I was motivated to write this post after listening to Imran Khan’s interview on BBC Urdu:
In this interview, Khan claims (3:10 onwards): “I am a liberal, was always a liberal.”
This then reminds me of the million dollar question: If Imran Khan is a liberal, how do I classify myself? Or how do I classify LUBP as compared to, for example, Ejaz Haider, Najam Sethi, Shireen Mazari and other seemingly liberal persons?
There has been a consistent pressure on LUBP for quite some time to foster unity with other Pakistani liberals who, it has been claimed, are very few in a crowd of millions of Mumtaz Qadri supporters, Malik Ishaq lovers and Ludhianvi worshippers. This proposed project is lovingly described as “Unity of Liberals” or “Ittehad bain al liberaleen” by a fellow LUBP editor.
Of course, it depends on how we define liberal: people can be socially liberal (i.e., liberal in their personal lifestyle), pro-democracy, anti-sectarian but foreign policy hawks, ethnocentric nationalists, class-oriented or mere narcissists.
Let’s consider a recent example to understand the complexity of the Unity of Liberals project. In recent past, we witnessed an interesting match of allegations and counter-allegations between the pro-Jinnah Institute (JI) report liberals and those liberals who thought the report uncritically recycled and reinforced the Deep State’s (pro-Taliban) approach towards Afghanistan.
While similar divisions were obvious in the aftermath of Salmaan Taseer’s murder and Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder, nothing else has exposed the unrealistic nature of the proposed unity of liberals more than the JI-USIP report. Clearly, the pro-military establishment narrative liberals may not be equated with independent liberals who remain pro-politician, pro-democracy and pro-human rights instead of a selective approach to these issues. (For example, see Dr. Taqi’s article on silence of liberal lambs on misrepresentation of Shia genocide.)
Apparently both groups (pro-USIP-JI report and anti-report) would self-describe themselves as socially liberal, anti-sectarian and pro-democracy. Both of them, in the main, seem to be progressive in their personal lifestyle and views on certain issues (e.g., women’s rights, moderate interpretation of Islam etc). However, the key distinction point is political liberalism, which in Pakistan’s context may be understood as actual commitment to the empowerment and political enfranchisement of the masses as opposed to military establishment’s domination.
For example, in recent years, it is the political liberals of the PPP, ANP, MQM, Baloch nationalists etc, who have paid and are still paying the price of their commitment to liberal values (equality of diverse ethnic and religious groups, progressive views on Islam, support for democracy etc), while many apolitical liberals remain silent spectators or complicit to the military state’s narratives (e.g., lopsided views on corruption, silence on global Jihad Enterprise agenda, silence on or misrepresentation of Shia genocide etc) . It is a fact that while right wing products of the Deep State’s Jihad Enterprise were busy in slaughtering Benazir Bhutto, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Mir Nawaz Khan and other PPP leaders and workers, several urban liberals (many of them in the English media) were busy in blaming the victim, i.e., Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP for these murders. Same is true for ANP whose leader Asfandyar Wali Khan is frequently ridiculed and blamed by the pro-establishment liberals on the murder of ANP leaders by jihadi proxies of the Deep State.
Therefore, it is important to understand that those “liberals” who justify or reinforce the killers’ narratives cannot and must not be united with those liberals who are being massacred and then blamed for their own murder.
In a previous article, I have argued that it is inaccurate to lump all Pakistani liberals into one category. Indeed it is naive to conflate those with a “social liberal life style” (English speaking, whisky drinking, (selective) human rights sloganeering, fashionable liberals) with political liberals (i.e., those who are currently being massacred by the military state and its various proxies because of their commitment to democracy, human rights, equality and liberty).
It is important to acknowledge here that Pakistan’s English press is as pro-military establishment as is the Urdu language media. It’s only the difference in tactic, vocabulary and style which distinguishes one from the other, otherwise, barring a few exceptions, both segments of Pakistani media remain almost completely silent on mass murders of the Baloch, Pashtuns and and Shia Muslims in general by the military state and its various proxy organisations (e.g., Taliban, Sipah Sahaba, LeT, JeM). See for example, how Pakistan’s English speaking urban liberals reacted to the release of an ASWJ-LeJ terrorist Malik Ishaq Deobandi. Instead of blaming the ISI-backed Supreme Court, they conveniently blamed the police and the prosecution. And all this after Malik Ishaq had publicly boasted about his killings but which was “insufficient evidence” for our Supreme Court!” A similar silence by right-wingers and lifestyle liberals was seen on police officer Ajmeer Shah’s murder in Risalpur and journalist Javid Naseer Rind’s murder in Khuzdar by the proxies of the Deep State.
Another example is how certain liberals, many of them directly or indirectly affiliated with Najam Sethi or Sherry Rehman (known on Twitter as Lashkar-e-Sethi or Lashkar-e-Sherry), have been seen promoting notorious pro-Taliban entities as progressive or anti-establishment. In recent moths, thugs such as Hamid Mir, Tahir Ashrafi Deobandi and Ahmed Ludhianvi Deobandi have been presented by certain “liberals” as prophets of peace and tolerance. Such discourse in effect hurts the prospects of a liberal and tolerant Pakistan and also serves as deceiving ordinary public and obfuscating the challenges facing Pakistani society.
Here is another example of how a lifestyle liberal journalist, Najam Sethi, blames Westminster style democracy for corruption in Pakistan.
“the idea of “revolution, people’s power and radical change” is in the air even in Pakistan. But the growing tragedy is that this sentiment is anti-democracy, anti-secularism, anti-liberalism and anti-pluralism because the system of political democracy a la Westminster has only served to sustain a game of musical chairs for corrupt politicians and grasping soldiers who have been living off economic rents and military handouts from the United States in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives in South and West Asia. Pakistani democracy is characterized by 3 Ds: dynastic, dysfunctional and discredited.”
Here Mr. Sethi conveniently ignores and omits the fact that a particular institution has systematically ensured that democracy in Pakistan remains dysfunctional and discredited and that the corrupt politician mantra remains prevalent. Mr. Sethi’s anti-politicians stance may be better contextualized by the fact that he was a minister in Farooq Leghari’s interim cabinet after Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s elected government was dismissed for the second time by the clauses inserted by a military dictator; and which have now been removed by the current PPP elected government via the 18th Amendment.
In the light of the above, Imran Khan’s claim to liberalism is as credible as are similar claims by other social liberal affiliates (Lashkar-e-Sethi) of the military establishment. Further, any proposals of ‘tribal unity’ between lifestyle liberals and political liberals must be seen as either naive or motivated by a sinister agenda to censor and moderate political liberal voices.