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—Illustration by Abro

Two of the most common comments I receive through emails are: ‘If only Pakistan imposes a true Islamic system, we’ll be able to get rid of the hypocrisies committed in its name.’ Of course, such suggestions are proposed by fellow Pakistanis. The other comment is usually from readers in India or the West. It’s a simple question: ‘Why are Pakistanis always so engrossed in religion?’

I am no scholar (religious or otherwise), but 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 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 question what we’ve been told is our ideology, the more one-dimensional remains our understanding of the diverse range of people that reside in Pakistan; and also, we become more venerable to the continuous volley of half-truths and glorified delusions that have been coming our way from dictators, textbooks and the usual media crackpots.

The whole notion of being a country buzzing with ethnic, sectarian and religious diversity becomes something to be afraid of, or 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 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 rigorous democracy that a diverse nation requires, this all-encompassing Muslim nationalism only ended up alienating the centuries-old cultural moorings of a number of ethnicities in Pakistan. So, as the Baloch, the Sindhis and the Pashtuns rose up in anger, as had done the Bengalis in the former East Pakistan, who eventually decided to rip themselves away from Pakistan’s ideological equation.

Though the anti-diversity dynamics of Muslim nationalism was 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 the Islamist fringe.

Gradually, especially with the arrival of the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq, the ideology’s early modernist Islam was turned on its head when the new ideologues wanted to Islamise the modern. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan gave way to Abul Ala Maududi.

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 call the very essence and foundation of our so-called ideology into question.

Has not this ideology irst of the modernist ‘One Unit’ Islam variety, and then the exhibitionistic and militarist 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.’ The majority of us were Muslims (and still are), but our understanding of 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 Muslim countries would be an anachronism in Pakistan. 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 of Punjab and Sindh. There has never been a wide-ranging consensus among the sects and ethnicities of Pakistan about the ideology of Pakistan. How can there be?

Shouldn’t the consensus be sought more on recognising the ethnic and sectarian diversity of this country, giving all 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 ideology.

We have to finally recognise (on an official level) that we live in a land of many ethnicities and multiple interpretations of Islam. This phenomenon has to be harnessed and celebrated, not repressed or be afraid of. This very repression has produced nothing but an ideological neurosis that we suffer from today.