The Muslim crisis of identity is linked to their inability to redefine themselves in today’s world. Most Muslim nations lack both political and economic stability. Oil-rich Arab nations have economic stability — thanks to oil revenues — but are autocracies. Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, however, are steadily moving towards both economic and political stability but have not yet reached the stage where they could serve as role models for others.
In the 20th century, Muslim nationalists tried to create Western nation states in countries that have not one but many nations with distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural features. The socialists — in trying to create model social states — clashed with religious groups that hurt both.
Muslim radicals based their dreams of a pure and just Islamic society on people’s attachment to religion. But instead of delivering any of the goods they had promised, they led their followers to a path that pitched Islam against the rest of the world.
Reforms, introduced by liberal Muslim rulers, helped improve the situation in some places but only for some.
Education was supposed to bring knowledge and prosperity to all. It did not. For most, it only increased their dreams without equipping them with the tools to make them come true.
Divided between the English (or French) schools of the elite and the ordinary schools for the rest of the country, the education system has created a large number of educated unemployed or under-employed.
The madrassas too met the same fate and ended up adding more people to an already swelling army of the unemployed youths, although the mosque-madrassa network did provide some jobs. But it was soon taken over by the jihad industry as the main employment provider for madrassas-trained youths. Other unemployed and ideologically disenchanted teenagers also joined this vicious industry which, at least in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has had disastrous consequences. It seems that the monsters created by this industry — the Taliban, al Qaeda, Sipah-e-Sahaba et al — will continue to haunt both nations for quite some time.
Those employed by the jihad industry also want a change, any change and at any cost. They do get it, a permanent change as martyrs of a faulty cause and soldiers of radical leaders who have little sympathy for them, or the ones they leave behind when they die.
The cities are growing, slowly but steadily. In Pakistan, officially between 30-40 per cent people live in the cities but unofficial estimates claim that it’s higher than 50 per cent. This change, however, does not reflect in electoral rolls. So the rural ruling elite — the zameendars — remain the dominant political group in the country.
City dwellers, deprived of their true representations, have little stake in this system. Perhaps that’s why even when a popular government is toppled, there’s little protest in the cities. In fact, the urban middle class starts opposing an elected government as soon as it is in power.
This also explains the media’s hostility towards the PPP government, which often has to face unfair criticism.
Another manifestation of this urban desire for change was seen in the strong support the Pakistanis cities gave to the movement for the restoration of the Chief Justice, as it was supported mainly by the urban middle classes both in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The Pakistani Army, once dominated by the feudal families of Punjab and the KP, has also undergone a change in the 1980s when urban middle class youths — including those from Urdu medium schools — began to join the military as officers in larger numbers than before. Thus, now the army has many junior and middle rank officers who come from the cities.
Like those in the media, many of them were associated with religious groups like Islami Jaimiat-e-Tulaba when students at least had a religious bent of mind.
But officers with religious backgrounds have been weakened greatly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US when the Musharraf regime allied itself with Washington and attempted to root out religious extremism from the military.
This led to a clash between the armed forces and the jihad industry, which hitherto, looked at the army as its chief patron. Now they turned their guns on the army and the clash has already caused tens of thousands of deaths, on both sides, if the civilians killed in these fights are also included.
In 1994, the madrassas extremists, who believe that only one of them is fit to lead an Islamic state, got lucky.
The situation in Afghanistan, allowed half-educated madrassas students, known as the Taliban, to takeover the country, with support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and others. Initially, the West did not resist this change and even tried to reach out to the Taliban.
Thus, Afghanistan became the first state to be ruled by the Sunni clergy. As the events that followed showed, the Taliban were not fit to rule. Power corrupted them. For a group, which traditionally depended on alms from affluent Muslims, even a little power was too much. So they went berserk. Nothing else explains their strange behavior, such as the restrictions they imposed on women or their determination to take on the entire world.
And so the inevitable happened.
