The act of liberalism | Pakistan Today

The act of liberalism

  • Not just philosophies, but political actions also

So you’re a liberal. I suppose that means you care about women’s rights and believe in equal opportunities for them. It could mean that you believe that our country’s non-Muslim citizens are entitled to the same respect and dignity as its Muslim citizens. It means that you don’t believe in a religious apartheid, and see no reason why Ahmadis must abide by a different set of rules than you and I.

Maybe you’re a liberal who believes there’s nothing wrong with being transgender or gay. Perhaps you regularly use difficult and widely misunderstood words like ‘heteronormativity’, ‘intersectionality’ and ‘patrarchy’. And it is because of your knowledge of these complex terms that you possibly feel more enlightened.

Regrettably, that liberalism means little if it exists only as an idea in the minds of the educated, English-speaking class. Liberals generally have the unfortunate trait of brandishing progressive ideas not as instruments of change, but as fashion accessories. To be progressive, is not to ‘believe’ in certain values; but being able to ‘act’ upon those values, often at the expense of your social standing or your financial situation.

I’ve said this repeatedly. To be progressive is to interrupt your uncle’s racist soliloquy at family dinner, when he starts spilling vitriol about “Pathans”. To be liberal, is to avoid laughing at your male friend’s sexist joke; to resist the urge of sounding agreeable, and let his toxic humour bounce right off your straight face.

Never allow yourself to settle for ‘believing’ what’s right. Act upon that belief, and offer yourself to the movement

More significantly, to be progressive is to vote progressive.

We’ve all encountered the brand of liberals who repeatedly question the usefulness of standing outside press clubs. Sabeen Mehmood lashed out against lazy liberalism in one of her Facebook posts on a similar subject. These are the same liberals who are quick to douse out all flames of hope with their unrelenting cynicism. The general notion is that we’ve forever lost Pakistan to the Islamist right and the irredeemably corrupt center-right, and all we can do is retreat to our gated communities with bottles of off-brand vodka. It is in these airtight spaces that we constantly attempt to out-liberal one another; not in actions, but in words.

As a friend of mine usually says, cynicism is a privilege. Ammar Rashid, NA-53, a secular democratic socialist speaks along the same lines, albeit a bit more diplomatically than I normally would. A secular person who cares for workers’ rights is part of such a rare species of politicians, even liberals are often skeptic when they announce their candidacy amidst progressive slogans. We sometimes express our cynicism, and speak of the ‘unelectability’ of good, progressive candidates. What we end up with, is absurd circular logic that partly brought down Bernie Sander’s campaign in the United States. “He won’t win because nobody would vote for him.” “We won’t vote for him because he cannot win”.

Awami Workers Party (AWP), to which Ammar as well as Ismat Shahjahan (NA-54) belong, has a history of robust grassroot activism. which includes political and economic support for slum-dwellers and religious minorities. They’ve organised many events on feminism, and the women’s role in progressive politics. This is a group of committed men and women who have risked invisibility by pandering neither to the self-serving Islamonationalism of the empowered, nor the neocolonial tastes of the upper class. They have focused their energies on the underprivileged countrymen who usually cannot return the favor through money or Facebook likes.

Over in Karachi, Jibran Nasir requires no introduction. Jibran is a man loved as passionately by Pakistani progressives countrywide, as he is despised and feared by the established and its allied Islamist groups. I could write endlessly about his past contributions, but he is best known these days for his recent stand against the VIP culture. Although it was under the banner of PTI that the movement against VIP culture first gained prominence, the party has done disappointingly little to advance that movement; owing partly to the fact that the party itself is manned by an ironic collection of VIPs from all over the political landscape.

This election season, we have a number of candidates that prove that ‘liberalism’ or ‘progressivism’ aren’t just philosophies, but political actions. It is not just about word-fights with strangers on Facebook and Twitter, but organisations that walk the streets in sweltering heat.

Our ideas – developed through years of individual learning, study circles, and valuable experiences – are too precious to be wasted on random internet trolls. These ideas need to be translated into organised efforts; the most important of which is paying close attention to the candidates in your constituency – their histories and their manifestos. Find organisations around you that support your values, and see what you can do to lend a hand.

Never allow yourself to settle for ‘believing’ what’s right. Act upon that belief, and offer yourself to the movement.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.



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