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Interview | ‘The Real Pakistani Identity Is Nothing Close To What The State Peddles’

Nadeem Farooq Paracha (NFP) is an author, historian, researcher, and social commentator whose take on everything related to Pakistani identity, from politics to pop culture, has always had a brutal honesty, objectivity, and a signature stinging satire. In this interview, NFP shares with Haroon Shuaib his thoughts on what it means to be a Pakistani among other things.

Q: Do you think there is a national Pakistani identity? If yes, what is it, and if no, why couldn’t the nation define a national identity in over eight decades?

NFP: National identities are not organic. They are carefully constructed over a period of decades. They are shaped, evolved, and, if need be, reshaped according to changing geopolitical considerations and realities. Take for example what happened in Pakistan after East Pakistan broke away in 1971. The Pakistani nationalist identity went through a rehaul. With the eastern wing gone, the history of the peoples along the Bay of Bengal stopped figuring in the overall narrative of Pakistani nationalism.

Suddenly, the focus turned even more towards the histories of the people living along the mighty River Indus. This stretch of land along the Indus, and its people of varied ethnic groups, but mostly Muslim, began to be explained as a nation that had existed for thousands of years and shared similar cultures. Therefore, this stretch began to be explained as the real Pakistan, as if the country’s erstwhile eastern wing had been an unnatural anomaly.

The state in Pakistan, like most nation-states, have initiated various projects to create a nationalism. But this was done without involving the polity through a democratic consensus. It was shaped by the state alone. This alienated religious outfits as well as secular ethnic entities such as the Sindhis, the Pakhtuns, the Baloch, and, of course, the Bengalis.

The state initially constructed a nationalism through what the anthropologist Talal Asad calls cultural separatism. The French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot explains this as a variation of secularism in which the church and the state are not separated. Instead, a faith’s theological aspects are separated and relegated to the private sphere and the religion’s political dimension is brought into the public sphere as an identity marker.

That’s why the founders of Pakistan were not very demonstrative about their religiosity. None of them went out of their way to be photographed saying their prayers or performing the hajj or umra. Theological and ritualistic dimensions of Islam were of little importance to them. They were more interested to flex Islam as a political identity maker that was opposed to what they believed was hegemonic Hindu majoritarianism.

This idea was evolved by the state of Pakistan between 1947 and 1971. It enthusiastically adopted various aspects of social and economic modernity but without compromising its Muslim character. But, as I mentioned earlier, all this was constructed without the active involvement of the people. By the end of the 1960s, the Bengali nationalists were rejecting it as an idea to keep the Punjabis in power. Sindhi nationalists rejected it as being antithetical to the idea of Islam espoused by the Sindhis, which, according to Sindhi nationalist scholars such as GM Syed and Ibrahim Joyo, was close to Sufi Islam that they had fused with left-leaning secular ideas.

The Pakhtun nationalists too saw the state’s ideas in this context as opposed to the religious traditions of the Pakhtun which men such as Bacha Khan had supplemented with secular Pakhtun nationalism and bits of socialism. The Baloch nationalists traded a similar path. On the other hand, the religious outfits that had been completely sidelined during the first twenty years of Pakistan, saw the state’s idea of nationalism as a betrayal of Islam.

After the 1971 loss of East Pakistan, influential historians such as IH Qureshi advocated a divorce with a vast past that Pakistan shared with India. He wanted Islam to play a larger role in defining the Pakistani national identity, and that a new link in this context should be made with Arabia. Gradually, the ZA Bhutto regime, largely secular and left-leaning, but facing a possibility or paranoia — however one wants to put it — of the further breakup of the country by non-Punjabi and non-Mohajir ethnic groups, gradually began to move in the direction purposed by men like Qureshi.

