Why Pakistanis are more Muslim than thou

A comment at Secular Right:

Ever since the Revolution the Mullahs have wanted to erase all traces of the pre-Islamic Persian society. They realized they couldn't go and raze Persepolis and other relics without losing the support of the people. I've heard that it is common for people in Iran to complain openly that worst thing to ever happen to them was the Arab invasion.

A similar strain in Egyptian Islamist clerics and leaders exists but again, they cannot destroy the pyramids without losing legitimacy. Too many Egyptians are attached to their history, whether for economic or cultural reasons.

The contradictions of Persians in relation to Islam and Arabs have always perplexed me, and my Persian American friends have never been able to unpack the sentiments coherently. On the one hand Persians are resolutely Muslim, have been by and large for over 1,000 years. Their script is derived from Arabic, Farsi has been strongly influenced by Arabic, and many Persians have names of Arabic provenance. Muhammad, Ali and Husayn were Arabs. On the other hand, Persians are often racist against Arabs, something which takes concrete form against Iranian Arabs. As far back as Ferdowsi's Shahnameh you see Muslim Persians looking back to a glorious past, and bemoaning their cultural enslavement by barbaric bedouins.

When it comes to the Islamic regime's ambivalence, and on occasion outright hostility, toward the glories of pre-Islamic Iran, the authorities need to tread a fine line. The Persians may be Muslims, and have synthesized their culture with Islam so that the religion is part & parcel of a modern Persian identity, but they also retain their ethnic-national identity as distinct from the Arabs, and later Turks, who ruled them. The customs, traditions and physical monuments from pre-Islamic Iran are witness to the concrete aspects of Persian identity which are prior, or independent of, Islam.

The issue with Egyptians is somewhat different, because the Egyptians became Arabs, abandoning the Coptic language, which descends from ancient Egyptian. After the decline of Baghdad Cairo became the cultural capital of the Arab world, and more recently was the locus of pan-Arabism. In contrast to the Persians the Egyptians subsumed their own identity with that of the Muslim Arab conquerors. But, they retain pride in their ancient civilization, which is still concrete in the form of the pyramids. I don't think this is particularly surprising; from what I can tell the Greeks take pride in the achievements of the ancient Greeks, the Chinese believe that the ancient Chinese invented everything, while black African and northern European racial nationalists have concocted an alternative history whereby all of antiquity was the handiwork of their own ethnic groups. If one's history includes Egypt of the Pharaohs, I am skeptical that any Muslim group would disavow it on account of it being pre-Islamic.

Which brings me to Pakistan. A recent Pew survey indicated that 90% of Pakistanis view themselves as "Muslim first" (as opposed to being citizens of their country first). The numbers in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Indonesia are 60%, 70%, 50% and 35% respectively. Why is the number so high for Pakistan? One straightforward reason is that the raison d'etre of Pakistan is to be a state for Muslims. In other words, the Muslim identity of Pakistan is operationally coterminous with national identity. The conflict with India is generally couched in terms of the communal divide (even if India promotes itself as a secular state, it is perceived as a Hindu nation). This strong contrast along the axis of religion, as well as the history of Pakistan's origin, are obviously important.

But there is something deeper about Pakistani identity which I have always perceived, and that is that Pakistanis, and to some extent South Asians Muslims generally, highlight and emphasize the non-South Asian antecedents of their identity. By this, I mean that South Asian Muslims are no different genetically, by and large, from Hindus (Hindu Sindhis vs. Muslim Sindhis, Hindu Bengalis vs. Muslim Bengalis), and yet seem to have an affinity for the alien Turkic conquerors of South Asia. Here's a criticism of Pakistani history textbooks:

Nayyar, Jalal, Hoodbhoy and Saigol suggest that associated with the 'Ideology of Pakistan' is an essential component of hate against India and Hindus. Some time after Pakistan's defeat in the 1971 war, Indo-Pakistan history was replaced with Pakistan Studies, whose sole purpose was to define Pakistan as an Islamic state. Students were deprived of learning about pre-Islamic history of their region. Instead, history books now started with the Arab conquest of Sindh and swiftly jumped to the Muslim conquerors from Central Asia.

The history of the geographic region of Pakistan began during the epoch of the Indus Valley Civilization, which is arguably the most antique hearth of city-culture outside of the Middle East. This is not a trivial history. Additionally, the region of Pakistan played a major role as an area which served as a jumping off point of Buddhism into Central Asia, and from there to China. In other words, there are thousands of years of history before the conquest of Sindh by the armies of the Umayyads.

