America The Beautiful And The Dreams of Pakistani Liberals

We have become accustomed to certain ways of seeing and speaking about the world. The Pakistani liberal – a caste that has been educated and nurtured on Western educational, political and cultural ideologies absorbed during years abroad at college, or careers, and through popular Western visual and literary media (fiction, non-fiction books), offers a particularly stark lesson in how certain forms of speaking, expressing and justifying arguments remain unchanged by thought, critical inquiry or self-doubt. The thoughtless regurgitation of American / European universalism, exceptionalism, and social sophistication  – all of which mind you are as much myths as anything, is an excellent example of this.

I was reminded of this as I took a few minutes to watch this presentation by the celebrity liberal Professor Pervaiz Hoodbhoy, famous for his much lauded anti-nuclear proliferation arguments, and his relentless critique (justified and well argued) of the decimation of a culture of critical inquiry and meaningful research at Pakistani universities. His writings on the state of education in Pakistan have been an important intervention, and ones that first bought his work to my attention. Although Professor Hoodbhoy has been an eloquent and powerful voice speaking out against the decline of educational standards, he nowadays represents that small elite in Pakistani society who have – whether by chance or by cultivation–become the principal translators of the political and social trends in the country for most foreign journalists, and visitors alike. As a result, he has often been able to speak and express views on matters as far reaching as geopolitics, domestic politics, the global war on terror, ‘Islamic’ radicalism and fundamentalism and more. There are in fact a handful of select Pakistanis – Ahmed Rashid, Mohsin Hamid and some others, who are repeatedly invited to offer their opinions and views on a range of topics, and help the world, particularly the Euro-American world, make sense of the mystery that is Pakistan. So be it. These are intelligent, creative and sophisticated men (and some women), and deserve their audience and their role. For the most part.

And so, unsurprisingly, Professor Hoodbhoy was invited to give this talk, one of many I am sure, and I found it rather compelling in the vivid and obviously inadvertent way it reflected so many of the problematic foundations of Pakistani liberal arguments and justifications for their criticism. Though short, it is a good example of the ways in which post-colonial intellectuals and others, undermine their own credibility by hanging on to an fantastic and fantasy idea of The West, create false and misleading comparisons, and judge any and all social, political or other phenomenon that does not match its Western model is less or deviant. Or in need of ‘reform’.

And so, I decided to pen a letter to the esteemed professor (not a real letter, juts a simulated one of course. Who writes real letters these days?)

Dear Professor Hoodbhoy;

I listened with great interest and curiosity to your recent talk. I was hoping to hear one of your typical insightful expositions about the state of our world, and the ways in which our two countries–the USA and Pakistan–have found themselves entangled and interwoven in these times of war, terrorism, neoliberal debris and mass migration. I was expecting that your talk, given to an American audience, would be one that focused on helping us break the conventional narratives of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’, and reveal the complex, inter-twined and convoluted histories our countries have followed and the ways in which we have colluded in the messes created in the region. What I had not expected, was to hear that you are a great fan and admirer of the American constitution. I did not expect you to open you talk by not only quoting Thomas Jefferson (We hold these truths to be….etc. etc.), but also using words such as ‘wonderful’ and ‘outstanding’ to describe the American Constitution.

I would like to congratulate you on your wonderful Constitution. I am sorry that I am 250 years late, but some things cannot be avoided. They are so wonderful, these statements of your constitution that…but this I found outstanding: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Not all countries of the world have such marvelous constitutions [emphasis mine]. (Spoken at 3:48)

It was particularly galling to then learn that you used these lines to not only set us the USA as a bastion of democratic liberty, equality and justice, and as a foil for your argument about Pakistan, and its failures to find liberty, equality and justice.

