Two of the most common comments I receive through emails are: ‘If only Pakistan imposes true Islamic system, we’ll be able to get rid of the hypocrisies committed in its name.’ Of course, most of such suggestions are purposed by my fellow Pakistanis. The other comment in this regard is usually from Dawn readers living in India or the West. It’s a simple question: ‘Why are Pakistanis always so engrossed about religion?’
I am no scholar (religious or otherwise), but rather a student of history with a keen interest in understanding it through the lens of cultural anthropology. You see, most of us living in Pakistan have always been advised to look at cultural studies with suspicion. It has been embedded in us that this sort of an enquiry leads one to question the very foundations of the country’s ideology.
But, the problem is, the less equipped or inclined we are to questioning what we’ve been told, the more one-dimensional remains our understanding of the diverse range of people that reside in Pakistan; and also, that we become more vulnerable to the continuous volley of half-truths and glorified delusions that have been coming our way from dictators, textbooks and certain media crackpots.
The whole notion of being a country buzzing with ethnic, sectarian and religious diversity becomes something to be afraid of. To many this is something to be repressed with the help of an ideology that has, over the decades, been imposed upon this diversity by a curious nexus of so-called modernist Muslims and their more myopic and puritanical counterparts. At the centre of this all is
an ever-weakening state, which,
from 1947 till 1977, shunned recognising the dynamics of Pakistan’s diversity by imposing a nationalistic Muslim identity.
It didn’t work. In the absence of the kind of democracy that a diverse nation requires, this all-encompassing Muslim nationalism only ended up alienating the centuries-old cultural moorings of the numerous ethnicities in Pakistan. So, as the Baloch, Sindhis and Pashtuns rose up in anger; Bengalis of the former East Pakistan did the same, who eventually decided to rip themselves away from Pakistan’s ideological equation.
Though the anti-diversity dynamics of Muslim nationalism were, by and large, successful in keeping this ideology’s more radical advocates at bay, the 1971 East Pakistan debacle left this ideology vulnerable to the influence of what was once dismissed as being the Islamist fringe. Gradually, especially with the arrival of the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq, the ideology’s early modernist dictum of modernising Islam was turned on its head when the new ideologues decided to Islamise the modern. Sir Syed gave way to Abul Ala Mawdudi.
The kind of theological, political and cultural damage this long-winded attitude has inflicted in the past three decades has made the state and governments of Pakistan willing hostages to the abrasive and reactionary ways of the puritanical ideologues. What’s more, today, even some of the most educated young Pakistanis have lost the capacity to question what is dished out to them as Islamic/Pakistani history and ideology. We are still not prepared to face an obvious truth that may put the very essence and foundation of our so-called ideology into question.
Has not this ideology — first of modernist ‘One Unit’ Islam, and then the exhibitionistic and militaristic version of it — completely failed to achieve what it wanted to? That is, to turn a diverse Pakistan into a united, ideological whole based on religion? It was always an over-ambitious and Utopian task. We were never ‘one people’ in the organic sense of the word. The majority of us were Muslims (and still are), but our understanding of the faith is intricately linked to and informed by the cultural moorings of our own distinct ethnicities and sects.
Laws and policies cannot be made to succeed based upon the simple idea that all Muslims believe in the same God and the same book. What passes as Islamic law in certain Arab countries would be an anachronism in Pakistan. In the same way, what may be a success (as an Islamic law) in certain areas of the Deobandi dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa could be offensive to the Barelvi or Shia dominated areas of the Punjab and Sindh. There has never been a consensus among the sects and ethnicities of Pakistan about the ideology of Pakistan. How can there be?
Shouldn’t the consensus be more about recognising the ethnic and sectarian diversity of this country, giving all the democratic participants of this diversity as much autonomy as possible (through a fair democratic process) to take responsibility of just how much religion, or what sort of religion (if at all), would every ethnicity and sect want to use in their respective communities’ politics and society? The state’s role should be to make sure that such a national consensus holds and that none of the state’s institutions is allowed to identify with any one ethnic or sectarian group or its ideology.
We have to finally recognise (on an official level) that we live in a land of manifold ethnicities and multiple interpretations of Islam. This phenomenon has to be harnessed and celebrated, not repressed or be afraid of. This kind of repression has produced nothing but an ideological neurosis that we suffer from today.