Why the difference between Pakistan and Iran and Egypt? Iranians and Egyptians are no less Muslim than Pakistanis, and Egyptians are even Arabs, and yet they take great national pride in their antiquities which pre-date Islam. By national pride, I mean that ancient Egypt is of interest to those outside of the elites or specialist scholars, while the Shahnameh, which is a chronicle of pre-Islamic Iran, is presumably known outside scholarly circles. The Vedas were composed in the Punjab, which is the geographic and cultural core of Pakistan, but I presume that most Pakistanis are unfamiliar with their contents (I am willing to be corrected here).

And I think that points to a difference between Egypt and Iran, and Pakistan: India exists in continuity from the pre-Islamic period, while the Copts and Zoroastrians in Egypt and Iran are arguably simply fossil identities which do not impinge upon the central role of Islam in Egypt and Iran. A few years ago I read an article about the shift from Persian to Arabic names among elite Persian families in the centuries after the Muslim conquest concomitant with their conversion to the new religion. Only when the vast majority of Persians were Muslim did Persian names start to reappear among the elites! At that point Persian names were no longer associated with a vital non-Muslim Persian cultural tradition which might be seen as a rival to the Muslim Persian cultural tradition, and so the pre-Islamic past in the form of names could be accepted without it being taken as a sign that one was not a Muslim.

The situation in Pakistan then is one where its own pre-Islamic glory has a distasteful valence in a nation which finds itself facing an India which is a living expression of pre-Islamic South Asian civilization, manifest in the religion that is Hinduism. In fact, from what I have seen and heard Indians take great pride in the Indus Valley civilization, even if it was mostly centered within the modern confines of Pakistan. Additionally, about 60% of Pakistanis are ethnic Punjabis. This group is also prominent in India, but they are mostly Hindus and Sikhs. The Sikh religion has to some extent become a de facto Punjabi ethnic religion; the Sikh scriptures are in Punjabi.

Pakistani cuisine, language and physique all point toward the affinity with India. If Indians magically became Muslim then I assume Pakistanis would look at their indisputable South Asianness, and take pride in those aspects which mark them as a more antique civilized people than the Arabs who gave them their religion. But as it is Indians are witness to that ancient history, claim it as their own, respect the Vedas not as documents of historical interest but of contemporary piety.

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Is this not true of bangladesh as well and for the same reason

not as much. part of the issue is that bangladesh has an on-off relationship with india in terms of hostility/friendliness (contingent on the political party in power, judging by your name you're FOB-brown so you probably know the details so i'll leave that out). but a deeper cultural reason has to do with the fact that bengali muslims share the same written language with hindus, and have a common literary tradition. most bangladeshis who aren't hardcore muzzie (which is a non-trivial minority) revere tagore. more historically contingent, but between 1948-1971 west pakistanis also treated the east pakistanis as black hindus who needed to reform their practices and accept the supremacy of urdu. so in that particular generation there was an emphasis on bengaliness.

also, obviously a lot of pakistanis can fake not being brown, as they are whiter and taller. very few bangladeshis can. and those who speak iranian languages can make an authentic case that they're only south asian because of an accident of british colonial history (i.e., where the line was drawn on the map). also, many indian hindu groups also pretend they're not native (e.g., scythian).

@Razib said...
"The contradictions of Persians in relation to Islam and Arabs have always perplexed me, and my Persian American friends have never been able to unpack the sentiments coherently. On the one hand Persians are resolutely Muslim, have been by and large for over 1,000 years. Their script is derived from Arabic, Farsi has been strongly influenced by Arabic, and many Persians have names of Arabic provenance. Muhammad, Ali and Husayn were Arabs. On the other hand, Persians are often racist against Arabs, something which takes concrete form against Iranian Arabs. As far back as Ferdowsi's Shahnameh you see Muslim Persians looking back to a glorious past, and bemoaning their cultural enslavement by barbaric bedouins."

My impression is that, if Persians could (plausibly) claim that Mohammad and Ali were Persians, they would. If Persians could (plausibly) claim the script used to write Farsi was of Persian origin, they would. Etc.

(Mention to Persians that "Samovar" is a word of Russian origin, and watch the dirty looks some Persians will give you.)

My impression is that for many people (including Persians), they don't think they have a choice when it comes to religion. They are born with it, and believe the narrative they are taught about it. Even if they don't like certain aspects of it.

