Pakistani Liberals Are No Leap of Faith

This beleaguered minority in the country still deserves international support.


This isn’t the best time to be a Pakistani liberal. Opinion polling shows most Pakistanis thinking of America as an enemy, democracy as an unwelcome concept and the imposition of Shariah law as a no-brainer. Meanwhile, recent news out of the country involves the judiciary taking down an elected prime minister and politicians like Imran Khan riding high by invoking anti-imperialist and Islamist ideas, even as an Urdu-language media remains saturated with hyper-nationalism.

Against this backdrop, the world can’t be blamed for regarding the Pakistani liberal as an exotic hothouse flower with no roots in the country’s unforgiving soil. As the United States enters a shaky new period of detente with Pakistan following the reopening last week of supply routes to Afghanistan, it’s fair to ask if these liberals deserve notice at all. Doesn’t it make more sense for the West to instead engage more intensely with the powerful army and assertive hardliners such as Mr. Khan?

The answer is no. It’s always tempting for the West to do business with whoever’s powerful, but this is a recipe for the kind of trouble America right now faces with its troublesome “ally.” Pakistan’s liberals are not only less weak and less of a fringe phenomenon than they’re made out to be, they’re also the only ones who hold out the promise of a better future for their country.

One recurring complaint against liberalism is that though Pakistan regained its democracy four years ago, President Asif Ali Zardari’s civilian government still can’t wrest decision-making away from the military. But no civilian government could realistically be expected to immediately assert its authority over an army that has directly ruled the country for 34 of its 65 years, and continues to command the lion’s share of national resources. As the experiences of Indonesia and Turkey show, only when democracy grows roots do politicians acquire the finesse and self-confidence to take on generals accustomed to command. This takes patience.

More importantly, Pakistani liberals aren’t the rootless creatures of caricature. There may be a few out-of-touch socialites buried in the pages of HELLO! Pakistan, but the country also boasts a robust, homegrown English-speaking elite. Its members represent a collision of Islam and the West that goes back more than 150 years and has given South Asia some of its most gifted writers, lawyers and scientists, including the country’s Shia founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and its only Nobel laureate, the Ahmadiyya physicist Abdus Salam.

Nor are English speakers the only potential constituency for homegrown liberalism. Anyone with a stake in protecting ethnic identity, women’s rights, religious liberty and free speech is threatened by the homogenizing forces of radical Islam and the paranoid security state. These include the ranks of Pashtun poets and Karachi feminists, whose syncretic culture and modern ideas are under threat from radical Islam, as well as Sindhi and Baloch politicians who resent how centralized bureaucratic and military control hollows out federalism.

Some express their liberalism in terms of fealty to Jinnah’s secularism. For others, the struggle takes simpler form: saying goodbye using the traditional Persian “Khuda hafiz” rather than the Arabic “Allah hafiz” or keeping alive the syncretic tradition of worship at the graves of Muslim saints. For others still, such as members of the popular band Beygairat Brigade, it could take the form of biting satire against the status quo.

Perhaps the biggest potential defenders of liberal ideas such as freedom of worship are the minority Shia and other heterodox Muslims. The Ahmadiyya have been under concerted attack since the 1970s, but in recent years radical Sunni violence against the country’s approximately 25-million-strong Shia community has gone from episodic to regular. This year alone, at least 60 Shia from the tiny Hazara community have been slaughtered by Sunni extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. These Muslims’ very existence is threatened if Pakistan stays on its current path of denial and blaming the West for its most serious problems.

Despite this potential, liberal ideas in Pakistan are yet to find an unapologetic political champion. Mr. Zardari’s ruling Pakistan Peoples Party broadly stands for religious tolerance and a peaceful South Asia, but it’s been utterly ineffectual in office. On the PPP’s watch, zealots have murdered the sitting governor of Punjab province and the only Christian cabinet minister. On Wednesday, police in Punjab demolished the minarets of an Ahmadiyya mosque under a harsh law that forbids the heterodox sect from identifying itself as Muslim or using Islamic symbols.

Pakistan may have to wait to find a truly effective liberal party, but in the meantime nothing prevents the international community from supporting the ideas that could make this possible. This means focusing aid on groups and individuals that stand for democracy, free speech, women’s empowerment and the preservation of local cultures. As far as possible, contact with the military should be limited to pressuring it to end support for transnational terrorism, and to educating officers on how more successful Muslim-majority countries have managed to strike an appropriate civil-military balance.

Needless to say, winning the war of ideas in Pakistan won’t be easy. But it’s an uphill struggle, not a lost cause. The alternative, turning to autocrats and demagogues, will only produce more radical Islam and more anti-American rhetoric in what is already known as the most dangerous place on earth.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @dhume01

Courtesy: Wall Street Journal

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Via – Let Us Built Pakistan (LUBP)

Via – Twitter

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