Who is a Pakistani?

Published: September 2, 2010
The writer is professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont, US

The writer is professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont, US [email protected]

The recent exchange of polarised articles, following the Sialkot tragedy, have left me perplexed. Both sides have exhibited tremendous scorn for each other and questioned the authenticity of the ‘other’s’ commitment to Pakistan. The existential conflict which these articles exhibited remind me of a painting by the famous French artist Paul Gauguin which hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston titled: D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? Which translates as Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Gauguin painted this huge canvas in 1897 while living as a French expatriate in Tahiti.  He questioned his own identity in this colonial. The crises that are befalling Pakistan are also leading the country to ask such similar questions. So what exactly does it mean to be a Pakistani? First, let us be clear that nationalism is an inherently synthetic phenomenon and there is nothing ‘natural’ about any form of nationalism. Those who suggest that somehow a larger Indian subcontinent was “natural nationalism” following colonial departure forget the motley assemblage of bitterly divided princely states that existed during much of the subcontinent’s history.

Human rights laws and international norms are increasingly critical of nationalism along ethnic lines. At a practical level, the most defining “natural” element of nationalism is language — because communication is the most essential element of human relations. We can look different and overcome our prejudices if we can communicate effectively.

Language is clearly a fracturing factor in Pakistani perceptions of their identity. Most of the readers of Pakistan’s English newspapers rarely read an Urdu daily. Gone are the days when poets like Faiz could be professors of English but write poetry in Urdu, allowing for an exchange of ideas across social strata that had been defined by language. A few veteran journalists such as Khaled Ahmed have to translate Urdu articles for the ‘Angraizi-walas’ who stumble through an occasional headline in the vernacular press. We are further divided by supremacist views about provincial languages. The only way out is for more Pakistanis to become multilingual at levels of proficiency that allow us to interact with the popular culture of communities across the nation.

Another fracture that is apparent regarding Pakistani identity is connection to the physical land and residence within the country. Often resident Pakistanis dismiss those of us who live abroad as being unauthentic “sell-outs” and somehow lesser citizens. Yet in a world of structural inequality, diaspora communities are a seminal way of development. Consider the citizens of Lebanon — 70 per cent of whom reside outside their country but share a passion for their homeland. No doubt empathy and connection are important and getting a good dose of load shedding and local angst is often needed for an expatriate’s reality check. However, we should not question each other’s commitment and sincerity in this regard.

Perhaps the most potent fracture in Pakistan’s identity crisis remains religion. Pakistan, Israel, and East Timor are the only three countries to have been formed in modern times on the primary basis of religious nationalism. This is where we need to exert the most effort in peace-building. Such action does not mean we disparage religion, but rather that embrace a more pluralistic understanding of our dominant faith.

Going back to Gauguin’s painting, we should move beyond his first two questions and spend more time in considering his third question: Where are we going? Let’s quell the cynicism, sarcasm and innuendo and work on clear solutions for the problems that will define the future of Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd, 2010.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (26)

  • Sep 2, 2010 - 1:00PM

    Very well written. Extremely cogent argumentation, and a potent structure overall.
    Not only do we need to define the future of Pakistan, but also identify Pakistan’s present, and resolve on what our identity is to be in the future as well.
    Please keep on writing, Mr. Ali! :)Recommend

  • AS Helium Pvt Ltd
    Sep 2, 2010 - 3:07PM

    incorrect analysis in my opinionRecommend

  • Sairah
    Sep 2, 2010 - 4:30PM

    Interesting analysis and attempt at diplomacy! I have often wondered if the concept behind Pakistan’s creation was flawed. If the country was created to provide the muslim population with freedom and justice then its highly ironical that we lack that more so than India. However, pondering of such nature seem to be prohibited and I would blame the patriotism and nationlism and for it. And by no means does this probbing mean that you lack empathy for the fellow citizens and that I would rejoice in the countries miseries.
    I agree that the thinking voices of the country are not accesible to the masses because of the language and that is something we as a country need to work on but saying there is an overwhelming tendency in Pakistanis to take things literally, where we all become defensive and want to know before understanding any discussion or taking part in any whether you are with us or against us.Recommend

  • Mawali
    Sep 2, 2010 - 4:56PM

    See with due respect you question sounds sort of disingenuous! Then your argument “This is where we need to exert the most effort in peace-building. Such action does not mean we disparage religion, but rather that embrace a more pluralistic understanding of our dominant faith.”

