Death of a Liberal Dream: Ayesha Siddiqa

(From Viewpoint Online)

By Ayesha Siddiqa

In death as in life, Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer, seems alone in his struggle to save Asiya Bibi from death sentence under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law. Taseer’s sin was that he called this law— conceived by General Zia ul-Haq —black . Therefore, many members of the public are jubilant he is dead and just a handful of liberal and educated members of the elite mourn him. The elite, including Taseer’s Pakistan People’s Party, do not have the strength to change the blasphemy law or any other questionable laws. As for the common man, he is not bothered because he cannot identify with Salman Taseer and the liberal elite’s liberalism.

The governor’s death is merely one violent manifestation of all that has changed in Pakistan. There are non-violent examples as well, which indicate the changing nature of the social environment. For instance, just a year ago, prominent moderate religious scholar Javed Ghamdi had to leave his hometown Lahore and shift to Dubai because of the death threats he received. Unfortunately, his departure in the face of terror went largely unnoticed and unheeded. What will happen now that Taseer has been assassinated?

There will be no rollback of radicalism. There are six reasons why the liberal elite will not be able to proactively react to the changing environment. First, Pakistan’s liberals have no participation in religious discourse or authority on religion . The country was made in the name of religious identity by Mohammad Ali Jinnah , himself a man of modern-liberal habits. Jinnah’s secularism gave the ruling elite the perception that they could continue with their liberal lifestyle while using Islam for legitimacy without delving into religion themselves . The educated uppermiddle class and upper class left religion to the clerics, who developed the discourse according to their own understanding and needs. The elite, on the other hand, engaged in striking Faustian bargains with the clerics every time they ran out of political legitimacy . This continues to be the case.

Second, there is a segment of the religious elite that depends upon the state being non-secular . The pirs or guardians of sufi shrines are in various political parties and represent a class of spiritual-landowners that draws political legitimacy from religion . It is hard work to alter the religious interpretation of religious laws and socio-religious norms, so some politicians (including the country’s current prime minister and foreign minister) tend to borrow from the religious discourse developed by clerics. Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani did not take any position on changing the blasphemy law. In any case, these pirs are culturally conservative and do not indicate any capacity to bring about social progress or encourage liberal norms.
Third, the liberal elite will tend to beef up its own security , even hiring foreign security companies to keep it safe while continuing to pretend to engage in realpolitik with the clerics. In the last few years, New Year parties have moved from elite clubs in downtown areas to farm houses in the suburbs. The elite are not likely to change the social norms— and / or laws —to create space for everyone else.

Fourth, given the state’s dependence upon Saudi Arabia , the liberal ruling elite will stay away from changes that are not part of the Saudi-Wahabi religious discourse.

Fifth, the war on terror and the internal divide created in Pakistan between those who support the war against the Taliban versus those that don’t , has put the ruling elite in a difficult, very tight corner . The elite is divided about the fact that religious-political leaders like the Jamaat e-Islami’s Fareed Paracha castigated Taseer for supporting Asiya Bibi while failing to raise a hue and cry about Aafia Siddiqui, the Americaneducated cognitive neuroscientist who was convicted in the US in September for assault with intent to murder American interrogators in Afghanistan . People don’t want to risk having a pro-American , which translates in Pakistan as being anti-Pakistan .

Finally, the ruling elite cannot be expected to change things because the majority already has one foot out of the door. Most members of the ruling elite have dual nationality , which means that if the situation deteriorates further they can always leave, along with their capital. This saves them from taking responsibility for improving social conditions and the country’s politics for the benefit of all.

Sadly, Salman Taseer’s murder at the hands of a religious bigot may be the first of its kind, but not the last. The fact that the murderer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, is being hailed as a hero by the religious and political right means that this act may set the trend in silencing sane voices. The ruling party in Punjab, PML-N , which has a history of fighting militants, has succumbed to extremist forces and is rejoicing in the elimination of a tough opponent.

If in Pakistan, as in the rest of the region, the ruling elite does not realize the high cost of feeding the radical right, Pakistan will cede bits of its territory and social space to religious fanatics.