Some years ago, Saudi Arabia proscribed its male citizens from marrying the citizens of four nationalities. Pakistanis were included on this list. The Monarchy had its reasons, no doubt, good or bad; the preponderance of such marriages was given as the primary reason. Apparently, marriages were an automatic gateway of conferring Saudi citizenship on foreign nationals – women to be precise. And so, howsoever we try to understand the nature of the apparent ‘malice’ – such were the comments thrown around in Pakistani social media circles aside from equally malicious and spiteful comments about Saudi men I rather not mention – we should take this opportunity to pause and reflect on how such a decision was possible in the first place.
This is not merely a case of a lover feeling jilted at the alter. It goes to the heart of understanding how Pakistanis imagine their nation state identity via Muslim nationalities that have been less accommodating of a shared fraternal bond with Muslims in general. For well-travelled Pakistanis, Turkey seems to be a possible exception, there does seem to be genuine warmth between the two peoples. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, on the other hand, do not fare in the imagination of Pakistanis like Turkey, Morocco and Syria. These are countries that large numbers of British-Pakistanis have visited, and for various reasons, have fond memories.
The treatment meted out to poor Pakistanis working as labourers on building sites across the Gulf, has become part of the staple when Saudi Arabia is mentioned negatively. You’d frequently hear from Pakistanis that the ‘Arabs’, and by this they do not mean millions of ordinary Arabs from diverse nationalities, treat their dogs and ‘white people’ better than Pakistanis.
And yet, despite these ill-feelings, real, imagined or misplaced, Saudi Arabia has assumed a special religious significance far beyond its actual importance in social terms. For lots of Muslims, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or the area the desert Kingdom occupies, has become the cradle of a shared faith old as the human species. This bond of universal faith, as it is imagined, supposedly radiates from a defined centre of gravity that is so strong it automatically binds Muslim peoples together, what Muslims otherwise call the Ummah.
This is no small feat.
We are talking about two billion people (by the middle of the century) wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever their overlapping backgrounds constituting one Ummah united on the basis of reciprocal relations of rights, duties and obligations. Obviously, this is an ideal, and seldom will you encounter Muslims living up to this great expectation en mass. But, for a devout sub-section of Pakistanis, impressionable, naive and ideologically-minded, and I suspect in other Muslim countries too, it imagines such an ideal as being part of its own social fabric.
It doesn’t take a genius to expose the fallacy of the myth-making.
All that a person needs to do is cast his eyes on the modern Muslim World to realise that there are no bonds of universal faith anywhere. Islamdom is a complex ethnic and linguistic terrain that belies simplistic redactions of Muslims as the constituent parts of a coherent Muslim Ummah that’s almost 1500 years old. Saudis are not the brothers and sisters of Pakistanis anymore than Arabs are the brethren of Iranians, Turks or Afghans. Not one of these supposedly generic national groups – imagined group identities I add – is a uniform and self-sustaining fraternity courtesy of easily testable facts that we ignore at the cost of a blatant realism. Muslim countries and Islamic societies comprise internal diversity, cleavages and rivalries.
For instance, there is more diversity within the Arab World than between ‘it’ and non-Arabs (al-Ajam). This would hold true for other Muslim nationalities agglomerated on the basis of colonially-inspired nation-state identities, some 60 countries, Muslims proudly boast.
Fellow Sunnis are distant to each other just as they are with Shias. The Shia have their own internal fault-lines. There are other cleavages, but the sectarian cleavage is imagined as the quintessential fault-line built into the body-politic of a global fraternity. It is, however, greatly exaggerated by journalistic commentators, usually non-Muslims, with no direct exposure to the peoples they comment on, unaware of other significant fault-lines.
But, what does this mean for reciprocating relations within the context of conflict? How should Pakistanis, at home or in the diaspora of their new homelands understand diversity outside illusory sensibilities of religious unity? Britain, America, Canada and Europe are home for lots of diaspora Pakistanis, some resent the idea that they are a diaspora as opposed to just being Brits of Pakistani descent. They are straddling two different social worlds.
The Muslim faith, howsoever we try to understand this human consciousness in theological (‘aqa’id’) or juristic (‘fiqhi’) terms, can not bind overlapping identities together any more than nationalism, ethnicity and social class create bonds of fraternity between in-group members in the face of cleavages. The thought of holding hands, to pick a metaphor from my country of birth, where fellow-adherents sing ‘Kumbaya my Lord’ tangoing into the sunset is as alien to Muslims as it is to Europeans, Christians, “godless” Communists, Spanish-speaking Hispanics, South American Latinos, South Asians, pan-Indians and Middle Easterners.
The generic labels are illusory identity-labels for imaginary groups, whose members are distant to each other as they are to out-group members of other identities. Setting aside the romanticism behind illusory fraternal connections for one moment, the ideological overtures behind notions of a Universal Muslim Brotherhood – the Ummah – do make for great propaganda. And this is exactly what has happened with the emergence of political Islam, a nebulous term for an essentially political phenomenon occurring at the turn of the 20th century. The custodians and beneficiaries of this propaganda are the political Islamists (not to be conflated with devotional groups posturing through Ummah-type rhetoric), of various ideological traditions. The actual reality of trying to live up to the myths they create were Muslims genuinely “feel the pain of other Muslims and jump into action to redress injustice and cruelty” is less benign and less soothing.
Contemporary and historical conflicts in the Muslim World expose the fallacy of simplistic musings around the idea of Muslim Unity, not least because Muslims have been the biggest aggressors against Muslims. This is not an incidental point that can be brushed under the carpet. Whenever tribally-minded Muslims, particularly cosmopolitan ones; (note; Islamism is a product of the city at the behest of technocrats), ponder the nature of inequality, discrimination and persecution in the Islamic World from the vantage of their privileged lives in the West, they should become redemptive. Why did they think that Muslims, like them, would ever be immune from Ummah-infractions because they genuinely believed in Muslim Brotherhood amongst secular humanists imbuing their own societies with egalitarian principles?
As an imagined tribe of 1.8 billion people, it is natural for politicised Muslims to feel outraged by a sense of humiliation at the hands of coreligionists. But, isn’t this a reason to ponder why they thought Muslims would be different to other imaginary fraternities? Muslims have never formed a special fraternity of unrelated peoples were individuals are treated equally and fairly. One just need look to Pakistani society and see the ubiquitous prejudice and bigotry against the low-castes in rural areas and the poor in urban areas, where they become upwardly-mobile to repeat the cycle of inequality. The high castes refuse to marry into the low caste networks, keeping a distance from ‘lessor-Pakistanis’ prone to dispositional traits that reduce the civility owed to them – the “uncouth”, “selfish” and “miserly” of the colonial classificatory system. Pakistanis love criticising Indians for their caste-system, but they have no such qualms about the ubiquitous levels of bigotry and inhumanity that defines Pakistan. Like Muslims in other countries, they suffer from the delusions of the Muslim Ummah Syndrome.
The Ummah Syndrome is a false consciousness that is the product of ideology masquerading as religious instincts, without the hallmarks of a genuine devotional experience. It is the net-product of the modern world’s failures, and not the Ancient World from which Islam evolved out of overlapping identities competing for power. The Muslim Ummah Syndrome is not rooted in the spirituality of premodern Muslims, but in the tribalism of identitarianism pulsating on irreconcilable differences between Dar ul-Harb (the abode of war) and Dar ul-Salaam (the abode of peace). The irony of speaking about the Ummah in ‘peace’ terms is not lost on this writer.
