Between food and opium: What Pakistani liberals fail to understand

Published: February 19, 2011

Real change is not brought about by intellectuals in drawing rooms but angry men in streets

There’s something Newtonian about the way Pakistani political discourse is being carried out these days. At one end is the ‘ghairat brigade’, with their twisted ideology and their usual diatribe against the liberal fascists – a term which is about as meaningful as a Vegan BigMac.

On the other end are the liberals ( fascist or otherwise) who might not be as reprehensible as their bearded cousins, are equally redundant with their staid arguments, essentially revolving around the ‘Quaid’s vision’ and his speech to the Constituent Assembly.

Fundamentally, I do not have an issue with the arguments of the liberal camp. In fact, I think they make perfect sense in their arguments. The only issue I have is with their approach. Of late, ongoing debates between the two sides have split along predictable dichotomies like:

religious versus secular,

Jinnah versus Maudoodi,

left versus. right etc.

The vehement arguments of one side are responded to by equally vociferous counter arguments of the other. This has only exacerbated societal tensions.

In fact, by getting sucked into this mud slinging, we have unwittingly fallen into a trap. The liberal’s so called ‘la-deeniyat’ gives the other side fodder for their ‘Islam is in Danger’ claptrap, and their shrill voices further reduce the already shrinking space for an intelligent discussion.

Change the subject: Policy instead of ideology

Instead of opposing each other, let us fashion the debate on our own terms. Instead of talking about ideology, let us talk about policy. Instead of talking about Islam versus secularism, why not talk about roti, kapda’and makan’?

Instead of talking about “Pakistan ka matlab kya?” let us ask “Pakistan ka maqsad kya?”.

After all, history has shown that extreme obscurantist ideologies have been used as diversionary tactics when the political class fails to address the basic socio-economic needs of the populace. As they say, if you can’t give the masses food, give them ‘opium’.

The liberal mistake: secularism can’t be imposed

Another fundamental problem in the liberals’ argument is their over emphasis on constitutional amendment as a means to ‘secularising’ Pakistan. Not only do the prospects of such drastic changes in the constitution appear bleak at the moment, but even in the rare case that the liberals are successful, I have my doubts about the efficacy of such a measure. On the contrary, a top to down approach to secularism might backfire and could be viewed as an ‘elite project’ by the masses. The success of a secular state is predicated upon the extent of ‘toleration of plurality’ in society as a whole. Hence I would argue that amending school textbooks instead of the constitution might be more effective in making Pakistan ‘secular’.

As recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have shown us, the only antidote to the coercive power of the state is a sustained non violent campaign spearheaded by the masses, not politicians. Left on their own, elites (whether religious or conservative, uniformed or civilian) everywhere are prone towards furthering their personal agendas. True democracy is never something which is given to the masses; it is a right which the masses give to themselves. The future course of Pakistan depends not so much on the whims of its tiny elite population but the action (or inaction) shown by its millions.


Amit Julka

A student from India currently pursuing his Masters in South Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He blogs at

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

  • Talha

    You don’t make any sense.

    When and where do these liberals stand up and make their voices hear?

    Can you see them on TV standing up to the the hard-liners, have you seen them on streets, have you actually seen them anywhere except on the internet.

    This whole ‘liberal’ group is non existent where it matters, the political arena, the media and the other institutions that define a nation.

    This whole ‘liberal fascist’, ‘liberal extremist’ tirade is just for public consumption and to negate the image of the word liberal itself. Being liberal means being open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.

    Who is a liberal then, who is so open in this nation that he/she can sit down with an opposite and be open to new behavior or opinion.

    Jinnah was a liberal, he never berated the religious group even though they cursed and abused him, he was even open to a more modernized idea of Islam being used in certain aspects of life even when he wanted to follow a modern system.

    We do not have liberals anymore, the only liberals are the minorities of Pakistan because of their situation.

    What is happening is that the establishment wants to keep Islam in the forefront of our nation because its a great tool for their advantage and any set of ideas that can hurt them are negated in the public arena.

    Simple, there is no liberal in Pakistan.

    Khuda Hafiz for now, till we actually find a liberal.

    Ooops, sorry its Allah Hafiz.Recommend

  • Nadir El-Edroos

    The problem is that a) the popular image of who a liberal is, is not what progressivism stands for. b) progressives are perhaps at fault themselves for withdrawing from the political process.

    The revolution in Egypt and Tunisia are not yet over, and we will have to see if its truly successful several months down the line. For both in Egypt and Tunisia the power of the military, urban elites, economic conglomerates remains unchallenged. Recommend

  • Sheikh

    Nice Comments Talha

    Not impressive colomn by Amit julkaRecommend

  • Uzair Latif

    Excellent article. I think we all need to understand everyone’s point of view without our inherent biases…can we stop the Zaid Hamid inspired “Hindu-Zionist” talk, and give everyone a chance to engage in debate without having to resort to religious labels?Recommend

  • Chotes. .

    @Talha: Are you serious? Do you really believe that the liberals in Pakistan are only on the internet and there are none in media, politics and other institutions. I admit that liberals that are willing to speak out openly are very few in number but there are some brave individuals who are willing to stand up for what they believe in. To name a few: Pervez Hoodbhoy, Aitazaz Ashan, Khurshid Kausri, Asma Jahangir, Ghamdi, Hasan Nisar, Najam Sethi, Raza Rumi, Ejaz Haider, Khaled Ahmed, Ahmed Rashid, Athar Minallah, Mohammad Hanif…I’m sure all these individuals are pretty “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.”Recommend

  • Chotes. .

    Education, tolerance and peace is what the masses in Pakistan all need & understand, for there to be progress..Recommend

  • Talha

    @Chotes. .

    Yeah so out of all these people, who has enough influence to change the discourse of the nation.

    You name me a handful of known individuals who are only individually capable of expressing their views but do not have influence to alter the discourse of the nation.Recommend

  • Hasan

    What I don’t get here is what’s the big deal about being ‘secular’? secularism DOESN’T mean you are deprived of religious knowledge! it means that one should ‘treat all others’ equally, no bias should be shown towards any other person for his, religion, sect, gender or race.

    ‘Islamization’ has lead Pakistan into the dark ages of ignorance. The only way to get out of this is to revert back to basics.Recommend

  • Kiran Farooque

    Well I am so totally against the Mullah brigade. Love the article although you could have written better than me.Recommend

  • nadir khan

    Couldn’t agree with you morel, Amit ji. Spot on!!!Recommend

  • Nikhil Purwaha

    Thats one hell of an article by Mr Julka…You hit the dart right on Bulls Eye !!

    Keep posting more..and trust me I am not being Sarcastic.. :)Recommend

  • http://delhi akash

    good one !!Recommend