Islam, Ethnicity, and Power Politics
Constructing Pakistan's National Identity
- ISBN: 9780199407590
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: June 2018
The question of national identity has been at the heart of Pakistan’s political and academic discourse since the inception of the country in 1947. In his latest book Islam, Ethnicity, and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity, Rasul Bakhsh Rais addresses some of the most important questions concerning the politics of identity: Why did Pakistan fail to construct a unified national identity? To what extent can two-nation theory help the process of national integration? Is the idea of a “singular national identity” a doable project? Why is identity so contested in Pakistan in the first place? Over the course of seven chapters, Rais deals with these and several other questions to identify the underlying challenges to national integration in the country.
Rais discusses the complex question of the formation and politicization of identity in postcolonial societies. Though he claims to have taken “a constructivist view of identity formation” (xi), he admits identities are historically created and cannot be easily engineered. While discussing the early phases of identity formation in Pakistan, he particularly explores the role of religion (i.e., Islam) in the political history of the country. Rais argues that Islam, as a political force, was used during the Pakistan Movement to unite Muslims behind the creation of a separate state, one designed for the “preservation of cultural identity and the protection of the economic interest of Muslims” (20). However, the subsequent political, bureaucratic, and military elites used Islam as the basis of nationhood either because of “ignorance” or “willful deviation” from the path taken by the country’s founding fathers, which ultimately led to the rise of the politics of ethnicity. In his view, Islam was used only for the creation of the state, as the founding fathers like Muhammad Ali Jinnah ultimately wanted to establish a modern welfare state, not an Islamic state.
After highlighting the role of Islamists and the political and military leaders who employed Islam to unite various groups, Rais specifically criticizes the military’s interventions into politics and holds the “hegemonic state apparatus under the military regimes” responsible for “neutralizing political forces” (67) that ultimately led to the rise of competing and conflicting ethnic identities (the politics of ethnicity). When one group was privileged over others, it created a sense of deprivation and led to an unending power struggle. He offers the historical background to explain the emergence of the military as a powerful institution that started dominating politics. Rais argues that in the 1950s, Pakistan’s decision to form an alliance with the US increased the military’s capacity to intervene in politics (60). The country also faced a steady stream of internal and external threats, which further increased the military's role in the political process.
Rais also discusses the current challenges Pakistan is facing and highlights the possibilities to counter them. He reminds the reader that it is only federalism and democracy that could provide “the institutional template to accommodate regional aspirations with the idea of Pakistani nationalism” (55). Rais hopes that the proliferation of electronic media, the free expression of the historical diversity of Pakistani culture, and the passage of the 18th Amendment (restoration of parliamentary system and transfer of power to provinces) to the constitution are likely to create new structures that may ultimately help the country create a pluralistic national identity.
Interestingly, Rais criticizes the politicians and political parties that have accepted the “Western” notion of the nation-state. He thinks it is essentialist to build a nation and promote national integration in postcolonial societies like Pakistan. “India and Pakistan were not nations in the Western sense of the word. Neither of the two was culturally homogenous or ethnically defined,” he writes (89). However, he neither clarifies the meaning of “Western” nor attempts to explain the existence of several “Western” states that have highly heterogonous populations, like the United States. Rais’ use of the term “Western” is thus problematic in both analytical and geographical senses. It is not clear what or who is western. Additionally, he did not use Benedict Anderson's argument adequately when talking about western nation building (93), nor does he cite the works of Adam Smith and J.A Hobson when discussing the ills of colonialism and imperialism (89, 226). A careful presentation of arguments one intends to challenge is the essential prerequisite for fair criticism.
There are some other technical and academic flaws in the book, as well. The writer’s inconsistent use of personal pronouns and possessive determiners confuses the reader on several occasions (44, 47, 53, 76, 264). The role of Islam and the politics of identity is discussed in the first chapter (16-37), and the same content is repeated under different headings in chapter three (101-125). Similarly, the claim that Pakistanis are “generally secular” (274) is not backed by any empirical evidence and is also in tension with Rais’ claim that “Islam is the foundation and cornerstone of Pakistani culture” (258). He also admits that the emphasis on Pakistani culture was a “deliberate and willful effort” to create unity (234).
Another weakness of the book is the multiplicity of the themes, or its overly ambitious scope. Rais covers several topics and makes multiple independent arguments. As a result, not a single theme is dealt with fairly. For instance, Rais discusses Hamza Alvi’s work, yet he does not discuss how the bureaucracy and military were designed to be the strongest institutions by colonial masters to ensure order. The exclusive focus on establishing a powerful bureaucracy and military, as Alvi argues, led to the creation of an “overdeveloped state” in postcolonial societies like Pakistan, hindering democratization. Similarly, Rais mentions the work of an ideologue of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal, but does not explain Iqbal’s understanding of Muslim nationalism or the purpose behind the creation of Pakistan. Iqbal’s role is even more important because his work continues to shape the imagination of Islamists who Rais fairly criticizes.
Despite these technical and academic limitations, Rais’ book is an intriguing addition to the literature on the politics of identity in Pakistan and can be of significant importance to anybody interested to understand the failure of nation-building in the country.
Farah Adeed is a graduate student at San Diego State University.Farah AdeedDate Of Review:April 17, 2022