Put simply, unity and peace are alien to the actual experiences of ordinary Muslims living in the Abode of Peace. See Global Peace Index 2020; [click here]
The Emergence of Muslim Pakistan
In the specific case of Pakistanis and their 20th century cleavage from Indians of non-Muslim persuasion, essentially diverse peoples with whom they continue to share huge commonalities, they were collectively sold a lie about their Muslim past, a prescriptive identity that never existed in history. The corresponding social and political priorities were ideologically driven, they weren’t necessities of survival.
The political actors behind the creation of Pakistan, according to historians who have researched the factors that led up to partition, deployed the idea of Pakistan much like a political ruse that assumed a life of its own afterwards. The basic gist of Pakistan was the posturing of Muslims with urban roots in North India against Hindu North Indians. We can employ the analogy of London, where upwardly-mobile Londoners tend to forget about the rest of the country, assured of their role in society because of how close they approximate to the political and economic structures of the State. We are talking about small minorities who form interest groups aggregating the identities of larger groups, emotively.
Originally of modest non-landed backgrounds mindful of how the British assorted and classified Indians, they did not want to be out-jobbed by Hindus, similarly upwardly mobile, but more confident of their emerging status. India’s colonial overlords had been increasingly suspicious of Muslims following the unsuccessful mutiny of 1857, and this can be seen in how they started to co-opt Hindus by employing “the real natives of India” – a form of colonial nativism – into the lower echelons of the British Indian State. It didn’t help that the enfeebled Mughal ‘Muslim’ Emperor of the time, an Emperor all but in name, was reduced to an effete ‘native-agent’. His Darbar or Royal Court was a ritual in pantomime. Contrary to his own desire to write poetry and enjoy life in his ‘regal’ environs, the Mughal Emperor became the titular head of the mutineers. With the help of the Princely Rulers and Sikh Jat, Pashtun and other Indian regiments, British India managed to subdue the mutineers, burning entire Mughal, Gujjar, Rajput and Brahman villages in the environs of Delhi. The reprisals according to British historians were barbaric and inhumane. For his role, the Mughal Emperor was banished to Burma, where he lived the rest of his life in penury, ending centuries of Muslim Rule in North India. The British then began a process of encouraging anxieties about Muslims in general, presenting Islam as something alien to Indian soil. Muslims were branded violent and disloyal, a charge that still resonates today in extremist Hindu nationalist circles.
Muslims now witnessing the community’s collective demise around the centres of British Indian power began to feel insecure. As political movements emerged for the end of colonial rule in India, led by a professional class of western educated Indians, from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, some ambitious Muslims broke rank with their Indian compatriots and demanded a safe space for Indian Muslims. I rephrase this observation by saying, a safe-space for their own demographic group. Being urban was an important social component to that identity. Rural Muslims were excluded from the ensuing calculations.
Amidst huge internal conflict in Europe, two World Wars; domestic agitations at home and the colonies, the exorbitant cost of running an Empire, Britain decided to vacate, begrudgingly, its most prized colony giving India independence. But there was a twist, the ‘India’ Britain fabricated would be split between Muslims and everyone else. Pakistan came into existence from the Muslim majority areas destroying India’s territorial coherence conferred through technological ingenuity and cartographic creativity.
70 years on amidst social and economic problems in Pakistan, a dumbed-down Pakistani population is being told that its “primordial” Muslim homeland was created to protect them from Hindus.
We are, therefore, strictly speaking about social anxieties and an inferiority complex. We are not speaking about ethnic or religious identities, or even devotion to God. The ensuing political narrative used by Pakistanis defending Pakistan’s now debunked creation-myth is deeply flawed. As an origin-myth like the legends of many nation states, it’s a fiction. But to be candid, Pakistan’s founding-myth is not only uncreative, it is a huge liability for diaspora Pakistanis when they get lumped into a Pakistani identity feeding into Muslim Ummah rhetoric. An entire generation of Western-born Pakistanis have no sense of how dispossessed their emigrant forebears were when they escaped the cruelty of Pakistan. Worse, rather than hold the Pakistan Establishment to task on behalf of dissidents stuck in Pakistan, they fly the Pakistani Flag from their social media accounts unconsciously disconnecting themselves from the culture and values of their adopted countries. Occasionally, they take pot shots at a country like Isreal because the “Jews” are oppressing Muslim Palestinians. Instead of mourning the destitution of ordinary Pakistanis, with whom they share a history of dispossession, activist Pakistanis can be seen attending the rallies of Occupied Palestinians, the BlackLivesMatter and MeToo Movements, signing up to become volunteers of the global ‘Leftist’ Movement, demanding World Peace and dignity for all.
The idea of Pakistan is an illusion. It has served its purpose much to the misery of those now being classified as Pakistanis. The original patrons to whom our proto-Pakistanis were directing their supplications in the 1940s were the colonial Brits, a class of English gentlemen, who occupied a higher social and professional tier than the emerging class of professional Indians courtesy of western education. The supplicants were secular in their thought process and social habits, the proverbial ‘Indian in race, but English by taste’ slur comes to mind. They did not represent the Muslim masses, but they claimed to be defending the Islamic identity and heritage from inevitable Hindu domination.
India’s Muslims, for the most part, couldn’t relate to the Urdu-Hindi (Hindustani) speaking gentlemen, and this reality obtained for the greater part of the pre-independence Movement before Pakistan’s realisation. After its creation, the majority of Hindustani Muslims did not leave India for Pakistan. There are more native Hindi-Urdu speakers of Pakistan’s ‘imposed’ official language in India than in Pakistan, where the language is actually an import, and becoming detested by language activists trying to preserve the native languages of Pakistan. There is a lot of hatred simmering below the surface between ethnic populations, who seem to be developing an anti-‘Urdudan’ streak. The hatred in question does not extend to the Urdu language, or even native Urdu speakers, but the architects of the Urdu language policy, most notably ethnic Punjabis who have voluntarily discarded their Punjabi past for the myth of a superior Pakistani-Urdu identity rooted in Islam.
What is ironic, esteemed Muslim scholars from renowned theological seminaries in North India, notably Dar ul-Uloom Deoband were vehemently opposed to the idea of Pakistan. The Muslim Ulema, traditional scholars, couldn’t relate with the proto-Pakistani intelligentsia, and warned against the dangers of Pakistan.
In the Punjab, an area with special importance for the British Indian Empire, advocates for Pakistan were intensely disliked by the Muslim peasantry and landed elites, many of whom were engaged in agriculture (Jat, Rajput, Gujjar, Awan, Mughal, Brahman) and worked for the British Indian Army. The population belonged to a different ethnic, social and religious strata that had none of the anxieties of the North Indian Muslims. Muslims were in fact a major impediment to the creation of Pakistan in lands where they were the majority. To remedy this situation, advocates for Pakistan misconstrued religious differences between Hindus and Muslims as proof of two separate nations that could never co-exist. The popular motif now being projected on the Pakistan Movement, “Pakistan ka matlab kiya? La ilaha illalllah“, or “what is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no good but Allah“, is an abiding fraud perpetrated against an uncritical mass of Pakistani patriots, who think their country was created to give “victimised” Muslims, a safe space. It didn’t matter that the people warning Muslims about Hindu dangers were the ones creating the divisions and identity fictions in the first place, galvanising reactionary Hindu Nationalists to add their own voices to the new hate. Hindu Nationalism is borne of a reaction against politicised Muslims, constantly berating Hindus whilst demeaning their ‘Indian’ traditions. The hate in question becomes cyclical, it jumps from the pages of books, from the minds of ideologues into the hearts of ordinary people, who become the fodder of elite interests.
