Coloniality and liberal angst in Pakistan

By Nauman Hassan

As Pakistan approaches the 70th anniversary of its independence, its Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, who is also the leader of PMLN, one of the largest political parties in the country, has been disqualified from holding public office. This means that Sharif would fail to finish his term of office as the country’s premier for the third time. The dismissal was the result of a Supreme Court led investigation into corruption charges against Sharif and his family, based on the infamous Panama Papers which were leaked in April 2016.

Corruption amongst the Pakistani elite is of course nothing new, and the Sharifs’ empire competed with the other major political dynasty in the country, the Bhutto-Zardari party otherwise known as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), in a game of musical chairs over the past three decades or so – seeing who can out-plunder the country more before their ‘game’ is over. This has been the disappointing face of liberal democracy in Pakistan.

This era was facilitated by neo-liberalism being triumphant; hence the political elites almost felt it was their right to hoard the spoils since the state was construed by the ‘Washington consensus’ as owing nothing to its people. As in the Western plutocracies, the realm of the political was deliberately maligned so that Pakistanis would be turned away from demanding meaningful sovereignty and justice – while the elites and local and foreign capital interests pillage the nation dry.

The abysmal record of this story of politics in Pakistan over the past two decades explains why, for example, there were no major protests on the streets when General Pervez Musharraf removed Nawaz Sharif from power in a military coup in 1999. One hopes we have moved beyond the Orientalist trope that Pakistanis, and Arabs, and Muslims generally, just can’t handle democracy, and are simply unfit for it – and therefore won’t fight for it.

It is a bit like raising the question as to why the colonized peoples of the global South were not so keen on the project of modernity that the West was bringing to them. People forget that modernity manifested itself quite differently for those that Fanon described as being in the ‘zone of non-being,’ versus those in the ‘zone of being.’

So a military general was in power in Pakistan at the turn of this century, and, as always, political mobilization erupts when the military ruler loses meaningful legitimacy among the people. Pakistanis were once again demanding the return of liberal democracy. Perhaps it would come out differently this time?

For the most part, it really hasn’t. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, the ‘daughter of the East’, bequeathed her political party before she was assassinated to her husband and her son. Her husband, Asif Zardari, or more widely known as Mr. ten percent because of the kickbacks he’d take in any and all investments and transactions made in the country, continued the proud tradition of Pakistani civilian politicians making authoritarian dictators in other parts of the world actually seem like a better option. The latter perhaps delivered something to the people. And now their successor civilian regime is in hot waters after the Sharif family involvement in offshore companies has been, exposed. There are large sections of Pakistanis, as well as Imran Khan and his political party, PTI, joyous at the moment and, as the Supreme Court insisted in its verdict, enthusiastic about deepening accountability, transparency, and what they deem justice.

On the other hand, sections of the Pakistani society, including members of the liberal intelligentsia interpret these developments in the context of the age-old civilian versus military power game. While the tussle for power between the two is undeniable, recent events cannot only be understood in that narrative frame but require us to adopt a slightly more nuanced and up-to-date analysis.

The present hegemonic world-order is increasingly being rendered obsolete, a fact that Pakistani liberals are yet to acknowledge fully. In less apocalyptic language, the present era could be termed an age of transition. But put more bluntly, we are witnessing the crisis and demise of a 500 year colonial world system that deployed discourses and practices of ‘Progress’, but delivered little of it to the masses relegated to the ‘zone of non-being’, who have faced genocide, plunder, and cruise missiles instead.

Why is this relevant to Pakistan? Because in a way, this forms the real ground of the “political” today, a fact largely ignored by Pakistani intelligentsia, unlike critically engaged intellectuals in many other parts of the global South. Even simple terms like ‘agency’ are only understood in their colonized, Eurocentric, meaning, amongst both the Left and the Right. Why, for instance, do terms like ‘agency’ and ‘empowerment’ have to result in outcomes that please Pakistani liberals or Washington and London? Why cannot a particular community’s agency simultaneously advance different (perhaps radically so) values, principles, and modes of living and being on this planet, while maintaining shared values with other cultural and faith traditions, including ‘the West’ – the West defined here not as a geographical entity, but as Talal Asad argues, a hegemonic project that for the past several hundred years has attempted to universalize its very provincial and parochial experience, regardless of the human toll.

