Pakistan’s confused liberators

Published: October 3, 2011

Many believe liberals are progressives. No, they aren't.

Ours is a country full of right wing rebels, super rich humanists, revisionist progressives, delusional liberals and various other sorts of self-claiming messiahs.

In one way or the other, all of these people who talk about reforms, peace, poverty eradication and national prosperity claim to have a solution for Pakistan’s deep-rooted problems in their own way. They sometimes chant about an unseen ‘true vision of Jinnah’s Pakistan’ and sometimes find relief in the rich cultural diversity of their history starting from the Indus Valley civilization.

Despite their ideological differences, they stand united, or at least claim to stand united, against Islamic fundamentalism but not necessarily against US imperialism. They have their own interpretations of democracy and some of these often idealise the US model of free-market economy.

Unfortunately, this chaotic situation seems to be the only ‘strength’ against the day-by-day prevailing problems of the country. Take, for instance, Imran Khan who fits well into the first category of the ‘right wing rebels’. Struggling hard to register himself as the next-big-thing in the Pakistani political scenario and a youth icon by starting an Obama-like campaign of ‘hope’, he has proved to be the most confused politician ever. With absolutely no ideological clarity, his party constantly shifts its positioning from being a nationalist patriotic party to a reformist democratic party.

Imran Khan seems to adopt an anti-establishment, anti-feudal position but at the same time takes pride in the tribal customs while having a soft corner towards Islamic extremists. His support among the youth is nothing beyond a cult and this cult-following is the outcome of his successful past as a cricketer and activism as a philanthropist. In short, he is anything but a threat to the ruling elite and the establishment. Other people in this category include Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, a senior member of the traditionally conservative PML-N, who even wrote a book titled, Haan main baaghi hoon (Yes, I am a rebel).

Who are they rebelling against? That is still a mystery.

Pakistan’s former leftists and elitist intelligentsia are those rich ‘humanists’ and revisionist progressives I mentioned in the beginning. After the Soviet-split, a majority of our small left-wing became a part of the NGO culture inPakistan. Their NGOs have turned into massive family businesses. Despite their very political past, the founders of these NGOs mostly declare themselves as apolitical now. They are all funded by the foreign organisations on the issues of women, child labour, worker’s rights, education and poverty alleviation. This work can only be seen in their presentations for the foreign donors. They love to be known as ‘civil society’ and can sometimes be seen organising candle vigils on selective issues. During the Cold War era, they always stood with the Socialist Eastern bloc against imperialism. That is no more the case since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Presently, they advocate the US’s ‘progressive role’ against the rising terror of militant Islam. We will not be surprised if they transform again after the expected fall of the Wall Street in the near future.

Pakistan’s liberals also come in the list of self-claiming liberators. I do not call Pakistani liberals delusional because of their westernised lifestyle, English language journalism and urban centric activism like many others; my criticism hails from the philosophical foundations of liberalism.

Many believe that liberals are progressives. No, they are not. They are far from being progressive.

This misunderstanding started evolving after the official declaration of the ‘end of history’ and has grown more promptly in the post-9/11 world when the political spectrums of the left and right are believed to be invalid. For instance, during the last election campaign of the US, the media portrayed Obama as a leftist. That is not less than a joke for those knowing who leftists actually are. But unfortunately, not a lot of people know that.

Our liberals also consider themselves the ‘progressive force’ of the country. Some of them may actually be progressive but they like the tag of liberalism while they do not really know what liberalism is. More precisely, liberalism is founded on the sanctity of private property. According to John Locke, who is known as the father of liberalism, it is the possession of property that gives humans their freedom and it is their natural right to acquire property selfishly. This results in an inevitable love story of liberalism and capitalism.