If one truly appreciates this history, it can be conclusively said that Pakistan only exists to give a particular demography of Muslims access to power on the back of an identity fiction. This most selective of priorities has became the defining characteristic of Pakistan’s inter-group relationships. No consideration was ever given to the possibility of widespread violence, looting and murder in the ethnic homelands of the peoples to be separated. The architects of Pakistan hailed from areas that would have remained in India. Ethnic peoples that had lived together for centuries, were made to flee in opposite directions. Pakistan was, quite literally, the opening of Pandora’s Box. The acrimony of that split has yet to be soothed. One just needs to visit Social Media to see Indian and Pakistani patriots at each other’s throats, and I suspect these cyber warriors are third and fourth generation Indians and Pakistanis. In other words, they weren’t even around when partition split British India into two halves. The venom they spew against each other is not something that can be wished away now.
Tellingly, some religious groups in Pakistan find Pakistan’s founding myth with the father of the nation at its helm, blasphemous. The Pakistan Taliban has pointed out that the Quaid-e-Azam, or the father of the Nation, was anything but religious. Taliban spokespeople insist he was an alcohol-drinking, bacon-eating, Anglophile, who converted to Orthodox Shia Islam from an otherwise heterodox Shia sect not considered Muslim by the majority of Sunni and Shia theologians. There are other interpretations of Parsee roots. India was the land of honorific titles, and Jinnah preferred being called Mr Jinnah. His detractors tell us, how, on one occasion, he refused the endearing title of Maulvi Jinnah.
After a gruesome genocide in East Pakistan in 1971, the initial myth-making of Muslim Pakistan has given birth to all manner of false priorities. And it is these priorities that return me to the original purport of this discussion.
One particularly egregious false priority conflates Pakistan with an orbit of influence centred on Saudi Arabia, which then creates an equally intense backlash from the unlikeliest of quarters.
For some religiously-minded Pakistanis, navigating their lives through an ethical code means assuming a Muslim Identity Persona wedded to an austere form of prescriptive Islam. This isn’t by choice, but because of the ubiquitous reach of the Saudi Ministry for Religious Affairs, borne of its own cleavage with the emergence of Shia Iran.
The Saudi Monarchy has been pumping out billions of dollars worth of ‘authentic Islam’ ever since the Ayatollahs threatened to spread the Iranian revolution to neighbouring Monarchies. Saudi Arabia’s proselytisation of the one true faith owes its religious piety to its fear of its regional rival, Iran – I shall explain this cleavage in greater detail shortly. Western commentators constantly confuse the cleavage in Sunni-Shia terms.
The net-product of the new religious virtues for incumbents, or the flock misfortunate to fall prey to its charms, is highly dysfunctional Muslims divorced from the social fabric of their societies. They become born-again Muslims, now estranged from native peers, who just happen to be Muslim by birth, but of dubious faith and practice. The moral standard by which the redeemed Muslims judge their peers is similarly divorced from reality. Islam becomes an all-encompassing experience of abiding by injunctions and prohibitions that take precedence over every aspect of ordinary life, forsaking entertainment, leisure, socialising with family and friends, and cultural practises that supposedly originated from outside Islam. There is a serious problem with this way of thinking.
The simple fact of history is that Muslims did not behave like our born-again Muslims. The old-age Muslims did not go about their business self-affirming as the Muslims (identity politics). Islam for the majority of our forbears in predominantly Muslim societies was never akin to a tribal identity.
The first internal Muslim wars occurred between the ruling tribes, branches of the Quraysh, the tribe to which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) belonged. Devotees of Muhammad were opposed to the tribes because they knew that the latter were fighting for temporal power, and not adherence to the Word of God. Some of the fiercest critics of temporal power came from the dominant tribes. From the very beginning, a schism developed between the emerging Muslim elite and ordinary Muslims, who would go on to take direction from spiritual mentors (lots of whom were scholars) and not corporate tribal groups vying for dominance in lands conquered by Muslims. The scholars, mostly of independent means, existed, for the most part, independently of State power.
Islam was devotion to a set of expectations, of unquantifiable proportions, that connected Muslims with devotional rituals, dietary habits and belief in an afterlife. Islam was never a group identity evidenced by separation from non-Muslims. Aside from minor differences in clothing, the Muslims were practically indistinguishable from their non-Muslim peers. This older version of Islam lacked every hallmark of the contemporary Islamist identity and agenda. Within its fluid historical context, speaking of Islamic Orthodoxies and Orthoproxies is thus anachronistic.
Today’s ideologically-minded Muslims, the Islamists, ironically present themselves as Orthodox Sunni Muslims, wearing this faith as proof of Muslim continuity. They are less devotion-inclined, but committed to expressing their belonging to a universal Muslim Tribe through the outward symbols of dress, beards and face-coverings. It is a revisionist kind of of Islam at odds with centuries of Muslim scholarship that produced opposing juristic outcomes that cannot be reconciled with a singular Muslim identity.
The old juristic writings produced anomalies that seem strange and inconceivable to contemporary Muslims. For instance, there were Muslim Hanafi scholars – very progressive by the standards of the time – who believed that only inebriation was prohibited by Muslim scriptures, and not the casual consumption of alcohol. The idea revolved around preserving one’s faculties and senses, and in the more limited sense alcohol could therefore be moderately consumed without it constituting a sin. A good analogy here would be to cite how Mediterranean populations consume wine with food and how larger louts drinking alcohol to get “pissed”. Alcohol is present in both scenarios, yet its impact, mentally and socially, is drastically different.
This old ‘Islamic’ way of thinking is being expunged from the historical record, except when a random researcher chances upon the old rulings (‘Ahkam’) by accident. Contemporary Islamists are not only disconnected from this past, but with the older sense of personal devotion to God (a personal relationship) and righteousness to humanity in general (a collective ethic). They obsess about universal belonging to an imagined Muslim Ummah in conflict with the non-Muslim “Other” – which is the be all and end all of their worldview.
It is a parasitic kind of Islam that feeds off primary and secondary scriptural texts that present non-Muslims, when misinterpreted, in a threatening and polluting light, cancelling out the more preponderant Islamic teachings that are humanity-inspired. The majority of the Islamic cannon comprises of texts that encourage Muslims to behave ethically, “tell the truth all the time, don’t steal; don’t murder people; don’t brutalise people; don’t rape people and sexually molest children; don’t cheat people when selling products; always be polite and courteous; pick up litter from the path; treat parents, grandparents, teachers, people in (good) authority with deference; show compassion to the weak, young and old; speak truth to tyrants and oppressors; the strong must protect the week; never take sides with your tribes against the truth even if you personally benefit; worship God as if you see Him, and if you don’t see him, know that He sees you, etc etc”.
