Can Pakistan survive identity politics?

The rhetoric of identity in a multilingual Pakistan

By: Shabbir Ahmed

The world has gone through a series of issues that it has attempted to address prior to establishing institutional structures and procedures. The central question until the last decade of the twentieth century was that of the economy, which gave rise to capitalist and planned economies. This distinction of the economic systems then aligned states along with the type of economies they would adopt. The question of the economy however has not lost its context, but events in the 21st century have posed a new question which is the wandering who that lets nations all over the world as to who they really are. This is related to the politics of identity. Although identity politics has always been part of politics, it has now become one of the most powerful forces in contemporary international politics. Identity politics describes the way people adopt political and legal positions that might be based on ethnicity, race, gender, religion, social background, class, or any other identifying factor, but in third-world countries, identity politics is mainly underpinned by religion or nationalism. Though the phenomenon started on the left in the 1970s, it has now been potentially driven by the right, which can be witnessed in the western world where countries for the last decade had been moving towards protectionism to protect their identity especially, in the case of Donald Trump who used to say that I am a global citizen, but of course, America comes first and the issue of Brexit where Britain opted for independent trade policies. If the Western nations protected the liberal norms and values as the main components of their identity, it would be easy for them to unite themselves based on a broad identity.  Therefore, Identity politics may be viewed as a gift for the West till or without the increasingly popular slogans of gender, race, or religion substituting liberal standards. This politics of identity has not been confined to Western democracies, but now takes a distinct approach in third world nations.

In a country like Pakistan, identity politics is problematic in the sense that State is lacking a collective identity. One can hardly see any state in this world, which is not multiethnic. So, Pakistan is no exception. Although Pakistani ruling elites have always associated themselves with an Islamic identity that comes from the independence of Pakistan based on the so-called Two-Nation Theory. However, the state has always witnessed on the one hand a clash of faith vs secularism where the state on several occasions has used the Islamic identity whereas, the secularist forces that were part of the power structure and were in good relations with the Western powers were not only reluctant about the Islamic identity but had clearly maintained that Pakistan is a democratic country and that Political Islam has no position in the state affairs. This concept of an Islamic identity further deteriorated when the state got in trouble with its ethnic groups such as the Baloch people and the Bengali nationalists. On the other hand, especially in the current situation, the state has been witnessing a clash of faith vs ethnicity. It is primarily because people have abandoned their state’s Islamic identity in favor of ethnic identification. Conflict based on ethnicity in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon to be looked upon but has existed in Pakistan in the very beginning phases of independence in Baluchistan in 1947 continued up till this day and then in the case of East Pakistan separation in 1971. This somehow proved that ethnic groups are not safe in the type of constitutional and power structure or at least the deliberate actions, Pakistan is having.

As soon as the current Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan took office in 2018, manipulated the argument and talked about a state where affairs would be conducted according to Islam.  A trend of using religion got talent in framing situations and in identifying its enemies, especially India.  Pakistanis have thus connected to an Islamic identity again. However, as nationalist movements such as the Pashtun protection movement in the tribal areas and parts of Baluchistan grew as a result of extrajudicial killings, state agencies forced their disappearances and similarly in case of protests by the religious groups against the blasphemous acts where the state was unable to support religious groups, hopes of Islamic identity were killed. The wave of protests made by ethnic groups particularly by the Pashtuns against the state for misuse of power is a problem that cannot be ignored. The groups involved in such protests not only criticize state policies but continuously identify themselves as Afghans, despite holding the citizenship of Pakistan. This has been witnessed in various demonstrations made by the Pashtun Protection Movement. More recently, a few days ago Usman Kakar, a member of a Nationalist party and a senator of Pakistan, who was murdered in his home gave the nationalist groups another threat and opportunity at the same time to unite, but this time Baloch people too joined hands with the Pashtun people wholeheartedly. The state was blamed for the killing of Usman Kakar. Again, the crowds raised slogans that showed their criticism of the state, and more surprises during the funeral the flag of Afghanistan was raised on the grave of the senator.

The implication is that Pakistan is a multilingual state that lacks an identity in an age of identity politics capable of uniting Pakistanis in the same way that the West has done under liberal standards. If Pakistan has to survive the identity politics, it must work upon an identity that is not so religious as people are divided along sectarian lines and the state cannot decide upon a single school of thought, not affiliated with a certain ethnic group in the majority, not so secular because that would burden the religious groups but should be an identity that is inclusive and should provide equal representation for all religious, ethnic, and political groups. It may be achieved by convincing all groups to make compromises on some aspects of their identity. Otherwise, the state may witness and ultimately divide some extremely unpleasant phases of sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

The writer is a student of International Relations and researcher at National Defense University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected]