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Pakistan as a Political Idea

By Sarah Ansari | Posted 20th February 2014, 10:05
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Muslim Zion
Pakistan as a Political Idea
Faisal Devji
Hurst & Company  288pp  £20

Nationalist movements, by their very nature, claim to be exclusive, anchored to a specific place through shared links of blood or soil or past experience. Yet, as the histories written about them repeatedly show us, the processes that produce and drive them are usually similar if not completely identical. Whether we have in mind the civic-political model of nationalism, or its cultural/ethnic alternative, they represent legacies of Enlightenment thinking that have underpinned the arrival of the so-called nation state and its outward march from Europe across the globe over the last 200 years or so.

Two new states – Pakistan and Israel – stand out from this increasingly crowded geohistorical map by virtue of the fact that each was established on the basis of a shared religious identity – Islam and Judaism, respectively. In both cases their emergence took place against a common backdrop of global war, decolonisation and a re-calibrated world order. And for Zionism and Muslim nationalism alike, as Faisal Devji explains in Muslim Zion, it was an idea – that of ‘belonging’ – which eventually prevailed, albeit given a helping hand by the abrupt collapse of the old imperial order. Like Israel, it could be said that Pakistan came into being through the migration of people who moved from old lands in which, as a minority, they feared persecution, to a safer homeland. The precise detail of the two stories may differ, but neither, according to Devji, who interprets ‘Zion’ as a political form rather than a ‘holy land’, should be viewed as exceptional. Instead, for him, both constitute examples of the Enlightenment state par excellence thanks to how questions of ‘who is a Jew’ and ‘who is a Muslim’ effectively take ‘the debate on Pakistani or Israeli nationality back to the Enlightenment’s myth of political consent, when a people is converted to nationhood by the force of its idea alone’.

The parallels between Pakistan and Israel form the starting point for this provocative but compelling book that ranges far more widely than simply this comparison. Devji challenges us to rethink the forces at work in Muslim India from the 19th century onwards, as Muslim intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders effectively joined forces to resolve their community’s perceived dilemmas. The solutions that they proposed are explored – religious, philosophical, political – as these emerged in light of the trials and tribulations that they associated with being members of a minority in a fast-changing and uncertain world. But Indian Muslims had always represented a diverse set of interests, whether based on sectarian, class or caste differences. Not surprisingly they did not all respond in identical fashion. As Devji argues, as part of their desire to achieve a more secure future, key individuals engaged with and contributed to wider intellectual rethinking, including the tricky concepts of minorities, majorities, the state, nationhood and religious identity. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, to Muhammad Iqbal, the Aga Khan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Abul Ala Maududi all grappled with how best to play the politics of numbers, whether in British India or further afield, while other late colonial Indian politicians, such as Gandhi and the so-called Untouchables’ leader Ambedkar, learned useful lessons from their Muslim counterparts’ success or failure in this regard. Muslim Zion does not approach the telling of history in a conventional manner.  Devji leaves it to others to provide us with the subsequent record of the new state – Pakistan – that Muslim nationalism created.  Instead, as a convincing example of intellectual history writing, its real achievement is its nuanced historical exploration of the ‘idea’ of Pakistan and ‘its penetrating critique of what comes of founding a country on an unresolved desire both to join and to reject the world of modern nation states’.

Sarah Ansari is Professor of History at Royal Holloway University of London and is author of Life after Partition: Migration, Community and Strife in Sindh, 1947-1962 (OUP, 2005).


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