But, in the new Islam of the Islamists, Identity Politics is the guiding light; Muslims are measured by how different, distinct and unique they are to neighbouring non-Muslims. Why this is even a priority gets lost through irrelevant talking points about how bad the non-Muslim aggressor actually is, whipping up people’s emotions.
One severe handicap that comes with such a mindset is that those embodying the Muslim tribal identity no longer understand victimhood when the perpetrators are ‘co-religionists’ – (fellow tribe members) and the victims are non-Muslims. The complete disregard shown by Muslims across the world to the Yazidi population especially here in the West, murdered, raped and enslaved by ISIS is proof of how far identity politics has become entrenched in Muslim communities. The only victims worth ritualising are Muslim ones.
In comparison, the Saudi-Pakistan marriage ban appears trivial, not least because the majority of Muslim nationalities were excluded from the ban, which just shows how Saudis view Pakistanis, Bengalis, the Burmese and Chadians in general. The Saudis did point out that of these nationalities, they comprised the largest number of aspirants for Saudi citizenship. That said, the marriage ban is a good talking point to begin the analysis of the nature of inequality in the Muslim World amidst fantasies, fictions and delusions of a shared universal Muslim fraternity that does not exist anywhere.
Political Islamism and its Disconnect from Muslim Suffering
Political and social inequality is rampant across the entire Muslim World, when compared to the liberal democracies of the Western World. Not one intellectually-honest social commentator would ever deny this reality. If you happen to be rich, you are untouchable. If you are poor, or of low-caste background, to borrow an Indian metaphor, your rights are trampled on and your reputations are traduced.
And yet, some Pakistanis feel aggrieved at the undignified treatment of Pakistanis at the hands of Arab coreligionists, callously indifferent to the same level of discrimination that exists in Pakistan. By the standard of international development barometers, Pakistan is not the bastion of religious, social and political egalitarianism. Since its founding, it has been a horrible place for minorities.
Why then, do Pakistanis feel the need to voice their public humiliation at the marriage-ban? The marriage-ban is one Ummah-infraction amongst other egregious infractions across the Muslim World. Seldom do the “equality campaigners” deploy their gut-reactions in defence of countless oppressed non-Muslims at the hands of despotic Muslim regimes.
The duplicity is simple to understand and for reasons partially discussed already. Saudi Arabia has assumed a special status beyond its actual importance. It is being conflated with Islam’s actual heritage (the Prophetic legacy) on account of a projected Arab identity that connects Saudi Arabia with the Arab Prophet, who preached from Mecca and Medina 1500 years ago.
Being ‘Arab’ in this sense has no connection with the purveyors of ‘Arab’ ethnonationalism. Rather, it is the impulse to locate in the vagaries of an Arab past an older but primordial seed that is linked with Islam – the universal faith. The interconnection between imagining Arab-ness in this sense is rooted in the idea of making visible one’s faith, and so young Muslims in Pakistan, particularly in the diaspora, feel a strong urge to dress like Arabs in the mistaken belief that they are emulating the Prophet of Islam.
The prescriptive expectation is crude, Muslims everywhere must emulate the Prophet – how one actually determines that priority in actual historical norms is simply glossed over – empowering the modern exemplars of the Muslim Arab Identity to have the final say on all things Muslim by simple deference to scriptural texts. History teaches us something altogether different.
For one thing, the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century CE didn’t go about their business self-affirming as ‘the Arabs’.
Like lots of ancient ethnic identities projected backwards through contemporary ethnic narratives, there was no Arab group-consciousness. In layman’s terms, this means there was no Arab group identity, the idea of “Arabs” yes, but as a group identity? No. The original Arab nomads of the desert like their sedentary peers of the towns, would identify through ancestral backgrounds. Being an Arab did not stop them from raiding other tribes, or enslaving their womenfolk. Even when we do think of an emerging Arab-Muslim symbiosis today, there has never been a universal Arab identity that strictly corresponds to the world of the Arab or the ‘pan-Arabist’. The heterogeneity of the Arab world is self-evident, cutting across 20 Arab nationalities in two continents. The immense diversity is breathtaking for even the most apathetic of casual observers. Anyone who has lived amongst Arabs can testify to their wonderful sense of family, region, culture and tradition, mired by political and economic injustice.
Linguistically, we are in fact speaking of separate speech communities with a connection to Classical Arabic that is deemed the most prestigious Arabic variety because of its connection with the Qur’an, the Word of God. Without the standardising influence of Classical Arabic and the existence of modern Arabic cinema, I am speaking of a particular regional genre emanating out of Egypt, Arabs would not be able to understand each other had they relied on their native dialects alone.
Ethnically and culturally, Arabs are separate peoples, “nations” who adopted the Arabic language in its evolving varieties during different moments in history. As this was happening, prior to the ideological movement of pan-Arabism, the speakers of the various dialects never self-identified as ‘the Arabs’.
So where does this leave naive non-Arab practitioners of Islamist Identity Politics emulating Arabs in Pakistan and the streets of the UK?
Let me be clear, the ensuing attitudes are not borne of an inferiority-complex although one does come across Pakistanis and other incumbents of Saudi largess behaving obsequiously with their admired peers, or more correctly superiors. From my own experience of interacting with Pakistanis in general, there is a large proportion of Urban Pakistanis who think getting ahead in life means traducing everything about themselves, to the point of re-inventing the past. I don’t think I’m being unfair to these aspirants of social status. One can see through their inferiority complexes though by the emphasis they place on Urdu, a language that has no social prestige outside the circles that speak it, natively, which is saying something. Pakistanis abjure the native languages and cultures of the old rustic and rural Pakistan, demeaning and degrading those still connected with the soil of their homelands.
But, the Arabs on the receiving end of Pakistani flattery, when the Persian influenced Urdu morphs into an Arabic derived identity, become empowered in ways that are completely unhealthy, and to be frank, undeserving of their projected status. Fortunately, for the majority of Pakistanis, this emulation of peers has a religious mandate. They think that by dressing in the customary Arab (i.e., Saudi style), they are in some way fulfilling a religious injunction, that they are not merely emulating Arabs but rather assuming the mannerisms of the Prophet, his companions and wives – the social norms of a highly dignified people, who did not merely happen to be Arabs, but were destined to be Arabs.
They are misguided, to say the least. They have no inkling of how wrong they are.
Face veils were features of elite Byzantine society, rich women would cover their faces to distinguish themselves from their poorer counterparts. Note in the above picture, handbags, a modern-day accessory, and an example of cultural appropriation.
Historical norms vs modern norms; identity labels are misleading
The Prophetic Sunnah in its cultural or ‘ethnic’ residues given the historical location of Islam’s 6th century beginnings in the Hijaz was not conterminous with the evolving cultural norms of the Bedouin Arabs of Central Arabia, Najd, and, subsequent purveyors of that identity. The Prophet of Islam, an Arabic speaker, would refer to the bedouin tribes, nomadic populations distinguishable from townspeople (Mecca, Medina, Taif, i.e., sedentary populations) as “the Arabs” (al-‘Araab). Arab simply meant the nomads of the desert as opposed to townsmen (people with fixed homes), a social reality that gets frequently conflated with anachronistic ideas of group-identities based on what language a group speaks, a colonial idea.
This ahistorical way of interpreting historical norms has meant conflating an incredibly rich and complex Muslim heritage (culturally, linguistically and geographically expansive) with the idea of a singular Arab identity through the priorities of Identity Politics.
