Home>Pakistani National Identity: Muslim, Multilingual and Multicultural?

Pakistani National Identity: Muslim, Multilingual and Multicultural?

July 14, 2009

Research Article

Dr. Saeed Shafqat


In South Asia, it is religion, more than nationalism that persists as identity maker. Resultantly, nationalist aspirations are couched in religious and ideological overtones, which in turn erode the culture of tolerance in South Asian societies. This has given birth to the exclusion and marginalization of some groups (particularly, religious and ethnic minorities) within Pakistan.

The persistent instrumentalization of religion has produced contradictory, conflictual and competitive social forces in a number of South Asian states where, on the one hand, religious minorities (Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians in the case of Pakistan, Muslims in the case of India) and ethnic groups (i.e. Sindhis & Baloch in Pakistan) feel excluded and marginalized, and, on the other hand, compete to access state resources. These social forces have conflicting visions about the role of religion in their societies and, increasingly, the trend is to enforce an exclusivist ideological nationalism rather than seek reconciliation, accommodation or power sharing. Two critical questions are how, and why, the state in South Asia instrumentalizes religion to promote nationalism? How does this lead to a culture of intolerance and the exclusion of many citizen groups from the nation building process?

To address these questions, I will focus primarily on the experience of Pakistan, where religious groups and the state – sometimes independently and at others times in concert – continue to invoke religion to patronize some groups while excluding others. The state instrumentalizes religion for the purpose of building nationalism, while competing visions shape the process of exclusion and inclusion in pursuit of defining national identity and promoting nationalism. Thus contestation on ‘Who is a Pakistani’ and why Pakistani identity is nebulous continues to be an important source of discourse among scholars on Pakistan.1

For purposes of brevity and conceptual clarity, let me identify three types of groups and the ways in which they compete and pursue their goals, and in the process may cause the exclusion and marginalization of their competitors;

1. The Islamists
2. The Pluralists
3. The Nation-Statists.

The Islamists:

The proponents of this group argue that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and that remains the only binding force. They maintain that sole reason for the creation of Pakistan was preserving ‘Islam’ and not simply ‘Muslims of un-divided India’ as opposed to Hindus; they prefer Islamic belief over group as the primary source of identity. Therefore they assert and demand enforcement of Islamic Shariah (laws). According to this school, following and accepting the centralizing role of Islam could harmonize the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. Islamic ideology is presented as a panacea for ethnic demands and political and socio-economic ills. This group invokes the Objectives Resolution (March 12th, 1949) and asserts that Pakistan was “founded in the name of Islam”. Among Pakistani rulers, General Zia-ul Haq (1977-88) is recognized as the most ardent promoter of this school. (Paradoxically, both civilian and military regimes in Pakistan have also utilized Islam as ‘official ideology’ and as a policy choice to counter demands for ethnic and cultural autonomy.) The supporters of the Islamist school use Islamic ideology to suppress ethnic and cultural pluralism and thus encourage centralization, authoritarianism and anti-federation sentiment. Two influential writings illustrate this point. Justice (retired) Javid Iqbal has made a revisionist interpretation of the Two Nation Theory by arguing that Islam provides a “common spiritual aspiration” and, as such, the issue of national identity must be resolved in the context of Islamic values. It is within this context that Islamic ideology and nationalism get used interchangeably. In a more nuanced style, Professor Fateh Mohammad Malik has coined a new phrase, the “Islamian-e-Hind,” for the “Muslims of India”. He claims that based on Islamic identity and ideology, Islamian-e-Hind demanded a separate homeland for Muslims through ‘democratic struggle’. Thus Malik gives an Islamic and ideological color to the Pakistan Movement and vigorously claims that today their (Pakistanis) survival is also tied to protecting and defending this ideological unity.2 Javid Iqbal and Professor Malik uphold the relevance of the Two Nation Theory and Islam in defining Pakistani identity; reinforcing the Islamist view, but a more disturbing factor is that both Javed Iqbal and Malik seemingly prefer centralization rather than pluralism. Thus for Islamists centralization and ideologically driven unity remains principle tenet of nationhood.

The Pluralists:

This group is composed of those who argue that Pakistan does not have a single culture and highlight its pluralist content and character. They argue that Pakistan is a multilingual and multicultural state; therefore, its languages and cultures should be allowed to grow and develop in the broader context of national history and cultural experiences. They contend that the regional cultures and Islam have been in existence prior to the creation of Pakistan and both can flourish together. From this perspective, it is not Islamization but greater decentralization and enhanced provincial autonomy that would promote national integration and give substance to Pakistani national identity. This view has gained momentum and legitimacy in post 1971 Pakistan but not sufficient success and recognition; people have become more assertive about projecting and protecting their ethnic demands and rights. The outcome of the February 18th 2008 elections and the victory of the Pakistan Peoples Party(PPP),the Pakistan Muslim League-N(PML-N), the Awami National Party(ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has given new confidence and promise to Pluralist thinking and ideals. It is disturbing to observe that the political parties and their leadership have been passive and slow in demonstrating a spirit of accommodation, reconciliation and harmony that continues to elude Pakistani political elites. Yet, the continuity and sustenance of parliamentary political process holds signs of promise whereby the creation of Gilgit-Baltistan province, agreement and announcement of 7th NFC Award and November 23rd Baluchistan Package could be considered as important initial steps towards the pluralist-federal ideal. Will the Pluralist forces prevail and redefine the soul and substance of Pakistani national identity? While conceiving to implement these steps the resistance from Islamists and the Nation-Statists must not be under estimated.

