Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bringing liberalism back to Pakistan

The International Academy of Leadership in Gummersbach, Germany has dark gray rectangular buildings with huge wall-size windows that allow a view of the green hills that surround the academy. The academy is itself based on a hill that you can hike up to at any time of the day and night without much fear of safety. The worst that could happen is that you may suddenly come across a rabbit.

This May, I got a scholarship to a two weeks seminar in Theodor Heuss Akademie (an institute named after Germany’s first post-World War II President) and commonly known by foreigners as the International Academy of Leadership. This is the oldest centre of the Freidrich Naumann Foundation, which sponsored my stay there after I qualified through their online seminar. 
The Academy is always in use; many seminars take place simultaneously across the year, on different topics, catering to different numbers of students from diverse backgrounds. There is a comfortable dorm in the building where students mostly stay, a huge hall which can hold up to hundred people and a cafeteria, which serves delicious but very German food. There was buffet for each meal, followed by deliciously cooked sweat dish. 

The first day, rather evening, was spent in understanding the institute. We introduced ourselves through a game called “Which corner is ours?”, in which each person goes to a corner reserved for him or her. For example, which continent one is from, marital status, the kind of liberal one is (left-wing, right-wing, libertarian), favorite hobby, drink, profession etc. Corners were reserved for broad categories and each person joined his or her corner by choice.

The seminar had almost thirty people from all across the world - including around a dozen from Latin American countries. There were also delegates from countries like Ghana, Serbia, Bulgaria, Philippines, Thailand, India and Israel. The girl from Israel was an architect in her thirties, had served in the Israeli army, and was very reasonable to talk to. 

The seminar was bi-lingual (English and Spanish) and there were two translators who made our life much easier through their excellent translation skills by simultaneously translating the two languages into each other. We all had wireless speakers which connected us to the translators, and we chose which translator to hear according to our linguistic preference.

The seminar was titled “Liberalism Today: Freedom First”. Liberalism, contrary to its perception in Pakistan, has little to do with obscenity (however you describe it). It is a complex - and yet, deceptively simple at times - set of philosophical arguments and values that penetrate almost all section of life and society - from economics, law, politics, to ethics, religion and individual rights. 

We understood that liberalism is more a moral and political philosophy that governs the relation of man with man and man with state. It is not exclusively an agglomeration of personal attitudes towards the consummation of various relationships or the consumption of various substances (a libertine, not a liberal per se, is more likely to be passionate about those issues). There are much weightier issues attached to liberalism - property rights, rule of law, secularism, and so on.

In the two weeks that we were there, we got to discuss threadbare - and not just get lectured on - some of these principles of liberalism. The session leaders were not high priests imparting golden words, but rather moderators who facilitated active and knowledgeable discussion. They did steer the debate at times but were content to not have the final word. Most of us from developing societies were not very liberal and especially confused about socialism - an economic system looked down upon by many liberals and seen as promoting poverty and corruption. 

On the second day  of the seminar we discussed the qualifying round - i.e. the online seminar, its usefulness and flaws. Later we talked about the differences in political mainstreams, how they differ and why liberalism should be preferred as a philosophy. We made three working groups on property rights, rule of law and secularism.

 I was part of the group discussing Secularism. In the former, my position was precarious. Almost everything on the clause sheet, though liberal, was politically impossible to implement in present-day Pakistan.  Preventing public schools from including religion in curricula, removing religious symbols from schools, and not mentioning “God” in the constitution ate issues that cannot be even openly discussed in Pakistan - unless the state or vigilantes themselves accuse you of blasphemy. And ironically, I - the only Pakistani there - noticed that the Israeli delegate understood and shared my ambiguity the most - Israel being the only other state on Earth created for the followers of a specific religion. 

The next day we had three presentations, one by each group on the topic they were assigned and a discussion on it. Important questions were asked during the day - for example, is free markets or economic planning the way forward; the relationship between democracy and development; introduction to liberal democracy and its link with prosperity, and so on. We debated these issues thoroughly before dinner. 