Some of our earliest Muslims, now positively identified as Arabs, (this is akin to thinking of a universal Arab fraternity, wrongly), when interacting with the peoples they conquered, consciously adopted the latter’s cultural dress, mannerisms and governance-systems. The Muslims, at the time, were surrounded by peoples with much older histories of conquest and Civilisation, and this held true for the Persians.
The Persians, again not to be conflated with the idea of Persian-speakers, anachronistically speaking, had immense social prestige. They saw themselves as the heirs of older Persian Empires. The culture of the ruling elite was highly advanced. Understanding this history cannot be reduced to looking at modern maps, or modern borders, but the older terrain, geologically speaking, to appreciate how groups of people were identified by outsiders on the basis of where they lived, who they were governed by and which regions they approximated to. The Iranian Frontier extended into modern-day Pakistan commensurate with the mountainous regions that separate the vast Plains of South Asia with the mountain complexes of West Asia. It is in the Indus Valley, where West Eurasia (Europe, the Middle East) meets South Asia.
The Muslim conquerers having gradually adopted the cultural habits and governance practises of their Sassanian subjects, also married into the vanquished ruling elites. In effect, they coalesced into a vanquished people, who saw themselves as the inheritors of older Civilisations, namely that of the Parthians and Achaemenid, Cyrus and Darius being among the famed Emperors.
Over a number of centuries, the Persian Elite converted to Islam becoming Sunni (Shafi’) Muslims. Some natives of the Zoroastrian faith didn’t take too kindly to the new faith and sought refuge in India, what is today the Gujarat region, where they are identified as Parsi – the native word for Persian. Genetic data bears out the claim that this population descends from the Iranian Zoroastrian Priests through their Y-chromosomal haplogroups. Most of the migrants were men and they took Indian wives, coalescing into an essentially Indian population.
Fast forwarding to later developments. Around the turn of the 16th century, a new power emerged in Persia, namely that of the Safavid, a Persian-speaking Turkic population that had adopted the Shia faith. They forcefully converted the majority Sunni population to Twelver Shiism. We remember the Safavid for warring with their Turkic cousins, the Ottomans, who for their part, did not historically self-affirm as Turks. During much of our premodern past, ancestry to established tribes, or ruling households of ancestral pedigree, was more significant than ethnic, linguistic, racial and religious identities.
The Ottomans, for their part, had emerged around the 13th century, domiciled in the Imperial lands of the Old Byzantine Empire. They used to call the Turkish-speaking inhabitants of Anatolia, “the Turks”, whilst referring to themselves as the Ottomans (Uthmani) Both groups originated from Central Asia. The Ottoman Rulers had a distinct sense of their own separate status though. Genetically speaking, modern-day Turkey’s population is comprised of 12 to 18 percent of people of Turkic (i.e., Central Asian) extraction. There are possibly more Turkic-derived ancestral populations in modern-day Iran than in modern-day Turkey.
Populations of recent Central Asian extraction, over the past 1000 – 1500 years, linked with historically attested ‘Turkic’ tribes can be found in areas traditionally associated with the Indo-Iranian Rulers (‘Turushka’) that were part of successive Persian Empires. The descendants of these ancestral groups can also be found in modern-day Pakistan and North India most notably among groups otherwise seen as being indigenous to North Western India, like the Jat. The Jat are an incredibly diverse group comprised of different ancestral populations, whose presence in the subcontinent and outside, has been observed by many writers. The history of the Jat and related groups is being degraded by Pakistan’s practitioners of Muslim Identity Politics, because it doesn’t sit well with their modern-day priority of claiming an Arab, Persian and Turkic heritage for Pakistan. Lots of the related claims, of Pakistanis claiming descent from the Prophet’s tribe or some Muslim Ruler, turn out to be false once subject to historical scrutiny and DNA testing. This includes large numbers of Pashtun and Indian (ethnic) Kashmiris, whose claims of being the descendants of Biblical Jews, or Alexander’s Army have been flatly debunked by DNA studies.
It is said of the 8th century Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man, the Persian, whose forbears originated from the Zutah tribe, that he was of Jat extraction; the term Jat derives from Zutah. The nomadic and “war-like” Jats of history had been settled in a wide region that extended from the Sindh region and extended into modern-day Iraq. Throughout history, writers have observed the presence of Jat in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. The Sassanian had settled Jat in their various tracts of land. Later, Arab rulers deported the Jat to the Iraqi marshlands. Some Jats were enslaved, others fought rebellions and became brigands. Some were incorporated into the armies of the new Elites.
This was centuries before the Jat gradually moved into the Panjab region, where they formed militarised bands, taking up arms against various Indo-Muslim Rulers, especially during the hegemonic collapse of Mughal power. Some successfully created their own territorial polities; the Sarkar-e-Khalsa or the Lahore State being the most celebrated. Others went on to become Sikhs, forming the nexus of the Sikh Army (‘Panth’), including Rajputs, whose descendants identify as Jat despite being linked to the old Rajput heritage. The common Sikh surname, “Singh” originates with Rajputs centuries earlier linked to the Gujarat-Rajasthan area.
Large numbers of Jat also converted to Islam, which is not to say older contingencies hadn’t converted to Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism previously when they had been interacting with the Arabs of Sindh.
Today, Jats can be found in North India and the North West regions of the subcontinent, having incorporated older groups with multiple-identities and ancestral backgrounds.
Colonial ethnologists wrongly identified the Jat as the quintessential Panjabis on account of the pseudo-scientific race fictions that were current at the time. The basis upon which such ideas first germinated have been entirely rejected by the academic community researching socially-constructed identities. A lot of these out-dated colonial ideas continue to circulate Pakistani and Indian online forums, and are also used for the purposes of propaganda.
Because the Jat dominated the eastern regions of the Panjab Plains, alongside Rajput and Gujjar groupings, it was said that they were the truest specimen of the Aryan. There were, of course, other regional tribes subsumed within the colonial schema, but they couldn’t be connected with the historically attested migrations that ancient writers spoke about. It is for this reason that the Jat and Agnikul Rajput have become important reference populations.
Following in the footsteps of colonial ethnologists, less prominent regional groups like the Awan, Kokar, Gakkar, Sudhan started to also aggregate Muslim backgrounds, creating their own fictions, whilst claiming ancestry to Arabs and Afghan Muslim Rulers and Saints (‘Ashraf’) in an attempt to get parity with the groups empowered by the colonial narratives. Pakistan’s nationalistic ideologues prioritise these groups over and above the Jat, despite the Jat having an attested history in documented events, unlike perhaps the non-attested claims of the other groups. In that spirit, colonial writers drew connections between the Hephthalite, Hun, Kushan, Scythian, Khazar and Jat, Agnikul Rajput and Gujjar. They didn’t do this for the other groups, which helps explain the new anxieties. The writers detailed the areas the Central Asian Hordes settled and from whence they dispersed into North India. It is for this reason, the Gujarat-Rajasthan area is an important region in the North West of the subcontinent to help contextualise the older migrations.
The groups that emerged out of the Central Asian nomadic migrations into ancient India, greatly shaped the social and political history of the regions settled. Pakistan’s fictitious past discounts the indigenous history of the Jat, Rajput and Gujjar. Curiously, Indian writers have none of the anxieties of the Pakistanis, who tell us how the Central Asian nomadic groups were incorporated into the four-fold Hindu Caste System as Kshatriyyah – “the warrior caste”. The Brahmans understood the importance of incorporating the newcomers into their caste system to ensure resistance to subsequent invaders.
