Categories
Editorials

Pakistan: Need for a New Historiogrpahy and National Narratives

Muhammad Ali Jinnah
Image via Wikipedia

This will probably be one of the many articles that I plan to write about the construction of contemporary Pakistani national identity. While I have many versions of theories of nation available to undertake this project, I have decided to focus primarily on the mainstream statist narrative that Pakistani media, the school system, and the foundational intellectuals rely on to  construct the narrative of Pakistan.

In this highly idealized and ideological narrative, Pakistan is posited as the terminal outcome of an elitist dream of separatism defined in difference and in conflict with the larger “Hindu” nationalism of India before partition. We have been telling this story to our children, showing its unfolding in well crafted historical TV shows and movies. As a result, the Pakistani national narrative has now streamlined itself as more or less a religious narrative of nationhood. In my humble opinion, unless Pakistan dismantles and restructures this psuedo-religious national narrative, it will continue to struggle as a nation perpetually in crisis.

There is a dire need for a new kind of historiography: a historiography that does not rely on usual clichés of a great leader fighting against the machinations of Hindus and the British to wrest a country for Indian Muslims. Those of us who have read the events and politics of the creation of Pakistan know, through textual analysis, that mr. Jinnah, until the very end, would have been happy if the British and Indian National Congress had agreed to a sort of federation in which the Muslims of India could have had parity at the federal level. It was the failure of this particular thrust of Jinnah’s struggle that ultimately resulted in the failure of his larger dream and creation of Pakistan as a less-than-perfect alternative. We need to seriously read and discuss this hidden aspect of the creation of Pakistan.

We also need to seriously question all those who assert that Pakistan was to be exclusively a Muslim nation: that was never what Jinnah had intended. In fact, the religious leaders–most of them–were opposed to the creation of Pakistan and did not lend their full support to Mr. Jinnah until the very end.

A critical historiography will highlight these aspects of the struggle for Pakistan and will also open space for imagining a more diverse, equal, and egalitarian Pakistan. A kind of Pakistan in which histories of minorities, women, and peasants are not whitewashed but foregrounded.

Our national narrative should also focus on the rapacious role of the zamindari system, the sardari system, and the destruction of our public sphere by the mullahs and their followers. We should have the courage to challenge all these sectors of political power that seek to present Pakistan in their own contorted and outdated vision of  national life. Unless Pakistan tells a story in which the people have the ultimate power and, Pakistan will remain the crisis state that it is so aptly dubbed by its friends and foes alike.

Most importantly our historians and writers need to stop valorizing the military and need to highlight the destructive role that the armed forces have played in keeping democracy in check and in maintaining the socio-economic status quo.

The stories that we tell our children should be about a more diverse and democratic Pakistan and not of a religiously defined nation perpetually in embrace with all the outdated and repressive forces in of our public sphere. All assertions of exclusive ideas of identity–may it be regional, political, or religious–must be challenged and questioned perpetually by the public intellectuals and the media.

A critical historiography, a democratic didactics, and a re-imagining of our past to create a vision of a better future would be a good start!

Enhanced by Zemanta
Categories
Editorials

On Minority Rights in Pakistan

It is astonishing to see that the so-called Ulama offer historical truths to their audiences without ever mentioning that history is not really transparent and unmotivated and often presents the views and perceptions of the dominant groups. The treatment of religious minorities is also based in this flawed retrieval of historical truth and this atavistic perception of a modern Islamic state.

 

Image, Courtesy Viewpoint Online.

 

 

After the brutal murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, Ms. Asiya Nasir, a Christian member of Pakistani National Assembly, made a courageous and passionate speech in the national assembly. [The speech can be viewed here]. I have watched this speech numerous times, for in its tragic appeal also lies an incipient hope for a better Pakistan.

In the wake of Shahbaz Bahtti’s murder, Ms. Nasir puts the very question of what constitutes a Pakistani under a serious challenge. This question about the nature of a Pakistani identity is crucial, for it can decide the fate and future of Pakistani nation-state.

