Making Sense Of Pakistan

By Farzana Shaikh

The main idea of my book, Making Sense of Pakistan, is that we need first and foremost to make sense of the country’s identity crisis.
This crisis, I argue, is rooted in uncertainties over the country’s precise relation to Islam. Although in 1947 Pakistan was created as the first self-professed homeland for Muslims, the contestation over the meaning and role of Islam has continued to resonate to the present day—with significant political, economic and strategic implications, in and beyond Pakistan.

The book begins by addressing squarely the state of ideological confusion at the heart of Pakistan – a confusion that has led to damaging and dangerous consequences. I show how this has eroded the foundations of a plural society, pre-empted a stable constitutional settlement and blighted all efforts at good governance. More ominously still, ideological confusion has driven this nuclear-armed country to pursue foreign policies that, though often judged to pose a threat to its survival and to the security of the international community, have served as a bid to compensate for its poorly developed sense of self.
It has long been commonplace to argue that Pakistan, held together by little more than a common religion, was doomed from the outset. But I contend that it is not so much Islam per se that accounts for Pakistan’s decline, but the country’s ambiguous, if not conflicted, relation to Islam as a political ideology. It is this ambivalence that is chiefly responsible for the uncertainties that have plagued the country’s identity and contributed to the degradation of its public life. So deep are these uncertainties and so chronic the lack of consensus over Islam that, more than sixty years after Pakistan’s creation, fundamental questions about the state’s historical purpose and about concepts of political belonging remain unanswered.

One major consequence of this lack of clarity over Islam has been the construction of a negative identity predicated on opposition to India. In the absence of a consensus over what Pakistan stood for, the definition of Pakistan’s identity, coherence and unity came to rest on rivalry with India. This, in turn, had significant implications. The military emerged as the dominant state institution and, in the process, as a key arbiter of Pakistan’s national identity. Over time the country was also lured into embarking on dangerous foreign engagements. While aimed primarily at matching India, these have had disastrous consequences for Pakistan as well as for the wider global community.

The wide angle
The toughest part of any writing on Pakistan is the challenge of how to address the key question of Islam in the construction of Pakistan’s identity. The risk here is to be seen to fall prey to the country’s state-sponsored historiography and its simplistic rendering of the need of a Muslim “nation” that was entitled to separate statehood.

This explains in part why most serious scholarship on Pakistan has tended to shy away from the question of Islam. The assumption was that Islam had, in fact, little or nothing to do with Pakistan and that the creation of the state was but an expression of the economic and political aspirations of a nascent Indo-Muslim bourgeoisie, who used religion as a ploy to justify its demands for separate statehood. This legacy has survived to the present day in the well-worn argument that Islam has been instrumentalised as a national ideology by a narrowly based Pakistani elite intent on safeguarding its political interests.

My book runs against the grain of this interpretation, which appears to place too great an emphasis on an elite, whose determination not to share power is held to be chiefly responsible for wrecking the prospects of a common national identity. But my approach is also clearly at odds with a dominant nationalist narrative, which has sought to equate Pakistan’s national identity with a putative Indo-Muslim consensus.
Negotiating an independent analytical course between these two extremes became an integral part of a book that sought to answer questions the other interpretations simply could not or would not address. It led me to pursue what I believe is a more nuanced understanding of a deeply troubled country.

While Pakistan has unquestionably been shaped by the economic and political concerns of a Muslim elite, whose roots lay mainly in the northern and central regions of India, the idea of Pakistan as a “safe haven” for Islam in India was impossible to ignore. However, the multiple meanings that were historically attached to “Islam” among Muslims in South Asia all left their mark on Pakistan, where after the country’s independence they re-emerged as part of a debate on national identity.

The six chapters of Making Sense of Pakistan show how this lack of consensus over the role and meaning of Islam has haunted the country. Although the chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, they all address the core ideological ambiguity over Islam and discuss the consequences for the country of the absence of agreement. This allows readers to browse through any section without losing sight of the main argument of the book.

For example, those interested in how the contestation over Islam impinged on questions of political belonging can turn to the second chapter. Here I explore conflicting discourses on who is a “Pakistani” and show how the lack of consensus over the relationship of Pakistan to Islam fuelled doubts about political belonging. Over time, these doubts weakened the drive to achieve a pluralist definition of “the Pakistani,” which in turn led to the steady dismantling of institutional protection for the country’s minorities.

