Richard Bulliet observes that without the Islamic Revolution, Iran would be a very similar country to Pakistan. That is, Iran would be a country dominated by an elite that is globally integrated, internationally oriented and culturally separated from most of its population. This elite would present itself as being liberal and modern, but it would, at the same time, contrive to ensure that ordinary people would have minimal access to education, healthcare, public infrastructure, and justice (Bulliet, 2017). The gap between rulers and the ruled would be so wide that the state would find its legitimacy and monopoly of lethal violence questioned. By making a comparison between Pakistan and its neighbour to the West rather than the East, and by conceiving of political Islam as a possible engine of the egalitarian transformation of a society, Bulliet’s counterfactual sketch enlarges the range of examples by which the story of South Asia is told and analysed.
Conventionally, the story of South Asia since 1947 is often presented as a study in contrasts, in which one of the successor states to the British Raj is considered to be more or less successful, and the other is deemed more or less to have failed. While it is the case that the failure of Pakistan can be exaggerated, there is a degree to which many people would accept that, at the very minimum, Pakistan has not achieved its potential. Among commentators on Pakistan and Pakistanis themselves, there is much debate as to how to account for the shortcomings of the country. One could summarize this discussion in terms of the reasons that are most often advanced as a primary cause of Pakistan’s failings.
A number of explanations circulate that purport to account for the failure of Pakistan. They include commentary that sees the problem in terms of a democratic deficit. It is argued that the absence of democracy in Pakistan has led to the crisis of governance, which has doomed any project of social transformation. Or there are narratives which blame ‘political Islam’ or ‘religious fundamentalism’ for the growth of violence and intolerance in the country. There are other arguments which emphasize socio-economic problems as the main reason for the country’s political plight. None of these cases are mutually exclusive and nor is the above list exhaustive, However, what is common to all of them is the way they are beholden to certain tropes found within Orientalism and its South Asian variant: Indology.
These tropes furnish the dominant accounts of Pakistan, which present it as an anomaly within South Asia. Within these reports, Pakistan always appears as a scandalous presence. Since Pakistan’s very creation is seen as an interruption of the essential unity of the sub-continent, therefore its continued existence is considered to be a historical mistake.
This illegitimacy of Pakistan is not only in relation to the ‘Indianness’ of South Asia but also in relation to what is considered standard practice in the world at large. This “double” orientalism helps to generate statements about Pakistan in terms of its difference from both India and the West (presented as the destiny of the world). It asserts that there are features absent in Pakistan which should be found in a “normal” country. This difference is considered to be objective and axiomatic, rather than a feature of a Eurocentric episteme.
The critique of Orientalism has ranged far and wide; to a large extent, the study of Pakistan in general, and in particular Pakistani politics, has remained immune to such a critique. There is a general perception that the critique of Orientalism is mainly concerned with epistemological matters and has little to offer in the form of substantive studies, and even less regarding practical suggestions as what should be done.
Seventy years on, the analysis of Pakistan has to be unchained from its moorings in the field of Indology. One way to do this is to re-contextualize the process of the formation of Pakistan, not within the confines of the geopolitics of the succession to the British Raj, but rather as part of a series of intellectual, political and cultural developments within the Islamosphere. In the process, I want to suggest that the comparison that Bulliet makes between Iran and Pakistan has a coherence which is not merely anecdotal but points to a specific structural logic. At the heart of this suggestion is a belief that historiographies centred on nation-states are not particularly useful in understanding the process of state formation that gave birth to these nation-states.
Kemalism is understood as the ideology, policy, and practices pursued by Mustafa Kemal in the remnants of the Ottoman state. The nationalist historiographical perspective would see Kemalism as a phenomenon related to the Turkish Republic, with very little salience for other societies. It is, however, possible to tell the history of Muslim societies in the wake of European decolonization through the exploration of the expanded concept of Kemalism as elaborated in A Fundamental Fear (Sayyid 2015). Kemalism is not a mere empirical category in this perspective, but rather an analytical metaphor which transcends the ex-Ottoman domains to include the policies and ideologies identified with diverse figures such as Reza Pahlavi (1878-1944) in Iran, Amanullah Khan (1890-1962) in Afghanistan, Sukarno (1901-1970) in Indonesia and Nasser (1918-1970) in Egypt. Kemalism understood modernity as de-orientalising (i.e. making Western) Islamicate societies, where Islam was a signifier of the Orient par excellence. In its various iterations and vernacularizations, Kemalism was a set of overlapping positions regarding the belief that only a national identity could be the vehicle of a hegemonic political subjectivity throughout the Islamosphere. The formation of Pakistan was a challenge to Kemalism. The movement for Pakistan is based on ethnicity or language but rather a politicized Muslim subjectivity. The demand that Muslims of the British Raj had to have a distinct homeland meant that being Muslim could not simply be dismissed as something that could be confined to the private sphere The mass mobilizations that sustained the demands for a Muslim homeland were only possible with what we have in Pakistan: the appearance of Muslim mobilization and the articulation of an Islamic ideological state
The quest for a Muslim nation in South Asia was both a confirmation of Indology and its rejection. It was a confirmation because it seemed to accept that India was Hindu; but it was a rejection because it sought to establish a Muslim homeland in India. The Pakistan movement was also a retort to the Kemalist consensus that the Muslim could not be a political subject. The two-nation theory constructed an Islamicate historical presence as something that could be projected into the future.