“Will the Pluralist forces prevail and redefine the soul and substance of

Pakistani national identity?”

The Nation-Statists:

This group argues that nation-building and national identity can be understood by focusing on Pakistan’s antagonism towards India. According to this school, Pakistan “relies more on anti-Indian nationalism than on national integration.” The logic of the argument is that ethnic divergence is so strong that hardly anything binds Pakistan together internally, and anti-Indian nationalism is the only binding force; it is “nationalism without a nation”3. This position is one-dimensional and overplays the role of the perceived enemy in defining Pakistani national identity. It merits attention that this position has been utilized by the civil and military regimes in Pakistan through state controlled television and other media outlets to produce ‘enemy images’ and to promote exclusion. This view has been dominant and potent both in defining national identity and promoting exclusionary nationalism. But in this age of satellites, fax, email and internet it is losing ground. As citizens, particularly the younger generation, have access to alternate channels, the dynamics of defending and defining Pakistani nationhood and identity are increasingly internal and global and not simply anti-Indian. The very logic of this school promotes exclusion and marginalization by invoking the imagery, fear and hatred of the ‘enemy’. Both the Islamists and the Nation-Statists remain a potent force in shaping the contours of and discourse on Pakistani national identity.

Given these dynamics, it needs to be borne in mind that competing ethnicities do not mean the absence of a nation-state but indicate that multiple identities reflect another complex facet of the nation building process.

Taking a cue from the nationally celebrated and respected poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, let me construct a model of Pakistani national identity 4. It is multifaceted and formed in concentric circles, approaching one, opens the door to another. In Pakistani case, the inner most circle is that of Islamic values, which comprises the nucleus of values; espousing social justice and tolerance, respect for women, protection of minority religions and underprivileged and the right to dissent; the second circle is that of our regional cultures, languages / ethnicities and folk heritage. It is a vital component of identity formation, whereby regional languages compete and converge to steer the path of national identity. The outermost circle is that of Pakistani territoriality, national history and shared heritage.

For internal contestation and the maximization of demands, rights, representation and interests, Mohajir, Punjabi, Pathan, Sindhi, Baluch, and even Saraiki and Kashmiri ethnicities are invoked. Yet these ethnicities do not vie with Pakistani nationhood and reflect the evolving dynamics of multiple identities in Pakistan5. Ethnic struggles and demands are increasingly recognised as legitimate instruments to seek a fair share of economic and cultural resources in Pakistan. The formation of the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONAM) for example, was a manifestation of this phenomenon.6 In the broader context both the ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ threats to the nation-state stir up symbols of nationalism. Today Pakistanis are more conscious of their territoriality and distinct geopolitical personality than ever before. The sources of pride and patriotism are internal, rooted in the territory that constitutes Pakistan – and not simply anti-Indian. The more we look at Pakistan through the lens of territory and domestic culture, the more coherent and integrated our identity becomes. Here one needs to look at the geographical compactness, contiguity, historical and political circumstances that make contemporary Pakistan a distinct civilization (Ghandara, Harapa and Mohenjodaro) and geopolitical entity. This has led some analysts to project and portray Pakistan as a transitory zone between South Asia, Middle East and Central Asia. These proponents overplay Islamic civilizational linkages and distance from South Asia’s Hindu roots.7 Others are vigorous in arguing that Pakistan is historically embedded in Islamic and South Asian cultural heritage, centered on the Indus river system. Thus, civilizationally and geographically, Pakistanis embody and personify the “Indus Person”.8 Evidently both recognize the territorial basis of Pakistani nationalism; however, the contest is on choosing the role of Islam and the degree of Islamization, its direction and orientation, particularly the monstrous wave of Talibanization. This is an issue that Pakistanis must come to grips with.

This makes it all the more important to recognize the complexity of linkages and relationships among ethnicity, Islam and territoriality to understand the interplay of social and political forces that influence the processes of nation building and identity formation.

