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Malala the liberal?

Malala the liberal?

By: Syed Mansoor Hussain

Malala has suddenly become a liberal icon, and as such all those that find the very word liberal distasteful have made her the object of their distaste

The controversy over Malala Yousafzai seems to be simmering down. Pundits have delivered their opinions. Her book has been criticised and dissected, but without much further conniptions for the simple reason that most of our ‘well informed’ pundits never read it and relied essentially on reviewers and select quotes. And yes, I have not read it either, and therefore have no desire to offer any opinion about it. But I do want to talk of something that has happened over the last month relating directly to Malala.

For reasons that are entirely obscure, ‘liberalism’ and liberals have been dragged into the ‘Malala controversy’. Malala has suddenly become a liberal icon, and as such all those that find the very word liberal distasteful have made her the object of their distaste. Personally, I doubt it very much that Malala is a liberal, or for that matter if she has even thought about the politics or the economics of liberalism in any organised fashion.

If we look at things objectively, other than being shot at by the Taliban and surviving, Malala and our Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif have much in common. Mian Sahib and his family lived in England for extended periods of time. Mian Sahib’s daughter is educated and goes around without wearing a ‘hijab-niqab’. Mian Sahib had major medical treatment in England, Mian Sahib addressed the United Nations and Mian Sahib met President Obama in the White House. Mian Sahib believes in educating girls and Mian Sahib is against terrorists. Perhaps the only thing not common between the two besides the age difference and gender is that Mian Sahib has never written a book, even one that is co-authored, but that does not reflect poorly on Malala but rather on Mian Sahib.

As far as the charges against Malala of being ‘mentored and guided’ by her father and manipulated and brought to fame and fortune by ‘external forces’ is concerned, perhaps if we go back in time by about 30 years, Mian Sahib was also charged by his detractors with similar things. So, as far as I am concerned, Malala is as much a liberal as Mian Sahib. Yes, some years from now, we can determine if she is a ‘real’ liberal or not. Until then we should leave this 16-year-old girl-child alone. Let her follow her ‘star’ wherever it leads her.

And that brings me to my pet peeve. People who decry liberalism in Pakistan have no idea what liberalism means but keep using that word irresponsibly and completely out of context. In their lack of knowledge or perhaps as a deliberate attempt to malign political and economic liberals, they conflate social liberals with political and economic liberals.

Social liberals might not indulge in profuse protestations of public piety, wear clothes that are westernised, speak English most of the time, might be seen in the company of people of the opposite sex that they are not related to (mehrams), and they might even indulge in ‘forbidden’ libations. In my recent years in Pakistan, most social liberals I know belong to the upper classes, and most of them are definitely not political or economical liberals but rather ‘elitists’ that believe in an inherent class superiority and the willingness to do whatever they want just because they can.

Classical liberalism is a political philosophy that supports individual rights including the right to free speech, association, ownership of property and the right to take up a trade or a profession. Classical liberalism also supports the idea of representative government, the rule of law or ‘equality’ of all under the law, equality of opportunity, equal access to education and healthcare, and, most importantly, the right to follow a religion of choice. From an economic perspective, classical liberalism also supports the idea of relatively ‘free markets’.

If we exclude the little bit of ‘the left’ that is left in Pakistan, most political parties in Pakistan accept these things. Many years ago, only partly in jest I once said in one of my columns in this newspaper that even the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is a classic liberal party with just one difference. The JI does believe in the rule of the law but its source of law is based on received wisdom and not manmade laws. For all practical purposes then, as Francis Fukuyama said in his book The End of History, liberal democracy as an idea has won over all other forms of government. But then modern liberalism is not the same thing as classical liberalism.

Today, the centre-right political parties that might be called ‘conservative’ have accepted classical liberalism but differ from modern day liberal parties on some important issues. The primary ones are about economics. Conservatives believe in free markets, privatisation of publicly owned enterprises and most importantly they are against the ‘welfare state’. And depending on the culture we consider, conservatives pay lip service to the idea of the ‘separation of church and state’ but push values that are beholden to religious inclinations. Unlike conservatives, modern liberals accept ‘behaviours’ that might be out of accepted religious practices as long as these do not undermine law and order. There are other things where the two differ but those are too many to discuss here.

Liberals also believe that ‘free markets’ and privatisation of publicly owned enterprises leads to ‘crony capitalism’ and that governments have an important role to play in controlling the wanton behaviour of capitalists and in providing basic services to all citizens, especially those that are too poor to provide for themselves. Also, modern day liberals strongly support the idea of progressive taxation where the wealthy pay more so that the government can provide support for the disadvantaged.

The basic difference between liberals and conservatives now is whether the wealthy should contribute to the well being of the poor. Not as ‘charity’ but as an obligation. That in my opinion is what primarily separates modern liberals from modern conservatives.

The writer has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at [email protected]

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