Are Pakistanis patriotic?

June 07, 2012

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– Illustration by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com
– Illustration by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com

Last week, I read the poignant account of Major Shafaat, an ethnic Hazara in the Pakistani Army who suffered from discrimination and recently lost his life. The most telling words came at the very end:

“Maybe he deserved to die because he naively believed himself to be a Pakistani. But in today’s Pakistan, he was just a Hazara.”

Pakistan is a nation rife with division, and nationality is rarely a unifying label. Citizens like Major Shafaat are identified by (or self-identify with) ethnicity. For others, it is religion. According to a 2009 British Council poll of Pakistani youth, 75 per cent describe themselves as Muslims rather than Pakistanis.

Another fault-line of this fragmentation is provincial. Manifestations range from the Punjab/Sindh rivalry to separatist sentiment in Balochistan and recent calls for new Seraiki and Mohajir provinces.

In all this, the notion of nationalism – a people united by nationality – is missing. The notion of patriotism – love of one’s country – is absent as well. It is difficult to love one’s country if allegiances are to sub-national entities instead of to the nation itself.

Does this mean Pakistanis are not patriotic?

Not at all. There is plenty of patriotism in Pakistan.

Think of the acclaim lavished on Pakistani heroes–from philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi and cricket star Shahid Afridi to LUMS innovator Umar Saif and the late child prodigy Arfa Karim. When these figures achieve their greatest feats, they are cheered not only by their ethnic, religious, or provincial kin, but by Pakistanis across the board.

Consider as well the warmth and pride with which Pakistanis regard their country. I recently came across a series of YouTube videos with the theme of “beautiful Pakistan.” They highlight the country’s physical beauty and architectural treasures – from glaciers in the Northern Areas and the forests of Swat to the ancient Indus city of Mohandejaro. Another video emphasises Pakistan’s abundant supplies of salt, copper, and gold.

Linking this all together is a celebration of the essence of Pakistan – its people, its land, and its resources. What goes unmentioned is the political sphere – amplifying how Pakistani patriotism is often apolitical.

Yet not always. Recall those powerful images of Pakistan recently posted by Nadeem F. Paracha. They strikingly depict the country from the 1950s to early 1970s, an era that, politically speaking, was drastically different from today. What we see in these images is wholly incongruous with contemporary realities: American actors filming a movie in Lahore; scantily-clad tourist riding camels on Clifton Beach; hippies relaxing at a tea house in Balochistan.

The online responses to NFP’s images were warm and nostalgic, with many readers expressing a longing for the relatively halcyon days of the pre-Zia era, when tolerance and diversity were more widespread than today. These reactions suggest that Pakistani patriotism today may betray a pining for a kind of politics that last existed several decades ago.

Of course, unhappiness with today’s political situation should not be mistaken for a lack of patriotism. When I meet with Pakistanis here in Washington, and I hear them complain about the spread of militancy, state corruption, and Islamabad’s mishandling of economic policy, it is clear that their criticism does not extend beyond these ugly political realities. They do not lambaste Pakistan as a nation; they lambaste what afflicts the nation.

I do not intend here to make blanket statements about Pakistani patriotism. To be sure, some Pakistanis define their patriotism in chauvinistic ways, and look not to heroes such as Edhi, but rather to the likes of Zaid Hamid. Meanwhile, persecuted minorities have every right not to be patriotic in a nation that treats them as third-class citizens.

And for many more Pakistanis, patriotism is a meaningless term. Millions are preoccupied on a daily basis with meeting their basic needs for survival, and simply have no time to think about patriotism. For them, such lofty thoughts amount to abstract luxuries. They fixate on more pressing “p” words like patronage and poverty.

Yet none of this can deny the fact that Pakistanis are proud of their country (a 2010 Herald poll finds that nearly 80 per cent of Pakistani youth are “proud to be Pakistani”). This is why there is such concern about Pakistan’s “image problem” abroad. The world’s reductive perceptions of the country filter out heroes like Edhi, and ignore the geographical diversity, the arts, cuisine, and other dimensions of the nation cherished by the citizenry.

Several years ago, I wrote an op-ed on the roots of this image problem, and how it can be overcome. I received responses from readers across Pakistan, expressing their gratefulness that an American shared their concerns.

Those readers’ sentiments exemplify patriotism in Pakistan: Love for a much-maligned nation, whose political problems increasingly drown out what makes the country a special place.


Michael Kugelman is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org and follow him on Twitter: @michaelkugelman


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.