Does liberalism do more harm than good?

Published: September 1, 2015

As a philosophy, liberalism is more inward looking and hence does not try to shift blame on the outside forces. PHOTO: KICKACTION

As a philosophy, liberalism is more inward looking and hence does not try to shift blame on the outside forces. By its orientation, it also does not have an overly negative assumption about human nature and consequently is not obsessed with crime and punishment.

It believes in the rationality of humans and further assumes that human intelligence is capable of creating an artifice where ethnic, linguistic, and other such ‘natural’ differences can be accommodated without creating a rift. Its emphasis and belief on human rationality rather than instinct, logically lead it to being more fluid and progressive.

Conservative points of views by and large are grounded on instincts (which are permanent) and it is no surprise that conservatives are traditionalists. Yes, within the conservative side there will be variations, but by and large they have a static view of issues. However, on some issues unfortunately, those claiming themselves as liberals, also have a tendency to take fixed positions.

But worse still, in their zeal to just criticise the state, they end up supporting the non-state actors of the opposing camp. In my opinion, people like Arundhati Roy and Mr Noam Chomsky have ended up doing more harm than good though it was not their original intention.

For example, Ms Roy has always been a raving critic of the Indian state. Though I agree, self-introspection and the ability to be critical of one’s own state is a great virtue, it should not be coming at the cost of credibility. I can understand that perhaps her opinion state is just the tool of oppression, which enables the ‘privileged’ classes to exercise hegemony (a Marxist kind of view) over ordinary people.

This is a view I personally also subscribe to, though with several qualifications. However, this should not necessarily mean that every non-state actor is ‘representative’ of the oppressed and that violence needs to be romanticised, the case in point, her support for Naxalites.

The same can be said of some of the Western liberals. One position, which I have often found as somewhat of an anomaly is the stance of some western liberals on the war in Afghanistan. Their stance does not stop at opposing the war but stretches to paint the Taliban as some kind of ‘victim.’

Likewise prominent liberals/left wingers like Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky in their zeal to criticise USA for its imperial designs often cross the line and end up sounding as apologists for the Taliban in a twisted way.

Particularly interesting was Tariq Ali’s speech at the Marxist convention in 2009 where he blatantly criticised the US war in Afghanistan and also the drone attacks. Predictably, the rationale given for the war was US business and imperial interests. What Tariq Ali failed to really appreciate was that there is much more to the war than mere ‘grand’ conspiracy to maintain US military bases.

And even if it is assumed that the sole purpose of the war was for maintaining the US’s hegemony as well as protection of its strategic interests, the implications for the area would be weakening of the Taliban. The policy of appeasement as well as negotiation has repeatedly failed with the Taliban. Even if you have to ultimately negotiate, you have to negotiate with a position of strength and that won’t be possible without some acts of aggression.

Yes, you can argue over the modus operandi of the war but there is much more to the rationale and outcome of the war than mere US capitalist greed.

I think the central issue is that some positions, due to historical baggage, have become too entrenched and consequently such anomalies often arise. For example US aggression has been historically viewed as maintaining its hegemony (there is a strong element of truth in it) and over time this image has become synonymous with virtually every act of aggression. I am not suggesting that George Bush initiated war in Afghanistan as purely a noble war but at the same time to interpret that Afghan Taliban militants are ‘nationalists’ and mere victims of adverse circumstances is stretching it too much.

What these leading liberals of the west do not know is that their stance actually becomes a credible propaganda weapon in the hands of right wingers on our side of the world who actually cite these intellectuals in support of their own anti-war arguments. In fact, Mr Zaid Hamid – a famous conspiracy theorist from Pakistan – has a regular tendency to quote Noam Chomsky (without crediting him of course) and give mind boggling spins to his views to align them with his own right-wing nonsense about the US’s grand conspiracy to destabilise Pakistan. It is a funny sight to find western ultra-liberals and local conservative conspiracy theorists actually in the same bed.

I think a major problem is the excessive usage and in fact abuse of the concept of self-introspection. Self-introspection is a great virtue but it should not come at the cost of credibility. People like Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali, and Noam Chomsky in their zeal to show hypocrisy in their own societies do end up becoming less credible and even counterproductive.

Instead of taking a case-by-case approach and evaluating the overall impact of particular acts on the ideological fabric of the society, the need to be self-critical in order to be politically correct (according to liberal criterion) overrides everything.

