No Liberals Please
By M Saeed Khalid
April 16, 2014
Kabul was such a happening place that it did not look like it was part of this area, lamented a TV show host recently. Indeed, many Pakistanis were smitten by the liberal lifestyle of the Kabulis before all hell broke loose in the Afghan capital.
Those were also the days when a little further away, Tehran was such a swinging capital that some society women would fly there for a hairdo to attend a jet-set party back home in the evening. Istanbul: don’t even ask. It was the epitome of western lifestyle in the Muslim world. While the Iranian elite was trying to catch up with Turkey, a much smaller elite in Kabul was envying both and following them in their own modest way.
All three have undergone profound changes since. What went wrong with their joie de vivre? Basically, sooner or later, the reaction came.
Istanbul, the bastion of secular and liberal Kemalist model, paid for its ‘sins’ first by an invasion of country folk from Eastern Anatolia. By the early 1990s, you could see more women with heads covered on that city’s bridges than in the provincial capitals. Then the Islamists took over through the ballot box, starting with the metropolitan council of Istanbul. Mayor Erdogan would go on to win the premiership of Turkey. There were multiple reasons for the sinking fortunes of the ‘mainstream’ liberal and secular parties. Even today, they lie in disarray, unable to mount a credible challenge to the ruling Islamists.
The principal reason for the rout of secular forces in Turkey was the voters giving up on their self-serving ways after having been in power for decades. The ruling elite was simply perpetuating its hold to the detriment of the masses with millions obliged to migrate to seek livelihood in western Europe. When the Germans, French, Austrians and Swiss didn’t want more Turkish workers, they started massing up in an overcrowded Istanbul. That is where the Islamists would receive sympathy and support and eventually electoral success. This phenomenon would be repeated all over Turkey.
The saving grace for Turkey was that the change came peacefully. The country, being part European and committed to integration with the EU, grew out of its periodic military coups and established a system of free and fair elections. Turkey thus became a model for a peaceful Islamist takeover. This was in contrast to Algeria where the army in collaboration with the west had prevented the Islamists from taking power after they had won the election. The explanation the opponents gave was that the (Algerian) Islamists believed in ‘one man, one vote, one time’.
Turkey has seen the Islamist AK Party being elected three times. It still has to show that the party can be defeated by democratic means. The AKP still has its finger on the pulse of the ordinary Turk and by ameliorating his lot, they have not yet squandered their goodwill at the grassroots level.
Iran under the Shah and Afghanistan under Amanullah and his successors tried to follow the Kemalist model but ended up going through more radical and drastic changes. The common thread between the three is that of rising public reaction to the ways of the ruling westernised elites.
The Shah used to boast that he would transform Iran into a modern constitutional monarchy and a developed nation by the year 2000. It reaped an Islamic revolution instead, the first of the modern era. Ironically, it materialised with western acquiescence as the west dreaded a leftist takeover. Kasra Naji, in his book on post-revolution Iran, argues that the Islamists were extremely conscious of this aspect and they approved taking over of the US Embassy by the students to prove their hostility to the ‘Great Satan’.
Afghanistan, the closest to us, turned left and then right in a span of a few years. To many, Moscow intervened in Afghanistan to offset the loss of face in Iran where the leftists were overtaken by the Islamists, and neighbouring Pakistan where a mildly leftist government had been overthrown by an Islamist general. Little did they realise that Afghanistan would become their Vietnam. Communist ‘revolution’ in a deeply conservative Islamic society was a greater far provocation to the Afghans than rule by a secular westernised elite in Kemalist mode.
The ‘happening Kabul’, ‘swinging Tehran’ and ‘waltzing Istanbul’ of yore were all hit by an Islamist backlash. Pakistan could not remain untouched by the ripple effects of ideological struggle in the three non-Arab Islamic nations with whom it has deep religious and cultural bonds. In fact, each spell of quasi-liberal forces in power has been followed by sharp turns to the right, the latest being the rout of nominally secular parties by Islam-pasand formations in the 2011 election. The cumulative effect is one of both the state and the society coming under increased influence of religion.
And now, a secular republic in terms of its constitution, India appears set to take a turn towards Hindutva or Hinduness. The secular model is on the retreat and so are liberal values. The fuse of religious tolerance has become shorter as the minorities come under greater pressure to conform to the majority diktat.
From Istanbul to Islamabad, and maybe beyond, the liberal mode is on the retreat in varying degrees. The western profit-seeking corporate model is fine but the western values of freedom, tolerance and rule of law are under attack.