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Pakistan, Islam And Indian
Media Stereotypes

By Yoginder Sikand

21 January, 2006

Contrary to Indian media representations, the average Pakistani is just about as religious or otherwise as the average Indian. The average Pakistani is certainly not the wild-eyed fanatic baying for non-Muslim blood or waging violent jihad to establish global Islamic hegemony that our media would have us believe. Like the average Indian, he is emotionally attached to and culturally rooted in his religion, but he does not wear it on his sleeve and nor does it dictate every thought or act of his. In fact, the thing that first strikes the Indian visitor to Pakistan is how almost identical the average Pakistani is, looks and behaves to the average north Indian.

Almost all the many people I met in the course of a recent month-long visit to Pakistan that took me to several places in Punjab and Sindh do not even remotely fit the description of the average Pakistani peddled by our media. Islamist radical groups undeniably do have an important presence in parts of Pakistan, but they certainly do not command widespread popular support all over the country. This explains the continual dismal performance of religious parties in every successive Pakistani election. Despite concerted efforts by Islamist and mullah-based parties to establish a theocracy in the country, Pakistani politics are not dominated by religion as much as by economic, ethnic and regional concerns. It is, therefore, crucial not to exaggerate the influence of radical religious outfits in Pakistan, as the Indian media generally does.

Indian media descriptions about Pakistan tend to portray Islam in the country as a seamless monolith. The variety of local expressions of Islam are consistently overlooked so as to to reinforce the image of a single version of Islam that is defined by the most radical of Islamist groups. The fact, however, is, that most Punjabis and Sindhis, that is to say a majority of Pakistanis, ascribe to or are associated with the traditions of the Sufi saints, which are anathema for such Islamists. Popular Sufism is deeply-rooted in Pakistani soil and provides a strong counter to radical Islamist groups and their exclusivist agenda. Many Sufis were folk heroes, radicals in their own right, bitterly critiquing tyrannical rulers as well as Muslim and Hindu priests. This is why they exercised a powerful influence on the masses, irrespective of religion. This explains, in part, why Islamist radicals are so fiercely opposed to the traditions that have developed over the centuries around such figures.

The popular Sufi tradition in large parts of Pakistan thus limits the appeal of radical Islamists, making the chances of an Islamist take-over of the country a remote possibility. In recent years, it is true, these groups have gained particular salience and strength, but this is said to be less a reflection of a growing popular commitment to the Islamist cause than to other factors. One of these is the role of the state. Although the ideological founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, envisaged Pakistan as a secular Muslim state, successive Pakistani regimes governments have used Islam to bolster their own frail support base, exactly in the same manner as the Congress and the BJP have done with Hinduism in the Indian case. Islam has also been used to wield together a number of the country's ethnic groups that have little in common other than their profession of Islam, in the same way in which advocates of both 'soft' Hindutva, such as the Congress, and 'hard' Hindutva, such as the BJP, have sought to invoke Brahminical Hinduism to define the Indian nation-state. Hindutva ideologues propagate a form of Hindu 'nationalism' that has no space for Indians of other faiths, and is, in fact, based on an unrelenting hatred of non-Hindu 'others'. Creating a Hindu identity in this fashion is predicated on excising all elements of culture and tradition that Hindus are seen to share with others. The same has happened with the case of official as well radical versions of Islam in Pakistan. Yet, it is important to remember that this is not the only, and certainly not the dominant, form of Islam in Pakistan, as my interaction with numerous Pakistanis from different walks of life revealed to me.

'Radical Islamist groups are not a true reflection or representative of Pakistani Islam', a social activist friend of mine from Sindh explains. 'State manipulation of religion', he argues, 'has had a major role to play in promoting radical Islamism in Pakistan', which, he says, 'is largely an expression of elite politics and Western imperialist manipulation'. 'To add to state patronage of such groups', he points out, 'is the fact of mounting economic and social inequalities, sustained military rule, the continued stranglehold of feudal lords and the absence of mechanisms for expressing democratic dissent, all of which have enabled radical Islamist groups to assert the claim of representing normative Islam against other competing versions and visions of the faith'. In some parts of Pakistan, such as Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, he says, electoral support for Islamists 'reflects anti-American sentiments rather than popular demands for theocratic rule'. Such groups, he says, have gained added strength from the ongoing conflict in Kashmir by 'tapping into Pakistani nationalist sentiments on this issue in the same way as Hindutva groups used the Kashmir conflict in India, both seeking to present the issue in religious terms'. 'In short', he claims, 'the limited support that radical Islamist groups enjoy in Pakistan reflects less a fierce commitment to their ultimate agenda of strict Islamist rule than a protest against the system which, ironically, has abetted such groups for its own purposes'.

'The task before Indians and Pakistanis seriously concerned about the future of our common subcontinent', says another friend of mine, a journalist from Lahore, 'is to rescue our religious traditions from the monopolistic claims of the radicals. Islamism in Pakistan and Hindutva in India feed on each other while claiming to be vociferous foes. We need to revive popular forms of religion, such as Sufism and Bhakti, that are accepting of other faiths and that at the same time are socially engaged and critique the system of domination that produces radicalism as a reaction while at the same time using it as a means of stifling challenges to it'.











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