Apart from this theoretical debate, our liberals keep diverting their position from various political issues. They usually mess the anti-imperialist stand of the left with the anti-American agenda of the right. They fail to understand the difference between anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism. They attempt hard to portray Jinnah as a secular leader. Many of them embraced Musharraf as an ‘enlightened and moderate’ saviour. They sought his patronage when they wanted state-support for cultural activities and ‘freedom of expression’ in the form of private media. They can never openly talk against the crimes of the CIA, ISI and Pakistan’s armed forces. More recently, they have found a wider audience, being active on the social media and blogosphere. Nonetheless, their narrative about the political chaos in Pakistan stays as perplexing as their liberal identity.

The narrative of the left is badly missing in Pakistan but not without a reason. Our state banned the ‘suspicious communists’ right in the beginning. Many were killed and jailed during military dictatorships. Those who stayed alive either changed their views or left the country.

Then we witnessed a historical twist in the form of Bhutto. This was the time when Pakistan’s Left – which was initially struggling for a long-awaited revolution – compromised on the left-inclined reformism introduced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – what they called as ‘Islamic Socialism’. Later on, Bhutto’s assassination started an era of Pakistan’s ‘great depression’ under Zia’s dictatorship. Zia’s Islamization merely brought death and dollars home. This was the decade of decline of the Socialist regime in the whole Eastern bloc. Zia should be credited for playing his role in that decline, during the counter revolution in Afghanistan – known as Afghan jihad.

Despite all the failures, state-torture and lack of resources, a little section of the ideologically committed left continues to struggle in the country. Unfortunately, that is too small to register its presence. How is that little section different from the lot discussed above? The left believes in justice. According to the right-wingers, revisionists and liberals, they also believe in justice. However, the left also believes that it is inconceivable to separate justice from economic justice for everyone.

Economic justice inevitably means eradicating oppression of one class over the other. Unlike liberals and the right wing, the leftists clearly acknowledge the essential role of economics in any political structure. It does not mean that the liberals deny the role of free-market in order to maintain the system they advocate; it only means that the leftists know that to lessen the inequalities that exist under capitalism, it is essential to change it and replace it with a something else.

With more precision, leftists understand that capitalism is the central cause of social miseries, while liberals, right-wingers, revisionist reformists and all such people, tend to believe that if capitalism cannot cure the inequalities, it can surely help lessen them. This belief exists despite the historical realistic evidence of the opposite. Pakistan’s left needs to separate itself from this messy political situation – which may be called as an ‘ideological crisis’ – and reorganise to struggle for a secular, classless and people’s Pakistan.

This post also appeared here.


Ammar Aziz

An independent filmmaker and political activist who teaches film theory at NCA. He blogs at and tweets at @ammar_aziz

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

  • Ali Tanoli

    My friend we are self made god chosen peoples on earth we do every thing but stay clean
    we dont have shriah sys or capitalism nor socialism we are bunch of crook and jahile mullahs in pakistan every body is Doctor and every one of em is Allama and every body is
    clean baby. Well come to Jinnah cunfused pakistan.Recommend

  • Jamal

    which type of burger are you among these? You criticise forgetting all the ACTUAL effort put by all the NGO’s etc.Recommend

  • Jamal

    You merely argued on the definitions in your article. The liberal does that and leftist does that. For a man with his best interests in Pakistan, all he needs to understand is that, he has to create equality, give social justice and not spend money on himself. Not be a leftist/liberalist or whatever.Recommend

  • Loneliberal PK

    An astonishingly cynical article that rips to shreds every single perspective except the writer’s own. What he’s attempting to say, apparently, is that the supporters of Imran Khan supporters are idiots because they have a soft-corner for religious extremists, and the liberals are idiots because they side with the capitalistically capitalist regime of the capitalist USA (Capitalism, urrgh!!)

    To sum up, “Anybody whose perspective is not consistent with Marxism is an idiot. I am awesome. That is all. With love, Ammar.”Recommend

  • M.Ibrahim Afridi

    and reorganise to struggle for a secular, classless and people’s Pakistan.
    Pakistan was never meant to be a secular state nor do millions of people gave sacrifices for a secular state if we wanted that we could have stayed with India rather than creating Pakistan

    shame of people like you who talk about secular state not knowing what our forefathers sacrificed for.

