The Desi Liberal

The Toothless Pakistani Liberal

The other day someone accused me of being a liberal. While not an outright act of war it was at least a border skirmish with some hawai firing. The term ‘liberal’ has become unfashionable of late – the stereotype it conjures in Pakistan is that of burger bachay, with a strongly middle/upper class identity, who believe if only we could ctrl+alt+del Zia from our nation’s history we’d be Dubai by now. They’ve also come heavily under fire in recent times by politicians and journalists alike. But why are they so reviled?

In the US and Europe, a liberal is pretty easy to define – they’re usually centrists who believe a few tweaks to the system in the form of incremental changes should be the mantra of the day. Representation is important but more in the form of token diversity figures than any real systemic change (for instance women/transsexuals/gays have the right to step on the poor as well as anyone else) and economically they favour the neoliberal status quo believing privatisation is A Good Thing because philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates and Richard Branson will save us all.

bill gates philanthrocapitalist
Philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates, or their Pakistani counterparts, won’t be able to save us. Credit: Recode

Liberals in Pakistan are pretty hard to define. For a start, their social liberalness is inherently radical – a belief that minorities have rights and should be treated equally is enough to make you persona non grata in a country that’s been grappling with the throes of fundamentalism for a few five decades. This makes them a powerful voice for the marginalised, however, the issue is that in a lot of other ways they’re still clearing their throats.

Liberals are often the English-speaking, educated, elite class of a poor, developing country and due to our colonial hangover they’re still a little tipsy (read: punch drunk) on gharbzadegi. So they live in their enclaves cut off from the lower classes and have a far more secular outlook than most of the country. Then when a dharna happens of the magnitude at Faizabad (or a similar event) they’re shocked, as if they’ve been told there’s a gas leak in their own home. They write opeds about how crazy it was that they couldn’t see or smell a thing and our liberal dailies publish the same piece written ten different ways.

Imran Khan
Imran Khan recently received criticism for coining the term ‘khooni liberals’. Credit: Dunya News

Adopting such an arid response promotes a helpless belief that only an Atatürk-type figure can save Pakistan from this fascism. Only by making the state secular can we get rid of the extremism which has held our country hostage. This ignores the fact that such a secular state would probably have to operate like Atatürk’s Turkey – i.e. without the participation in national life of a bulk of the country’s population. Even more significantly, it ignores the role that religion plays in the lives of the poor and vulnerable in our society where the state is at its weakest and is unable to provide sustenance. An Atatürk or secular Pakistan can’t be a panacea for this frustration and this is all the more obvious when we look at the Hindutva movement next door in (more) ‘secular’ India.

The term ‘liberal’ has become unfashionable of late – the stereotype it conjures  is that of burger bachay who believe if only we could ctrl+alt+del Zia from our nation’s history we’d be Dubai by now.

Liberal pearl-clutching overlooks those left behind in our society in favour of an economic system that exacerbates the inequality which leads to this resentment – predatory capitalism. Across the board the main political parties believe in the neoliberal world order and most importantly in some of the core tenets of the free market – globalisation and privatisation.

Don’t we all want a Starbucks in Hunza, the true sign that we’ve made it? Liberals herald globalisation as a sign of growth ignoring the fact that multinational corporations pursue profit rapaciously and exploitatively. Their flooding the market is usually associated with inflation, poor working standards, high unemployment, and the closure of local businesses. Crazily enough they are seen as a sign of progress but the problem is those touting it as a mark of prosperity know that it will be – but only for them. The upper echelons of society, Pakistan’s 1%, will prosper hugely under neoliberalism, immune to all of its side-effects, while the rest remain left behind.

Starbucks logo
Starbucks opening in Pakistan may not be as progressive as it seems. Credit: Snopes

The other antidote we’re being prescribed is privatisation for haemorrhaging businesses like our airline. Selling these off to billionaires is a liberal trope despite the fact that such private ventures have proven to create inefficient, expensive systems and further weakens the state which auctions off all potential revenue-creating forums to the hands of the already wealthy. I know we’re talking about PIA but I did say potential.

The overarching problem with liberals then is that they’re not dangerous enough – too lily-livered to alter the bourgeois framework, too intoxicated with the occidental, too blind to the economic and ecological disaster we’re headed towards. Being socially liberal and fiscally conservative may make you a radical in Pakistan (and also have something in common with Kim Kardashian) but it doesn’t provide any solutions which are more than threadbare sophistry upholding the status quo.


It’s up to us to opt for something more iconoclastic. You can think that people should be free without thinking the market should be too.


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