At our side of the border also, the need to conform to some fixed ‘liberal’ positions at times result in making liberals less credible. Although luckily in Pakistan, the liberal side does not suffer from twisted opposition of the USA and belief in ‘victimhood’ of the Taliban, though some do, but problems emerge in other areas.

For example, I think the opposition of military courts for terror suspects misses the larger and more important point, that right now our first priority should be cleaning this mess. However, some Pakistani liberals are losing this essential fact and are opposing such courts due to their stress on due process.

Things like due process work in an environment where judges and witnesses are not afraid. It is okay to use military courts provided these are used where beyond reasonable doubt exists. Right now their effort should be more on preventing the misuse of military courts in specific cases rather than debunking the entire idea. Issues have to be analysed according to their individual merit.

What is more important for the liberal side is to stress on the liberal ideals of constitutional liberalism, equality, and freedom. These ideals should remain fixed. In interpretation of issues, it is important to have an open mind.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (

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

  • Parvez

    This is intellectual jugglery to say that liberal criticism is somehow not patriotic…..a fairly ridiculous assumption. An old adage worth repeating … I love my country dearly and that is why I reserve my right to criticize it ‘……true to the letter.Recommend

  • Saj

    For me liberalism as well as socialism, communism, capitalism etc are financial systems before being political ones, where liberalism espouses low taxation, free market and free trade. The translation of these liberal ideals into the political realm has, in my understanding, yields individual freedoms coupled with small governments.

    The good and harm of liberalism should therefore be gauged against societal trends and not individuals especially when some of them are more socialist than liberal. Looking at liberal societies, they are far better off than any alternative.Recommend

  • Bairooni Haath

    You have a valid point that sometimes liberals can go overboard with their criticism of all and every state action. This is true of environmentalists as well as conservationists etc. However, the liberals like Asma Jahangir who are sounding warnings about Pakistan’s slide into authoritarianism are doing so out of bitter experience. The problem with Pakistani military courts is that they are a black box that are not open to scrutiny. In the past, the Generals have always used military courts against the politicians. People like Asma Jahangir, Husain Haqqani or Asif Ali Zardari all spent years in Pakistani prisons on charges that were eventually dropped. Pakistani politicians are being bashed in the media everyday and that somehow leads people to conclude that the political class is the real problem. When things are not going well in the country, it is always convenient to find villains but this is only going to lead to bigger problems.Recommend

  • farrah raja

    Raza Habib please redo this .It is very interesting that you have taken up this discussion .Tariq Ali and Chomsky are right in their criticisms , and those are their points of view .I am glad they do criticise US or British policies ( we can part agree or disagree ). These are live debates , so in that context ,I accept your argument .We can differ with them always . With regards to how people in countries like PK and India understand them , that is your job to handle . Please look deeper into PK and Indian mind and give us definition of liberals in PK .Defying religion is liberalism ?Or taking a part of religion along with freedom of thought and criticism of oppression is liberalism also .So first define liberalism in countries where religion is important .Secondly what are our values socially ? Thirdly how it is affecting politics .To make your study relevant to PK , India or Bangladesh ,Iran , Islamic world , you must see the part religion plays in it .Not what is the real definition but how people understand and practice . We need a genuine dialogue on this .All western ideas or even religious ideas (from any parts ) when come to Indo- Pak they change , we adopt them and mix them with our understanding , we do not refute or refuse them .We are not rigid that is why everything just slips in . So when a person like you tries to argue on the basis of definitions given by the West or European mind it lacks to connect to the roots , and the reason for lacking is flexibility of Asian culture , mind and reasoning , we keep mixing things .We do not apply rationale like in European society for example .Please note the influence of West on our thoughts and minds is diminishing as we are returning to our roots and getting out of the cloud of British Raj .So you are making this alive in an academic sense .Start from the scratch , we need it desperately . Best wishes .Looking forwardRecommend

  • Nah

    “In fact, terrorists have a regular tendency to quote the Quran and give mind boggling spins to its views to align them with their own right-wing nonsense”.

    See what I did there? I don’t expect that you will be concluding that Islam does more harm than good, and nor should you. Not based on such a flimsy argument at least.Recommend

  • Critical

    You are insulting all Liberals by calling Arundati Roy as a liberal…Arundati Roy is a Marxist idealist who hogs limelight by opposing anything and everything….

