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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Rather than shoring up national identity, religion creates schisms

Pakistan has constitutionally ousted the Ahmadi Muslims from state nationality. They are not Muslims in Pakistan. They become Muslims the moment they step into, let’s say, India that has not apostatised them.

Written by Khaled Ahmed |
Updated: August 1, 2020 9:21:38 am
religion, pakistan religious minorities, shia sunni religion (Representational Image/File)

A state becomes stable when the people living in it acquire what is called “national identity”, says Francis Fukuyama. Somehow, religion doesn’t help in this process of acquiring collective identity. If one looks at the Islamic world, this process of becoming a nation has been derailed by religion. Yet, most political leaders seek to emphasise religion to stabilise the sense of being a nation among its varied population. If India had observed how religion deprived Pakistan of its national identity, it would have thought differently about the potential of religion.

Pakistan thought it could become “one” by having a single “national language”, but when Urdu was proposed as the national language, the people of East Pakistan, proud of their Bengali legacy, refused to accept it. Instead of acquiring a national identity, the people got divided and finally separated in 1971.

In 1949, Pakistan sought to become an “Islamic” state to give its people a “national identity” that would bind them together and stabilise the state. What happened immediately was that its non-Muslim communities felt left out. In the 1941 census, Pakistan’s non-Muslims constituted 25 per cent of the population. However, in the 1998 census, this number had declined to 3.6 per cent. Instead of acquiring a “national identity”, Pakistan purged itself of its non-Muslims.

What stabilises the state — according to Fukuyama — is its firm national identity. But it is not religion which bestows this identity; religion actually destroys it. In Pakistan, minority Hindus and Christians have either fled or are being treated badly. But this does not mean that the Muslims of Pakistan — the so-called majority — are living in peace with an agreed collective identity. Among the Muslims, the most prominent factor going against “national identity” is the Shia-Sunni schism. The Shia population — around 6 per cent — is increasingly unhappy because of the way narrow interpretations of religion have sidelined them. They are killed by extremist Sunni “non-state actors” that Pakistan harbours to fight its neighbourhood wars.

Intense religious identity, instead of bestowing “national” identity, starts purging Muslims not considered “regular” by fellow-Muslims. Pakistan has constitutionally ousted the Ahmadi Muslims from state nationality. They are not Muslims in Pakistan. They become Muslims the moment they step into, let’s say, India that has not apostatised them. There are other potential “apostates” like the Aga Khani Ismaili and Bohra communities, who can be targeted by jihadi outfits that increasingly claim to be the arbiters of identity in the country. Does this mean that Pakistan is ultimately a Sunni state where only Sunnis can live in peace? Unfortunately, the Sunnis have a Deobandi-Barelvi split and can be very nasty to one another. And there is a Wahhabi Ahle Hadith variety that would like to purge both of them if it got the chance.

In the case of the Shia of Quetta and Gilgit-Baltistan, the growth of jihadi Islam in Pakistan has forced them to turn to Iran for consolation, if not survival. The Afghan Taliban “shura” — which Pakistan “sheltered” in Quetta — and the Islamic State, kill Hazaras, the local Shia community that has done rather well as Pakistanis. Nothing is more heart-rending in Pakistan than to see the Hazaras being massacred by fellow Muslims from as far away as Punjab to cover themselves in glory.

If religion doesn’t give a stable national identity, what should the state do to survive? Looking at the Middle East before the Arab Spring destroyed it, one can say that only authoritarianism can keep religion at bay. The region was reasonably stable before the idea of democracy came to the fore in Egypt and the religiously conservative Arabs thought they should give democracy a chance. After the radical-Islamist Ikhwan won the election there, Egypt started falling apart forcing the military to take over and prevent the Christian Copts from being put to the sword.

Today, the “authoritarian” Gulf survives as a stable region while “democratic” Tunisia, Iraq, Syria and Libya face self-destruction. The dictators had kept them going, posing no threat to other Arab states ruled over by kings. After the Arab Spring failed amid bloodshed, the monarchs helped stabilise the dictators to keep the Arab states going. Others, like oil-rich Iraq and multi-racial Syria, are dangerous to live in because of an absence of “national identity”. In Iran, where an authoritarian-clerical governance has survived external threats, peace is kept only through the removal of the democratic opposition.

Stable states have well-entrenched national identities, but it is not religion that bestows national identity. Like Pakistan, Turkey is going religious after removing an indirect “secular” dictatorship; and its minorities are feeling the heat. It is also taking part in the revival of the 19th century Turkish-Arab conflict in Libya where rival United Arab Emirates and Egypt are trying to impose a dictatorship to “save” it from becoming “democratic” and, therefore, self-destructive.

Fukuyama writes: “In the contemporary world, diversity — based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and the like — is both a fact of life and a value. For many reasons, it is a good thing for societies. Exposure to different ways of thinking can often stimulate innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Diversity provides interest and excitement.”

The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan

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