    The fact is that Pakistan was created in the name of religion and will stay forever no one can change it Recommend

  • Basil

    Good blog! Political theory is quite hard to make any sense of, especially in context of a state as complicated Pakistan. You make some brave statements that aren’t said enough because they wouldn’t fit easily in our black-and-white narratives (e.g. Imran is inconsistent, the right is confused, Obama is by no means a ‘leftist’, General Zia does deserve credit for the USSR’s dissolution). Let’s hope leftism does find Locke’s original shape and form with regards to Pakistan. Great job!Recommend

  • Loneliberal PK

    M,Ibrahim Afridi: “Pakistan was never meant to be a secular state nor do millions of people gave sacrifices for a secular state”

    No, no. It was made so Muslims can exploit the state constitution to flaunt their own religious values and treat the minorities as second class citizens. THAT was Jinnah’s dream.

    (I am, of course, being sarcastic)Recommend

  • salman

    @M.Ibrahim Afridi:
    be ready ……to face the Continuous attacks by confused elite…’s dad’s are hyper by your comment..hahahaRecommend

  • Sheheryar Khan

    Ammar, either you need to broaden the definition of liberalism or you need to appreciate the difference between English-speaking leftists and Urdu-speaking leftists. Recommend

  • Shahid3

    Another follower of the cult of Marxism-Leninism. A couple of useful resources for those who wish to follow Proudhon’s advice to Marx on the special breed of mysticism and intolerance which is a specialty of these “apostles of a new religion” who have only contempt for all those who are, by definition, confused holders of a “false consciousness”:

    First, although my ideas in the matter of organization and realization are at this moment more or less settled, at least as regards principles, I believe it is my duty, as it is the duty of all socialists, to maintain for some time yet the critical or dubitive form; in short, I make profession in public of an almost absolute economic anti-dogmatism.

    Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony.

  • Humayun

    We need someone to get us out of this current mess,in my opinion there need not to be a leftist rightist liberal or conservative, we are actually a confuse nation and that is because from the start we were left to be like this, ideology of Pakistan which we read in the text books is not what it is,on the other hand if you continue to be extra open minded and negate all these, that is not appropriate even.I think we should better be like Turkey.keep the religion out of your constitution and conserve it to a personal base.bring social justice and give rights to minorities.educate your masses. i think these are one of the major steps you need to take, then there would not be any liberal conservative nor fundamentalist concepts and you would not be confused. (in my personal opinion).Recommend

  • Ibne Khuldun

    Pakistan’s Left is a myth – it doesn’t exist. Or does not exist significantly enough to register the slightest life. If you think wearing Che Guvera t-shirts and discussing Said over coffee mugs in drawing rooms after chanting half-a-dozen slogans with half-a-dozen labourers in front of half-a-dozen policemen is going to make a different, please check yourself!
    The only presence I can see of the Left in Pakistan is in the intelligent talks and futile dreams proposed now and then on some online forum and that’s it. I do admit there are some fellow ‘comrades’ who are working out on the ‘field’ but then again, nearly all these fellow comrades won’t be what they are without reaping the benefits of the evil capitalism ;)
    So please spare the pious talk when you, representing the Left which in itself is as ambiguous as to what it wants(pro-US or anti-US; pro-Taliban or anti-Taliban; pro-democracy or anti-democracy) and how it will achieve it, love to point fingers at others. Recommend

  • Sajid I. B.

    fundamentally flawed views built upon sweeping generalizations. hardly worth a star. Recommend

  • Ammar Aziz

    So when they you don’t oppose the leftists like this, we believe we’ve done something wrong!
    Your opposition – emerging from your nationalistic, religious and liberal mindsets – proves the strength of our rational criticism. Recommend

  • Ibne Khuldun

    A friend very aptly remarked once: ‘Taliban want to take us back to 1400 years ago. Leftists lead their lives like the Cold War isn’t over yet.’
    And so it is.Recommend

  • ayesha

    Wasn’t this already published in Pakistan Today?Recommend

  • Sheikh Ali Tariq

    I Liked the clarity and focus of the article. I totally agree that people should consider the terms they use and associate themselves before uttering them.