The forays of ancient and medieval populations, and their enormous cultural implications, have been forgotten by the exemplars of our modern-day identities except to historians and other academics not motivated by Identity Politics. Centuries after the seismic events, if one understands the implications of historical migrations, it is the residue of cultural practises of converted foreigners that contemporary Muslims are now emulating, proof of something primordial and pristine – the ‘unchanging’ and ‘fixed’.
This is akin to thinking of minarets as architectural features of Mosques, unaware that Minarets first adorned Greek watchtowers and the churches of the Byzantine Christians. As loud speakers invented in the Christian West and mass-manufactured in Communist China amplify the Muslim call to prayer in mosques with elaborate Domes and Minarets, ornamental designs with cross-cultural influences, ironies are seldom this poetic when puritan Muslims condemn “bid’ah” or the innovation of non-Muslims.
And so, when I speak of the puritan ‘mind-set’ that has an inadequate understanding of the imagined history it extols, protecting it from foreign adulteration, I am making explicit reference to historical norms that go beyond the Identity Politics of politicised Muslims. I am speaking of complex realities that shed light on their modern-day proclivities and anxieties.
When I speak of the Muslim Ummah Syndrome and its reliance on Arab-ness, I am not speaking of nations loosely connected under the political banner of pan-Arabism. I am not speaking of Saudi citizens either, many of whom are victims of a religious hegemony with roots in a particular part of the Kingdom. One can extrapolate this rule to include younger members of the Saudi Royal Family, many of whom are embarrassed by the Kingdom’s continued entente with a religious clergy that is fast becoming a liability for them and the wider Muslim World. Being born into power, doesn’t necessarily make the incumbents impervious to the suffering of the masses.
To understand how skewed anxieties are when ideologically-minded Pakistanis bemoan humiliation at the hands of co-religionists in Saudi Arabia, we need to understand how Saudi Arabia emerged as a nation-state in the first place. We need to understand Wahhabism emerged as a sectarian cleavage; pan-Arabism as a nationalistic secular ideology; and the Muslim Ummah Syndrome as an unintended consequence of a troubling history. Pakistan’s emergence on the global scene as the first nation-state purportedly created in the name of Islam, should also be understood to this backdrop to appreciate the nature of fictions being spread in the name of elite interests.
These developments are the by-products of a colonial timeline, which in its final death throes gave way to an inter-dependent and chaotic political order reeling from that legacy. Peoples everywhere are fighting injustices borne of that timeline, Kurdistan, Palestine and Kashmir, being good examples.
When we do think of Muslim victims and non-Muslim perpetrators naively in universal terms, not fully appreciating the priorities of Identity Politics, we make the mistake of locating victims on one Plain and perpetrators on another because of the corresponding group identities. Not all victims are treated equally and not all perpetrators are judged the same whatever the shared labels of the people involved. If ever the mantra ‘my friend’s enemy is my enemy and my enemy’s friend is my friend’ can be shown to be patently false, one should look at the Muslim World where interests push agendas that manipulate entire populations. Islamic Unity is a fiction of Muslim elites, forming interest groups. There is no genuine universal fraternity between Muslim Rulers; hundreds of millions of dispossessed Muslims continue to be exploited by identity fictions. This would be akin to Turkey’s Rulers entreating Muslims to unite against Isreal given the latter’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians, whilst Isreal remains Turkey’s most important import and export Market. Trade brings peoples together, aligning their interests whilst incentivising them to maintain cordial relations at all times.
Pakistanis who familiarise themselves with the documented history of professional historians, staying aloof from the myths created by Pakistan’s nationalistic ideologues, will quickly understand the nature of political priorities that do not involve them in the greater scheme of things. They will see the futility of their religious sensibilities in the shadows of people who have their own priorities. Ultimately, they will understand that the victim complex borne of the Muslim Ummah Syndrome is a false complex that disconnects them from their own native society, changing cultural norms – hundreds of years in the making.
The Emergence of the Sa’ud Tribe; the Wahhabi-Saudi Partnership
Under the leadership of the 18th century iconoclast Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab (d.1792), a puritan fundamentalist movement was born. Its mission was simple, the purification of the Muslim faith from excesses that had accrued over centuries corrupting the true and pristine teachings of Islam. Its adherents considered themselves to be the only true Muslims. Everyone else that fell short of the true austere faith was considered heretical, ‘Zindeeq’, or worse, apostate, ’Murtad’. In practical terms this meant giving license to murdering entire populations, enslaving women and appropriating their possessions as the spoils of war, ‘Ghanimah’. Crucially for our analysis, the movement burst onto the international scene at a critical juncture when the hegemonic power of the Ottoman Caliphs was gradually waning. This was a period of European Expansionism.
Up until the point of the Caliphate’s formal abolition, (1924), the majority Sunni Muslims worldwide, and by this I mean their ruling elites, deferred to the symbolic authority of the Ottoman Caliphs who were the figureheads of Sunni Islam. The Wahhabi puritan movement for its part, located in the central belt of the Arabian Desert peripheral to areas under the suzerainty of the Caliphs, thought otherwise. They attacked the ‘apostate’ and ‘heretical’ Muslims with mixed results. The spread of the movement was much in part due to an alliance fostered by the founder with an ambitious chieftain of a Bedouin tribe from Central Arabia named Muhammad Ibn Sa’ud (d.1765). As was customary in those days, the alliance was nurtured and sealed through marriage, Ibn Sa’ud married the daughter of Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab.
In its formative years, the fortunes of the movement were short-lived. Its penchant for extreme barbarity, from the moral standards of the time, was roundly condemned. Violence and cruelty were launched beyond Central Arabia, and into areas as far as Iraq. Shia shrines were looted and destroyed. Sufi scholars and preachers were killed imbuing the externally-ascribed Wahhabi label with its pejorative connotations that still resonates with us day.
Adherents of the original movement self-ascribed as either the ‘Ikhwan’, (the ‘brotherhood’), or ‘al-Muwahhidun’, (‘the upholders of God’s oneness or unity’). Then as is still the case now, they shirked away from the pejorative characterisations forced on them, arguing that the claims against them were propaganda. There is, of course, an element of truth to this.
To be sure the movement was not unique. It had a powerful precursor in the form of the much earlier ‘Kharijite’ formation, a political cleavage that occurred some decades after the demise of the Prophet (657 CE) which gave us our first proper schism in Islam.
Shortly after his death, the Prophet’s companions fought amongst themselves to appoint a legitimate successor. From the vortex of chaos emerged the Kharijites. The actual term was coined by opponents and simply meant ‘those who left the group’. The Khawarij like their latter-day successors self-ascribed through their own labels.
For devout critics of both movements, the Wahhabis and the Khawarij originated from the same place forewarned by prophecy. In the imagination of Sunnis and Shias alike, the uncompromising literalist trends of the Khawarij and Wahhabis, and their fanatical use of violence were two facets of an identical evil. The Central-Arabian region of Najd was explicitly condemned by the Prophet of Islam being the place from whence ‘the horn of the devil’, (‘qarn al-shaytan’) shall arise and ‘sedition’, (‘fitna’). In another hadith, the purported followers of this fanaticism were labelled ‘the dogs of hell’, (‘kilab ul-nar’). Wahhabi apologists all too aware of this history have sought to re-interpret the Prophetic utterances, relocating Najd in distant Iraq. Their disavowals are quite telling of the older sensibilities.