As far as de-Araizing Persian culture (for those that want such a thing), consider the usage of names with Arab origins. You can't just remove names of Arab origin (like Muhammad, Ali, Hassan, Hussein, etc) just like that. These names are already the names of your father, your brothers, your uncles, your great grand fathers, etc. And new parents often want to name their children after family members. Sure sometimes you can make a switch to the Persian version of the name, when one exists. (For example, instead of "Ali" use the Persian version: "Iliya". BTW, both cognates of "Elijah" AFAIK.) But that's not always possible. And even when it is the possible, it's not always acceptable (since sometimes the parent wants to use the exact same name as the family member.)

Or to put it another way, new Persian parents aren't necessarily choosing to give their children a name with an Arabic origin, they are simply naming their children after a family member (who happens to have a name of Arabic origin).

Note, I'm not suggesting that all new parents are choosing to name their children after family members. Just illustrating that some do, and how that carries on names with Arabic origins. But along those lines, some new parents choose to give their children religions names (pulled from the Koran or some supplementary book). It's true that these religions names are of Arabic origin. But they aren't choosing it because they are of Arabic origin.

Touching on the idea of the Sayyid.... For some Persians, this is still a status symbol, and not something they'd be willing to give up, despite the implications of heritage it actually implies (if the claims of Sayyid-ness are actually true). I.e., how can you be "pure" Persian and a Sayyid at the same time? (Although given that genetics is discrete, maybe it wouldn't be so far from the truth to claim to be "pure" Persian and a Sayyid at the same time.)

genetics indicates that persian-speaking people resemble their non-persian neighbors more than they resemble other persian speaking people at a remove. i.e., isolation at a distance is a good model. i haven't had a positive response when i report this to persian-speaking people though :-)

In fact, from what I have seen and heard Indians take great pride in the Indus Valley civilization,

From my (limited) experience, young Pakistanis are also highly aware of the Indus Valley civilisation - certainly they do learn about Harappa and "Muhnjo-Daro" in school, and see it as part of their heritage.

Also I think you hit on an important distinction between "culture" and "identity". Pakistani Punjabis do not care much for for the turban-wearing Sikhs on the other side of the border. Certainly they see them as a "them" rather than "us". But just start a bhangra tune, and watch the hands go up! The very real ethnic division between Muslim, Pakistani Punjabis and Sikh, Indian Punjabis coexists with a deep, highly active common culture.

Interesting ideas about which countries glorify their past, but then the Arabs who are the heirs of Sumer don't seem to be particularly keen on emphasising their Mesopotamian identity.

Off-topic, but I really think that South Asians need to do more to claim the "Brown" designation as their own. At present, the Hispanic community, in defiance of phenotypical logic (South Asians, after all, are, on a per capita basis, "browner" than Hispanics)seems to have won the battle for the brown designation.E.g., when Jesse Jackson says "Black and Brown," he means African Americans and Hispanics, not African Americans and South Asians. Perhaps South Asians can take over the Bronze Race appellation, as the Hispanics, at least in the US, seem to have discarded it.

Excellent history regarding the Muslim advance in regions such as Persia, South Asia, and North Africa during the rise of Islam, I enjoyed your theory regarding how modern day Iranians and Egyptians look upon their pre-Islamic past in comparison to South Asian Muslims. It has been said that Muslims in South Asia, both Indians and Pakistanis, are more devout than those elsewhere in the Muslim world. I don't know if this is true, but if what you write is correct then history could explain this. I have spent time in South India and have seen the that Muslim Indians do take their faith seriously. I haven't spent time in the Arab world to make a comparison, but I am willing to guess that what you write is true in that Muslim Indians, just a Pakistani Muslims, face a past Hindu heritage that cannot be ignored and is even threatening. Fundamentalism is of course a faith that is often driven by fear. That these Muslims are more conservative is a product of this cultural fear and being surrounded by a non Islamic faith that is a reminder of a world outside of Islam.