Other readers interested in seeking an explanation for more recent developments such as the military’s controversial alliance with militant Islamist groups can turn to the fifth chapter. Here I analyse how uncertainty over the state’s religious identity permeated the military and how this left it prey to the diverging interpretations of Islam. Like the country’s political classes, over time the military too grew unsure of its “secular” credentials. It heralded a shift that paved the way for closer co-operation with Islamist forces.

With hindsight it is clear that the main impetus behind this book stemmed from my rising frustration with existing explanations about the causes of Pakistan’s long-standing malaise. Too many of these interpretations, it seemed to me, were merely concerned either to pin the blame on the nefarious role of foreign powers, especially the United States, or the failure of successive generations of leaders to live up to the vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Few were inclined to wrestle with the issue of Pakistan’s uncertain identity or examine the constraints created by its conflicted relation with Islam.

The stark importance of this question has been brought home to me all the more sharply in the wake of Pakistan’s involvement in the “war on terror.” As someone called upon regularly to comment on and brief policy makers about the country, I have been obliged to lay out the complexities that shape Pakistan’s response or lack of response to terrorism. In doing so I have repeatedly emphasised that, ultimately, Pakistan will not be able to “do more” about terrorism until it has clarified its vexed relationship with Islam.

A close-up

Many of the key questions posed in my book are encapsulated in the third chapter, “The Burden of Islam.”
The chapter offers a bird’s eye view, a panorama of how politics in Pakistan came to be sacralized as the country’s leaders struggled to make sense of the nebulous association between Islam and the state. I trace this struggle from Pakistan’s early years, when the country’s lawmakers endeavoured fruitlessly to frame a modern constitution within the parameters of Islam. This long and arduous process brought to the fore the depth of uncertainty about the constitutional place of Islam in a country still unsure about its religious and political foundations. Since its creation Pakistan has had three constitutions and all without exception have been mired in controversy over their Islamic texture – a controversy that continues to rumble on to the present day.

It was this climate of enduring uncertainty that made Pakistan especially vulnerable to the programme of Islamization launched in the 1980s by a military regime that sought to address, by force, the ambiguities that surrounded Pakistan’s putative Islamic identity. While the legacy of this “reform” was particularly damaging to the status of women and to religious minorities, it also revealed the formative weaknesses of both the Pakistani state and the country’s national identity.

These weaknesses, the chapter demonstrates, were rooted in the contradictory expectations embodied in Pakistan: on the one hand, the affirmation of a universal Islamic community, whose geography remains, in the minds of many of South Asian Muslims, open to question; on the other a Muslim “nation” circumscribed by territorial boundaries.
Yet to be resolved, the tension between these contrasting visions is now taking a violent toll on Pakistan and its people.
There are few today who doubt that Pakistan has emerged as a pivotal state: what happens there will affect millions beyond its borders. Yet there are risks in regarding Pakistan strictly through a strategic prism and treating it as no more than a security issue. To do so is gravely to under-estimate the complexity of this diverse country.
For while today Pakistan is indelibly associated with terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and nuclear proliferation, this is only half the story. My book is an attempt to think about Pakistan on its own terms.
The country clearly stands at the crossroads. Although deeply troubled by the lack of a clear identity, it is by no means certain that Pakistan has exhausted all its resources in terms of seeking to develop a future grounded in rules of political negotiation rather than in the questionable assumptions of a ready made Islamic consensus. The time left to ensure its survival may be short but Pakistan has withstood many a bruising battle and survived.
The country is in the throes of change — changes that point to the determination of its people, if not of its governing elite, to be more receptive to new ways of imagining their country’s identity. By recasting its enduring quest for consensus in the light of a heritage rooted in the more syncretistic traditions of Indian Islam, Pakistan may yet succeed in projecting an identity that reconciles Islam’s universalist message with respect for the rich diversity of its peoples.

© 2009 Farzana Shaikh



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14 responses to “Making Sense Of Pakistan

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Pakistan: In Search Of Identity

  2. Pingback: Making Sense Of Pakistan « Pak Tea House | Headlines Today

  3. Jitendra Kaushal

    Honesty of purpose stems from truthfulness and selflessness. The brief synopsis above suggests that the author is sincere in his quest and honest in airing his opinions. A nation’s six or more decades of self-doubt and existence in doldrums of morality can not be put back on rails by a single book, however authentic and relevant.
    The nation as a whole, its people, its elite and its thinkers must revert to reason. To make good the lost time is not possible, but a new and sincere beginning is the need of the hour. Abandoning its India fixation, Pakistan has to be reassert its identity as an independent, sovereign nation state. The psyche based on hatred must give way to one synonymous with humanism. Spiritualism alone has the power to make fundamentalism and religion bred ignorance vanish. Is Sufi thought not another name for spirituality?