The cause of the earlier Prophetic condemnation could be accounted for by the unruly nature of the Bedouin tribes that lived in this vast expanse, and the problems they posed for the Prophetic mission. We learn from Islamic historical accounts that many pretenders to prophecy originated from the region. The earliest of disruptive elements were firmly located in the Najd that bordered the Hijaz, and not the ‘Najd’ of far-away Iraq, as our Wahhabi apologists would have us all believe.
With the advent of Imperial Briton, a major colonial power during the 19th century, the ‘Wahhabi’ movement in its political formation was co-opted to further a number of important geo-political priorities. The Saud tribe was patronised to become a regional counter-weight against a declining Ottoman power. This was a purely political entente. The colonial architects didn’t care for the fanatical elements (the Ikhwan) embedded in Ibn Saud’s tribe.
Other regional actors and potentates were also used in this way and many of them eventually fought each other to further their own parochial agendas under the patronage of competing European powers that backtracked on earlier promises.
Arab Monarchies Vs Pan-Arabism (the Arab Republics)
It is within this fractious context we have the genesis of the modern Saudi State, one that becomes increasingly important to the affairs of a decolonised and conflict-prone Muslim world. With the discovery of vast oil reserves to the backdrop of emergent and chaotic pan-Arabist Republics, each and in varying degrees swimming on divergent courses of Arab nationalism, the vastly enriched Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Monarchies emerged unscathed. They now had the necessary wherewithal, financially, to consolidate their power and dynastic continuity.
For the intellectual heirs of pan-Arabism, a political ideology that evolved during the murky world of European colonialism in opposition to the ‘non-Arab’ Turks of the Ottoman order, the Monarchies were considered remnants of the old Imperial Powers. They were loathed as natural targets. Regicide quickly became a common occurrence usually at the behest of military strongmen. The populist order was anything but socially and politically benign. The autocratic dictatorships that followed, with their varied brands of socialism were for practical purposes totalitarian and dynastic.
But what exactly is pan-Arabism, and how is it different to an ethnolinguistic Arab identity? Briefly as possible, pan-Arabism is, or started out at least, as a nationalist movement that sought to unite Arabic speaking peoples, politically, on the grounds that they shared a common Arab culture and past. The pioneering protagonists of the proposition were Lebanese Christians living amongst a largely Muslim-Arabic speaking population indifferent to ideas of a shared fraternity rooted in language or culture. Jurji Zaydan, 1861 – 1914, is credited with being the first pan-Arab protagonist. His novels popularised the idea of the Arab hero, from which we can trace the romanticism behind the seeds of an emerging Arab group consciousness.
Prior to this, Arab Muslims as they are now being identified anachronistically, comprised of incredibly diverse peoples and tribes. They never self-affirmed as Arabs and were more than content to be identified through the labels of the non-Arab Muslims ruling them, inadvertently discounting bonds of fraternity between Arabic speaking populations that included Christians. The new attitudes were gradually adopted by secular-minded Muslims opposed to the Ottomans, who were losing their territories to the European Powers.
This was a period of seismic change in the region. The ideas borne of the early pan-Arabists became increasingly attractive to conservative Muslim rulers committed to forging their own Monarchies, no longer in the shadows of the “Turkish speaking Ottomans. Although language was now the symbolic denominator in the fight against the non-Arab Turks, who were being demonised as the usurpers of legitimate Arab-Muslim power in cultural terms, the ruling Arab elites had mutually-antagonistic political agendas. Whenever we describe such realities within the context of pan-Arabist ambitions, we should not be remiss to point out that we are not not speaking of ordinary Arabs – the masses, but political elites and their votaries. These are powerful interest-groups that are not conterminous with huge populations whatever the shared identity labels.
From this fault line, we had two distinct cleavages. The one was committed to pan-Arabism via a socialist agenda. The Ba’ath party as it emerged, occupied this particular space. The other was represented by regional potentates, aspiring Kings, who wanted to be the figureheads of an Arab nation committed to Dynastic Rule. The Kings were religiously conservative and were keen to present themselves as obedient Muslims unlike the “Arab Atheists”. Some succeeded in their quests to create their own Dynastic Kingdoms, others failed.
Eventually, the different priorities put the secular Republics and the surviving Monarchies on a collision course. It created tensions between the large Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the smaller Monarchies with the Ba’athis of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, who had increasingly monopolised the pan-Arabist agenda.
Pan-Arabists were keen to promote unity among ordinary Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa (MINA) on the basis of socialist principles. The latter had pockets of enthusiastic followers in every Arabic speaking country including the Monarchies. They were strongly opposed to continued western interference in Arab countries, and viewed disparagingly the Kings as western outposts. These views have seldom changed today.
The most successful exponent of pan-Arabism was perhaps the late Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1918 – 1970, who advocated Arab unification as state-policy. But forlornly for the pan-Arabist intelligentsia, the ideological cause faltered and their chief protagonists, one by one, were dispatched ingloriously. The reasons proffered for their failures are far-ranging and varied, but suffice to say the Arab World of the pan-Arabists, like illusory group fictions, is a romantic myth of political exigencies. There is no universal Arab nation.
The Arab Monarchies on the other hand that survived the pan-Arabist dreams of a unified Arab world particularly in the Arabian Peninsula are still no more closer to immortality with the demise of their ‘horizontal’ foes. They now have to contend with bastions of dissidents from within their own native populations, what I call the ‘vertical foes’ – bottom-up.
Western Governments in the interest of National Interests and one-sided foreign policy goals have helped prop up, begrudgingly I add, undemocratic regimes which could account for the widespread anti-Western feeling in the region, exploited by the Islamists who are similarly anti-democratic and reactionary.
The Sa’ud State; Partners, Clients & Opponents
The modern Nation State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was consecrated in 1924 with the explicit support of the European Imperial Powers. Ever since its birth successive Kings have practically monopolised power on the basis of tribal paradigms that are anachronistic and at odds with modern precepts of citizenship and democratic governance.
There is a special place reserved for the religious elite within this entente, an old tribal precedent. It guarantees a space for the descendants of Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab, distantly related to the temporal patrons of the State and their symbolic heirs, to mould the nation’s religious persona. Ordinary citizens are shut out from the power-sharing arrangement, but luckily for the Monarchy’s enforcers, depleting reserves of petrodollars and geo-political importance for Western Powers has meant internal dissent can be mitigated through cash-incentives and ‘welfare’ programmes, harsh security crack-downs and casual human rights violations.
Western governments reliant on Saudi petrol have typically looked the other way. Human Rights Organisations have been scathing in their criticism of such double standards. The Liberal Press is not far behind carrying stories of people being murdered and abducted for speaking truth to power. The US considers the Saudi Monarchy a reliable partner for its own national interests within the Middle East; (note, for the US State Department, Pakistan is part of the Middle East, and not South Asia).
The US does not intervene in Saudi domestic policies. The European Union, to a lessor degree, is less amenable towards the Saudis, and has from time to time criticised the Monarchy for its treatment of citizens. Judging by the Kingdom’s crackdown on human rights activists, it would appear that this criticism has yet to sketch itself onto the Saudi conscience.
