Muslim Zion (Daily Times)

Generally speaking the latest book ‘Muslim Zion—Pakistan as a Political idea’ by Faisal Devji — a historian at Oxford University published by Hurst & Company — is a valuable addition in the raging ideological debate between champions of political and militant Islamism and the democratic forces. Recent discourse on the issue whether Hakeemullah or the Pakistan Army’s Muslim soldiers who are killed in the line of duty fighting various groups of militant Islamists should be titled ‘Shaheed’, is a part of this larger ideological debate.

Personally speaking this book is reassuring because its basic argument is close to the submission in my book — ‘What’s wrong with Pakistan? Both books were published around the same time otherwise I could have taken help from Faisal Devji’s academic work.

Faisal draws parallel between the ‘idea of Pakistan’ i.e. a state for the Muslims of India and ‘idea of Israel’ which is based on Zionism. This he maintained makes them twin states because they were created on the basis of religious ideology and an imagined identity. Some writers confuse this aspect and have included all the countries that have officially declared the state religion such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, etc. It would be good for them to read this book as it explains the difference between states existing in one form or another, adopting and declaring in their constitution that the religion of their state would be Islam and the ‘imagined states’ like Pakistan and Israel.

It is also acknowledged by Faisal that this proposition is not something new. Faisal maintains that “Zia ul Haq was only stating the obvious when in a 1982 interview with The Economist, he pointed out that ‘Pakistan is, like Israel, an ideological state. Take out Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.” His contribution is that he has discussed this paradigm theoretically and in detail. 

Zia’s argument is extended by the Islamists who assert that religion alone is a binding force that keeps the country together. Separation of East Pakistan amply proved the fallacy of this argument, as geographical, economic, historical and Bengali nationalism over-ruled the concept of one Islamic nation. Some would still argue that though Bangladesh separated from Pakistan it did not merge with West Bengal because it wanted to keep its Islamic identity. Again this is wrong because the political parties that led the liberation war stood for a secular Bangladesh, a fact upheld by its Supreme Court last year. They did not join West Bengal because it would have meant only changing the masters – from Islamabad to Delhi. West Bengal on the other hand had no desire to break away from India.

As ‘imagined states’ Faisal observed that the basic idea of Pakistan and Israel defined “nationality outside the state, with all world’s Jews and all the subcontinent’s Muslim capable of becoming citizens, which is perhaps why the states meant to be their homeland imagined in such disparate and shifting way. From an Eretz Israel that can include chunks of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, to a Pakistan that would add to its territory not simply the whole of Kashmir, but also bits of Indian provinces of Punjab, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, these countries have never possessed a stable form even in their imaginaries.”

But here Faisal has failed to mention that while in the case of imagined Pakistan, once the state was acquired, it shifted from its original stance that it’s the homeland for the Muslims of India. Unlike Israel which kept its doors open for the Jews around the world to come in and acquire Israeli citizenship, Pakistan closed its borders for Indian Muslims in the early fifties. The local residents of the Muslim majority areas on which the new state was formed had had enough of immigrants from Muslim minority areas of India, so the shutter had to be pulled down at the border. The imaged state perhaps ended at that moment and Pakistan tried to configure itself again by denying the fact that it was a multi-national country with people who have their own language, history, culture and soil and insisted that only imagined Islamic nation identity is acceptable.

In the chapter ‘Another Country’ Faisal has rightly pointed out towards the “curious links between Pakistan and Israel. Both Muslim and Jewish states survive with rhetorical fear of being divided or altogether extinguished by their enemies. Yet when the time comes for either to abandon a portion of its territory, it does so without any apparent crisis of nationality.”

Another commonality between these two ‘imagined nations’ was that the ‘minority nationalism’ of the communities that had lived under “empires rather than nation states, though their own achievement of such states became possible once these imperial orders had collapsed” but indeed not without the fading empires blessings. The fear of living as a minority was predominant. Faisal has dealt this issue in his chapter ‘The problem with numbers.’

Faisal explains the present predicament of Pakistani society in his summation: “Yet the Islam promoted by militant Sunni groups is not about replacing one kind of belief with another. What they object to is the inner life itself, whose freedom is now identified with heresy… Perhaps an inner life is the last remaining vestige of all that is simply given or a priori within Muslim nationalism… In this sense the execration of inner life by Sunni militants can be seen as a part of the logic of Muslim nationalism … And it is the absence of such an inner life, mixing tradition and freedom in equal measures, which makes outward observance of Islam such a raw, passionate affair, with its great dramas of blasphemy and desecration demonstrating the urge to externalize religion completely as a kind of citizenship without politics.” That’s the dialectical outcome of the idea of a state on the basis of a religion. Faisal has pointed out that the states which have declared ‘Islam’ as the state religion have established their copyright on the idea and “instead of protecting Islam as an abstract idea, Pakistan has nationalized it.”

Historian Dr. Sarah Ansari in contribution to the festschrift to honour people like historian Mubarak Ali has rightly observed that “…this composite ‘Muslim’ identity quickly refracted in the aftermath of partition. It was as if by making the transition to independence, groups of South Asian Muslims have passed through one of those glass prisms that first concentrates but then disperses light, producing a spectrum of colours, or in this case revealing internal differences that had arguably continued to be present.” That’s why when put to a reality check the ‘insufficiently imagined’ idea of one Muslim nation refracted into an ethno-linguist nationalities conflict and sectarian strife.

The writer is the author of ‘What’s wrong with Pakistan?’ He can be reached at

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