There were three possible subject positions around which an emancipatory or decolonial project could be built in the context of British-ruled South Asia. One, there was the possibility of a Pan-Indian identity. That is, taking the colonial difference as the primary form of identification and mobilization. A Pan-Indian subject would be organized not around an ethnicity or linguistic community or religious congregation; rather it would be the residual of British/European subject identity. Two, there was a possibility of a multinational South Asian subject: that is, South Asia would be a mere geographic expression containing a variety of countries approximating nation-states in which regions such as Gujarat, Punjab, and Bengal would form individual nations based on a distinct literature and language, shared territory and common cultural practices. The third possible subject position was a trans-local, trans-ethnic subject built along the widest possible principles, able to counter-act not only the Europeanness of the British Raj, but also an Indianess that was predominantly ‘Hindu’. It is this third possibility that frames the emergence of the very idea of Pakistan (Sayyid, 2014: 281-282).
The Pakistan experiment offered the chance of a mobilized Muslim subjectivity to build an ex niliho order. There was no antecendant Muslim state for Pakistan to recover or restore, therefore no option of building an political community around a pre-Islamic heritage. Unlike, say, Iran or Turkey, Pakistan’s founders were confronted by a constitutional void caused by the demise of the Mughal Empire in 1857 (Arjomand, 2007). The Pakistani constitution could not directly transfer the monarchical prerogative to the people; it is for this reason that the history of Pakistani constitution-making was protracted and contested (Sayyid, 2014: 282).
Mawdudi’s theorization of Pakistan as an ‘ideological state’ was a tentative attempt to recognize that the country that officially came to be on 14 August 1947 had no precedent in previous Islamicate states. The radicality of the formation of Pakistan arises from both the immense achievement of creating the largest Muslim state and creating it out of virtually nothing, with no direct precedent. The idea of an ‘ideological state’ was an attempt to locate the legitimacy of Pakistan not in its past like many other nation-states, but in the future. Ideology was a substitute for history in the formation of the ‘Islamic Republic’ of Pakistan. The theorization of Pakistan as an ideological state remained underdeveloped. This under-development was a product not so much of the failure to agree on the definition of what Pakistan means, or the failure to recognize the heterogeneous character of the newly formed character of the country. Such failings are symptoms, not explanations. The contested nature of Pakistan did not arise from Pakistan being insufficiently imagined, but rather it being insufficiently decolonized.
It is an aspect of this incompleteness of decolonization of Pakistan that has meant that much of the Pakistani elite failed to comprehend the meaning of its foundation. The formation of Pakistan would be the first major disruption of the Kemalist hegemony: the idea of a Pakistan was not based on the mobilization of subjects based on ethnicity or language, but rather on being Muslim – this politicizing of Muslim identity is precisely what the discourse of Kemalism rejected. So, we have in Pakistan the appearance of Muslim mobilization and the articulation of an Islamic ideological state. The idea that Islam constitutes an ideology was key – in other words, that Islam was not just a religion that had to be confined to matters of private devotion, but rather a system of belief with socio-economic impact. Thus, the attempt to describe Islam as an ideological state was an exercise in the (re-) politicization of Islam. The formation of Pakistan was made possible by the rejection of Kemalism. This rejection, however, was not sustained when it came to the working of the Pakistani state. The vision of Pakistan as an Islamic state began to be recuperated into the repertoire of Kemalist statecraft: this can be seen in the debates of the official language of Pakistan. Many policies could have been implemented, ranging from an authentic recognition of the multi-lingual character of the country and the abandonment of any attempt to have an official language; to a choice of official language which replaced all current linguistic hierarchies e.g. Arabic (or Farsi) in the context of South Asia. Instead, the policy followed made Urdu and English into official languages, with unfortunate consequences for other languages such as Bengali. Other similar changes occurred, e.g. Pakistani citizenship legislation restricted the rights of Muslims, even from South Asia, to become Pakistanis (Sayyid, 2014: 281-284).
In other words, Pakistan increasingly took the form of a conventional state in which continuity of colonial rule and Kemalist rule furnished its basic guiding principles. Once the mobilization in the name of Islam had created Pakistan, the leadership of the new country, for the most part, unaware of the radical nature of its formation, began to banalize its claims and the process of depoliticization of Islam started. Unlike other Kemalist entities, Pakistani’s Kemalist tendencies continued to run up against the founding narrative of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland. The recuperation of the Pakistani state in Kemalism meant that the decolonial potential of the experiment of Pakistan would remain unfulfilled. The tragedy of Pakistan remains that those who rule, do not believe in it and those who believe in it, so far, have not been able to rule it.
*This blog is an extract from a forthcoming book to be published by Zed Press in 2018.
Arjomand, A (2007)., “Islamic Constitutionalism” Annual Review of Law and Social Science, vol 3, pp. 115-140.
Bulliet, Richard W. ‘Iran Today’ http://agenceglobal.com/2016/12/12/iran-today/ Accessed 30 June 2017.
Sayyid, S. 2015. A Fundamental Fear. 3rd edn. London: Zed Books.
Sayyid, S, (2014) Recalling the Caliphate, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
“Khomeini and the Decolonization of the Political.” Critical Introduction to Khomeini, edited by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Talbot, Ian (1998) Pakistan: A Modern History, London: Hurst Publishers