Our dogmatic liberals

[Here’s another twist to the liberal-conservative debate in Pakistan. We think we know about right-wing nationalists, but do we have the correct definition of ‘liberal nationalists’? Obviously most Pakistani nationalists are not Islamists. In fact, is an Islamist ever anything other than just an Islamist or can there really be an Islamist nationalist? It would be interesting to find out what our readers think of the points raised by this article. Is the writer’s stance on Blackwater, for example, a variant of xenophobia or other biases unworthy of liberal values the writer claims to uphold? Or is it a worthy stand against so-called neo-imperialism? Or further still, are these just dangerous and irrational views based on mere conspiracy theories? Is she a liberal rightly accusing some of her fellow liberals, just like Islamists and right-wing nationalists do, of being liberal fascists? Is she saying that she is more patriotic than those she considers liberal fascists,  or just less dogmatic? Please do respond with your thoughts on the matterposted by BC]

The News, March 17, 2010

By Humeira Iqtidar

“Why are Pakistanis so prone to conspiracy theories?” a colleague at Cambridge recently asked. He was referring to recent debates about the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan. A version of this question is echoed by the liberal intelligentsia of Pakistan. The local version emphasises the focus on Blackwater within the rhetoric of a segment of society, notably the Islamists. A common refrain amongst the liberal intelligentsia to the question of Blackwater presence in Pakistan is that we must look inwards, we must critique ourselves and our own creations such as the Taliban before we focus on Blackwater. Through framing any critique of Blackwater as conspiracy theory, there is some congruence between the stance of my colleague at Cambridge, who is largely unfamiliar with Pakistan, and the liberal intelligentsia: they both see this focus on Blackwater as an illogical act, as a hiding behind and of course, as an abdication of our own responsibility.

What this discourse of ‘our’ responsibility that ‘we’ need to confront hides in its language of the universal ‘we’ in Pakistan is the reality of an extremely fractured and polarised Pakistan. There is no unified ‘we’ who is responsible for the rise of the Taliban, no unanimous ‘we’ that supported the intrusion of neo-liberal economic policies in everyday life so that about half of Pakistan is now living below the poverty line, no united ‘we’ that decided to support either militancy or America’s war for the last decade. There are many different interest groups and classes within Pakistan and some are more implicated in the destruction of Pakistan than others.

When a handful of advisers decide to sign treaties that sell our environment and our children’s future to multinational companies, can we rightfully blame the many millions who were not even informed, much less consulted, about these deals? When a few generals make millions out of fighting an ambiguously defined externally mandated war, can we continue to blame the foot soldier who refuses to kill his own extended family? When some members of the ISI continue to believe that maintaining some link with the Taliban in Afghanistan will allow them ‘strategic depth’, can we continue to assume that the 15-year-old teenager in Swat must share responsibility and bomb his home with impunity?

Questioning the role of Blackwater and criticising those segments of our society that bear responsibility for the mess that we are in should not be considered to be mutually exclusive. It is naivety of the highest degree to assume that due to some confluence of stars the US interest in the region today coincides with that of progressive Pakistanis. But even if we assume that is the case, how precisely specific activities such as those carried out by Blackwater are to help the building of this democratic, just and secular society remains largely unclear. Are we to believe that the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan should be borne silently because it will conduce to making these ISI officers democracy-loving, committed secularists?

What is Blackwater doing in Pakistan precisely? There is no clear answer to this question forthcoming from our interior minister who has denied their presence as a holding tactic, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. The role of Blackwater in instigating sectarian violence within Iraq is no secret. We are also familiar with their role as a private contractor to the US army allowing it to bypass Geneva Conventions. Just as Gap could buy T-shirts at rock bottom prices from sweatshops claiming that the company does not bear any responsibility for what its sub-contractors do to their workers, similarly, US army officials can deny responsibility for torture, kidnapping and extra-judicial killings because they claim ignorance of, or lack of control over, their subcontractor’s operations.

Of course, this separation from the US armed forces and the CIA is a line in the sand. On August 21, 2008, the New York Times reported that Blackwater performed aerial bombing on behalf of the CIA in Pakistan: “At hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan… the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency.” In a feature-length interview in Vanity Fair, Erik Prince the founder and owner of Blackwater, now re-branded as Xe Inc., expressed a sense of betrayal: “I don’t understand how a programme this sensitive leaks. And to ‘out’ me on top of it?”

However, when it is expedient Blackwater is not above claiming a close relationship with the US military. When the families of Blackwater contractors killed in Iraq sued the company for failing to protect their loved ones, Blackwater countersued the families for breaching contracts that forbids the men or their estates from filing such lawsuits. More critically, the company claimed that, since it operates as an extension of the military, it cannot be held responsible for deaths in a war zone.

