Pakistan’s Identity Problem

  • Pakistan's "establishment" has chosen to focus solely on the country's Muslim history, but that has done more harm than good in forging the nation's identity.

    When you hear about Pakistan, what most often comes to mind? The place where schools, markets, and neighborhoods are routinely bombed? The terrorist haven where Osama bin Laden hid for almost a decade? The “Pak” in Af-Pak? The difficult ally America can’t drop because of its nuclear capabilities? The country where Malala Yousafzai was shot? All of this is true, but there is so much more to this country of 182 million people.

    The common perception of Pakistan is more similar to its neighbor in the west (Afghanistan) than the one in the east (India), the country with which it shares its history. This is a direct result of how Pakistan’s “establishment” — its military and political elite — has defined its identity. This definition emphasizes Islam above all else, and pitches Pakistan as completely different from India.

    In Pakistan’s history textbooks, Hindus and Muslims living on the Indian sub-continent during British colonial-era rule, and for centuries before, are described as two nations –distinct and separate. Yet the reality is that they intermingled and co-existed, sharing their customs and culture. In fact, until the British came and conducted a census in 1881, no one knew how many South Asians were Hindu and how many were Muslim.

    The official version of Pakistan’s history only has room for Muslim heroes — no Sikhs, no Hindus — and only orthodox Muslims, at that. For instance, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 until 1605, and espoused a tolerant version of Islam, giving Hindus prominent positions in his cabinet, is compared unfavorably to the orthodox but cruel Emperor Aurangzeb. (Aurangzeb ruled from 1658 to 1707, and had political opponents executed, including his own brother, Prince Dara Shikhoh.) Bhagat Singh, a Sikh revolutionary from now-Pakistani Punjab who fought for independence from the British, isn’t mentioned at all in Pakistani textbooks. He isn’t even remembered on the street: A move by activists to have a traffic circle in Lahore — where he was hanged to death in 1931 — named after him in 2012 encountered intense opposition and was tabled.

    Because Pakistan has disavowed large parts of its past and its identity, it is easier to define it in terms of its present struggle with terrorism. There is little else people know about it. Few people ask me about what Pakistan is really like, about life in my hometown, Lahore, the city of gardens.

    No one knows about the city’s historic Sufi shrines, the grand Badshahi Mosque, or the Lahore Fort, which is next to a gorgeous Sikh gurdwara (a place of worship). Travel to the country is often discouraged, especially if one is not Pakistani, but even if the security situation were different, how many people would know about its rich heritage? And can one blame them, if Pakistan itself disowns large parts of it? Yet in erasing Pakistan’s past and creating an Islamic identity for the country, the establishment has, in fact, contributed to the worsening security situation.

    Since the 1970s, Pakistan’s military and political elite have chosen religious fundamentalism over a democratic plurality. The establishment has emphasized a Sunni Muslim identity at the exclusion of all other ethnic, religious, and sectarian identities. Saudi-imported Wahhabism — an ultra-conservative version of Sunni Islam that lies at odds with South Asia’s tradition of Sufi-influenced Barelvi Islam — has been making in-roads in Pakistani society since the 1980s. The Ahmadi sect, which considers itself to be Muslim, was declared “non-Muslim” by Pakistan’s leaders in 1974. The colonial-era blasphemy laws were made particularly severe in the 1980s, and since 1987, 1,335 people have been accused of defaming Islam. Vigilantes have attacked many of those who have been accused, and militant groups are thriving in this shrinking space for diversity.

    Yet this path wasn’t inevitable with the creation of a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims. In his August 11, 1947, address to the Constituent Assembly, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah was clear that he intended it to be a country for Muslims that welcomed all religions, not an Islamic country. Today, his vision has given way to a harsh, one-dimensional reality — to a country better known for harboring bin Laden than anything else.

    But all is not lost. Pakistan’s creative, intellectual heart strives to be heard over the din of poor security. People are writing books, holding literature festivals, putting on plays, and creating wonderful music. In fact, they seem to be doing a better job than ever, given all of the odds stacked against them. Yet for the rest of the world, Pakistan’s image remains unchanged.

    The West would do well to recognize Pakistan’s long history, its beautiful complexity, its many dimensions, and its South Asian-ness, but the final burden rests with Pakistan’s leaders. The country must preserve its glorious pre-Islamic heritage, such as the ancient city of Mohenjo Daro in Sindh province, which was built 4,500 years ago, but is threatened by the elements and mismanagement. It must embrace its full past, Islamic and non-Islamic. It must teach its complete history, which includes Hindu empires and Muslim rulers. It must celebrate all of the ethnicities living within its borders, and the richness of its South Asian culture. Imposing an identity that does away with this history and diversity has done Pakistan enough harm.