    Are you then implying that Pakistani’s don’t disparage their own religion as in sectarian strife or are you saying that we shy away from disparaging religion period? In the process we can (as we do now) continue to disparage other religious ideologies? Not sure!

    Do you sincerely believe that in this quest lies Pakistan’s nirvana? So then the end all would be to achieve some sort of religious harmony within or outside Islam? Would other religions be fair play or they are inclusive of this argument?

    Consider this if you will. Can we after 62 years of existence perhaps come to some sort of reconciliation for reasons of sanity and this constant tug with religion based identity crises that has plagued Pakistanis ridiculous and that the very idea of forming a nation based on religion was a flawed argument?

    Muslims of greater India never in their immediate life time (at least the last thousand years) had the pleasure of being subservient to the Hindu majority. On what basis then could they claim religious bigotry and present this two nation idea that in my opinion died a violent death in 1971 and continues to haunt with the more than equal number of peaceful Indian Muslims who did not subscribe to this nonsense. While India sought freedom from the British, Pakistan on the other hand sough freedom from India based on “future inequities”. All at the same time; Ironic isn’t it?

    So then we say what is done so be it. Move on and get going with what you have. Wouldn’t it be better for Pakistan as a nation to find more realistic cohesive forces such as economic independence for all its citizens Hindu, Christian, Shia, Sunni , Qadiani, Ismaili, Zoroastrian and God knows who else I am forgetting here.

    The point being my good man; religion even though Islam is an ever binding religion, and would never bring cohesion and a spirit of co-existence. An idle mind regardless of which faith it subscribes to is still just that! Capeesh!Recommend

  • Wayne
    Sep 2, 2010 - 5:34PM

    Nicely written, but, East Timor, or more correctly Timor-Leste, was NOT formed on the primary basis of religious nationalism. Timor-Leste is a secular country, I have lived here for more than 10 years now and I can say that I have never seen any form of religious nationalism. Does the writer mean that Timor-Leste is a Catholic country, Indonesia is Muslim, therefore Timor-Leste craved independence because of this? I don’t think it did.
    If you were to come to Timor-Leste now you would see that the majority of people are actually animist, with a leaning towards Catholocism. Timor-Leste sought, and won, independence on humanitarian and nationalist values, not religion.


  • Wayne
    Sep 2, 2010 - 5:36PM

    I forgot to mention that Eid-el-Fitre (spelling?) is actually a public holiday in Timor-Leste.


  • Sep 2, 2010 - 7:05PM

    @Wayne, East Timor’s nationalism was definitely around religion — more than 90% of the country is censused as Catholic Christian. Of course in all such areas indigenous religions flavor the discourse. The presecution of the East Timorese was for religious reasons and their nationalism was too.Recommend

  • hakeem
    Sep 2, 2010 - 8:40PM

    but in the first place why try to be daddy telling kids what opinion is right and wht is’nt…Pakistan is not a state its an idelogy that beats with our hearts but mind it this ideology is not Islam of a Mullah(Mullah as popularly known)Recommend

  • Talat Haque
    Sep 2, 2010 - 9:09PM

    reference to Animal Farm by Orwell …………… some clever pigs are doing the thinking and the rest of the dumb animals are doing the following ………… nothing is going to alter if that doesn’t alter.Recommend

  • ahmed
    Sep 2, 2010 - 9:21PM

    Their is great depth in your words.Recommend

  • Jawad
    Sep 2, 2010 - 9:31PM

    Dear Sir,

    What lies ahead for Pakistan then? Pessimism in Pakistan and among expatriate Pakistanis. Would you not say that Pakistan was meant to be a nation where the Muslims could prosper and not be disadvantaged, where they could find equality and justice and where its minorities could live peacefully as equal citizens. Each citizen free to practice his faith.

    At least that is what I imagine, our founding father, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah envisioned.

    What happened is the reverse. Instead of being a country for Muslims with an open minded society, we see a closed society where a intolerant and backward form of Islam is enforced, feudalism is still present, the military dominates the nation and there is still prejudice/inequality biased based on ethnic identity, provincial identity, kinship and gender. We see hatred and all kinds of intolerance, be it sectarian, against women, against other minorities, ethnic or linguistic.

