‘Can the Left become relevant to Islamic Pakistan?’ – Some Reflections

  • Written by  Eric Rahim
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In the last week of August this year published an article by Professor  Pervez Hoodbhoy with the title ‘Can the Left in Pakistan become relevant to Islamic Pakistan?’ The editors of Viewpoint invited comments and discussion on the issues raised. The present article may be seen as a response to this invitation (offering nothing more than some reflections on the subject).
I will start with one of the most insightful aphorisms of Karl Marx: People make their own history but not in the circumstances chosen by them. This article is largely about the ‘circumstances’ in which the Left in Pakistan finds itself today. ‘Circumstances’ are historically ‘given’, you cannot change them, they set the limits within which you can function. Only with an understanding of these conditions can the Left develop its world-view and course of action for the future.

Professor Hoodbhoy referred to the genesis of Pakistan, and that is where we must start - the establishment of British supremacy in the subcontinent and the Muslim reaction to it. This response was one of rejection of the English language and western-style education, and with it Western ideas   of rational and scientific thought, let us say, rejection of ‘modernity’. Professor Hoodbhoy mentions that in 1835, eight thousand notables in the state of Bengal signed a petition against the teaching of English and modern ideas.

The use of the expressions such as ‘modernity’ and western ideas can lead to misunderstanding and it is therefore imperative that we should know what we are talking about.

By these expressions in the present context I mean rational thought, spirit of free inquiry and innovation, a situation where everything is open to question, where matters of political and economic nature are not decided with reference to tradition or any holy text. I think The Communist Manifesto (1848) put it nicely: The bourgeoisie ‘has  drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentality in the icy water of egotistical calculation ... All fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept way, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and relations with his kind.’

The petition issued by the Muslim notables in Bengal represented a tendency in Muslim thought (as prevalent today as it was then) that finds ‘modernity’  as a threat to the Muslim way of life, and asserts the Muslim community’s separateness from other religious and non-religious communities. In the specific Indian context this meant not only rejection of modern education but also considering Indian Muslims as a distinct political community from the Hindus.

There was another tendency. This was represented by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. It urged Muslims to learn the English language (at the time the carrier of ‘modernity’), embrace modern education and science. But at the same time it also emphasised the separateness of Indian Muslims from their Hindu compatriots, representing the two as distinct political communities. It saw the threat to Indian Muslims coming not from the British or ‘modernity’, but from the Hindus, who had no inhibitions to learn the English language and embracing the modern outlook, and were therefore much better placed to take advantage of the new opportunities that were arising with the establishment of   British supremacy.

These two tendencies worked themselves out in tandem in Indian Muslim history and eventually in the creation of Pakistan. 


Pakistan was an artificial creation - in the obvious sense that it did not exist before August 1947, and was created by putting together some ethnically diverse regions as part of the Indian independence settlement. These regions had no collective history of their own; what history they had was part of the history of the subcontinent as a whole. It was a country, but not yet a nation or nation-state.

Pakistan was also an unnatural country. It was made up of two parts separated from each other  by vast Indian territory. But much more important was the fact that the religious-political culture of the two halves of the country was fundamentally different.

Let me explain. One of the important issues in constitution-making in the 1950s was the question of separate versus joint electorates. While East Pakistanis wanted the joint electorate system, West Pakistanis insisted on the continuation of the separate electorate principle. For East Pakistanis the separate electorate system had been no more that a practical defensive measures against the Hindus’ numerical majority, and therefore had become redundant with the creation of Pakistan. For West Pakistan (where the minority populations were numerically insignificant) the system of separate electorates was an ideological issue that embodied the principle of the separation of Muslims from Hindus and other religious communities.

Another example of the difference between the religious-political outlook between the two regions: today vast majority of the labour force in the modern manufacturing industry in Bangladesh is female.  Such a situation is inconceivable in Pakistan. One could go on.

The task that the leadership in West Pakistan (that is where  power lay) faced at the inception of Pakistan was how to weld its different regions, all Muslim but with diverse ethnic identities and different economic interests, into a single, distinctive identity, a nation. The leadership failed – has failed - in this task. The question is, why?

