Shrinking space for Liberals

Shrinking space for Liberals

The ideological terrain in Pakistan is complex, contradictory and multifarious. There is a wide array of competing ideologies vying for supremacy because Pakistani society is divided along the many axes of ethnicity, sect, caste, class and religion. The question regarding the erosion of progressive or liberal space in Pakistan is not possible to address without examining the political vocabulary which is currently steeped in confusion.

The terms that are used frequently in Pakistan, such as ‘liberal’, ‘leftist’, ‘socialist’, ‘right-wing’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘conservative’, seem to have undergone enormous transformation in our historical context leading to people often talking at cross-purposes or failing to understand one another’s definition of the terms of the discourse.

It is necessary, therefore, to clarify what is meant when we use these terms in advocating a particular point of view. In the past, the term ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ were used respectively to denote pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist ideological mooring. The term ‘right-wing’ referred not just to the religious right but also to the secular right, that is, those who believed in secularism as well as capitalism. The ‘left-wing’ was assumed to be secular by definition as its association with socialist ideology meant that religion was to be a private matter of the individual. The term ‘conservative’ was also used mostly for pro-capitalist thinkers whether religious or secular because it meant ‘those who wanted to conserve or maintain the status quo of power’. The term ‘liberal’ was abhorred by most socialists and left-wing thinkers because liberalism was closely associated with capitalism and was often believed to be the outer face of deep-rooted conservatism.

In Pakistani public parlance these terms have acquired a different meaning which leads to misunderstandings and confusion. The term ‘liberal’ seems to have become positive and is preferred by those who believe themselves to be progressive. It is usually seen as the antithesis of religious conservatism and fundamentalism. The term ‘right-wing’ appears now to be reserved for only the religious right and not the political or economic right. Those who believe in a liberal state are now regarded as ‘left-wing’ unlike the past when the liberal democratic state was seen as a capitalist state, one that was opposed to a socialist state. The word ‘conservative’ is also now reserved for religious ideology and economic and political conservatism are seldom discussed.

The intellectual confusion, reflected in contemporary political vocabulary, has its origins in our unique history. There are three main sources of this confusion: 1) frequent military intervention; 2) The state-led drift towards a particular brand of religion as the only ‘true’ interpretation, and 3) the decline of socialist and left-wing ideology along with the rise of neo-liberalism. I will discuss each of these reasons separately.

Military Intervention

The military intervention in Pakistan led to the re-definition and re-formulation of terminology for political gains. Military rule is by definition illiberal. Liberal parliamentary democracy is based on the idea of people’s participation in the political affairs of the country through their elected representatives. The rule of one man is antithetical to the Rule of Law which is believed to reflect the general will. Nevertheless, there is a tendency among liberals to regard both Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf as liberal dictators (another oxymoron) because both men were ‘liberal’ in terms of culture and personal lifestyle. It took some NGOs, donors and liberals a long time to realise that military dictatorship cannot possibly be liberal simply because it is opposed to religious fundamentalism.

The hallmark of a liberal democratic state is the existence of a social contract, representative assemblies, an independent judiciary, Rule of Law along with accountability, transparency and justice, an emphasis on equality, liberty and human rights. The form of liberal democracy consists of elections, voting, representative assemblies, a cabinet, judiciary and so on. The substance comprises equality, justice, liberty and the enjoyment of fundamental economic and political rights by the majority of the people.

Military dictators have often destroyed both the form and substance of liberal democracy, while elected governments have maintained the form but often ignored the substance. For example, the propensity of the leading political parties to insert one religion into the constitution and make laws based on it has violated the principle of equality for all citizens. The parties that claim to be liberal and secular are as guilty of such acts as the ones that are considered conservative or religious. The PML-N tried to insert the Shariat Bill (15th Amendment) into the constitution while the PPP made one religion the state religion and passed the Second Amendment defining who is or is not a Muslim and declared the Ahmadis non-Muslims.

 The religious parties and their state supporters came to be known as the ‘right-wing’ and liberals opposed to a religion-based state came to be known as the ‘left-wing’.

Equality, promised in Article 25 of fundamental rights, was violated in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) struck between a dictator and the PPP. Governor’s rule, an undemocratic measure, was resorted to by both the PML-N and the PPP during their previous tenures. The examples are too numerous for this short piece, suffice it to say that it was not only the dictators who negated democracy, the political class has contributed its own share in the destruction of democratic liberalism.

Nevertheless, it was virtually impossible to use the freedom of opinion to criticise the PPP during its last tenure. Many a liberal was incensed at any critique for fear that the army would take over. The liberal freedom to criticise the government of the day was negated by liberals themselves. Liberal confusion was rampant in the case of the NRO. I remember debating the issue with many liberals, almost all of whom took the position that the judges, and particularly the chief justice, should not be restored.

