It’s a few days before the Pakistani general election. You’re watching the new video that Muhammad Jibran Nasir uploaded about the backlash he received for his views on secular politics. After sharing his clip, in which he refuses to label Ahmadis as non-Muslims, one of your old middle school friends posts a long comment to remind you about the fundamentals of your religious beliefs. You frown at this downright ignorance. How can she look past the oppression that minorities face in this country? And how her sermons contribute to religious intolerance?

After this initial reaction, do you ignore her words? Or take it upon yourself to impart your progressive, morally correct, and inclusive perspective? If you’re anything like me, an opinionated politically liberal Pakistani, you probably choose the latter.

Recently, I took a class with a professor who I shared little to no common ground with. Our worldviews, from politics to culture, were built on distinct narratives. He was someone I described as a conservative, in the context of United States, and he described me as someone so much towards the left that he considered Bernie Sanders a right-wing politician in my comparison. We were both not only generations apart, but also on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But, almost surprisingly, we got along just fine and even had many productive discussions. How did that happen?

Our worldviews, from politics to culture, were built on distinct narratives.

It was during this time that I was introduced to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. This book left a transformative impact on my ability to rise above differences of politics, or in the case of Pakistan I would say religious politics, and learn to engage in a more constructive manner instead of assuming a morally high ground in my discourse. This book is especially relevant nowadays, as we move closer to the general election and our political differences seem more dividing than ever in the age of social media.

Maybe it’s you, or you have a friend, who criticizes any individuals or groups that bring up religious politics in the governance of Pakistan. You, or your friend, label them as ignorant, but perhaps it’s you who doesn’t understand the significance of religious nationalism in this country. Haidt argues that you, or your friend, would be categorized as “weird” if this is how you think, as such views are often supported by privileged progressives who are educated in western industrialized societies. But due to the prevalence of Eurocentric ideas of modernity in the post-colonial state, Pakistan, the influence of this education within elite institutions also counts as an entrance to the “weird” group.

Have you ever wondered why such liberal views don’t appeal to majority of Pakistanis? Why are people against the freedom to practice their religious beliefs without state influence? And why can’t majority of Pakistanis sympathize with oppression against women and religious minorities?

In his research, Haidt identifies six foundations of morality–compassion, liberty, fairness, loyalty, sanctity, and authority. Liberals, like myself, tend to value care and liberty while conservatives are often able to sacrifice some objectives, like care, in order to achieve many others moral objectives of loyalty, sanctity, authority, and fairness. The reason that conservative views appeal to a large number of people is because they rest on many moral foundations, while liberal views exclusively take into account compassion and the fight against oppression.

Pakistani conservatives have been able to align their policies with Durkheimian vision, which focuses on tradition and collective identity, their policies and beliefs inevitably get more support, as they strengthen the collective identity.

Haidt politics graph
Haidt’s graph of values

In a country where Muslim-ness is a major component of national narrative, ultimately validating one’s Pakistani-ness, it is difficult for narratives of secularity to take root among the majority. Conservative Pakistanis support political discourse that is formulated on moral foundations of loyalty to status quo, respect for authority, fairness for in-group members, and sanctity towards Sharia legislation, like the blasphemy laws (295-C). Hence, the narratives that take root in a society, such as ours, span over varied moral foundations.

Pakistan is a country where far-right rhetoric has deadly consequences. Pakistani liberals bear more responsibility than ever to find narratives that appeal to people outside of their “weird” circles. In order to engage with majority of the country, it is instrumental to give heed to the way conservatives think. The narratives that liberals use should make use of more principles of morality, instead of ignoring anything outside compassion and liberty altogether.

Shifting the overton window will be a struggle
The ‘Overton Window’ of political possibility has gradually shifted to the right over the past few decades.

Jibran Nasir’s political campaign is based on constructive engagement with people (not just Defense-walay-liberal-bachay) in the form of corner meetings almost every day. His arguments take into account not only the Durkheimian structure of society, but also varied moral values that resonate with people, regardless of their political affiliations. Despite the inevitable backlash, he has stuck to his values at a time where it’s difficult to gain sufficient support without trampling on the weakest members of society. Perhaps he’s the radical that the Pakistani liberals need to look up to, regardless of how many votes he gets.

Before responding to your old middle school friend, maybe we need to understand that it’s not a battle between good and evil, morality and immorality, knowledge and ignorance, but about the struggle to navigate blurry lines to find space for mutual engagement.