excising religion from the public domain. As such, it is preoccupied with discrimination on the bases of gender and religion which are seen exclusively as the result of the Islamisation of law and state policy. While there are legitimate concerns with Islamisation, the exclusive focus on religion leads to two major issues.

First, Pakistani liberals appear to inhabit a black-and-white universe in which every issue and perspective is looked at in a liberal/illiberal binary. Hence, Afiya Shehrbano has no difficulty pontificating in the manner of a now-classic Bushism: ‘either you are with us or against us.’ Not only does she paint with one brush the diverse critiques of liberalism adopted by the scholars she lines up for her firing squad, she has no hesitation in assigning us the membership of the JUI-F. In this liberal worldview, all those who criticise the narrowness of the liberal outlook or programme, whether it is from the right or the left of the political spectrum, are to be treated with the same self-righteous disdain.

There is, however, a much more significant problem with Pakistani liberalism which accounts for its historic as well as continuing failure. With its overwhelming focus on religion, Pakistani liberalism exists in oblivion of other axes of structural discrimination – along the lines of class and socio-economic status – which are often much more significant and have historically been the deeper causes that manifest in gender and religious discrimination. As a consequence of this blinkered outlook, Pakistani liberalism has a very limited political programme. Beyond excising religion from law and statecraft, it has nothing to offer.

Hence, Pakistani liberals have nothing to say about access to clean drinking water, basic health and education. Pakistani liberals have no meaningful positions on land reforms and tenants’ rights, or the workplace conditions of industrial labour. Pakistani liberalism is, by and large, the preserve of rather narrow urban elites that have only tenuous encounters with the classes for whom roti, kapra and makan are real issue. These others are known only as drivers, maids, security guards, or as the recipients of sympathy and charity after famines, floods and earthquakes.

Take the issue of child marriage, for example. While Pakistani liberals are rightly up in arms against the misogynistic pronouncements of the CII on this subject, child marriages have been fairly common in Pakistan’s lower classes for a long time. Whereas Afiya Shehrbano disingenuously suggests that an article by my former colleague Sadaf Aziz is somewhat responsible for the recent CII recommendation for undoing a minimum legal age for marriage, Aziz’s argument in fact is that we need to address such an issue of grave injustice through means other than a formal legal bar against the practice because such bans do not work.

What Sadaf Aziz, I and others have argued for is expanding the spaces for women to exercise choice and agency by relying on alternate interpretations available within the Islamic tradition. While this is likely to be a challenging discursive enterprise, the multiplicy and available heterogeneity of Islamic jurisprudence does provide opportunities for challenging the doctrinal positions of the kind that the CII is currently espousing.

Attempts to criminalise child marriages have predated Pakistan and have been on the statute books since the passing of the Child Marriage Restraint Act by the colonial government in 1929. The existence of such formal law shares space with the far more pressing realities of urban and rural poverty and the legitimating idioms that naturalise misogyny in culture and religion. Once the CII’s attention-seeking behaviour fades into the dustbin of history – hopefully rather quickly – Pakistani liberals will move on to the next issue. Child marriages and people’s ground reality of seeking to merge their material circumstances with the dictates of official and unofficial Islamic norms and practice will continue.

Afiya Shehrbano can ignore all that with her rhetoric against Islam, but then that leaves her with little capacity to understand the ways in which patriarchal norms and state practice operate often through the medium of seemingly neutral law and rights.

Take the issue of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases as another example that highlights the liberals’ blind spots. While Pakistani liberals rightly assailed the nonsensical position adopted by the CII, which quite expectedly is already receding fast into irrelevance, gender discrimination will remain a structural feature of Pakistan’s criminal justice system. The absence of even basic access to criminal process, let alone sophisticated DNA testing, has been a defining characteristic of rape cases.

More broadly, that Pakistan’s criminal justice system replicates and reinforces social hierarchies, embedded power relations and economic disadvantage is widely known. And yet, Pakistani liberalism has no history of meaningful political action in the domain of criminal justice beyond campaigns for the repeal of Islamisation era laws and the promulgation of legislation that earns points for Cedaw compliance.

Pakistani liberalism has long been a victim of its own elitism and limited vision. It has little relevance to the struggles in the broader society for which it claims to speak. And yet, it is often one of the loudest voices on the political scene along with its arch-nemeses. The reality is that Pakistani liberalism needs its Maulana Sheranis to justify its prominence, as much as they need this brand of liberalism. Both feed off each other and in the process bolster their respective constituencies.

The CII has always been an irrelevant institution. It was created with the specific design of making recommendations that no one need pay any attention to. It was overshadowed by a Federal Shariat Court which had real power; now even that has effectively become a defunct institution.

In the good days, appointments to the CII, especially that of chairmen, were made with the specific mandate of ensuring that the CII remained out of the limelight. In bad times, CII appointments were used as means to pacify minor but troublesome coalition partners such as the JUI-F with the control of an insignificant institution and ministerial status.

But reading the English language press in Pakistan you would be forgiven for thinking that the CII is amongst the most relevant institutional spaces in Pakistan today, even if perversely, and Maulana Sherani amongst the most notable Islamic intellects of our time.

The writer is a lecturer of law at the College of Law, AustralianNational University. Email: moeen.cheema@anu.edu.au

Moeen Cheema, "The crises of a liberal ideology," The News. 2014-03-22.
Keywords: Social issues , Economic issues , Fundamental rights , Religious issues , Land reforms , Political aspects , Liberalism theology , National issues , Criminal law , Child Marriage , Islamic laws , Judiciary-Pakistan , Democracy , Politics , Crimes , Sadaf Aziz , Pakistan , JUIF , CII , DNA