By Muhammad Amir Rana
December 30, 2018
AT every important juncture in our
country’s history, the question of national unity and cohesion rears its head.
The nation is once again at a critical juncture of political transition, with
the establishment trying to further consolidate its grip on power. The ongoing
transition has re-triggered the debate about the nature of the Pakistani state
and its relationship with society. On Quaid-i-Azam’s birth anniversary earlier this
week, many highlighted the widening gulf between his and our visions of
Pakistan, which entail two contrasting approaches to nation building.
Defying the Quaid’s dream, those who have
been at the helm of state affairs have used religion as the principal tool of
nation building. Since 1956, in particular, Pakistani power elites have been
trying to forge national cohesion through the use of religion and religious
groups, albeit facing much reservation from religious minorities and major
political parties — including from erstwhile East Pakistan. Even after debating
four drafts of the constitution, the Constituent Assembly had set aside the
apprehensions of dissidents and included the Objectives Resolution in the first
constitution of the country, though as a preamble. The 1956 Constitution
determined the future course of the country; what followed is history.
After taking many twists and turns, the
establishment’s romance with religion has reached a point where a new religious
sensitivity is being blended in the nation-building process. This new
phenomenon is indeed being nurtured around national identity under the state’s
authority. It appears that the establishment has resolved the dichotomy of the
sovereignty rooted in the Objectives Resolution.
Religious groups had exploited the notion
to gain authority and legitimacy, and the state very comfortably accommodated
them for two major reasons: first, these groups helped power elites in
consolidating power; and second, they served the state by protecting its strategic
Another important factor was the inability
of state institutions to directly handle matters connected to religion. The
state had created several religious institutions, but shared few judicial and
legislative powers through establishing the Council of Islamic Ideology, the
Federal Shariat Court, etc. Apart from the stated purposes of these bodies,
which were to please the clergy, the establishment used them to seek
endorsement for its actions.
Pakistan’s war against terrorism was tough not
only on the physical front, but also in weakening terrorism’s ideological and
political appeal. However, it was also difficult for the establishment to
reconsider its approach towards its religious allies in the institutional
ascendancies. The establishment gained moral legitimacy from the religious
clergy and, in return, gave it favours on the basis of which religious
institutions have thrived and gained further influence. At several occasions,
the clergy registered its dissenting note on government policies (mainly
related to Sharia compliance), but the state tolerated the opposition and tried
to pacify the clergy with more favours.
However, the rebellion of so-called
‘militant proxies’ against the state after 9/11, and the reluctance of a larger
proportion of the clergy to oppose them, forced the establishment to readjust
its approach towards the clergy and its organisations. The religious-political
parties, mainly the JI and JUI-F, which were the trusted allies of the
establishment, took the path of dissent.
Two factors had played a key role in their
dissent. First, the successful experiment of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal — an
alliance of six major religious parties that secured reasonable electoral
success in the 2002 general election — had given the parties confidence for
solo flights; these two parties then tried to develop their own independent
The second factor was linked with the
growing annoyance among religiously inspired militants — mainly those having
any sort of association with these parties — regarding the alliance between
their religious-ideological leaders and the establishment. In an effort to
defuse this displeasure, both parties started using anti-establishment
rhetoric, which eventually proved counterproductive. In the last election, the
MMA failed to impress the electorate.
On the other hand, the establishment
started to bet on new horses. The formation of an alliance of militant groups
and small religious parties, the Difa-i-Pakistan Council, proved effective for
mobilising street protests against drone attacks and exploiting anti-US
sentiments. But this alliance, too, was not capable of securing electoral
success. The establishment’s romance with the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan proved
to be short, and the idea that a ‘Barelvi awakening’ could help build a
counter-narrative to that of the Deobandi militant groups proved false.
During this time, however, the
establishment succeeded in launching Paigham-i-Pakistan, a joint declaration by
hundreds of religious scholars against terrorism and sectarian violence. Most
serious religious scholars had reluctantly signed the document, but the heads
of banned sectarian and militant groups who did were jubilant, for they found
in it an opportunity to survive by becoming its custodians. The security
institutions are also running sensitisation campaigns on educational campuses
based on Paigham-i-Pakistan.
Some in the establishment still favour the
idea of mainstreaming those banned organisations that once served as state
proxies. However, they are not willing to give them the power to control
narratives. The establishment only needs these instruments to approve its
ideological framework, and has become the sole proprietor of the country’s
nationalist project. Its doors will remain open for all religious actors if
they wish to accept the state’s supremacy on religious narratives.
The establishment will construct new
religious commitments around its new notion of religious sensitivity — but,
apparently, it is confident that the religious legal and constitutional process
has been completed and it has no further obligations in this regard. Religion
is connecting the people as religiosity in society is on the rise. It may also
believe that, to counter radical tendencies, the patronage of a
political-religious movement like the Tableeghi Jamaat and the promotion of a
certain brand of spiritualism and Sufism would be enough.
From here, the establishment can move
forward to other spheres with confidence. As its powers grow, achieving the
objective of ‘national cohesion’ will become easier.
Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst.