Monday, November 20, 2006

Why I am a liberal extremist

President General Pervez Musharraf is angry with extremists; not just your garden variety bearded kind, but also “liberal extremists”. Addressing the nation in the wake of the passing of the watered down and egregiously named – more on that in a minute - Women’ Protection Bill, the President patted himself on the back for masterminding a path through the middle ground. Women are safer; the beards have been dealt a blow; and the demands of liberal extremists have been parried.

The beards have long been the bête noire of progress in Pakistan, but liberals have come in for some stick lately. For sure, the objects of the president’s displeasure were not all extremist liberals. Indeed, in the current dispensation, a certain kind of liberal extremist has been embraced and feted: the economic liberal extremist. Laissez faire is the order of the day with coastlines, islands, land and other assets being sold for a song and with the president regularly heard praising the “investment” in our country.

No, it is clear that the president reserves his disapproval for a particular kind of liberal extremist – the social one. Indeed, the label of “liberal extremist” is disingenuous for more often than not it is used as a proxy for a secularist. Secularists are definitely the most misunderstood group in the country; they are scorned as evil people who are determined to rid the world of religion, thereby invoking the wrath of God and expediting the end of the world. The particulars may vary, but they are all tarred with the brush of godlessness. Of course, the protests of secularists traduced in this manner are dismissed; the subtleties of the difference between neutrality and opposition to religion are ignored. Secularists, we are told, cannot comprehend the cosmic forces that they threaten to unbalance. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.

Well, Mr President, I protest this imprimatur given to misogyny in the name of religion. If secularism is liberal extremism, then I’m a liberal extremist and proud of the fact. I take umbrage at the charge that we are an incoherent lot. I pour scorn on the title of your bill to protect women; women don’t need “protection”, they need emancipation and empowerment. It’s not mere semantics; women are not the wards of the state and, if history has taught us anything, meddling in their lives only worsens their plight.

Mr, President, as a proud liberal extremist, I am neither an aberration nor a perversion of right-thinking. On the contrary, liberal extremists have a rich pedigree in this land. Allow me, Mr President, to quote the standard-bearer of liberal extremists:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

I’m sure you know those words well, Mr President. Despite the best efforts of your predecessor to erase the record of Mr Jinnah, his words have survived and continue to inspire. Liberal extremists are nothing if not determined to preserve the truth, Mr President. Many have tried to debunk the notion that Mr Jinnah was a secularist – a liberal extremist, if you will – but none have been able to reconcile his personal affairs and eating and drinking preferences with that assertion. Indeed, Mr Jinnah would have had to have been a self-loathing man of the highest order to live his life in the manner he chose and yet advocate that the state he created ought to dictate the religious mores of its people.

As a liberal extremist, I worry about the alternative. Religion is either a part of the state or it is not – the middle ground will yield no more than a slippery slope towards religious intolerance. It may be difficult to accept the word of a self-confessed liberal extremist, Mr President, so I refer you to the Report on the Punjab Disturbances of 1953, i.e. the Munir Report. Charged with examining the causes of anti-Ahmadi riots, Chief Justice Munir called the great and the good amongst Islamic scholars and asked them, amongst other things, to define a Muslim and the grounds for apostasy. After hearing the opinions of all the learned men who came before his commission, the Chief Justice made an observation that is so stunning in its logic and clarity that it is would be considered subversive today:

The net result of all this is that neither Shias nor Sunnis nor Deobandis nor Ahl-i-Hadith nor Barelvis are Muslims and any change from one view to the other must be accompanied in an Islamic State with the penalty of death if the Government of the State is in the hands of the party which considers the other party to be kafirs. And it does not require much imagination to judge of the consequences of this doctrine when it is remembered that no two ulama have agreed before us as to the definition of a Muslim. If the constituents of each of the definitions given by the ulama are given effect to, and subjected to the rule of ‘combination and permutation’ and the form of charge in the Inquisition’s sentence on Galileo is adopted mutatis mutandis as a model, the grounds on which a person may be indicted for apostasy will be too numerous to count.” (Emphasis added.)

Chief Justice Munir’s comments ought to have been printed and dropped from the skies all across the country, but truthfulness has never been a forte of our leaders. The report was buried for decades, an uncomfortable reality for a country bent on turning its back on the principles its founder. Mr President, it is easy, indeed, fashionable, to flog the body of secularism – liberal extremism – but it cannot be killed for it has already been immortalised.

I do not, indeed cannot, aspire to reach your high office, Mr President. But I do decry the pusillanimity of our elected leaders in the face of the beards’ bluster. And I demand that all the misogynistic and religiously intolerant laws that are a blot on the country’s consciousness be struck out. If I were ever to occupy a public office, I would eschew travelling across the globe to make a pilgrimage to the village of Miranwala and proudly stand besides that brave woman, Mukhtar Mai, who is probably the only genuine hero figure this country has produced since the death of its founder. I would do that, Mr President, because I am proud to stand up and be counted as a liberal extremist.


o2 said...

Great stuff dude...

Anonymous said...

Munir may have been right about the mullahs but otherwise he was generally a liar and a bigot. Read his 1978 book if you don't believe me.