    The reason behind the events of 1971 and what is happening today are listed above. After the creation of Pakistan, what Jinnah envisioned for Pakistan was not implemented by its leaders.

    I live in Europe and like you said, most nations or nationalism is based on language. A common language often binds people and I see that very clearly in Europe. Linguistic identity is a strong part of linguistic identity.

    In Pakistan unfortunately there is no one dominant language or a national language in which all its citizens can communicate in.

    It was suppose to be Urdu but for many Pakistanis its not their mother tongue and for the English educated / expats, it is a language they find hard to communicate in. The reverse is true as well, many Urdu speakers find communicating in English hard. Like you correctly state, Pakistan lacks the culture of bilingualism. The state of the education system, the overt use of Roman Urdu and the fact that Urdu language was not developed or encouraged sufficiently enough.

    As a Pakistani who has lived in Switzerland and now living in Hungary but not lived more than six months in Pakistan. I can only think of the model implemented here in Europe.

    A country where the education system is fully functional and excellence in education is encouraged. All citizens can expect justice and equality. Meritocracy is encouraged, the democratic system is functional and borders are open and there is peaceful political, cultural, sportive and economic relations with all its neighbors.

    Why is it reality in Europe and its considered wishful thinking not only in Pakistan but the rest of the Indian subcontinent and most of the Muslim world?Recommend

  • salman
    Sep 2, 2010 - 10:31PM

    we have taken so many things for granted since the birth of this nation and never really thought who we are where we came from and where we are going. what values and qualities are required for us to stand in the ranks of nations and to be proud of our nation. we have done nothing. we have not devleoped our country and our citizens.(60 percent of the budget is spent on the army) there has never been a plan for the improvement of the lives of the 180 million people. there is a huge moral degradation in people.if u dont plan u plan to fail.thats what is happening.thats why are called failed stated because we dont have a plan. we dont have people who can make the plans and implement.thats the dilemma of pakistan.as far as the commitment and sincerity of the people living abroad is concerned it has to be questioned at the end of the day it will not be asked what your nation has done for you but what you have done for your nation. Recommend

  • Mamoon Yunus
    Sep 2, 2010 - 11:40PM

    Great article Saleem. I especially appreciate the following points:

    Nationalism indeed is synthetic: This is apparent to those who have lived in diverse geographies and cultures.
    Communication breaks down unnatural barriers: At a certain level, communication is independent of language. For scientist, mathematicians and technologist this is even more obvious at international conferences.
    Language as a fracturing factor: The number of books translated into Spanish by Spain per year exceeds the number of books translated into Arabic since 9 A.D. I wonder how many books get translated into Pashto, Sindhi, Punjabi, etc. and how this language chasm will only widen.
    Religion: I will restrict my comments on this point and only point to multiple surveys that show secular nations rank highest on the “happiness scale.” Glen Beck may dispute these surveys and propose that national happiness lies in turning back to “God.”

    Good luck and keep writing.Recommend

  • saher
    Sep 2, 2010 - 11:51PM

    i like… :)..Recommend

  • Jo
    Sep 3, 2010 - 1:07AM

    Professor Saleem,

    This is not to present you with a counter argument. Simply to correct what you said about Timor-Leste. Because as an academic, I think it is important that you present the correct facts to base your arguments on. Mr. Wayne is right, we did not fight because of religion.
    Prior to Indonesian invasion of our country in 1975, the majority of Timorese population professed animism. Catholic was a minority. When Indonesia annexed the territory, it applied its laws, including ones which obliged people to believe in God, to have a religion. So the easiest choice was was Catholic. So soon, many Timorese became Catholic.
    However, during the struggle for independence and after independence, religion has never been a major issue of contention. As Wayne pointed out, holidays of major religions in the world are observed in Timor-Leste as public holidays, Including Eid-el-Fitr, regardless of the number of followers. And just to point out, our first Prime-Minister after the restoration of independence, Mr. Mari Alkatiri, is a Muslim.
    It is a pity you have never been to Timor-Leste (I noticed), so you cannot see it for yourself.
    All the best,


  • Humanity
    Sep 3, 2010 - 1:35AM

    Thank for the balanced arguments. I hope that people will open up to allow reason and sanity to prevail.

    p.s: My niece is fortunate to be under the tutelage of an esteemed scholar and a wise mentor. God bless you!Recommend

