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Anti-heroes of Pakistani liberalism

by Afiya S. Zia, 29 November 2012

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The News (Pakistan), November 28, 2012

A dinner-table conversation on political liberalism seems to have caught the imagination of neophyte activists in Pakistan and trickled its way from drawing rooms to blogs to mainstream papers now. Most read as journeys of political self-discovery rather than intellectual offerings. The ‘analysis’ by these newly-conscientised, English speaking, elite patriots relies on a revisionism of anti-imperial heroism, in the context of the ‘war on terror’. In their criticism of a new nemesis called ‘The Liberals’, these new patriots recast themselves as the radical and authentic alternatives to the fake, traditional or Other Liberals, who are overtly critical of Islamic militancy and, therefore, necessarily pro-imperialist.

These young critics belong to the same social class as the Other Liberal subjects of their critiques and can be defined as the New Liberals or the Not-liberal Liberals. It is not the bourgeois conformity, historical materialism or property base of the Other Liberals that the New Liberals object to. Instead, their anxiety is over the nature, expression and propriety of Other Liberalism. Since none of us, especially diasporic Pakistanis, can escape from ‘complicity’ with materialist imperialism nor from liberal political ideals (such as democracy, freedom of expression, private education), these critics focus instead on an imaginary cultural contest between ‘fake’ and ‘true’ liberalism.

These anti-heroes of Pakistani liberalism belong to a cyber generation, which views politics as performativity. Therefore, they measure liberalism through different forms of media such as imagery, political slogans, press statements, blogs and cultural expressions. Membership into the New Liberal Club depends on one’s blog and Twitter following.

Unlike for the middle class, self-acclaimed ‘liberal’ MQM activist, the cult reference for the young, bourgeois Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) liberal is almost always Edward Said’s Orientalism. By quoting the renowned postcolonial scholar ad nauseum, the bourgeois Not-liberal Liberals betray their inability to distinguish between Said’s radical criticism of imperialist projects from their own Orientalism Lite adaptations. Thus Said’s proposal to break down hegemonistic discourse is in fact restored by such critics. This disservice to Said allows New Liberals to scowl at the Other Liberals’ moral ambivalence over the counter-insurgency in Waziristan and indict them of complicity with US imperialism. You’re either against them (the US) or against us (the not US).

Such an exercise allows the Not-liberal Liberals to represent their own self-avowed ‘true liberalism’ as avant-gardism. Despairing of the simplification of Said and his deeper focus on the institutional responsibility of leftist intellectuals, the Marxist subaltern scholar, Sumit Sarkar, observes that, “Orientalism flourishes at the heart of today’s anti-Orientalist trade.”

The overlap between the old and new anti-imperialist nationalist projects, qualifies this youthful neo-nationalism as conservatism redux. As products of Gen Musharraf’s enlightened moderation regime, this generation was bound to be influenced by supercilious slogans and binaries such as Musharraf’s purport to exile ‘false democrats’ and reward us with ‘true (albeit controlled) democracy’. It’s not just in terms of membership and ideology but even the politics of the Imran Khan tribe truly qualify as ‘Musharraf, Part 2’. History, and therefore, imperialism, began with 9/11 for Khan and his youth following. So, accordingly, the only conflict Pakistan has ever been involved in is the war on terror, while religious violence has been exclusively motivated by imperialist agendas and state terrorism has only ever existed in the form of drone operations. There is nothing new offered here.

Such a narrative does, however, allow all preceding and structural flaws, economic failures, military adventures (including those in East Pakistan, Balochistan and Kargil), religio-nationalism, ethnic strife, jihadi sentiment and outright misogyny, to be erased or blamed exclusively on externalities, colonialism, imperialism and NGOs. There is no doubt that conflict and intervention always exacerbate internal identity politics. The majority of Other Liberals resist both domestic and imperial military adventures. But if the blame continues to be partially and unfairly allocated and correctives selectively implemented, then no amount of purist notions of autonomy and sovereignty are going to resolve our internal strife or bring peace.

It is no coincidence that, despite being the most significant turn in civil-military relations, the Asghar Khan case is being brushed under the collective political carpet. This was true of 1971, the Kargil war, the Munir Report, Balochistan’s disappeared, the OBL raid and the Islamists’ resistance to land reforms. Why are opportunities to follow through tangible and meaningful internal correctives that are very specific to “our context”, dispensed by deflecting blame and fetishising imperialism?

It is simplistic to suggest that it is only the sold-out media, politicians and liberals and not the military-mullah nexus that facilitate imperialist complicity. It is very possible however, that local patriarchal abuses, tribal warfare and Islamist expansionism will normalise in the absence of drones and military operations. Is it not important then that such ‘traditions’ should not be disguised simply as dependent on imperialist interventions?

The danger of valuing anti-imperialist stances as more heroism than activism against native illiberal atrocities is that it privileges some actors over others – true patriots over westernised liberals. The core of neo-nationalist anxiety is limited only to drones and counter-insurgency but such critics are unaffected by neo-liberal economics (of which war is simply one profiteer). They also do not track nascent, local, daily revolution within institutions, struggles for labour/women’s/human rights, aspirations for structural change and social freedoms as expressed by Pakistanis of all classes. To pretend these are western-inspired, foreign-motivated, NGO-funded and imperialist then limits the blame-game and allows deflection of any/all criticism or responsibility off Pakistan’s military or off the ‘original families’ that usurped Pakistan’s resources in 1947, and Islamists who sealed the fate against any class restructuring.

The ascription of all blame to Others underestimates native resistance or reduces deliverance to supposedly oppositional avenues – in our case, Islamic politics. Such religio-nationalism encourages false positives, which imply that there must be alternatives to liberal ideals such as human/women’s/minorities’/working class rights, as defined by Muslim exceptionalism. This deflects the call away from political, legal and economic solutions and focuses instead on performativity such as hijab activism, protests against injured religious sentiment and Islamophobia, and shows of solidarity with global Muslim (not working class) populations. The rehabilitation of primitivism and masculine nationalism renders all those who may be fighting internal colonialisation and conservatism as foreign, detached, and illegitimate, and its supporters as traitors – especially true of women and minorities.

How far can we stretch the metaphor of liberal resistance as ‘imperialism’? When we seek to ‘develop’, educate or ‘civilise’ the native subject to be a peaceful or knowledgeable Muslim, say through madrassa reform, is that a form of liberal imperialism derived from enlightenment principles? Conversely, is the defense of madrassas as a source of religious succour for poor Pakistanis not another form of benevolent neo-orientalism? Are polio vaccines an imperialist project and is it intellectually honest to blame anti-polio resistance on the war on terror when we know that this existed prior to Nato occupation? Are campaigns against domestic violence, female foeticide, polygamy and unequal inheritance part of ‘imperialist feminism’? Are trade unions and the demand for minimum wage, impositions of a liberal-imperial agenda? Are hijab shampoos and Islamic banking viable alternatives to liberal narratives or a form of deceitful neo-orientalism?

As long as imperialism remains a limited reference to US militarism and liberalism is painted as a western aspiration, we cannot do justice to these debates. There are forms of internal colonisation and conservative injustices that need to be held accountable and simultaneously addressed – not masked under imaginaries. Intellectual and political debate is an exciting enterprise, especially with the dearth of local narratives on these themes but to evade the uncomfortable dual nature of atrocities or attribute these to single causatives and canvas singular solutions for ‘true decolonisation’ is to do injustice to all the victims of international and domestic conflict.

The writer Afiya Shehrbano is a sociologist.


The above article from The News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use