Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

One of the most fascinating phenomena in recent years has been the support extended to populist parties such as the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by Pakistanis and Indians residing in Western countries.

This is really an exhibition of Hinduist and Islamist nationalisms among the South Asian diaspora. The BJP is a Hindu nationalist outfit, whereas Islamist nationalism is a major plank of PTI’s rhetoric. Both the parties also enjoy support among the urban middle classes in India and Pakistan.

However, unlike the BJP, which in 2019 managed to attract votes from across the board, PTI’s core constituencies remain the urban middle classes. Because of the many economic and governance blunders by the recently ousted PTI regime, however, its electoral appeal (outside social media) is likely to erode.

Read: Faces of nationalism

Hindu nationalism, which seeks to create a Hindu theocratic state, is organic to Hindu-majority India. Islamist nationalism is a branch of what is called ‘Islamism’ — an idea with roots in the late 19th century. Islamism has now come to mean the creation of Islamist theocracies through caliphates. But Islamism was largely a pan-Islamic phenomenon that had components on the right as well as the left.

While Imran Khan’s ouster is being felt by the Pakistani diaspora as an erosion of their Islamist nationalist identity, they have yet to come to terms with the realities that triggered the ouster of his failing regime

It was originally opposed to nationalism, which defined nations according to shared ethnocentric histories. Pan-Islamism looked to ‘unite’ all Muslim-majority regions under a single caliph. The right-wing sides of this idea were socially conservative and theocratic, even though they begrudgingly accepted the notions of the modern state and market economics.

On the left of it, were intellectuals and activists who, after accepting the ascendency of Western ideas such as secularism, socialism and modern economic development, looked to merge various Arab regions as a single entity through ‘Arab nationalism.’ Therefore, they accepted the idea of nationalism, but as one that imagined a large region of a population that shared a common history and language.

Arab nationalism began to emerge in the early 20th century. It sought to create a ‘greater Arab republic’ by merging all Arab-majority regions. Such a republic was not to be ruled by a caliph, but by a ‘benevolent’ and ‘enlightened’ dictator.

In regions with large non-Arab Muslim populations, emerged Muslim nationalism. As we shall see, there’s a difference between Muslim and Islamist nationalisms. Muslim nationalism imagined Muslims in non-Arab regions as distinct political communities tied to particular territories. For example, from the 1930s onwards, in pre-Partition India, leading Muslim politicians began to explain Indian Muslims as a ‘nation.’

One faction wanted this nation to work with the Congress Party in a secular and democratic India, because the Muslims of India shared a long history with the region’s Hindu majority. The other faction looked to carve out a separate Muslim-majority region within the Subcontinent.

Muslim nationalists were largely modernists and understood the Indian Muslim community as a separate nation, sharing a religion that was ‘inherently’ progressive, modern and democratic. Pan-Islamists detested this idea. They denounced it as being myopic — because it was tied to a specific territory — and secular — because it was divorced from the faith’s theology.

Nevertheless, it was Muslim nationalism which became the main engine that drove the creation of Pakistan. From the mid-1970s, the ideas that were opposed to Muslim nationalism, and were pan-Islamist, gradually began to warm up to the concept of territorial nationalism. This was the birth of Islamist nationalism.

This nationalism retained the social conservatism of right-wing Islamism, and the desire to enact a theocracy, but now the theocracy was to be created within a national territory through modern means, such as constitutionalism, democracy, statecraft and/or means that were by nature secular.

Now, coming back to the Muslim diaspora in the West, and its increasing tilt towards Islamist nationalism. This tilt is the result of ‘identity politics’ that broke out in the West from the 1990s onwards, and in which it became almost obligatory for all segments of society to formulate an identity for themselves and then exhibit it.

This was the product of ‘multiculturalism’, in which different racial, religious and other social groups retained their cultures and identities but were linked to an integrated economy. Its opponents lamented that multiculturalism was creating racial and religious ghettos that were triggering political and social tensions in Western cities.

In the late 1980s, the Muslim nationalism of the Muslim diaspora in the West was linked to the territory of their home country and began being challenged by pan-Islamists and Islamists who, at the time, were experiencing a resurgence. Many second generation Muslims in the West found the idea of pan-Islamic unity appealing.

Their parents, who had migrated to Western cities between the 1960s and 1970s, had largely embraced Western lifestyles, because the Muslim nationalism of their home countries was largely ‘modernist.’ But the parents became conservative when they started to have children.

The mosque in Western cities became an important meeting place, where the clerics also became lifestyle guides. Muslim nationalism attached to a particular region dissipated in gatherings of Muslims from various regions. A non-territorial/internationalist Islamism began to take root among the diaspora. But soon, it fell in the hands of violent outfits. This caused immense problems for Muslims in the West.

Then, identity politics obliged them to define their country of origin. This further negated pan-Islamist identity formations. But despite being forced to distance themselves from radical, non-territorial strands of Islamism, the diaspora retained its social conservatism and theocratic dimension. What aided them in retaining these was Islamist nationalism and/or a conservative and theocratic idea that accepts territorial nationalism and modern economic and political institutions.

Interestingly, the rhetoric and identity symbols of the Islamist nationalism embraced by the Muslim diaspora in the West were exported to the home countries, where they began to be adopted by the urban middle and lower-middle classes. This is the same rhetoric and symbols that the PTI uses, therefore finding traction among Pakistan’s middle-income groups and the Pakistani Muslim diaspora.

But it can also be argued that this Islamist nationalism has already run its course in Pakistan. The state and the larger civilian political outfits have begun to look at Islamist nationalism with suspicion, and want to revert back to Muslim nationalism.

The Pakistani diaspora sensed this with the ouster of the PTI government. Khan’s ouster is being felt by the diaspora as an erosion of their Islamist nationalist identity. The ouster thus saw large segments of the diaspora pour out and accuse anti-PTI parties and Pakistani state institutions of betrayal.

The diaspora have yet to come to terms with the realities that triggered the ouster of Khan’s failing regime.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 8th, 2022

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