  • Sameer
    Sep 3, 2010 - 3:21AM

    Of all the reasons that justify the creation of Pakistan, the one I kind of like is that Pakistan was formed because Jinnah and his followers did not trust the Hindus to provide good and fair governance to Muslims. Being in majority, Hindus would have had greater representation in a single-nation, more influence on laws and policies, and Muslims would continue to be downtrodden the way they actually are in India now, even though their population exceeds the total population of some Muslim countries. And what happened next…Jinnah died…without a succession plan. We were left with some left-overs from his aides, and soon thereafter, we started killing them, and bringing people like Z A Bhutto to power. After Z A Bhutto, we hardly ever had to choose a leader or government. Some very creative minds identified politics as the biggest money making industry in Pakistan. Bye-bye 22 families, hello professional politicians! Come take over our parliament, become our representatives, oh you are a big crook please become our President. At the end of the day, we re-created Jinnah’s Pakistan as a place where Muslims could govern themselves without any checks and balances, zero accountability, total corruption, and use this country like an inherited estate of a father we didn’t care about, squandering its resources, breaking it into pieces and selling it off to countries who wanted some land and useless, undervalued soldiers to fight their wars.

    So in answer to your question – Who is a Pakistani? – a Pakistani is a citizen of Pakistan, or offspring of Pakistani parents, who has stood by and let Pakistan fall to pieces while living in Pakistan or overseas. A Pakistani is a shameless, apathetic, beghairat and munaafiq Muslim who has usurped the right of other Muslims through corruption, violence, and sheer brute force in a worse manner than any Hindu or Christian or Jew could have ever accomplished. A Pakistani is someone who should be living in shame for spending more time planning an exit from Pakistan than thinking about investing, living, and dying in Pakistan. All our political leaders are excellent Pakistanis. All our military generals are excellent Pakistanis. They have no language, religion, or geographic barriers. They can live abroad and run political parties and campaigns. They can return any time and assume political office. These are the real Pakistanis.

    As for the rest of us, we’re just here for the ride!! Recommend

  • Ken Westmoreland
    Sep 3, 2010 - 9:33AM


    Further to Wayne and Jo’s comments, I have not only been to East Timor, but I have also been to West Timor, which is part of Indonesia, but which is also overwhelmingly Christian, as are neighbouring islands such as Flores and Sumba. If you see a woman with her head covered, it is more likely that she will be a Catholic nun wearing a habit than a Muslim wearing a hijab. In none of these islands has there been any agitation for independence.

    By contrast, there was until recently a strong movement for independence in Aceh, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, and has implemented Sharia law. If the Acehnese wanted independence, it was not because they did not regard Indonesia as being Islamic enough! Despite having the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia is not an Islamic state. While a requirement of the Pancasila (state philosophy) is that all citizens must believe in God, that can be a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic or Protestant God.

    It should also be remembered that one of the proponents of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor was the late General Benny Murdani, a practising Catholic, as were many senior Indonesian military officers serving there, not to mention the large numbers of transmigrants from Java and Sulawesi. In fact, Indonesia would point out how many more churches had been built since East Timor’s ‘integration’ than during four centuries of Portuguese rule.

    It is fashionable for some commentators to regard East Timor’s independence as part of a plot by Crusaders to dismember predominantly non-Christian countries, but it is at best simplistic, and at worst a cheap shot. Recommend

  • Ken Westmoreland
    Sep 3, 2010 - 9:40AM

    Correction: “it was because they did not regard Indonesia as being Islamic enough! Recommend