Ms. Nasir, one could say, in her historical retrieval of the contributions and sacrifices of Pakistani Christians inserts this marginalized community into the very heart of the nation, for after all, in her words, the Christian community was given a choice to move to India but they, as future citizens of what was to be a composite, cosmopolitan nation, chose to stay. They should, therefore, be included within the national promise as equals.

We cannot have it both ways: either we become a democracy in which all citizens—regardless of their religion, gender or other identities—are treated as equal right holders, or we stay the mockery of a nation that we have become: defined by a religious constituting power as opposed to the constituted power that at least, in theory, promises all citizens of Pakistan an equal humanity in the eyes of the law.

In her speech, the honorable member starts with a reference to the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti but soon moves on to challenge the very idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state. She points to the official portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and then asks him a direct question: “Is this the kind of Pakistan that you had promised us?” Her criticism of the current imaginary of Pakistan is, therefore, offered in comparison to the kind of Pakistan that Jinnah had envisioned and promised, a Pakistan in which the minorities would have had equal rights. The devolution of Pakistan into an Islamic republic, in this argument, is a failure of the Quaid’s dream and also a failure of the promises made to the minorities.

Ms. Nasir reminds her audience that when Pakistan needed the Christian votes to ask for a separate nation-state, the Christians had voted for Pakistan: their presence in the Pakistani public sphere, thus, was not an accident of history but a matter of choice. Now, however, the same Christians whose votes were coveted at the time of partition are treated as second-class citizens. The arguments, thus, rests on the kind of nation that was promised to the minorities and that the current definition of the nation as a purely Islamic state is nothing but a broken promise.

Ms. Nasir also has some pointed questions for the government: “Why did you not provide sufficient security for Shahbaz Bhatti?” and “Why there has been no clear declaration by the Prime minister and the President to hold the murderers accountable?” The obvious reason for the indifference of the leaders of Pakistan Peoples Party, the party that had benefited from Shahbaz Bhatti’s loyalties, is because he is a Christian and thus, it seems, his life was not as valuable as that of a Muslim.

Ms. Nasir also points out that the minorities have reached a point in their history in Pakistan that they are seriously questioning whether or not to remain in Pakistan. If the current treatment of the minorities continues, she states, then the minorities will have to choose to leave Pakistan.

Ms. Nasir’s speech is also made in the spirit of patriotism as a true Pakistani claiming equal rights in the national public sphere just like the Muslim citizens of Pakistan. This claim to equal treatment is also bolstered by the examples of Christian sacrifices for the cause of Pakistan, the sacrifices that have been elided from Pakistani history due to the “distorted history” being taught in schools. “We have not been given equal rights in sixty-five years” declares Ms. Nasir, and it is time now for the government and the people of Pakistan to recognize the Christians as equal citizens of the state.

The question of rights is, therefore, crucial to creating a more tolerant and humane nation and Islam, I am sad to say, will not solve this problem for us, especially the kind of historical retrieval attempted by our Ulama.

There is a perception amongst the devout Muslims that if we revert to a purely Islamic articulation of the nation, all our problems would be solved. This, of course, is a grand illusion created by the rhetoric of the mullahs and their followers and this rhetoric is made acceptable by cherry-picking Islamic history and by completely foreclosing any new and liberating interpretations of the Islamic sacred.

It is astonishing to see that the so-called Ulama offer historical truths to their audiences without ever mentioning that history is not really transparent and unmotivated and often presents the views and perceptions of the dominant groups. The treatment of religious minorities is also based in this flawed retrieval of historical truth and this atavistic perception of a modern Islamic state. This, in a way, foregrounds the role of constituting power over constituted power. [I am using Roberto Esposito’s discussion of these two facets of power to make my point. For details, see Esposito. Bios]. In such a project, the worth of the individual and the larger political entities is determined through recourse to a transcendental constituting power. But while in most of the cases the constituting power ceases to exert itself and creates a space for the constituted power to function independently, in case of our Ulama the constituted power of the Pakistani constitution is always under constant pressure from the metaphysical constituting power of the Muslim sacred. It is this reversal to a purist past that allows them to create unequal subjects within the Pakistani political space. Thus, even though they live in a modern nation, the individuals in Pakistan, based on their gender and religious identity, get divided into active and passive right holders. As a consequence, Only Muslim males seem to enjoy the full rights and humanity of real citizens, while women and minorities are reduced to a passive political identity, alive but not really fully realized political beings.

