Good liberals, bad liberals

Liberals are the favourite whipping boy of governments and their loyalists, not only in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh but in all pseudo- and quasi-democracies, autocracies and dictatorships in the world. From Europe (Belarus, Hungary) to Southeast Asia (Myanmar, the Philippines) and from Africa (Uganda, Egypt) to Latin America (Venezuela, Brazil).

But there is a paradox. While these governments and their loyalists detest and denounce the liberals within their own countries, they commend and congratulate the liberals of other countries. For them, in other words, there are good liberals and there are bad liberals.

How do you judge which is which? Pretty easy, from the standpoint of the chest-thumping “patriots” who take their cue from their governments: domestic liberals are bad but foreign liberals are good. But, again, the latter are good only insofar as they champion causes that are dear to these people, such as Kashmir and Palestine, but bad when they criticise the governments of their countries for failure to protect minorities.

Let us begin with Pakistan. Two well-known liberal activists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and the late Asma Jahangir, have been subjected to malicious campaigns by pro-regime elements. These elements, however, admire and cite liberals of India, such as Arundhati Roy and Ravish Kumar, for defending the rights of the people of Kashmir and Indian Muslims, who are under attack from Hindutva forces there.

On the other side of this paradoxical equation, these Hindutva forces in India hate and denounce Roy and Kumar for precisely this very reason, for defending the rights of minorities of their own country. While these two liberals carry on despite threats, Gauri Lankesh was killed a couple of years ago for her activism. At the same time, while killing their own, these forces shamelessly quote and cite Pakistani liberals like Pervez Hoodbhoy and the recently-deceased Irfan Hussain for raising their voices in support of persecuted minorities in Pakistan, including Hindus.

Malala Yusufzai is probably the best known Pakistani liberal who has faced a barrage of criticism and condemnation from right-wing “patriots” in her own country while winning the Nobel Prize for Peace for defending the rights of women to education in Pakistan and everywhere.

The renowned American linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, is much admired in Pakistan by liberals for obvious reasons. But even those who hate Pakistani liberals do not mind quoting him often for his criticism of Israel and support of Palestinian rights as well as his denunciation of US military interventions overseas.

Over three decades ago, I was told of an instance when, in answer to a question at a talk in Islamabad to a large audience, Noam Chomsky revealed that he is a Jew. A pall of silence fell over the audience as most Pakistanis cannot believe that a man who speaks so passionately and persistently about Palestinian rights, besides castigating Israeli expansionism, can be a Jew!

State-controlled Russian, Chinese and Turkish media, as well as their dedicated English-language TV channels (Russia Today, CGTN and TRT World, respectively) profusely quote liberals from Western and other countries on selective international issues. At the same time, these regimes jail dissidents and crush their own liberals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly went so far as to attempt to poison the country’s best-known liberal, namely, Alexei Navalny. A few years earlier, the most prominent Russian liberal leader, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated not far from the Kremlin. In the weeks before his assassination, he had expressed the fear that Putin might have him killed.

The dictionary meaning of a “liberal” is a person “favourable to progress or reform; free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant.” Liberals of every country demand of their governments to respect fundamental human rights and liberties, uphold the rule of law, guarantee due judicial process and equality before the law, hold transparent, free and fair elections, protect women’s rights and ensure the rights of minorities to full and equal citizenship.

Naturally, then, while Pakistani liberals call for the protection of Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis, their counterparts in India defend the rights of Muslims and of Kashmiris, in Sri Lanka they support the Tamil and Muslim minorities, in Israel the rights of Palestinians and, in the United States, an end to police brutality against blacks.

As I write these lines, an article in Time magazine questions US support for the Narendra Modi government in India (“How Long Will Joe Biden Pretend Narendra Modi’s India Is a Democratic Ally?” 15 Feb 2021):

“The U.S. would like to see India as an ideological and strategic counter to China’s rise, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook India’s fast-declining democratic standards. The daily assaults on civil liberties and the threats to India’s Muslim minority under Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have noticeably increased since Modi’s re-election in 2019. Hate speech is rife, peaceful dissent is criminalized, freedom of expression and association faces new constraints, and the jails are filling up with political prisoners and peaceful dissenters as a servile judiciary looks away.”

