June 09, 2019


Pakistani religious groups protest on Nov 2, 2018 against a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy | AP
Pakistani religious groups protest on Nov 2, 2018 against a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy | AP

Since the inception of Pakistan, two questions that remain unresolved are about power and religion. Three constitutions, four formal military rules, controlled democracies, half-baked liberal and socialist economic models, religio-socialisation and religio-nationalism processes, strategic ambitions — all of these have created such a disquiet state that the questions of authority and identity constantly consume our intellectual energies to this day.

Bilal Zahoor, in collaboration with Raza Rumi, has made the latest effort to rethink Pakistan in light of these questions. Together they have compiled Rethinking Pakistan: A 21st Century Perspective, an anthology of essays on the critical challenges the country is facing. Leading scholars and experts in their relevant fields have shared their thoughts to identify the reasons for the chronic problems of the country and have suggested ways out to create a balance between religion and power and how the constitutional, economic, governance, development, diplomacy and ideological issues can be fixed.

The anthology is divided into five thematic structures. The first part deals with the issues of identity, religion and radicalisation. The first essay, ‘Refuting the Radicals’ by renowned scholar Dr Tariq Rahman, discusses the different interpretations of jihad by contemporary scholars in South Asia, including Ziauddin Sardar, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, Javed Ghamidi, Dr Farooq Khan and Dr Tahirul Qadri — all of them contribute in refuting the radical interpretation of Islam. Rahman, who recently wrote a lengthy volume on this subject, provides insight into the moderate voices in religious discourses, which were marginalised by both the state and society in Pakistan.

An anthology of essays on the critical challenges facing Pakistan tries to identify the reasons for the chronic problems of the country and suggest ways out

In another essay, historian and former Iqbal fellow at the University of Cambridge, Dr Tahir Kamran deals with the question of religion, saying that the foundational story of the country was re-scripted in the light of fundamentalist ideology. Whereas Pakistan’s foundation, in essence, was political assertion by Muslim modernists, those who re-script the genesis story give a purely puritan view. It is not that only traditional political Islamists such as Deobandi parties pitched themselves in the story, but the Barelvis did, too. In a way, while both wrangle over the particular angle of religion in nation-building, both nonetheless rely heavily on the political dimension of faith. This national narrative building gave space to religious actors, which eventually transmuted into the likes of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).

Meanwhile, Nadeem Farooq Paracha discusses the role of religion in the socio-political context of the subcontinent and argues that the society in Pakistan is an ultimate outcome of the thoughts under evolution during Muslim rule in the subcontinent. He asserts that Pakistan “is not a bastion of liberalism either. Its strength lies in a historically inherent moderate disposition, which, whenever it was given the space to assert itself, exhibited a remarkable aptitude to tolerate a rather fruitful co-existence between conservatism and certain more permissive ideas.” His essay provides context to the debate on identity in the country.

No debate on religion, identity, constitution and statecraft in Pakistan can be completed without referring to what the founder of the country thought. Bilal Zahoor, in his introductory essay, holds accountable the state, which kept distancing itself from Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision and, contrary to his vision, used religion in the nation-building processes. Zahoor quotes a well-known argument by the professor of Near Eastern Studies and Religion at Princeton University, Muhammad Qasim Zaman, that by ‘Sharia’, Jinnah only meant the “Muslim laws of personal status governing matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance” and not “that the state should commit itself to Islamic Law in its fullness.”

The theses presented in the first part of the book argue that it was divergence from Jinnah’s vision that led to radicalism and extremism in the country. Raheemul Haque, Muhammad Abrahim Zaka, Fasi Zaka and Rubina Saigol explore the dynamics from different perspectives. Abrahim and Fasi Zaka stress the need for a more inclusive orientation of statehood and an idea of nationalism that actively includes people of all hues and faiths. Meanwhile, Saigol argues that religion is never the sole source of identity of the people. Language, culture, ethnicity and other markers of social differentiation are equally strong, if not more.

The second part of the book deals with development, reforms and governance-related issues. I.A. Rehman’s and Dr Akmal Hussain’s essays address the fundamental challenges of development and reforms. Rehman traces the links between land ownership patterns and money-driven politics, while Akmal sees the roots of poverty in an institutional structure that rewards rent-seeking behaviour and stifles competition and innovation. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s fabulous account of the anti-science mindset in Pakistan traces the roots of this attitude and also describes the sorry state of affairs of the very institutions that are supposed to be responsible for the advancement of scientific knowledge in the country. He argues that “Pakistani society, in spite of a superficial layer of modernity, remains largely the kind of society Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had tried to change 150 years ago.”

In the third part of the book — on rights, repression and resistance — Zohra Yusuf documents the various forms of persecution being endured by Pakistan’s religious and sectarian minorities, while Reema Omer deals with the horrific and inhumane practice of enforced disappearances in the country. Ayesha Siddiqa traces the roots of injustices in the country’s civil-military imbalance and Rafiullah Kakar attributes authoritarian and centralised approaches for having resulted in the on-going insurgency in Balochistan.

Many books on this subject, often, among other things, offer a celebratory account of the resilience of Pakistani-state and society. In their attempt to dispel what they think is negative international media coverage of Pakistan, such books try to show the world the country’s resilience and the philanthropy and hospitality of Pakistanis. These books are often circulated for their advocacy utility, though. While surely there are image problems, what these books do is inexorably take attention away from the structural problems that have been responsible for causing the perennial instability to begin with. In another section, on sex, gender and emancipation, Afiya Sherhrbano Zia and Bina Shah discuss critical social and gender issues of the country. Zia’s essay, ‘Sex, Secularism as Resistance Politics’, explores the dynamics of sex and gender politics in Pakistan and how the state has manipulated this. She also provides a brief account of the women’s resistance movement against repression.

The last part discusses diplomacy and foreign policy challenges. Co-editor of the book, Raza Rumi, considers an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue process pivotal for peace between Pakistan and India, while Muhammad Ismail Khan makes a case for Pakistan to get out of the trap of Indo-centrism and view its relations with the United States, China and Afghanistan through a lens that is not coloured by the spectre of India.

Overall, the book provides a comprehensive view of progressive thinkers on the challenges the country is facing. Dedicated to the great human rights champion, Asma Jehangir, the anthology provides a blueprint for a moderate, forward-looking, democratic and socio-economically prosperous country.

The reviewer is a security analyst and director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Islamabad

Rethinking Pakistan: A 21st Century
Edited by Bilal Zahoor with Raza Rumi
Folio, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834068

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 9th, 2019