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February 10, 2019


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In his 1984 paper, “What’s in a name?” (Journal of Southeast Asian Studies), Stanford University’s Donald Emmerson writes that “names are rooted neither in reality nor custom but express instead the power of the namer.” Emmerson was talking about how states and governments in the West name regions that were once under their domain. 

Reshmi Lal, in an April 2016 article for The National, paraphrased Emmerson to understand why many governments in former British colonies changed the names of cities. For example, Lal explained the recent spree of changing the names of some cities in India as nothing more than “a symbolic gesture.” 

The idea behind these changes was to replace names of cities that were named by India’s former Muslim and British rulers. But the fact is, many such cities were founded by these rulers. So renaming them in accordance with India’s ancient Hindu past requires the engineering of some convoluted histories and myths to rationalise the change. 

Imran Khan’s Riyasat-i-Madina may conjure up images of an Arab religious past, but the core tenet of Western welfare state is that faith must be separated from politics

As Emmerson would put it, it has nothing to do with reality but rather it is an expression of power of the namer — in this case the ruling Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. 

The practice of changing names of cities and roads has also been quite common in Pakistan. Markus Daechsel, in his book Politics of Self-Expression, writes that names in this context meant more than the things they were meant to designate. 

Daechsel was discussing the fascination certain Indian Muslims had for giving “Islamic-sounding terms” to Western economic and political ideas. For example, in a pamphlet distributed by a group of radical clerics just before Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the authors decided to call the State Bank ‘Baitul maal.’ 

Daechsel writes that the urge was to do away with the Western-sounding State Bank but, in this pursuit, the clerics did not offer an immediate Urdu translation but an Arabic one to conjure up a link between Indian Muslims and ancient Islamic Arabia. 

This practice of replacing names of ideas, roads and cities that have Western origins with those conjured from Arabia’s ancient Islamic past has been rather frequent in Pakistan ever since the 1970s. 

Take for instance, the idea of socialism. In the Foundation Papers of the PPP, the word ‘socialism’ largely appears. The party was conceived as a socialist party in 1967. However, after being critically attacked from the right by religious groups, the party added the prefix Islamic to the word socialism. The term ‘Islamic-Socialism’ was not new, as such, having been used by scholars such as G. Ahmad Parvez and Khalifa Abdul Hakim and even by the country’s first PM Liaquat Ali Khan. 

The rationale behind it was that Islam was inherently an egalitarian system and the socialism being advocated by Pakistanis was actually the socialism of the welfare state based on this egalitarianism. 

By the time the PPP came to power in December 1971, the conservative opposition groups were not convinced by the term Islamic Socialism as well. During a heated debate between the treasury benches and the right-wing opposition in a March 1973 session of the National Assembly, a PPP ideologue, S. Rashid Ahmad, moved the assembly to induct the word socialism in the country’s constitution that was still being authored. 

The opposition was livid. Rashid then offered to add the prefix ‘Islamic’. But the opposition disagreed, despite the fact that PPP MNA Kausar Niazi pointed out that the clerics were okay with the term ‘Islamic Democracy’ but not with ‘Islamic Socialism’. A compromise was reached when the government offered the term ‘Musawaat-i-Muhammadi [literally ‘The Egalitarianism of the Prophet (PBUH)’.]

However, at the core of Islamic Socialism, Islamic Democracy or Musawaat-i-Muhammadi was still socialism and democracy as modern ideas developed in the West. Just as basic parliamentary dynamics and modern banking were at the core of terms such as Majlis-i-Shoora and Islamic Banking during the reactionary Gen Zia dictatorship. 

Recently, the PTI regime and PM Imran Khan have repeatedly used the term “Riyasat-i-Madina.” [The State of Madina]. The emergence of this term can be vaguely traced back to the 1940s, when some Muslim activists in India began to propagate the creation of a Muslim-majority country that would resemble ‘Islam’s first state’ in the seventh century. 

Even though Indian authors such as Venkat Dhulipala (in his 2015 book Creating a New Madina) claim that, indeed, the idea of Pakistan was formulated as such, his claims have faced severe rebuttals. For example, American historian Gail Minault and Oxford University’s Faisal Devji, completely deconstructed Dhulipala’s thesis by remarking that a bulk of Dhulipala’s sources included populist newspapers, activists, ideologues and even fringe groups who were more or less operating independently from the actual founders of Pakistan. What’s more, as Minault put it, most of the sources that drive Dhulipala’s thesis belonged to a single dominant sect of Islam (in India). 

More likely than not, the term Riyasat-i-Madina is probably nothing more than what Musawaat-i-Muhammadi or Majlis-Shoora were. It is a way of saying that we admire the entirely secular idea of the Scandinavian welfare state, but this idea was present in an ‘early Islamic State’, so it is inherently Islamic and not secular. But it is. This can be masked with a term that conjures up images of an Arab religious past, but not the fact that with the core idea of the Western welfare state lies the insistence that faith must be separated from politics.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 10th, 2019