It seemed that even liberals themselves were not aware that they were upholding a dictator’s illegal and unconstitutional action by opposing its reversal. In their personal dislike of the former CJ, they were willing to overlook the principle that a COAS has not been authorised to either remove or appoint judges, just as it is not the right of the COAS to remove or install prime ministers or elected representatives.

One can cite more evidence for this argument; however space constraints dictate that some conclusion be drawn: military interventions created ideological confusion so that even the liberalism of liberals became distorted.

State-led drift toward fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalism, the idea that there is only one true religious belief which should be imposed upon everyone at gunpoint if necessary, was another reason that political discourse in Pakistan was mutilated. This process began before partition but intensified during military rule. A particular brand of religion was used by those in power to such an extent that liberalism was reduced to opposing religion. And this meant that even if all the other principles of the liberal state were violated, undemocratic steps should be supported as long as they are opposed to religion. This was the basis of the liberal support for the modern-looking Musharraf.

The religious parties and their state supporters came to be known as the ‘right-wing’ and liberals opposed to a religion-based state came to be known as the ‘left-wing’. There was nothing left-wing about such liberals as they totally supported the capitalist state and its exploitation. The secular right-wing forces such as the ANP and MQM were often regarded as left-wing. In the absence of genuine left-wing politics, the PPP, MQM and ANP came to be associated with the left-wing, even though all three supported privatisation, the hallmark of global capitalist policies. The only left-wing party in the old sense of the term is the relatively new Awami Workers Party which has yet to make a mark on the national stage.

The conclusion that may be drawn in this section is that the rise of religious ideology led to liberalism being defined narrowly as the opposition to state religion.

Decline of socialism, rise of neo-liberalism

The third most important factor responsible for discursive confusion is the retreat of socialist politics and the rise of the ideologies of neo-liberalism -- privatisation, liberalisation and de-regulation. With liberals in Pakistan positioning themselves as the opponents of state-led, literalist and imposed religion to the exclusion of any engagement with the erosion of economic and political rights, neo-liberalism remains largely unchallenged.

While the focus of liberals remains on fundamentalist agendas threatening the state, there is virtual silence over the neo-liberal stress on the de-regulation of the labour sector resulting in massive informalisation of labour coupled with the decline of the economic rights of women, peasants and workers. The vigorous privatisation drive of the current government threatens to increase unemployment with large-scale layoffs in an expanding informal economy. Only the Awami Workers Party challenges neo-liberal economics and rampant privatisation. All the mainstream parties remain wedded to the idea of privatisation which stems from the dominant global ideology of the ‘free market economy’.

Even the socialist parties seldom argue that liberal democracy conceals and masks class privilege under the guise of equal representation. The significant perks and privileges enjoyed by the ruling classes of Pakistan in representative assemblies have been pointed out by PILDAT and Transparency International. They pay few taxes, engage in unbridled corruption and seem to be above the law when it comes to accountability and transparency. The narrative on public morality has been ceded to the religious and conservative parties which continually point out such flaws.

Another discourse where space has been ceded to the religious parties is anti-imperialism. In the past, the socialist and left-wing parties used to criticise imperialism and colonialism. However, in today’s Pakistan there seems to be a deafening silence over the Euro-American enterprise of conquest in search of oil, gas and other resources. Imperial atrocities in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the renditions for torture, the erosion of civil rights within the colonising countries, the racist and xenophobic representations of all Muslims as terrorists while ignoring their own state terrorism, have been subjected to critique and condemnation even within the US and Europe. The religious parties have reduced this critique to knee-jerk anti-Americanism instead of a serious and informed understanding of the way in which capitalism erodes all morality, vitiates all human rights principles and violates all international norms in its search for markets and materials.


We can now provide some tentative answers for the question: why has the space for liberals shrunk in countries like Pakistan? The answer lies in the intellectual and ideological confusion that bedevils liberal discourses.

Firstly, liberalism is the political face of conservative politics. Liberal states conceal and mask the inequalities and hierarchies of a class society which is why those at the bottom of the hierarchy fail to support liberalism.

Second, liberals have positioned themselves narrowly as merely those who oppose a religion-based state. In this endeavour, they have occasionally supported military dictators as long as those dictators were against an imposed religion. This process entailed the destruction of liberal democracy itself but the contradiction was seldom perceived.

Third, liberals have failed to challenge neo-liberal policies that play havoc with the lives of workers, women and peasants. The singular focus on challenging dominant national narratives, led to the failure to question the dominant global ideologies that seek to re-colonise the globe economically.

Fourth, liberals have misplaced their bleeding hearts! The repression and atrocities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which led to the murder of millions have not received the kind of sustained criticism which is directed towards religious oppression.

It can be argued that the decline of the politics of the left, the rightward shift of all the major political parties, and the narrow focus of liberal critique are the main factors implicated in the shrinking space of progressive politics. In short, most liberals and progressives are themselves responsible for abandoning their own moral and political positions and thus losing ground to religious zealots.

Shrinking space for Liberals