This project of transporting the country’s nationalist identity from South Asia to Arabia fully mushroomed in the 1980s, especially during the General Zia dictatorship. Yet, there were and still are issues in this regard. Indeed, the post-1971 project was somewhat successful in infiltrating, for example, secular Pakhtun nationalist circles and mutate many of its segments into becoming a militant Islamic expression. But this has actually created even bigger and much more violent problems for the state than secular Pakhtun nationalism. It was a self-inflicted wound. Secondly, how can one pull out Pakistan’s Muslim identity from the subcontinent and put it in the context of Arabian strands of Islam, when two of the largest Sunni Muslim sub-sects in Pakistan — Barelvi and Deobandi — were born in South Asia? They are entirely South Asian in character. Also, the 20 percent or so Shi’a community finds its roots in medieval Persia.

I believe there is a Pakistani identity but it is nothing close to what the state and its tools and many politicians have been peddling since 1971. In 1967, the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, explained Pakistani culture as a dynamic mixture of various influences that this region has been absorbing. To Faiz, Pakistani culture was a fusion of the influences of the country’s varied ethnic groups and of its many minority religious communities and of western modernity. To Faiz, if one sees Pakistan as a body, then Islam is a major part of this body, but not the whole body.

Very few know that in 1973 the Bhutto regime almost adopted Faiz’s 1967 explanation of Pakistani culture. But his paranoia towards ethnic nationalisms, and his regime’s growing interest to tap into the oil wealth of conservative Arab countries, made him go the other way.

Q: Why do you think in Pakistan we see a constant abrasion between the legacy culture and the adopted faith?

NFP: Legacy cultures are largely informed by ethnic or clan identities. Even when these cultures adopt a new faith, these faiths too are coloured by the traditions of these communities. In South Asia’s context, this gave birth to what is often called folk Islam. It did not have a core universal doctrine. The attempt to turn it into a cohesive whole through a Muslim nationalism was actually a modernist attempt. But the problems in this respect began when the time came to decide what strand of Islam was to be put at the centre of this constructed whole. Persian-centric, Arab-centric, Central Asian, Turk-centric? Each one of these had emerged with their own set of ideas according their own cultures and realities. South Asian Islam was clearly influenced by how the faith had evolved in Persia.

With the demise of Muslim rule in India, the fact that the Muslims were a minority in the region got magnified. As a response, Muslim thinkers and ulema rushed to explain Indian Muslims as part of the larger Muslim community, the so-called ummah. That’s why we saw the explosion of ideas such as pan-Islamism in the region. But at the same time, whereas certain strands of Islamic revivalism in India began to look towards Arabia, especially towards Wahhabism and Salafism, ideas like Muslim Modernism looked to reform Islam the manner in which Christianity was reformed in Europe and gave birth to modernism and the enlightenment. To Muslim Modernists, these were behind the rise of the Western nations as economic and military powers.

South Asian Islam that was largely folk in nature and informed by Persian influences began to erode, giving way to Islamic identities formed through Arabian influences as well as through modern western ideas such as nationalism, the state, etc. Yet, these were not universally accepted, despite the fact that the state and nationalist intelligentsias continued to enforce them. But as I said, it was not done through a democratic consensus. There is not one form of Islam in Pakistan. Maybe the urban middle-classes believe that there is, but even they belong to one sect or the other or to different sub-sects.

We need to accept the diverse nature of our polities. Initially, the 1973 Constitution attempted to give a lot of space to this ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity. This diversity was to be put in the context of federalism. But within a year of its passage, the constitution was made to contradict itself with the introduction of the 2nd Amendment that ousted a community from the fold of Islam. From being inclusive, the constitution became exclusive.

After the 2014 attack by Islamic extremists in Peshawar that slaughtered over 140 school children, the state and government largely agreed to revive the original civic-nationalist and pluralistic intent of the constitution. But by then, the whole idea of what it means to be a Pakistani had become so complex and complicated, the project and intent to resolve this existentialist mess was short-lived. We all went back to square one.

