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The crisis of Muslim Nationalism in Pakistan

By: Nadeem F. Paracha

The roots of Muslim and Hindu nationalism in the region largely lie in the immediate aftermath of the failure of 1857 mutiny against British rule. And it is from this point one can trace the evolution of Muslim nationalism in pre-partition India and then in Pakistan. It mushroomed and produced various branches which eventually began to compete against each other.

By the 1940s there were clearly three distinct tendencies within Muslim nationalism. The first one was about the creation of a distinct Muslim polity in India empowered by reason, modernity and an enterprising disposition aspiring to free the Muslim minority of India from the ‘economic and political hegemony of the Hindu majority.’ The second tendency wanted to couple an empowered Muslim polity with the Indian nationalism being espoused by the secular (but Hindu-majority) Indian National Congress. The third tendency of Muslim nationalism in India had a more theocratic outlook. It wanted to construct a Muslim nation directly driven by sharia laws.

This tendency had two factions. The larger faction wanted to work towards creating such a nation within the India federation. The other faction emerged in 1946 and sided with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s All India Muslim League (AIML) in the hope that the separate Muslim-majority country (Pakistan) which the AIML was working towards would become an ‘Islamic state.’

From 1947 till the mid-1970s, this latter, more theocratic faction was sidelined and marginalized in Pakistan by the Modernist Muslim project. This project which celebrated the rational and pragmatic interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts and a modern and enterprising economic and political Muslim mindset, was first pioneered by the likes of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in the 19th century, then further evolved by poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal, and finally adopted by Jinnah and his party.


Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the pioneer of Muslim Modernism in India.


Poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal further evolved the idea of Muslim Modernism by adding a political dimension to it.


Muhammad Ali Jinnah mobilized Sir Syed’s and Iqbal’s ideas into a populist movement which gave birth to Pakistan.


However, after the acrimonious departure of East Pakistan in 1971, the Modernist Muslim project began to erode and was gradually replaced by a new ideological project that was close to the idea of Muslim nationalism of the third (more theocratic) tendency. This created an opening for the once relegated line of thinking to enter the country’s evolving ideological cannon. By the 1980s, the new project managed to completely overpower the Modernist tendency. But today, this project too is in crisis. Whereas the Modernist tendency was accused of being burdened by ‘colonial baggage’ and for causing the violent 1971 parting of East Pakistan, the theocratic tendency of Muslim nationalism that replaced it is increasingly being indicted for creating a myopic, isolationist and bigoted polity and state.

The post-1970s state and society in Pakistan have politically, socially and even constitutionally entrapped themselves into becoming hapless victims of this tendency’s many devices. This has made the state and society vulnerable to constantly become hostages of exactly the line of thinking which had initially opposed Jinnah and his party’s Modernist ideas of Islam and Pakistan. The manner in which extremist violence raged across the country between 2003 and 2015, climaxing with the tragic killing of over 140 children of a school in Peshawar in December 2014, the defeatist slumber that the country’s government, state and society had fallen into was suddenly broken. The debate as to what being a Pakistani really meant once again migrated from drawing rooms onto the mainstream media and political, judicial and state platforms.

The question now being asked is, if Muslim Modernism was ‘elitist’ and did not resonate with the masses; and that the more theocratic tendency of Muslim/Pakistani nationalism has produced stark religious and sectarian schisms and various incidents of outright bigotry (from bellow as well as the top); what are we to become now as Pakistanis – a country molded as a state different from the ‘Hindu-majority’ India? The state and the government of Pakistan listed down numerous to-do’s to rheostat the spread of religious extremism in society. In January 2015 it made this list part of a National Action Plan (NAP). Much was done to militarily neutralize the more belligerent and militant elements of extremism, but the government, the state and reformers have often hit a brick-wall in trying to reverse various non-militant manifestations of the same extremist mindset.

