Why Pakistanis are more Muslim than thou

An Opinion Piece By Razib Khan for Science Blog-Gene Expression

The contradictions of Persians in relation to Islam and Arabs have always perplexed me, and my Persian American friends have never been able to unpack the sentiments coherently. On the one hand Persians are resolutely Muslim, have been by and large for over 1,000 years. Their script is derived from Arabic, Farsi has been strongly influenced by Arabic, and many Persians have names of Arabic provenance. Muhammad, Ali and Husayn were Arabs. On the other hand, Persians are often racist against Arabs, something which takes concrete form against Iranian Arabs. As far back as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh you see Muslim Persians looking back to a glorious past, and bemoaning their cultural enslavement by barbaric bedouins.

When it comes to the Islamic regime’s ambivalence, and on occasion outright hostility, toward the glories of pre-Islamic Iran, the authorities need to tread a fine line. The Persians may be Muslims, and have synthesized their culture with Islam so that the religion is part & parcel of a modern Persian identity, but they also retain their ethnic-national identity as distinct from the Arabs, and later Turks, who ruled them. The customs, traditions and physical monuments from pre-Islamic Iran are witness to the concrete aspects of Persian identity which are prior, or independent of, Islam.

The issue with Egyptians is somewhat different, because the Egyptians became Arabs, abandoning the Coptic language, which descends from ancient Egyptian. After the decline of Baghdad Cairo became the cultural capital of the Arab world, and more recently was the locus of pan-Arabism. In contrast to the Persians the Egyptians subsumed their own identity with that of the Muslim Arab conquerors. But, they retain pride in their ancient civilization, which is still concrete in the form of the pyramids. I don’t think this is particularly surprising; from what I can tell the Greeks take pride in the achievements of the ancient Greeks, the Chinese believe that the ancient Chinese invented everything, while black African and northern European racial nationalists have concocted an alternative history whereby all of antiquity was the handiwork of their own ethnic groups. If one’s history includes Egypt of the Pharaohs, I am skeptical that any Muslim group would disavow it on account of it being pre-Islamic.

Which brings me to Pakistan. A recent Pew survey indicated that 90% of Pakistanis view themselves as “Muslim first” (as opposed to being citizens of their country first). The numbers in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Indonesia are 60%, 70%, 50% and 35% respectively. Why is the number so high for Pakistan? One straightforward reason is that the raison d’etre of Pakistan is to be a state for Muslims. In other words, the Muslim identity of Pakistan is operationally coterminous with national identity. The conflict with India is generally couched in terms of the communal divide (even if India promotes itself as a secular state, it is perceived as a Hindu nation). This strong contrast along the axis of religion, as well as the history of Pakistan’s origin, are obviously important.

But there is something deeper about Pakistani identity which I have always perceived, and that is that Pakistanis, and to some extent South Asians Muslims generally, highlight and emphasize the non-South Asian antecedents of their identity. By this, I mean that South Asian Muslims are no different genetically, by and large, from Hindus (Hindu Sindhis vs. Muslim Sindhis, Hindu Bengalis vs. Muslim Bengalis), and yet seem to have an affinity for the alien Turkic conquerors of South Asia. Here’s a criticism of Pakistani history textbooks:

Nayyar, Jalal, Hoodbhoy and Saigol suggest that associated with the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ is an essential component of hate against India and Hindus. Some time after Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war, Indo-Pakistan history was replaced with Pakistan Studies, whose sole purpose was to define Pakistan as an Islamic state. Students were deprived of learning about pre-Islamic history of their region. Instead, history books now started with the Arab conquest of Sindh and swiftly jumped to the Muslim conquerors from Central Asia.

The history of the geographic region of Pakistan began during the epoch of the Indus Valley Civilization, which is arguably the most antique hearth of city-culture outside of the Middle East. This is not a trivial history. Additionally, the region of Pakistan played a major role as an area which served as a jumping off point of Buddhism into Central Asia, and from there to China. In other words, there are thousands of years of history before the conquest of Sindh by the armies of the Umayyads.

Why the difference between Pakistan and Iran and Egypt? Iranians and Egyptians are no less Muslim than Pakistanis, and Egyptians are even Arabs, and yet they take great national pride in their antiquities which pre-date Islam. By national pride, I mean that ancient Egypt is of interest to those outside of the elites or specialist scholars, while the Shahnameh, which is a chronicle of pre-Islamic Iran, is presumably known outside scholarly circles. The Vedas were composed in the Punjab, which is the geographic and cultural core of Pakistan, but I presume that most Pakistanis are unfamiliar with their contents (I am willing to be corrected here).

And I think that points to a difference between Egypt and Iran, and Pakistan: India exists in continuity from the pre-Islamic period, while the Copts and Zoroastrians in Egypt and Iran are arguably simply fossil identities which do not impinge upon the central role of Islam in Egypt and Iran. A few years ago I read an article about the shift from Persian to Arabic names among elite Persian families in the centuries after the Muslim conquest concomitant with their conversion to the new religion. Only when the vast majority of Persians were Muslim did Persian names start to reappear among the elites! At that point Persian names were no longer associated with a vital non-Muslim Persian cultural tradition which might be seen as a rival to the Muslim Persian cultural tradition, and so the pre-Islamic past in the form of names could be accepted without it being taken as a sign that one was not a Muslim.

The situation in Pakistan then is one where its own pre-Islamic glory has a distasteful valence in a nation which finds itself facing an India which is a living expression of pre-Islamic South Asian civilization, manifest in the religion that is Hinduism. In fact, from what I have seen and heard Indians take great pride in the Indus Valley civilization, even if it was mostly centered within the modern confines of Pakistan. Additionally, about 60% of Pakistanis are ethnic Punjabis. This group is also prominent in India, but they are mostly Hindus and Sikhs. The Sikh religion has to some extent become a de facto Punjabi ethnic religion; the Sikh scriptures are in Punjabi.

Pakistani cuisine, language and physique all point toward the affinity with India. If Indians magically became Muslim then I assume Pakistanis would look at their indisputable South Asianness, and take pride in those aspects which mark them as a more antique civilized people than the Arabs who gave them their religion. But as it is Indians are witness to that ancient history, claim it as their own, respect the Vedas not as documents of historical interest but of contemporary piety.

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