BAAGHI: The question of identity —Marvi Sirmed - Sunday, April 24, 2011

The purpose of having solid footings for a shared identity is humans' quest for social order, which is managed globally as well as at nation-state levels, through an unproblematic conception of self by each identity and orderly interactions among sets of identities and sub-identities 

A popular line of argument, available to the analysts on Pakistan, has been that most of Pakistan’s problems trace their lineage to its foundations. The very idea of Pakistan, it is said, carries the seeds of not only communalism but also of a forced homogeneity as opposed to the spirit of pluralism and democracy. The argument per se seems to be based on distorted facts and is challengeable on many counts. It, however, remains to be seen after 63 years of existence, what primary identity the people of Pakistan own and why.

Immediately after its birth in August 1947, a deliberate mystification of a ‘unified identity’ and absence of meticulous handling of the ‘software’ of the new-born nation served the purpose of integration among diverse coalescing units and multi-ethnic, multi-cultural entities that made up Pakistan. The Two Nation theory that served the separatist purpose before partition provided the integration factor. ‘Because we’re different from Hindus, we’re homogeneous among ourselves’ became the easy answer to the complex problems the founding fathers foresaw without comprehending their future implications.

The effect of this confusion on present day Pakistan manifests itself in many ways. Sometimes it is the illusion of grandeur based on a glorified past, at others it is a global ambition to conquer the world. It gives rise to incurable animosity of the ‘other’ (aghiyaar — as the current chief minister of Punjab puts it), which trickles down to the youth in the form of the worst identity crisis more than half a century after the country’s birth. As the British Council’s 2009 report, ‘Pakistan: The Next Generation’, says, more than half of the youngsters of Pakistan seek their primary identity in religion rather than territorial bonding.

The identity of a people as a collective binds itself with the Weltanschauung (a comprehensive view of the world) as of the external world and ethical outlook as of the internal blueprint of that ‘collective’. The purpose of having solid footings for a shared identity is humans’ quest for social order, which is managed globally as well as at nation-state level, through an unproblematic conception of ‘self’ by each identity and orderly interactions among sets of identities and sub-identities.

In most cases, this functional need for identity is satisfied by culture, which comes from centuries of human experience in all fields of life including religion. However, some cultures develop themselves in primarily religious fashion while subsuming all other alternatives of culture. In a 21st century globalised world, monolith cultures devoid of any potential of egalitarianism and pluralism would be anything but viable.

A culture would be ‘religious’ when its worldview is based on the assumption (or belief) of another world being superior to the present one. Such a culture would put emphasis on a transcendental divine world rather than the empirical one. The ‘mundaneness’ of the present world would put a religious culture in an unavoidable position to undermine everything associated with the empirical world and empirical knowledge. Modernity and modern knowledge get superseded by an emphasis on that ‘other world’, which is glorified and fancied in such a culture, thus barring any potential or willingness to progress, prosper, or even contribute to the world of knowledge and to a robust and all-encompassing culture based on diverse expressions of human experience.

This condescension and superciliousness towards the empirical world comes from the introduction of organised religion in a particular society, as a deciding factor. Even worse results come from the promotion of organised religion (especially one particular religion overriding all others) as a supreme concept to direct the entire business of the state and of cultural evolution. A perfect recipe for a nation’s disaster: this was precisely the course chosen for Pakistan in its early years.

Looking for the causes of the present chaos in Zia’s Islamic dictatorship or Bhutto’s perceived appeasement of religious forces would be counterproductive unless we recognise the root of all ills. This root resides in our conscious choice of the culture we want to identify with. The very idea that we had a privilege of ‘choosing’ the culture instead of inheriting it from the soil got us on the wrong path. We made the choice only to derail ourselves from the natural course of cultural evolution, and we are facing the music now.

Ejaz Haider, senior columnist, points towards another important dimension of the issue in his recent piece. Haider argues that the inability of the ‘liberals’ (he probably uses the term in the European centrist sense) to identify with (and support) the state has left the field open and free for a nationalism based on a myriad of factors but not the state. The key point here is the absence of a strong primary identity embedded in the territorial basis of a nation-state. When the British Council informs about most of our youth not ready to be identified as belonging to this nation-state but to the religion, it points precisely to the ‘global’ nature of the Weltanschauung people have here. It is the same worldview (to borrow the concept from Weber) that pushes the people to look for a much-needed ideological anchor in a world outside their territorial belonging. This quest for the ideological anchor gives way to adoption of cultural elements that might be completely alien to the soil or opposite to indigenous realities and experiences.

In this sense, a ‘national identity’ would be essentially distinct from the religious identity. National identity would base itself on the territorial existence and the concept of nation-state, not on a religion or even a loose moral consideration that negates the importance of empirical existence. In its intent, national identity would place the real, earthly world at the primary position, unlike a religious identity. Failure to make this distinction in building ‘culture’ and ideology would only create a confused nation that binds itself in a modern state system but negates its importance by being religious in substance. The national identity would require a state and a society to be secular (without undermining the importance of the real world), egalitarian (composed of different communities and groups in an un-stratified manner) and where the political authority must remain with the people (a democratic polity where people’s choices are supreme).

A deeper look at each of the above-mentioned components of the ‘national identity’ reveals how far we have moved from claiming a true national identity. Achieving a prime, strong national identity is what should be placed at the top of the national priorities list for Pakistan. It might actually address the roots of conflict and chaos if not be the panacea. It is important, in short, to be Pakistani before being a Hindu, Christian, Sikh or — yes — a Muslim. The texts beginning from a clichéd ‘all of us are Muslims’, need to be totally shunned in favour of a nation state-based identity, which would not only drag the society towards egalitarianism, but also would define our wider international behaviour.

It is important to be a nation rather than a loose mass of people in continuous search of identity, giving a migraine to itself
and to the world.

The writer is an independent researcher and rights’ activist based in Islamabad. She can be contacted at

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