Blackwater activities run the gamut of assassinations, bombings, bribery, kidnapping, torture. None of them truly conducive to building a democratic, peaceful society. It is more than irresponsible to assume that they are here doing the job for the democratic, secular citizen of Pakistan. If we are to get rid of the militants within our midst we have to do it in a sustainable way and in a manner that would ensure that a new generation of family-less children bent upon revenge is not being raised.

What this discourse of ‘our’ responsibility hides from view is the possibility that there is a continued nexus between the very groups that supported the rise of militancy in Pakistan and now allow the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan. What is precisely the nexus of power and interests that allows Blackwater to operate in Pakistan with impunity? We are not abdicating responsibility by asking that question but taking on the task of critical self-examination. Not all of us are equally implicated in this but some of us are. To take the question of Blackwater in Pakistan seriously is to begin to take the question of responsibility seriously.

When the Islamists raise this issue their slogan resonates with the citizen who has developed a social imaginary of continued US intervention in Pakistani politics through the control and manipulation of a small group of people. Charles Taylor, the well-known political philosopher, has defined social imaginary as distinct from social theory. Social imaginary refers to how people imagine their social surroundings in ways distinct from theoretical frameworks. Social imagination is carried in stories, images and legends. It is also more widespread and thus makes possible common practices and a shared sense of legitimacy.

The Islamists tap into this shared knowledge about the US role in Pakistan politics. The Islamists may have their own agenda but to continuously define themselves in a reactive opposition to their stances would be a fatal mistake for groups that claim a stake in progressive politics. History moves in dynamic and non-linear ways. By remaining stuck in a static definition of progressive and regressive and allying themselves ever more closely with oppressive power, the liberals may ultimately render their cause irrelevant. For those of us committed to a just and democratic Pakistan, these dogmatic liberals are as great a danger as the militants.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, and teaches courses on globalization, religion and politics of South Asia.

20 Comments

Filed under Democracy, Liberal Democratic Pakistan, Pakistan, War On Terror

20 responses to “Our dogmatic liberals

  1. tahir

    The writer is absolutely right as Pakistan is drifting towards civil war and choas because of dogmatic liberals and so called Islamists.

  2. Hayyer

    “What this discourse of ‘our’ responsibility hides from view is the possibility that there is a continued nexus between the very groups that supported the rise of militancy in Pakistan and now allow the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan.”

    The finger is pointed at the army, but is the PA a liberal organization, much less a dogmatically liberal one? On always thought of it as a conservative group- Conservative that is in its long term views, not necessarily in a religious sense though that is not precluded.

    “What is precisely the nexus of power and interests that allows Blackwater to operate in Pakistan with impunity? We are not abdicating responsibility by asking that question but taking on the task of critical self-examination. Not all of us are equally implicated in this but some of us are. To take the question of Blackwater in Pakistan seriously is to begin to take the question of responsibility seriously.”

    The questions do not start with Blackwater. They start with the nature of the US operation in Af-Pak, but particularly Pakistan.
    The US engagement in Pakistan is unique. While fighting a former ally of the PA in Afghanistan it is supporting the PA in fighting an agnate of the same former ally within Pakistan, but holding off on the other agnate which is a possible strategic partner of PA but not of the US. The US is also fighting alongside the Pak Army with a civil organization the CIA, in what is technically a civil war. Conventional definitions have not only been blurred but muddled as well because, latterly, through Blackwater the US contribution can be considered privatized. The issue is now so deeply enmeshed in moral and legal ambiguities that political paralysis is the only possible result.
    The scholar from Cambridge, or elsewhere, should have anchored herself first on solid ground perceptual grounds before dashing off her questions. The problem for academia is that the situation in Pakistan and the FATA defies all conventional analytical precedents. It wont do for Ms. Iqtidar to put liberals to a spurious test of patriotism. They did not create the situation and they cannot be held answerable for it. This test should be invoked, rather, against the right wingers. Wearing their hearts (and their religion) on theirs sleeve doesn’t excuse them for the mess they have led Pakistan into. Blackwater may be illegal and immoral, but it should not be used as stalking horse from behind which academia or the religious right tries to knock off the liberals.
    Ms. Iqtedar attempts that when she talks of taking responsibility seriously.

    “By remaining stuck in a static definition of progressive and regressive and allying themselves ever more closely with oppressive power, the liberals may ultimately render their cause irrelevant. For those of us committed to a just and democratic Pakistan, these dogmatic liberals are as great a danger as the militants.”