Many aspects of Pakistan’s Modernist Muslim project did not make it to the two constitutions that were authored when this project was enjoying direct state patronage. These were the 1956 and 1962 constitutions which only had some watered-down facets of Muslim Modernism in them because much of the policies shaped by the Modernist tendency of Muslim nationalism were carried forward by non-parliamentary means i.e. either through special judicial rulings or through ordinances issued by a military regime (Ayub Khan [1958-69]. Once this regime fell, the Modernist tendency fell away as well because much of it was not made a direct part of the constitution. When the Modernist tendency began to recede, a populist socialist government (ZA Bhutto [1971-77]) tried to find an equilibrium in the 1973 constitution between the ascending theocratic tendency and this government’s own (more left-leaning and populist) take on Muslim Modernism. Initially the 1973 constitution seemed to be a balanced document searching to draw out a civic-nationalist dimension through a new Modernist-theocratic-fusion. But within a year, regressive amendments to the constitution began to be introduced as the polity and the government shifted more to the right due to various internal and external reasons.


Ayub Khan turned Muslim Modernism into an important plank of Pakistani nationalism.


ZA Bhutto gave a ‘socialist’ twist to Muslim Modernism but soon abandoned the project due various internal and external shifts.

The reason why the theocratic tendency of Muslim nationalism lasted longer than the Modernist one is because many of its aspects continued to find their way into the constitution, especially during the Gen. Zia dictatorship. So much so, that by the late 1980s, the 1973 constitution had almost entirely lost its civic-nationalist dimension. This dimension was subdued by law after law and clause after clause of a state that had become a vague theocracy. And here lies the problem. Indeed, physical barriers (such as armed extremist groups) as blockers of reform are there, but even when most of them are neutralized (as they were between 2014 and 2017) the suggested or legislated reforms in this context can very easily be challenged in the courts in the light of what is stated in the constitution as it stands today.

Zia oversaw the complete erosion of Muslim Modernism and its replacement.


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The quest to reinvigorate Muslim Modernism in Pakistan and the curious role of China

Where does Pakistan go from here? Theoretically it should be stuck in a vicious Catch-22 situation. And it has been for well over two decades now. So what good can the new debate which has broken out, and documents such as NAP, likely to achieve in this situation? The country is in a flux where the state, government, judiciary, intelligentsia and polity are looking at each other for answers. The answers are emerging but constantly being challenged in the courts and in the parliament and sometimes on the streets by those segments within the state, parliament, judiciary and polity whose economic and political fortunes have thrived within and due to the political and economic dynamics of the theocratic tendency of Muslim nationalism. Why would they want to see it replaced? That said, these elements are now feeling unsure whether this could be sustained for long. One reason for this is something called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

CPEC is a collection of infrastructure projects worth $62 billion. The project is one of China’s biggest investments in the region. Even though some economists and politicians have aired their reservations on the way the project is being planned, others have exhibited great enthusiasm for it. They maintain that in the coming decades, CPEC will greatly modernize Pakistan’s infrastructure and bolster the country’s economy in an unprecedented manner. But what has all this to do with the raging battles between the two prominent tendencies of Muslim nationalism in Pakistan? Maybe a lot.

The state, government and people of Pakistan have become aware of a most recent hypothesis which is predicting the rise of China as a leading superpower which is on the verge of overshadowing the US. This is at least one narrative doing the rounds in Pakistan, a country that has been a US ally and recipient of aid worth billions of dollars from 1959 onwards. But Pak-US relations have been rather strenuous for the past ten years or so and anti-Americanism in Pakistan has greatly increased ever since the late 1990s. Also, ironically, since the Pak-US relations were formed and strengthened during the Cold War, the US aid and political support largely went to non-democratic (but anti-Soviet) governments and/or to Islamic outfits and elements who were anti-communism/socialism. So one can suggest that democratic US played a major role in propping up ideological and physical elements in Pakistan which morphed into becoming forces that turned against the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Pakistan is now at the epicenter of China’s economic influence and growth in the region. China has positively recognized and responded to the many pecuniary openings available in a growing economy such as Pakistan, despite the fact that these opportunities are often overshadowed in local and international media by the fact of Pakistan being politically unstable. CPEC is the result of China’s pursuit to utilize untapped investment opportunities available in Pakistan. China believes that the economic outcome of this investment would have a positive impact on Pakistan’s economy, which, in turn, would result in political stability.