I would like to point out that the man you quoted was a slave owner, and a rapist of his slaves. I would like to point out that ‘men’ as referred in the American constitution, refers only to White males, and not the hundreds of thousands of African slaves, women, Chinese and others who were considered unworthy of such ‘equality, justice and liberty’. I would like to remind you that it was only yesterday that Martin Luther King Jr. was on the streets of this country still fighting – decades after the abolition of slavery, and decades into the Jim Crow laws, for a modicum of human equality in America. I would also like to point out to you that at this very moment, this nation who’s constitution you lovingly quoted and then held up as a measure of all this ‘equal’ and ‘just’ is: 1) a nation that has the world’s largest percentage of its population in prison, 2) the highest number of Black prisoners anywhere, 3) is seeing a rise in Islamophobic violence and racism, 4) has White supremacists in political power, 4) has, since 2003, attacked sever sovereign nations, all of them illegally),5) is an occupying colonial power in at least three of these nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), 6) continues to use extra-judicial detention, rendition and torture practices in collaboration with other nation states like Egypt, 7) has deep seated practices of racism in its corporate and political sectors. And this is just the highlights.

Let us not mention the Native Americans, and the small matter of the genocidal foundations of the USA.

But, as I continued through your speech, I realized that the “hits” kept on coming. So here are my small comments about some of the selection (albeit not complete) list of bizarre, ahistorical and fawning nonsense you seem to have felt necessary to utter to your American hosts.


Israel does not have a constitution. But that is because the secularists in Israel and the religious people couldn’t come to an agreement as to what should constitute the Constitutional document for Israel and so they have let things flow, effectively privileging the Jew over the non-Jew. (Spoken at 5:41)

I would also like to point out that your mealy-mouthed explanation of the Zionist project as something that ‘just happened to privilege the Jew over the non-Jew’ because the ‘secularist’ and the ‘religious’ could not ‘agree’ to a constitution, is perhaps one of the worst white-wash of Zionist settler colonial aims, agendas and objectives I have ever heard. It is as if the entire history of the creation of Israel as a project funded, armed and supported by colonial powers, and a powerful European Zionist collective, has become the racist, apartheid state that it is because of an ‘administrative’ mistake instead of the specifically colonial aim that it was. And remains. The Israeli refusal to enact a Constitution is at par with the nation’s refusal to define it’s border i.e that it is and has been since its official birth, a nation still in the making through conquest and ethnic cleansing. The Zionists and the settlers who defined its storm-troopers were determined to not define its legal, geographic and political limits, while clearly defining through discriminatory and segregationist practices, its exclusively Jewish character.

And that is a little sad, because humanity had made enormous gains at the time of the European Enlightenment. In fact, the authors of your constitution were men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin…and they were inspired by men like Rousseau, like Diderot and they brought to the United States these wonderful ideas of equality, of fraternity, the ideals of the French Revolution, the ideals of the Enlightenment. (Spoken at 7:53)

And it is bizarre that you would – in this day and age of Lusardo and others, you would refer to the The Enlightenment. That you would refer to Rousseau, or Diderot as if they were universalists & universal humanists instead of the White supremacists with deeply racist conceptions of the world, and deep seated commitment to the higher worth of the European, and that the Enlightenment only applied to the White European. Domenico Lusardo’s brilliant Liberalism: A Counter History seems an essential read:

I am surprised that you have not noticed the close relationship with the Enlightenment and the emergence of ‘The Jewish Question’ – the instance when an European people are ‘Othered’ and separated from European society as ideas Aryan and Semitic races are concocted, or that Orientalism – the other side of the coin of Semitism, emerges at the same time, or that colonialism finally takes it big move outwards at precisely this same time. Perhaps Aamer Mufti’s Enlightenment in the Colony would be a helpful read:

This is The Enlightenment that accepted and accommodated the global African slave trade, the genocidal wars in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America, colonialism, eugenics, race theory, capitalist profit as an over-arching rationality, the mass slaughters of the ‘rational’ WW I and WW II. And so, I am surprised that you would continue to speak so reverentially of these White Europeans, never once stopping to understand that your reverence for them explains their indifference and denigration of you. For it is our greatest failure as post-colonials: an unquestioning and unthinking respect, veneration and exaggeration of all things Western, and a thoughtless refusal or inability (i am not sure which), to challenge and question the actual lived lineages and epistemologies of Western liberal myths and social pretensions.

