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Whose ideology is it anyway?

February 09, 2011

Photo courtesy: Creative Commons

The following is what Sindhi nationalist leader and scholar, G.M. Syed, said about Pakistan’s future – and mind you, he said this way back in the summer of 1953: “In the years to come, Pakistan will not only become a problem for itself, but it will pose a danger to the world at large.”

Now how prophetic is that? Very. However, he was not the only one in those days casting a pessimistic shadow across the possible future of the newly-founded country. Those who agreed with Syed were were various Bengali and Baloch nationalists along with Pakhtun nationalist icon, Bacha Khan.

So what exactly were they reacting to? The answer to this question is quite simple and it is the answer to this that between 1947 and at least up until the late 1980s, it made an assortment of military dictators, politicians, ideologues and even some intellectuals denounce men like G M. Syed and Bacha Khan as traitors.

Very early on such Sindhi, Pakhtun, Baloch and Bengali nationalists and thinkers had started to raise an alarm about the cosmetic nature of what was beginning to be devised by the state as ‘Pakistan’s ideology.’

Starting with the 1949 Objectives Resolution, which for the first time introduced religion as a binding force for the young nation, men like Syed and other ethnic-nationalist icons correctly saw through the beginnings of a process which they feared the ruling elite would try to bulldoze an awkward reality with an invented illusion.

The awkward reality that was to be suppressed had to do with the fact that Pakistan was not exactly a single nation with a single language. It was a diverse country with multiple ethnicities, religions and sects. Each one of these had their own literature, language, culture and interpretation of faith, society and history.

The invented illusion in this respect was a monolithic, state-sponsored strain of faith that was to be imposed over ethnic and sectarian diversities described as dangerous cleavages by the state.

Logically speaking, constructing state-level unity out of this diversity should have been attained by providing a generous degree of democratic autonomy to the provinces. But instead of taking the logical democratic route in this context, the ruling elite began seeing this diversity as an existentialist and political threat to the country.

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It is interesting to note that there is little or no evidence to suggest that there was ever a concrete plan to immediately turn Pakistan into an Islamic state.

However, when agitation by Bengali nationalists in former East Pakistan over the issue of making Urdu the national language broke out, this suddenly triggered the government to officially introduce certain theocratic concepts in the 1949 Objectives Resolution.

Even though these were no more than an eye-wash and the Pakistani leadership and society remained largely secular in orientation, but men like GM Syed and Bacha Khan were quick to sight a dangerous trend. To them the ruling elite was now willing to use religion to suppress ethnic aspirations.

The state and the ‘establishment’ of Pakistan painstakingly constructed this supposed ideology, so much so that (ever since the 1980s) it eventually started being used by intelligence agencies, certain politico-religious parties, and media personnel to actually justify the folly of the Pakistan state and military for patronising brutal Islamist organisations.

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But whose ideology is it, anyway?

Until about the late 1960s it was normal to suggest that Pakistan as an idea was carved out as a country for the Muslims of the subcontinent who were largely seen (by Jinnah), as a distinct cultural set of Indians whose political and cultural distinctiveness might have been compromised in a post-colonial ‘Hindu-dominated’ set-up.

As Jinnah went about explaining his vision of what Pakistan was supposed to mean, there are no doubts about the historical validity of the notion that he imagined the new country as a cultural haven for the Muslims of the subcontinent where the state and religion would remain separate, driven by a form of modern democracy that incorporated the egalitarian concepts of Islam such as charity, equality and interfaith tolerance.

According to Professor Aysha Jalal, Jinnah’s view of Islamic activism in the subcontinent was akin to him fearing that Islamic zealots would harm the national cause.

However, in spite of the fact that a number of speeches by Jinnah can be quoted in which he is heard envisioning Pakistan as a progressive and non-theocratic Muslim state, there are, at the same time, examples of speeches by the same man (especially in the Punjab and the former NWFP), where he actually uses terms like Shariah and Islamic state.

No matter how intense the debate between those who saw him as a secular, liberal Muslim and those who claim that he was okay with the idea of Pakistan being turned into a theocratic state, the truth is, we might never really know exactly what it was that Jinnah actually stood for.

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Jinnah’s death in 1948 reduced his party the Muslim League from being a dynamic organisation of visionary action, into a rag-tag group of self-serving politicians.

Gone too was the party’s ability to bring into policy the modernist aspects of Jinnah’s otherwise rather woolly vision. The idea of a progressive Muslim country got increasingly muddled and shouted down by the once anti-Pakistan Islamic forces.

The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) went on a rampage in 1953 in Lahore, hungrily overseeing the country’s first major anti-Ahmadi riots. By now, the famous speech by Jinnah in which he underlined the idea of religious freedom in the new country was conveniently forgotten as the ruling elite grappled confusingly with the crises.

Eventually, it caved in to the demands of the handful of vocal Islamic leaders by officially declaring the country as an ‘Islamic Republic’ in the 1956 Constitution.

