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Pitfalls of a Religious National Identity

Hadith Oliyankara Juma Masjid
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There is myth in the public politics of the nation that underwrites the political narrative of religious political parties. It is a myth of a sacred and unsullied past. The common belief is that if the nation could, somehow, retrieve and emulate this idealized past then all our problems will be solved. Surprisingly, no one actually explains or streamlines as to how a future Islamic Pakistan will function: the future is posited as a natural outcome of a turn to religion.

Now, we know that even at the height of its symbolic and political power, Islam was by and large a very pragmatic political system. As the Muslims conquered the persian and Eastern Roman empire, their approach to governance was based in tolerance and acceptance: they accepted and appropriated the differences that they could appropriate, but also allowed their non-Muslim citizens a fair degree to fluidity and freedom in practicing their particular religions.

This, sadly, is not the case with the religious-minded political parties in Pakistan. Yes, they pay lip service to the rights of minorities, but the system that they envision creates a national space divided between those considered full citizens–Muslim men–and those not so equal. A national imagination underwritten by this view of the real has its inequalities pre-inscribed in this narrative. There are, of course, material causes for the rise of Islamist politics in pakistan: The Islamists, at least, promise a restructuring of the Pakistani public sphere,which the neoliberal system absolutely cannot. This future restructuring–in which the least shall, they are told, will be the first–can be very seductive as it is revolutionary and not reformative in nature.

In true sense though, even if this future were to be realized, would it not create a nation at the mercy of only one dominant group? Can we have a viable nation if it is divided between has and has beens not on the basis of material resources but in terms of their pure, immanent ontological being? Can there be a just system if people in a nation are considered ontologically unequal?

Religion, in my humble opinion, will fail to solve our problems and would rather fracture the nation even more. We know what happened when a certain group with a certain specific view of Islam came to power: Afghanistan became a death world. If we continue on this path of unreflective Islamization of the public sphere we will also become such a death world.

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Mullahs in Nation-Building

By and large, after the Zia-ul-Haq years, we have totally conceded the public sphere to the mullahs: you cannot think the nation without running into one or the other bizarre articulations

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of the nation by one or the other mullah.

There is no doubt in my mind that when Mr. Jinnah mobilized the Muslim identity as a marker of difference from Majority Hindus, it was only a strategic assertion. The creation of a new and separate homeland for the Muslims of India, in Muslim majority areas, depended on this assertion but nowhere in Jinnah’s arguments can we find convincing proof that he had envisioned this future state to be an Islamic state. In fact, Ayesha Jalal (The Sole Spokesman) quite convincingly suggests that Jinnah would have been rather happy in a confederacy in which the Muslims were given a parity in the future national assembly.

However, it is no surprise that the very slogan that was essential to mobilize a nationalist movement has now come to haunt us: the slogan has become the truth. This articulation of the nation, in which the slogan becomes the truth, manifested itself immediately after the creation of Pakistan, Remember, we were told that Pakistan was not able to create and ratify a constitution until 1956: we were taught this in high school. But no one bothered to teach us that, besides other things, what delayed the writing and adoption of the constitution was the fight between the Islamists—who wanted a strict Islamic state—and those opposed to a purely Islamic articulation of the nation. This fight, or aporia, thus is within the very fiber of our national genealogy.

In essence what kind of nation we would be if all that the diverse groups of mullahs continue to insist on from their pulpits, through media channels, and through their published works. Here is a possible sample:
•    A nation in which women have less rights than men.
•    A nation in which non-Muslims have less rights than Muslims.
•    A nation in which feudal system can still thrive, as there are no strictures against it.
•    A nation in which justice is harsh and immediate: sometimes without due process and sometimes meted out by private individuals.

So, in its true essence, the mullahs want to abolish modernity, retrieve an eighth century politics, and then posit it as a recipe for our national future. The constitutive power of this vision, therefore, is always an idealized past upon which the present can have no bearing as the discourse of the present is not authentic enough to form a new constitutive force for the future.

In posting their views about a purely Islamist nation, the mullahs mobilize varied historical narratives without ever acknowledging that history is always inherently textual: we know of it because it has been written down. The mere acceptance of this fact allows us to imagine that if the history is a record then it must contain, unless written by a computer, the temporal, spatial and personal biases and ideologies of those who recorded it. History, therefore, is never unmotivated and if mobilized uncritically can undermine the present and seriously damage the future in the name of tradition.

By and large, after the Zia-ul-Haq years, we have totally conceded the public sphere to the mullahs: you cannot think the nation without running into one or the other bizarre articulations of the nation by one or the other mullah. Somehow, it seems, that their answer to all our problems is more religion. But more religion has not really solved any of our problems. In fact, since the foregrounding of a religious national identity we have become a more intolerant, sexist, racist, and chauvinistic society.
Of course, it is not the religion that is to be blamed for it. But the politicized and militaristic interpretations of certain aspects of religion play an important role in this. In pretty much all debates about the role of religion in the public sphere, the mullahs mobilize religion only as a system of justice. Yes, Islam has certain laws about justice, but is there no love in our religion? And if there is love, mhuhabbah, then how come it does not shine through in our public undertakings.

The recent murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti are two important cases in point: both these persons were murdered by “Muslims” because they had, by opposing a destructive law, somehow, blasphemed. What kind of a civil society allows public citizens to be murdered by private citizens as an act of popular justice? And if that kind of murder is permissible, then why have the blasphemy laws? Why not just accept that people themselves have the right to judge and punish their own fellow human beings.

Sadly, the rise of private media has not, in any way, diminished the role of half-baked theories of the mullahs; the private media, in fact, have provided the mullahs with a much larger frame and enabled them to spread their vitriol to larger audiences.

There can be no short-term solution to this problem of perpetuation of hate in the name of tradition and religion. A good start would be to, at least, pass some hate-speech legislation: a law that forbids any acts of rhetorical violence against any group, individual or entity. This could at least regulate speech in the public sphere; it may not affect what the mullahs are saying in their mosques, but at least there they can be told to keep it to their own captive audiences.

On the whole, having read and followed the public debates by most of Pakistani religious leaders and scholars, I, in all due humility, can say very positively that I have found nothing in their articulations of the Pakistani nation that can create a viable, pluralistic, and compassionate nation-state for all those who call themselves Pakistanis.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)