Four self-defeating practices of Pakistan’s liberals

Taimur Rahman


Four self-defeating practices of Pakistan liberals that have made them ineffective against extremism.

1) Liberals are unable to develop an awami (popular) culture.

Lets face it, Pakistani liberals mostly come from the elite (with some notable exceptions). At the individual level this is not the problem (I also come from the same elite). The problem is that they also bring that elitist culture into the organisations and movements they create. And this destroys internal democracy and the mass appeal of these organisations.

Take a small example. Although all liberals believe in the equality of languages their class upbringing is such that they actually never learn to read, write, or speak effective Urdu, Punjabi etc. In their everyday life they speak mostly in English. Hence, even their organisational meetings are held in English. Non-English speaking people attend one meeting and decide never to come again. Moreover, only a handful of the liberal leaders are effective mass communicators in Urdu language. If you contrast this to the extremists, none of them can speak anything but local languages.

2) Liberals elevate the principle of individualism to a dogma.

Since liberalism is based on individual liberty, they think that hierarchy is inherently oppressive (somehow class hierarchy is mostly excluded from this criticism of hierarchy). As a result liberals create very loose and undisciplined non-hierarchical organisations where everyone is free to do as they please. The ultimate result of this excess of individualism is that liberals are extremely poor at the basic tools of collective action. Every individual is free to do as they please and there is no over-riding organisational or moral discipline that binds them to a collective strategy. This they imagine is their strength. In fact, it is their single greatest weakness.

When fighting against the ultra-right wing, this lack of organisational cohesion or the complete lack of basic ethos and tools of collective action make them extremely vulnerable to the highly disciplined, hierarchical and tightly organised parties of the right wing. Right-wing parties operate with a military discipline justified by religion. Even the smallest right-wing organisation is a 100 times more effective than liberals because they act with one voice and with one purpose (although that purpose is fascistic).

Liberals, on the other hand, think that obeying commands is itself fascism. They therefore make the mistake of equating any form of hierarchy, discipline and obedience with fascism rather than understanding that it is the political content of a movement that defines it as fascist.

3) Liberals support an apolitical form of politics.

Because nearly all political parties are hierarchical, liberals generally consider political parties to be an anathema to individual freedom. The result is that very few liberals join political parties. Hence, you get the irony that although liberals come from the elite, they are not part of the political elite of the country. They are not the ones making the big political decisions in the country. In fact, liberals are not part of political decision making at any level in the country (media, business, education, judiciary, parliament etc. – none of these are dominated by liberals).

Instead, liberals prefer to create civil society organisations that they call “pressure groups”. These pressure groups are also not mass organisations (like trade unions or peasant organisations). Actually they never muster the kind of numbers that could apply pressure on any government. They are either a small group of like minded friends or a Non-Governmental Organisation. NGOs have mostly replaced the voluntary pressure groups of the 1970s and 1980s. These NGOs have a professional staff that consider their time in these organisations as a salaried staff member would consider any other job. Yes, they all make noises about the commitment of the cause but frankly that’s part of the job description. Its when you talk to them privately that you discover the cynicism with which they treat their work.

Liberals also don’t invite political parties to their protests (although I have seen that political parties are ready to join forces with civil society on many issues). When they do invite them they tell them not to bring their flags or banners or refer to their parties or leaders (that is like telling a political activist to leave his politics at home). That is, they invite them as individuals or what is more truthful they are invited to come under the banner of “civil society” itself. This is what I call “apolitical politics”.

It should be self-evident that if you are not going to join a political party, and you are not going to even invite political parties to your demonstrations, what are you going to achieve in the terms of politics?

4) Conclusion: The main strategy of liberals is to convince the ruling class to become liberal.

And this brings me to my main conclusion. Whereas the European classical liberals mobilised millions against the clerics and nobility of Europe (take the French Revolution), the main strategy of Pakistani liberals is to convince the current elite that they should become liberal. This isn’t of course what they say (because that would be elitist and anti-liberal sounding) but this is in fact what they are doing if you objectively examine their actions. If you think they are aiming to mobilise the masses against the conservative political elite you are barking up the wrong tree (I should know, I’ve barked up that tree long enough).

Liberals are actually terrified of “populism”, which they correctly perceive as a threat to their own class privilege. Hence, they imagine that their best bet is somehow to convince the conservative ruling class to become liberal itself. This is the only strategy that can reconcile their liberal views with their class position.

It is a misunderstanding that NGOs cannot organise big demonstrations in Pakistan. I have seen them organise massive functions by giving funds to mass community based organisations, peasant organisations, and so on. But the real reason they don’t do that is because that mass mobilisation and mass political awareness is not really part of their overall strategy.

