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Liberalism anyone?

Liberalism anyone?

PAKISTANI politics is very conservative. Conservatives have ruled us for 53 years and centrists just for 17. The most likely winners in 2018 (PML and PTI) are both conservative. So, the next prime minister will very likely be a conservative too.

Conservatism is so big now it is fracturing. Zia, its Pakistani father, had its social, political and economic wings united. Not so anymore. The main fights globally are between liberals and conservatives. But our main ones are actually among conservatives: social (Taliban) vs political (army) vs PML-N (industrialist economic) vs PTI (middle-class economic). Sleaze suits industrialist conservatives but infuriates middle-class ones. Peace with India suits the interests of economic conservatives. But tensions suit their political and social cousins. The former uses faith politically only. But this upset jihadists who broke off. We now have the jihadist-linked Milli Muslim League joining politics. But cynics say ‘Milli’ is short for ‘military’.

In contrast, liberalism’s three strands are mutually coherent: political devolution, economic equity and social tolerance. Liberalism rightly links today’s major ills to social intolerance and concentrated power and wealth. But conservatives see things differently from liberals and even each other. Social ones link our ills to deviations from Islam and demand more public religiosity. Political ones link them to Indian and US designs and prefer political concentration and a hawkish foreign policy under the army’s hold. Economic ones pursue Ayub- and Sharif-style grandiose projects that neglect equity.

The huge costs of all this can be seen vividly. Economic inequity means we do poorly on social measures and suffer ongoing ethnic tensions. Low literacy levels affect the quality of governance too. Political conservatism has caused huge ethnic and sectarian violence, almost all of it starting under military rule, including the Taliban one which has cost thousands of lives and billions in economic losses. A hawkish foreign policy has caused tensions with regional and Western states and diversion of funds from development to defence. Social conservatism has caused intolerance, extremism and terrorism.

Conservatism will continue to harm us.

Thus, almost all of our ills stem from conservatism. South Asia is a poor region. But even centrist rule’s sway has given some progress to the masses elsewhere. Our love for conservatism means that we lag behind our neighbours on key social, political and economic measures. We have become an abnormal state obsessed with security and not welfare or development.

With these huge and obvious costs, one would expect growing national discontent and loud calls for a different ideology. But across the land of the pure there reigns smug contentment with it. As expected, conservative elites link all these problems to not conservatism but its insufficient application and see the solution in more conservatism. More strange is the addiction of the masses to conservative mantras despite bearing the bulk of its heavy costs.

Evolutionary psychology says there is an inherent bias for conservatism in human nature. The human brain includes two masses. There is an ancient one inherited from lower animals which contains base urges like domination, intolerance and aggression. Then there is a more recent one which contains humane urges for rationality, justice and tolerance. The former still dominates human actions though with the right environment, the latter can become dominant. Thus, it is easier for conservatives to attract adherents with their messages of intolerance and hatred than it is for liberals with their esoteric messages, especially in a low-literacy country.

Despite all this, there is no doubt conservatism will continue to harm us and only liberal ideas about political devolution, economic equity and social tolerance can stem the rot. The challenge is for thinkers to convert them into context-specific ideas and for activists to sell them via simple and evocative messages to the masses and the middle class while overcoming the misconceptions created by conservative elites against liberalism.

Economic and political liberalism with their focus on political and economic equity should be noncontroversial, even attractive given our widespread poverty and ethnic tensions. Tolerance for ethnic and religious differences should also appeal to large sections of Pakistanis. But some aspects of social liberalism, eg secularism and tolerance for alternative sexual and dietary habits, will run afoul of deep societal norms. So some adjustment may be needed.

But the key challenge is whether a liberal political movement with sufficient critical mass can emerge in today’s environment with conservatism so strong. The PPP had emerged when conservative parties and narratives were weak but even then soon succumbed to internal and external conservatism. The challenge today is bigger. Time alone will tell whether liberal forces can rise to it.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

[email protected]

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2017

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