Sunday, January 25, 2009

Islam And Urdu In The Development Of Pakistan (As A State)

Reading Pervez Hoodbhoy's otherwise excellent piece in Newsline, linked to by Bubs earlier, I came across a misconception commonly made in readings of Pakistan's political history. See if you can spot it here:
For three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Indian subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian peninsula. This continental drift is not physical but cultural, driven by a belief that Pakistan must exchange its South Asian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the rich soil that had nurtured a magnificent Muslim culture in India for a thousand years. This culture produced Mughul architecture, the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Asadullah Khan Ghalib, and much more. Now a stern, unyielding version of Islam (Wahhabism) is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis and saints who had walked on this land for hundreds of years.

This change is by design. Twenty-five years ago, the Pakistani state used Islam as an instrument of state policy. Prayers in government departments were deemed compulsory, floggings were carried out publicly, punishments were meted out to those who did not fast in Ramadan, selection for academic posts in universities required that the candidate demonstrate a knowledge of Islamic teachings and jihad was declared essential for every Muslim. Today, government intervention is no longer needed because of a spontaneous groundswell of Islamic zeal. The notion of an Islamic state – still in an amorphous and diffused form – is more popular now than ever before as people look desperately for miracles to rescue a failing state.

Figure it out? It's the timeline, of course.

Pakistan's flirtation with, courtship of, and consummation with political Islam is generally thought to be kicked off by the Zia regime. It is thought that before that particular mullah-without-a-beard took over the reigns of the state, the country was a thriving secular, pluralistic and tolerant republic, teeming with nightclubs, evening gowns and American scotch.

What to make of this caricature? On the one hand, it is partly true: Pakistan was a distinctly more liberal country, at least socially, before General Zia's regime. Both the practice of religion, and its invocations in the public sphere, were restricted. But how much light does this observation shed on where we are now? I would submit not very much, because it misses the key piece of the puzzle: the role of Islam (and Urdu, no doubt) as a state-unifying mechanism.

The founders of the state, you see, faced a very simple and yet predictable problem: having made the demand for Pakistan on the basis of Muslims' purportedly shared identity - one distinct and separate from the Hindu majority of pre-partition India - they quickly discovered that this identity was not enough to preclude regional, provincial, and linguistic cleavages from becoming salient. Put differently, they quickly discovered that being a Pathan or Bengali mattered more than being a Muslim, at least insofar as collective action and political mobilization were concerned. Faced with ethno-centered claims to political identity, the guardians of the state consciously and deliberately decided to use Islam as a religion and Urdu as a language to foster a sense of unity in the trying times that followed the end of the British raj.

The point to be made is this: these decisions were taken at and immediately after independence. The idea that the state mixed its hands with religion only at the onset of the Zia era is completely false. In their first speeches and actions following independence, Pakistan’s ruling elite stressed the need for national cohesion because its early leaders saw its linguistic diversity and cultural heterogeneity as a threat to the state apparatus.

Now, ex-ante, this may not have been the most ill-thought idea in the world. Plenty of modern nation-states have engaged in overt exercises of building state-based-nationalism (one of my three favorite academic books is centered on how the French managed to do it). For us liberals, who value cultural and linguistic heterogeneity, not to mention secular ideals, it was - quite naturally - an unmitigated disaster. But I can see why it made sense to the leaders at the time - even if the bungled execution of such state policies led to things like, well, this.

The thing to keep in mind, then, is that the exclusion of hundreds of years' worth of cultural mixing, and the promotion of Urdu and Islam - as an explicit policy of the state - did not begin with Zia. It began the moment Pakistan achieved independence. And the results, as both Hoodbhoy and Muhammad Hanif attest to, are before us today.


Raza said...

What DID happen 25 years ago, which Hoodbhoy mentions but doesn't emphasize, was the flood of Saudi money to fund the madrassas. Without it, the state-unifying mechanism you speak would have lacked the man-power and financing to be effective. Just like the the RSS and BJP remained on the fringes of the Indian political arena until your deep-pocketed Modis and Advanis rolled around, Islamization would probably not be such a dominant a feature of our socio-political landscape were it not for Saudi green--it catalyzed the living shit out of the process, and muscled away alternative ideologies.

Or I could again be trying to blame Saudi Arabia for everything that's wrong with mankind, which I've been known to do.

Unpretentious Diva said...

Put differently, they quickly discovered that being a Pathan or Bengali mattered more than being a Muslim
how much people in Pakiastan think that being a Human, a Free Individual with Mind and ability to reason what is right what wrong is, what is doable what should not be done is, matters?

How much Pakistani believes that if not God, at least Government is the necessary devil for the existence of Free rational civilized Individuals in Pakistan?

The way writer of this post has expressed his views shows his capacity to think rationally, So Mr writer, Do you think Pakistan will be better and safe if anyhow the same secularist democratic governmental institution is applied to Pakistan which was before General Zia?

I agree that Pakistan will be in better conditions if it get over its Saudi Arabian islamic influence, it will be better if Pakistan again regains the secularist democratic position, yet the question is, Is democracy and secularism a solution? is Political freedom a soultion?
Is democracy a stable solution?
Check this out The Impasse of Democracy

In fact you already have answered it. it was the decision of democratically elected leaders of pakistan to turn it to a islamic state rather than a secularist nation... it clarifies that the Individuals of Pakistan cannot strive for democracy and political freedom alone. They need to recognize importance of Individual freedom, independence of Man from Men. So that no gang of leaders may force an Individual the smallest minority by any sort of majority tyrannical rule.

Anonymous said...

