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Religion And Nationalism: A Destructive Amalgam?

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The realm of theory on nationalism has predominantly been replete with scholarly contributions which do not regard religion as an important factor in the explanation of nationalism. Instead, they focus primarily on other factors, like territory, economics, technology, linguistics, et cetera. I’m referring here to the pioneer theorists on the subject, like Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and Eric Hobsbawm, among others. These theorists’ ideas of nationalism, true to their European origin, have been intrinsically secular. However, the case of Pakistan and Israel, in both of whose creation religion played a pivotal role; the implosion of former, and rather pluralist, Yugoslavia into violently conflicting seceding states in the 1990s; and the on-going Hinduisation of India, have all proven that religion as a driver of nationalism is not an anomaly.

Keeping aside the swath of literature that overlooks the role of religion in the origins of nationhood, we also have contemporary, albeit scanty, contributions from scholars like Rogers Brubaker, who have critically looked at the notion of nationalism as a “distinctively secular phenomenon” and who have sought to dissect the intertwining of religion and nationalism. However, even this literature is inadequate in explaining the variegated contradictions which are innate to those nation-states whose nationalism has been influenced by religious factors.

Looking at empirical evidence, gleaned from the experiences of those states whose nationalist mobilisations have intersected with their religious mobilisations, we consistently see that the symbiosis of religion and nationalism gives rise to a kind of a state structure where constitutional contractions, predatory and interventionalist militaries, and complex identity compositions of the populace are extremely common. Such a state structure aids in majoritarianism and leads to the disfranchisement of the religious and ethnic minorities. Many countries, including Pakistan, Turkey, Israel and a few others in Eastern Europe seem to be embroiled with exactly these problems.

Among these, Pakistan is a vociferous exemplar of such a state. Created with a perfect intertwining of religion and nationalism, the country reifies all the above-mentioned contradictions. In the seventy years of its existence, these contradictions have made Pakistan’s political elite impotent to envisage a strong constitution, devise a way to keep extra-parliamentary forces away from politics, free the country from unbridled and sporadic romance with Islamisation, and to embrace and use the ethnic heterogeneity of the populace to its advantage rather than to marginalise and ghettoise them.

Keeping all of this in the backdrop, the latest attempt from the policymakers in the country to make Arabic compulsory from grade 1 to 5 is a cruel reminder of the old problem. Parvez Hoodbhoy, in his recent article for Dawn, has explained in length how this would yield nothing other than augmenting already prevalent malaises. From the controversial Tahaffuze Bunyade Islam bill passed last year by the PTI assembly members from Punjab, which almost became an act, to the compounded Islamic content of the Single National Curriculum (SNC), and the recent attempt to Arabise schoolchildren — all of these reflect contradictions left uncured in the national imagination of the state which intermittently makes it susceptible to use religion to provoke nationalist feelings for political advantages.

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