How do we reinvent Pakistan's national dream?

26 Jan 2015

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What we need is a national dream, not an ideology to keep justifying our existence. —Reuters
What we need is a national dream, not an ideology to keep justifying our existence. —Reuters

A country caught in multiple crises, always drifting from one catastrophe to another, giving birth to monsters that quite often go out of its control.

That’s how the world generally identifies Pakistan. And, since terrorism-related violence has already claimed over fifty thousand precious Pakistani lives, it is hard to dispute this image.

The country’s clergy keeps telling us that it was created in the name of religion and it would be nothing without religion at the center of its political structure.

Thank you for your vote of confidence but, is it really true?

The trouble is today’s Islamic political narrative is devoted to a Pan-Islamic super state or Caliphate which undermines the concept of a nation state. Hence, the religious argument does Pakistan no favour either.

Additionally, there are too many interpretations of Islam, you choose one and the country becomes a hotbed for never-ending sectarian clashes. A religious identity has its limitations for Pakistan in any case.

Islam did not originate in lands that are now part of Pakistan. As the language of Islam remains Arabic, we, the non-Arabs are perpetually locked out of the process of religious interpretation. If we are to accept the clergy’s advice we are bound to follow whatever is decided in the Arab world.

As if the religious right’s point of view was not enough, some of our neighbors also constantly keep reminding us that Pakistan is an artificial state, born unnaturally, bound to fail eventually.

Attempts have been made to find an alternative secular identity for the country. Aitzaz Ahsan tried in vain to find an explanation in the culture of the Indus delta. Late Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani also tried to do something similar by probing the Gandhara civilization and others that have existed in this region. But more of that later.

It is funny how since independence, simple words have been twisted to make way for an identity based on religion alone. The faith in the Quaid’s motto unity, faith and discipline became eeman (faith in God) from yakeen-e-mohkam (faith as in conviction). The theory in the two nation theory became nazria (doctrine, ideology) from mafrooza (untested theory). And from there, we invented the ideology of Pakistan. It is not a debate about the two nation theory being right or wrong. The question here is why we need such a theory 68 years after independence.

The vulnerability syndrome

In 1971 Pakistan lost its eastern wing. Decades of neglect and uneven policies brought that day upon us. But, since then, this tragic episode has been employed by both the religious right and our critics abroad to prove that an independent Pakistani identity does not exist. We are told that our country is home to disparate ethnic identities, which just like Bangladesh, can walk out of the federation whenever they choose.

This could not be farther from truth.

Granted Pakistan, like India, is a polyglot but it still has the trappings of a common bond. Also the Bangladesh example fails to take into account the most crucial aspect of all – the geographical contiguity.

East Pakistan was not geographically contiguous to today’s Pakistan, the rest of the country’s parts are. Urdu, despite facing a host of critics, comfortably remains the national language. Even the state’s worst enemies like Hakeemullah Mehsud and separatist Allah Nazar Baloch have given many interviews in fluent Urdu. Shalwar Kameez is the most common dress among all ethnicities.

The cost of a religious identity

The country’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech is mentioned and quoted so liberally among the moderate circles that it has become something of a cliché.

However, what is not often related is how a federal secretary arbitrarily decided to censor it before its release. It proves that even as early as 1947 there were souls who desperately wanted to give the country a religious character.

It is no wonder that soon after Mr Jinnah’s death the Objectives Resolution became the country’s first constitutional surrender to the demands of religious clerics. It is also noteworthy here that the religious right had never actually supported the idea of Pakistan.

After the independence, the successor of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind in the country refused to be identified with the word Pakistan and chose Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam as its new name. However, the religious right’s early monopoly on the identity of Pakistan ensured that a more mundane identity could not emerge.

Since then, the country has paid a heavy price for this choice. Here is how:

The cultural cost

Why is it that there is no statue of the country’s founding father in the federal capital or elsewhere?

Surely the custodians of our faith can tell a commemorative statue and a worshipped idol apart?

Why is it that our musicians despite incredible talent never enjoy the rockstar status that they deserve? Why is it that the last known rockstar of the country now spends his life as a penitent Godman and televangelist? Is it not because our clergy considers music a sin?

Again, how would you characterise this country’s architecture? Any prominent building that you think represents Pakistani culture? The Faisal mosque in Islamabad perhaps? Nah, that is designed to look like a Bedouin tent. Yet, an Arab desert tent in the middle of a non-Arab oasis. Shouldn’t that be enough to tell you a thing or two about our identity crisis?

Stage, cinema, television entertainment, painting, fiction, poetry, book reading and everything even mildly entertaining has come under fire from the Godmen in the Islamic republic.

In an interactive talk show on curriculum reform, a caller asked me why the beautiful novella Goobye, Mr Chips taught to our intermediate students couldn’t be replaced with the biography of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

It took me a while to explain to him the difference between a novel and a biography, the importance of reading novels originally written in English and the difference between literature and religion, in short things we take for granted.

Cultural pursuits are mostly unacceptable to the religious lot because of a lack of timely interpretation (ijtihad). But Pakistan cannot be held responsible for that failure, nor can it, being a non-Arab country, do much about ijtihad.

So, should we remain frozen in time as well?

