Among the many misconceptions, Pakistanis have of various terms, liberalism or just the word “liberal” is one misunderstood term that seems to have caused various disagreements among the people. The majority considers liberalism to be a western import. Therefore, ideologies and movements associated with the concept are disregarded as western conspiracies. One big example of those movements is the feminist movement in the country, which also falls the broader umbrella of the western conspiracies.

A lot of disagreements come from a place of misunderstanding, where liberalism is thought of as an ideology having its origin in the west. This raises the need for most Pakistanis to come to a consensus about the meaning of the word. Liberalism has its origin from the Latin word “liber” which means free. The word is used differently in different domains, and it also has various meanings in various contexts. For example, economic liberalism means equal economic opportunities; however, a liberal market, which means free market, does not come under economic liberalism. Historically, political liberalism was the first liberal strand to emerge as an ideology that challenged the absolute monarchies. Although political liberalism gained momentum during the European Renaissance, its roots go back and spread more globally to the various revolutions against injustice since antiquity. Practices and ideologies such as democracy, equality of rights for minorities and individual freedom represent the core values of political liberalism, most of these practices emerged as a result of liberal political uprisings.

Similarly, Economic liberalism advocates for equality of opportunity, and individual freedom. As mentioned above economic liberalism does not necessarily support the neoliberal market. Cultural liberalism, on the other hand, means cultural flexibility. It is the willingness to change cultural norms in line with time and societal needs. Some liberals also adopt secularism based on their religious beliefs. Secularism aims to separate state and religions, and hence allowing people to practice religion freely. While liberals reject extremist religious ideologies, a lot of them also take inspiration from mystical interpretations of religion.

The definition and the tenets of conservatism vary widely by place and time. However, the central feature of conservatism lies in the belief that the aristocracies are better than they are. Therefore, the main goal of conservatism is to maintain and promote aristocracies, which automatically translates to inequality in social and economic spheres. While this inequality supports the aristocrats by maintaining their status through its practices, it also ends up creating further divisions amongst people. People who hold the belief that the aristocrats have intrinsic traits that make them superior and hence more capable to dominate are conservatives. Conservatism rejects practices such as democracy. For conservatives, democracy is not about social equity, but rather consider it a psychological condition. This, however, does not mean that conservatism rejects freedom. Conservatism supports freedom as long as it does not oppose the dominant position of the aristocrats.

There are no mechanisms that can measure a country’s position in both these ideologies as both contain contradictory elements. However, generally, governments with liberal values that allow for freedom of speech, social and economic equity, and equal rights for women are labeled liberals. In Pakistan, there are aspects of liberalism and conservatism present in all institutions. The uprising women’s movement in the country represents the liberalistic wing of the country that advocates for equal rights for women. Politically, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) emerged as the first liberal party. The 1980s is said to be the era of conservatives in the country, when laws such the Hudood Ordinances, and the blasphemy law was introduced. Ever since Zia ul Haq’s regime in the 1980s, conservatism in Pakistan seems to have grown big. The Islamization of different institutions in the form of conservative laws have caused religious conflicts in the country.

Recently, the mainstream media has been using the term “liberal extremism” to challenge liberalism in the country. The phrase is used for people who have liberal values. This misconception of the majority becomes evident in the very use of “liberal extremism”, which is an oxymoron. One cannot be a liberal and an extremist at the same time. However, in political terminology, one can call oneself a “hardcore” liberal according to their support for political parties with liberal values.

Generally, the conservatives in the country hold the view that the liberals are an intellectual caucus are conspiring to westernize Pakistan. This has resulted in the prominence of a singular conservative narrative, whereas counter opinion is absent in the public sphere. The difference of opinion on various issues has left people who do not have binary thinking look for a middle ground.


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Hatoon Gul is a Turbat based YES alumna studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University, Karachi.

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