The next day was yet more discussions. First, we had debriefing on the debate from the previous day. Then presentations with empirical evidence on the relevant topics were made by the facilitators. That was followed by a discussion on the major problems of developing countries and the liberal take on them, which included a search for the definition of poverty - a definition that invariably varies across countries. Then of course how to combat said poverty: we discussed the roles of redistribution, deregulation, privatisation and the relationship between free markets, poverty and unemployment. In the evening we left Gummersbach for Cologne on a short excursion. 
Next day was reserved for discussing the challenges to liberals in the modern world and the debate was pegged around the energy policy - how to deal with accidents like Fukushima, climate change, and the political economy of the energy sector. Each person was assigned a role - a politician, a liberal party politician, a businessman, a common citizen, an environmentalist, a policy-maker, an NGO worker, a lawyer and so on. We reflected on how the liberal perspective differed from other perspectives. Before dinner, we debated globalization and terrorism, and how different liberals found different compromises on issues regarding national security, multiculturalism and civil liberties. The conclusion of the day was that globalization is on the whole a benign force, global warming was an exaggerated fear and terrorism was very difficult to combat with liberal policies because civil liberties and the conventional judicial system may be abused in this context. 

The day that followed, we discussed the very crucial role of the state, its relation with the civil society, Government and the concept of subsidiarity or federalism. To what extent the state should intervene, regulate, tax and subsidise?. After heated debates, which often became too technical for non-economics students, we had a lecture on the Federal Democratic party, German politics ad political system by Klaus Fusmann, Director of FNF Programme North Rhine Westphalia. 

FDP Convention Rostok
Later that week, we left for Rostok ( North eastern German coast part of the East Germany before), Schwerin ( the capital of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern  state )and Diepolz, a small town in Lower Saxony. In Rostok, we reviewed how the FDP works, since it has its headquarters there and later participated in the FDP annual convention, we met the Party Whip, Otto Fricke the next day and took a guided boat trip to Warnemunde, a small city nearby. The next rainy day, we reviewed the workings of the Schwerin Parliament, it economy and met Michael Roolf, the FDP chairman there. The last day before we reached Gummersbach, we met the mayor of Diepolz called Dr. Thomas Schulze who guided us on the city politics, governance and economics. 

Petra Pabst, a FDP young liberals representative lectured us the next day on how policies in FDP are developed and why they are important. Three working groups then worked on what is policy and what it should be,  how it should be developed and why it is important in a political party or pressure group. At the end of the day, we also discussed the commincation problems of liberal messages in the developing world and their solutions. 

There were several exercizes that we did. The first day we discussed statements about social issues and wether they are liberal or not. Exercizes on secularism, rule of law and property rights were similiar, along with the "hot chair" exercize in which one delegate was supposed to defend an issue while the rest spoke against it. Our topics were " gay marriage" and " abolition of death penalty". Another was "cafe world", in which there are three tables with a leader, and three groups visit all the tables one by one. Each table has a different topic. We had this exercize at the end of the seminar to discover the major differences in opinion, most important opinion agreed upon by everyone and the best liberal solutions of each problem we discussed. 

We also had presentations from external delegates - representatives of the German liberal party, the FDP, spoke very well and we got to know that the latest president of their party was a Vietnamese-German, another encouraging sign of the relative openness of western societies. 

I felt that liberals in Pakistan need to be far more calibrated and realistic, rather than utopian and inflexible. Most of the liberal ideas are defeated when starkly inserted into the Pakistani context. I remember thinking - the perfect must not be made the enemy of the good.

Nevertheless, I returned to Lahore with almost three dozen new freinds from all over the world(including an Israeli who is now connected to me via facebook), life-long memories and liberal questions that will take years to find answers to, if at all. 

Parts of this piece were first published in the News on Sunday

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