Imran Khan consoles mothers of APS attack victims, 2014

One example of this complication can be seen in how most Pakistanis explain themselves. To them they are first Muslim and then Pakistani. So how on earth are we to build a strong national identity? An Egyptian Muslim calls him or herself an Egyptian first. Same is the case with citizens of almost every Muslim-majority nation. But in Pakistan, it’s been the other way round, especially from the 1980s onwards. That’s why I call the country a reluctant republic.

Q: What are your thoughts on the rise of religiosity in society in the recent past and extreme interpretations by factions that traditionally were considered pluralistic and pacifist? 

NFP: It is not a recent occurrence, as such. It’s been there, especially from the 1980s onwards. To promote an exclusivist strand of Islam began as a project from the top but then trickled down and was adopted below.

It was a state initiative, especially meant to supplement the so-called jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, various apolitical evangelical outfits as well as militant groups had adopted it. It thus became a project that was now being controlled by various sections of the society. That’s why today, even when the state and government want to reconfigure it to make the idea of faith in the country more inclusive again, they struggle. There is a backlash. People can use the altered constitution in courts to halt such a project. Even the religious leadership of sub-sects that were once considered to be pacifistic, such as the Barelvi, now understand the power that comes by being exclusivist and reactionary.

And anyway, it is a misconception that certain Sunni sub-sects were once entirely pacifistic. They always had a reactionary sectarian side to them. Men such as the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi went to great lengthens to explain that the Barelvi could be as militant as any other sect or sub-sect. To him, the concept of the Barelvi being pacifistic was naive. He called this, Washington’s agenda. State-promoted Sufism or the one constructed by the country’s pop industry has zero relevance to Rizvi’s followers. Every sect and sub-sect was impacted by the state’s exclusivist project. A project that eventually became extremely problematic for the state and for the idea of Pakistani nationalism.

Q: How do you view the efforts by the state at different stages of Pakistan’s political history to drive a certain narrative; from Islamic Socialism to Islamization and from Enlightened Moderation to the recent efforts of filling the identity vacuum with Turkish history? 

NFP: I think it’s about trying to latch on to something that would stick. Something that would be universally accepted by all segments of the society. But it can’t. The resolution to this existentialist dilemma is rather simple, really. We need to accept the fact that our roots lie very much within the region we as a nation-state are a part of. We really don’t have to desperately look elsewhere to find these roots. They are not there. Not in Arabia, not in Turkey, not in Persia, not in Central Asia. Many of us might have had ancestors who arrived from outside South Asia. But as a people, and then as a nation, we largely evolved right here, in this region. We have to come to terms with this. This does not mean that our existence as a Muslim-majority country, separate from India, will come into question. East Pakistan which became Bangladesh resolved this. It wasn’t absorbed back into India. It now has its own identity as a Muslim-majority country.

Of course, having an ethnic majority helped. But Pakistan being an ethnically diverse nation-state is not a hindrance to what I am suggesting. The answer is in how the founders of Pakistan explained the importance of having a separate state. The reasons were cultural and economic, not theological. But the moment the state began to adopt the theological aspects of the country’s majority religion, questions emerged. Are we part of Arabia, Persia, Turkey, Central Asia, South Asia, Deobandi, Barelvi, Wahhabi, etc.? We were all once Indian Muslims and not Muslims in India.

Opposed to what Jinnah rightly feared would become of Hindu majoritarianism in India, we created our own enclave. In this enclave not only Muslims of India were to thrive without competition from their much larger Hindu counterparts, but even other minority communities of India were welcomed to become citizens of this enclave.

All major ethnic groups and sects of Islam in Pakistan evolved in South Asia. They evolved by absorbing whatever that was imported, and also whatever that was already here before the arrival of Islam in India. Here is where our roots truly belong. And no amount of binge-watching Ertugrul or nodding to a Saudi or Iran sponsored preacher can change this fact.

