Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Our Lost South Asian Identity and the Roots of Present Day Extremism in Pakistan, by Arshi Saleem Hashmi

Pakistan is undoubtedly going through tough times; many of the troubles that Pakistan is facing are due to the policies we adopted deliberately and unwillingly as they were imposed from the outside. The remnants of the “jihad” which began after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and appeared as the modern global jihad in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan’s border areas near Afghanistan have made the whole world hostage to the irrational agenda.

With the “Islamization” of Pakistan in 1980s, we have become an increasingly ideological state. However, at that time there was no single definition available to explain what Islamization was or what it would look like in Pakistan. With a number of sects and varied types of “Islam,” the Deobandi school of thought became the official theology to consult for theoretical explanations. With its close resemblance to Saudi Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia became a major patron and ideological influence, even though a majority of Pakistanis were and still are adherents of the Brelvi/Sufi tradition of Islam.

The Arabist shift from Pakistan’s Indo-Persian culture was confused with Islamization process, which in turn led to a monolithic world view derived from Islamic orthodoxy, and soon after became the guiding principle for radical young minds in Pakistan. Domestic and international politics as well as societal issues are articulated in purely religious idioms. Instead of emphasizing the notion of Pakistan as a nation-state based on cultural and religious pluralism, ideas like Islamic universalism, militancy, and “Islam versus the other” are highlighted by radical religious groups. This process has affected the psyche of the whole nation.

The Zia regime linked Arabism with Islam, not realizing or deliberately ignoring the fact that Islam is a religion, while “Arabism” is more of a cultural notion. “Islamization” of the society through “Arabization” was considered the right policy, however. Ignoring Pakistan’s South Asian culture and imposing Arab culture instead created both confusion and a vacuum, and that vacuum was filled by radical ideas and extremism. Pakistani society got confused about its identity and in its bid to link itself with Arab culture, it lost its own South Asian identity.

A little example is the head cover or scarf. Pakistani women traditionally wear a big shawl—some cover their head, and some don’t. In undivided India, there was a culture of wearing the Burqa (veil), but the typical Arab head scarf has never been the practice. With the Arabist shift, women started to show their links with Arab culture by wearing a head scarf. Similarly, many men started growing a Middle Eastern-style beard, like the style of beard that most men in the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries sport.

There is nothing wrong in one’s personal choices regarding culture or head scarves, but when they are imposed from the top down and do not evolve at the grassroots level, these policies create confusion and lack social acceptability. That is why once the Islamization process stopped and Pakistan decided to become an ally of the US after 9/11, Pakistani society suddenly accepted their “freedom” and immediately started expressing the traditional norms and cultural practices from before, including religious pilgrimages to the shrines of Sufi saints.

When people see cultural activities that are Islamic in nature but culturally-specific, they assume that these are new phenomena emerging now in Pakistan. No, actually until the 1970s we were happy with the way we were—culturally, religiously, and politically. It was in 1980s that our identity was crushed and a foreign identity was imposed upon us, and at that time we were told that we had to abandon our links with South Asia if we wanted to achieve the highest level of religious purity. Similarly, the culture of civil society, like literary clubs, sports, art, theater, music, movies and literary clubs, has all been there in Pakistan previously. It is not as though we never tasted these things before and are now being introduced to these things. For a period of more than 20 years in our history, we were denied our right to feel proud of being South Asian.

Pakistan at present faces the challenge of reinventing itself both at the state and societal level. But more so, it needs to have a top down approach to reform, reconstructing the conceptual and ideological orientation of Pakistan to undo the official enforcement of a particular sect of Islam. If the society appears indifferent about the nature of religiosity, it is not because people want it the way things are today, but there is a great deal of confusion about Pakistani culture and religion. This confusion can only be removed if steps are taken officially to de-radicalize our society through an education syllabus, media programs, and the growth of free intellectual discourse on religion and cultural nature of the society in Pakistani context.

The real clash in Pakistan is not between Islam and the West as projected, but between the orthodox and the moderates. The key question is, “How far will the new generation change our society from the one lost to orthodoxy and militancy?” Pakistan’s inability to control radicalization limits its capacity to engage in a sustained effort to control extremism and terrorism, and we must struggle to revive the pluralist and tolerant spirit of Pakistan.

I believe that when people are given the right and the space to express their cultural identity, it contributes to the evolution of the society in general and keeps a balance between various ethnic, religious, and political groups.

Now the small minority who calls itself the “best of the best Muslim,” and hence wants to purify the society from the “ills” of non-Muslims, are very small percentage of our society. But they have made a hostage of our society because they are brutal and they have weapons—they do not care if they kill a child, a woman, or an old person. We all hope, however, that with the military operations in our country and a newly-adopted government policy against extremism of all kinds, we will soon regain our lost identity which is very dear to all of us, which is the identity of Pakistan, a moderate, South Asian Muslim country.

For more information on Pakistan’s culture, Arshi suggests that you visit the following website:  

Arshi Saleem Hashmi is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the National Defense University of Islamabad. Arshi is also a member of SAVE, Sisters Against Violent Extremism, and is helping create a chapter there to mobilize and empower women to fight violent extremism and radicalization.

For more information about SAVE or its parent organization, Women without Borders, please visit our website at
www.women-without-borders.org or write us an email at office@women-without-borders.org

1 comment:

  1. Arshi
    A thought provoking piece - well done. I believe that freedom of speech and expression including culture is all part of building trust in a society where everyone is equal irrespective of their beliefs, religion and gender. A revised education syllabus of Active Citizenship could be a bold start as well responsible journalism.
    best wishes


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