Dear liberals, speak up!

Published: December 9, 2010

People whose opinions really matter will stick to what they believe is true.

In my two and a half years in the US, I haven’t met a single Republican. An overwhelming majority of the Americans I have spoken to are apologetic about the drone attacks in Pakistan, were appalled by the “Ground Zero” mosque crisis, despise the Tea Party movement and don’t understand Republicans’ repeated attacks against health care reform.

This category of opinion is in large part echoed by liberal columnists and pundits that we even follow back home. I, therefore, find it interesting to reconcile what I witnessed in the November 2 elections with what I know of my personal experience in US.

It signals the insularity of academic and policy circles clustered in the Northeast, and the vast degree of political polarisation in the US. No matter how many columns Nicholas Kristof writes or how many thousands of liberal voters Stewart and Colbert can gather at the National Mall, when push comes to shove, people whose opinions really matter will stick to what they believe is true.

The failure or rather, the lack of will among liberal pundits to sincerely engage with the public is not limited to the US. While a large number of our English columnists mock the spread of Indian-Zionist conspiracy theories, warn against the return to military rule, rail against the blasphemy law etc, it doesn’t look like they are succeeding in making people who believe Indians and Jews are the problem think otherwise.

It’s true that analysts writing for English newspapers read by less than 10 per cent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million are aiming to change the opinion of policy makers as opposed to the much-touted “man on the street”. But the recent case of Aasia Bibi, I felt, only further highlighted the need for opinions frequently echoed in the country’s capital to trickle down to areas where the vast majority of our country lives.

While appropriate policy interventions at the state level may include curriculum reform, more schools etc, what I’m specifically interested is breaking the insularity of our educated populace. Even individuals who hail from areas where religious minorities are persecuted and girls are discouraged from going to school, and change their minds, are reluctant to go back. While this phenomenon is not unique to Pakistan, it’s still worth noting.

A PhD candidate conducting research on the National Outreach Programme (NOP) in LUMS noted that majority of the scholars from underrepresented regions had no intention of going back to their home towns and villages.

Rather, they were looking for employment within multinational corporations based in Dubai and Karachi. Since pursuit of economic opportunity is a decision that is both personal and in majority of the cases, necessary, we will leave that aside for now. But space still exists for dialogue across economic and social classes. Although many will dismiss blogs and Facebook as also being too exclusive, what they’re doing in terms of generating conversations between individuals who otherwise would have never met is monumental.

Greater emphasis on the Urdu and local press, public universities, adoption of the Teach for America model and pushing students in the Islamabad-Lahore-Karachi circle to intern and volunteer anywhere else within this country maybe starting points for pushing the dialogue out of the blogosphere. Even if these strategies for “exchange” fail to push forward “liberal opinion” so to speak, what’s more important is that they may be a small step towards weakening barriers within a jarringly stratified society.

Maryam Jillani

Maryam Jillani

A masters graduate in public administration from Cornell University who is currently working for an international development organisation based in Washington DC.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Dina

    “An overwhelming majority of the Americans I have spoken to are apologetic about the drone attacks in Pakistan” – Well, isn’t that just great! How nice and thoughtful of them to be apologetic. I guess we should also be apologetic once people whose family members have been turned into charred ash by predator drones take revenge against this policy. Lets all just be LIBERAL! USA! USA! USA!Recommend

  • Noor Khan

    yeah….so? and your point is?Recommend

  • jbutt

    true, Pakistan Jahil Awam will continue to vote for corrupt peoplists.Recommend

  • Maryam Jillani

    @ Dina, I’m sorry my title is misleading and I think you misunderstood what I’m trying to say. My point was that Americans I’ve spoken to are against the drone attacks in Pakistan, not simply apologetic about it. It illustrates how the opinion of these circles is not resulting in concrete policy changes, and that often the same case applies to Pakistan. Recommend

  • Usman Ahmad

    Maryam you got your point right. Liberals in Pakistan have no ‘grass-roots’ connection in the Pakistani society. They are generally well-off, live in secluded communities (read affluent ares) of major urban centres and hardly bother to know or understand the views of general public. This pathetic condition has been going on since the fall of Soviet Union, and I am afraid, will continue unabated for quite some time in the future. The simplest thing they can do to connect with general public is that they should start writing in Urdu for Urdu newspapers. This simple move will bring them in contact with masses. Otherwise….no hope!!! Hail liberty! It’s easy to epsouse Western Ideals when you have a nice home, hefty income, and a better, opportunity-filled life. The poor man seeks solace in religion and religion can never be seperated from a society. I guess you have never been to ‘Middle America’ or didn’t get a chance to visit rural Texas or Mississipi. There, I hope, you would definitely meet lot of Republicans!Recommend

