Renowned Islamic orator Zakir Naik was on a TV channel talking to British Pakistanis about their identity. (I heard his entry into the UK has recently been banned.) He said, why get embarrassed when the Brits ask you: are you a Muslim first or British first? His solution to the dilemma concealed in this question was: ask a counter-question, “Are you a human being first or a Briton first?”
Naik said: turn the tables, let the Briton be embarrassed. When asked this question, he will have to say he is a human being first. The situation created by this confusion will spare the Pakistani Briton the dilemma of a clash between his religious identity and his national one. But what Naik said pertained to an issue that raises its head in Pakistan too.
Are we Muslims, Pakistani first or Muslim first? The answer today is Muslims. I once conducted a TV debate in 2006 with an audience, and those who said they were Muslim first, won by a 90 per cent count. Pakistan is an Islamic state and all of us are Muslims; therefore, it is easy to say that we are Muslims first and then Pakistani. The Pakistan Movement should also support this thesis because we claim that Muslims had become a nation before they demanded a state.
But the nation-state poses a problem. What if I ask a Christian Pakistani the same question? The truth is all of them say, they are Pakistani first. Why do they do this? Why are the non-Muslims insisting on being Pakistanis first? The answer is that they want to be treated equally with other Pakistanis. If they emphasised their Christian identity and put it before their Pakistani one, they might be treated unequally.
The nation-state in Europe favours multiple identities and demands that all identities be treated equally. And for that, all those who live in the UK must call themselves Britons first. The question arises: why only should the Muslims as a minority insist that they are Muslims first? It is clear that unlike the Christian minority in Pakistan, they, as a Muslim minority, want to stand apart. What is hidden behind this gesture is a refusal to integrate. And the trick is that they know that the UK will treat them equally under law, even if they don’t integrate.
This is not so in Pakistan. The nation state wanted to gloss over secondary or tertiary identities to create unity. In Pakistan, the first problem that arose was linked to regional identities: Sindhi, Punjabi, Bengali, Baloch, Pakhtun, etc. The state wanted them to be only Pakistanis and said so. When it did not work, it abolished the provinces. Now as far as religious identities are concerned, Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim, and most of us don’t care if non-Muslims are treated unequally. If we were like the Brits, we would have said we are Pakistanis first.
The nation-state is no utopia but it is better than any other kind of states. Its nationalism can embrace all the people living in it and all of them can be given the name of the state. Because of inherent racism, the nation-state in Europe has legitimised multiculturalism as a way of national life. (Multiculturalism there is declining now because of problems of integration faced by immigrants.) Zakir Naik must also tell Muslim Brits how to tackle the consequences of non-integration.
In Pakistan, the non-Muslim instinctively wants to integrate as a Pakistani; in the UK the Muslim minority wants to stand apart. There, the majority wants to be British first on the principle of equality; here, the minority non-Muslim is appealing for equality as a Pakistani. The conclusion is simple: the majority community in Pakistan doesn’t much care if the non-Muslims are treated unequally.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2011.