Are there any ‘liberal extremists’ in Pakistan?
One of the phrases being used repeatedly in the Pakistani mainstream, as well as social media, is of ‘liberal extremism.’ I have repeatedly heard and read that Pakistani society is polarised – and both the ‘extremes’ are equally harmful.
A few columnists and anchor persons continuously point towards the ‘dangers’ emanating from liberal extremists. Some way or the other, our media is trying to project itself as striking the vital middling position and professes ‘miana ravi’ or moderation in opinion.
This term is no longer just restricted to the media but has also found its way in everyday conversations and drawing room discussions.
Well, at least semantically, a phrase like liberal extremism or liberal fascism can only be termed as an oxymoron. From a philosophical point of view, you cannot be a liberal and a fascist at the same time. However, since in everyday political terminology, the word liberal corresponds to certain positions, therefore at least theoretically it is possible for someone to be a ‘hard core’ liberal. Even from that angle, you can only be called an ‘extremist’ if you are ready to resort to violence or take extremely inflexible and fringe positions.
It is important to know as to what liberal values espouse. Liberalism is not a strictly defined doctrine and has meant different things at different times and places. However, broadly speaking we can say that ideas with liberal underpinning are: women liberation, religious tolerance; preference of self-introspection over irrational patriotism; separation of state and religion, increased role of state for levelling income inequalities, less ambitious external policy; and a passive yet alert military with no expansionist aspirations built around romantic nationalism.
In Pakistan, those who espouse these values are rare and in media – they are restricted to merely English print and web. Moreover, they do not use violent tactics the way religious fundamentalists do and therefore to label them as fascists is a gross exaggeration.
In addition, the local category of liberals is fully cognisant of the fact that Pakistan suffers from acute religious sensitivity and therefore while projecting their point of view in the public sphere, they often carefully word their opinion. They have to otherwise run the risk of being slain. In fact, even their vocal opposition of blasphemy law was mostly on the ground that the said law was against the ‘true’ spirit of Islam, rather than on the fact that there is no place for religion inspired law in the matters of state.
The fact is that liberals in Pakistan are not the ‘hard-core’ variety but rather close to centre and have to argue from position of severe disadvantage. The media does not give them the space, and when they speak, they have to tread very carefully and consequently often end up projecting a much compromised point of view.
And despite this, a sizeable number of people categorise them as some kind of fascists or Western elitists. This in my opinion just shows as to how orthodox and schizophrenic our society has become. Here some of the people claim to be following a ‘balanced’ middle simply on the grounds that they do not out rightly support religious extremism. Yet a substantial number of such people may be giving what is known as ‘soft’ support to the militants through weird conspiracy theories and at times apologetic defence whereby extremists are acting violently due to some sort of ‘reaction’.
In my books, this mind-set is also ultraconservative and extremist though its manifestation is in a different way.
The central issue in my opinion is that in Pakistan, on the ideological spectrum, the orthodox positions virtually dominate. In fact the opinions which would fall under the category of fringe opinions in the West are actually the mainstream opinions in Pakistan. When extreme conservative opinions become the mainstream opinion then even moderately liberal opinions start appearing as the ‘other extreme.’
Moreover, unfortunately the mainstream media has successfully projected liberal values as some kind of a modus operandi cum intellectual vehicle to westernise Pakistan and to undermine the existing ‘rich’ patriotic culture and values.
Consequently, anyone vying for the liberal values is immediately bracketed as some kind of a western liberal extremist and even a fascist. When even moderately liberal points of views are categorised as extremist then clearly there is something wrong with our conception and ideological direction.
Moreover, this is proving seriously detrimental because liberal opinions are being simply shot down as liberal extremism without even being properly considered. Consequently in the battle of ideas, only the variants of one kind of narrative are reigning supreme and counter opinion is virtually absent in the public sphere.
Instead of a balanced middle which emanates from conflation of competing ideas, what we are witnessing in Pakistan is just the dominance of variants of conservative ideology. Hence it is no surprise that intellectually we are becoming bankrupt.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.