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Opinion

October 27, 2015

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Patriotism and the Pakistani

When Akbar S Ahmed’s film ‘Jinnah’ was released back in 1998 the country’s cinemas soon filled up with Pakistanis curious about their answer to Richard Attenborough’s internationally acclaimed biopic, ‘Gandhi’. And they were not disappointed. Even though Pakistan’s clumsy bureaucrats did their best to undermine the movie’s integrity by demanding cuts, it remained a pretty convincing account of the Quaid’s struggle to create Pakistan.
Up and down the country, the film was viewed with raucous enthusiasm. The loudest cheers came when Jinnah relied on his legal training and verbal dexterity to outwit Nehru and Mountbatten. These displays of the great man’s ability to win victories for the idea of Pakistan were met with unrestrained delight. How the audience cheered!
The reaction was a reminder of what was already obvious from countless cricket matches – especially those against India: press the right buttons and Pakistanis’ nationalistic fervour pours forth. Nationalism, in other words, had the potential to become a powerful force in Pakistani politics uniting the county’s citizens and binding them together with a commonly held ideology.
Pakistan is hardly alone in this respect. After the horrors of the Second World War in Europe – and countless previous conflicts – some Europeans set about the task of creating new political structures. But today the ideals of the men who set up the European Union project are being challenged. In many European countries nationalist parties are now ascendant, kicking back against the Europe Union and relying on the fact that many people do not consider themselves as Europeans but rather, for example, as French, German or British.
But in Pakistan’s case there is another layer of complication to these questions of identity. Unlike the citizens of many other countries, Pakistanis face a choice between patriotism (or its more extreme form, nationalism) and loyalty to an internationalist vision

of Islam. From the very start, when the idea of Pakistan was just a distant pipedream, many Islamists have preferred to think in terms of an internationalist community of believers in one faith rather than a modern nation-state.
Let’s not forget that many Islamist clerics opposed the creation of Pakistan on the grounds that their religion should not be in the business of recognising national boundaries but rather of creating one community with no internal borders. And that’s only part of the story. When it comes to vehicles for expressing nationalist sentiment, there are many on the religious right who see both films like ‘Jinnah’ and cricket matches against India as unhealthy, decadent distractions from the true path of a religious life.
The willingness of many Pakistanis to embrace nationalism had not been inevitable. And whilst the issue was most at its urgent in the 1940s before during and after Partition, it’s once again becoming an issue. Pakistan has to decide how it’s going to react to the increasingly open, and sometimes violent, expressions of Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India. Pakistan faces a choice between either expressing its nationalism or asserting its faith. And right now all the evidence suggests it’s going for the former and rejecting the latter.
With the civilian politicians emasculated there has been little sign in recent months of civilian leaders shaping the arguments in Pakistan. Terrified of being kicked out in another coup, Nawaz Sharif is reduced to waiting and watching as the army takes the initiative.
And that has some negative consequences. The military’s version of nationalism, now being remorselessly promoted on social media and on the satellite TV channels, is brash. It didn’t have to be that way. There is, after all, plenty to celebrate beyond the country’s military history and institutions. Many other aspects of the Pakistan nation might have become the focus of nationalist sentiment. But given that the shaping of the nationalist narrative has been left to the army, it’s perhaps not surprising that the focus is on the army itself.
It is a strategy that will come with a price.
Pakistan’s army is famously intolerant of criticism. Politicians who offer the mildest rebuke are considered irritating, impertinent upstarts who should learn their place. Websites that talk about the army’s human rights abuses or that question the military’s performance get closed down. Newspapers that run headlines suggesting the army failed in 1965 – and what other conclusion is there? – are told to write something more positive.
Pakistan has become long used to the military’s haughtiness in these matters. But looking ahead, the unstinting efforts to burnishing the army’s image are likely to be conflated with patriotism. How long will it be before army officers conclude that criticism of the army is in fact unpatriotic and that offenders must not just be told to stop but actually punished for their failure to support their nation. Criticise the army, they will argue, and you are in fact criticising Pakistan itself. That’s how it works today in Sisi’s Egypt. Pakistan is likely to follow suit.
Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel but perhaps it could be worse. Had the army, the civilians or the clerics responded to Modi with an appeal to religion rather than nationalism, Pakistan would face a more serious difficulty. Because the question would inevitably arise: what version of Islam and what kind of religious expression is the one around which Pakistanis should rally? And we all know where that would end up: with yet more sectarian conflict.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @OwenBennettJone

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