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The Shadow of the Crescent

NEW YORK — As Pakistan atrophies in its existential crisis, a fundamental question about the nature of the country is coming to the fore: Are the country’s citizens Pakistanis who happen to be Muslims, or are they Muslims who happen to be Pakistanis? Which comes first, flag or faith?

It is not a question that many Pakistanis can readily answer. The vast majority of the country’s so-called “educated elite” seem to have no qualms about identifying themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second. Some feel that their religion is the most important thing to them, and that that’s where their first loyalty will always lie. Others admit to having scant regard for religion, but say that Pakistan has come to mean so little to them that their religion supersedes their loyalty to the country.

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This willingness to subordinate state to God, even among the highly educated, lies at the heart of Pakistan’s crisis. How can a country be expected to prosper if the majority of its citizens harbor only a secondary allegiance to the state? How can it progress if, as the noted author M.J. Akbar wrote, “the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani.”

But what is the idea of Pakistan?

Back in the heady days of the 1940’s, Mohammed Ali Jinnah rallied a people to nationhood. Despite his Anglophone status and Victorian manners, he carved out a separate homeland for India’s Muslims. But, today, an erudite, westernized lawyer like Jinnah who isn’t a wadhera or a jagirdar would find it impossible to win a popular election in Pakistan.

For the real Jinnah is now irrelevant in the country that reveres him as “Quaid-e-Azam,” or founder of the nation. Few Pakistanis have the time or inclination to think about their founder’s ideas. Jinnah’s idea of Pakistan – South Asian Muslim nationalism – has been overrun by the dogma of Islamic universalism.

The modern Pakistani identity is shaped largely by the negation of an Indian-Hindu identity and the adoption of a global pan-Islamic charter. Economic advancement is taken to mean Westernization or worse, Indianization. At every turn, Pakistanis seem more likely to unite as brothers in Islam than as sons of the same soil.

Moreover, Pakistan’s fear of vilification and failure has given birth to an increasingly paranoid brand of Islam that seeks to impose stricter controls – on education, women’s rights, dancing, beardlessness, and sex – and close society to all forms of modernity. This paranoid Islam, represented by hard-line outfits like the Tablighi Jamaat, is Pakistan’s fastest-growing brand of faith.

Pakistan is now at a crossroads, facing an uneasy moment of truth. To survive, its citizens must act in unison or risk seeing every moderate tendency in the country purged by a clamor of illiberal, religious voices.

Today’s crisis calls for every thinking Pakistani to ask serious questions of themselves: What should be the idea of Pakistan? Are you Pakistanis who happen to be Muslims, Christians, or Hindus? Or are you members of a global Islamic ummah who just happen to live in Karachi or Lahore?

The real challenge, and the ultimate solution, is to get people to think and talk about these questions. But this must be a debate between people, and within people. Nothing will be solved by searching for the “true Islam” or by quoting the Koran.

The point is that eventually, despite strong regional loyalties and various cultural and religious differences, the majority can identify as being simply “Pakistani” – even though they may harbor radical differences about what this might mean. The real idea of Pakistan, ultimately, must be multiplicity.

Today, we have come to understand ourselves as composites; often contradictory and internally incompatible. In the Babarnama , for example, we see the internal contradictions in the personality of the founder of the Mughal Empire. When describing his conquest of Chanderi in 1528, Babar offers gruesome details of the gory slaughter of many “infidels” but just a few sentences later he talks at length about Chanderi’s lakes, flowing streams, and sweet water. So who was Babar, bloodthirsty tyrant, humanist poet, or both – and not necessarily at odds with each other?

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Pakistan’s selfhood must be expanded ad maximum and made so capacious that it accommodates its Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans, and Balochis, and their religions – Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Qadhianis – until it is possible to call them all equally “Pakistani.” That must be the ultimate goal, and step one in the long, winding battle to save Pakistan.

That is a national idea worth striving for – and Pakistan’s intellectuals, its elite, and its youth must be at the forefront of the battle. The Crescent has cast a seemingly interminable shadow across the length of Pakistan. Its tragedies and failings are a result of what is happening in God’s name, not Jinnah’s. To save Pakistan, Jinnah’s spirit, his moth-eaten ideals, must be renewed, and Pakistanis must ask themselves what Pakistan really means.