Split Identity: Roots of Terrorism in Pakistan

Analysis, posted 06.06.2011, from Pakistan, in:
In Pakistan's history, manipulation of the faith for political purposes has deep roots (Photo: AP)

Pakistan is by definition a Muslim nation. It was born in the partition of British India in 1947. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, had campaigned for a separate state for South Asian Muslims, but envisioned a modern state with a secular government. His Muslim League championed the Two-Nation Theory, according to which Hindus and Muslims could not coexist peacefully as a single nation. Nonetheless, Jinnah and most of the Muslim leadership during the independence struggle did not intend Pakistan to become a theocratic state.

The contradiction between the demand for a separate state on the basis of religion and the wish for non-religious governance was evident from the very start. Scholars say that this contradiction is at the heart of Pakistan's ongoing identity crises, contributing to the extremist challenges the country is facing.

Culture versus faith

"Contradiction is in Pakistan's essence, and that is why we have not been able to figure out our real identity," says Ijaz Khan, the chairman of the Department of International Relations at the University of Peshawar. According to him, there are two schools of thought in Pakistan: those who want a state run along religious lines and those with a secular mindset.

Both schools refer to Islam, however. The secularists invented "Muslim nationalism", stressing cultural matters rather than the faith as such to define Pakistan's identity. Bangladesh's secession from Pakistan in 1971, however, dealt a heavy blow to this philosophy because the Bengalis emphasised cultural differences between south Asian Muslims rather than their unity.

Soon after the partition of British India in 1947, the politicians who had led the campaign for a separate Muslim state became marginalised in Pakistan. The military and the bureaucracy assumed crucial roles in shaping policies, especially after the country's first military coup of 1958. "Both the military and the bureaucracy used religion as a tool to promote their interests," remarks Professor Khan, adding that some Muslim parties, which originally opposed partition on religious grounds, began to campaign for legislation in line with Islamic law. The military and the bureaucracy considered these parties allies.

All governments, however, whether established through elections or by military coups, "played the religion card", Professor Khan argues: "Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan People's Party, came up with the idea of Islamic socialism." Bhutto won a landslide victory against an alliance that included some faith-based parties in the 1973 elections, but he nonetheless continued to further Islamise the country. For instance, he banned the sale of liquor and declared Friday a holiday.

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By Mohammad Ali Khan

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