Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

When Muslim imperial power in India began to corrode in the 19th century, various Muslim thinkers embraced certain notions of modern nationalism. The most prominent aspect of Muslim nationalism in the region was the advocacy of ‘Western education’ among Muslims so that a resourceful Muslim nation could emerge in India to face the challenges of British expansionism and an expectant ‘Hindu hegemony’.

This nationalism was intellectually driven by an emergent Muslim bourgeoisie. It saw the Muslims of India as a separate cultural entity, united by an urge to refresh its shared faith through a more rational and contemporary reading and interpretation. Consequently, Pakistani nationalism, which was an off-shoot of Muslim nationalism in undivided India, was integrally pluralistic and modern.

However, from the mid-1970s onward, certain local and international events, especially a traumatic war with India in 1971 and a global economic recession, severely polarised Pakistani society. A rather assertive aspect of this polarisation began to be expressed through an ideological alternative which rejected the modernist facet of Pakistani nationalism, criticising it for undermining the Islamic dimension of the so-called ‘Pakistan ideology.’

As a response, the Pakistani state changed tact and tried to realign its wavering ideological status quo by co-opting various aspects of the alternative ideology, even to the extent of sacrificing many of the original pluralistic notions of Pakistani nationalism. Pakistani nationalism’s extroverted and modernist outlook was replaced with an extremely introverted one. This adjustment saw state and society slide towards an insecure and isolationist disposition and an obdurate understanding of faith, articulated through some rather blinkered strands of politics. Not surprisingly, decades after this disposition managed to ingrain itself in the workings of the state and polity of Pakistan, the country was left facing a rather drastic social and political catastrophe.


The current questioning about what should Pakistan’s narrative be echoes a debate from 30 years ago


Even though today Pakistani state and society seem to have finally understood that much of the sectarian, ethnic and religious violence of the past decades has been cultivated by a rather convoluted nationalist ideology and narrative which the state began to peddle from the mid-1970s, there is still confusion about exactly what should such an ingrained narrative be replaced with.

This question was first aired almost exactly 30 years ago by renowned intellectual and author Sibte Hasan. What’s more, he did this when the reactionary dictatorship of Gen Zia was at the helm and the introverted narrative was being aggressively facilitated and proliferated. And yet, Hasan might never have inquired about the possible pitfalls of the narrative had it not been for a book published by an equally famous author and journalist, Altaf Gauhar. In his book, Translations, Gauhar had hailed the intent of erasing the idea of ‘Muslim modernism’ from the overall paradigm of Pakistani nationalism. He then went on to suggest that the main purpose behind Pakistan’s creation was the eventual enactment of a theological state.

All this was rather ironic coming from a man such as Gauhar because he was once a prominent member of the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69). Gauhar was also one of the main architects behind an elaborate project initiated by Ayub to make Muslim modernism the main pillar of Pakistani nationalism. The project was vehemently opposed by religious parties. However, Gauhar was removed from his post by Ayub’s successor, Yahya Khan, in 1969. The same year he joined Dawn as editor.

As Dawn’s editor Gauhar continued to advocate Ayub’s idea of Muslim modernism which was to be strengthened by wide-scale industrialisation and the spirit of free market enterprise. He also became a staunch critic of the ‘socialist’ and populist manoeuvres of the Z.A. Bhutto regime (1971-77) which resulted in ZAB throwing him in jail. Then, in 1976, Gauhar is said to have experienced a personal existentialist predicament. He became a sudden admirer of prolific Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Maududi, when in a 1978 book, The Challenge of Islam, Gauhar negated his earlier opinions by declaring that the Muslim modernism project had been a failure.

After leaving Dawn, he founded an influential monthly, Third World Review, in London with the backing of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International (BCCI). After BCCI packed up, he continued advocating the Zia regime’s so-called ‘Islamisation’ process. He also wrote damning critiques of modernism and democracy and this is what activated Sibte Hasan.

In a 1985 article which appeared in Dawn, Hasan argued that the religious right and men like Gauhar in Pakistan have wrongfully made the whole concept of modernism to mean an ideology that was anti-religion. He suggested that it was nothing of the sort and that it simply discouraged the politicisation of faith. He added that modernism was about giving full freedom to an individual to practice his or her faith as long as they didn’t use it to meet cynical political ends.

A senior jurist, lawyer and a former member of The Council of Islamic Ideology, Khalid Ishaq, jumped in and penned an article in Gauhar’s defence. This triggered an intense debate between Hasan and Ishaq on the pages of Dawn in 1985. Ishaq disagreed with Hasan by claiming that even if modernism was not anti-religion, by discouraging politicisation, it contradicts Islam because politics was an inherent component of Islam. The raging debate led Hasan to author a whole book, The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan, in which he first jotted down the history of the separation of state and religion, and then the role this separation played in strengthening various early and contemporary Muslim powers.

In his articles for Dawn, Hasan reminded Ishaq and Gauhar how Muslim powers of yore that ruled over a wide verity of religious and sectarian persuasions had to separate religion from politics, even when many of the same rulers remained staunch Muslims in their private lives.

He then went on to accuse the religious lobbies in Pakistan of using a politicised idea of religion to maintain their political and economic influence over a polity that was inherently pluralistic and diverse. Hasan further suggested that the country’s religious elite presented the separation of state and faith as an anti-religion concept because it neutralises the powers of those who had used religion to safeguard their political, social and economic interests.

Hasan lamented that Gauhar had once gone out of his way to propagate Ayub Khan’s modernist views and policies, but after Ayub’s fall in 1969, he lost his influence and power, until the 1977 military coup of Gen Zia. Hasan wrote that to get back in the good graces of another dictator (Zia), Gauhar suddenly became religious just because this dictator was talking about turning Pakistan into a theological state.

Hasan passed away in 1986 and the debate between Ishaq and Gauhar on the one side and him on the other came to a halt. Even though Hasan’s views were clearly informed by his leftist biases, many of his ideas in the context of Pakistani nationalism were rather close to those formulated by the Ayub regime to furnish its concept of Muslim modernism. What’s even more interesting is the fact that these ideas seem to be returning to the fore as the state and government of Pakistan are once again seeking to refresh the country’s nationalist narrative. The post-1970s narrative spelled a disaster.

But the new nationalist narrative being built is more pragmatic than ideological. It is still very much a work-in-progress. It simply suggests that Pakistan’s salvation lies in it becoming an important economic hub and for this certain deep-seated changes are necessary. These include the proliferation of free market enterprise, pluralism, and foreign investment, which, in turn, require Pakistan to undo its socio-political introversion and initiate a crackdown on anything threatening the erosion of local and international economic confidence. Gauhar was wrong to negate himself.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 27th, 2016

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