Islam And Urdu In The Development Of Pakistan (As A State)
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Islam And Urdu In The Development Of Pakistan (As A State)

By Ahsan

Reading Pervez Hoodbhoy’s otherwise excellent piece in Newsline, linked to by Bubs earlier, I came across a misconception commonly made in readings of Pakistan’s political history. See if you can spot it here:

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For three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Indian subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian peninsula. This continental drift is not physical but cultural, driven by a belief that Pakistan must exchange its South Asian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the rich soil that had nurtured a magnificent Muslim culture in India for a thousand years. This culture produced Mughul architecture, the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Asadullah Khan Ghalib, and much more. Now a stern, unyielding version of Islam (Wahhabism) is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis and saints who had walked on this land for hundreds of years.



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This change is by design. Twenty-five years ago, the Pakistani state used Islam as an instrument of state policy. Prayers in government departments were deemed compulsory, floggings were carried out publicly, punishments were meted out to those who did not fast in Ramadan, selection for academic posts in universities required that the candidate demonstrate a knowledge of Islamic teachings and jihad was declared essential for every Muslim. Today, government intervention is no longer needed because of a spontaneous groundswell of Islamic zeal. The notion of an Islamic state – still in an amorphous and diffused form – is more popular now than ever before as people look desperately for miracles to rescue a failing state.

Figure it out? It’s the timeline, of course.



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Pakistan’s flirtation with, courtship of, and consummation with political Islam is generally thought to be kicked off by the Zia regime. It is thought that before that particular mullah-without-a-beard took over the reigns of the state, the country was a thriving secular, pluralistic and tolerant republic, teeming with nightclubs, evening gowns and American scotch.



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What to make of this caricature? On the one hand, it is partly true: Pakistan was a distinctly more liberal country, at least socially, before General Zia’s regime. Both the practice of religion, and its invocations in the public sphere, were restricted. But how much light does this observation shed on where we are now? I would submit not very much, because it misses the key piece of the puzzle: the role of Islam (and Urdu, no doubt) as a state-unifying mechanism.



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The founders of the state, you see, faced a very simple and yet predictable problem: having made the demand for Pakistan on the basis of Muslims’ purportedly shared identity – one distinct and separate from the Hindu majority of pre-partition India – they quickly discovered that this identity was not enough to preclude regional, provincial, and linguistic cleavages from becoming salient. Put differently, they quickly discovered that being a Pathan or Bengali mattered more than being a Muslim, at least insofar as collective action and political mobilization were concerned. Faced with ethno-centered claims to political identity, the guardians of the state consciously and deliberately decided to use Islam as a religion and Urdu as a language to foster a sense of unity in the trying times that followed the end of the British raj.

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The point to be made is this: these decisions were taken at and immediately after independence. The idea that the state mixed its hands with religion only at the onset of the Zia era is completely false.

In their first speeches and actions following independence, Pakistan’s ruling elite stressed the need for national cohesion because its

early leaders saw its linguistic diversity and cultural heterogeneity as a threat to the state apparatus.

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Now, ex-ante, this may not have been the most ill-thought idea in the world. Plenty of modern nation-states have engaged in overt exercises of building state-based-nationalism (one of my three favorite academic books is centered on how the French managed to do it). For us liberals, who value cultural and linguistic heterogeneity, not to mention secular ideals, it was – quite naturally – an unmitigated disaster. But I can see why it made sense to the leaders at the time – even if the bungled execution of such state policies led to things like, well, this.

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The thing to keep in mind, then, is that the exclusion of hundreds of years’ worth of cultural mixing, and the promotion of Urdu and Islam – as an explicit policy of the state – did not begin with Zia. It began the moment Pakistan achieved independence. And the results, as both Hoodbhoy and Muhammad Hanif attest to, are before us today.

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