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Theoretically this makes sense. And if one is to further stretch this theory, the economic progress and the resultant political stability would attract investors from other countries as well. Now the question is, is the existing social milieu of the country or the cultural ethos prevalent in Pakistan for the past three decades conducive to address the needs of such visitors? Let’s look at it this way: CPEC produces good results and Pakistan’s economy begins to grow. The economic growth stabilizes the country’s volatile political scenario. The stability begins to showcase the economic opportunities that had once been obscured by instability. More and more investors from other countries become interested in investing in Pakistan.

Consequently, the government and state of Pakistan will have to initiate some drastic shifts and changes in the prevailing cultural milieu and political ethos. Ideally, economic progress also boosts the tourist industry, which, though influenced by business tourism, eventually becomes the benchmark that foreign investors use to gauge a country’s economic feasibility. For the past 30 years or so, the country’s cultural ambiance has become stifling. So, what will a tourist do here? Not all of them are likely to be mountain-climbers in awe of the country’s magnificent peaks. These problems will have to be resolved if the country is to continue being seen as a possible economic hub. Especially if that country does not have vast oil reserves like, say, Saudi Arabia – a rich puritanical state but one which too is now attempting to do away with much of its ideological baggage.

So let’s say in the next 10 years or so, CPEC empowers Pakistan’s economic growth, which triggers political stability which then attracts more foreign investors. This then creates a healthy image and perception of Pakistan. Such a scenario will require a shift in the way Pakistanis see themselves as a nation. To begin with, they will have to bury the following cliché: ‘Pakistan is a conservative society.’ For years this cliché has been recycled by intellectually lazy academics and commentators and also by the somewhat timid mindset of the Pakistani leadership which emerged after the collapse of the Modernist tendency of Muslim nationalism.

Pakistan is not a conservative society. It is not a bastion of liberalism either. Its strength lies in a historically inherent moderate disposition, which, whenever it was given the space to assert itself, exhibited a remarkable aptitude to tolerate a rather fruitful co-existence between conservatism and certain more permissive ideas. It was the first Muslim-majority country to elect a female prime minister. Twice. It is one of the oldest democracies in the Muslim world. And before the 1980s, it was an entirely moderate society where mosques and Sufi shrines thrived and so did cinemas, nightclubs and other vibrant recreational vistas. On most occasions both were at peace with each other, just as they still are in Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, and, to a certain extent, Egypt.

Unfortunately, some political outfits and eventually the state began to explain economic discrepancies between classes as something to do with the society’s and the rulers’ ‘permissive’ attitude. It was a convenient excuse which then became a cynical political ploy. Ever since the late 1970s, the state and governments concocted and proliferated a simplistic narrative to deflect criticism on economic issues from themselves and towards abstract notions of ‘obscenity’, ‘immorality’, ‘impiety’, etc.

For over 30 years, from the day Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah announced the creation of a Muslim-majority state, till the 1970s, Pakistanis were largely a nation of robust and enterprising moderates, or the historical and contemporary extensions of the pragmatic Modernist Muslim ethos.

But almost 40 years after the state began churning out a rather reactionary ideological narrative to explain away certain awkward economic and political issues, the country was turned on its head.


What’s more, what was once a rather reactionary project of the state has become a project of the society. That is why now, even when the state wants to alter its course in this context, it is finding it tough going. Indeed, it has realized that CPEC promises change. But it is also realizing that to fully benefit from such a change, the overall disposition of Pakistan’s polity needs to change as well. The following is what the thinking now is: The idea of outmaneuvering arch-rival India through the economic benefits being promised by CPEC just might create an opening (and collective willingness) for various new laws and amendments in the constitution to seep in. Changes that would undo the laws that many believe are actually providing legal cover to those forces that have become impediments for a nation that should now be moving forward as a democratic, modern Muslim-majority country driven by a dynamic civic-nationalism in its existentialist narrative. According to the classical Muslim Modernist narrative, this civic-nationalism is inherent in the Islam that Pakistan’s founders were initially inspired by. But it is a Modernism which even the most powerful instruments of the state are struggling to restore because (as a response) this tendency’s opposite tendency is now even willing to declare it as ‘anti-Islamic,’ if not entirely secular.


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