    Secondly it should be highlighted here that Islam clearly highlights the need for an equal society. And capitalism is in stark contrast to economic equity.

    So even with the secular agenda when given the choice between

    right wing liberals
    and leftist

    One must choose the leftist theory because of its principles of equality, simple life for all and justice.

    As far as secularism is concerned lets understand that Islam does not believe in religion by force however the problem comes in when we separate religion from state under secularism. So the question is shall the debate be about a new paradigm/model of government that is based on genuine Islamic principles?

    Or should we choose from what we have i.e. left, right wing, reformist ?

    I wish to go for the first option but who can be a singular authority on “genuine” Islamic principles………..Recommend

  • Ahmad

    So which one would you be?

    “For instance, during the last election campaign of the US, the media portrayed Obama as a leftist.”

    In the context they were speaking in, they weren’t wrong. Left and right are always relative terms. Obama was a leftist in relation to the republican right, because right is defined as conservative in USA.
    Of course the Latin American left, the ‘true’ or ‘original’ left, if you will, has a completely different meaning.

    I only say this because you followed the aforementioned statement with:

    “That is not less than a joke for those knowing who leftists actually are. But unfortunately, not a lot of people know that.”

    Trying too hard?Recommend

  • Sajid

    @Ammar Aziz:

    ad hoc hypotheses, you eliminate your falsifiability quite celverly.Recommend

  • Ali Zaif

    Well, This is how ‘so-called liberal leftists’ defend themselves by criticizing there own ‘Yo Culture’. Do something productive.Recommend

  • Ahan, right on some points, though archaic in clarity and misinterpretive in certain areas.

    The current brand of “liberals” in Pakistan is basically a band of reactionary middle-upper middle class Pakistani’s(young and middle-aged) who have bought into the global narrative( of the U.S and its allies) produced along side with their neo-liberal consensus of policy prescriptions for the “post communist”(end of history etc) world, though when analyzing Pakistan’s culture one cannot assume that the liberals are aware or even for that matter care about the underlying economic causality of today’s world and hence whats important is only the ideology that comes with; so for example the U.S is out there to spread freedom and democracy, what the American media says is true, forget about the Americans lets just focus on the Taiban they are at the gates etc. This understanding of causality in terms of binaries like “islamic”, “modern”, “liberal” is what’s driving today’s political culture. Now there is the emergence of Imran Khan who is a refromist(though as a left reformist id say; if you think that giving precedence to America’s critique over the people who are fighting them as well, then uv just bought into the narrative as well-which is a very liberal ala cognitive-dissonance-ic thing) but right now given the conditions of the “left” in Pakistan and given the problems most people have in reading Marx and the high probability that things wont be changing anytime soon. Once the reformism restores some kind of security, growth, and an atmosphere where atleast those same liberal standards of rule of law, freedom of opportunity etc , openness of speeh are established, then the left can really start to emerge(but also make itself more sophisticated in the process) and do what it should(and has been doing in the west atleast since Marx himself); Critique and Praxis.
    Not bad though atleast ET is publishing it:DRecommend

  • Ahan, right on some points, though archaic in clarity and misinterpretive in certain areas.

    Also forgot to mention, nationalism has always been the handmaiden of welfarestate(or some kind of limited, pseudo-socialism) provisions of structure since decolonization of most of the world, infact in the case of the Algerians as well, whether one looks at India, or Egypt in Nassr’s time. I mean its not hard to see the compatibility of opposing “globalization” and in that process, and because of it, trying to create strong nationhood which is why i dont think Imran is that unclear or inconsistent in his provisions.Recommend

  • Kjkhan

    who are you then ?Recommend