    Her ideals and statements may look intelligent at one point but if you analyse all her quotes,she’s basically contradicting herself at different times…

    Taking Oppression of women on one hand and then sharing Stage with Geelani who has 7th century ideals for women sounds stupid…
    Talking about human rights of terrorists and then talking trash about soldiers who lost the lives…
    She agitated against Sarovar Dam and even after govt assured that the villagers will be compensated,never gave up…Her goons beat the villagers who got tired of her and decided to get compensation..
    Also,the trash talk about how Indian deserves to get attacked in 2001 Parliament and 26/11 attacks..

    She should be happy that she lives in a country called in India…not in a country which has the same ideals her best friends Gilani and Mirwaiz share…Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    I don’t think it’s harmful, but yes, liberals should be consistent in their criticism of all that defies their values. Self-criticism is more meaningful than xeno-criticism, though.

    The reader must be aware of the context in which a liberal has spoken. An American conservative should realize that a Pakistani liberal speaking up against the persecution of Christians, is talking strictly about the situation in his own country, and not universally.

    I am frequently applauded by Indian nationalists for my evaluation of Pakistani systems, but when I apply the same values to India, they are outraged. Jibran Nasir is great; Arundhati Roy isn’t. Here is what I wrote on this issue:

  • Akber Shakil

    So in the end Raza tried to convince us that liberals should stick to fundamentals in theory not how one choose to implement it in practice. Reminds me of Mohsin Hamid’s book “A reluctant Fundamentalist” which very well describes the author a Liberal fundamentalist.Recommend

  • RHR

    Dear Faraz

    The article’s title is misleading as it does not criticize or calls liberalism bad. I identify myself as a liberal also. The article is critical of Chomsky, Tariq Ali style of liberals as they often end up either glorifying violence perpetuated by non state actors or blaming other factors such as state, foreign powers, poverty etc. Likewise it is also makes the point that it is important to look at individual merit of the case. For example liberalism places a very strong emphasis on “due process” and hence opposition of military courts is on this pretext. My contention is that rather than debunking the entire idea, it is important to understand the ground realities and the context in which the courts have come into being. Their job is to make sure that these do not end up being misused.



  • RHR

    I know PTI supporters always come up with amazing logicRecommend

  • RHR

    Just to clarify: The title is somewhat misleading. It is a criticism on some kind of liberals and not liberalism.Recommend

  • Critical

    If I could remember,I think I wrote a comment on comparing Arundati Roy with the Liberals when she’s actually a commie anarchist…

    I’m a liberal and atheist,but I can understand why so many Indians are becoming conservatives…Its because the so called “liberals” have hijacked the liberalism into advancing their own agenda…

    Oppression of women is wrong no matter what religion you belong to…Shouting hoarse about one religion doing while totally ignoring other is plain hypocrisy….

    and Hypocrites pose as Liberals creating a new word coined called “Adharsh Liberals” who fight only for few causes and ignore others…

    Currently,India is being divided into Modi Bhakts and Adharsh Liberals and both of them are wrongRecommend

  • dronachary

    Both, being “far left” or being “far right” is extremism. When you lean too far on either of them you loose any tolerance towards alternate or moderate ideas which is harmful to self and society in general.Recommend

  • Guest

    Do you see the inherent contradiction in your logic. A liberal cannot by its own definition be a fundamentalist or a fascist.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    I could be mistaken, but I don’t see how Roy supports anarchy. Just because she strongly opposes the current government system, doesn’t mean she want the government itself obliterated.

    Nationalists demand extreme attention to symmetry in criticism. I can’t criticize Pakistan, without criticizing India just as strongly in the same sentence, just to spare a Pakistani nationalist’s’ ego. And same goes for an Indian.

    This is unfortunate, as a liberal tends to scrutinize affairs at home before pointing fingers at others; a good strategy, as one can change his own system more easily than he can change others’.


  • Guest

    Some of your blogs on India appear to have been written to appease your countrymen lest you are labelled as a RAW agent and then somehow disappeared off the face of the Earth by the powers that be. These blogs lack intellectual rigour otherwise present in your other articles.Recommend

  • Guest

    One book wonder Roy lost all credibility when she appeared on the same stage with Geelani. How can a true liberal be associated with someone of 7th century mind set.Recommend