In today’s postmodern age, thinking individuals, nations and states are extra conscious about their ‘identity’. Constructs and concepts such as ethnicity, cultural homogeneity, religious fraternity and political values are cited and adhered to in the modern western world. Such trends and debates may also be traced from the Asian, if not African, context. Importantly, the scholarship is constantly and candidly engaged in scientific progression of such and related notions of identity (re-)formation. Hence, little wonder if one terms the post-Second World War French state as a conscious harbinger of secularity. Germany may be termed as a modern nation-state with common denominations of language, cultural heritage and post-Hitler conviction in liberal values. Even the US is a clear case of constitutional, political and economic development premised on the time tested experiences of liberal democracy and economy. From the same region, Cuba can be termed a case for socialist ideals. In other words, in a broader sense, the discourse on, and patterns of identity formation and adherence are well set in the European and US case.
Comparatively, the Asian identity discourse has more dissimilarities than similarities with, for example, the European model. Take the Middle East as a point of departure and one is confronted with parallel multiple claims on the post-colonial nature and direction of those transitional societies and developing states. In Egypt, for example, ideals of socialism, pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism from three different ideological backgrounds impacted that country in more than one way. For instance, Nasser’s state-oriented project of modernisation based on socialism and ensconced with Arab values was confronted both intellectually as well as physically by conventional and fundamentalist forces — Syed Qutb is a case in point.
Interestingly, the works of Egyptian scholars such as Al Raaziq, who in the same sociopolitical context produced the counter-narrative that argumentatively questions the ideas and actions of the abovementioned ideologue(s), could not get publicised pre-9/11. This lack of local appreciation of moderate views is one of the major causes for the intellectual and sociopolitical downfall of modern Muslim societies and states. No wonder then that Egypt is still struggling with the identity question. Even the so-called Arab Spring failed to structurally and intellectually re-transform the respective society and state. From Tunisia to Iraq, these Muslim cultures and political entities are collectively struggling to reconcile reason with revelation, data with theory, capital with the market and ideas with action. This largely is, in my view, due to lack of alternative narratives on identity.
From within Asia, if one looks at the East Asian context, Malaysia, among the Muslim countries, presents itself as an interesting case for a pluralist identity where different ethnicities and religious traditions have, over time, learned to coexist despite certain challenges, i.e. anti-Chinese biases, especially post-9/11. On the other hand, in South Asia, India and Bangladesh, comparatively, are clear cases so far as legal and constitutional basis of identity construction is concerned. Even as regards cultural and religious homogeneity, Bangladeshis, who feel prouder to be called (culturally) Bengalis rather than Bangladeshis, are far ahead of either India or Pakistan or both.
Quite to the contrary, the case of Pakistan is neither clear nor less contested with respect to identity (re-)construction. After 67 years, this country is not a proper nation state nor is it a pure Islamic or socialist state. Culturally, we are a transitional society that is still struggling to define the basics of a larger identity. Indeed, regional and local identities are far more relevant when it comes to conflict and its resolution, (local) politics and economic managemnet. At the local and regional level of analysis, certain castes such as the Khars in south Punjab, as Ayesha Siddiqa has recently argued, and the Bhattis and Tarars in central Punjab assume a dominant role socioeconomically and politically. During my visits to these said regions, I have noticed that none talk about Pakistan or even Punjab, let alone non-sectarian Islam, during the electoral campaigns. Importantly, local politicians, and even cultural and religious forces, often invoke common kinship and common sect along with socio-economic backwardness of the electorate. Ironically, political parties and their manifestos are least highlighted at the local level. This marks the non-realisation and non-recognition of identity as a concern for society and the state.
Constitutionally and legally the Pakistani state has adopted a mixed methodology in terms of selective usage of religious notions — the Objectives Resolution is a case in point. Moreover, under the terms of the 1973 constitution, Pakistan is a religious republic. However, no effective mechanism has been introduced by the state to operationalise Islamic discourse. Paradoxically, the Council of Islamic Ideology, though it is officiated to recommend religious measures, lacks powers of implementation. This may also explain the physical existence and socioeconomic and political relevance of the religious elite along with its diverse and competing ideological agenda. In addition, the Pakistan state has hosted a colonial legal legacy that is contextually married with ingeniously engineered laws. This duo further complicates the identity discourse.
Politically, Pakistan may qualify as a transitional society and democracy. However, even at this level, there is little clarity. We are still debating the pros and cons of the parliamentary and presidential type of governing system. Indeed, practically, this country mostly has been ruled by presidents rather than prime ministers. Economically, our society at large has developed a taste for capitalism; there is little serious space for a purely leftist thought as well as economy. To say the least, intellectually, Pakistan has produced very little scientific research. Hence, reliance on foreign input and experts should not surprise us.
In view of the foregoing, this writer has hypothesised that Pakistan is a confused country legally, politically, socioeconomically, culturally and intellectually. The seeds of this composite confusion may be traced to colonial days when our founding fathers were engaged in identity construction for the Muslims of Northeast India. Much of this composite confusion is generated by a variety of stakeholders who unfortunately look to their own rather than the larger interests of the Pakistani state and society. The access to state power was deemed necessary to essentalise one set of identity at the cost of others. This in turn has compounded the problem. In my view, Pakistan’s identity confusion shall persist until each individual and institution thinks in the larger framework of Pakistan. This requires a positive re-ordering of our individual and institutional preferences. Am I willing to do it? Can I demote my Bhatti Punjabi being to carve out a simple Pakistani and a ‘mere Muslim’ identity out of me?
The writer is a DAAD fellow. He holds a PhD in political science and works as an assistant professor at Iqra University, Islamabad. He tweets @ ejazbhatty