The economic cost

I don’t need to tell you how important economy is to a country. But from an unscientific, if not anti-science thought to essentially negative approach to engines of economic growth, we have allowed our assumed religious identity to stifle our economy for a very long time.

Pakistan inherited a capitalist (albeit underdeveloped) economy at the time of independence. However, a predominantly uneconomic thought keeps telling us what to do and what not to; this sensibility is getting more and more irrelevant to ground realities due to no fault of the state itself.

Resultantly, the society’s approach to the economy has grown hypocritical. This needs to change if the primacy of economic argument has to be accepted.

The political cost

Politically, the country’s sensibilities have been badly affected. Religious political parties don’t a get substantial share of votes on any election day. However, their influence is far more than their actual strength.

The Islamic Ideology Council, a constitutional body, is chaired by a religious politician whose worldview is conservative even by our religious standards.

Any amendments to the constitution can be struck down by this body, the Shariah court or any court that finds it contrary to the current interpretation of our religion. Hence from foreign policy to scientific research our religious groups get a say on critical national issues far beyond their actual weight.

Progress as a goal then goes out of the window.

When your worldview is seriously distorted, you fail to see the consequences of your choices and actions. Somewhere along our difficult journey we failed to understand that militant organisations and non-state actors of similar orientation are poor tools for the advancement of national interest. While useful for short term, they may backfire at the end and they are also contrary to the norms becoming of a nation state.

Granted, at the start, the United States and the rest of the western world were with us but this is our country, our region and we had to face the blowback when it came, not them.

That has impacted us profusely. The specter of terrorism has swallowed fifty thousand precious lives.

The societal cost

As times change, like every other country, our social fabric too is changing.

Women are taking part in economic activities. The nature of family as a unit is changing. From a firm emphasis on extended families we are graduating to nuclear families, owing to the changing nature of jobs which often require movement away from the cities of origin.

Our traditional view of a family unit and the status of women, however, has not changed yet. And it our religious identity that plays a pivotal role in this.

When issues as mundane as these are dragged into the domain of the sacred clergy, they take a minute in telling you women and men cannot be treated as equals. And for some reason, the religious elite want us to believe that polygamy is worth encouraging.

One should thank ones lucky stars that slavery was abolished in our parts of the world; at least in principle, before the rise of this militant version of our faith, otherwise some of us would have been found rationalising even that.

The historical cost

Read your officially sanctioned history books. How many non-Muslims or even women are presented in them as national heroes?

The only two women you may find mentioned somewhere are Fatima Jinnah and Benazir Bhutto. Neither is from a minority community.

It doesn’t mean women leaders were any less capable or our minorities any less heroic. Here, too, a need was felt to sanitise history to make it more acceptable to the religious right. But, in continuing this practice we create a disadvantage in the society, we remove an incentive for the half of the population which belongs to the female gender and a substantial that doesn’t adhere to the Muslim faith.

So, who are we then if not a theocratic state and society?

The Indus man?

Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan in his book, Indus saga and the making of Pakistan made a heroic effort to prove that the Indus civilization (regions currently part of Pakistan) have always had a distinct character in the regions independent of an Indian identity.

From Raja Risalu to Porus, he has tried to find many non-Muslim heroes for our country too.

And, yet, there is a problem.

While being a well-referenced work, when it comes to the crux of his theory, the Gurdaspur-Kathiawar salient, the endnotes and references to historical works or evidence disappear.

Another big problem with this thesis is that our nation and the world have still not been able to decipher the Indus civilization script. So, we cannot find much evidence to connect today’s culture with the ancient civilization that existed in this region.

However, one aspect which seems true for the majority of our population is his profile of the Indus man. When he states that the Indus man is basically a family man hence, not radical or violent, that sounds very relevant today.

For the past 13 years, the terrorists have tried to radicalise our society. However, it is due to that very nonviolent streak that terrorists are on the run today.

The existential argument

Which identity works best for Pakistan today?

It goes without saying that an overwhelming majority of the society is Muslim. It is in the very nature of our people to stay close to their Muslim roots. They will continue to practice faith according to their best understanding.

However, what they don’t need is a dogmatic, overbearing, aggressive and often violent institutionalised clergy always looking over their shoulders and telling them what to do according to its whims. Hence the theocratic identity that our religious right keeps pushing on to us and our moderate parties keep systematically surrendering to is counterproductive to a prosperous and progressive future.

In the last 13 years of our fight against terrorism, the phrase ‘existential threat’ has been used recurrently. If the word existential can work here, why can’t it work for our identity?

My generation that was born after the fall of East Pakistan is less worried about why the country was created or, for that matter, why Bangladesh parted ways. We found this country as it is in the present condition, it is home. Homes need no justification. It is what it is.

What we find more interesting is the prospect of a prosperous future.

Every nation’s journey starts at some point in history. Some might have started it eons ago. Others have only recently been born. Why then does Pakistan need to invent in a past when the present and the future may transform us into a stronger unity?

Muslims, as we are, if we manage to evolve into a true and stable democracy and a strong economy we will be a shining beacon of hope in the world at large and Muslim countries in particular. This identity should be enough to revive a national character which has for long been stifled by denial and confusion.

What we need is a national dream – a dream of a better, shared and equitable future, not an ideology to keep justifying our existence.

Courage can make this possible.