Sunday, February 20, 2011

Between food and opium: What Pakistani liberals fail to understand

This article was first published for The Express Tribune, Pakistan here

There’s something Newtonian about the way Pakistani political discourse is being carried out these days. At one end is the ‘ghairat brigade, with their twisted ideology and their usual diatribe against the liberal fascists – a term which is about as meaningful as a Vegan BigMac.

On the other end are the liberals ( fascist or otherwise) who might not be as reprehensible as their bearded cousins, are equally redundant with their staid arguments, essentially revolving around the ‘Quaid’s vision and his speech to the Constituent Assembly.

Fundamentally, I do not have an issue with the arguments of the liberal camp. In fact, I think they make perfect sense in their arguments. The only issue I have is with their approach. Of late, ongoing debates between the two sides have split along predictable dichotomies like:

religious versus secular,

Jinnah versus Maudoodi,

left versus. right etc.

The vehement arguments of one side are responded to by equally vociferous counter arguments of the other. This has only exacerbated societal tensions.

In fact, by getting sucked into this mud slinging, we have unwittingly fallen into a trap. The liberal’s so called ‘la-deeniyat’ gives the other side fodder for their ‘Islam is in Danger’ claptrap, and their shrill voices further reduce the already shrinking space for an intelligent discussion.

Change the subject: Policy instead of ideology

Instead of opposing each other, let us fashion the debate on our own terms. Instead of talking about ideology, let us talk about policy. Instead of talking about Islam versus secularism, why not talk aboutroti, kapda’and makan’?

Instead of talking about “Pakistan ka matlab kya?” let us ask “Pakistan ka maqsad kya?”.

After all, history has shown that extreme obscurantist ideologies have been used as diversionary tactics when the political class fails to address the basic socio-economic needs of the populace. As they say, if you can’t give the masses food, give them ‘opium’.

The liberal mistake: secularism can’t be imposed

Another fundamental problem in the liberals’ argument is their over emphasis on constitutional amendment as a means to ‘secularising’ Pakistan. Not only do the prospects of such drastic changes in the constitution appear bleak at the moment, but even in the rare case that the liberals are successful, I have my doubts about the efficacy of such a measure. On the contrary, a top to down approach to secularism might backfire and could be viewed as an ‘elite project’ by the masses. The success of a secular state is predicated upon the extent of ‘toleration of plurality’ in society as a whole. Hence I would argue that amending school textbooks instead of the constitution might be more effective in making Pakistan ‘secular’.

As recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have shown us, the only antidote to the coercive power of the state is a sustained non violent campaign spearheaded by the masses, not politicians. Left on their own, elites (whether religious or conservative, uniformed or civilian) everywhere are prone towards furthering their personal agendas. True democracy is never something which is given to the masses; it is a right which the masses give to themselves. The future course of Pakistan depends not so much on the whims of its tiny elite population but the action (or inaction) shown by its millions.


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