Farzana Shaikh


On her book Making Sense of Pakistan

Cover Interview of July 26, 2009

The wide angle

The toughest part of any writing on Pakistan is the challenge of how to address the key question of Islam in the construction of Pakistan’s identity.  The risk here is to be seen to fall prey to the country’s state-sponsored historiography and its simplistic rendering of the need of a Muslim “nation” that was entitled to separate statehood.

This explains in part why most serious scholarship on Pakistan has tended to shy away from the question of Islam.  The assumption was that Islam had, in fact, little or nothing to do with Pakistan and that the creation of the state was but an expression of the economic and political aspirations of a nascent Indo-Muslim bourgeoisie, who used religion as a ploy to justify its demands for separate statehood. This legacy has survived to the present day in the well-worn argument that Islam has been instrumentalised as a national ideology by a narrowly based Pakistani elite intent on safeguarding its political interests.

My book runs against the grain of this interpretation, which appears to place too great an emphasis on an elite, whose determination not to share power is held to be chiefly responsible for wrecking the prospects of a common national identity.  But my approach is also clearly at odds with a dominant nationalist narrative, which has sought to equate Pakistan’s national identity with a putative Indo-Muslim consensus.

Negotiating an independent analytical course between these two extremes became an integral part of a book that sought to answer questions the other interpretations simply could not or would not address.  It led me to pursue what I believe is a more nuanced understanding of a deeply troubled country.

While Pakistan has unquestionably been shaped by the economic and political concerns of a Muslim elite, whose roots lay mainly in the northern and central regions of India, the idea of Pakistan as a “safe haven” for Islam in India was impossible to ignore.  However, the multiple meanings that were historically attached to “Islam” among Muslims in South Asia all left their mark on Pakistan, where after the country’s independence they re-emerged as part of a debate on national identity.

The six chapters of Making Sense of Pakistan show how this lack of consensus over the role and meaning of Islam has haunted the country.  Although the chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, they all address the core ideological ambiguity over Islam and discuss the consequences for the country of the absence of agreement.  This allows readers to browse through any section without losing sight of the main argument of the book.

For example, those interested in how the contestation over Islam impinged on questions of political belonging can turn to the second chapter. Here I explore conflicting discourses on who is a “Pakistani” and show how the lack of consensus over the relationship of Pakistan to Islam fuelled doubts about political belonging.  Over time, these doubts weakened the drive to achieve a pluralist definition of “the Pakistani,” which in turn led to the steady dismantling of institutional protection for the country’s minorities.

Other readers interested in seeking an explanation for more recent developments such as the military’s controversial alliance with militant Islamist groups can turn to the fifth chapter.  Here I analyse how uncertainty over the state’s religious identity permeated the military and how this left it prey to the diverging interpretations of Islam.  Like the country’s political classes, over time the military too grew unsure of its “secular” credentials.  It heralded a shift that paved the way for closer co-operation with Islamist forces.

With hindsight it is clear that the main impetus behind this book stemmed from my rising frustration with existing explanations about the causes of Pakistan’s long-standing malaise.  Too many of these interpretations, it seemed to me, were merely concerned either to pin the blame on the nefarious role of foreign powers, especially the United States, or the failure of successive generations of leaders to live up to the vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.  Few were inclined to wrestle with the issue of Pakistan’s uncertain identity or examine the constraints created by its conflicted relation with Islam.

The stark importance of this question has been brought home to me all the more sharply in the wake of Pakistan’s involvement in the “war on terror.”  As someone called upon regularly to comment on and brief policy makers about the country, I have been obliged to lay out the complexities that shape Pakistan’s response or lack of response to terrorism.  In doing so I have repeatedly emphasised that, ultimately, Pakistan will not be able to “do more” about terrorism until it has clarified its vexed relationship with Islam.