State of the nation

Published July 20, 2014
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The concept of the nation-state first began to emerge in Europe in the 16th century. It has since endured many twists, turns and turmoil to continue inspiring the ever increasing clusters of people to create their own nation-states; or keep them intact as citizens of a land and state with shared languages, cultures, histories and even myths.

The ideological engines behind nation-states that are fuelled by a mixture of both real and imagined perceptions about a people’s history have, on many occasions, pushed groups of people (nations) to achieve some stunning economic, political, sporting and cultural feats.

However, the same engines have sometimes also been responsible for generating feelings of chest-thumping racial and ethnic superiority and paranoia that have led to genocidal violence and discrimination against those considered to be inferior or treacherous or unable to be pigeon-holed into the concepts of nationhood constructed by a nation-state.

A majority of nation-states in the world are products of the 20thcentury. Compared to most European nation-states, they are still toddlers. Whereas the ethnic, religious and cultural homogeneity of many of these states have helped them to rapidly turn their respective nation-states into cohesive political and cultural wholes; there are many ‘new nation-states’ that are still struggling in this context.

When we begin to identify ourselves as Pakistanis first, our watered down concept of nationhood will finally shape the way it should have done much earlier

Pakistan is one such ‘new nation-state.’ Merely 67 years old, its state, governments, ideologues and intelligentsia have largely failed to develop and evolve a cohesive concept of Pakistani nationhood that enjoys a widespread consensus.

In certain incidents of desperation the state has often tried to bulldoze through and impose particular ideas of Pakistani nationhood that have ended up actually offending and upsetting large sections of the Pakistani society, creating a number of ethnic, religious and sectarian fissures.

The imposition in this regard was done by both the establishment (during military dictatorships) as well through the Constitution (during democratic governments); and yet there is still no one idea of Pakistani nationhood that is acceptable to at least the majority of Pakistanis.

The problem may lie in the ambiguity that still surrounds the idea of the ‘Pakistan Movement’ — a mid-20th century cluster of political and intellectual activity led by Muslim nationalists in undivided India.

These men and women, led by a brilliant and cultivated lawyer, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, worked towards creating a separate nation-state for the Muslims of India.

Though they were successful in doing so, the vibrant political and intellectual ingenuity and energy that had successfully carved out a Muslim nation-state in the region, suddenly started to seem exhausted and almost entirely devoid of any fruitful imagination after the creation of the desired nation-state.

Pakistan was not a homogeneous society. Though a majority of its citizens were Muslim, they were made up of several sects and sub-sects. Then there was also the question of it having various distinct ethnicities (and languages): Punjabis, Sindhis, Bengalis, Baloch, Pakhtun, Saraiki, Gujrati, Mohajirs. It also had a number of ‘minority’ religions (Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Zoroastrian).

But instead of building a cohesive nationhood on the shared history of a diverse group of people coming together to create a brand new post-Colonial nation-state, the state of Pakistan spent too much time navel-gazing about certain theological abstractions to define the ‘Muslimness’ of the new country.

This meant nothing, really. But within the next 30 years, the abstract and ill-defined ‘Muslimness’ eventually mutated to mean something ‘Islamic’ (but not necessarily Pakistani).

Here’s what I mean: I’ve been fortunate to travel across various continents in the last decade or so and meet citizens of various Muslim countries and members of the Muslim diaspora in Europe and the United States. Almost always do Muslims from Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia (etc.) first and foremost define themselves as Algerian, Egyptian, Turkish, Jordanian and Tunisian.

But during my travels I realised that many Pakistanis were the only people from a Muslim-majority country who called themselves Muslims first and then Pakistani.

Let’s put aside the fact that a number of non-Muslims too are citizens of Pakistan.

Instead, let me put it this way: Being a Muslim is given, being Pakistani is taken.

What us Muslims of Pak-istan got as our religion was already there even when there was no Pakistan.

Pakistan appe-ared because a portion of the Muslim minority in India wanted to live in a Muslim-dominated state carved out from a Hindu-majority region. But this state now had a Muslim majority made up of various sects, sub-sects and ethnicities with their own respective historical and cultural trajectories. The idea of Pakistan is what got them together: To create a Muslim-majority republic made up of diverse groups of Muslims who (along with ‘religious minorities’) would be guaranteed equal rights through a Constitution based on dynamic laws, rights and both traditional and modern notions of egalitarianism (instead of on any particular notions of theology).

But once together these Muslims were asked to follow a state-sanctioned idea of a nationhood that was not exactly based on a shared history of coming together for a separate state.

Instead, it was based on an idea of nationhood cultivated from historical (and many pseudo-historical) accounts of Muslim cultures detached from the South Asian Muslim traditions and at times even hostile to the idea of faith practised by a majority of Pakistani Muslims.

When someone in a European country asks me where I am from, I tell them I’m from Pakistan. When asked what I am, I say I am Pakistani. The truth is, the day most Pakistanis begin to call themselves Pakistanis first, is the day the currently fragmented and weak notion of Pakistani nationhood will finally take hold the way it should have a long time ago.

Being Muslim is a given. Being Pakistani was taken. It needs to be developed, nourished and given a cohesive shape. Being a Muslim is for the Almighty to know (and decide). Being Pakistani is for the world to know. That’s nationhood.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 20th, 2014



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