It was classic ostrich behaviour; the sort a number of Pakistani leaders have continued to demonstrate whenever faced with the question of Pakistan and its relationship to politicised faith.

In 1956, misunderstanding Islamist activism as mere emotionalism, the ruling elite gave the Islamists a bone to play with, without bothering to explain to the rest of the people exactly what an Islamic Republic really meant in the Pakistani context – a country comprising of a number of ethnicities, ‘minority religions,’ and distinct Islamic sects.

Democracy in this case should have been a natural answer. But for the Islamists, democracy meant the emergence of ethnic and religious plurality that would encourage secular politics and further undermine the new-found notion of the Islam-centric Pakistani nationhood. _______________________________

But was democracy really the answer to such a dilemma? After all, the second major step towards the widespread Islamisation of politics and society was actually taken during a democratically-elected left-liberal regime in the 1970s.

Stung and confused by the separation of the former East Pakistan and witnessing the collapse of Jinnah’s ‘Two-nation theory,’ the Z.A. Bhutto regime set about putting into practice the idea of socio-political and economic regeneration.

This idea saw the regime trying to synthesise socialist and nationalist populism with political Islam.

In 1973, the government invited a number of nationalist intellectuals and Islamic scholars for a conference in Islamabad, asking them to thrash out a more defined and well-rounded version of Pakistan’s ideology that would help the state and the government in salvaging the country’s lost pride (after the 1971 defeat in East Pakistan) and also help it keep whatever that was left of Pakistan, intact.

By the end of the conference, both secular and Islamic intellectuals concluded that Islam should clearly be defined as the core thought in the constitution and polity of Pakistan.  Recommendations were made to promote this core idea through the state-owned media, school text books and government policies.

Pakistan was renamed as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the 1973 constitution while in 1974 the Bhutto regime (on the insistence of the religious parties), outlawed the Ahmadies as an Islamic sect.

Furthermore, although the government and society (until about 1977) remained largely secular and modernist, the idea of an Islamic state put forward by a government-sponsored conference ironically turned into a rallying cry for religious parties during their 1977 movement against Bhutto.

While Bhutto (like Anwar Sadat of Egypt) was busy taking to task his largely exaggerated communist, far-left and ethnic opponents, religious parties who had been sidelined after the 1970 elections began filling the political and social vacuum created by Bhutto’s strong-arm tactics against leftist student and trade unions and Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists.

Again very much like Sadat, some historians also maintain that Bhutto was allowed the mushrooming of Islamist student groups on campuses to subdue his opponents on the left.

The result? After badly shaken by the Islamist resurgence he himself had (albeit indirectly) set into motion, he was heckled all the way to the gallows by the very forces he had tried to appease.

Ziaul Haq and his reactionary regime that is correctly blamed for finally turning the Pakistani society and politics on its head with his controversial laws and acts in the name of faith, was really just a symptom of what that 1973 conference had suggested as an ideology.

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Many years and follies later, and in the midst of unprecedented violence being perpetrated in the name of Islam, Pakistanis today stand more confused and flabbergasted than ever before.

The seeds of the ideological schizophrenia sowed by the 1956 proclamation followed by the disastrous doings of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in the 1980s, have now grown into a crooked tree that only bares delusions and denials as fruit.

As Islamic parties and reactionary journalists continue to use the flimsy historical narrative of Pakistan’s Islamic state-ism – and consciously burying the harrowing truth behind the chaos the so-called ‘Islamic ideology of Pakistan’ has managed to create – a whole generation is growing up to this cosmetic ideological narrative.

This narrative has continued to alienate not only religious minorities and various ethnicities (mainly Sindhi, Baloch and now even the ‘mohajirs),  it has created intolerance within various Muslim sects as well.

Recent examples in this respect is the way many puritanical Sunni Islamic groups reacted to conservative political leader Mian Nawaz Sharif’s statement sympathising with the plight of the Ahmadis.

In fact, even when the political leaders of all Muslim sects living in Pakistan do get together for a political cause, the state-constructed and all-encompassing Islamic narrative fails to mend the cracks present between the sects.

For example, during the 1977 movement of religious parties against Bhutto, leaders of these parties refused to pray behind one another during a break at a press conference at the Karachi Press Club.

Recently, during a rally against amendments against the Blasphemy Law, though Barelvi, Deobandi, Ahel-e-Hadith and Shia leaders joined hands, there were reports that Shia speakers were heckled by the supporters of radical Sunni groups. In addition, one of Pakistan’s foremost Islamic scholars, Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, has quietly flown out of the country in a self-imposed exile.

Ghamdi was facing a number of threats from certain puritanical Islamic groups.

His sin? He stood out as a mainstream Islamic scholar who was willing to bank on reason and a modern interpretive take on the holy book, eschewing the myopic literalism of the puritanical groups and of political Islam.

In other words, it seems the so-called Islam-centric ideology of Pakistan that began as a modernist and reformist project, has gradually regressed to such an extent that even the idea of having an informed debate on the subject of faith has become a taboo.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

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.