For Pakistan, or for Islam?

For Pakistan to haul itself out of crisis, the ultimate goal must be for its people to put their nationality before their religion

 Rakesh Mani and Zehra Ahmed

As Pakistan wastes away in its existential crisis, a fundamental question about the nature of the country is coming to the fore: are its citizens Pakistanis who happen to be Muslims, or are they Muslims who happen to be Pakistanis? Which comes first, flag or faith?

It is not a question that many Pakistanis can readily answer. The vast majority of the country’s so-called “educated elite” seem to have no qualms about identifying themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second. Some feel that their religion is the most important thing to them, and that that’s where their first loyalty will always lie. Others admit to having scant regard for religion, but say Pakistan has come to mean so little to them that their religion supersedes their loyalty to the country.

This willingness to subordinate state to God, even among the highly educated, lies at the heart of Pakistan’s crisis. How can a country be expected to prosper if the majority of its citizens harbour only a secondary allegiance to the state? How can it progress if, as the author MJ Akbar wrote, “the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani”.

But what is the idea of Pakistan?

Back in the heady days of the 1940s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah rallied a people to nationhood. Despite his Anglophone status and Victorian manners, he carved out a separate homeland for India’s Muslims. But, today, an erudite, westernised lawyer like Jinnah would find it impossible to win a popular election in Pakistan.

For the real Jinnah is now irrelevant in the country that reveres him as “Quaid-e-Azam”, or founder of the nation. Few Pakistanis have the time or inclination to think about their founder’s ideas. Jinnah’s idea of Pakistan – south Asian Muslim nationalism – has been overrun by the dogma of Islamic universalism.

The modern Pakistani identity is shaped largely by the negation of an Indian-Hindu identity and the adoption of a global pan-Islamic charter. Economic advancement is taken to mean westernisation or worse, Indianisation. At every turn, Pakistanis seem more likely to unite as brothers in Islam than as sons of the same soil.

Moreover, Pakistan’s fear of vilification and failure has given birth to an increasingly paranoid brand of Islam that seeks to impose stricter controls – on education, women’s rights, dancing, beardlessness, and sex – and close society to all forms of modernity. This paranoid Islam, represented by hardline outfits such as the Tablighi Jamaat, is Pakistan’s fastest-growing brand of faith.

Pakistan is now at a crossroads, facing an uneasy moment of truth. To survive, its citizens must act in unison or risk seeing every moderate tendency in the country purged by a clamour of illiberal, religious voices.

Today’s crisis calls for every Pakistani to ask serious questions: What should be the idea of Pakistan? Are you Pakistanis who happen to be Muslims, Christians, or Hindus? Or are you members of a global Islamic ummah who just happen to live in Karachi or Lahore?

The real challenge, and the ultimate solution, is to get people to think and talk about these questions. But this must be a debate between people, and within people. Nothing will be solved by searching for the “true Islam” or by quoting the Koran.

The point is that eventually, despite strong regional loyalties and various cultural and religious differences, the majority can identify as being simply “Pakistani” – even though they may harbour radical differences about what this might mean. The real idea of Pakistan, ultimately, must be multiplicity.

Today, we have come to understand ourselves as composites; often contradictory and internally incompatible. In the Babarnama, for example, we see the internal contradictions in the personality of the founder of the Mughal Empire. When describing his conquest of Chanderi in 1528, Babar offers gruesome details of the gory slaughter of many “infidels” but just a few sentences later he talks at length about Chanderi’s lakes, flowing streams and sweet water. So who was Babar, bloodthirsty tyrant, humanist poet, or both – and not necessarily at odds with each other?

Pakistan’s selfhood must be expanded ad maximum and made so capacious that it accommodates its Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans and Balochis, and their religions – Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Qadhianis – until it is possible to call them all equally “Pakistani”. That must be the ultimate goal, and step one in the long, winding battle to save Pakistan.

That is a national idea worth striving for – and Pakistan’s intellectuals, its elite and its youth must be at the forefront of the battle. The Crescent has cast a seemingly interminable shadow across the length of Pakistan. Its tragedies and failings are a result of what is happening in God’s name, not Jinnah’s. To save Pakistan, Jinnah’s spirit, his moth-eaten ideals, must be renewed and Pakistanis must ask themselves what Pakistan really means.

Rakesh Mani is a 2009 Teach for India fellow, working with low-income schools in Mumbai. He is also a writer and commentator who contributes to a variety of publications. Zehra Ahmed is a Pakistani architect, designer and writer.



