I recently wrote a piece titled “Pakistan, myths and consequences”, in which I argued that Pakistan’s founding myths (whether present at birth or fashioned retroactively) make it unusually difficult to resist those who want to impose various dangerous ideas upon the state in the name of Islam. The argument was not that Pakistan exists in some parallel dimension where economic and political factors that operate in the rest of the world play no role. But rather that the usual problems of twenty-first century post-colonial countries (problems that may prove overwhelming even where Islamism plays no role) are made significantly worse by the imposition upon them of a flawed and dangerous “Paknationalist-Islamic” framework. Without that framework Pakistan would still be a third world country facing immense challenges. But with this framework we are committed to an ideological cul-de-sac that devalues existing cultural strengths and sharpens existing religious problems (including the Shia-Sunni divide and the use of blasphemy laws to persecute minorities). Not only do these creation myths have negative consequences (as partly enumerated in the above-linked article) but they also have very little positive content. There is really no such thing as a specifically Islamic or “Pakistani” blueprint for running a modern state. None. Nada. Nothing. There is no there there. Yet school textbooks, official propaganda and everyday political speech in Pakistan endlessly refer to some imaginary “Islamic model” of administration and statecraft. Since no such model exists, we are condemned to hypocritically mouthing meaningless and destructive Paknationalist and Islamist slogans while simultaneously (and almost surreptitiously) trying to operate modern Western constitutional, legal and economic models.
This argument is anathema to Pakistani nationalists, Islamists and neo-Islamists (e.g. Imran Khan, who believes a truly Islamic state would look something like Sweden without the half-naked women) but it is also uncomfortable for upper class Leftists educated in Western universities. Their objections matter to me because they are my friends and family, so I will try to answer some of them here. These friends have pointed out to me that:
- India is not much better.
- The US systematically supported Islamists in Pakistan and pushed for the suppression of leftist and progressive intellectuals for decades.
About the India objection, I believe that objection misses the point. The Indian subcontinent is all a work in progress. Every nation has miles to go. We are by far the largest repository of REALLY poor people on planet earth. Indians (defined as anyone belonging to the wider Indian genetic and civilisational cluster, hence including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan) are the most numerous population group on earth (outnumbering the Chinese by hundreds of millions) and living standards in greater India are barely ahead of “sub-Saharan Africa” (which admittedly includes South Africa, so the category is rather heterogeneous and misleading) and social and economic problems are correspondingly huge.
Culturally too, it is a remarkably heterogeneous and variegated civilization (though still recognizably “Indian”) and the modern Indian state is very far from being a model for anyone. While its founding myth and ideal are positive ideals (multicultural, secular, democratic India) its actual practice is frequently very far from those ideals. But if and when India approaches its ideal, it will have improved. And its ideal draws upon the same vast storehouse of experimentation and theorization to which every other modern country and culture contributes and from which they all draw their lessons. That India is not much better is expected. But it is swimming the same river as everyone else and with time, may swim better. It may even contribute some original ideas of its own to the great (and frequently bloody and unjust) ongoing project of human social organization in the 21st century CE. But what is (ostensibly) being attempted in Pakistan is something different. IF the “ideology of Pakistan” propaganda is taken remotely seriously then something not yet in existence elsewhere is to be created in Pakistan. This will be something religious, Islamic, republican, democratic, socialist, capitalist and fair (all elements may not apply). In principle one must concede the possibility that Pakistan and its leading intellectuals will craft something new, different and better than anything that exists elsewhere in Europe or Asia today. In practice one can take one look at said intellectuals and, well, enough said.
The US has indeed played a large (and usually negative) role in Pakistani politics (and continues to play a large role). But while US imperial intervention is a fact of life, it is not (and has never been) omnipotent or omniscient. Many countries have maneuvered from a position of dependency to one of near-independence. Pakistani nationalism and its supposedly Islamic ideal are neither a necessary result of US intervention, nor its best antithesis. The Pakistani bourgeoisie can and should dump both and still figure out how to manage US intervention.
