The word ‘liberal’ began signaling in Pakistan’s media a few years ago when the civil rights movement in Pakistan started getting superfluous after the ‘enlightened moderation’ trend introduced by the military dictator.

The religious right wing became redundant as the global geo-political forces (and Pakistan’s own establishment) quashed their lifelong partnership with the religious establishment especially political Islam. Being religious got outdated. Being liberal became politically lucrative compared with right-wing ideologies and safer compared to being ‘secular.’ That dirty expletive: ‘secular!’

So, here we got a mixed bag of traits associated with being a ‘liberal’ political party. Many individuals in these parties on very senior positions, continued to profess secular ideals in their own personal lives without their parties embracing the word ‘secular’ in their manifestos. The thoroughly secular section of civil society, the one that had been at the forefront of leftist politics as well as civil rights movements including women’s and minorities’ rights, christened themselves ‘liberal’ in order to be acceptable to popular media, social and political quarters and without being ‘liberal’ in the European sense. There came a desi definition of liberalism. You oppose a regressive social and political order based on religion, as well as the geo-political approach parroted by the establishment.

This is safe politics. You sell yourself as liberal, which is kosher internationally, and you save yourself from the inconvenience of being shut down as ‘secular’. Being liberal is however, limited to bravado against the Taliban. Democracy or not doesn’t really matter. You would be in the game only if the modern system is in place. In a Khilafah for example, one sees no place for Khursheed Shah or Haider Abbas Rizvi or even Ghulam Ahmad Bilour.

Smart, isn’t it? This is what the trio of PPP, ANP & MQM did during their joint tenure from 2008 to 2013 and prior to the general elections of May 2013. Much to their credit, they became victims of terrorism and could hardly run their campaigns. That’s one aspect of election rigging that never figured in election observation missions, who gave clean chit to these lopsided elections tilted in favor of Punjab-based right wing parties.

But then, what exactly is their liberalism, if secularism – the idea that politics and religion should be two domains exclusive to each other – is not even part of their prescription? While writing this, manifestos of these three parties are sitting on my desk and I’ve realized that only ANP uses the word secularism in their manifesto. The PPP starts describing its basic principles as: ‘Islam is our religion’, completely forgetting that this country is diverse not only ethnically but also in religious terms. So, ‘we’ and ‘us’ for PPP includes ONLY Muslims.

MQM, better yet, calls itself the party that ‘represents ninety-eight percent working middle class’. Ignore the fact that this ignores the poorest of the poor and subsumes them in ‘working middle class’. The keywords that appear next are, egalitarian, democratic, plural society and interfaith harmony. That doesn’t say separation of religion and politics. It does however demonstrate MQM’s commitment against terrorism, religious extremism and sectarianism.

Come to ANP’s manifesto and you are pleasantly surprised. A political party having roots in a province that the rest of the world thinks is full of ‘regressive’ and ‘religious extremist’ Pakhtuns, says clearly it stands for a ‘secular, democratic and pluralistic Pakistan’. Right in the face of the establishment’s narrative that the Taliban represents a larger Pakhtun voice! All praise for the brave politics of ANP that prefers to fight from the front.

Then I gradually come out of the dreamy manifestos and face the reality that slaps me every time I think of these three parties as ‘liberal’ and harbingers of tolerance and justice. It is ugly. It is harsh. It nauseates one. Leave alone PPP that chooses Islam to be its paramount identity and then pledges in its manifesto to “promote democratic rights and social justice”, that too, within the context of “our own” cultural and “religious identity”.

Leave alone this party because this is one party that made a historical choice of putting its name as the principal approver of the 2nd Constitutional Amendment and took upon itself to allow the state to determine citizens’ religion. Leave it alone because this is the party that carries the stigma of endorsing the state having a religion while describing itself as ‘Islamic socialist’.

They largely isolated Shaheed Salmaan Taseer but embraced Shaheed Shehbaz Bhatti. It is safe to talk about minorities’ rights. But could the charges of blasphemy ever be questioned however frivolous they were? No! To his credit, the Chairperson of PPP Bilawal Bhutto has always owned both shaheeds, Salmaan Taseer and Shehbaz Bhatti. He has openly supported Aasiya Bibi and the cause Taseer and Bhatti gave their lives for. Hope is trying hard to rekindle itself.

Come to the case of a secular ANP. In 2012, there surfaced a blasphemous film and we started burning our own country and killing each other to protest a stupid film made by even more stupid, attention seeking filmmakers. We, the ‘liberals’ (i.e., secularists having no spine to describe themselves as such) experienced one of the most shocking moments on our TV screens. The self-proclaimed secular party had its federal minister addressing a crowded presser and announcing a bounty of US $ 100,000 on the head of the filmmaker. He remained federal minister, kept holding party office and got the party ticket in 2013 to contest general elections in 2013.

Last but not the least, our modern, progressive, egalitarian, urban, middle class party, MQM. There is never a dull moment with this party. They never stop surprising. Few years ago they took it upon themselves to free convicted extremist Afiya Siddiqi. But to their credit, they never faltered on their commitment against the sectarianism and Talibanization of Karachi. In an unguarded moment, the PPP leader Khursheed Shah passed fairly unpleasant, objectionable and condemnable remarks about the Mohajir community, which he readily took back and sought apologies from all Mohajirs for, not only the MQM.

Hell hath no fury like MQM scorned! If you offend them, even the gods cannot guarantee you their apologies. The rage was expected. What could never be expected was what followed. MQM registered a case against Khursheed Shah under section, guess what? Section 295-C, which has been the root cause of the misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan; the same laws which ate up Taseer and Bhatti alongside thousands of others including Asiya Bibi.

I doubt if I could ever believe that a secular or even ‘liberal’ party exists in Pakistan. It is all about dirty and vulgar opportunism. Shame on me, to ever have thought this trio is secular liberal.

 The writer is an Islamabad based freelance columnist.