  4. “It has long been commonplace to argue that Pakistan, held together by little more than a common religion, was doomed from the outset. But I contend that it is not so much Islam per se that accounts for Pakistan’s decline, but the country’s ambiguous, if not conflicted, relation to Islam as a political ideology. It is this ambivalence that is chiefly responsible for the uncertainties that have plagued the country’s identity and contributed to the degradation of its public life.”

    I completely agree with this. I have no problem with Islam as an individual’s personal faith, but when it enters the public sphere and is used as the basis of policy, it becomes problematic.

  5. Jitendra Kaushal

    Hullo Kabir

    A Republic needs opening questioning and no -holds-barred debate for its survival and strength. Religion, on the other hand, thrives on commandments and diktats with unquestioning obedience to these. Aren’t the two diametericaly opposed? When allowed to mix, the two make a heady wine of absolute power, which in the main resides with the religious establishment. A thinker from Pakistan ought need no elaboration of this thought.

  6. Dear Jitendra,

    I absolutely agree with you. That’s why I wholeheartedly wish that the word “Islamic” was taken out of Pakistan’s official name and it was called simply the “Republic of Pakistan” just like the “Republic of India”.

  7. Jitendra Kaushal

    Kabir Sahib

    I can do no better than cite Confucius here. “When an honest man thinks he is heard a thousand miles away.” If your voice retains its earnestness and your purpose its honesty, it could well become, before long ‘awaze khalk’ and by implication ‘nakkara e Khuda’. Insha Allah.

  8. Jitendra ji,

    Thanks:) I pray to all the gods that day will come.

    Pakistan Zindabad and Jai Hind

  9. Btw, you might be interested in the South Asian Idea blog (if the moderators here will permit a bit of self-promotion). We are a group that is trying to work towards promoting a common South Asian rather than narrowly Indian or Pakistani identity. The intent of the blog is also the help South Asian college students engage with societal issues and provide them with the analytical skills to do so–skills which are too often left undeveloped in a narrow technical education.

  10. Saiyid Ali Naqvi

    Based on my reading of the synopsis I tend to disagree with her thesis that Pakistan’s identity crisis ‘is rooted in uncertainties over the country’s precise relation to Islam.’ In my opinion Pakistan’s identity crisis is rooted in the failure of political leadership to reconcile the concept of nation state with the ethnic diversity of its constituents. This ethnic diversity deepened and the complexity of the crisis increased with the concentration of the Urdu speaking mohajirs in Karachi, Hyderabad and other urban centers of Sindh.

    The breakup of the 1947 Pakistan in 1971 was not the outcome of the ‘uncertainties of country’s precise relations to Islam’. The country’s cataclysmic breakup was not because of, but in spite of Islam. It was in fact caused by the deep ethnic diversity in terms of language and culture that existed between East Pakistan (former East Bengal) and West Pakistan and which the country’s political leadership failed to bridge.

    While I agree with the author that the confusion regarding the country’s precise relation to Islam ‘has eroded the foundation of plural society and blighted efforts at good governance’ I do not agree that it has ‘pre-empted a stable constitutional settlement’. At the beginning of constitution making the Constituent Assembly attempted to resolve the problem of ‘uncertainty of country’s relation to Islam’ by adopting in 1949 the so-called Objective Resolution and placing its text as ‘Preamble’ in the Constitution. My personal opinion is that that this Resolution adopted just few months after the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah was contrary to his vision. It was a bad compromise between the Muslim League, which had led the Pakistan movement, and the Islamic parties, such as the Jamat-i- Islami, which had opposed the movement and its leader, Jinnah. Apparently the Muslim League leadership mistakenly, rather naively thought that having been placed in the Preamble the Objective resolution would not create any serious constitutional problems. The other issue before the Constituent Assembly related to defining the political nature of the Federation to be constituted by ethnically diverse entities and so defining Pakistan as a nation state. The complexity of the issue was centered on the fact that the population of the Eastern Wing (called East Bengal at that time) was greater than that of the Western Wing. The bureaucrats who were at the helm at that time ‘resolved’ this complexity by amalgamating the four provinces of the Western Wing into a single Province named West Pakistan, renaming East Bengal as the Province of East Pakistan, and allowing The equal representation (parity) in the Federal Parliament to the two province.. This scheme was disliked by the people in all the provinces of West Pakistan, except Punjab, the most populous province of that wing. Notwithstanding the opposition to the scheme, the first Constitution of Pakistan adopted by the Constituent Assembly in 1956 incorporated this arrangement. It was obviously an instable constitutional settlement, but the country’s relation to Islam had nothing to do with this.