Where they do work amongst the masses, the purpose is not a class war against the big landlords or clergy. There is no Rousseau in Pakistan’s liberals. Pakistani liberals are not the liberals of the French or American Revolution, they are not even the liberals of the Glorious Revolution. They are the liberals of the East India Company administrator John Stuart Mill.

Hence, the purpose of any given mass mobilisation is basically to convince the political elite of liberal piece meal liberal reforms (e.g. look Mr. Sharif, all these people want x,y,z policy). Moreover, their strategy is to undertake symbolic demonstrations that will help stimulate pressure from Western institutions and governments on the political elite of Pakistan to adopt liberal policies. Hence, there is simply no need for messy protests with tens of thousands of people. Small symbolic demonstrations are all that are needed for this purpose.

This entire conundrum of reconciling the neo-colonial class privileges with their liberal views is the basis of the long term dead-end strategy of convince the conservative political elite of liberalism.

And while as a leftist, I have always been in favour of a united front with liberals against extremism, at times I just want to say to them all,

khuda ka wasta hai kadi tay saddi surkhiyan di gal vi mann liya karo“.

(For once listen to us leftists)

Thank you.

  • Tariq Ahsan

    Your critique is spot on,but there are structural constraints on the spread of liberalism too.Mass poverty and illiteracy constrain reach of books and newspapers and severely limit their potential base. This being said, some liberals can also be class conscious backers of authoritarianism. English speaking liberals often loved the Ayub and Musharraf dictatorships and are enthusiastic backers of Sisi In Egypt.

  • hznotes

    way too generalized and with too many assumptions.. you are trying to prove that liberalism and elitism/class system are synonymous in Pakistan; that isn’t true. not all liberals are strictly english speakers, nor are they all against hierarchy, these are your preconceived notions
    only a small portion of elite 2nd generations are ‘liberal’ in the context you define it, which is way too little of a sample to have generalized all liberals to be.
    “Liberals are actually terrified of “populism”, which they correctly perceive as a threat to their own class privilege.”
    if you replace elites in that sentence, it makes sense, but instead you chose to use liberals. in this article, liberals are sometimes elitists, sometimes they are unorganized hippies.

    the class system is not an invention of the rich, it is a result of severe and prolonged poverty in the region. it’s not as black and white as elite vs everyone else, there are way more levels to this.

    poor article

  • Aaryan Ramzan

    Sabeen Mahmud was such an exceptional to all of the above.

  • Sheraz Khalid

    Add fifth point i.e hypocrisy.

  • I am not aware of any modern liberal movement trying to reach masses in organized manner.

  • listopad

    Islam’s long-term goal is to exterminate the non-muslims. The muslim liberal has no other choice but to become an instrument of this goal. Otherwise he will be destroyed by the islamofascists. A muslim liberal is no friend of the non-muslims. He is firstly interested in saving himself and enjoying the best of both the worlds – islamic and non-islamic. He can neither protect the non-muslims nor has the will to do so. Nor does he have the possibility. The liberal muslim too is dangerous for the non-muslims.

    Anyone who attempts to create the impression that islam is good or can be good and safe for non-muslims is fooling the non-muslims. He is an enemy of the non-muslims.

  • engrich
  • engrich

    istopad 4000 very religious deshbhakt crorepatis ran away from 2015

  • engrich

    bstrd u are simply jahil fool liar and provocauter.u know u were speaking lies and lies mulim rulers made india.if u are unsatified leave islam and fk off anywhere anywhere u want.u got this power from wealth of saudi arabia.u are simply jahil and bstrd also mentally sick.kautilya supporters in india keep their women like apsaras of ajantas and alloura.all ur claims were bundles of lies.madharchod is the right word for u.brms and rajputs were main ally of moghul empire.cnc of aurangzeb was hindu so prime minister.u are zoinist agent by fooling hindus u want indian passport.JAISA BHI BANDAR KEE TARAH UCHAL KOOD KE DIKHAO ZHOOT BOLO ,TUMHAREE GND PE CHAR LATEIN TO PADEINGEE PASPORT NAHI MILEIGA.


  • engrich

    tarek fatah tum itne bade chutie kyo ho.brhmns ne parusram se 17 bar duniya ko khatriyon se saaf karvaya tha,kutch khatmal pissu phir bhee batch gaye unhee mein tum bhee ho.
    laxmi baniyon ka naam hai rajputon ka nahi.every community has seprate name to preserve their identity.muslims keep arabic name in indian way to respect our arab forefathers.

    tum hindu circus ke unpaid joker ban chuke ho .jitna bhi qalabaziyan kha ke dikhao tumhe laat ke alawa milega kucth nahi.

  • engrich
  • engrich
  • Salim Alvi
  • Raj Kamal

    Anyone who says that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam is a liar.