The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s Identity Problem

Pakistan's "establishment" has chosen to focus solely on the country's Muslim history, but that has done more harm than good in forging the nation's identity.

Pakistani Hindu women dance as they cele
Karachi, PAKISTAN: Pakistani Hindu women dance as they celebrate the colourful Holi festival in Karachi, 03 March 2007. Holi, the festival of colours, is observed by Hindus across the country and signals the onset of the spring season. AFP PHOTO/Asif HASSAN (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

When you hear about Pakistan, what most often comes to mind? The place where schools, markets, and neighborhoods are routinely bombed? The terrorist haven where Osama bin Laden hid for almost a decade? The “Pak” in Af-Pak? The difficult ally America can’t drop because of its nuclear capabilities? The country where Malala Yousafzai was shot? All of this is true, but there is so much more to this country of 182 million people.

The common perception of Pakistan is more similar to its neighbor in the west (Afghanistan) than the one in the east (India), the country with which it shares its history. This is a direct result of how Pakistan’s “establishment” — its military and political elite — has defined its identity. This definition emphasizes Islam above all else, and pitches Pakistan as completely different from India.

In Pakistan’s history textbooks, Hindus and Muslims living on the Indian sub-continent during British colonial-era rule, and for centuries before, are described as two nations –distinct and separate. Yet the reality is that they intermingled and co-existed, sharing their customs and culture. In fact, until the British came and conducted a census in 1881, no one knew how many South Asians were Hindu and how many were Muslim.

The official version of Pakistan’s history only has room for Muslim heroes — no Sikhs, no Hindus — and only orthodox Muslims, at that. For instance, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 until 1605, and espoused a tolerant version of Islam, giving Hindus prominent positions in his cabinet, is compared unfavorably to the orthodox but cruel Emperor Aurangzeb. (Aurangzeb ruled from 1658 to 1707, and had political opponents executed, including his own brother, Prince Dara Shikhoh.) Bhagat Singh, a Sikh revolutionary from now-Pakistani Punjab who fought for independence from the British, isn’t mentioned at all in Pakistani textbooks. He isn’t even remembered on the street: A move by activists to have a traffic circle in Lahore — where he was hanged to death in 1931 — named after him in 2012 encountered intense opposition and was tabled.

Because Pakistan has disavowed large parts of its past and its identity, it is easier to define it in terms of its present struggle with terrorism. There is little else people know about it. Few people ask me about what Pakistan is really like, about life in my hometown, Lahore, the city of gardens.

No one knows about the city’s historic Sufi shrines, the grand Badshahi Mosque, or the Lahore Fort, which is next to a gorgeous Sikh gurdwara (a place of worship). Travel to the country is often discouraged, especially if one is not Pakistani, but even if the security situation were different, how many people would know about its rich heritage? And can one blame them, if Pakistan itself disowns large parts of it? Yet in erasing Pakistan’s past and creating an Islamic identity for the country, the establishment has, in fact, contributed to the worsening security situation.

Since the 1970s, Pakistan’s military and political elite have chosen religious fundamentalism over a democratic plurality. The establishment has emphasized a Sunni Muslim identity at the exclusion of all other ethnic, religious, and sectarian identities. Saudi-imported Wahhabism — an ultra-conservative version of Sunni Islam that lies at odds with South Asia’s tradition of Sufi-influenced Barelvi Islam — has been making in-roads in Pakistani society since the 1980s. The Ahmadi sect, which considers itself to be Muslim, was declared “non-Muslim” by Pakistan’s leaders in 1974. The colonial-era blasphemy laws were made particularly severe in the 1980s, and since 1987, 1,335 people have been accused of defaming Islam. Vigilantes have attacked many of those who have been accused, and militant groups are thriving in this shrinking space for diversity.

Yet this path wasn’t inevitable with the creation of a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims. In his August 11, 1947, address to the Constituent Assembly, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah was clear that he intended it to be a country for Muslims that welcomed all religions, not an Islamic country. Today, his vision has given way to a harsh, one-dimensional reality — to a country better known for harboring bin Laden than anything else.

But all is not lost. Pakistan’s creative, intellectual heart strives to be heard over the din of poor security. People are writing books, holding literature festivals, putting on plays, and creating wonderful music. In fact, they seem to be doing a better job than ever, given all of the odds stacked against them. Yet for the rest of the world, Pakistan’s image remains unchanged.

The West would do well to recognize Pakistan’s long history, its beautiful complexity, its many dimensions, and its South Asian-ness, but the final burden rests with Pakistan’s leaders. The country must preserve its glorious pre-Islamic heritage, such as the ancient city of Mohenjo Daro in Sindh province, which was built 4,500 years ago, but is threatened by the elements and mismanagement. It must embrace its full past, Islamic and non-Islamic. It must teach its complete history, which includes Hindu empires and Muslim rulers. It must celebrate all of the ethnicities living within its borders, and the richness of its South Asian culture. Imposing an identity that does away with this history and diversity has done Pakistan enough harm.


Madiha Afzal is an assistant professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.