    This 1956 Constitution was abrogated by General Ayub Khan in October 1958 who said that parliamentary democracy did not suit the ‘genius’ of the people of Pakistan. Later in 1964 Ayub Kan in his capacity as Martial Law Chief promulgated a new Constitution, drafted by his handpicked men. This Constitution provided for presidential form of government and incorporated Ayub Khan’s so-called ‘Basic Democracies’ scheme. The people came out in the streets denouncing Ayub regime and finally Ayub Khan handed over power to General Yayah Khan who abrogated the Ayub Khan’s Constitution in April (?) 1969. Then, after the separation of Eastern wing to become independent state of Bangladesh the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan unanimously adopted the Constitution, known as the 1973 Constitution. Having been adopted by complete consensus of all the political parties this should have been the most stable constitution. However, it was ‘suspended’ by General Zia ul Haq after overthrowing the elected government and imposing the country’s third Martial Law. Exercising powers under Martial Law he promulgated harsh laws as part of his Islamization program. In order to gain international recognition Zia agreed in 1980 to allow the US backed mujahideen, religious zealots from Arab and central Asian counties, to launch from Pakistan jihad in Afghanistan to drive the Soviet troops out of that country. Soviet troops were driven out by 1988, but Pakistan suffered the backlash of this enterprise in the form of proliferation of arms and religious madaris and rise of armed ethno sectarian conflicts. Karachi, the business and financial capital of Pakistan witnessed ethnic conflicts during almost the entire decade of 1990s.

    As frontline state in the war on terror launched by the US and its allies in Afghanistan after the tragic events of September 2001 (9/11) Pakistan is fighting against Taliban insurgency. The insurgents are led by the former mujahideen who were trained and supported by Pakistan’s army with US backing. As such this insurgency is rooted in the Afghan Jihad of 1980s. The half-heartedness of the Army in this fight, as the US media keeps harping on, should be seen in this context rather than attributing it to ‘uncertainties of country’s relation to Islam’.

    While it is fighting against Taliban in the Tribal Areas and certain settled districts of the North West Frontier Province , Pakistan is also facing the insurgency of nationalist or ethnic nature in Balochistan, a formidable problem which threatens the very existence of Pakistan as a nation state. In closing my comment I would restate my view that Pakistan’s identity crisis is rooted in the failure of political leadership to reconcile the concept of nation state with the ethnic diversity of its constituents rather than ‘in uncertainties over the country’s precise relation to Islam’.

  11. 1971 showed very clearly that “Islam” is not enough to bind together all the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent and that the ethnic ties trump religious ones. We (the West Pakistanis) oppressed the Bengalis, forcing our languge on them, etc. And quite rightly, they wanted out.

    Now the same thing is happening in Balochistan. Unless we address the legitimate demands of the Baloch and integrete them into Pakistan, who can blame them for wanting out as well?

    In my opinion all this goes to show the foolishness of thinking that an artifically-created country could unite all subcontinental muslims. India is doing much better at being a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. Who is to say that a “Pakistan” that was still part of India wouldn’t have been able to do this too?

  12. Jitendra Kaushal

    Hullo Kabir

    The armies often tell their recruits that it is not the gun but the man behind the gun that matters. Similarly, it is not the Constitution that matters but the leaders who run it do. Plato wanted leaders to have love of state as their first quality. Pakistan’s woes result from faulty priorities of its leaders and the nation figures way down on their table.

    It is inspiring conduct of of inspired leaders that animates a nation with hope and enthusiasm. Nobody queries an inspired person about the source of his inspiration. Why don’t you take up the torch?

  13. Jitendra ji, my family and I are trying to do our small bit through our blog,The South Asian Idea, which hopefully serves as a vehicle to discuss the societal issues facing South Asia and clear up some distortions and misconceptions along the way. We currently have a post about the road to Partition which you and other readers of PTH might find interesting.



  14. Jitendra Kaushal

    Hullo Kabir

    Blogs are an interesting pastime for a few, but remain marginal to the ground realities in our countries. The need of the hour is a renaissance that promotes ‘khuddari’ and hubbalwatni’. Noe, mass movements are not easy to engineer. The best one can do is to make a core of such values and hope Providence will help it attain the critical mass needed for a chain reaction to begin. I wonder how much of that is feasible for you. An honest and upright man is like a lighthouse in his locality and environment. ‘Khudi ko kar bukand itna …….”