  • Pakistan's Identity problem is highlighted by a picture showing holi in India? How is that relevant to Pakistan?


    Is this your, USA's or whose???

  • @Shirazi

    I have now identified this website to be another US propaganda machine.

    We, unfortunately are already visited by Digital outreach (Afshan) and Central Command. Can you not spare us from further US propaganda arms? Please?

  • Fareed Zakria's patriotism to his country of birth and plagiarism is taking him nowhere.

  • @Anjaan bhai

    Thanks for your input. It sounds like you think Pakistan doesn't have identity problem it's just US propoganda.

    This head in the sand mentality is not helping us either.

  • Hindus think very highly of several Muslim rulers and personalities of the sub-continent. As mentioned by the article, Akbar was one of them. He treated the Hindu majority with respect, and in turn, earned their respect. Tipu Sultan is another personality who is loved by Indians, especially the people of south India. Movies after movies have made on them. However, for Pakistanis, there is no concept of a non-Muslim hero.

  • @Shirazi

    Pakistan has many-fold problems but of all the people/countries in the world, we don't like to be lectured by the US.

    Problems will be solved by Pakistanis by self-realisation only. If these could be resolved by foreign lecturers, these would have been solved long time ago.

    How about a comment on:

    "Pakistan's Identity problem is highlighted by a picture showing holi in India? How is that relevant to Pakistan?"

  • @Qarar,

    "Hindus think very highly of several Muslim rulers and personalities of the sub-continent."

    Are you serious?

    How do you really come up with all this?

  • @Anjaan bhai

    Problems will be solved by Pakistanis by self-realisation only.

    So do you realize Idenity problem in Pakistan?

  • @bsobaid

    Yes, I'm serious. I'm not talking about BJP crowd. Most Indians I've met have liked Akbar and they absolutely hated Aurangzeb.

  • @Qarar,

    BJAP has the support of most Indians, so you cant really ignore them when you talk about Indians.

  • @Shirazi

    As I said, Pakistan has many problems. Identity is the least of the problems. Please stop paying a lip-service to the Propagandist organisations.

  • A year ago, I suffered the fate of thousands of Pakistanis who have been attacked, maimed and terrorised by violent extremism. I was lucky to have physically survived but my driver Mustafa was not. An innocent human life lost but at the end of the day, he made for a mere digit. This is the brutal reality of a country where a mighty state appears unable to protect its citizens.

    I was once a civil servant and a mandarin in Pakistan’s powerful administrative service. I ventured into international development and worked for the Asian Development Bank. I had secure careers lined up with attractive promotions and stable retirement plans. I gave up these comfortable options and opted for journalism and public engagement, in the naive hope that public narratives could be changed. I chose a path that would allow me freedom of expression to wade in the murky waters of what is known as ‘public opinion’ in Pakistan.

    I cannot complain much as within a few years I had carved my space and engaged with old and new media, happily discovering that there were thousands of other likeminded men and women of my country who agreed that religious extremism and xenophobia masked as patriotism needed to be challenged. Above all, human rights — especially the right to live and worship freely — mattered. But I sensed the limits and the dangers. And on March 28 last year, I did pay a price. Unknown men, later identified by the police as operatives of a Taliban affiliate, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), tried to kill me. A rather drastic punishment for my views and what I stood for.

    There has been a trial of sorts underway. A few men are in jail but the ‘mastermind’ is at large. If the police story and confessions — to be tested in a court of law — are correct, then all the accused, including the mastermind, report to the chief of the LeJ, who has been given bail in all cases. The gentleman in question had confessed to killing people in his interviews. All of this is on public record.

    Before the attack, I was warned and threatened, especially on the social media. Unknown accounts told me that I would have to pay a price with my blood. I was called an apostate, an infidel for commenting on the attacks on non-Muslims and Shias. My views on normalising ties with India were taken by some as a sign of being unpatriotic, for perennial hostility with the ‘Hindu’ neighbour is the ultimate marker of our nationhood. This is also a cynical ploy, for what could be more telling than Ms Fatima Jinnah, celebrated as the mother of the nation, also being accused of being an Indian agent when she chose to show dissent in the 1965 elections.

