Understanding Muslim nationalism and ‘The Pakistan Anti-Hero’ through the eyes of Nadeem Farooq Paracha

Published: September 2, 2017

It traces the evolution of Muslim nationalism in British India and then after Partition, in Pakistan.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha is one of Pakistan’s prominent liberal journalists. His plunge into the field began in the 1990s, even though he initially gained fame as a music critic. However, over the years, his writing has become fairly eclectic and he has touched upon many cultural and political aspects.

Furthermore, he has also excelled as a satirist. He is the author of two bestselling books as well, titled ‘End of the Past’ and ‘The Pakistan Anti-Hero’. The first book was centred on the way Pakistan started to transform from a moderate and pluralistic society to a more hard-line one. The latter, which was released recently, traces the evolution of Muslim nationalism in British India and then after Partition in Pakistan. The book weaves together the evolution of nationalism with the concept of the “anti-hero”. In my opinion, this is one of the best books on Pakistan.

R: Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. I had the opportunity to read and review your first book, ’End of the Past’. I have read your second book, ‘The Pakistan Anti-Hero’, and it is in fact even better than the first! So how has the response been so far?

N: The response has been rather good. Both the books have been consistently selling well. According to the publishers, they have also been getting numerous online orders from various European countries and the US.

I respect your view that you found the second book better, but I see the second one as a more academic extension of the first one. The first book was more informal in tone and thus attracted a much younger readership. Either way, it was heartening to note that young men and women were the core consumers of both the books.

R: Now for the benefit of the readers, can you briefly explain the concept of the anti-hero? Given the fact that all social and political figures have some contradictions, what makes this anti-hero, in the context of your book, a different category? How does it differ from a villain and also the so-called hero?

N: Generally speaking, an anti-hero is a combination of the values associated with the conventional hero and the villain. The anti-hero occupies a middle ground between the two. He or she is actually a negation of two abstract absolutes – the good and the bad.

The anti-hero is not an absolute. But neither is he entirely anti-heroism. He or she reflects a more multidimensional portrayal of heroism. This can also see them absorbing elements which are associated with the more myopic concepts of conventional villainess.

In the context of my book and thus Pakistani nationalism, the anti-hero was one who did not mind bypassing established notions of faith, politics and morality. This way, they added a whole new dimension to what was developing as Pakistani nationalism.

Many of the men and women I have discussed in the book are either seen as absolute heroes or absolute villains. I studied them as complex combinations of what is generally considered good and bad.

As ideologues, intellectuals, politicians, scholars, artistes and sportsmen… to me, they were both the architects as well as the products of the complex nature of Muslim nationalism in the region and, consequently, of Pakistani nationalism.

R: Was the level of fame some criteria of inclusion? The book seems to include people who once enjoyed fame yet eventually faded away into oblivion.

N: The book studies a wide plethora of men and women from across classes and fields. Some extremely well known, some forgotten, and some who were only known to me as friends and colleagues. I saw each one of them, no matter what their historical status or standing, as parts of the complex narrative of Pakistani nationalism which I tried to comprehend in the book.

R: You have talked about three strands of Muslim nationalism in the beginning of your book. In your opinion, the three nationalisms, despite some overlaps, are qualitatively distinct. Now, for the benefit of the readers, can you very briefly elaborate on these three forms?

N: Basically, I studied two strands. The third one I was purposing.

The first strand of Pakistani nationalism was an offshoot of the modernist version of Muslim nationalism in South Asia which emerged in the 19th century. It was a response to another strand which was more theocratic and pan-Islamic in nature.

The modernist strand encouraged a rationalist and pragmatic attitude towards the Muslim faith. Furthermore, it spoke of how this would help the Muslims breakaway from political and social traditions that had become obsolete in a rapidly changing and advancing world.

According to the modernists, the breaking away process would free the Muslims to peruse building a nationalistic identity which was modern and distinct and yet inspired by the progressive historical ethos of bygone Muslim scientists and philosophers.

To modernist Muslim nationalists, Muslim political prowess collapsed because the community began to ignore this ethos.

The second strand, which also began to emerge in the 19th century, saw the decline of Muslims in the region as a consequence of the decadence of Muslim rulers and their lacklustre attitude towards Islamic laws.

This strand believed that such an attitude weakened Islam and encouraged so-called distorted rituals and beliefs among the Muslims. They feared that the Muslim faith had thus become vulnerable to conversion from Hindus and Christians.

Once the Muslims lost political power in India, this strand became conscious of the minority status of the Muslims and began to explain themselves not as South Asians, but as part of a largely imagined international Muslim community – the Ummah.

Both these strands became directly embroiled in a tussle to dominate what began evolving as Pakistani nationalism from 1947 onward. The modernist strand dominated the country’s nationalist narrative till about the mid-70s. But it was finally overwhelmed by the other strand.

My take on this is that both strands have lost their potency. The modernist strand withered away in the 70s and the theocratic strand is now facing a similar fate. A third strand is needed. And though it may not be so apparent, but this is exactly what is being built and debated in the country right at this moment.

