Pakistan’s Quest for Identity Breeds Islamist Extremism


Pakistanis have long believed that we are different, we are unique, and we are special and we are superior to other Muslims around the world. Recent events show that we may be different but in a negative and alarming way.


In a recent column, scientist and columnist Pervez Hoodbhoy argues that Pakistani Muslims are different as “Muslims aren’t like this elsewhere.” Using the recent incident of the Chinese manager who has been accused of blasphemy, Hoodbhoy asks “Afghanistan excluded, such mediaeval age horrors are unknown in other Muslim-majority countries. Nor is blasphemy busting a national preoccupation elsewhere. Apart from dedicated mountaineers, who in his right mind would want to vacation in a country where the population is ready to burst into flames at the slightest provocation? Elsewhere, tourists of all nationalities and religions are eagerly solicited and welcomed. The souks of Morocco and Egypt bustle with Americans, Europeans, Russians and Israelis, while Indonesia and Malaysia are popular destinations for Australians. Although UAE is formally under Sharia law, its relaxed social mores encourage people from everywhere to enjoy Dubai’s wonders.”


Pakistan, as Hoodbhoy notes, “is different. Scarcely any foreigner — white, Chinese or African — is visible on the streets or in the bazaars. Enrolment of foreign students in our universities is near zero. Major airports in Pakistan, constructed at enormous cost, are economically unsustainable for want of traffic. They have barely a handful of international flights daily with most passengers being Pakistani workers or expats.”


“We are exceptional in other ways too,” Hoodbhoy notes. “Lest memories fade, let’s recall that not only did Osama bin Laden find shelter in Pakistan, he was also hugely popular. According to the 2006 Pew Global Survey, the percentage of Pakistanis who saw bin Laden as a world leader grew from 45 per cent in 2003 to 51pc in 2005. In contrast, an identical questionnaire in Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon showed his popularity dropping by 20 points.”


Why is Pakistan unique and different from other Muslim countries? Hoodbhoy makes three observations.


First, according to Hoodbhoy “those who run Pakistan have long assumed that religion alone can stick together Pakistan’s various regions. Elsewhere, one does not see such nervousness. Turkey? Egypt? Iran? Indonesia? Morocco? Being historically formed nation states, they are comfortable with Islam and do not have existential worries. Their national narratives are free from apocalyptic scenarios of disintegration and destruction.”


Second, Hoodbhoy points out, “starting in the 1980s, Pakistan’s generals and clerics became symbiotically linked via the Kashmir jihad. Their so-called military-mullah alliance (MMA) created madressahs that became jihad factories. These eventually spun out of control. The 2007 Lal Masjid insurrection turned Islamabad into a war zone, leaving hundreds dead. It showed how impotent the state had become when confronted by the forces it had nurtured.”


In contrast, when we look at even Saudi Arabia or Egypt “these states tightly regulate where mosques can be built. Even the design and architecture — pleasing aesthetics being mandatory — is specified. More importantly, they spell out what can be said or not said during Friday sermons. This limits hate speech. Hence, there are no lynch mobs and no Mashal Khans or Priyantha Kumaras.”


Finally, Hoodbhoy points out, “the purist fantasy of a theological state (specifically those of Ziaul Haq’s Nizam-i-Mustafa or Imran Khan’s Riyasat-i-Madina) is very much alive in Pakistan. Yet leaders of autocratic and authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, or Turkey are not peddling hype of some imagined past.”


In conclusion, Hoodbhoy warns “for stability and prosperity, Pakistan will have to shed its illusions and become a normal country. This means that its diverse peoples must be held together consensually through shared needs and interdependence, not through some ideological diktat. The hyper religiosity promoted through state institutions and the toxic education in our schools is not getting us admiration anywhere. Instead, it is producing a wild, uncontrollable population. Even our friends now fear us.”