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Opinion polling shows most Pakistanis think of America as an enemy, democracy as an unwelcome concept, and the imposition of Shariah law as a no-brainer. Meanwhile, recent news out of the country features a cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, riding high by invoking anti-imperialist and Islamist ideas. The Urdu-language media remain saturated with hyper-nationalism.
As the United States enters a shaky new period of detente with Pakistan following the recent reopening of supply routes to Afghanistan, it’s fair to ask if Pakistani liberals deserve notice at all. Doesn’t it make more sense for the West to instead engage more intensely with the powerful army and assertive hard-liners such as Mr. Khan?
The answer is no. Pakistan’s liberals are not only less weak and less of a fringe phenomenon than they’re made out to be, they’re also the only ones who hold out the promise of a better future for their country.
The country has a robust, English-speaking elite. Its members represent an encounter between Islam and the West that goes back more than 150 years and has given South Asia some of its most gifted writers, lawyers and scientists—including the country’s Shiite founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and its only Nobel laureate, the Ahmadi (a minority religious sect) physicist Abdus Salam.
English speakers aren’t the only potential constituency for homegrown liberalism. Anyone with a stake in protecting ethnic identity, women’s rights, religious liberty and free speech is threatened by the homogenizing forces of radical Islam and the paranoid security state.
These include the ranks of Pashtun poets and Karachi feminists, whose syncretic culture and modern ideas are under threat from radical Islam, as well as Sindhi and Baluch politicians who resent how centralized bureaucratic and military control hollows out federalism.
Perhaps the biggest potential defenders of liberal ideas such as freedom of worship are the minority Shiites and other heterodox Muslims. The Ahmadis have been under concerted attack since the 1970s, but in recent years radical Sunni violence against the country’s approximately 25-million-strong Shiite community has gone from episodic to regular.
This year alone, at least 60 Shiites from the tiny Hazara community have been slaughtered by Sunni extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The very existence of these Muslims is threatened if Pakistan stays on its current path of denial and blaming the West for its most serious problems.
True, liberal ideas have yet to find an unapologetic political champion. President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling Pakistan Peoples Party broadly stands for religious tolerance and a peaceful South Asia. But it has been ineffectual in office. While it has been in power, religious zealots have murdered the sitting governor of Punjab province and the only Christian cabinet minister.
Last Wednesday, police in Punjab demolished the minarets of an Ahmadi mosque under a harsh law that forbids the sect from identifying itself as Muslim or using Islamic symbols.
Pakistan may have to wait to find a truly effective liberal party, but in the meantime nothing prevents the international community from supporting the ideas that could make it possible. This means focusing aid on groups and individuals that stand for democracy, free speech, women’s empowerment and the preservation of local cultures.
As far as possible, contact with the military should be limited to pressuring it to end support for transnational terrorism, and to educating officers on how more successful Muslim-majority countries have managed to strike an appropriate civil-military balance.
Winning the war of ideas in Pakistan won’t be easy. But it’s an uphill struggle, not a lost cause. The alternative, turning to autocrats and demagogues, will only produce more radical Islam and more anti-American rhetoric in what is already known as the most dangerous place on earth.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01
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