Religion, ethnicity and nation-building in the Muslim world

Azad was steadfast in the belief that a united India, even after British had left, would benefit the Muslim population

Shahid Javed Burki August 15, 2022
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The subject covered in today’s article makes a great deal of sense as Pakistan celebrates its 75th birth anniversary on August 14, 2022. I observed the 70th birthday by coediting a book, Pakistan at Seventy, that was published by London’s Routledge Press in the fall of that year. The book was a collection of essays written by Pakistani scholars from different disciplinary points of view.

Since then, I have written more on the subject of Pakistan’s birth, speculating on the motives that led Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid e Azam, to work hard to create a Muslim majority country in the Indian sub-continent over which the British had ruled for 200 years. Jinnah was initially associated with the Indian National Congress, a multi-religious organisation with a one-item agenda: to get the British out of India. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were the two most prominent leaders of the INC.

But it also had some prominent Muslim leaders as well such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. While Jinnah got convinced that a Hindu-dominated India would not be a comfortable place for the minority Muslim population, Azad was steadfast in the belief that a united India, even after the British had left, would benefit the Muslim population. Having come under the influence of Allama Iqbal, a Muslim poet-philosopher, Jinnah came to a different conclusion and campaigned for an independent Muslim country to be carved out of British India.

I have suggested in some of my earlier writings that Jinnah did not want to build an Islamic state called Pakistan once he convinced the British to partition their large Indian colony. Although Choudhry Rahmat Ali, a student at Britain’s Cambridge University, had come up with the name ‘Pakistan’ for the country Jinnah was fighting to create, he too was not thinking in terms of a Muslim state. For him ‘Pakistan’ was a catchy acronym since it combined the first letters or the endings of the names of the provinces that were to be included in the new country. Thus ‘P’ in Pakistan represented Punjab, followed by ‘A’ which stood for the Afghan territory and ‘Stans combined both Sindh and Baluchistan. It is interesting that Bengal did not make it into this acronym.

In a speech given on August 11, 1947, three days before the formal opening of the Constituent Assembly which was to write the governing document for the new country, Jinnah made it clear that he did not want the country to be formally Islamic; the new country’s citizens were to be ‘Pakistanis’ and were not to necessarily follow the Muslim faith. He obviously believed that citizenship could be the basis of nationhood not religion or ethnicity. In his first visit to East Pakistan, he proposed that Urdu would be the national language. For him it made sense to have Urdu in that position since it was not the language of any of the constituent provinces. But Bengalis were not prepared to accept that proposition; they came out in the streets and protested. Their agitation came to be called the ‘language riots’. It was the attachment to their culture that finally led to the departure of Bengal from Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971, a quarter century after the birth of original Pakistan.

Other ethnic groups also agitated to create regions that would be largely autonomous in a loosely constructed federation. The Pakhtunistan movement was one such effort in which the majority Pakhtuns or Pashtuns were to have their own autonomous government. The movement only died after the invasion in 1979 of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Today there is an active movement for using the Baluchi ethnicity and language as the basis for some sort of political autonomy. Some radical Baluchi groups have taken up arms to hit the central authority. A number of people have already been killed in these acts of violence.

While Pakistan seems to have settled within its redefined borders – redefined after the departures of Bengalis who created their own state – it is surrounded by four neighbours that are playing with or fighting with the notion of using religion and ethnicity as the basis of nationhood. Let me start this discussion with Afghanistan. Taliban are working hard in Afghanistan after gaining control of the country on August 15, 2021 to make Islam – or more accurately their interpretation of the religion – as the basis of nationhood. This way they believe they can overcome ethnic differences that mark their society. However, the Islam they want to impose on the country is the one followed by the Pashtun population not by the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras. The last named group are Shiites and have been the subject of great deal of hostility by the Pashtuns.

Moving clockwise we come to China where the Hans constitute the vast majority of the population – over 90 per cent. However, even 5 to 10 per cent of the population, belonging to other groups, means a large number of people – between 70 and 140 million people. Ever since the founding of the Communist state in 1949, the Han Chinese have sought to absorb other ethnic groups – the Tibetans, the Mongols and the Uighurs – into the main ethnic group. The Communist state has succeeded in their efforts in two of these three groups that live in the regions in which they constitute large majorities. The state has succeeded with the exception of the Muslim Uighurs. Assimilating them has been a problem as people of the same ethnic group and following the same faith constitute majorities in some of the neighbouring countries in Central Asia. The Chinese Uighurs draw some strength from the neighboring countries.

Beijing’s efforts to assimilate the Uighurs have drawn a great deal of attention in the world outside; enough for President Xi Jinping to visit the Xinjiang Autonomous Region that borders Pakistan and explain the approach his government is following. The world uses such negative terms as genocide or imprisonment to describe the approach towards the Uighurs; the Chinese, on the other hand, call it education and training. President Xi made his first visit to the region since his government unleashed the programme of educating the locals about the advantages of Chinese nationhood. His trip amounted to a proclamation of success in his years-long effort to deal with ethnicity. His visit lasted for four days and focused on projecting that Xinjiang had become united and stable under his leadership. “Every ethnic group in Xinjiang is an inseparable member of the great family of Chinese nationhood,” Xi said while visiting a heavily Uighur area of Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang. Of the remaining two neighbours, ethnicity is not a problem in Iran but religion and ethnicity are eating into the Indian concept of nationhood. I will take up the Indian situation in a later article.


Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2022.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ


Most Read