Can Pakistan’s Liberals Be Saved?

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

A Pakistani mourner reacts during the funeral procession of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, in Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011.

This week marked a year after the assassination of Pakistani politician and Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. On Jan. 4, 2011, a guard tasked to protect Taseer gunned him down, angered by the much-respected politico’s defense of a Christian woman facing the death penalty under Pakistan’s harsh anti-blasphemy laws. Taseer was an outspoken and courageous figure, a champion for many Pakistani liberals and secularists who want to see a more just and pluralistic society, one insulated from a domineering military and the extremism of increasingly vocal Islamist factions. What shocked many following his murder were the outpourings of support for his killer, Mumtaz Qadri. Paying homage to Taseer, Arif Rafiq of the Pakistan Policy blog laid out what’s at stake for the divided nation:

Pakistan will be a safer home for its citizens when Salmaan Taseer is recognized as a hero within and his murderer as a shameless fanatic; when its weakest have strong advocates among the powerful; and when it realizes for itself the tolerance and respect for human rights it expects of others, particularly the West. How Pakistanis perceive Salmaan Taseer is a litmus test for the country’s collective soul.

(READ: The martyrdom of Salmaan Taseer.)

But as religious parties staged rallies in honor of Qadri a year after the shooting, it’s clear the struggle over Pakistan’s “soul” has far to go. Much is made of the need to boost and support liberal Pakistanis. To some, they hold the key to “fixing” the insurgency-plagued South Asian nation: liberal Pakistanis account for some of the most prominent figures among the country’s intelligentsia and civil society. They are pro-democracy and anti-military, pro-softening tensions with India and anti-abetting militants like the Taliban, pro-the rule of law and strengthening civil political institutions and anti-conspiracy theories and religious bigotry. To the joy of counterparts across the border in India, they are eager to turn the page on a history of political dysfunction and sectarian enmities. They represent — as one U.S. diplomat crudely put it to me at the Halifax International Security Forum, a Davos for security wonks held last November — the “good Pakistan.”

Historically, though, the U.S. has not been the greatest friend to this ‘good’ Pakistan. The imperatives of the Cold War spurred Washington to cozy up to the country’s early cohort of military rulers, paving the way for a relationship that has proven toxic for both Americans and Pakistanis. Post 9/11, U.S. support to Pakistan — at the time run by Gen. Pervez Musharraf — weighed heavily toward its outsized military, an institution that swallows up a disproportionate amount of the indebted nation’s budget. That imbalance has yet to be adequately corrected, but many argue it must for Pakistan to move forward. Hassan Abbas, a professor at Columbia University and a former adviser in an earlier Pakistani government, writes in Foreign Affairs:

If U.S. policymakers are frustrated in their dealings with both the Pakistani military officials and the present ruling class, they should start investing in Pakistani civil society. Although it is weak at present, it could eventually gain power, and, as it does, create a new, more responsible, political class.

This is, unfortunately, penned more in hope than expectation. After a year where the U.S.-Pakistani relationship slumped to new lows — from the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout near Islamabad to the NATO airstrike that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers — many in Washington have thrown up their hands in exasperation and are eager to wipe them clean off the country. Rather than deepen ties with civil society and those in the country who are sympathetic to the West, many in Washington are pushing for a policy that skirts around Pakistan altogether. Alternate supply routes to coalition forces in Afghanistan are being cultivated and it appears the U.S. is trying to negotiate directly with the Taliban, rather than through Pakistani interlocutors. The clearest indicator of such a move came this week with reports that the Taliban (or its intermediaries) may open an office in Qatar, a Gulf state with minimal ties to Islamabad.

And so our friends in the “good Pakistan” see their prospects dimmed: forgotten by the West, frustrated by a feudalistic political system, intimidated by a shadowy military-intelligence complex and shouted down by religious zealots at home. Nor do they hold much stock in the recent rise of Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket captain and international playboy turned politician. This past month, Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf party (or Movement for Justice party) turned out massive crowds in rallies in Lahore and Karachi, buoyed by millions of Pakistanis who see in Khan’s PTI a panacea to the corruption and incompetence of the prevailing status quo. Yet, many liberals fear the piety behind Khan’s populism; Khan wears his Islam on his sleeve and is far more Islamist politically than, say, the ruling, nominally secular Pakistan People’s Party.

(WATCH: Ten questions with Imran Khan.)

Khan’s popular support reveals another stark reality: Pakistan’s liberals are a tiny minority, comprised mostly of secular urban elites. In a controversial, important essay, British scholar and Pakistan expert Anatol Lieven inveighs upon the “tragedy of Pakistani liberalism.”  Lieven’s recent book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, has been widely received as one of the more sympathetic, clear-eyed accounts of Pakistan’s plight written by an outside observer. But Lieven has little time for the argument he ascribes to Pakistani liberals (and one I, an Indian national, often also parrot) that Pakistan’s course will be righted simply when its powerful military returns to the barracks. There is a deeper cultural malaise, says Lieven:

The inability of many Pakistani liberals to face Pakistani reality is because they and many of their ideas on the one hand represent a tiny section of the Pakistani population, but on the other, the contemporary hegemony of democratic ideas in the world (for the moment at least). British-derived South Asian traditions of democracy and the development of Western liberalism over the past 70 years or so all compel them not only to present themselves as democrats but actually to believe that they are democrats.

This was not always true of liberalism. In the 19th Century, liberals in countries like Spain, Italy and parts of Latin America where the large majority of the population was made up of conservative Catholic peasants were absolutely clear that they were NOT democrats, but an enlightened elite that derived its right to rule from the superiority of its ideas, the delivery of economic growth, and the creation of career opportunities for the middle and lower middle classes that had been blocked under the old “feudal” domination; and that the power of the masses was to be contained by a mixture of a highly restricted franchise and liberal control over the armed forces – which on occasions were used ruthlessly to suppress mass peasant protest from below.

Pakistan may have a very enlightened elite, but that elite wields precious little control over the real institutions of power in the country. Nor does it seek such domineering influence. But that isolation — and impotence — means that, a year after Taseer’s assassination, the same dark shadows hover over Pakistan’s soul.