I have argued that Pakistani national identity is increasingly multilayered and multilingual, and the dynamics are primarily domestic although external factors do play a role in rousing nationalist fervour. Ethnic contestation and assimilation are continuous and simultaneous processes that reflect the dynamism of Pakistani identity and struggles of nationhood. It is remarkable and comforting that both in-

“Today Pakistanis are more conscious of their territoriality and distinct geopolitical personality than ever before. The sources of pride and patriotism are internal, rooted in the territory that constitutes Pakistan – and not simply anti-Indian.”

-ternal dynamics and external influences are competing in shaping Pakistani national identity – A Pakistani is in tandem territorial, Muslim and ethnically/culturally pluralist. Pakistanis need to understand and ingrain in their minds that the geography of their nationhood is distinct. It was meaningful at the time of independence and it is resilient today. It is disconcerting that Islamists and the Nation-Statists continue to trivialize these pluralist dimensions and multiple facets of Pakistani national identity, thus expounding an exclusionary ideology from powerful positions within the nation. The outcome of the February 18th, 2008 elections has provided the Pluralist school and its adherents an opportunity to encourage inclusion of marginalized groups and communities to rekindle the federalist spirit in Pakistan. It should also mean engaging Islamists and Nation-Statists for building a minimal consensus and developing a shared vision on nationhood to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the creeping Talibanization. Such an approach could improve the prospects of governance and restrict the size of ungovernable spaces. Will the political leaders, policy makers, intellectuals and civil society activists seize the opportunity and make the celebration of diversity a norm for Pakistani national identity? This remains the question.

“A Pakistani is in tandem
territorial, Muslim and
ethnically / culturally pluralist.”

A slightly revised version of this paper was presented at the Regional Conference on Pluralism in South Asia organized by the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka in collaboration with Canadian High Commission in Colombo March 24-25th, 2008. In October 2009, this paper was presented to a policy dialog group organized by Alternate Solutions in Lahore. I am grateful to audi ences at both places for useful comments and critique. The author is deeply appreciative of the comments and suggestions given by Raheem ul Haque and Sadi Mirza, which helped him reconfigure his ideas and argument.


1 .For a rigorous, analytical and well researched interpretation and evaluation on the subject see, Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan (London: Hurst & Company,2009), particularly chapter 2, “Who is Pakistani? Culture and Identity”, pp 46-80.

2 Javid Iqbal, Islam and Pakistan’s Identity (Lahore: Iqbal Academy Pakistan/Vanguard Books, 2003) Professor Fateh M. Malik, Fikri Tangdasti aur Nazreeiati Baygangi ka Mausam (Islamabad: Doosat Publications, 2001) pp34-54. This Urdu book has a series of five essays vigorously defending Two Nation Theory and challenging in particular the views of Altaf Hussain, the MQM leader, who has been vocal in criticizing this theory.

3 Christophe Jaffrelot, Nationalism without a Nation (New Delhi/ London: Manohar/Zed Books,2002) pp7-8 & 42

4 Sheema Majeed, Interviews with Faiz Ahmad Faiz (Lahore: Ferozesons, 1988) pp 74-78.(in Urdu)

5 The case of Pashtun and Baloch banding together when they confront the federal government, while within Baluchistan the two ethnic groups compete and contest. For an informative discussion on the role of religion, ethnic factors and developmental goals see, Paul Titus (Editor), Marginality and Modernity: Ethnicity and Political Change in Post-Colonial Balochistan (Karachi, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) van den Bergh. 2004. Optimal climate policy is a utopia: from quantitative to qualitative cost-benefit analysis. Ecological Economics 48, 385-393.

6 The PONAM was formed in July 1998, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that the government would build the controversial Kalabagh Dam. This announcement banded together, the Sindhi nationalists, NWFP Pakhtoonkha, Baluch nationalists and Seraiki movement leaders. A somewhat loose and diverse alliance of relatively progressive but minor political parties which spoke about the rights of the under represented ethnic groups. Sardar Atta Ullah Mengal, Mahmud Achazai, Qadir Magsi, Dr.Hye Baloch are some leading leaders and voices of PONAM. More recently on December 25th, 2009, 16 leftist and progressive political parties and their leaders from all the four provinces met in Lahore to form a larger alliance of nationalist and progressive forces. A small but important step towards revamping the federation. “16 Progressive Parties discuss merger” Dawn, Lahore, Saturday, December 26th, 2009.

7 Shahid Javed Burki, “Moving towards West Asia” Dawn online edition February 12, 2002. Burki wrote a series of articles on the subject arguing that for reasons of religio-cultural affinity and economic opportunity, Pakistan “should look to West Asia rather than South Asia”.

8 Aitzaz Ahsan, The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan (Karachi, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) Dr. KF Yusuf, Towards A Tripolar World (Lahore: Tariq Publishing House,1975) pp1-17. Hamza Alavi, “Ethnicity, Muslim society and Pakistan ideology” in Anita Weiss (ed), Islamic Reassertion in Pakistan: the application of Islamic Laws in a Modern State (Lahore: Vanguard, 1987) pp 21-47