I see this simply as a society which ignored it's rich cultural roots and adopted or forced to adopt a foreign religion which sprung out of neccesity in a different cultural context. History is replete with examples on this ,and pakistan is damned to repeat it unwittingly.


shariq said...

Excellent point Ahsan. Its similar to how people bemoan the lack of land reform, when you can make an extremely persuasive case (which I agree with), that Pakistan was created because Punjabi and to a lesser extent Sindhi landowners feared what would happen to their holdings in a socialist India.

Even the modern Islamisation started with ZAB as much as Zia.

The problem of course was in a lack of imagination in asserting a tolerant and liberal form of Islam rather than what was coming out of Saudi Arabia and the Maududi inspired Islamists.

Either that or they could have tried to create a secular regime along the lines you've suggested, although that would have probably required an Ataturk like martial discipline in keeping religion out of public life - of course that would be completely weird given that Pakistan was on the surface at least created as a homeland for Muslims.

shaun3 said...

Great post; it seems like an ongoing step-function that has more to do with strategic direction than grass-root development. It seems like an easy job for leaders to foster a sentiment by manifesting it in writ (via law/official policy).

I don't think the undoing/reverse, however, can be accomplished in the same top-down fashion.

An involved topic, but can you offer some insights on how this can be accomplished? (Not to assume that this is desirable.)

Ahsan said...


The Saudi money did not flow into Pakistan in a sociopolitical vacuum. If the Saudis were that powerful, every country in the world would be brandishing an intolerant version of Islam in its society and politics. The fact is, the Saudis needed Zia and Zia needed the Saudis.


Your comment was sort of muddled, but what I gathered from it is that political liberty (i.e. democracy) and social liberty (i.e. pluralism and secularism) do not always go hand in hand. And I agree with you.


I've always wondered what Ataturk-style forced secularism would have done to Pakistan. I'm generally of the view that whenever things are shoved down your throat, your population ends up yearning for the exact opposite. But we actually didn't see that in Turkey, which is a curious fact at the very least.


I actually think the ONLY way it will be reversed is top-down. But the political and intellectual impetus to make it so are lacking. There are (almost) non genuinely liberal stakeholders left in Pakistani politics. They have all been co-opted by various other political movements (i.e. the leftists are now consumed by anti-Americanism, the secularists are consumed by ethnic purity, etc etc).

Rabia said...

great post. I think that comparing Turkey's reaction to the Iraq war and Pakistan's reaction to this Afghan war pretty much illustrates your point that the creation of Pakistan pretty much created an incredibly favourable environment for a Zia (even if no one could have predicted the events of the 70s or that Pakistan would be at the center of them)

Praveen Swami has a really interesting op-ed in The Hindu that's pretty relevant to your post, imo:

shaun3 said...

In terms of impetus, vision, and leadership, any great undertaking of state must be accomplished top-down.

From an effort perspective, however, removing an ideology must be accomplished bottom-up. Spreading an ideology can be achieved top-down (edicts/laws/banning things), but removing or reversing this cannot be accomplished by unbanning things and demanding secularism. If an ideology is established, even in a minority, then there may be (as in pakistan) a violent backlash from this faction.

To rephrase the question- and sorry for the ambiguity before- if there is no lack of leadership and impetus, then how best to accomplish this?

Ahsan said...


Ah, I see. Well the most obvious and facile answer is: through some form of political mobilization. Political movements aren't always a result of WIDESPREAD feelings on the ground. The lawyers' movement is a great example here. Nobody gave a crap about Chaudhry or quaint concepts like "the independence of the judiciary" until the lawyers made it a big deal. In effect, they imposed their view of the world on the rest of the country: Mush bad, Chaudhry good.

So, as I said, secularists have to mobilize for the cause of liberalism. The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is that there are no liberals left in Pakistan.

As far as the top-down stuff is concerned, a viable and standardized education system would help.

Anonymous said...

The scary question is not what happened.But can that be reversed???The story of Pakistan will close if thats not rectified.

Anonymous said...

Yup. To blame Zia for the whole Islamisation thing is too simplistic. He was, in all, probability in his nappies when the Objective resolution was passed by the founding fathers of Pakistan, just a few months after The Founding Father of Pakistan had kicked the bucket.

And this Arabisation isn’t only confined to Pakistan. It’s spreading to India too. My aunt informed my mother, with some pride, that she had at last secured a good Urdu teacher for my cousins. How did she know he was good? He apparently didn’t make them pronounce the alphabets the normal Urdu way but in the Arabic way—ba, ta instead of be, pe, or something. Not too sure with the details cause I hardly remember anything of Nastaliq myself.


Ray Lightning said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ray Lightning said...

Loyalty towards religion as a state policy belongs to the feudal era, where very few people are educated and printed books were not yet invented.

This loyalty will be superseded by a new loyalty towards language in the capitalist era, when printed books bring in high literacy amongst the population. The erstwhile feudal control will be replaced by democracy.

Europe, USA have achieved this transition by late 18th or the early 19th centuries. Japan achieved this by Meiji restoration era of the early 20th century.

Both India and Pakistan are still in this period of transition. Unfortunately, Pakistan made a conscious choice of continuation of religious loyalty : this will severely impasse its path towards modernity. India, on the other hand, has richly encouraged linguistic nationalism, though it largely managed to contain them within a larger civilizational focus centred on Indian history.

Only time will tell if Pakistan manages to emerge from its feudal vestiges as a secular democratic state. The new inventions of internet and the world wide web should definitely help in this transition, as they are helping in India.

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Anonymous said...

The worst part of this is, that you need to have as much oil as Saudia Arabia to live out the wahhabia dream.

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