We will return to this question presently. Before discussing it let us again go back to the genesis of Pakistan – the economic and social structure of the regions that made up Pakistan. (The situation in East Pakistan was very different.) In large measure these regions were semi-feudal and tribal in character. In some areas, such as Balochistan and parts of Pakhtunwa, even the modern conception of law had not reached. In large parts of Punjab and Sindh agriculture was semi-feudal in nature, with the peasantry totally under the domination of  landowners. There was very little of modern industry, no Muslim capitalist class as such, and therefore very small industrial working class.

We add to these features, another of fundamental importance.  The Muslim population in these regions had very little experience of the anti-imperialist independence movement. The Muslim League in these regions had a very weak organisation, and where it did exist it was dominated by landowning interests – who were in any case quite comfortable with the Raj. Furthermore, the Muslim League’s fight was never against the British; it was first aimed at securing  the necessary safeguards for Muslims, and later at the demand for a separate homeland for Muslims, as part of the overall independence settlement. It was only after the end of the second world war when it became clear that the British would have to leave and the creation of Pakistan had become a distinct possibility (as part of the independence settlement) that the Muslim  masses were brought into what we might call the political process. But then – and this is important – this process was entirely fired by anti-Hindu, Islamic appeal. Large numbers of religious leaders, moulvis, pirs, etc., were mobilised to broadcast the message. All the powerful religious passions and prejudice that had long been overlaid by the veneer of British ‘law and order’ erupted with volcanic force. 

The situation that prevailed at the time of the creation of Pakistan (or soon after things had settled down) may now be summarised something like this. Feudals constituted the dominant class with economic and social power in rural West Pakistan. But they lacked sufficient cohesion and collective class intelligence to be able to exercise political power. The bourgeoisie was of course yet to be created by the bureaucracy. There was therefore a power vacuum in the country. Initially, this vacuum was filled by the British-trained bureaucracy, numerically small but competent. But they had no social base in society. Hence, the manipulation of the parliamentary system (dominated by landed interests), shifting political alliances, and the subversion of the democratic institutions inherited from the British.

It is against this background that we must see the army, the country’s most efficient institution, with its undisputed leadership, stepping upon the political stage. The alliance between the bureaucracy and the army came naturally, with the army as the obvious senior partner.

We return to the question raised earlier – the problem of nation-building facing the leadership at the inception of Pakistan.

Societies are more than structures of dominance even when they are riven by conflict and struggle; there is presumption of continuity, common traditions and values, history - all the things that bind  people into nations.  At the time of its creation Pakistan was not such a society. The different regions had to be welded together into one community of people.

I think there were (at least in theory) two different choices available to the leadership. First: to recognise the ethnic diversity of the country, and adopt a constitution that would ensure that different provinces of the country shared equally in power and economic benefits that were expected from economic progress. The central issue here at the time was the relationship between East and West Pakistan (or Punjab). Given the power structure that emerged in West Pakistan (as outlined above) such an approach was beyond its reach. Furthermore, the leadership in Pakistan did not trust the East Pakistanis: they were thought to be too much under the cultural influence of their Hindu compatriots; they were, in short, unreliable Pakistanis. To share real power with them was to share of control over the armed forces, foreign policy, allocation of economic resources, etc. All that was out of the question as far as the thinking of the leadership was concerned. (Note that all the great institutions of the state – the executive, legislature, the supreme court, the State Bank, army, naval and air force headquarters - were located in West Pakistan.)

The second course, which came naturally, was to use the Islamic ideology, combined with anti-Hindu/anti-India sentiment to bind the heterogeneous regions into a nation. Nothing succeeds in uniting a people or consolidating the status quo as a perceived threat from a foreign enemy. That is what the leadership thought. On a personal note I recall that in the early 1950s I was a junior sub-editor on the staff of the Karachi newspaper Dawn, the mouthpiece of the government at the time. The sub-editors were under instruction always to substitute the word ‘Bharat’ for India in copy. Those days the word ‘India’ never appeared in the columns of Dawn. The idea was to emphasise t he Hindu character of India; Hindu India presenting an existential threat to Muslim Pakistan. (It may be noted in passing that this approach to nation-building further strengthened the position of the army; in fact, it came to be treated as a holy cow, above criticism – at least until 1971.)

