Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told an international conference in Islamabad recently that “the nation’s future lay in a democratic and liberal Pakistan” which is “educated, progressive, forward-looking and enterprising”. Truer words could not have been spoken.
But his statement has stirred a hornets’ nest of self-appointed “guardians” of the “ideology of Pakistan” comprising mullahs, revisionist state historians and reactionary intellectuals. The same howls of protest were heard fifteen years ago when a self-avowed “liberal” like General Pervez Musharraf made a tentative bid to promote his philosophy of “enlightened moderation” in the face of rising extremism.
Over the decades, these people have painted liberalism as anathema for state and society by propagating it to mean secularism, which in turn has been deliberately misinterpreted to denote atheist or impious or irreligious conduct. Misguided or opportunist politicians have gone a step further by condemning “liberal fascists” – a contradiction in terms because liberalism abhors fascism – for demanding resolute action against religious extremists like the Taliban, jihadis and sectarian terrorists who don’t recognize, let alone protect, the nation state because they stand for Khilafat or global political “Islam”.
In actual fact, liberalism is a 19th century philosophy of enlightened political economy that defends universal human rights like freedom of speech, artistic expression, religious worship, private property and the welfare and liberty of the individual in a representative system of democratic government. Its economic tenets are based on notions of relatively free markets and income redistribution through a progressive system of taxes and welfare payments for poverty alleviation.
Secularism, in turn, denotes a separation of religion from the politics of the modern democratic nation-state. In the mind of the Quaid-e-Azam, it implied a country in which all Pakistanis were equal in the eyes of the state, regardless of their caste, creed, religion or class: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
The tragedy is that the opportunistic civil-military-mullah alliance has made religion the bedrock of the ideological state of Pakistan. This misplaced concreteness has cost us dearly in our quest for nationhood.
This realization first dawned on General Musharraf in 2000 and compelled him to clutch at the notion of “enlightened moderation”. Then General Ashfaq Kayani woke up to the “existential threat” from religious extremism in 2011. Finally, in 2014, General Raheel Sharif rolled up his sleeves and went into action against the Taliban. Indeed, that is exactly what the civil-military framers of the National Action Plan against terrorism had in mind when they criminalized sectarian hate speech and terrorism and demanded madrassah reform. In fact, Mr Sharif was flogging the same idea when he attended a Diwali function two weeks ago in Karachi and said the government would defend and promote the “human rights of each and every citizen of the state, regardless of their religion and beliefs”. He said: “you are residents of Pakistan. Every resident of Pakistan, no matter who it is, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Parsi, no matter who it is, belongs to me, and I belong to them”.
It is remarkable that the very civil-military institutions that are responsible for making political Islam the business of the state over the last six decades are now implicitly acknowledging the dangerous consequences of institutionalizing such a falsehood, and desperately searching for ways and means to reverse it. The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Anwar Jamali, recently talked of the failure of Pakistan as a “qaum” or nation. The truth is that Pakistan’s quest for nationhood has been thwarted by sectarian, tribal and ethnic impulses in the face of an unduly centralized, authoritarian and heavily ideologised state apparatus.
The Pakistan Peoples Party was always critical of this state of affairs. But it was constantly thwarted from correcting course by the military and its civilian adjunct, the Pakistan Muslim League. Now, thankfully, positive change is in the air. Nawaz Sharif was handpicked and nurtured by the military three decades ago to do its bidding. He duly became the nemesis of the PPP, in the bargain getting into bed with the religious parties, passing Islamic laws and promoting jihad against India. Now he is all for peace with India, wants to stop all jihad across borders, is waking up to action against sectarian parties and religious terrorists and is embarrassed and hampered by the Islamic laws passed on his watch. The military, no less, sees the primary and immediate national security threat as emanating from internal religious extremism and not externally from archenemy India. Unfortunately, however, Imran Khan’s PTI is still muddying the waters by continuing to resist the development of a new national narrative of state and society based on modern notions of liberal and secular democracy.
Such an awakening, however partial and belated, should be welcomed. The rise of Al-Qaeda, followed by the Taliban and now ISIS, is a dangerous reminder of how nation-states can be undone by religious fanaticism and violent extremism.