Sign Up

Pakistan’s Shrinking Liberal Minority

Caught between Western-backed illiberal authoritarians and anti-Western religious fanatics, liberalism is under siege

June 5, 2016

Caught between Western-backed illiberal authoritarians and anti-Western religious fanatics, liberalism is under siege

I just got back to New Delhi from a week-long visit to Pakistan. Going from India to Pakistan, for me, is always an adventure. In this commentary, however, I will not talk about the intricacies of Indo-Pakistan relations.

This is about my encounters with Pakistani liberals and those professing to be liberals – and my perspectives on liberalism in the strategically located (and predominantly Muslim) Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

As the Regional Director of a liberal institute from Europe that aims at promoting freedom in all corners of the world, I have had privileged access to like-minded individuals and their organizations in Pakistan. The list of interlocutors was long.

While each and every person I talked with had her own issues, I would soon appreciate that Pakistani liberals are unintentionally united by shared concerns. The people I met in Karachi and Islamabad said in phalanx that they are afraid, that they feel under siege.

Pervasive fear

“Liberals here are afraid for their lives,” said a TV journalist who asked me not to quote him using his name. “I, too, am quite afraid,” said the media man who also told me that threatening hate-mails pile up in his inbox every time he is on air. “We have lost our space. We see this encroachment also in the media.”

This complaint I heard on numerous occasions. From the perspective of a casual newspaper reader visiting from abroad, I found the harshness of the statement odd. The English language newspapers I read had impressed me for the diversity of commentary in well-structured op-ed pages.

But then, who am I to judge the media freedom in a nation that Reporters without Borders ranks very low – trailing even Zimbabwe and Venezuela, to name just two countries that are all but famed for their weak civil liberties environment.

Pakistani friends had invited me to give a talk in Karachi. I guess symptomatically, they titled the speech “Liberalism on the Defensive.” “On the defensive” is an apt description of the state of liberalism in Pakistan. I would add the attributes “without a clear message” and, last but not least, “unorganized.”

The unorganized, liberal center

One way of getting to terms with the quality of liberalism in a country is to look at the organizations promoting it. In advanced democracies you soon come across liberal political parties.

Such parties with a defined liberal program and a liberal agenda are absent in Pakistan – and, by the way, also in the entire South Asian region.

In this part of the world, liberals instead organize as non-governmental organizations or NGOs. They are a recognizable force in the civil society that in other parts of the world is often dominated by more left-wing ideologues who fall outside of liberal parties.

In South Asia, NGOs spearhead many important liberal causes: human rights, civil liberties, transparency, the rule of law and social justice.

Religious caveats

Occasionally, on my visit to Pakistan, I heard the term “secularism.” But the religious theme came along with various caveats.

Many self-proclaimed Pakistani liberals have culturally relativized what may be termed a basic international liberal consensus. (This consensus falls within a discourse which, admittedly, has been dominated by Western forces.)

“Freedom must be compatible with our cultural norms,” said one of my liberal interlocutors in an effort to explain or justify his illiberal lack of commitment to gender equality and the rights of sexual minorities.

In my many discussions, I discerned variants of just how far self-styled Pakistani liberals believed a predominantly Muslim society should be open to individual freedoms.

That said, everyone I talked to agreed that the climate of intolerance was on the rise and the space for dissenting views shrinking.

A hateful education

These shrinking spaces fall together with increasing levels of extremist violence. Violent fundamentalism and a narrow view of Islam breed intolerance and fuel acts of violence, writes Syed Mohamed Ali in an opinion article of a leading Pakistani newspaper.

“The problem of growing intolerance is due to the low quality, bias-ridden, and sectarian content of the educational curriculum being taught in all schools across Pakistan,” the writer explains. It does not take long to understand that this educational system is the Achilles heel of Pakistan’s liberalism.

As long as the country’s school teachers are tasked to glorify armed jihad and give armed conflict the cloak of religion, “violence in the name of religion becomes justifiable in the hands of modern-day militant groups as well,” says Madiha Afzal in an opinion piece titled “The Pakistani curriculum and extremism.”

Her sobering, if not terrifying conclusion is: “Few other countries have the narratives of hate, victimhood, paranoia and conspiracy that float around in Pakistan.”

Importantly, she says, these narratives are promoted not only by the religious groups and their helpers, but also by politicians and the media.

The collusion of these powerful forces seriously affects the breathing space of Pakistan liberals, who refer to themselves as “shrinking liberal minority.”

Strongmen are not liberals

A major strategic challenge for this miniscule political community is the lack of a clear demarcation from those in power. Since the powerful have caused many of Pakistan’s problems, associating liberalism with them (erroneously) has endangered liberals.

The detractors portray liberals as pro-Western apologists and cheerleaders of illiberal government (military or civilian depending on the year). Liberals are thus seen as an integral part of a political and socio-economic order that is objectively distant from the principles of freedom and economic well-being espoused in liberal speeches.

In a merciless commentary entitled “The problem with Pakistani liberals,” Vaqar Ahmed goes so far to accuse the (liberal) victims of the Islamist rage of having created the monster now out to crunch them:

“The truth is that the Talibanisation of Pakistan is not the cause but the symptom of the problem,” he writes.

Religious extremists do not descend from the sky with bombs strapped to their chests. Every effect has a cause, and the responsibility for the creation of the bigots falls squarely on those who call themselves secular and liberal.

In Pakistan, therefore, we see that illiberal yet non-Islamist forces, be they in government or not, have hijacked the well-sounding label “liberal” to describe their not-liberal policies. That’s the bad news for liberals.

The good news from my visit to Pakistan is that I have also come across many people who believe in the importance of individual liberty and in spite of all the odds continue to strive for a free, tolerant, progressive and economically developed country.

I admire these people for their courage in what, at times, looks like a hopeless battle.

More on this topic


Pakistan’s illiberal forces hijacked the term “liberal” to describe their not-liberal policies.

Pakistan’s liberals say they feel under siege and fearful for their lives.

I met many embattled liberals in Pakistan who are still fighting for individual liberty & progress.