Emile Chabal



Addressing the ideological confusion at the heart of Pakistan

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

The main idea of my book, Making Sense of Pakistan, is that we need first and foremost to make sense of the country’s identity crisis.

This crisis, I argue, is rooted in uncertainties over the country’s precise relation to Islam. Although in 1947 Pakistan was created as the first self-professed homeland for Muslims, the contestation over the meaning and role of Islam has continued to resonate to the present day—with significant political, economic and strategic implications, in and beyond Pakistan.

The book begins by addressing squarely the state of ideological confusion at the heart of Pakistan – a confusion that has led to damaging and dangerous consequences. I show how this has eroded the foundations of a plural society, pre-empted a stable constitutional settlement and blighted all efforts at good governance. More ominously still, ideological confusion has driven this nuclear-armed country to pursue foreign policies that, though often judged to pose a threat to its survival and to the security of the international community, have served as a bid to compensate for its poorly developed sense of self.

It has long been commonplace to argue that Pakistan, held together by little more than a common religion, was doomed from the outset. But I contend that it is not so much Islam per se that accounts for Pakistan’s decline, but the country’s ambiguous, if not conflicted, relation to Islam as a political ideology. It is this ambivalence that is chiefly responsible for the uncertainties that have plagued the country’s identity and contributed to the degradation of its public life. So deep are these uncertainties and so chronic the lack of consensus over Islam that, more than sixty years after Pakistan’s creation, fundamental questions about the state’s historical purpose and about concepts of political belonging remain unanswered.

One major consequence of this lack of clarity over Islam has been the construction of a negative identity predicated on opposition to India. In the absence of a consensus over what Pakistan stood for, the definition of Pakistan’s identity, coherence and unity came to rest on rivalry with India. This, in turn, had significant implications. The military emerged as the dominant state institution and, in the process, as a key arbiter of Pakistan’s national identity. Over time the country was also lured into embarking on dangerous foreign engagements. While aimed primarily at matching India, these have had disastrous consequences for Pakistan as well as for the wider global community.

“It is not so much Islam per se that accounts for Pakistan’s decline, but the country’s ambiguous, if not conflicted, relation to Islam as a political ideology.”

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.

July 27, 2009

A close-up

Many of the key questions posed in my book are encapsulated in the third chapter, “The Burden of Islam.”

The chapter offers a bird’s eye view, a panorama of how politics in Pakistan came to be sacralized as the country’s leaders struggled to make sense of the nebulous association between Islam and the state. I trace this struggle from Pakistan’s early years, when the country’s lawmakers endeavoured fruitlessly to frame a modern constitution within the parameters of Islam. This long and arduous process brought to the fore the depth of uncertainty about the constitutional place of Islam in a country still unsure about its religious and political foundations. Since its creation Pakistan has had three constitutions and all without exception have been mired in controversy over their Islamic texture – a controversy that continues to rumble on to the present day.

It was this climate of enduring uncertainty that made Pakistan especially vulnerable to the programme of Islamization launched in the 1980s by a military regime that sought to address, by force, the ambiguities that surrounded Pakistan’s putative Islamic identity. While the legacy of this “reform” was particularly damaging to the status of women and to religious minorities, it also revealed the formative weaknesses of both the Pakistani state and the country’s national identity.

These weaknesses, the chapter demonstrates, were rooted in the contradictory expectations embodied in Pakistan: on the one hand, the affirmation of a universal Islamic community, whose geography remains, in the minds of many of South Asian Muslims, open to question; on the other a Muslim “nation” circumscribed by territorial boundaries.

Yet to be resolved, the tension between these contrasting visions is now taking a violent toll on Pakistan and its people.

“Since its creation Pakistan has had three constitutions and all without exception have been mired in controversy over their Islamic texture.”


There are few today who doubt that Pakistan has emerged as a pivotal state: what happens there will affect millions beyond its borders. Yet there are risks in regarding Pakistan strictly through a strategic prism and treating it as no more than a security issue. To do so is gravely to under-estimate the complexity of this diverse country.

For while today Pakistan is indelibly associated with terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and nuclear proliferation, this is only half the story. My book is an attempt to think about Pakistan on its own terms.

The country clearly stands at the crossroads. Although deeply troubled by the lack of a clear identity, it is by no means certain that Pakistan has exhausted all its resources in terms of seeking to develop a future grounded in rules of political negotiation rather than in the questionable assumptions of a ready made Islamic consensus. The time left to ensure its survival may be short but Pakistan has withstood many a bruising battle and survived.

The country is in the throes of change — changes that point to the determination of its people, if not of its governing elite, to be more receptive to new ways of imagining their country’s identity. By recasting its enduring quest for consensus in the light of a heritage rooted in the more syncretistic traditions of Indian Islam, Pakistan may yet succeed in projecting an identity that reconciles Islam’s universalist message with respect for the rich diversity of its peoples.

© 2009 Farzana Shaikh
Farzana Shaikh Making Sense of Pakistan Columbia / Hurst 288 pages, 9 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0231149624
Emile Chabal

Farzana Shaikh is an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, where she directs the Pakistan Study Group. A former Research Fellow of Clare Hall Cambridge, she is the author of Community and Consensus in Islam: Muslim Representation in Colonial India, 1860-1947 (Cambridge University Press, 1989) and has published widely on Muslim South Asia. She has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and most recently was a Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Cover Interview of
July 27, 2009