Colonialism I will leave to the post-colonialists. There are limits to what can be discussed on a highly educated liberal blog without getting lost in translation.
Finally, a recent concrete illustration of how the founding myths work to alter the direction of events in Pakistan.
A couple of days ago, prominent journalist (and Islamist Paknationalist) Ansar Abbasi wrote a front page “expose” in the daily The News, owned and operated by the supposedly modern and forward looking “Jang Group” (the largest media group in Pakistan). In this article, he announced that the Punjab government (led by the right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League-N; a party that is no stranger to using Islamist and Paknationalist propaganda) had deleted some “Islamic” chapters from the 10th grade Urdu language textbook for 2013. His litany of complaints included the following:
The second chapter in the old edition was on ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ written by Dr Ghulam Mustafa Khan. This important chapter highlighted the basis for the creation of Pakistan and endorsed that the country was created in the name of Islam, to make it an Islamic state, has been replaced by a new chapter on ‘Princess of Paristan’ (Paristan ki shahzadi) written by Ashraf Saboohi.
… Poetry of a Indian poet Firaq Gorakhpuri has been included in the text book and the poet is presented as a hero awarded by the Indian and Russian governments.
While the title page of the book contains the picture of Allama Iqbal, it does not contain any poem of the great poet of Islam and Pakistan. Excluding extremely impressive Islamic poetry, the new text book, however starts with a Hamd (praise of Almighty Allah) and Naat (praise of Hazrat Muhammad — PBUH).
Keep in mind that this is a textbook meant for the Urdu language class, not the Islamic studies or Pakistan studies class. One day after the publication of this attack (and its amplification on social media, especially by supporters of Imran Khan) chief minister Shahbaz Sharif ordered the “Islamic chapters” reinstated. It took less than 24 hours for matters to be corrected.
Cricketer and philanthropist Imran Khan has recently become very popular among young people educated through these textbooks. His current policy is to be all things to all people and his manifesto is progressive and liberal and completely skips the topic of Islam and the so-called ideology of Pakistan. While it is unlikely that he will overcome various hurdles and become the leading party in the coming elections, even if his party were to somehow sweep into power it will never be able to resist demands couched in the idiom of Islam and Pakistan. This is because neither he nor his fans have any vocabulary with which they can counter arguments that are obviously in line with orthodox Islam and behind which looms the specter of blasphemy and apostasy. Within their circles, some of these people can and do have conversations about modern Islam and the need to counter “extremism”, but when someone like Ansar Abbasi becomes aggressive, they will have to back down.In fact, their fate is likely to be worse than Shahbaz Sharif's because they want to achieve their modern Scandinavian Islamic state without resort to “dirty politics” or hypocrisy. It is very hard to square that circle with resort to dirty politics and hypocrisy…without them, it is likely to be impossible.
Finally, it is not my claim that there is something essentially barbaric about “Islam” which makes an “Islamic” solution impossible. Islam is what Muslims make of it. It has been made many things in the past and will be made into many things in the future. But intellectual development in orthodox mainstream Sunni Islam has been moribund for centuries. This is partly due to the unusual success of blasphemy and apostasy memes that were meant to protect orthodoxy from criticism but have also made it sterile. I do not think that this is a permanent state of affairs. There are already glimmers of change. Much more will happen as orthodox controls loosen. But the time frame of that renaissance and the immediate needs of the Pakistani state do not coincide. For now, we have to stay away from Islamism or we are going to end up with Munawwar Hassan’s Islam. That’s just how things happen to be at this point in history.
History was old and rusted, it was a machine nobody had plugged in for thousands of years, and here all of a sudden it was being asked for maximum output. Nobody was surprised that there were accidents…
—Salman Rushdie, Shame
Omar Ali is a Pakistani-American physician who also moderates the “Asiapeace” discussion group on the internet. This article first appeared on 3Quarksdaily. The paintings are by Punjabi artist Shahid Mirza