Filed under Pakistan, Religion

12 responses to “For Pakistan, or for Islam?

  1. samar

    wow…seriously i was speechless for few seconds. An intriguing article I must say!!!
    I think the slogan for Pakistan in 1947 was really meant to be for those times. I think what Jinnah looked for Pakistan was that by practicing the rules of Islam the progress of the country should be seeked. I think Islam(or any religion)is meant to be for the individual practice first, because when people apply some golden rules in their own lives their impact is felt collectively as nation later.
    I truly agree that now is the time to save Pakistan…but I also need to let the writer know that its really harsh for him to say….
    “Nothing will be solved by searching for the “true Islam” or by quoting the Koran.”

    The problem with us Pakistanis is that we are neither good Muslims nor good nationalists(???)

    And the term “good Muslim” also not simply applies to saying five times prayers or fasting or so….it is seeking for the true spirit of Islam and its golden rules that are found in Quran, Hadith and Sufism. 🙂

    So truly I just want to say to every Pakistani that please … practice Islam in your PERSONAL life first before forcing it on others…and lets be honest to our COUNTRY and ourselves. That is the real need of the hour.

  2. Gorki

    I believe your thoughts are admirable and your intentions noble yet by saying that “I want to say to every Pakistani that please.. practice Islam…” you run the risk of leaving out the few non Muslims and the not so few ‘others’ like the Ahmedyas.

    The whole point of the article is that a religion based nation is bound to leave some one out, and that is unfair to that person.
    A fair nation therefore can never be a theocracy; only a secular, nationalist tent can be big enough to accommodate every law abiding citizen on equal terms and with an equal stake in its well being. However accepting such a secular creed should not prohibit one from being a good Muslim in private and personal life as you suggest.

  3. Brilliant article. Gives food for thought on the hypocrisy that the Pakistani elite indulge in.

  4. Yeh Dil Mange More

    10 years ago, Indians were stabbed in the back when the soldiers of pakistani army crossed the LoC.But Indians were able to scare the pakis away, and their our valor changed their history. How? Had they been not defeated , nawaz sharif wouldnt have lost his popularity to that extent ( kargil issue and corruption issues combined in a synergy to affect nawaz), and musharraf wouldnt have dared to embark on a coup.
    on june 3 , 1999 pakistani sena was retreating the kargi heights and India was experiencing a bitter sweet victory.
    Moderators, i urge you to mark the kargil anniversary with a post on the event( your PAF articles were also good.)

  5. ayaz amir on june 4 ,1999

    SETTING aside the threat of war, it is instructive and not a little inspiring to consider the courage and skill of the fighters who are challenging the might of the Indian army and air force along the cruel heights of Drass and Kargil in Indian-held Kashmir. Risking a battle in which the chances of death outweigh those of remaining alive requires motivation of a high order. Whatever the Indian side may say, these fighters have a better right than most to call themselves mujahideen, those who fight in the way of Allah.

    Whether any or most of these fighters acquired their combat skills in Afghanistan is a matter of detail. What is important is that their spiritual outlook has been shaped by the Afghan experience which they, and a goodly part of the religious and military establishment in Pakistan, considers to have been a true jehad. It was the spirit of jehad which drove the Soviet army from Afghanistan. It is the spirit of jehad which can drive the Indian army from Kashmir. The various schools who subscribe to this thinking consider it an article of faith that the seeds of the break-up of the Soviet Union were sown in Afghanistan. Might not the same happen in Kashmir with similar consequences for India? In any event, the real danger is not that the present low-intensity fighting in Kashmir will lead to outright war between Pakistan and India. On current evidence it probably will not. The real danger lies in something altogether different. The spirit of jehad so magnificently exemplified by the fighters of Kargil and Drass is at odds with the nature of Pakistan’s polity, the reality of its power structure. Right from the Afghan war till now in Kashmir, volunteers for jehad (or whatever else the finicky may call it) have come from social classes far removed and indeed alienated from this structure. How many people from the intelligentsia or the newspaper-reading classes fought in Afghanistan? How many of them are fighting in Kashmir? These causes have drawn active (as opposed to rhetorical) support from a narrow section of the Pakistani right wing.