  • kanishka

    Americans were apologetic on your face not in the heart. Its the white mans way to not show his emotions. They are best at it. By the way why should Americans be apologetic for drones? Shouldnt they be saying that we have already done favour to Pakistan by not invading it after 9/11? I am sure that musharraf saved pakistan by aligning with USA otherwise Pak would have been another Afghanistan today as he said that BUSH told him we will raize you to the ground. Why should americans be apologetic for ground zero mosque? Is Saudi and Muslim Ummah apologetic for not allowing a church or jewish temple in Mecca or Medina?… Stop expecting from others what you yourselves cant give… Muslims and Pakistan deserves everybit of antagonism that they are receiving today, its because you taught hate to your kids and thats what you got in return…so stop being cry babies and face the truth..Recommend

  • Umair

    “Greater emphasis on the Urdu and local press, public universities, adoption of the Teach for America model and pushing students in the Islamabad-Lahore-Karachi circle to intern and volunteer anywhere else within this country maybe starting points for pushing the dialogue out of the blogosphere. Even if these strategies for “exchange” fail to push forward “liberal opinion” so to speak, what’s more important is that they may be a small step towards weakening barriers within a jarringly stratified society.”

    -Maryam, I am glad that you highlighted an important issue in Pakistan, you pointed out the problem correctly. America is stronger because of a sense of community service and citizenship. While here in Pakistan no one would like to go back to their hometown and serve there. I would add, a doctor from a village must really go back and serve for a while. This will bring development. As with our liberal class, they are just good for criticism of our common people. What we need to really do is to spread out thin and reach out countrywide to play our role, contribute nationally and reshape the future collectively. Recommend

  • Tanzeela Afzal

    @ Usman Ahmed What a comment! Recommend

  • Moazzam Salim

    A “liberal opinion” is a relative term. It might have certain meanings for me and quite the opposite for you. Ultimately every newspaper and TV channel in Pakistan and abroad has its own agenda. All of these media groups publish what support their respective line of action all the rest is either moderated or simply ingnored. Same is true for the poll tests as the managing parties only approach those people who they think would support the asked question in a certain manner. In short…we live in a manipulated society and there is absolutely no room for a real liberal opinion or freedom of speech. Recommend

  • Waqqas Iftikhar

    @kanishka…bit of the pot calling the kettle black isn’t it…hasnt been very long since the Hindoos of gujrat butchered the muslims for a ‘perceived’ wrong done…all 2,000 – 3,000 of them….see…you can frame anything the way you want it….muslims in bosnia didnt deserve to die but did…the narrative states that western powers support our corrupt and undemocratic govts for their own benefits…so pls get off that high horse..Recommend

  • Zubair Umar

    Spot on. On a macro scale, this insularity also gives credence to the theory that democracy is bound to fail in Pakistan. People who need the existing system to change arent really voting for the people who will (attempt to)change it. And never will. Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    One point i would like to raise is that liberals though they come from affluent backgrounds need to prevent the spread of intolerance and religious intolerance also in their socio economic class, which is growing thanks to schools such as those conducted by the hashmi sisters, who tatget the well off and preach an intolerant brand of Islam.Recommend

  • Carlos Menendez

    People here seeking to derail this commentary with cheapshot attacks and nitpicking uber-specifics are small-minded and should remember that the point of this is not to point fingers or to express faux-apology. The greater point of this commentary is to, in Gandhi’s words “be the change you want to see in the world.” This is a great reminder of this point, in the context of Pakistan. From the perspective of a personal hero, Che, I say, Viva la revolucion, y hasta la victoria siempre!Recommend

  • Zuhaib

    Point highlighted here actually needs lot of interaction among the segregated classes of the society who are really immune to change themselves and the environment around em..Recommend

  • Maryam Jillani

    Thank you for your comments!
    @ Usman Ahmad, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, we (myself included) have gotten to the point where we find it hard to talk about anything conceptual in Urdu. The word you used, “pathetic” pretty much does sum up this situation.
    @ Umair, thank you for your comment! I especially like what you said about spreading out thin and reaching out countrywide. It brings to mind how we along with govt. officials are always looking to get postings in urban centers when it’s in smaller towns where we can have the most impact.
    @ Zubair, thank you for your comment. I don’t know if democracy is bound to fail in Pakistan. For democracy to work, our institutions need to grow strong, and that can only happen over the course of several years. Recommend