    It is not the liberals who are stuck in static definitions. It is Ms Iqtedar, who groping for definition and failing takes the easy way out. Almost Republican in her solution, she declares-It’s the liberals!
    Ms. Iqtedar should work harder as an academic and more courageously. Pakistan faces daunting tasks. Pointing fingers at the only hopeful segment of society doesn’t help the cause.

  3. ylh

    “For those of us committed to a just and democratic Pakistan, these dogmatic liberals are as great a danger as the militants.”

    How? Are the “dogmatic” liberals blowing up people as well?

    There is no equation …it is immoral to equate the two.

    Just and Democratic Pakistan is not going to be achieved by equating those who use force with those who use words.

  4. Mustafa Shaban

    First of all there is alwayz this misunderstanding that those who believe in alternative theories are trying to shift the blame away from themselves and avoiding self examination. This theory is a myth. I myself beleive in foreign hands working in Pakistan, at the same time I totally blame Pakistan for it. I completely believe that the solution lies in self examination. If destabilising internal elements like the religious findamentalists and curropt criminals are powerful , it is becuase of our mistakes and refusal to take responsibility. Adding to that is the problem of imperialists influence in the country by forming relaitonships with these curropt elements and making them stronger and aligning themselves to their agendas. Its not about conservative or liberal, its more about knowing whats really going on and accepting the fact that we live in a global village. There are both internal and external problems, most external problems wouldnt exist if we solve our internal problems. So to say that people who believe in the presence of Blackwater or explore the possibility of TTP being foreign backed or believe that Pakistan is in the centre of a great geopolitical game is not reality but is shifting blame away from us onto someone else is not true. I am proof of that. So are other people who have forumated these theories and they themselves put the answer on self examination! Though it is very convenient for some people to block out that part of thier theory.

    @YLH: You are right in a way, but if you look deeper it is not so. Think about it, religious takfiri elements and other criminals destabalising Pakistan…and looking at Pakistan’s other problems……how did this crises in security, education and poverty come about?? Every country has destablizing elements. It is due to lack of governance that these problems come about. And who has been in government in Pakistan. Religious fundamentalists and so called westernized ”liberals”. They are to blame for all the bad things happening in Pakistan today. Thier curroption and incompetence is to blame for all these things. How else do we have a curropt system and militancy. Does this happen elsewhere? Other countries do not have radical elements?? Ofcourse they do but thier performance is so good they control it. Also another blame also goes to so called liberals for trying to please foriegn elites and imperialists.

    It is not as if we have the capacity to only deal with either internal or external problems. We have the power and capacity to do both and solve both. So why dont we???

  5. Mustafa Shaban

    @YLH: Do not underestimate the power of the tongue. It is said that this is the most dangerous weapon. Words can lead to bloodshed. The ruling elite of Pakistan and so called liberals whose irresponsibility and curroption has weakened Pakistan are to blame because thier incompetence gave opportunities for internal and external elements to rise in Pakistan.

    @Hayyer: I disagree with your analysis of the war in Pakistan as well as your view on the author, I think she raises a valid point.

  6. B. Civilian

    MS

    you are confusing dictatorship vs democracy with liberlism vs conservatism. there is no comparison, at all. in a country like pakistan, democracy, allowed to evolve naturally, can lead to good governance regardless of whether conservatives or liberals are in power at any given point in time. dictators, otoh, destroy good governance and any future prospects for it, regardless of whether they are ‘westernised liberals’ (ie they drink?) or ‘religious conservatives’ (ie they are teetotalers?).

    btw, have you read the ‘liberal fascist’ NFP’s piece in Dawn Blog today?😉

  7. Mustafa Shaban

    @B Civilian: There are many democracies…or should I say ”democracies” that are third world countries and curroption is at the peak. This is not about democracy or dictatorship niether is it liberal vs conservative, it is elite vs masses, it is about the system, it is about the sincerity of rulers. This is what the problem is. We need to strengthen accountability, civil society and judiciary.

  8. B. Civilian

    MS

    .. and the only way out and forward is democracy, unless you are waiting for an alif wa laila kind of miracle nek badshah. oh wait, you are. you call him (or her?) a khalifa (al-rashid), don’t you?

  9. Mustafa Shaban

    @ B Civilian: I have made it clear that I support the Khilafat system. At the same time I believe that for any system to work it must have strong checks and balances supported by public activism, so that rulers fear to do anything that will harm the public.