    This certainly does not mean that these causes are unjust. How can the liberation of Kashmir by force of arms be considered an unjust cause? But it does mean that if we are to sustain this policy it must become the common property not only of madrassa students, great as their contribution is, but of all Pakistanis, including those from the affluent classes. Why must only the poor go to Kargil? Why not others? Who provides the volunteers for such organizations as Lashkar-I-Tayyaba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, etc? Is mainstream Pakistan represented in them? If not, this represents a serious fissure in society, a divide which has affected our polity already – by weakening the foundations of democracy and giving free rein to social extremism and bigotry – and which can be expected to affect it more as time passes.

    There is another contradiction brought to the fore by the spirit of jehad in Kashmir. Can righteous wars be waged by corrupt emperors? Let us liberate Kashmir by all means but let us first look within ourselves a bit. Blundering leaders have taken the country to disaster before. The people of Pakistan deserve better than to be led into further disasters by a ruling coterie which does not pay taxes, defaults on loans, amasses flats in London and uses power for personal enrichment

  6. hayyer48

    What is it that Ayaz Amir was doing on June 4 1999. Justifying an invasion, justifying a possible nuclear war, justifying jihadis, or running down the ruling classes of Pakistan?
    It is alright to wage war over Kashmir because it is a Jihad? Really? Is it not enough to say that Pakistan is justified to wage war to win back Kashmir because the Indians are in illegal occupation? Or does the invasion justify itself additionally by being a jihad.
    I read Ayaz Amir on Dawn occasionally. He was forever running down what he called ‘holy fathers’ and also the military mindset. How interesting to discover that he actually subscribes to this mindset. From 1947 the military mind in Pakistan has based its excursions on the expectation that India will not respond, and each time it has been in error. Mr. Amir had much the same expectation of Kargil that General Musharraf did, and he supports the propoganda that they are freedom fighters up there, or jihadis, rather than what we know to have been Shias of the Northern Light Infantry.

  7. bonobashi


    Like you, I have always found Ayaz Amir eminently sensible, and not susceptible to rushes of patriotism to the head. This quoted article (I presume it’s genuine) was sickening. I am disillusioned.

  8. swapnavasavdutta

    I think it is OK for Pakistanis to dream or vent. All India needs to be is vigilant for
    Pakistani adventurism.
    After all, what else Pakistanis can do
    except dream having failed to grab Indian
    part of the state of J&K for past 60+ years!

  9. Bloody Civilian

    ayaz amir obviously wrote this while drunk, in between making crank calls to female work colleagues. typical frustrated hypocrite.

    and he was the only non-MQM MNA to speak in parliament against the nizam-e-adal. in defiance of his leader nawaz sharif. after writing this absurd claptrap.

    now if he were to go and introduce a bill to toughen up the ‘sexual harrassment’ laws… that would just fit the pattern.

  10. Gorki

    Interestingly the very well reasoned article above in some ways stands in stark contrast to Amir’s June 1999.
    I did a little search on the eminent MNA and journalist and it seems he has mellowed down a little bit in terms of his rhetoric on Kashmir.

    Perhaps an example of political and intellectual evolution. What ever it is I am willing to take it on its face value since it signifies a step in the right direction. 😉

    “Who says we should go to war with India over Kashmir? But should that mean that we go to the other extreme and jettison our principled stand on Kashmir as Musharraf repeatedly did and as Zardari has shown every intention of doing? If we can’t do anything for the Kashmiris—and I am not saying send fighters there which is the wrong approach—why should we invite the charge that we are stabbing them in the back”?

    From: Whose war? America’s or ours?
    Islamabad diary

    Friday, September 26, 2008 by Ayaz Amir.

  11. samar

    well the article was solely about Pakistan and its current state of affairs…why it always turns to “things” between India and Pakistan????
    Wese im amazed how Indian government is able to maintain India as a secular state…like how all the people from different religions and ethnicity are living in harmony and peace… awesome!
    can someone tell me how????

  12. samar

    1)thanks a lot first admiring my comment.

    2)Since it is called Islamic Republic of Pakistan and majority of people are Muslims…that is why I wanted to address to Pakistani Muslims.
    For me people from other religions are similarly important as Muslims do. I just believe in humanity and doing the right thing for the country. I don’t really care if a Pakistani is Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashtun…. !!!
    I don’t know when people would start living beyond finding the differences between them rather than looking for a collective benefit.

    Plus if India is that great why it does not go for finding peace solutions for the region? Not only with Pakistan but for entire region. I will then really salute you Big Brother 🙂