There are two broad-brush conventional opinions about knowledge and philosophy in Pakistan. One estimates that the majority of Pakistanis are ‘jaahil’ or semi-educated and that they are too literal, read the wrong books and are easily misled. Therefore, they are all considered to be cultural and religious bigots.
The other school insists that the minority of English speaking, Western-educated-return Pakistanis are all ‘liberals’ and that they are debauched and ignorant about Pakistan and contemptuous of its culture and religion.
The former are considered to be good Muslim patriots unfairly persecuted by the imperialist West. The latter are painted as permanent sold-out secular collaborators of the West. The only neutral exceptions are of course those who use such categories in their analyses of Pakistani society.
These professional ‘analysts’ and experts opine with such incredible confidence and snappy witticism that readers are convinced they have unique ‘clarity’ and ‘insight’. These multi-disciplinary, daily/weekly experts have become the literal Pied Pipers of the dumbing down of concepts and theories into digestible tit-bits, which can be randomly (and mostly, inaccurately) applied to any event of the week.
The media – mainstream and social – has become the primary source of education, especially political education in the new millennium. It even offers to substitute books and academic work. Is this a good thing?
Any expansion of accessible sources of information is a positive step but the dependency on TV, internet and the news press for learning political theory, sociological analysis or economics can be incredibly misleading, very limiting and tightly controlled. This is despite the impression that it’s very ‘democratic’.
Take for example, the recent trend of literature festivals in Pakistan. Rather than offering a forum for academic or literary debate, they have simply become new sites for intellectual upward social mobility. The littérateur-celebrity, which now includes moderators too, dominates actual content or relevance of the scholarship. Some defend these chattering talk-shops as ‘at least something’ and open to ‘the masses’ but there are two serious drawbacks.
First, many of the themes of these intellectual posturing activities are far more politically diluted than other small-scale academic or activist seminars. This is because there is no ideological agenda to the broad-based public literature festival and due to the apolitical nature of the organisers and a corporate-style sponsorship. This necessarily drives the content and outcomes.
Second, because the audience is diverse, it is assumed that the discussion, vocabulary and concepts should be easily accessible and hold appeal. Since the topics are rainbow variety wide and panels are sprinkled with celebrities, the ‘literature’ on offer is rarely challenged. Panellists get away with absolute nonsense.
This process delinks learning from conceptual sources or theory, which means it just becomes a limiting, experiential, anecdotal or opinion-based ‘analysis’ – also known as infotainment. This disconnect is dangerously anti-intellectual and misleading for any social, scientific or literary relevance while masquerading as that.
One example of the results of this is how the free-floating term ‘liberal’ in Pakistan has become collateral damage to the casualisation of conceptual thinking. Some Pakistani social scientists and those who are familiar with the political theory of liberalism have distinguished between a certain lifestyle that is associated with being a ‘liberal’ as opposed to progressive political thinkers and those who subscribe to the classical roots of liberal philosophy. But it’s not just the colloquial use of the term that has led to an overall foggy understanding.
Diasporic Pakistani scholars and academics at Anglo-US universities have been opportunistic and promoted confusion regarding some imagined community called ‘liberal’ Pakistanis. For example, some of them have spitefully invented the term ‘liberal fundamentalism’ after arguing that there is no such thing as religious fundamentalism.
Others have more wilfully and intellectually dishonestly compounded the term ‘liberal-secular’ with reference to Pakistan and this has not been challenged. This, despite the fact that in Pakistan, one can safely be a liberal without being a secularist (and most are), and many Baloch and Pakhtuns (just as examples and regardless of their personal beliefs) may be secular in their political approach without any propensity towards liberalism.
Amazingly, some Oxbridge professors (like Fazl ur Rahman) have even used the term ‘liberals’ interchangeably with and referred to them as “NGO-types”. In any case, the role of these scholars and their populist works in the West about Pakistan and Islam has enabled several damaging myths to be perpetuated.
These include the misleading association and depiction of liberal politics as elitist, anti-Islam and pro-drone. This is uncorroborated drivel. The privilege of liberal thinking and aspirations is not limited and cuts across all classes, genders and provinces of Pakistan.
Second, those who would classify themselves as Islamists or sympathetic to Islamist politics do not reject liberal options wholesale. They are very partial to liberal economics, consumerism, technology, travel, freedoms (for men, at least) and certainly, take full advantages of liberal democracy – often to suppress or deny the rights of other unequals such as women and religious minorities.
Critically, it is important for commentators to realise that the foundational feature of political liberalism is rooted in capitalist economics and the privileging of business or corporate interests over that of communitarian ideals.
Historically, liberalism is also associated with resistance to intrusive government and counterrevolutionary impulses. But, whatever its history, roots and originary impulses, there is no one homogenous interpretation or application of ‘liberal’ ideals, politics or economics today. Just as democracy, secularism and Islam are all received or resisted in very different ways across societies and cultures, likewise liberalism should also not be presumed to be a constant or the source of – or deliverer from – all ills.
This kind of swag criticism lumps together some undefined community and berates them for their political bias rather than specifying the authors or offering examples of their political shortcomings. Liberal inadequacies in Pakistan should be analysed and critiqued but not as some vaguely perceived lumpen category. This results in the kind of flawed evaluations that argue that the PML-N’s socially progressive legislation should not be trusted because it’s a conservative party passing such ‘liberal’ laws.
It is a direct example of not understanding how neoliberal economic policies cannot thrive in a society that does not offer some freedoms – particularly those that facilitate consumption, spending and growth. Therefore, the casual analyses mentioned above are not just unhelpful and short-sighted conclusions, such observations also dumb down critical thinking in the name of analysis.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: afiyaziayahoo.com