  10. AZW

    BC, Hayyer:

    Has this author ever defined who is a Pakistani liberal, and what does he stand for? A common refrain these days calls for anything less rigid and Islamic being conveniently termed liberal. Enter some glorious leaders like General Musharraf whose enlightened attitude qualifies him as a liberal. Add more liberal and secular Army leaders to the mix who want Pakistan to be a hotchpotch of Islamic ideas mixed with modernism. Yet these army leaders continue to tap into Jihadi networks when it suits them, run towards Islamic inspired ideology when their adventures come home to roost. Well, doesn’t matter; the term liberal suits them just fine. And since the term liberal is so easy to slap on, how about we come up with a new term? How does dogmatic liberals or liberal fascists sound everybody?

    And now since these terms have been freely introduced, let’s focus on Blackwater, a private security contractor that CIA had used rather indiscriminately in Iraq. This sub-contractor is under investigation in the US by a grand jury, and its actions have been roundly criticized and investigated most in the US itself.

    CIA has been rather active in Pakistan since the 1980s quite regularly when we never asked them a single question (well they suited us just fine then), let’s focus on Blackwater shall we. And if someone points out that yes Blackwater’s presence in Pakistan should be questioned, but let’s not make it a life and death situation (after all most of Pakistan’s problems were created by Pakistan, and Blackwater pales quite in comparison to our colossal miscalculations on our East and Western border), why not condemn these dogmatic liberals hell bent upon abdicating responsibility by not making Blackwater one of the biggest priorities. After all, the right wing media had gone hysteric over less real, more manufactured stories about how Blackwater had overrun Pakistan. Never mind that it was part of a vicious campaign to discredit the democratic government in Pakistan and Blackwater use comes as easy as it gets.

    Pakistan’s woes have been a result of its right wing state leanings. None of its rulers previously knew an iota of liberalism. Equal rights and rule of law independent of religion was never even considered in Pakistan in undemocratic governments. Whatever semblance of democracy Pakistan got was schemed against in the name of stability and national interests. There is no comparison between the right (along with their proxy right) and the extreme minority liberal parts of the society. None of any here at PTH or other media have ever condoned suicide bombings against Muslims or non Muslims. None of the liberals have called for Pakistan to act as a pseudo Islamic fort and meddle in its Western borders in the name of strategic depth. All we want from Pakistan is that it protects our rights, and that it allows us to live peacefully and with prosperity, protect our religious and ethnic heritages, and allow us to pursue our own dreams. None of us are comfortable with Blackwater or any private subcontractor from Russia, China or US being above our laws. But first we need to respect the laws ourselves, before we cry hoarse over violations of our sovereignty by others.

  11. Mustafa Shaban

    @AZW: like i said we must do self examination and improve ourselves and most of our problems will be solved. But we can discuss and talk about both our internal and external problems and solve them ,we are capable of multitasking. So there is nothin wrong it talking about our mistakes and blackwater.

  12. bushra naqi

    The root cause of conspiracy theories and dissemination of misinformation is the trust deficit between people versus the state..Americans versus the pakistani state and the space so created is exploited by enemies. We find everything questionable and by asking too many questions we plunge ourselves into further confusion. After all democracy does not mean sharing state secrets with each and every citizen of the state and a viable state has always the discretionary powers it exercises to act within the prevailing situation.

    Blackwater as we know it is a private security agency and therefore not fully accountable to its contractors, namely the americans. They would thus have some immunity in some spheres combined with discretionary powers which might have the potential of becoming at times intrusive.

    We forget that pakistan is a war zone today and this war is more complex and difficult than anything we have ever known before. For this our ISI and other intelligence agencies, the Pakistani state with its war ally america who is critical to its success have to work together in a network. There are many people, foreign diplomats, our own heads of state who need strict security. All this our police and army all put together cannot handle. There are criminals and talibans who have to be traced and nabbed, dangerous networks to be destroyed. This is not an easy task because they have become frankesteins with time.

    At the moment all these agencies and institutions together are playing with fire to save the pakistani state. Mistakes might be committed but this is the price we have to pay for the mess we created for ourselves.

    . And again I disagree with the criticism of the liberals for they only seek to create a space which is rapidly shrinking.

  13. B. Civilian

    AZW

    absolutely.

    if any one could know for sure about the existence and activities of any one in pakistan, it would be the ISI (and, therefore, army) and not the police. even if the police finds out something, they cannot and will not go against the wishes of the ISI. so what is this whole silly debate on blackwater really about?

    it is no different than the mil establishment’s condemnable interference in the matter of the K-L Bill. They happily accepted the money while at the same time using it to beat the civilian govt with, with total disregard to the mil’s constitutional role and duties.

    so the writer has got it wrong by 180deg when she says that those that she calls ‘liberal dogmatists’ are somehow helping the same mil establishment who got us where we are in the first place. i guess she thought that those who did not oppose KLB were also (somehow) aiding the anti-democratic force in rawalpindi. it is more sadly diabolical logical than i have seen in a while.