R: Nationalism, as we understand, is very much a modern phenomenon and, at least in Europe, a byproduct of the industrial revolution. In the case of the Indo-Pak subcontinent, given the fact that it did not experience the kind of industrial revolution which Europe experienced, what do you think gave rise to these forms of Muslim nationalism? Was it the nature of colonial rule itself?

N: Indeed. Nationalism was an entirely European construct built largely by the rise of the mercantile classes there. It was a revolutionary philosophy which emerged when this class began to challenge the ideas of the old order kept afloat by monarchism and the church.

This is why it was adopted by the modernists but rejected by the opposing strand. It was the educated and emergent middle-class men and women in colonised regions who adopted nationalism and moulded it according to their respective economic, cultural and social realities.

It is thus ironic that those who rejected nationalism as a European construct, suddenly became so interested in dictating the Pakistani nationalist narrative after Muslim nationalism helped create the country in 1947.

They finally realised nationalism’s power and began to try to influence the country’s nationalist evolution. They finally succeeded to break-in and dominate the narrative after the original modernist strand of Pakistani nationalism began being blamed for the break-up of Pakistan in 1971.

R: To what extent is your anti-hero a product of the contradictions of the nationalism narratives? Or is he simply a “misfit” in a society which is continuously transforming?

N: As I mentioned earlier, he or she is both an architect as well as the result of the complexities of this narrative.

R: You have traced the evolution of the role of religion after the formation of Pakistan, particularly the way some rulers used it strategically. For example, you have written about how when Ayub Khan started to lose popularity, he started to court religious forces and his tenure after 1965 was different to that before 1965. How effective this strategy is, given the fact that in reality, religious forces hardly get any votes in Pakistan showing that religion, though important, cannot automatically lead to political popularity. Why do rulers keep on adopting it? 

N: It is true that Ayub shifted gears a bit after 1965 but right till the end, he remained a committed Muslim modernist. It was his information ministry which began to panic after Fatima Jinnah rose to challenge him in the 1965 election.

Suddenly, the ministry started to approach clerics and ulema who had been severely side-lined by the regime. It asked them to denounce Fatima’s candidature as ‘un-Islamic’. I personally believe Ayub himself never sanctioned this tactic. I have gone through almost each and every documented speech that he made during the election, and not once does he mention this.

Then again, just a year before he resigned in March 1969, we see his information ministry actually trying to appease and facilitate a political party that Ayub had once tried to ban, the Jamat-e-Islami (JI).

Ayub was extremely ill at the time because he had had a heart attack. He was bedridden and the regime had been cornered by a violent movement which was largely orchestrated by the left. So his information ministry thought it would be nice to kiss and make up with those that Ayub had actually detested.

On the other hand, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto believed that the far-left and the lingering Ayubian modernism, to him, were bigger threats than the far-right. Though personally he was entirely secular and a product of Ayubian Muslim modernism, he began to gradually appease the religious parties.

Anwar Sadat in Egypt had tried to do the same, believing that he could neutralise Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab Nationalism by giving space to the Muslim Brotherhood in the media and on campuses.

What both ended up doing was that they finally provided the opening the more theocratic strands of Muslim nationalism were looking for. Once there, they got rid of the gatekeepers and stormed in.

But it was Ziaul Haq who provided the most lasting example of how to use religion to remain in power, even if Pakistanis generally do not vote for religious parties. This is also because, starting with Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and across the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and now the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), non-religious parties often spike their populist political rhetoric with emotional religious slogans and proclamations. This often leaves the religious parties with not much else to sell.

R: There are some very interesting anti-heroes in your book including SalamUllah Tipu, General Rani, Waseem Raja, Roohi Bano and more. One rather different type of person is Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the infamous Red Mosque cleric. What makes him an anti-hero?

N: Rashid was to the right what Tipu was to the left. Both had crisscrossing youths. Rashid fancied himself as a liberal-democratic at the university before plunging towards a far-right ideology; Tipu was a committed believer in the philosophy of Abul Ala Maududi before plunging towards the far-left.

Both were products of the complexities and the tussles within the Pakistani nationalist narrative. Both were political fiascos and ideological tragedies. In both, there are lessons to be learned, if we are to save the current young lot from jumping in the quicksand of extremism.

R: Finally, what strand of nationalism out of the three you discussed, do you think is currently shaping Pakistan’s ideological trajectory?  And how do you see the rise of parties like PTI in that context?

N: I have discussed a possible new strand in both my books. It will have to be somewhere between the two which have become obsolete. I personally believe the country’s three major parties, the PML-N, PPP and PTI, are all searching for this new strand. That’s the correct thing to do.

Though what is taking place in Pakistan may look awkward, but I see it as part of a widespread debate on what being a Pakistani should now mean in the aftermath of things like the rise of extremist groups and the violence they unleash.

We will have to keep in mind how the new narrative accommodate things like democracy, constitutionalism, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a growing need for economic expansion, and a military-backed push against extremism.

One can note that things are changing in this context because of the way the gatekeepers of the old strand have begun to feel itchy and aggravated. Thing is, to remain relevant, they will have to remain on the correct side of history.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    Having read both his books, both of which I liked. I found the second more structured and I would say better written. Your calling his second book ‘ one the best books on Pakistan ‘ is a bit of a stretch……good, informative yes…..brilliant no.Recommend