It is this nexus of power and religion that Ms. Nasir’s speech challenges, for if Pakistan really wants to be a democratic and humane polity, it must accord equal rights to all its citizens and no amount of purist religious retrieval should be able to trump that.

The saddest thing about our Ulama is that they have chosen to elide all views contrary to what they deem a proper interpretation of the sacred. Thus, while our mullahs can quote their respective scholars, none of them seems to acknowledge the existence of scholars such as Mumtaz Ali and Fazlur Rahman who, at least, attempted to force a more nuanced and enlightened interpretation of the sacred. These are the silenced histories of Muslim past that must be retrieved and foregrounded if Islam is to play any positive role within the Pakistani public sphere.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any such movement in Pakistan, I would declare my own personal stance: I stand with my brother Shahbaz Bhatti for his humanity, his wisdom, and his sacrifice and with my sister Asiya Nasir for her courage to ask some apt and hard questions.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

Enhanced by Zemanta
Categories
Commentaries Editorials

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

Image From Viewpoint Online

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)

Categories
Commentaries Editorials

The 71st Pakistan Resolution Day and the Veiled Woman in the Picture

In my search for visual sources on the events of the 1940 Lahore Resolution, I accidentally found this picture, of all places, on Wikipedia.

 

 

Obviously, this is the official picture of the delegates taken after the Lahore resolution had been passed. We can recognize and name almost all the prominent male figures in the picture as they are amply recorded in our history. But the woman in her head-to-toe black burka is a mystery both literally, for we cannot see her face, and metaphorically because she is elided from our history.

Who was this woman? Did she participate in the discussions about the future of a Muslim state? And if so, did she represent the women of this future Muslim state?

I can only place her through association as if she, a woman, has no individual subjectivity free of reference. As if she can only be a dark contrasting shadow, a specter, in an otherwise bright frame. She obviously is not related to the man on her left, as there is a wider space between them. She was probably related to the man to her right, as the distance between them is negligible, their hands almost touching. It is hard to see her as a presence in her own right. But she is there in this most historical picture of Pakistani history recorded as a “dark” presence on the most auspicious day of Pakistan’s fight for independence.

Should I read her symbolically: as an emblem of women’s future in Pakistan, as the unresolved question that haunts Pakistan today, as an assertion for inclusion in history. What does her presence teach us? Is it a reminder? Is her presence a splinter in the flank of this group, for she is literally on the right flank, not too deeply lodged in the heart of the group but still struck in the collective corporate body of the “group” (for this is a group photo) as a constant reminder: “I was there” she seems to be saying “when you men were deciding our destiny.” A fact that we should remember so that we can acknowledge the existence of women—a majority—in our national space, not as an unresolved problem, or as secondary passive citizens but as equal inheritors of a nation imagined and demanded on march 23, 1940.

In our historical education about the creation of Pakistan, we learned about the exploits of pretty much all the male leaders present in this picture; we have seen their larger-than-life-posters plastered on city walls. But we have never heard or read a single word about this woman, who, let us not forget, was present that day when history was being made. What do her erasure and her silencing teach us?

So, on this day let us resolve to retrieve her story; let us stand against all those with a patriarchal and chauvinistic view of history. Let us move this spectral figure to the very heart of the group. Yes to the center, right next to Mr. Jinnah.

—–

[As Muhammad Ahmed, one of our readers in commens below,  informed us, her name is  Begum Amjadi Bano, wife of Maulana Maulana Muhammad Ali:

http://www.kahopakistan.com/showthread.php?4364-Amjadi-Bano-Begum-Muhammad-Ali

http://www.nazariapak.info/quaid/female_leadership.html]

 

Enhanced by Zemanta