  • Shemrez Nauman Afzal
    Sep 3, 2010 - 3:40PM

    The comments stream keeps getting better and better. Apologies to the author for not recognizing his academic capacity and professorial position, Sir.
    While adequate clarifications have been made (quite aggressively) with regards to the mention of East Timor (Timor-Leste), I believe that one should not digress on a complete tangent because of a singular mention, since the overall context of the article (identity, nationalist politics and religion in the 21st century, esp. post-colonial Asia) relates to an “existential conflict” which is premised on the Sialkot lynching (of course its a tragedy, but lets call a spade a spade).
    Instead of uniting Pakistan and bringing its people together, the uniqueness and character of each Pakistani – whether on the basis of religion, or association, or language, or whatever societal measure you would have – has further divided Pakistan. Not appreciating this diversity (and the unity in diversity) has led to subnationalism in 1971. But Professor Ali is right in one thing; besides all these social analyses and observational studies, there must be “work on clear solutions for the problems that will define the future of Pakistan”. Could not have been put better.
    @Mawali: I dont think it would be useful to respond being seeing your regressive pattern of argument, it will be easy to get caught in a downward spiral of refutation and counter-refutation. Religion has its pro’s and con’s, Muslims aren’t better off in Pakistan but ask a Muslim in Hyderabad state if he feels awesome enough, Pakistan and India can both crib about each other but also learn from each other. The choices aren’t made by the governments; they’re made by the people, who form and experience the “perceptions” we hear ever so often.Recommend

  • Humanity
    Sep 4, 2010 - 1:29AM


    Powerful stuff! It would be great to channel the anger and frustration into a productive endeavor. Let the change begin with you, one conversation and one action at a time. To find courage to change the mindset for introspection, is a nice place to start. It needs to become a national exercise for the well being of the state.

    Trust me, I am not being condescending. You give hope. It is an attitude like yours that is likely to turn the tide. You acknowledge the huge problem and seem to also comprehend the underlying causes.

    You sound young. There are many young people who feel the way you do. Unite into a peaceful force to turn the the multitude of diverse identities that make Pakistan, its asset rather than a basis of division. Give every citizen a sense of belonging. Elevate the ideal of humanity above all identities. You did not mention clergy in your list of Pakistanis. Containing the hatred being bred by the clergy would be among the first steps to take. Good luck. God speed!Recommend

  • Muneeb
    Sep 4, 2010 - 4:10AM

    Can we please stop this debate about East Timor or Timor Leste and whatever else. Jeez, it’s like reading East Timor’s history when all we are trying to do is understand what a Pakistani is!!!Recommend

  • Sep 4, 2010 - 9:18AM

    Thanks for all the insightful comments. I give the last word on Timor to the experts who commented. My point was simply to mention the paucity of religion-nationalistic states and so East Timor’s creation was not religion-based so be it — just furthers the point being made. I’ll hopefully revisit the topic of Pakistani identity in some future articles as well.Recommend

  • Dr. Faiz Shah
    Sep 16, 2010 - 4:38AM

    So its settled. Only Israel and Pakistan can claim to being faith-inspired states. And having been in both, perhaps Professor Ali may wish to explore Gauguin’s question, using the same language-diaspora-religion lens, through a comparison of the two?Recommend

  • Jerry Olson
    Oct 21, 2010 - 11:04PM

    One thing I like to correct ,Most of the readers here are talking about ” Vision of Jinnah ” for Pakistan.

    Well ,Leaders are human after all ,Aren’t they?

    It is not TRUTH WRITTEN in VISION. He may ba right or completly wrong in his Vision of Pakistan.

    It is subsequnt generation they have to interpret his vision with current sociopolitical scenario.

    Leader are as good as current leaf on SPRING. As Fall comes they have to go and In next spring new Leaf will come in place to make a complet tree.

    By following Leader of Past generation you are not doing justice to yourself or a country.


  • Shemrez Nauman Afzal
    Oct 26, 2010 - 4:53PM

    Dear Jerry
    Please don’t say anything about the Quaid e Azam? Pwease? Pwetty pwease?
    Some Pakistanis still cherish their historical legacy and the leaders of the past who have done the impossible. In fact, before 1940 the only people who had a vision of Pakistan were commonly believed to be mad men in the political context of colonial-era British India.
    Today, there are more than 20 crore Pakistanis (200 million?) living in this part of the world, on top of which there is a huuge and vibrant diaspora in the US, the UK, and all over the world.
    Surely they weren’t mad, and surely if we follow their examples today, we won’t be mad.
    Of course, I do not advocate wearing monocles again (even though I find them really cool and retro).
    You are more than welcome to forget your “leaders of past generations”, but historically speaking, your comment is also a thing of the past. As are these thoughts of mine.
    Instead of having a static mindset, one should rather be dynamic and see how the past can be taken towards the future, with compromises and modifications, with additions and subtractions, of course.
    Because if the current sociopolitical scenario is really as dynamic as you assume it to be, then tomorrow I will be Jerry and you will be Shemrez.
    You’re Welcome.Recommend

More in Opinion