The Dark Side of a Religious National Identity for Pakistan

For the past few months I have been engaged in an intermittent philosophical discussion with one the readers of my blog. This reader, now also a friend, whom I have decided not to name here has encouraged me to reflect and express my views on the destructive aspects of a particularist national identity in case of Pakistan. I was slightly reluctant to indulge in this, what seems to me, exercise in futility, but the recent murders of my Ahmadi brothers in their places of worship by the so-called Muslims, while leaving me numb and distraught, have also forced me to write this piece. So, in a way, this particular article is meant to respond to my unnamed reader and friend and to stand in humanistic solidarity with the victims of religious intolerance. To some of you my stance would be quite infuriating as it strikes at the very basis of your religious and political imaginary. But I think it is time that the Pakistanis started this dialog seriously, openly, and without conceding an inch to the mullahs and religious fanatics who have almost hijacked our intellectual discourse and totally appropriated the Pakistani street.

First a brief statement about history and the faulty historical national mythologies that are proffered as truth to all young Pakistanis. Here is a list of these myths:

  • Pakistan was created as a national home for the Muslims of India.
  • This happened because of irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims of India.
  • Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan was for it to be an Islamic state.

These and so many other mythologies form a genealogical core of political mythologies of the nation that we have invented for ourselves: we teach them in our schools, through our media, in or mosques and sometimes in our households. Somehow, the idea that more religion will, somehow, solve our problems has now become an accepted norm. But if we look at our recent history, the facts on the ground tend to negate these claims. In fact, one can clearly trace the rise of religious intolerance and extremism to the very moment when a strict religious articulation of the nation became the dominant political doctrine. To me, the crucial moment in this turn is the year when Z. A. Bhutto, under pressure form the Jamaat-e-islami and Jameat-e-Ulma, declared Ahmadis a non- Muslim group. I do not really care about the philosophical aspects of this debate, but its political consequences are enormous and the latest murders of Ahmadis is just a symptom of the deep-rooted problems.

Since the nation had already been defined as “Islamic” declaring Ahmadis as non- Muslims did not just imply that they were non-Muslims, but it also presupposed–in politics and in the popular imagination–that they were less Pakistani than their Muslim counterparts. Thus, politicization of religion went, and still goes, hand in and with an accepted policy of exclusion of minorities from the national promise.

The Mullahs, of course, pounced upon this opportunity and by conflating religion and the state gained the power to issue their verdicts on all non-Muslim Pakistanis. I once heard Doctor Israr Ahmed, considered a brilliant Muslim scholar by his followers, declare that the non-Muslim Pakistanis should “know their place” and learn to live as “inferiors” in Pakistan. Obviously, if a scholar so well-versed in the affairs of religion can have such intolerant and paternalistic views about non-Muslim Pakistanis (his views on Shias are even harsher) we cannot expect the Taliban footsoldiers to know the complexities of a modern nation-state and the rights of minorities in it. And if a people have already been declared less “human” than the dominant group, then a national sentiment of intolerance and hatred is only a natural outcome.

Let us be aware and remind ourselves: Pakistan was not meant to be an Islamic state and the idea of a so-called two-nation theory died the day our Bengali brothers and sisters–all Muslims–declared that they were tired of our patronizing, racist policies toward them and asked for a separate nation of their own. What was the role of religion when the West-Pakistani troops were killing and raping their own “Muslim” brothers and sisters in what was then called East-Pakistan?

Yes, Islam was used as a mobilizing marker to carve a political territory, but it never was supposed be the sole defining feature of Pakistan. In fact it cannot be. We cannot create a modern, humanistic, and compassionate nation simply by inserting more religion into our politics. I mean look at our country: Since Zia and his supporting Mullahs “Islamized” Pakistan, have we become a kinder and more tolerant society? I think the case is reverse. Yes, people have a right to practice their religion, but do we really need the state to dictate how to practice it? What stops us from being good Muslims in our private lives, in our villages, towns, and neighborhoods? Nothing.

And what is an Islamic system of government anyway? The idealized histories that we mobilize about early Islam teach us that the political system grew and became more complex as Islam spread to different regions. And the precedence in the earlier idealized part is rather troubling: Three out of four first caliphs were murdered, two by fellow Muslims.

Yes, there are material reasons for the kind of hate we witness in the actions of Taliban and others, and I have written quite a lot about it. But Pakistan’s main problem, in my humble opinion, is the conflation of religion and politics. I think it is time to give up on this politics of hate and exclusion. More religion has not solved any of our problems. Can we try, for few years, working toward less religion and more kindness and acceptance. I am pretty hopeful the results would be different and more positive. Peace.

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  3 comments for “The Dark Side of a Religious National Identity for Pakistan

    May 30, 2010 at 10:56 am

    I agree with u on all counts. The beauty of the history is that one can learn from the mistakes; the tragic part is that it seldom takes place. Every time mankind has made its own mistakes and learnt from it, lets take Europe for example. Religion is no more relevant there but was so a few hundred years the change for better or for worse?

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