Obituary of liberal-secularism in Pakistan – by Ayesha Siddiqa

by admin


The government seems inclined to launch a countrywide de-radicalisation campaign. Seemingly, the inspiration was an army-organised seminar in Swat to showcase its de-radicalisation campaignfor which Rs6 million were sought from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government. The event brought together military men, politicians, journalists and academics to ponder over ways to de-radicalise the country.

But this may be too little, too late, as liberal-secularism is almost dead. Radicalism is going to be the future of a country where the religious and political right are increasingly gaining strength and followers. It’s the emerging culture in which the battle-lines will be drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’ on the basis of religion and a specific interpretation of religion. While post-modernist academics have infested national and international universities and are trying to popularise the radical right-wing narrative as representing the people’s popular instinct, the fact is that these academics base their analysis on elite ethnographies. Moreover, they forget that radical views acquire the arrogance of divine sanction and thus are difficult to counter.

Besides the religious parties, radicalism is now nested in all mainstream political parties such as the PPP, all versions of the PML and the MQM as well. The intellectual base of some of the top leaders of all political parties is the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). They might have shed the affiliation but not the thoughts. Similarly, we have a significant portion of the media which is affiliated or sympathetic with the religious right. To top it all, the fashionable post-modernist narrative is inherently right-wing. The Pakistani post-modernist academics are in the process of creating a narrative that will eventually replace any existing liberal narrative which, in any case, is scant.

The issue here is not of militancy but radicalism. While militancy translates into violence against pockets of people, radicalism destroys a society internally. It forces people to think of those who do not subscribe to their religious interpretation as being the ‘other’, which results in segregation and ‘ghettoisation’ of a society. While we remember Ziaul Haq’s dark era, we forget how radicalism spread in the country during the 1990s as a social movement denoted by organisations such as Tableeghi Jamaat and al Huda. Moreover, while the so-called liberals were happy that the Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties did not gain much in the elections, the influence of the religious right sneaked into the society at all levels. Today, even the begums of elite families are connected with al Huda-type movements. For example, the Leghari household reportedly invites al Huda to hold an annual milad ceremony for the wives of their political workers. How much more elite and fashionable could this get?

Nevertheless, it’s only the liberals who are reputed to be elite mainly due to their failure to connect with people across the socio-economic spectrum or offer a pluralistic political, social and religious narrative. The protest of the begums of Islamabad in 2008 against the going-on in Lal Masjid is a case in point. Another problem is that the liberals are ill-equipped to deal with religion in a religious ideological state. As a resultant, they can’t gather people behind them with the same force as the radicals. Sadly, the liberal elements have tried hiding behind the argument that radicalism has no future due to the preponderance of the Sufi culture without understanding that the essence of Sufism is against all forms of injustice and not just religious bigotry. Nor do people realise that the machinery that operates Sufi culture now suffers from major problems and lacks an alternative to counter the post-modernist radical narrative.

But can we even imagine fighting radicalism on the basis of a flawed historical narrative? Reportedly, some senior retired military officers at the Swat seminar were indignant about the idea of recognising that they had a hand in creating the jihadi Frankenstein. The alphabet of terrorism in South Asia starts with Pakistan fighting someone else’s war during the 1980s at its own expense. Dictator Zia opened the doors to Afghan refugees, weapons, drugs, jihadis and all sorts of intelligence agencies. The jihadi proxies were never discarded, not even now. Can de-radicalisation work when jihadi outfits and the support structure remains intact? Who says that hundreds of murders later leaders like Malik Ishaq, Masood Azhar, Hafiz Saeed and others will change?

And can radicalisation be countered without recognising that we can’t ‘have our cake and eat it too?’

Perhaps we don’t realise that the world is getting ready to acceptreligious radicalism as a reality in the Muslim world. The primary lesson drawn from the soft uprising in the Arab world or the recentpolitical development in countries like Turkey goes to show that democracy will pave the way for Islamists and not those defined in western terms as liberal.

A few months ago, a visiting American academic reputed as a South Asia expert, was probing for a right-wing political leader or party that could get other right-wingers to follow him. During a conversation with a European diplomat, it transpired that his country sought to cooperate with Islamists in the Arab world, especially those who are willing to coexist with the international community. Bottom line: Islamists can do almost whatever they want in their country as long as they stay away from violence and the developed world.

Liberalism seems to have failed in the Muslim world and is taking down secularism with it. There are two basic reasons for this. First, the 20th century Muslim world is not largely known for liberalism, including Turkey which had secularism but not liberalism. It is important to note that liberalism is a combination of social, political and ideological plurality. Secularism is not supposed to negate faith but allow for a pluralistic society where all faiths can grow without any pressure from the state. Anti-mullahism does not automatically translate into liberalism until it is accompanied by political liberalism as well. The Turkish ruling elite, which partnered with military-authoritarianism, caused the frustration that led to the rise of the AKP (Adalet Ve Kalkinma Partisi — or Party for Justice and Progress). This also means that the intensity of Islamism will vary from state to state. While in some countries Islamism may support liberalism, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and others, it may eliminate it. For those that underestimate the ideological power of the ahle Hadith and Deobandi militant outfits, their real nuisance lies in converting people to the idea that a Muslim society’s main task is to prepare for a never-ending conflict with the world and convert their own and other societies to a lifestyle they believe has been ordained by God. The formula is not liberal at all because it does not even allow for multiple interpretations of the holy text, leave alone other faiths.

But the second reason that the world may eventually come to terms with Islamism is due to the growth of scholars in western universities in particular, who are shaping the academic understanding of the Muslim world in the West in a certain way. These scholars, mostly anthropologists, present Islamism as a critical part of the local culture, which often leads to the conclusion that liberalism is a cultural anomaly. In forcing their affected conclusions, these scholars brutally misconstrue theoretical concepts to fit their conclusions. Scholars of Pakistani origin, for instance, have tried to tailor the concept of secularisation, agency and democratic debate as if to prove rabid Islamism was a normal thing in a society that was once known for cultural and religious pluralism. Then there are others who present madrassas like Jamia Hafsa and others as normal entities. There is no regard in this discourse for historical realities such as the close bond between state and non-state Islamists to serve the state’s interests, which has resulted in strengthening the Islamists.

While the liberal Muslim tradition got pushed back due to several reasons that cannot be discussed in this limited space, the rabid narrative got popularised because of massive financial and political support from Saudi Arabia, Libya, the Gulf States and Iran. Indeed, a lot of the Islamic centres in the West or Islamic studies programmes get funding from the above-mentioned states. Not to mention, the damage done by security studies to the study of Muslim societies. In an urge to create workable policy options, a security study tends to narrowly compartmentalise situations and characters. It means that entities like the Lashkar-e-Taiba or other militant outfits are presented as normal and part of indigenous growth. One way to stop this development is for the liberal discourse to base its argument on the liberal Islamic tradition. Liberalism is not foreign to Islam. People would benefit a lot if they went through the works of scholars like Abdullahi An’Naeem, Khalid Abul Fazl and others to understand that a peculiar kind of Islamism may not represent Islam.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 21 and 28, 2011.

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