We have seen how this approach to nation-building failed tragically in 1971. Religion could not hold the people together. It continues to be the case.

Did Zia ‘remake’ Pakistan?

Now I draw attention to what I regard is an important fact. Most of Pakistan’s leaders over the years have been in their personal beliefs  secular minded. We may start with Jinnah himself. In his first address to the constituent assembly he envisaged a Pakistan in which religion would have no place in politics. In this regard one can also think of Ghulam Mohammed, Iskandar Mirza, Ayub Khan, the Bhuttos, and Musharraf. And yet Pakistan has drifted into a dangerous form of religious extremism which has undermined law and order in the country and has become a threat to the very existence of Pakistan.

Many people on the Left in Pakistan put all the blame on Zialul Haq. Professor Hoodbhoy also subscribes to this viewpoint. According to him Zia ‘remade’ Pakistan. We know that Zia introduced Sharia-oriented measures, but how do we explain their general acceptance (even welcome) among the general mass of the people? A Bangladeshi Ziaul Haq could not have managed to achieve what ‘our’ Zia did. I think the ‘Zia did it’ theory has to answer this question. Professor Hoodbhoy reports the findings of a survey in 2008 according to which fifty-four percent of those interviewed said they wanted strict application of the Sharia law, and 25 percent went for a diluted form of Sharia application. I think that if you had conducted a similar survey before Zia came to power the results would not have been very different.

The simple fact (as already indicated) is that at the time of its inception Pakistan inherited a medieval social structure and culture (with religion intertwined with it) with a modern political system (parliament and independent judiciary, etc)sitting on the top. The two were incompatible. The latter gave in as reflected first in the corruption of the political process, the undermining of law by those in power, widespread theft of public resources (bank loans that were never meant to be repaid), and later financial corruption by those in power, a phenomenon universally known and even accepted (people vote for the leaders fully knowing what they will be up to when elected.)

In case some readers of this article think I am exaggerating the medieval character of our society, let me give some examples to illustrate my point. In 2008 Pakistani newspaper s reported that three girls and two women had been shot and then buried while still alive (for committing a ‘crime of honour’ ) in Balochistan. Later, a woman member Bibi Yasmin Shah raised the question in the Senate and was told by a member from Balochistan, Sardar Israrullah Zehri, that this barbaric act had been committed according to the Baloch ‘tribal custom’  which the lady did not understand. The speaker of the Senate made some non-committal remarks. During the same period (I happened to be in Lahore at the time visiting Government College University) newspapers reported an incident from Sindh in which a vicious dog had been let loose on a young girl for having wanting to marry a man of her own choice. More recently, a young woman was stoned to death in broad day light with people watching in the compound of the Lahore High Court for committing a similar ‘honour crime’.  The police officer in charge of this case told a British reporter (who must have expressed his horror at the incident) ‘this is not Oxford Street’. (Reported in the Guardian newspaper.) In effect, the police officer was saying ‘we are different from you (the Brirtish). These things happen here, we are used to them.’  Of course these barbaric practices are not derived from the teachings of Islam. But the people who commit them will tell you in good faith that they are good Muslims, and if you ask them they will tell you they would like to have the application of Sharia law.

It is in this sense that religious extremism is an aspect of this medieval culture. It draws its nourishment from it. It was always there. Ziaul Haq merely called it forth. Then the institutions of the state thought they could use this force to promote their own ends. But like the sorcerer’s apprentice (in Goethe’s poem with the same title) they knew only how to summon the devil, but not how to control him.

Why Pakistanis ‘hate’ America?

According to Professor Hoodbhoy ‘Pakistan is probably the most anti-American country in the world.’ Even if we don’t go as far as this, the fact is that anti-American feeling in the country is very powerful and widespread. The question is, why? This is a large issue; factors both international and those specific to Pakistan need to be considered in detail. But here are some suggestions.