And then, year before last I lost a very dear friend. She was in Karachi…the last time that I saw her was when we were together protesting against the head of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. We do not know why she was targeted. But she was somebody who believed that Valentine’s Day should be celebrated.

You are obviously speaking about Sabeen Mahmud, shot outside the T2F cafe in Karahi in 2015. Dr. Hoodhoy, whereas I understand your need to define her ‘secular’ credentials, and I also understand how desperate we are to demonstrate that we who can be related to, and can be mourned, must only be ‘secular’ in the Western sense of the word, I would like to point out that Valentine’s Day is a religious holiday, which originated as a Western Christian liturgical feast day honouring one or more early saints named Valentinus? To use this example of her ‘secular’ credentials – and yet again kowtow to Western sensibility, was quite pathetic to listen to. To offer it to Americans as a sign of a Pakistani who wanted to be ‘freer’ or ‘more modern’, is really a sad act of fawning and flattery. It is unnecessary. Dare I remind you, that the extra-judicial killing of any Pakistani citizen – whether secular, as you see them, or religious, or religiously fanatic, and whether at the hands of the Pakistani State (which has killed tens of thousands), or some demented religious idiot, are equally condemnable. I am sure you will disagree, but I insist on it. It is precisely these judgements of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ lives that are made in the corridors of imperial power, and lives extinguished without care or concern for justice, humanity, civility, and equality, almost always excused on the grounds that the people killed were ‘terrorists’ aka Muslims of a bit-too-uncomfortable-Islamic leaning.

First, let me tell you what has changed in my part of the world. Because you see, as we look for the origins of ‘terrorism’ we have to see that the reasons are different in different places, but that there is also a commonality and that if one is to apportion guilt, then in fact, we are all at different levels guilty. So let me begin by telling you how ‘terrorism’ came to my country, and how extremism became the order of the day…It was 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and this was the time when three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United states joined together to create the first Global Jihad of history. (Spoken at 13:30)

This is not worthy of a high school class. This simplistic, comic book rendition of a complex political and imperial history is embarrassing to listen to. And i can see your fear: your fear of speaking truth to your American audience. It is a lie that the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet union was the first ‘global jihad’ aided and abetted by the Americans. In fact, it is a well known fact that the Americans had worked closely with fundamentalist Islamic political and militant groups from the 1950s onwards – in Indonesia (massacre of Chinese), in Egypt (collaborations and support for the Muslim Brotherhood against perceived Socialist leadership), in Pakistan in the 1950 (leading to Manto’s cynical letters to Uncle Sam) and far more. There are some really good histories to read about this if you are interested:

Ian Johnson’s “A Mosque in Munich” or Robert Dreyfus’ “Devil’s Game: How The US Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam” or Robert Vitalis “America’s Kingdom: Myth making on the Saudi Oil Frontier” to name just a few. Or perhaps Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars” a book I am sure you have read, will help you remember again.

And yet you will not say it – you will hid the rise of this movement, its logistics and its funding, by blaming it on the Soviet invasion, thus avoiding saying “The Americans were at the core of this, and it reflected decades of American policy to support, arm and support fundamentalist Islamic militant groups against progressive / Communist voices in countries across the globe”. Afghanistan was a culmination of something decades in the making. It was not the first. It was the largest indeed, the most sophisticated, sure, but it was not the first. It’s an ugly history, but it is American history and your American hosts need to hear it.

But lets be more specific: the rise of religious fundamentalism or ‘extremism’ in Pakistan is intrinsically connected to the killing, torturing, imprisoning or exiling progressive / Communist voices in Pakistan and leaving the national and political space open to religious fundamentalist voices. Saadia Toor’s book “The State of Islam” would help you remember this recent history. We are in the dire condition that we are, because we killed the progressive the American’s so gleefully asked us to kill. As a praetorian guard state, Pakistan has been at the beck and call of American imperial interests since the 1950s. Why would you not just say that?

