Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Liberalism in Pakistan: A Commentary

Pakistan is home to the world’s second largest Muslim population - after Indonesia. Historically, the country emerged out of the breakup of united India on communal lines over a demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. Yet many non-Muslims, approximately 27 percent of the overall population, remained in the new state at the time of independence in 1947.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father had proposed a liberal political structure for the new country. In his maiden speech to the Constituent Assembly he said:

 “You are free, you are free to go to your temples, and you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or cast or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State ...because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”.

This is a clear endorsement for equal rights and freedom for the religious minorities of Pakistan. Unfortunately, soon after his demise the same Assembly adopted a theocratic statecraft which lead to a controversial nexus of religion and the state. This effort aborted and replaced the idea of a democratic state with an illiberal social and political agenda for the new nation. This alienated religious minorities from the mainstream socio-economic and political participation creating a sense of seclusion and deception among their followers.

The concerns of the religious minorities and the political critics were proven right; the introduced setup gradually paved the way for religious classification in Pakistani society. Eventually, in the years to come, the country was confronted with new challenges of religious extremism, intolerance against the small communities and their political seclusion, which extended also to sectarian minorities within Islam. Surprisingly, the country which was envisioned to empower the Muslim minorities of India, repeated the same discriminatory practices against its subjected minorities for which they complained throughout. Such policies of discrimination and economic injustice are incompatible with the teachings of Islam and also the international standards of human rights. Lately the socio-economic situation of the minorities has worsened and the country had to face serious dents in its global image as a consequence. One example is the suspension of of the so called Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) plus by the European Union (EU) as a reaction to alleged human rights violations.

From day one Pakistan has been shrugged into regional conflicts with its neighbors. Flip-flopping between the democratic and military rules hindered the country from adopting long-standing economic policies. After every few years, governments juggled with varying economic models that failed to yield fruits for the people. As a result, Pakistan stands lowest in performance among the regional countries when it comes to development indices such as education, health and women participation and tax reforms.

Similarly, Pakistan is still struggling to establish an affirmative foreign policy. Luckily or unluckily the country is located in an important strategic region; one way or the other, Pakistan is dragged into international and regional crises such as the war in Afghanistan in the 80s to help the West or, more recently, the “war on terror”. During all these years Pakistan enjoyed friendly relations with China also claiming that this bilateral relationship is an all-weather friendship.

Still, Pakistan could not get considerable economic help from China, but military support only. The recent deal between the two countries as part of China’s “One Belt One Road Initiative” is considered a longstanding economic-cum strategic partnership. Liberal economists and political critics have a different opinion and do not agree with the popular point of view regarding the benefits of this partnership.  I think it’s still too early for a final judgement.

Once again, Pakistan has got back to democracy trying to reestablish a democratic identity in regional and global affairs by adopting liberal social and economic reforms such as laws for political inclusiveness, the open market and privatization. However, the damage done in the past still echoes whenever progressive voices call for an overhaul of the political and economic structure of the country.

Aamir Amjad

Aamir Amjad

Aamir Amjad is the Senior Program Coordinator of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in Pakistan. In this commentary, he is sharing his personal thoughts.