These words, coming from an Indian liberal, namely, Debasish Roy Chowdhury, would be very welcome for the pro-establishment forces in Pakistan. And no doubt that these very words would earn Chowdhury the ire of Modi’s government and their Hindutva champions in India. Reflecting this paradox, Indian and Pakistani expatriates in the United States prefer liberal administrations in Washington for ensuring their rights as minorities while condemning liberals in their own countries for doing the same there.

Smear campaigns against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are carried out and restrictions imposed on their operations in all autocratic, pseudo- and quasi-democratic countries for the same reasons that liberals are condemned, for exposing the failures of these governments from the standpoint of international law and universally accepted human rights standards.

by Razi Azmi

(Daily Times, 20 February 2021)

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10 Responses to Good liberals, bad liberals

  1. Nazar Naqvi says:

    Dr. Azmi has portrayed nicely how good liberals are considered as bad liberals. The quoted examples of few liberals from Asia to Africa are quite convincing and support the argument. The underlying reasons for this anomaly could be hypocrisy, ignorance or vested interests.

  2. David Goodlett says:

    This article is excellent in every particular.

  3. Sayed Chowdhury says:

    Liberalism is long dead. Good liberals? Bad liberals? What’s the point? A more suitable title for your piece, if I may suggest is: The death of liberalism. What you are subjecting to your analysis is the decomposing carcass of a short-lived utopian pseudo-‘ideology’ which was always on a shaky or little foundation and now with an expired use-by date. Political expediency and associated intolerance and impatience have hastened its death. R.I.P. and what’s next?

    • Razi Azmi says:

      How can one say that liberalism is dead when there are liberals fighting for people’s dignity and rights in every country under despotic rule at the risk of torture and incarceration? As well, there are many countries in the world whose affairs are still run on broadly liberal principles, such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, all the Scandinavian countries and many European countries. Even Donald Trump didn’t quite succeed in defeating liberalism in the United States.

  4. Pradeep Kalra says:

    Very interesting and as usual made good reading. The author has very appropriately penned the liberals of India and Pakistan in these tough times in his unique style.

  5. Shoaib Noor says:

    Wonderful article exposing the hypocrisy of Nationalism masquerading as Patriotism.
    When Liberalism dies so does Humanity. A reader has asked, what comes next? Well, it’s not that we don’t know what comes next. One only need to read a few pages from recent history. What comes next is:
    Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, modern-day Iran and Saudi Arabia, Gaddafi’s Libya, Assad’s Syria , Saddam’s Iraq, Hamas’ Gaza … do we need more examples?

  6. Jacob Walter Kipp says:

    A brilliant article for these particular times. The enemies of liberalism tend to see hyper nationalism and authoritarianism as solutions to complex problems. Populism, whether in Hungary or Poland, finds its appeal in identifying minorities who are to be the subject of state abuse. The same is sadly true across the globe and our author has done well to make that point quite clear. His treatment of the struggles of liberals in India and Pakistan should have a broad readership and stimulate a discussion in both countries. Today, for the first time in the age of the Pandemic, an American President addressed directly the US loss of lives — 500,000 in the last year — more deaths than in the three major wars: WWI, WWII, and Vietnam. President Biden, a man who has faced many personal losses, invoked empathy for all those who lost loved ones to the Pandemic and sought to give his fellow citizens a sense of national tragedy.

  7. “While these governments and their loyalists detest and denounce the liberals within their own countries, they commend and congratulate the liberals of other countries.” I have not observed such admiration of foreign liberals in the illiberal pro-Trump movement in the US, nor by Trump himself. Even though Trump’s Secretary of State Pompeo spoke (maybe just in a pro-forma way) in favor of the pro-freedom movements in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Russia, etc.

  8. Anthony Letford says:

    “Liberalism is long dead.” Mr Chowdhury’s pessimism, or is it glee? is somewhat premature. Around the world we see nations such as Myanmar fighting to return to liberal democracy. We see former Soviet nations also struggling to head in the same direction and we see China terrified that the Taiwanese can show to the Chinese that a liberal democracy can function well.
    But it is the Islamic world where the struggle is most intense. Sooner or later the regimes in both Saudi Arabia and Iran will collapse and what will replace them will be some form of liberal democracy. Not this decade, perhaps not even the next, but it is inevitable. People are better informed than ever before and are no longer prepared to listen to the lies of tyrants.

  9. It is definitely a thought-provoking article. I don’t agree with Sayed Chowdhury when he says: “Liberalism is long dead.” If it is dead, when did it die?

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