Their so-called honored guest, Osama bin Laden, orchestrated the 9/11 attacks which brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and damaged the Pentagon. The Americans reacted as expected and in two months, the Taliban had to leave Kabul. But, as a US military report released last week said, are still “a determined enemy” that can overrun Kabul if US and Nato troops leave. The Taliban were not created out of void.
The madrassas serve an important purpose: providing food and some education to those who were denied both — children of landless peasants. Since they cannot feed them, they send their children to the madrassas where they are given two meals a day, two pairs of clothes and some education which can provide low-level jobs in thousands of mosques across the country.
For the families they come from, even this is a major social accomplishment as it brings both food and some prestige. Some of these madrassas received money from Arab governments eager to fight increasing Iranian influence in non-Arab Muslim countries after Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. Others received money from affluent Muslims who prefer to give their alms to mosques rather than governments.
Since Sept. 11, the Pakistani government has, at least apparently, made some efforts to curb the influence of the madrassas but they continue to function and still have a lot of influence in their catchments area.
The appeal of Islam as a remedy to the Muslim world’s social and economic ills is not confined to the Taliban. It is also not just a reaction to Western domination or the hold of the Westernised elite over the administrative set up. And it is not confined to the unemployed youths either. For many Muslims, their religion has always had this special appeal.
The distinction between religion and politics is not as obvious in Islam as it is in the West today. Even Muslim poets and thinkers, like Allama Iqbal, have opposed the separation of religion from politics saying, “A political system without religious influence becomes a tyranny.” For this Muslims draw inspiration from their history which is full of religious figures opposing despotic secular rulers, often at the risk of their lives.
But the majority, at least in Pakistan, does not agree with this over-emphasis on religion. This religious-political identity clashes with other identities that many Muslims adhere to. Most Pakistanis are well aware of their Islamic identity but their group interests as Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtun or Baloch are also dear to them. The same goes for Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Tajiks, Uzbeks or Turks.
Thus being born as Muslims is like being born with many faces. Who are you? A Muslim, a Pakistani, an Indian, a Bangladeshi, a Punjabi, a Sindhi or a Baloch?
The first identity that of a Muslim, transcends all national and geographical boundaries. Ideally, it may be correct, practically, it is not. A Muslim is also a Pakistani, an Indian, an Afghan or an Arab. Being a Muslim does not automatically grant him the nationality of all the 56 countries that claim allegiance to Islam.
The moment he wants to travel, even from one Muslim country to another, he or she ceases to be a Muslim and becomes an Egyptian or an Iranian. No Islamic country allows a Muslim to enter its territory on the basis of his or her faith only. And this is where the national identity, which provides the traveler with a passport and a visa, becomes more important than the religious identity.
But, as internal conflicts in many Muslim countries show, even a national identity is not enough. You need to identify yourself with a particular group or place as well, in the case of Pakistan with one of the four provinces. Then there are identities based on a language or race. Sometimes one identity takes precedence over the other. Thus some Muslims living in the West, where they now confront a gradually increasing hostility after 9/11, often get more comfort from their Islamic identity than from their nationality, acquired or native.
Others, particularly Pakistanis, re-discover their regional affiliation too. The first people Pakistanis living in the West often befriend are Indians.
But a Pakistani living in the Gulf finds it more useful to be a Pakistani before a Muslim. Here his Pakistani identity comes before his religious identity. It also comes before his regional identities as a Punjabi or a Pashtun because it provides him strength in dealing with the Arabs who often look down upon him as a Pakistani, whichever province of Pakistan he is from.
However, back in Pakistan his Pakistani identity becomes less important. Now he is more cautious of being a Pashtun, a Punjabi, a Mohajir, a Baloch or a Sindhi. And when he goes to his ancestral district, he has to further divide his identity on ethnic and tribal lines thus becoming a Seraiki speaking Sindhi or a Sindhi speaking Sindhi, a Pashto speaking Baloch or a Balochi speaking Baloch.
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