The Pakistani Liberal: Where We Go Wrong


‘You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose.” – Jeff Daniel’s now viral rant from the television series Newsroom offered a scathing review of the post-Cold War neoliberalist narrative that lingered till the 2016 US Presidential Elections. The world is now a different place than the one we had presumed while studying our liberal arts degrees, stepping out of the safety of the hard science degrees such as Engineering and Medicine. Today, the average artificially-engineered liberal in Pakistan is completely out of sync not only with global events but their immediate surroundings just as well.

Repeating our mistakes: AWKU

Take the whole Abdul Wali Khan University incident as an example: without going into the uncomfortable details of the unfortunate incident itself, let’s adopt a self-reflexive approach in identifying basic flaws in our collective reasoning when overcome with such events, especially through social media.

Firstly, we as a nation, took the creative freedom in implicitly assuming that the majority of our fellow countrymen had been completely de-radicalized because of the Pakistan Super League. It is embarrassing and deeply misleading whenever Pakistan is presented as a progressive country. There is nothing to hide or be ashamed of – we must learn to show our scars; only then may we heal them. The narratives of a hidden Asian tiger, Punjabi pride and the ‘Pathan hospitality of Northern Pakistan’ blossom on our news feeds like the uninvited Phupho-from-England whenever extremists go into hiding for their bi-annual mating retreats. We actually do come to believe that Pakistan is the greatest nation of Earth, thereby capitulating us to complacency as the real core issues linger on: the massive social divisions, corruption, our inability to learn and our government’s blind infatuation with CPEC, because who doesn’t want a sequel to Confessions of an Economic Hitman.

It takes one suicide bomber and the linear narrative we painfully construct for this short time period gets tangled up like one of those bad Tarantino flicks.

Secondly, we blame the poor, crude Pakistani a bit too much. Listen – you have access to millions of DIY websites, self-help forums, support forums and mindfulness apps – all this wisdom radiating underneath the soft-lit tungsten lamps that lighten up from our air-conditioned study rooms and yet we still barely manage to get through life, hoping to make sense of our shortcomings: failed relationships, missed opportunities, harsh driving, alcohol and drugs, infidelity of varying degrees, tinkering with state finances and the dozens of crazy things we do and people we hurt in our own ways. And there, on the other side, is your average underprivileged Pakistani citizen, who assuming Locke’s tabula rasa conception has anything to do with it, would not be the cheeriest lad on Earth. Are we so secure in our self-righteous bubbles that we only wish to identify the problem but not understand it?

This reminds me of a talk I once attended of Maajid Nawaz, the chairman of the British counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam. He advised that we must ‘root out extremist thinking’ and plant ‘democratic seeds’ forcefully if required. When I commented that such a methodology would only aggravate complaints of ‘western dishonesty’, Maajid unashamed response was: ‘Well, then we must fake it’. It was clear that he knew the problem better than anyone. What he did not truly understand was the subject. What is ironic about the whole matter was that Maajid himself was a former extremist.

Here stems an elementary criticism of the social sciences (and to a lesser extent, in light of it’s less ostentatious assumptions: the liberal sciences). Don’t let career philosophers fool you with their oratory skils: observing, theorizing and cataloguing the world from afar and may have worked wonders in the hard sciences, but the human aspect of the social sciences demands more. It is often easy to forget that a surprising fraction of modern social sciences are of very little measurable, intrinsic value beyond enabling us in becoming better marketers, writers and orators: skills indeed, but not ones we should look to align our moral compass with. The self-evident truths that we so easily adopt because ‘we heard it on BBC’ or ‘our all-knowing Harvard graduate cousin was speaking in favour of it’ are almost always dwelled in deep debates, rifts and confusion which marks so many issues in the social sciences. This is a primary motive behind the longing for methodologies that can bring the social sciences closer to the ‘hard’ sciences.

We, as educated liberal-minded Pakistanis of course, pay little heed to context and succumb to these often-incoherent conceptualizations of human nature and contemporary society as we try to drag-and-drop them into our local landscape. This is a project that is not only undesirable but impossible as well. As social constructivists have achingly conveyed for the last three decades, we must first seek to understand the people we criticize before we hope to make them understand us.

Thirdly, we have continued the practice of disproportionate securitization of nearly all issues. Whereas the Copanhagen School’s conceptualization of securitization revolves around legitimizing extraordinary use of security for socially constructed threats, here I refer primarily to the legitimization of disproportionate political mileage afforded to issues that may have comparatively little effect on a state or community’s well-being. The securitization of any issue, such as Abdul Wali Khan University incident (as revolting as it was), leads to a disproportionate and irrational investment of time, money and public outcry. The real work will eventually need to be undertaken in constructivist think tanks and educational reform circles with a focus on long term social reform – the disenchanted grunts of five percent of the country’s population achieves nothing. A case in point is the United States: years of liberal idealism and globalism were swept away because the majority of working Americans felt unrepresented.

Moving forward

There are lessons to be learned. We must not only look for alternative perspectives, but new methodologies in analyzing our immediate world. For those acquainted with British literature on fundamentalism, you will invariably have come across modest confessions that there is very little that is known and a lot to learn. As people who are much closer to the problem than our former colonizers, we must look to develop our innate tools and techniques for analyzing our people and the issues before them. Borrowing terminologies and guiding frameworks from foreign observers may be convenient, but it is certainly not the complete answer.



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