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The Myth of Two Extremes in Pakistan

By Umair Javed

January 16th, 2017

AT the time of writing, liberal activists Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, Ahmed Naseer, and Samar Abbas were still missing. There is little to suggest that they will be recovered by the time this piece goes into print. No organisation has claimed their abduction, while whatever limited investigation that has taken place so far has yielded nothing conclusive.

One can only look at the past and make historically informed conjectures about who is capable of picking up people from different parts of the country with great precision. However, one may think twice about airing such (highly plausible) suspicions for fear of being picked up as well.

The incident has revealed something supremely rotten in Pakistan’s state and society. Instead of provoking unequivocal condemnation, the abduction of several activists has spawned mass indifference, or much worse, victim-blaming. Some days ago, I was informed by a gentleman in Lahore that those missing were prominent ‘anti-state’ and ‘anti-Islam’ agents thus implying they deserved their fate.

What lies on the other end of the social spectrum is a minuscule liberal population numbering no more than a few thousand households.

For those unaware, the abducted individuals allegedly ran a rationalist Facebook page, which carried jokes and memes challenging dominant Islamist and statist narratives in Pakistan. No other allegation against them has surfaced yet. Let’s just take stock of this assertion: we now live and breathe in an intellectual cesspool where Facebook posts are widely considered a serious threat to both the ‘fastest-growing religion in the world’ and a country designated as the ‘fortress of Islam’.

In the aftermath of these disappearances, one conservative ideologue stated that ‘liberal extremists’, such as the four in question, were actually worse than militants. The rationale underpinning this assertion was that the hurt caused by words lasts for far longer than the physical violence of actual terrorists. This is not an isolated viewpoint. It is one shared by many others populating our airwaves and writing in mainstream media outlets.

The actual goal of such viewpoints is to show that somehow the average Pakistani is caught between two extremes. On the one hand, you have those who wish to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state, and are willing to deploy gruesome violence to achieve those ends. On the other, you have foreign-funded liberals, who want to turn Pakistan, its law books, and all who reside within its boundaries into a godless, amoral mass.

Caught between the two extremes, we are told, are moderate, centrist Pakistanis who wish to live moderate lives. All that this middle Pakistan wants to do is follow their traditional practices in peace without the imposition of violence or foreign-funded secularism.

In the past decade, there has been no bigger myth than the one of two equal extremes. In reality, we don’t live in a bipolar country. We live in a country with thousands of Islamist militants, many far-right fascists, a large swathe of very conservative people, and a small (though growing) mass of people who are increasingly okay with the idea that religious minorities may have equal rights.

What actually lies on the other end of the social spectrum is a minuscule liberal population numbering no more than a few thousand households spread across the country. This population is politically fragmented, internally incoherent, and limited in its outreach. In short, as far as political or social movements go, it is largely non-existent outside of the internet.

To date, the number of people killed by these designated liberal extremists who run rationalist web pages and protest against religious discrimination and persecution is zero. The number of people abducted or threatened by what is pejoratively called the candlestick mafia is also zero. However, the number of men, women, and children killed by Islamist extremists in just the last decade is estimated at more than 40,000.

No political party in Pakistan is running on a platform of vocal secularism. Only a couple of leaders have ever been willing to speak out against the blasphemy law, and one of them was killed. Instead of mass shame and condemnation, his killing resulted in an unceasing wave of whataboutery and victim-blaming from university educated, white-collar middle-class people. His killer, on the other hand, will have his first annual commemoration at Liaquat Bagh on March 1; and like his funeral last year, it will be attended by thousands.

The myth of liberal extremism is a useful intellectual prop for those who share a great deal of moral and political affinity with far-right conservatives and organised Islamists, but are now wary of associating directly with their violent ways. In essence, by blaming people like Salmaan Taseer for his own murder, or by jumping through hoops to defend the abduction of liberal activists on grounds of national security and religious sensitivities, they create fertile ground for more obscurantism and extremism.

By now, it is clear that Pakistan is not a particularly democratic state. Individuals go missing and the first thing that comes to mind is that the state is somehow complicit in this. In essence, we reside in a security state with some superficial democratic pretensions. Nevertheless, as big a problem as this seems, it is one progressives have been familiar with for a very long time.

What is far more disconcerting now, and what will certainly pose a far bigger challenge in the long run, is the mainstream societal support offered to ideas from a fascist playbook. The belief that voicing support for religious minorities and their equal treatment is worthy of punishment is scary. Similarly, the belief that certain state institutions are in their right to pick up liberal activists merely for running a webpage is not the start of a slippery slope, it is quite some way down it. Worryingly, it is now apparent that we have no clear way of preventing our slide.