If we go back to the 1950s, we see the rise of Arab nationalism as represented by Egypt’s Gemal Abdel Nasser. Arab nationalism was wholly secular in character, emphasising Arab identity over Islamic identity; it was genuinely anti-imperialist (not anti-West, anti-‘Christian civilisation’). It went over the heads of the Arab rulers (such as Saudi Arabia’s) to the ordinary Arab. It gave the Arab people a sense of self-respect and dignity.

But it failed. The defeat in the six-day  war with Israel, fought under the leadership of Nasser, in which Israel occupied large parts of Arab lands – the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, Golan Heights, the Gaza strip - dealt it  a mortal blow. From now on Nasser, though still venerated, was a tragic figure. He had to compromise with his former enemies, the forces of status quo led by Saudi Arabia. Some ten years later, after another Arab defeat at the hands of Israel, Egypt, under Anwar Sadat,  recognised Israel. Under the patronage of the United States, a peace treaty was signed.  This was the final humiliation for Arab nationalism. (Egypt got back the Sinai peninsula and military aid that continues to this day.)

I am suggesting that the rise of the tendency emphasising Islamic identity in the Muslim world in the 1970d/80s that we observe now can be attributed to this failure. This tendency is generally anti-West, but specifically not anti-capitalist nor anti-imperialist. It is more a rejection of West European culture, western ‘way of life’. It sees the Western culture as a threat to the Islamic ‘way of life’ which it sees as unchanging. Over time it has taken the specific form of anti-Americanism because America is seen as the leading ‘crusader’ nation that intervenes in Muslim countries and provides protection to Israel. I say that this tendency is not specifically anti-imperialist because it has little interest in American policies in the non-Muslim world. It sees the world as divided between two civilisations, Islamic and Christian. This tendency has gained greater currency since 9/11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Pakistani public which sees itself as part of the world-wide Muslim community has obviously been profoundly influenced by these developments and thus shares its anti-Americanism. 

I come now to the specific question of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. Let us again go back to the beginning.  Pakistan’s foreign policy was right from the beginning dictated by its hostility to or fear of India. It was concluded by the leadership that the country needed a strong ally, a protector of last resort, if you like, against a more powerful neighbour. Pakistan found this ally in the United States (the only other option at the time was the USSR) and joined the American-sponsored military pacts in the 1950s, putting itself firmly in the American camp.

Now there was (shall we say?) a ‘contradiction’ in this alliance. It was not only an alliance of unequals; it was also an alliance in which each party had totally different objectives: the American policy was dictated by the imperative to fight world communism; it needed a strong disciplined army in the region that would do its bidding. Pakistan’s sole interest in joining the alliance was, as noted, dictated by its fear of India. But Americans would never antagonise India unless it became necessary in the context of its war against Communism.

We have seen that over time this ‘contradiction’ has played itself out with varying degrees of intensity. Pakistan has its own national interest (as perceived by its leadership), the Americans have their own which they pursue without regard to Pakistan’s. Matters have come to a head in   Afghanistan. There is distrust, mutual dislike, but also mutual dependence. But as I said before the relationship is that of unequals. Pakistan is economically dependent on the Americans (and the international institutions under their influence).

Now we can see why Pakistanis anti-Americanism has a sharper edge as compared with those countries that have directly suffered from American policies and activities. Pakistanis feel trapped in this relationship. It is the relationship of one who is oppressed but needs the oppressor. Hence, the hatred for the oppressor, but also loss of self- respect and self-loathing


In this article I have tried to outline the ‘circumstances’ in which the Left in Pakistan finds itself. That is the extent  of my contribution here, at least for now.  Religion has been unable to unite Pakistanis into a nation. Religious extremism, a genie released from the bottle, by causing mayhem and chaos, has become a threat to the very existence of Pakistan. I cannot see any significant progress in Pakistan unless this problem is resolved. It also expresses itself in anti-Americanism which I have suggested is not the same thing as anti-imperialism; this way of thinking ignores the fact the countries like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states live in a state of symbiosis with the United States. They may hate the Americans culturally, but economically they are tied together in a tight embrace.

Professor Hoodbhoy has made certain suggestions about how the Left can become relevant in Pakistan. They need serious discussion and examination.  
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