The South Asia Channel

Identity Goes Beyond Islam in Pakistan

Identity Goes Beyond Islam in Pakistan

On January 20, militants affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban attacked Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, located in Pakistan’s beleaguered Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. At least 20 students, faculty, and staff were killed, and dozens more injured. Even before the recent attack in Charsadda, Pakistan had suffered both the highest number of attacks on educational institutions (850) and the largest number of fatalities (410) in such attacks worldwide. While education embodies the knowledge, ideas, and opportunity loathed by radical militants, the attack on this university is a rejection of much more; it is a pointed assault on the celebration of ethnic leaders, pacifism, cultural pluralism, and secularism. The university’s namesake, Bacha Khan, or Abdul Ghaffar Khan, is considered a hero for opposing British colonial rule through nonviolence. His example stood in contrast to a Pashtun culture that has historically been identified with violence. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, the university was set to hold an event to commemorate his legacy. But militants burst onto the premises before it began.

Each of Pakistan’s four provinces – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the northwest, Balochistan in the southwest, Sindh in the southeast, and Punjab in the northeast – is populated by a relatively homogenous ethno-linguistic group: Pathan or Pashtun, Balochi, Sindhi, and Punjabi, respectively. Urdu-speaking migrants are scattered through the large cities, but most live in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, in Sindh. Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous and prosperous province, and the source of the country’s political, military, and bureaucratic elite – that is, its “establishment.” Punjab is also the base of the current ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N). Karachi and Sindh also hold sway over national politics – although to a lesser extent than Punjab – with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from Sindh alternating power with the PML-N nationally in each democratic election since 1988.

Pakistan’s two western provinces, Balochistan and KP, are detached from the country’s mainstream politics. Over the last decade, these provinces have been disproportionately targeted by terrorism-related violence, especially by the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Balochistan, the site of a sustained separatist insurgency, has been targeted by a forceful government crackdown, further adding to the grievances of the Balochis.

Pakistan, a country created for the subcontinent’s Muslims, is uncomfortable with the disparate ethnicities living within its borders. When Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan in 1971 for ethnic and political — not religious — reasons, the Pakistani state reacted by further pushing for unity through a national narrative of a singular Muslim identity. Since the 1970s, textbooks of Pakistan studies, a core subject, mention only the most superficial cultural differences between the country’s four provinces, and omit any mention of their unique ethnic histories.

While Bacha Khan may be a Pashtun hero, he is not one you will hear about much in Pakistan. He is not revered in school textbooks or by government officials. Throughout the 1930s and until 1947, he was a senior member of the Indian National Congress, and opposed partition. Upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947, he swore allegiance to the Pakistani state, but his goal of an autonomous Pashtunistan made him a pariah in his own country. He died in Peshawar in 1988, but was buried in Afghanistan.

Maulana Maududi, the popular founder of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, also opposed partition. But Maududi’s opposition to partition is mostly overlooked in Pakistan, while Bacha Khan’s was never forgiven. This is because Khan’s strong Pashtun identity threatened a country that suppresses its ethnic identities in favor of religion.

Bacha Khan’s political legacy lives on in KP province, through the secular-leaning Awami National Party (ANP), which his grandson, Asfandyar Wali Khan, currently leads. The party is a major player in provincial politics, but not nationally. In the 2013 national and provincial elections, the TTP brutally targeted the incumbent ANP in KP, forcing the party to abandon its campaign. The mainstream conservative parties competing with the ANP in KP, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami and the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, were allowed to continue campaigning, and eventually won the provincial election. Together, those two parties have reversed some of the progressive changes that the ANP brought about in its term, including changes to the provincial school curriculum that had reduced religious references in general subjects, removed mentions of jihad, and included non-Muslim heroes in textbooks.

Last May in Lahore, I visited the history department of a prestigious government university the alma mater of many Pakistani political leaders and bureaucrats. I held a three-hour discussion with the students pursuing masters’ degrees. While I’ve had many conversations with students in Lahore — in government, private high schools, and other universities — this discussion was different. The students discussed the question of a secular versus Islamic Pakistan, and talked of their deep distrust of the Pakistani army and the state. They also discussed their skepticism of the “Pakistan ideology” taught in schools that asserts the country’s national identity is based on Islam.

These students’ opinions stood out because their backgrounds were different: they were not all from Punjab. Students from Balochistan and KP and the tribal areas expressed feelings of alienation and grievances against the Pakistani state, along with a sense of helplessness. The dissonance of their views from the mainstream Pakistani narrative was apparent. The only pro-army voice in the group came from a local Punjabi student.

In Pakistan, no one is safe from the dire threat of terrorists. They attack the very idea of a modern Pakistani nation-state, rooted in democracy, equality, and economic progress, promoted by even the most conservative elements of the country’s political and military establishment. But there’s a pecking order to whom the terrorists attack, and those in the most danger are ethnic and religious minorities — such as Hazaras, Ahmedis, Christians, Shias — and their champions: liberal Pakistanis who embody pluralism, celebrate freedom of thought and speech, and promote a national identity based on more than Islam. They threaten the terrorists’ ideal of a closed and primitive society.

The fissures in Pakistani society run beyond terrorism. The tragedy of Pakistan is that its own establishment also stifles its intrinsic pluralism and alienates some of its ethnic groups, especially the Balochis and Pashtuns. This does not bode well for a country already being torn apart by violence.

In a country with just a few ethnicities (relative to other large Asian nations) most Pakistanis know little about the rich histories and cultures of ethnicities beyond their own. Many Punjabi, Balochi, and Sindhi Pakistanis probably did not know about Bacha Khan University before January 20 – maybe not even about Bacha Khan, the great Pashtun hero. In these troubled times, understanding and appreciating the lessons of its past heroes may be exactly what Pakistan needs.

A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images