Coloniality and Liberal Angst in Pakistan

By Junaid Ahmad

As Pakistan approaches the 70th anniversary of its independence, Nawaz Sharif Pakistan’ Prime Minister and leader of its most dominant political party holding public office has been force to resign as a result of a Supreme Court decision. Thus ensuring that Shariff would fail for the third time to finish his term of office. The country’s Supreme Court launched an investigation on corruption charges against now ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family since the infamous Panama Papers were leaked in April 2016, and the evidence implicating him, his family members, as well as other cronies, was incontrovertible.

Politicians being corrupt is of course nothing new, and the Sharifs’ empire competed with the other family 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 two decades or so – seeing who can out-plunder the country more before their ‘game’ is over. This has been the 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 of being in charge since the state was told by the ‘masters of the universe’ and the ‘Washington consensus’ that it really owes 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 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 modernity project that the West was bringing to them. People forget that the modernity project 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 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 told to re-invest in this project 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 we had his successor civilian regime, Nawaz Sharif, 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 democracy, accountability, transparency, and really – justice.

But there seems to be a discursive problem since there is a narrative that many liberals want to dearly hold onto, and this then reduces everything that has transpired as merely the same old civilian versus military power game. This was simply the military establishment’s victory, the argument goes, and of course Khan, the PTI, and every Pakistani politically awakened right now is a pawn of that establishment.

There is a problem when we try too hard to retain a narrative we are comfortable with, and refuse to recognize shifting realities around us – which ought to therefore compel a slightly more refined and up-to-date analysis.

There is a hegemony which is being shaken badly in the world order that even more than Pakistani elites, Pakistani liberals are unable to really grasp. The era that we are witnessing in less apocalyptic language can be understood as an age of transition. 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 social majorities in the ‘zone of non-being’, who often faced genocide, plunder, and cruise missiles instead.

Why is this relevant to Pakistan? This is perhaps the real ground of the political that much of the Pakistani intelligentsia, as opposed to critically engaged intellectuals in many other parts of the global South, have tried to avoid addressing. A simple term like ‘agency’ we have allowed Eurocentrism, of the right and left, to completely colonize. Why 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, and our relationship with, 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.

Pakistani elites, both civilian and military, 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 a lot of other things. There are many Pakistani liberals who are just waiting for the US President to blurt that 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 the old way of doing things, and more precisely controlling the political behavior of actors in periphery on the world stage, are 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 day-to-day thrill of on-the-ground politics, especially in present-day Pakistan where there is such heightened consciousness of the people to discuss issues of who will deliver more justice and dignity to nearly 200 million Pakistanis. But it’s crucial for critically engaged Pakistanis to escape from thinking deeply mired in coloniality, unwilling to accept that perhaps there may be some profound linkages between the decision on Yemen, the beginning of the process of holding the high and mighty accountable for their corruption (as partial and/or selective as it may be), and Khan and much of Pakistan calling for a de-linking with Western hegemony.

Liberals will argue that we are just falling into the lap of another colonial master – China. The benefits of the deepening of this relationship are yet to be determined, and can be debated.

But one 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 (contrary to their own narrative of helplessness) are displeased with their compatriots’ courage to begin the process of demanding sovereignty, autonomy, accountability, and justice, and liberation from a colonial world order that has given them a very raw deal – despite being told seventy years ago that that they were now ‘granted’ independence. 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 shortcomings of the country are those that are most responsible for these shortcomings. The Westoxicated of Pakistan like others in Muslimistan are willing to talk about freedom but fail to realize that without decolonization this is not possible.

Seventy years on Pakistan is still standing, it’s the work of decolonization not sniping of the Westoxicated that will bring about a better Pakistan.

That independence may only be starting now, and it may actually not take historians twenty or ten or even five years down the line to see the importance of events taking place at the present juncture. We may be able to see the decolonial horizons and possibilities in all of these developments much sooner.

Junaid Ahmad is an academic of Pakistani origin and the Secretary-General of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).

7 August 2017.