By Williams Kumar (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

Razib, while most or many Egyptians take pride in their ancient civilization, the islamist threat to those monuments is not trivial. Its very hard to blow up the pyramids, but i remember a plot to bomb the sphinx...and I have met Egyptian Islamists who actively condemn all this fascination with ancient Egypt and consider it highly improper.
About Pakistan, its worth noting that its a new creation, not an ancient culture that has just become more Islamic. There was a Persia before the Arab invasion, as there was an Egypt, but there was no Pakistan until 60 years ago. Since then, the Islamic version of its identity has been the most popular one, but secularists have tried (pathetically) to invent some kind of secular basis as well (check out "Indus Saga"). But its a tough job and it shows...check out these videos for a taste of the confusion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5zsYKKoBp4

Apologies if this was already covered above, but I just skimmed the comments. I have read in several places that Jinnah intended for Pakistan to be a secular state for Muslims. If this is true, aren't the Muslim fundamentalists in Pakistan going against Jinnah's vision?

There's an article by Fred Kaplan on Slate about this.
According to him, the numbers are bigger than before because
1. The wars in Iraq/Afghanistan weren't part of the defense budget during the Bush years but now they are.
2. There's a lot of political, porky proportioning among the three service branches.

By ekdysiast (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

Tommy, To say that Jinnah had a "vision" is rather generous. Jinnah was a high powered and very highly paid lawyer with no other intellectual pretensions. There is no record of him having had any special "vision" about Pakistan beyond it being a version of British India where the Muslim upper class would rule instead of the British (and naturally, where the Hindus would not be in a position to impose THEIR will on Muslims by virtue of being greater in number).
In other words, his imagination was limited. He seems to have thought that all the forms of British India (the governors and chief ministers, the legal framework of the govt of India act of 1935, the administrative apparatus of district commisioners and superintendents of police, and so on) would continue uninterrupted, but whereas in a united India they would have been dominated by the Hindu majority, in Pakistan the Muslim upper crust would continue to enjoy the fruits of their non-labor. Even this "vision" was a late development as there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that until 1946 he regarded the demand for Pakistan as a convenient bargaining chip (see Ayesha Jalah; the sole spokesman); one that would be given up in exchange for greater constitutional protections for Muslims within the framework of United India. A deal to which he agreed in 1946, but which the Indian National Congress found too decentralized and impractical and rejected.
His "vision" was also incoherent in that the leadership of his party and its most vocal supporters were from North India (a hindu majority area) that would NOT become part of the future Pakistan and he seems to have given no thought to the question of what to do with the large number of Muslims who would be left in India after he obtained Pakistan. He was not personally religious (drank whisky, ate ham, and so on) and assumed that HIS type would continue to rule "Islamic" Pakistan. He and his cohorts (his cohorts more than him) whippped up a millenial frenzy of Islamist expectations during the movement for Pakistan, but expected that after things quieted down, it would be back to business as usual in the fashion of British India, with the lower classes meekly carrying on while their betters ruled them in the best Westminster fashion. In short, the man had no idea what he had unleashed and luckily for him, died before its implications could sink in....

Very interesting post, as a Coptic Egyptian, I have to admit, we feel insulted if called Arabs, for the simple reason that most of us were forced to speak Arabic, the push to get rid of Egypt's ancient identity, is pushed by a political agenda from the Saudis. It is impossible to succed. The very simple but telling differnce is that Egyptians Muslims and Christians call the inhabitants of Arab countries " The Arabs", while we consider ourselves visceraly Egyptian. Difficult to expunge a history such as Egypt's from our psyche, what else can we be proud of today? Not much I hate to admit.

Turkey and Persia are two countries in which Islam did route itself heavily, but did not supplant the language. Turks still remained turks and persians remained Persians. Persians are opposed Arab culture because they never had a civilization or a historic achievement besides barbarism. Likewise, Pakistan occupies a region that consisted of some of the main sites of the Indus Civilization (which was a hindu civilization). India takes pride in that because they know and have witnessed and are one of the cradle of civilizations. Pakistan has even discredited and disassociated itself from it's pre-islamic past by insulting the Hindus. But why then, do they take so much pride in a Hindu Civilization? They openly celebrate all arab cultural festivities. Whereas the festival of "Norooz" is still celebrated in Iran with pride as well as in Greater Persia including areas such as (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and even Afghanistan, which destroyed many of the famous and ancient Buddha statues of Bamyan under the rule of the Taliban.

Pakistan is a nation that has no historic antiquity besides being overrun by civilizations that had importance and innovativeness. They can't hate and talk ill of the Hindu fate, but also take pride in a hindu civilization such as the Indus Civilization and call it their own. The least they have to do is acknowledge and preserve their historic roots. Not pretend to be someone they aren't by trying to claim descent from Turks, Arabs, monkeys, and donkeys. Be yourselves for starters.