  14. Hayyer

    AZW
    My problem with the article was on various levels. Ms. Iqtedar attacked dogmatic liberals because she is confused with the situation. Not surprising because I doubt there is a historical precedent to serve as guide.
    But there is also reason to doubt her motive, which she revealed at the very start of the piece when she says that the very groups that supported militancy now allow Blackwater. It wasn’t the liberals was it?
    Further in a list of, say, five major problems facing Pakistan, Blackwater must rank somewhere at the bottom. So why must the liberals be hauled up for giving low priority to a low priority item. Has equal fuss be made about the other foreigners also operating privately in Pakistan, the Uzbeks, Arabs and so forth. Blackwater is one of many similar problems.
    Her ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive definitions’ reflect the confusion. In Pakistan’s current context some new definitions are called for, even redefinitions maybe. But Ms. Iqtedar only juggles cliches and then dumps them in the form of an accusation at the liberal’s doorstep. How are liberals allied with oppressive forces?
    Instead of rigorous academic analysis Ms Iqtedar has displayed her prejudice disguised as patriotic concern.

  15. hoss

    “It is naivety of the highest degree to assume that due to some confluence of stars the US interest in the region today coincides with that of progressive Pakistanis. But even if we assume that is the case, how precisely specific activities such as those carried out by Blackwater are to help the building of this democratic, just and secular society remains largely unclear.
    The Islamists may have their own agenda but to continuously define themselves in a reactive opposition to their stances would be a fatal mistake for groups that claim a stake in progressive politics.”

    There is a fringe left group in Pakistan which like the author wants to reevaluate the role of Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and some other extreme rightwing groups based in Punjab.
    The group contends that the Afghan Taliban and its many factions are nationalist group that are fighting for the national rights against an occupation army. This group claims that since the Pak Taliban mostly are from the lower strata of the tribal society and have in fact destroyed the British and later Pak government supported Jirga system and the Malik rule, and are currently fighting the Pak army and other state apparatus ala the naxalites in India, the Pak Taliban should really be considered a legitimate grassroots elements and should be supported. This group further claims that since most of the terrorist attacks in Lahore, Pindi and in Peshawar have taken place against the state agencies and installations, the terrorism unleashed by the Pak Taliban is not against the common folks but the common folks are unintended victims or the collateral damage.

    Most of their arguments are based on selective reading of the situation. I will respond to their arguments when I have more time.

    I have culled this little gem from their blog:
    “how to act towards the risings of the rural poor in NWFP (now in the leadership of Taliban) is what is at the core of any anti-imperialist and really progressive movement which the ‘left’ wishes to ignore.”

    Here is the group’s web site.
    worldtowinpk.net/
    Here is something in Urdu, if you can read it.
    issuu.com/ispakistan/docs/lahoreblastsmarch122010?viewMode=presentation

  16. Hayyer

    Hoss:
    I read that piece from issuu.com.
    How can such writing even be allowed. It is no less than a call for the overthrow of the state, a call to rise against the army and undermine state power. All the theory is of course standard stuff but it is treasonably employed.
    I am shocked not just at reading it but at seeing it at all. Are these guys out in the open, or are they patronized by mysterious agencies? Is it from within Pakistan?

  17. hoss

    It is not a call to overthrow the state but it is certainly against the army. It was published and distributed in many Pakistani cities and I strongly disagree with his line of reasoning but I don’t find anything treasonous in it. Why do you think it is treacherously employed? It might be from the army point of view, but I doubt that army would arrest him for saying that. Those days hopefully are history in Pakistan.

    Riaz is a professor in a university in Karachi and as for as I know has not been arrested. Why should he be? He should able to say what he wants to say against the army or even the State. That is his right as a citizen. I disagree with him and I see that you too. The Pak army too may disagree with him but that is no reason to take him or his thoughts out of circulation.

  18. ahmen khawaja

    Log on to http://www.azmealishan.com, register your AZM and make your pledge for a better Pakistan.
    Catch updates on twitter.com/azmealishan.

  19. Sadia Hussain

    It thinks it quite distasteful to equate the two. The liberals have failed to muster popular support and have limited audience, but they are trying hard for a wider participation. They do not have political motives their struggle is commendable.
    The right wingers on the other hand use democracy when it suits them and at the same time want to remain chums with the Taliban. The want to pose as moderates and yet they try to appease the religious fanatics!!

  20. Hayyer

    Hoss:
    I had responded to your comment at 11:14 of March 21st but it seems to have disappeared.