Where are the Zia Days?

Had someone suggested in late 1988, or even late 2008, that I will fondly remember the Ziaul Haq days, I would probably have advised him or her immediately to get interned in a psychological ward of some public hospital. But in late 2015, not only am I am thinking of Ziaul Haq, but wishing that those days were back. At least the battle lines were clear then. We knew that a powerful military general was trying to uproot all kinds of freedoms, including the liberty to think, imagine, write and even pursue your faith as you wanted. Zia was anti-left, anti-liberal and anti anything that did not support his right-wing-centered military strategy. People got picked up, beaten up and thrashed for freedom of media and humanity.

Even the quislings were carefully hiding themselves. Growing up amongst the literati of Pakistan, as the child of a fiction writer, I remember the gossip about some characters that pretended to be liberal yet were suspected of reporting to the ‘establishment’ about activities or spoken words of unsuspecting colleagues. Naturally, people were cautious. There were natural benefits, as people learned to speak and write in abstraction. And readers became intelligent, as they learned to wade through the signaling to pick up the real meaning.

Liberalism is about a human being’s right to life and expression

I suppose anyone reading this piece may think that I am writing about current times, which are even worse, as people now self-censor without any visible sign of torture and oppression. It is, in fact, oppression that has become abstract. These are indeed strange times. There is seemingly no direct pressure on liberals and liberalism. In fact, the state would love to propagate fashion shows, concerts and much more to the outside world as an indicator of the country’s openness. Yet, there is also a systematic campaign to destroy liberalism and posit it as one of the major issues on par with religious radicalism that appears to have taken the country through a cycle of violence. It is interesting to read pieces that betray ignorance of liberalism and politics to argue that liberalism is anti-Pakistani nationalism.

A woman gets baton-charged at a PSF rally in 1981
A woman gets baton-charged at a PSF rally in 1981

Read together, and reading between the lines, two particular opinion pieces published recently – both seemingly connected with the security discourse and influenced by the security establishment in Pakistan – aimed to make the following points:

–  that there is a bunch of people called the liberals, who are as dangerous as the militant-rightwing of the Peshawar APS carnage type

–     the liberals are anti-Pakistan and certainly not nationalist

–     liberals are generally unimpressive and have no influence on setting social and political trends

–     that a better socio-political alternative for Pakistan is the religious right that is dedicated to the state and, hence, termed as pragmatist

–     according to Aamir Rana, the JuD and JI represent a sound mix of pragmatism, Pakistani nationalism and respect for religious values

What makes such a shallow analysis dangerous is the fact that it seems to have found an audience within the security establishment. The fact that one of these articles was published in the army journal Hilal is a reminder of the Zia days and afterwards, when armed forces were consistently encouraged to think sympathetically of the religious right, including the jihads. Violence may be just a facet of the overall terrorism problem. A major dimension is radicalism, which is likely to get encouraged – especially within the security and law enforcement establishment – if their members are given the spiel that liberalism is all bad. The liberal elements may be generally ineffective, but this kind of ostracization runs the risk of generating radicalism amongst state functionaries that in itself is dangerous for Pakistan. Perhaps the capable army chief needs to look at what is being fed to his men intellectually.

Readers became intelligent, as they learned to wade through the signaling to pick up the real meaning

Notwithstanding the fact that there is no one type of liberalism as there is no one kind of right wing, it is necessary to understand three issues. First, that liberalism is simply about a human being’s right to life and expression. This does not naturally become anti-nationalist. It is only in an environment of tolerance and free debate that people prosper and the nation becomes one. Citizens may challenge the way a state tries to straightjacket them and treat them, and that is not tantamount to threatening it. After all, states are made for citizens to have a better life. The latter have the right to question the ruling elite that ought not to be deemed as rebellion. Second, liberalism broadly defined in Pakistan’s larger context does not equate with secularism. However, even if people may seem uncomfortable with the idea of secularism, that cannot be an excuse to deny the fact that the country came into being through the efforts of many people with liberal socio-political values starting with the founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah. His lifestyle is by no description that of members of the rightwing, even though he used religious identity to create a state. Similarly, much of the professional class that struggled for Pakistan belonged to this category. The issue of liberals in Pakistan is not with the idea of Pakistan but a particular interpretation of it. In more recent years, in particular, the liberal elements have been as pragmatic as journalist Aamir Rana deems the JuD or JI to be, since many have partnered with the state including the military to dominate the national narrative. Were the cabinet and some of the close partners of the Ayub or Musharraf regimes not liberal? In any case, one of the prominent contexts of liberals in Pakistan is to secure the society and state from a rightwing takeover, which would make it difficult for people to co-exist.


Third, the key reason for irrelevance of liberals and liberalism in this country is not some imagined irrationality, but that the state and its security apparatus always co-opted the religious and political right, and it was always a very tight embrace. Here, the inclusion of many liberals in the state and its policymaking must not be confused with institutional acceptance of liberalism. From the pirs and sajjada nasheens to mullah and jihadis, the state partnered with all forms of religious right mainly to strengthen itself politically and geo-politically. While the liberal left was often jailed and castigated, regime after regime choose to partner with the religious right due to the latter’s military-tactical value. The use of the JI in East Pakistan or again the JI, JUI and other religious right parties or factions to fight the wars in Afghanistan, Kashmir and other fronts is a case in point. The continuous strategic use of religion later defined Pakistan’s nationalism as religious-nationalism, which is now considered as representing the meaning of Pakistan. The question worth asking is, would this have happened if Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had not bowed before the mullahs or had Zia and Musharraf both not embraced mullahs and militants in their respective ways?

The liberals were opposed to such a love affair on the basis that a narrow definition of nationalism and confining it to particular ideological parameter was unfair to hundreds of thousands of other people – religious and ethnic minorities – that were equally eager to play their rightful role in nation building. There was always this back and forth argumentation about what kind of state the founding father wanted to create. Was it a theocratic state or a secular/liberal type that accommodated everyone? If people read history, they would realize that such a debate predates creation of Pakistan. It was, in fact, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is currently considered an emblem of pragmatism and defined by equally misguided academics as a ‘secularizing force’, that opposed the idea of Pakistan. The liberals represented by the urban middle class wanted a separate state where they had a better chance to survive as compared to under a larger India. Of course there were times that given the nature of state politics, which abhorred ethnic and religious diversity, people did question if this is indeed the country they had imagined for themselves.

The modern day liberal, or even Islamist, does not want to break the country but wants to dominate its discourse. As compared to a few decades ago, Pakistan is stronger in terms of its acceptance as an idea. It is indeed a reality. However, the contestation remains as to what kind of state it was meant to be and how it should grow. Broadly speaking, the issue with the liberals is not the use of religion but that the state must not use it politically to then excommunicate some citizens. The emphasis is on pluralism so that people can talk to each other. The political use of Islam since the 1970s created conditions in which today even the Muslims find it hard to talk to each other.

Intriguingly, it took the death of over 140 innocent children in Peshawar for the deep state and the larger society to realize that it must abandon the bulk of violent extremists. While everyone including the religious and political right must have the right to express itself, it is worthwhile understanding that such a continued attack on liberalism is equally dangerous for the nation’s integrity and coherence. This is not about western or foreign values, but protecting one’s own values, culture and history through dialogue and debate. If then, asking for political, social and cultural pluralism is anti-nationalist then let’s all become that.

Note: This article originally published here.