Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the PMLN’s interior minister, has passionately proclaimed his “Muslim identity” above his “Pakistani nationality”. Speaking on the floor of the National Assembly last week, he described himself as “first a Musalmaan and then a patriotic Pakistani” in denouncing the execution of Qader Molla, the Sec-Gen of the Bangladesh Jamaat i Islami by the government of Hasina Wajed for war crimes against Bangladesh during the “war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971”. Chaudhry Nisar explained how he had tried desperately to convince his cabinet colleagues to officially convey their Muslim passions to the government of BD but failed to evoke a response, the Pakistani Foreign Office shrugging off the episode as an “internal matter” of BD. He also tried to whip up frenzy in parliament through the good oratory skills of his former PMLN colleagues and current opposition leaders Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and Javed Hashmi for a condemnatory resolution against the execution of Qader Molla but failed, thanks largely to resistance from the PPP and MQM who watered it down significantly.
On the face of it, many Pakistanis might unthinkingly agree with Chaudhry Nisar in staking their Muslim identity over and above their Pakistani one in any given situation. In fact, recent polls show that a significant majority of Pakistan’s youth are inclined to say “I am a Muslim” when asked the simple question “who are you?” rather than “I am a Pakistani”? This contrasts sharply with Muslims elsewhere in the world who are more likely to stress their nationality over their religion, eg, Arabs, Saudis, Malaysians, Chinese, Palestinians, Kuwaitis, Emiratees, Iranians, etc. Indeed, even Muslims in India would answer “Indian” rather than “Muslim”. Why are we Pakistanis different from our fellow Muslims in other nation states? What are the consequences for our state and society of this difference in perceptions and notions of identity?
The issue can be traced back to partition when the leaders of the Pakistan movement, including Mohammad Ali Jinnah, deliberately mixed up propagandistic notions of Islam, the religion and culture, “being in danger” with the fact of “economic and political discrimination” of Muslims in the body politic of India led by the predominantly Hindu-Congress. Unfortunately, however, after the creation of Pakistan, the political leaders of the new nation state continued to clutch at “Islamic ideology” rather than secular democracy for purposes of legitimacy and conjured up “Hindu India” as the perennial external enemy seeking to undo Pakistan. In this dubious quest for a religious nationhood, they trampled over the right of Pakistanis to assert their state identity (Pakistani), followed by their ethic and regional sub-identities. This mass identity falsehood eventually led to the democratic reassertion of Bengali rights and the impetus behind the creation of BanglaDesh in 1971, followed by eruptions of similar regional-ethnic sentiments in Balochistan and Pashtunistan in 1973.
The second consequence of trying to forge a singular Muslim identity in Pakistan in opposition to the nation-state identities of other Muslim and non-Muslim countries is the legitimization of large-scale violence by state and non-state actors. Singular religious and belief identities are likely to be more passionately held, defended and extended than plural ones that are more conciliatory and tolerant. This explains the rise of separatist ethnic movements no less than eruptions of Islamic terrorism and sectarianism.
The third consequence of Muslimising our primary identity is eternally pitting our nation-state of Pakistan against the nation-state of India by portraying it in our national consciousness as Hindu-India, despite the fact that Indians identify themselves as Indians and not Hindus or Muslims when dealing with citizens of other nation states who do likewise. This distortion of the legitimizing narrative of a new nation-state has, in turn, led to the creation of a national security state based on the supremacy of the military as the predominant political force in Pakistan.
Under the circumstances, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s Muslims passions are totally misplaced and even dangerous in articulating Pakistan’s interests. Indeed, the fact that he is ideologically on the same page as the two spokesmen of the military, Sheikh Rashid and Javed Hashmi, is cause for serious concern. He is dipping into the lowest common denominator of religious passions at a moment in history when his leader Nawaz Sharif is trying to keep religion out of the politics of conflict-resolution between Pakistan and India; out of the equation between the forces of democracy and the forces of Praetorianism; and out of reckoning between the forces of religious terrorism and the writ of the nation-state.
To be sure, the ruling party of Bangladesh is whipping up nationalist passions for rank opportunist political reasons. But these are internal matters for Bangladesh. On the other hand, it is morally and politically wrong for Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and his ideological ilk to belabour the Muslim passions of 1971 in which Pakistan was the clear transgressor, and create a rift within and outside the country.