Islam and Identity in 21st Century Pakistan

29/03/2018

Although Pakistan emerged in August 1947 as the first self-consciously created Muslim state (and along with Israel as one of only two cases of religious nationalism in modern times), nothing has so divided the country as the role of Islam in the definition of its national identity. While Islam is clearly recognised in the Constitution of Pakistan as the religion of the state, its role in national life is still deeply contested and likely to remain so into the 21st century.  

The explanation is rooted in Pakistan’s history. Much of that history is fraught with uncertainty, especially over the question of (a) whether Pakistan was intended to secure a Muslim homeland free from the domination of a Hindu majority in independent India or (b) whether it expressed a desire for a state informed by Islamic law, where Parliament and the people would be subject to Divine injunctions mediated by a clerical elite. The habit among Pakistan’s self-professed secular parties to instrumentalise the language of Islam as a means of promoting their agendas has deepened the confusion and further muddied the waters between these competing visions. With no visible consensus over the terms of ‘Islam’ – whether as faith, culture or ideology – the resolution of Pakistan’s identity and its putative relation to Islam, remains elusive.     

Minorities within the majority

At first glance Pakistan with its remarkably homogeneous population of Muslims, who make up almost 97 per cent of its people, would appear to be well insulated against discord over Islam’s relation to the state. Yet the sectarian divide between the country’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population and its Shia minority, which has grown more acute with time, suggests otherwise. The trend was set in the 1980s when Shias, who represent an estimated 25 per cent of Pakistan’s total population (and are second in number only to their counterparts in Iran), grew fearful of a state they suspected was engaged in a process of ‘Sunnification’ masquerading as Islamization.  Since then mounting attacks against Shias by Sunni militant groups dedicated to the idea of Pakistan as a Sunni state in which Shias would be designated as a non-Muslim minority, have compounded fears that it is only a matter of time before Shias are relegated to the status of second-class citizens in Pakistan. These concerns are not without some foundation. In 1974 a constitutional amendment, which remains in force, stripped members of Pakistan’s Ahmadi minority of their status as Muslims, reducing at a stroke their rights as full citizens.  The measure has left Ahmadis vulnerable to repeated attacks by other Muslims and increasingly the targets of discriminatory legislation by the state.

A family tearing itself apart

But the struggle over Islam and its place in the definition of Pakistan’s national identity extends well beyond the sectarian schism between Sunnis and Shias.  No less profound are doctrinal differences within the Sunni majority, where competing conceptions of Islam and their relation to the state have led to deep splits between followers of the Barelvi sect and their Sunni counterparts among adherents of the Deobandi movement. The former, who predominate among Sunnis in Pakistan, enjoy a strong presence across vast swathes of the country, especially in rural areas, where they are closely tied to local Sufi shrines. Yet their influence in shaping the contours of the Pakistani state has been relatively modest in comparison to their rivals among Sunni Deobandis.  With the onset of the 21st century, however, Barelvi groups have adopted a more muscular style of politics aimed at forcing the state to impose increasingly rigid definitions of ‘the Muslim’ with the object of sharpening Pakistan’s Islamic profile.

While the political stock of the Barelvis is yet to be consolidated, the standing of the Deobandis is well established. Their influence rose exponentially in the 1980s when Deobandi organizations were singled out for state patronage in recognition of their role in extending Pakistan’s policy of jihad in Afghanistan and their willingness to serve as armed proxies of the state against Indian forces in Kashmir. This favoured position enabled Deobandi parties to emerge as formidable players on Pakistan’s political landscape, where they have scored notable successes in promoting their brand of conservative Islam as the defining ideology of the state.

Who takes control?

However, the political sway of Barelvis and Deobandis has been steadily challenged by other Sunni groups. They include followers of the Salafi sect - known locally as the Ahl-i-Hadis – who, while representing a tiny minority among Sunnis in Pakistan, also seek to bring the state in line with their strict and literal reading of Islam. In doing so they have staged violent attacks against local Sufi shrines whose practices they denounce as un-Islamic. But the influence of Ahl-i-Hadis groups cannot be understood without reference to Pakistan’s exceptionally close ties to Salafi-dominated Saudi Arabia. At least as important is the proximity of Pakistan’s leading Ahl-i-Hadis organization, Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, to the country’s military establishment where it promotes Pakistan’s Islamic identity in opposition to a ‘Hindu India’.   

These discursive fractures have significantly widened the differences over Islam’s putative relation to Pakistan’s national identity. Although the cataclysmic events of 9/11 led Pakistan to briefly temper appeals to a monolithic interpretation of Islam as the basis of the country’s identity, this short-lived experiment did little to address fundamental contradictions embedded in the issue. Indeed, the 21st century has spawned new lines of division over Pakistan’s identity informed by the complex narratives of global Islam. Foremost among these is the constructed opposition between so-called ‘extremist’ Islam, which Pakistan seeks to project as alien to its identity, and an internationally sanctioned discourse of ‘moderate’ Islam to which Pakistan hopes to tie its national mast.  

Whether these latest attempts to re-define Pakistan’s identity as the exemplar of ‘moderate’ Islam can heal the county’s fractures over Islam or ease the present violent struggle between competing ideas of Pakistan, are yet to be established.  Until then the chronic uncertainties arising from Pakistan’s vexed relation to Islam will continue to exact their heavy toll on the country and its people. 

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