By Layla Hussain
November 24, 2013
It is true that stepping outside the box is instrumental in peering in with a fresh perspective. On a recent trip to Pakistan, I truly began to wonder what our fascination, as a nation-state, was with all things Middle Eastern. The waves of migration from Pakistan that headed to the more conservative of the Arab states, namely the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, had brought back with them a new set of expectations of what it meant to be Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
It is interesting to note that it is only amongst Pakistanis that one’s religion is the primary identifier; being Muslim comes before being a Pakistani, a Punjabi, a Sindhi, a man or a woman. It is understandable that we use religion as the defining line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, because Pakistan was created under the banner of a nation-state for the Muslims of the subcontinent. However what I especially take issue with is the notion that a particular type of Islam defines the one kind of Muslim we ought to be as Pakistanis; that is, a Sunni Wahhabi, straight-faced, Abaya-donning and beard-growing people. Where does the concept of this ‘ideal Islam’ come from? I argue that this is the result of our one-sided infatuation with the Arab world, which leads us, as a nation, to develop an inferiority complex about our history and culture.
Ideally, migration entails an exchange of ideas between the country of origin and the host country. The Middle East is unique in that there is no such exchange, as expatriate communities are reminded time and again of their inferiority to the locals. In the Pakistani mindset, however, the Arabs are our successful Muslim brethren, who can make the world go around with their petrodollars. They are the pride of the Muslim world and we should all aspire to be mighty like them, in faith and worldly pursuits. Expatriates know that religious interpretations the Arab brethren follow are certainly more conservative than the interpretations generally adhered to in Pakistan, but the seed of doubt is planted: perhaps, it is this very strictness in enforcing those versions that leads to good fortunes. Perhaps, people in Pakistan have been doing it all wrong.
Upon their return home, ‘enlightened’ Pakistanis begin preaching the ‘right’ Islam. They mention shirk more often, correct other’s prayers, denounce traditions, encourage segregated spaces and develop the insights to recognise corrupting Hindu influences in events and music. They deny the historical plurality of Islam in the subcontinent and believe that Sufis and Shias, among other minorities, are instigators in leading Islam astray. They attribute all national failures to the state’s inability to implement the Shariah law of Islam, based on a strict, select interpretation of the Holy Quran and Sunnah solely and lament the state of affairs in Pakistan in their exaltations of all things Arab. The flames of this high culture spread swiftly through social networks, as women who have never even been to the Middle East replace their traditional coloured Chadars with the emptiness of black Abayas.
As Pakistanis, it is tragic that we hold our rich heritage hostage to our sense of inferiority when we live in the Middle East. Despite the array of problems facing Pakistan today, the country is affluent in its plurality of ethnic groups, languages, cultures, the strength of its diaspora, its geostrategic location and the mystique it once held for local and foreign travellers seeking exotic destinations.
Lastly, whether one likes to admit it or not, Pakistan is rich in the plurality of faiths that live within its borders, in a way the Arab world will never know. That is the reality and it is our misfortune that we can no longer tolerate differences with our own countrymen, but can allow the practices in another country to bring us to the brink of turmoil today, when our minorities cannot even pray in peace. To dispel naivety, it is true that a particular version of Islam is being intentionally promoted and funded in Pakistan by outside interests. It is a tragedy, however, that Pakistanis in the Middle East become pawns for someone else’s game.