Making sense of Pakistan: Imagining Pakistan sans the religious fixation

Published: December 8, 2010
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Farzana Shaikh discusses her book; says Pakistan’s fixation with religion denies it plurality. PHOTO: EPA

Farzana Shaikh discusses her book; says Pakistan’s fixation with religion denies it plurality. PHOTO: EPA

LONDON: Since Islam played a critical role in the country’s creation, Pakistanis have struggled to find a consensus on the meaning and role of Islam in the country, observed Dr Farzana Shaikh, author of the book “Making Sense of Pakistan,” while speaking about it. This fundamental dilemma has had significant political, economic and strategic implications within and beyond Pakistan, Shaikh added.

Shaikh directs the Pakistan Study Group at Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank based in London. Her book was published in the US and UK last year.

“Many people have argued that Islam had little to do with Pakistan’s creation and that actually the emerging Muslim middle class in India used religion as a ploy to justify its demands for separate statehood,” she said.

In her opinion while this argument has merit, the idea of Pakistan being a “safe haven” for Islam in India was impossible to ignore.

However, the multiple meanings that were historically attached to “Islam” among Muslims in South Asia, all left their mark on Pakistan where, “after the country’s independence, they re-emerged as part of a debate on national identity,” according to Shaikh.

She said the ideological confusion that is at the heart of Pakistan has eroded the foundations of a pluralist society and prevented Pakistanis from having a stable constitutional settlement.

Shaikh said Pakistanis have constructed a negative identity, one that is based on opposition to India. Since there is no consensus over what Pakistanis stand for, the national identity came to be defined by the country’s rivalry with India. “This has meant that the military emerged as the dominant state institution and the key arbiter of Pakistan’s national identity,” she said.

She believes the military’s days of pre-eminence could be coming to an end since being “anti-India is no longer acceptable to the international community.”

In its effort to find an alternative narrative, the military has framed the war against militancy as one against those who aren’t really Muslims, she said, adding that such framing “throws up the whole debate of who is or is not a real or good Muslim.”

The fact that the equation between being a Pakistani and being a Muslim has not been resolved has taken a terrible toll on Pakistan, she said.

She believes Kashmir to be a stumbling block that needs to be settled for Pakistan to move forward. “It has had a damaging effect on Pakistan’s national life by giving the military national dominance,” she said.

It will take time, she believes, for civilian institutions to develop the kind of muscle required to stand up to a military that has jealously guarded the prerogative of deciding our national interests for a long time.

“For the time being, the US needs Pakistan’s military to fight its war but one day the war will end and if Pakistan’s civilian institutions are allowed to continue, however fault-ridden they may be, there should in time be a slight shift in the balance of power in Pakistan,“ she said.

Discussing the future, Shaikh said the country needs a new constitutional settlement which would recognise Pakistan’s Muslim character but deny Muslims the political pre-eminence they have come to expect at the expense of non-Muslims.

“It’s not asking very much. Most people in Pakistan just want to be left alone to practice their Islam,” she contended.

Dr Farzana Shaikh is planning a new book on Pakistan in which she hopes to raise serious questions about the new agenda being promoted by the present government, aided and abetted by the US, that somehow sufism is the ‘right’ kind of Islam for Pakistan.

“As long as we are locked in this question of Islam in Pakistan and are unable to break free from it constitutionally and politically, we are doomed,” she warned.

Asked if there will be a Pakistani edition of her book, Shaikh said the Oxford University Press had agreed to publish it early next year, but suddenly decided against it.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • khan
    Dec 8, 2010 - 3:01PM

    You say: “In her opinion while this argument has merit, the idea of Pakistan being a “safe haven” for Islam in India was impossible to ignore”.

    Not so. Mr Jinnah wanted to have autonomous provinces within an Indian Federation – Bengal, Punjab, Kashmir, NWFP, and Sind with their Muslim population majorities would provide safe haven for Muslims from other parts of the federation.

    The idea of an independent Pakistan was used as a bargaining chip to force Congress to accept the federation. Nehru and Patel shot down Mr Jinnah’s plans, who then had little choice but to opt for what he himself called a ‘truncated and moth-eaten’ state.

    In a nutshell it was all about Muslims and obtaining their cultural and economic freedoms from Hindu dominance.

    Religion never came into it (though undoubtedly religious ‘naras’ were used to as a propaganda weapon to enthuse people). Recommend

  • ritu
    Dec 8, 2010 - 4:43PM

    “Oxford University Press had agreed to publish it early next year, but suddenly decided against it.”

    …..no body want fatwahRecommend

  • Dec 9, 2010 - 1:53PM

    Sensible thinking at last. Likewise, we in india do not want a HINDU rashtra.

    Also, i believe Mr. Jinnah was offered the prime-minister-ship of a united India after Mr. Nehru and others threw in the towel after a scolding from MK Gandhi. Why was it refused and under what circumstances is to be debated. The partition has created lots of problems for the erstwhile united india and it’s neighbours. Muslims in India would have been much better off without the partition and India too would have been even a more pluralistic a country than it is now. Recommend

  • alka
    Dec 9, 2010 - 6:27PM

    Khan thinks it was ‘Hindu dominance’ that the Muslims wanted freedom from. Did he forget Muslims ruled Indian Hindus for centuries, destroyed Hindu temples and built mosques in it’s place, destroyed Hindu scriptures, forced public to convert to their religion and made Hindus pay for being able to practice their religion. There were some good ‘Badshahs’ but most of them anti Hindu. India does not want to be a Hindu only state but it also does not want other religions to exploit and terrorise Hindus either. Recommend

  • Adv.Alby Raymond Parackal
    Dec 9, 2010 - 6:28PM

    Dr.Farsana Shaikh has well commented on the present position of Pakistan.She might be true in her view that nourishing and flourishing of democratic civil society in Pakistan depends much on the inevitable change of saddle shift from military to democratic institutions, through correctly understanding proper ideology for the nation quite independent and built on positive notes, giving up all the negatives, hitherto followed for some reason or other.Her views seems to be thought provoking.It is more so, in the context of the victims of calamities, natural or otherwise.Recommend

  • Dec 9, 2010 - 8:16PM

    I am amazed if any pakistani is thinging genuinely, instead of hating India and praising pakistan.Human thoughts are a GIFT OF GOD. Hate thoughts are a termite which is eating pakistan from inside this hate of india has created so many so kalled terrorist /religious warrier classes in pakistan. these are a problem for mankind, for the world & for pakistan as well.Pakistan cannot run away from it . every body knows how to get rid of termite.Think well of everybody ”Nanak nam chardi kala tere bhane sarbat da bhala”.Recommend

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