DON’T GIVE UP ON THEIR LIBERALS YET
Yes, it’s the foaming mullahs and brooding generals who really count in Pakistan. But India has a vital stake in ensuring its beleaguered liberals are not isolated.
On the face of it, few causes are more hopeless than that of the Pakistani liberal. According to a recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, more than one in five Pakistanis approve of the terrorist group Lashkar- e- Toiba. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s persistent effort to reach out to Islamabad, nearly 60 per cent of those polled see India as their country’s greatest threat. ( Only 4 per cent feel the same way about al- Qaida.) More than four out of five Pakistanis want their country’s laws “to strictly follow the Quran”. In contrast, fewer than one in five persons in Muslim- majority Lebanon or Turkey is similarly inclined.
Unlike in India, where the English- speaking middle class controls the high ground of intellectual discourse, in Pakistan liberal newspapers such as The Express Tribune and The Friday Times are more curiosities than serious shapers of public opinion. On television, religious bigots such as Amir Liaquat Hussain get away with justifying the slaughter of Ahmadiyya Muslims for their faith. On the street, the pious hail murder in the cause of safeguarding the country’s barbaric blasphemy laws.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Peoples Party ( PPP) government, which broadly stands for religious tolerance and neighbourly bonhomie, has proven ineffectual as a partner for peace. Nearly four years after the 26/ 11 terrorist attack, we appear no closer to achieving even a modicum of justice for its victims. Islamabad seems unable to execute even relatively straightforward policies such as liberalising the visa regime with India.
The less said about President Asif Ali Zardari and Company’s record of combating radicalism at home the better. On the PPP’s watch, Muslim zealots have murdered a sitting governor ( Salmaan Taseer) and the only Christian Cabinet minister ( Shahbaz Bhatti). Just last month, a mob burnt alive an alleged “blasphemer” for insulting Islam. This was followed by the Punjab police demolishing the minarets of an Ahmadiyya mosque under a harsh law that forbids the heterodox sect from identifying itself as Muslim or using Islamic symbols. In Baluchistan, Sunni militants regularly stop buses carrying members of the tiny Shia Hazara community and butcher passengers in cold blood.
Against this backdrop, you can’t really blame the average Indian for regarding the Pakistani liberal as a hopelessly endangered species. Why bother engaging with a group that counts for little beyond pleasantries exchanged at Track Two junkets, or the occasional whiff of nostalgia about religious amity
in pre- Partition Punjab? It’s all very well to appreciate the linguistic dexterity of novelists Kamila Shamsie and Mohammed Hanif, or lose yourself in Coke Studio’s Atif Aslam and Meesha Shafi, or applaud the wit and wisdom of journalists Cyril Almeida and Najam Sethi, but at the end of the day we all know it’s the foaming mullahs and brooding generals who really count.
Tempting though this view may seem, it’s also false. You don’t need to belong to the candles- atWagah crowd to recognise that India has a vital stake in ensuring that liberalism in Pakistan does not die. Pakistan’s liberals are less of a fringe phenomenon than is often assumed. They’re also the only people who hold out the hope of a better future for their troubled country.
On closer examination, the case against Pakistani liberalism is weaker than it appears at first blush. To begin with, no civilian government could be reasonably expected to immediately assert its authority over an army that has directly ruled the country for 34 of its 65 years, and indirectly for much of the rest. As the experience of Indonesia and Turkey shows, only when democracy grows roots do politicians acquire the self- confidence to take on generals accustomed to command. Perhaps Pakistan’s politicians would look less feckless if the overbearing army— and, of late, the hyperactive judiciary— granted them the same right to govern unmolested enjoyed by their democratically elected peers around the world. This requires patience.
Nor are Pakistani liberals the rootless creatures of caricature. Those among the English- speaking elite represent a collision of Islam and the West that goes back more than 150 years and has given South Asia some of its most gifted writers, lawyers and
scientists. These include, ironically, the country’s Shia founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and its only Nobel laureate, the Ahmadiyya physicist Abdus Salam. Moreover, though a small set of out- of- touch elites— whose spirit is best captured in the satirical Facebook group Fashionistas Against Talibanisation ( FAT)— do indeed invite ridicule, the broader liberal cause in Pakistan boasts deep roots. Its natural constituency includes Pashtun singers and Karachi activists, Sindhi nationalist politicians and Hazara academics, Urdu poets and Shia doctors.
In short, beyond English- speaking elites, anyone with a stake in protecting ethnic identity, religious liberty and free speech is threatened by the homogenising forces of radical Islam and the centralised security state. Some express their liberalism in terms of loyalty to the idea of a secular Jinnah. For others, the struggle takes simpler form: Bidding farewell with the traditional “Khuda hafiz” rather than the Arabic “Allah hafiz” or keeping alive the syncretic tradition of worship at the graves of pirs. For others still, such as members of the band Beygairat Brigade, it could take the form of biting satire aimed at contemporary society.
For it to work, India’s support for Pakistani liberalism ought to be about ideas rather than individuals. Broadly speaking, anyone who believes that democracy must be persevered with before it can be expected to deliver results, that Pakistan shares much of the responsibility for nurturing radical Islam in the region, that the country can’t fix its myriad social and economic problems without goodwill from both neighbours and the West, and that a prosperous and peaceful India is in Pakistan’s best interest, ought to be encouraged.
What form should this encouragement take? Thanks to its sheer size and rapidly growing economy, in cultural terms India is to Pakistan what the US is to Canada or Australia to New Zealand: The large stage to which local talent aspires. It’s
only natural that over time more actors from Rawalpindi and crooners from Lahore will aim for careers in Bollywood or Indian television, and cricketers from the backstreets of Karachi or the badlands of Pakistan’s northwest frontier will dream of making their fortune in the Indian Premier League.
The first signs of this are already visible. The singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan works regularly in Bollywood, and the rock band Junoon boasts a considerable Indian following. Nonfiction writer Fatima Bhutto and fiction writer Daniyal Mueenuddin flog their books in Mumbai and Delhi. At the Jaipur Literature Festival last year, Pakistani novelist H. M. Naqvi won the inaugural $ 50,000 DSC Literature Prize sponsored by an Indian construction firm. And then there’s Pakistan’s most famous export to India— the irrepressible Veena Malik.
Like other democracies, India should not expect visiting artists or intellectuals to become crude propagandists for its government or people. But at the same time, as a multi- religious and increasingly prosperous country, India automatically offers Pakistanis something they lack at home: A soapbox from which to challenge the weight of intolerance within their own society. As Pakistan’s own cultural space shrinks under an Islamist onslaught, the importance of India as a lifeline for the country’s beleaguered liberals will only grow. It’s in India’s interest to ensure that it isn’t snapped.
ACTIVISTS OF THE TEHREEKE- AZADI- EKASHMIR TAKE OUTAN ANTIINDIA RALLY IN ISLAMABAD IN SEPTEMBER 2010