    Concurrently, friends and family also insisted that I should not talk about ‘sensitive’ issues. For, if I said don’t kill Shias, then I could be mistaken for being a Shia Muslim. I had to clarify in a television show that I was a Sunni. I find it ludicrous that we have to render such explanations (I saw others doing it as well on television). When I protested and questioned the state’s institutionalised persecution of Ahmadis, I was warned that I could be thought of as being an Ahmadi! Questioning the treatment meted out to marginalised sections of the population is enough for extremists to label you an apostate in the Islamic Republic. I remember that a caller in one of my TV shows attacked me for protesting against the ghastly 2013 attack on a Peshawar church and said that Muslims were also being killed by the ‘Christian’ West!

    Is there no freedom in Pakistan to say that the colonial blasphemy law is being misused? Should we let mobs burn pregnant Christian women and Ahmadi families, and attack Christian settlements and churches because there is a mere accusation of blasphemy?

    What sort of media reporting and commentary can take place if you can’t raise such issues on the most influential medium, i.e., TV? I do remember the unofficial advisories and the counsel by peers and producers on what not to say on TV. I caved in sometimes and for the times I did not, I guess, was taught a lesson.

    I have been away from the country of my birth and my beloved city of Lahore for 11 months. I have lived abroad but never for so long. This has been a forced separation, mainly driven by the fact that those who tried to kill me can easily try it again. There have been threats sent my way directly and indirectly and the extremists have even threatened my murdered driver’s family not to show up in court.

    I never knew that in my quest for freedom I would face this dilemma: should I risk my life or let anyone else get hurt? I am neither a suicide bomber nor eager to be ‘martyred’. We have enough martyrs in Pakistan. I certainly don’t want to travel around in bullet-bomb-proof cars (unaffordable to begin with). There are a few friends and foes who accuse me of ‘running away’. This is part of the larger desensitisation and intellectual confusion that permeates Pakistan. I am quite happy to take that opprobrium than face bullets. The bravery of those who question my decision can only be tested if they (God forbid) had to face the situation I am in.

    Freedom of expression is invaluable and non-negotiable. I have done enough of self-censorship in my ruptured media career. But I have no plans to give up. I also have no regrets for taking positions. I salute all the hard-working journalists and media workers who perform their duties in difficult situations, especially in Balochistan, Fata and other conflict zones. I will rejoin them one day. Pakistan is part of my identity and will always remain so. For now, I need to feel secure. The right to life, after all, is inviolable.

  • What a wonderful Islamic Republic of Pakistan where you may not criticize any wrong doings committed in the name of Islam, and where you are not allowed to defend yourself, and where you don't get your right by a system not Islamic at all !!!

  • Presently, we cannot be proud of our identity. We must try our best to depict an Identity better than what we have now.

  • I hear many Pakistanis as saying "I am a proud Pakistani"

    But when I hear that, straight away it comes to my mind that:

    Are we proud of being liars

    Are we proud of being fraudsters

    Are we proud of being Minafiqeen

    Are we proud of being cheaters

    etc. etc.

  • adnak

    All stereo type Pakistanis are very proud of owning all the qualities you have mentioned here. Perhaps more than the ones you have mentioned here. I call it the magic of ishallah=mashallah.

  • J.A.Khan jee

    If you don't mind, let me modify your magic saying as inshallah=mashallah=alhamdolillah=subhanallah

    But just saying it without believing in it or saying it to be-fool others.

  • salam

    Hindus think very highly of several Muslim rulers and personalities of the sub-continent. As mentioned by the article, Akbar was one of them. He treated the Hindu majority with respect, and in turn, earned their respect. Tipu Sultan is another personality who is loved by Indians, especially the people of south India. Movies after movies have made on them. However, for Pakistanis, there is no concept of a non-Muslim hero.

    I think muslims of pakistan have great respect and sentiments for bhagat singh but he is not taught much in text books as mostly muslim rulers r focused and in doing so they have distorted the history to a great deal.

    one of the reasons of hindus giving great value to akbar was that he married a hindu "jodha" which influenced hindus greatly and secondly his celebrations of hindus festivals as well. i don't think if many hindus think he was a firm muslim.

    lately in pakistan a hindu "justice rana bhagwan daas" has been very prominent and he earned great value and respect especially from masses...

    in anarkali there r sikh shopkeepers who r maintaining their identity of being sikh and other muslims mingle with them openly.. so i guess masses r not that prejudiced or spiteful towards other minorities and beliefs.. it was a typical mindset which distorted things for their own cause and benefits.

    May ALLAH bless Pakistan and Pakistanis

  • For 90+percent of Pakistanis there is no identity problem. They may be concerned about their economic welfare but not identity. It is the failed ideologies of past that give rise this ID problem. What would Reds do when Soviet system failed? They are lost and hence the crisis. If today Pakistan were to open the door, you would get millions of people coming in months and they don't want to leave.

    Would any ID nut explain what exactly is the problem.