It is also extremely strange of you to claim that you do not understand the rise of ‘populism’ in America, or elsewhere. But would it not help you to just connect the neoliberal dots across the globe and realise, as Gramsci pointed out to you, that a charismatic figure emerges where the elite lose faith in existing political arrangements because they no longer serve their self-serving interests and move to completely transform them? You can speak about inequality, but you cannot speak about inequality without speaking about neoliberalism, about its sister of globalisation, and its father of capitalism. You can wonder why there is so much poverty in America, but you can only do so by remaining ignorant its very recent destruction of the welfare state, the erasure of public services and social protections, its labor rights and benefits.

I am also disappointed that you never made the connection between what you call ‘primitivism’ (when you speak about religious or national revivalism), without pointing out its intrinsic connection to the nation state, and nationalism. That you would ignore the close relationship between sectarianism and the nation state, and how minorities become targets because of the secular state. Aamer Mufti (“Enlightenment in the Colonies“), Saba Mahmood (“Religious Difference In A Secular Age“, Joseph Massad (“Islam in Liberalism“) are only some of the people who have written about all this.

And yet here you are referring to out-dated concepts such as ‘the selfish gene’, or about how the Enlightenment was about the equality of all (which it wasn’t – it was only and always about the equality of all White people. If you don’t believe me just read what Grotius, the man who wrote the principals of just war.)

This is a terribly out-dated speech, based on cliched ideas that have long been surrendered and discredited. We are Dr Hoodbhoy, at a moment of powerful decolonising push back – in academia, in journalism, in art and media, in popular culture and in national understanding. Sadly your entire speech trapped us back into old ideas. And yet, your entire speech was a celebration of Western exceptionalism and superiority. Quite unnecessary. Pakistan deserves much criticism, and there are serious issues to discuss about the country. But they certainly do not require an exercise in Western myth-making, something the West is very good at itself. In fact, I would argue that this desire to appease the West, to speak in its terms and frames of reference, to fall prey to the false promises of ‘modernist development’ or what has been called ‘the development imaginary’ – an imaginary that kills real imagination, justifies the slaughter of national citizens, and ensure the impoverishment of the majority (see Keguro Macharia explication of this phenomenon in his piece The Development Imaginary: Tracks*is a core reason why we are in the traps and messes that we as a nation are. Our inability to not only see the materialist and concrete sources of our predicament, our inability to speak to the forces that limit our possibilities to think. And nothing limits it more than false ideas of Western exceptionalism and fantastic achievement. In fact, a more sober assessment of the failures of Western civilisation (racism, colonialism, massive environmental damage as a result of unchecked consumerism and capitalism industrialisation, genocidal wars, despotism that they call ‘democracy’, discriminatory laws, cruel incarceration practices, violent and brutal policing and control, unchecked destruction of the natural habitat, war making and slaughter, misogyny and more) would go far to helping us see the struggles that are inevitable in all societies and that none offer a more unique or better way forward. Certainly none offers the fantastic ideals that they claim to offer.

We are at a critical decolonising moment in history. It was a moment we missed at the time of our independence, and in the retreat of colonialist forces. Then, as your friend Eqbal Ahmed often argued, and as Franz Fanon originally reminded us, we fell prey to the ideas and prejudices of the very masters we had ejected, reducing out ideals of freedom to an elite power grab of existing political, economic and social privileges under the banner of national liberation. But the past is not the past, but is as another American once said, always still with us. To get a grasp of Pakistan, to make sense of its current struggles and predicaments, we need to speak not just honestly about the reasons for it, but also about the powerful forces that influence it. Indeed, we are much to blame for what has befallen us, but we are not alone on this dire dance floor. We have a partner, if not many partners, and we are dancing a blood stained waltz who’s movements cannot be separated from the orchestra that accompanies it.


Asim Rafiqui

Originally published. April 4, 2017.

Reposted: July 24, 2019. 

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