On PM Imran Khan’s orders, state-owned PTV telecasted Turkish show ‘Ertugrul’. The government packaged this step as a move towards projecting the lost Islamic history.

Q: How is the trend of growing political polarization impacting the collective psychology of the nation and what can be its long term implications? 

NFP: Political polarisation is nothing to be afraid of. If addressed in a democratic manner, its energy can be channelised into creating a dynamic, diverse and pluralistic society. But we haven’t done that, have we? We have planted seeds of polarisation to meet some entirely cynical personal gains. By we here, I mean state institutions, political parties and religious organisations. We keep lamenting that the idea of divide and rule is a colonial ploy, yet we do not hesitate to use it. One can see this in how the current government is operating. Understandably, it needs to continue creating differences between the opposition parties and the military-establishment to guarantee its own survival. But it is not the first government to do this. The establishment too uses similar ploys. Eventually this ploy or the success of this ploy is adopted by the society as a whole. To address polarisation, we first need to see what segments of the country are benefiting from it. Because they are ones creating it.

Q:  How do you define the liberal progressives in Pakistan’s case and do you see them playing their due role in standing up to claim their space and make their voices heard?  

NFP: On social media, yes, otherwise I’m not that sure. But I must add that there have been few, such as Ammar Ali Jan, Taimur Rahman, Ammar Rashid, Arooj Aurangzeb, Jibran Nasir and some others who have refreshed and reconfigured the progressive narrative according to the current political, social and economic realities, and without falling victim to the reckless online woke-ism that has done more damage to various progressive causes than not. Those mentioned are also unafraid to take their activism out in the real world, on the streets, roads and campuses. And thank heavens this generation of progressives is not plagued by the meaningless leftist sectarianism as my generation was.

Q: Considering 63% of Pakistanis fall in the youth bracket, do you think today Pakistani youth has the same buoyancy typically associated with the youth segment of a country?  

Absolutely! This enthusiasm and buoyancy evaporated after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. We saw the emergence of a largely apolitical generation. Politics, activism, idealism all became bad words. They were presented to that generation as demonised entities to be ignored and stay away from. But things began to change, especially during the 2007 Lawyers Movement against the Musharraf dictatorship. Now we have a highly politicised generation of young men and women, both on the left as well on the right. It’s a questioning generation, looking for answers. Mistakes are being made, but that’s all part of how generations evolve socially and politically.

The generation I belonged to in 1980s was also highly politicised. We were up against a vicious dictatorship. But we were operating in a different reality. I would say the reality this generation is operating i. is a lot more complex. What I would like to see, however, is more academic work produced by this generation on this reality. It can go a long way in helping young men and women ask sharper and more informed questions.

Q: On a lighter note, what from Pakistani music is at the top of your playlist these days?  

Oh, okay, pulling me back to my youthful days as a self-absorbed and know-it-all music critic. Fine. To me the three tracks would be Ajnabi by the Vital Signs, Ye Hai Meri Kahani by the Strings and Amrit by Meesha Shafi. There are so many more, but I’d say, at the moment, these are the top three.

I’m a huge Signs fan. The way Rohail and Junaid constructed songs … there was such sonic depth to them. In fact, as a music critic in those days, I was actually present in the studios when some of these songs were being recorded. Strings were another great band. And very earthy too. Great human beings.

Recently, I have been most impressed by Meesha. What a talent she is. What power her voice carries. In parting, I would like to add that one of the most intriguing acts to come out has been Mehdi Maloof. Totally, genuinely off-beat. I simply love his irreverent off-the-wall stuff. I would also like to mention Ali Aftab Saeed. Terrific, terrific voice and sense of melody. But, unfortunately, it is being entirely wasted. Maybe because of his politics? I don’t know. He should be singing on Coke Studio, Velo, and Pepsi Battle of the Bands. But I think his caustic nature and politics scares them.

Ali Sethi is another one I am a fan of. Spotify has opened a whole world of all these new Pakistani acts. Many are seriously good.


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