Jan 11, 2010

Absence of an open society

The problem with liberalism in Pakistan is that it has been clubbed with the concept of Westernisation

By Raza Khan

The phenomenon of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, with its negative connotations, is largely the result of lack of openness in society. Extremism and terrorism is largely due to absence of individual freedom -- not just the freedom to think and act independently but also economic freedom. The central ideals of liberalism, including liberty of individuals, self-restraint, moderation and compromise, if pursued inside Pakistan, could greatly prevent extremist tendencies from rising. The central concepts emanating from liberalism could be made the core of a comprehensive strategy of countering extremism and terrorism.

The creation of a civil society and independent and vibrant media at home with enhanced economic and cultural integration could greatly serve the purpose. People having a liberal thinking prevailed on the Western political thought after the epoch-making social movements of Reformation and Enlightenment in Western Europe. Gradually, this thinking evolved into a grand societal theory influencing all aspects of national life.

The central concepts of liberalism were so forceful that they could not remain confined to intra-state level and influenced life elsewhere also. It was liberalism in action that challenged first the domestic extremism and subsequently international terrorism of Adolf Hitler led fascists. In the same manner, through practising liberal ideals extremism and terrorism in contemporary Pakistan can be contested.

Anees Jilani, head of Liberal Forum Pakistan, a civil society organisation that promotes liberalism in Pakistan, tells The News on Sunday (TNS), "Even if you stick to just one principle of liberalism that is individual freedom in Pakistan and respect the people's freedom the level of extremism in society could be significantly curtailed." As the essence of Liberalism is self restraint, moderation, compromise and peace the lack or absence of all these elements leads to creation of extremist and violent tendencies. Once liberalism pervades Pakistani society people will learn how to demonstrate self-restraint.

Anees Jillani says, "Basically, it is lack of education and that is directly related to lack of tolerance. So, when we talk of lack of tolerance it is about lack of individual freedom. I think if people are given quality education it could make some difference. Education which is imparted in Pakistan does not serve a purpose, except producing intolerant people. There is need to review the curriculum."

Dr A H Nayyar, a researcher at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) tells TNS, "The reason Pakistan is poor in all sectors is primarily because of military intervening in politics (power politics) and its trying to define things according to its own interest which has always led to disasters." Nayyar argues that had there been individual freedom in the country individuals could make their political choices out of freewill and things would have been different.

Since liberalism is about the liberty of the individual, every individual can express his or her view, pursue the goal he or she wants and, consequently, give vent to their pent-up emotions. Given the nature of closed Pakistani society it should be no surprise that social settings produce restless souls.

Another meaning of liberalism is that state must always be the servant of collective will, not the master and democratic institutions are the best way of guaranteeing this. It can be assumed that collective will in a society is non-violent and anti-extremist and anti-terrorist.

If one looks deep into the phenomenon of extremism and terrorism it transpires that, partly, the intervention of successive governments of Pakistan and the establishment single-handedly or in concert with the US, created jihadis for the Afghan War. It may be mentioned that it was not only clerical extremism that was given an opportunity to thrive in Pakistan but also ethno-nationalist extremism.

There is a general consensus among the intellectuals and others that the underlying reason for the spread of extremism in Pakistan has been the absence of democracy or representative government, the very important pillars of a liberal society. This is true to a certain extent because the unrepresentative regimes and military authorities have had to depend upon clerical groups to depoliticise the society. Depoliticisation naturally went in favour of unrepresentative authority.

This has been typically the situation with Pakistani society where lack of individual liberty due to its tribal social structure and autocratic state structure, have compelled thousands of youths to quest for 'other' worldly pursuits. The intervention by the military in the social and individual life has not been the only intervention. The political instability, which it fomented, made the 'establishment' to look for support from without. Thus, it invited the US to interfere in Pakistan's internal affairs by making itself the instrument of US manipulation inside Pakistan.

The issue of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan is not merely a domestic one but there is sufficient evidence that it has regional and international fallout in the shape of violence in Afghanistan. There has been little debate on the contention that feudal and tribal social structure and military-dominated state structure curbed all individual freedom and created a vacuum in society that was filled by extremism and militancy. The practical shape of liberal ideals is the civil society and an independent media and a symbiotic relationship between the two.

The problem with liberalism in Pakistan is that it has been clubbed with the concept of Westernisation. Anees says, "Yes there is a kind of stigma attached to the term liberalism in Pakistan because the detractors look at those who believe in liberalism with a particular mindset. They don't go into the wider philosophy of liberalism." At the moment, there is a need to remove misconception about liberalism in Pakistan.

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