Waris Husain, op-ed: Creating A National Identity for a Religious People, America’s Past is Pakistan’s Present


         The question of Pakistan’s success as a Muslim state is one which begs another question: can a state with a schizophrenic perception of its interests solely based on religion continue to exist without someday forming its own nationalist identity? While acknowledging the significance of religion to the fabric of the Pakistani society, I respond with a resounding “no”. One forgets that America, like Pakistan, was founded by a very religious population who identified with one another based on religious sect. However, the founders of America knew this could prohibit nationalism and thus incorporated the role of religion as a mere foundation upon which to build constitutions and state-institutions that foster nationalism.  Similarly, without supplementing Pakistan’s religious identity with a particular nationalist narrative, the nation cannot succeed or survive.

American policy-makers benefit from a long-developing democracy which was created on the basis of a national identity for a religiously heterogeneous people with many different colonies and cultures. Most of the new citizens of the United States were people who came to the new land because they were persecuted for their religious beliefs. The groups varied and some had intense rivalries amongst one another, which could have prohibited the ability of the State to garner trust and participation by citizens obsessed with their religious divisions rather than their national commonality.

The founders realized that if religion was their only unifying principle to form the nation, it would divide the State by giving the majority religion rights at the cost of the minority.  James Madison, a founding father, once said, “what influence have [religious] establishments had on Civil Society. In some instances they have been sent to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny….. Rulers who wished to subvert public liberty may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries (partners).”

Yet, the link between religion and politics was strong even to the Great Enlightenment philosophers who advocated for the creation of the secular U.S. democracy. Their belief was that every public official would act out of a duty to the State and the Constitution, but would also be dictated by the religious morals engrained in him. George Washington acknowledged the separation of Church and state but also stated that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” to political prosperity and that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.  

The dichotomous way of looking at governance as either Westernized/ secular or based on medieval Shariyah law forgoes these lessons of America’s history coinciding with Pakistan’s lack of national identity. The solely religious unifying element of Pakistan’s people has forced the ruling elite to practice behavior that is not based on national interests but the interests of concepts like “Ummah.” This allows for groups like the Taleban, who challenge the writ of the Pakistani state, to gain acceptance as part of the Islamic brotherhood and Pakistan’s Muslim identity.

The public’s on-again- off-again love affair with the jihadis is the product of an obsessive Islamic identity which has enhanced the perception of the India as a primordial religious enemy hell-bent on destroying its Muslim neighbor. Pew Global research reported that 53% of Pakistanis view India as their biggest threat, doubling the size who believed that the Taleban was the biggest threat to Pakistan. From an outsiders point of view, one knows the severe impact of terrorism is far greater than any threat India would wish to pose. The issue of Kashmir further complicates matters because it is viewed through a religious lens as a bastion of “fellow Muslims” who must be liberated at any cost. This includes funding and sympathizing with groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba who are now lodging attacks against Pakistan’s own security structure and civilian population.

However, what can modern Pakistani politicians do when their constituency believes in this basic presumption of religious unity above all else? First, I believe that State actors must dispel the belief that the only available democracy is the carbon copy of the modern Western model, which has taken generations to develop. Second, the message must be sent from Islamabad that they are creating a new national image based not only on the foundation of Islam but more importantly, on constitutionalism and social welfare.  Third, politicians must be prepared to face the short-term ire of the public in exchange for the long-term creation of a nationalist sentiment. Even Thomas Jefferson, who Americans now hold in the highest regard, was called an infidel by Federalists as well as the New England Palladium published in 1800.

Yet, individuals like Jefferson believed that creating a constitution and building upon the religious foundation to foster a nation’s development, rather than relying purely on religion to unify the people, would create long-term security. The necessity for such a policy in Pakistan is highlighted by the dire threats now challenging the existence of the state from terrorist groups.

The only way to get rid of the sympathy people feel with groups like Lashkar or the Taleban is to persecute those elements not because they practice an illegitimate form of Islam, but because they violate Pakistan’s national interests. Further, the creation of this nationalist sentiment will require Pakistan to reevaluate Kashmir as just one of many sovereignty issues facing the nation, rather than being existential element of Pakistan. Pakistan will fail if it continues to view itself as part and parcel of the Muslim community, rather than Pakistan, a nation of its own people with its own culture, history, and domestic problems.


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