Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What Does It Mean To Be A Pakistani Liberal?

There was an interesting op-ed by Mohsin Hamid (of Moth Smoke fame) in the New York Times this morning on how Musharraf's recent actions like suspending Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry represent the antithesis of "enlightened moderation" and are drawing away the support for Musharraf of secular minded liberals (like Hamid), who, by and large, overwhelmingly support(ed) him.

I think these crises are bringing to the fore the tension between being a political liberal in Pakistan and being a social liberal in Pakistan. I like to think I am both - I want free and fair elections and parliamentary democracy as well as women's rights and the separation of religion and state. The dynamics of Pakistan render these two positions somewhat (though not completely) at odds with each other, at least if one considers the last fifteen years. Comparing Musharraf to Benazir and Nawaz, one can only conclude that it is the military dictator who has done the most for women's rights and for press freedoms (though these are being rolled back at an alarming rate).

I suppose I am what can be termed as an "Irfan Hussain liberal," that is, someone who is a political liberal to the point that the politicians of the day do not extensively threaten social freedoms (Irfan Hussain, you will recall, supported Musharraf's coup because had Nawaz Sharif retained power, he was primed to push Sharia Law through the court system of Pakistan). This is not to say I "support" Musharraf wholeheartedly. For one thing, I find it increasingly difficult to support people as opposed to positions. In other words, I support not Musharraf but his women's rights rhetoric, if not practice. I support not Imran Khan but (gulp) his views on democracy and its importance in Pakistan.

When I was interning at a think tank in Washington a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Hussain Haqqani who was at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at the time. He said something that has stayed with me ever since. He told me that the elite in Pakistan are social liberals but not political liberals. That statement may not be especially profound but it made me realize just how contradictory those two identities can sometimes be. That's why I have no idea what it means to be a liberal in Pakistan today. In some respects, Qazi Hussain Ahmed is more of a liberal than Musharraf. In others, Musharraf is more of a liberal than Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Crazy world, huh?


Adeel said...

Social vs political liberal, that's a great distinction to bring up Ahsan, never thought of that way but it fits perfectly. Thanks.

Ahsan said...

your very welcome adeel, though to be fair, it was hussain haqqani who made me think about the distinction in the first place.

Husain Haqqani said...

Dear Ahsan,

Congratulations on a very good blog.

Thank you for crediting me with making the distinction between social/Cultural liberals and Political liberals.

As we discussed three years ago, and you mention in your blog entry, the distinction is very important. There are many Pakistanis who fail to understand that the future of a nation and a state depends on its politics because nation and state are both political concepts. It has taken some effort and much experience on my part to understand the value of political liberty. Rule of Law, freedom of belief and opinion, and transparent contestation for power are essential to the idea of political liberalism. In most cases, political liberty paves the way for culutral liberty.

On the other hand, we have many compatriots who measure liberty by cultural indices alone. I once wrote in my column that these people do not object to military rule per se, for example. They dislike Ziaul Haq because he imposed restrictions on their cultural freedoms and like Musharraf for allowing these freedoms back. Thus, the easy availability (or not)of alcohol and the right to party serve as criteria for determining whether a government is liberal or not instead of the government's adherence to the law and constitution.

Also, to think that freedom of the press and acceptance of women's rights could somehow be a gift from a military ruler is also incorrect. Musharraf embraced the idea of pluralism in the media as a substitute for freely contested elections. The media reciprocated by using the freedom selectively. The moment the freedom of the media threatened the survival of military rule, the crackdown started.

Only when freedoms (of individuals and of the media) are seen as a right, flowing from law and the constitution and not as the gift of a 'liberal' ruler will they be real and lasting.

The apolitical approach of our elites is only likely to cause grief to Pakistan and Pakistanis.

A corollary to my making a distinction between social and political liberals is my emphasis on politics in saving and improving Pakistan.

I trust that your blog will engage in political thinking and analysis and resist the temptation to be "non-controversial."

Another thought I shared with you during our meeting, which you might recall, was how in most countries all good minds are considered controversial. Among Pakistanis, controversial is considered a term of derogation.

Don't hesitate to be controversial. Pakistan needs young people like you, who are both social and political liberals.

Good Luck with your blog.