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The sick man of Asia?

A book on Pakistan’s identity crisis and the rival interpretations of Islam, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

books Updated: Sep 12, 2009 18:35 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Making Sense of Pakistan
Farzana Shaikh
Foundation books
Rs 695

Present-day Pakistan is a battlefield between two models of statehood. One vision is of a traditional territorial nation-state. The other is of a community without borders. The result is a variety of Talibans, the world’s scariest nuclear arsenal, an obsession with balancing against India and a seriously dysfunctional political-military setup. Or so argues Farzana Shaikh in this dense but enlightening essay.

Shaikh traces the rot to the creation. The national myth was schizo from the start, torn between embedment in a universal umma and representing South Asian Islam. Even in the first few years of existence its leaders extolled Islamic brotherhood but abandoned an Israeli-style “right of return” policy for Indian Muslims.

One of the book’s strengths is to underline how traumatic and defining East Bengal’s secession was for Pakistani identity. The primary result, she writes, is that "since the late 1970s the Pakistani state has been actively complicit in the hardening of separate religious identities". The reason was to "neutralize regional identities, which were perceived to be a greater threat to its political hegemony than sectarian discord".
A mosque destroyed during a military offensive against the Taliban. Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

Prescription against Partition: injections of theocracy to immunise the country from more 1971-itis. Taking this medicine took Pakistan’s already fragile psyche into a spooky space. Namely, “the dilemma of choosing between rival interpretations of the dominant religion…and deciding which receive state support”. Through the 1970s and 1980s a succession of Pakistani leaders began making the country overtly Sunni. As Shaikh stresses, “the idea of making Pakistan an Islamic state began with the politicians not the ulama”.

Another trauma, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its consequences, brought the mullahs to the fore. Elite groups like the military who tried to use these radical clerics for their own purposes fell sway to the latter’s stronger vision. Military officers began to talk of jihad rather than war.

In the old school, fighting for Kashmir was about reclaiming lost land or strategic depth. In the new school, it was about liberating a “sacred space”. Shaikh wrote the book before the anti-Taliban offensive by the Pakistani military, so it’s unclear if she feels if the old school nationalist worm has turned. But her book provides no map of how a country that has drifted so far from the goal of liberal, inclusive nationhood can find its way back. She dismisses those who see hope in personalities.

This book has flaws. It depends heavily on secondary, non-Pakistani sources. But by attempting an explanation of what lies behind Pakistan’s malaise that goes beyond the superficial, this book makes a strong and much-needed contribution to what is perhaps the international debate of the day.