Westoxificated Pakistani elites have indulged in catastrophic policies before that have aligned them with even more powerful forces that have absolutely no interest in justice and accountability – whether in Riyadh or Langley, Virginia.

The important point to reckon with now is that we are living in an era that marks the end of liberal democracy, the end of neoliberalism, and perhaps the end of the world as we know it. There are many Pakistani liberals though, who seem to be waiting for the US President to spell it out explicitly before they get the point that his actions, and the thrust of the new authoritarianism in the Western plutocracies, demonstrate precisely this crisis of Western hegemony.

The old order and its way of doing things, and more precisely, its ability to control the political behavior of actors in the ‘peripheries’, is gradually crumbling. Which is why Pakistan’s refusal to participate in Saudi Arabia’s murderous war in Yemen will be a turning point in the country’s history, and could potentially be the most significant marker of this age of transition – in the Pakistani and larger Islamicate context.

It’s often hard to take a step back from the thrill and drama of day-to-day political scandals, especially in present-day Pakistan where there is such heightened awareness and interest in electoral politics and how it affects the fates of nearly 200 million Pakistanis. But it is crucial for critically engaged Pakistanis to escape from thinking in frames that are deeply mired in coloniality and begin to explore the possibility that there may be some profound linkages between Pakistan’s assertive decision on Yemen, and the populist sentiment in favor of (albeit limited)’ accountability’ and delinking from Western hegemony, sometimes voiced by the likes of Imran Khan.

Sections of Pakistani intelligentsia will argue that we are just falling into the laps of another colonial master – China. Their fears and anxieties stem more from Westoxificated vulgar orientalist tropes about the East, rather than any hard evidence. They prefer neo-colonial subjugation to the White Man (the White Man as a political category) rather than accepting a narrative that’s unsettling a linear Plato-to-NATO/West is best story of the modern Eurocentric period of coloniality.

But another interesting thing may also be happening: a deepening of decolonization in Pakistan. Not doing the reactionary Saudis’ bidding in Yemen, more autonomy from Washington, building of stronger ties with other geopolitical players that are defying the old, warmongering unipolarity of the world system, and calling for more accountability, transparency, fairness, and justice internally – these are crucial signifiers of this age of transition.

It is a tragedy that Pakistan’s Westoxicated elite who have been in power for seventy years if not necessarily in charge of the country, are displeased with their compatriots’ courage to show disaffection with the status quo and demand sovereignty, autonomy, accountability, and justice, and liberation from a colonial world order that has given them a very raw deal. The people of Pakistan seem to recognize that independence without decolonization is unsustainable, and decolonization without philosophical and cultural dimensions is unthinkable.   The tragedy of Pakistan is that those who complain most loudly about the short-comings of the country are in many ways most responsible for these short-comings.  The Westoxicated of Pakistan like others in Muslimistan is willing to talk about freedom but fail to realize that without decolonization this is not possible.

Seventy years on Pakistan continues to exist on the world map, but without the crucial work of decolonization, a better Pakistan will never become a reality. We stand today at a critical juncture of history – where the shifting dynamics of the present are opening up new potentials towards de-colonial horizons. Whether they are realized or not only time will tell, but the importance of these developments may begin to be recognized sooner than expected.

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Nauman Hassan

Nauman is an enthusiastic researcher, who has developed his interest in Strategic Studies to become scholar in the fields of Strategy, Security and Defence Studies. Currently, he is serving at National Defense University, Islamabad as a Lecturer (V/F) and Asst. to Academic Advisor. Mr. Hassan has acquired Master degree in Strategic Studies from National Defence University. His area of focus is Asia Pacific studies.

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