The Saudis, for their part, argue that their actions and practises are in accordance with their cultural and religious traditions. In strictly religious terms this has meant, directly and indirectly, giving the Wahhabi religious elite a free hand in propagating its austere fundamentalist Islam.
After the Iranian ‘Shia’ revolution of 1979, this rather crude and literalist redaction of mainstream Sunni Islam was anxiously promoted to every corner of the Muslim World. The oil embargo of 1973 drove the price of oil through the roof bolstered the capacity of the Kingdom to fund transglobal projects to the tune of billions of dollars. The late Ayatollah Khomeini having now overthrown Iran’s “despot” – the Shah, threatened to export the ‘Islamic’ revolution to neighbouring countries with an implicit focus on the Gulf Kingdoms.
The Arab Sunni Monarchies were taken aback and became paranoid. Quite mindful of their large Shia populations ‘squatting’ on their frontier with Iran, where incidentally the majority of their oil operations are located, the Saudis became hostile to the Shia. And so, began a phase of religious proselytisation whose unintended results we are still reeling from today, in the most unlikeliest of place like Small Heath, Birmingham.
The Monarchy pumped huge sums of money into religious and dubiously-dubbed ‘welfare’ projects that outstripped comparatively the ideological output of rivals in Tehran. Literature through the state-financed Dar al-Salam publishing house and a network of subsidised bookshops flooded the Muslim book market with cheap and flashy copies of Wahhabi writings. The literature comprised of catechisms and polemics for popular consumption that didn’t require any intellectual insight. One of the not so inconsequential consequence of this propaganda was the idea that obedience to one’s genuine ‘Muslim’ rulers was an article of faith. Conveniently, for the Arab Monarchies, Shias were blaspheming non-Muslims, (‘Murtad’).
Anti-Tehran anxieties formed the bedrock of the Kingdom’s support for secular Iraq’s invasion of Iran, some years later. Saddam Hussain and Saudi Arabia were hardly bedfellows by choice. The counterintuitive move drew in support from the smaller Monarchies. The inter-Muslim Sunni-Shia conflict, as it was reported in the West at the time, was fought on different fronts and with the assistance of regional and international proxies lasting almost 9 years, and with unprecedented loss of life. It was couched in religious symbolism. The input of Saudi Arabia’s official clergy was essential to the demonising of the ‘Shia’ ‘non-Muslim’ ‘other’ in the quest for regional hegemony. Shias became a persecuted minority within the Sunni Monarchies, and targets for Sunni extremists in Sunni majority countries.
For the Sunni rulers, it didn’t matter that their territories were home to massive Shia minorities, and in some cases, majorities. The Americans firmly backed the Iraqi-Saudi entente, with no regard for their own stated liberal values.
The strategic importance of the relationship between state actors and state-endorsed religious elites is obvious to anyone with a basic familiarity of the region. It perpetuates the status quo, the religious elites teach ‘obedience to Muslim Rulers is a condition of faith’ for Sunni Muslims thus inoculating a mass of aggrieved Muslims from ever rising up.
Whenever the Saudi Royal Family has needed to preserve its privileged existence against home-grown dissidents, militarily, it has sought the help of western powers, who have been more than happy to assist. At various times this has meant turning to French paratroopers to quash a rebellion in the sacred precincts of the Ka’ba, or offering permanent bases to American troops. Whatever the moral failings of such a position religiously speaking, the Kingdom can rely on a cadre of state-endorsed clerics to protect its interests in religious terms.
‘Fatwas’ or legal pronouncements endorsing the official Saudi position, uttered from the mouths of its most sacred personalities have always been trumped by the temporal realities underpinning the State.
Dissenting clerics who find the actions of the Kingdom reprehensible are either put under house arrest or imprisoned. If they happen to be Shia, they are executed, no questions asked. Expectedly, this persisting entente preserves the religious order without which ‘Wahhabism’ would have been nothing more than one muffled voice in a whimpering cacophony of sectarian disquiet. Failing this the Kingdom has the military support of the USA of whose economy the Saudis have been buying significant chunks to the unease of Americans.
This Saudi-American relationship is thus a symbiotic one that has moved on from the earlier Anglo-Saudi partnership. It accounts for huge imports and exports in either direction. The military arsenal of the Saudi state – committed to its own preservation – is sourced from America to the tune of tens of billions of dollars annually. In America’s direction, a guaranteed stream of cheap oil flows unhindered by the ubiquitous anti-American hatred that sees in this ‘Great Satan’ the actual power behind the Saudi State. In the past unexpected spikes in the price of oil have been devastating not just for America but for western economies. History has eloquently borne out this fault-line and makes for good reading.
Intellectual honesty demands that we locate America’s cosy relationship with the Saudi Royal Family within the context of realpolitik. It would be foolhardy to expect the American Establishment with its lucrative commercial interests and geo-political priorities to be honest-brokers in the region. It may sing the praises of human rights and democracy to the rapturous applause of domestic Human Rights Organisations with international reach, but it will quickly turn the other cheek when Arab allies brutalise their own civilian populations. An Arab Spring may have been welcomed in Libya and Egypt to a fading chorus of western cheers, and the almost near-destruction of Syria, but seldom will this prospect extend to the oil-rich Gulf States.
Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf Monarchies are positively off-bounds for any redemptive democratic awakening. The Pakistan Military is part of the same pact, of its own choosing I add, which should explain why military dictatorships in Pakistan have been tolerated by the West. When Pakistan’s Army committed a genocide against East Pakistanis in 1971, the West looked the other way. Pakistan was an important cog in the Cold War. Today, Pakistan is seen as a problem, which might explain why lots of doors are closing to ordinary Pakistanis trying to immigrate abroad. Ordinary people become implicated by way of association, dissident Iranians complain bitterly about anti-Iran feelings in the West.
Synopsis : The film showing at length the war of East Pakistan with West Pakistanwhich led to the formation of an independent state of Bangladesh.India had p…
America and Western Allies are not predisposed to ushering in more radically conservative elements from the actively mobile oppositions in Arab countries even when they carry large democratic mandates. This new fault-line is the unintended consequence of the Monarchy’s promotion of an intolerant brand of Islam, globally, for regional hegemony through the auspices of pliable clerics. The literalism of Wahhabism and its uncompromising positions doctrinally and socially have created blow-back in Saudi Arabia where hardened extremists view ‘government-clerics’ (Ulema al-Soo) as stooges of the House of Saud. Socially liberal Princes and Princesses, democratic in their outlook aside from the enormous privileges that come their way, look on aghast with the various scenarios of impending doom. It is simply wrong to view the House of Saud as an unresponsive “oligarchy” ignorant of the dangers encircling the Monarchy and Saudi society.
The law of unintended consequences has the habit of producing outcomes no one likes. It has meant serious implications for American foreign-policy duplicity. The drawbacks, perhaps better described as side-effects of the Saudi-American entente have included the emergence of Usama Bin Laden and the global Jihadist movements, informal transmutable structures and entities that seem to be popping up in the remotest of places. Paradoxically, had it not been for the Kingdom’s funding of fundamentalist redactions of Islam at a time it was mired in the Cold War, sending home-grown radicals to fight ‘atheists’ in Afghanistan, the phenomenon of militant Islam in its Saudi-Salafi manifestations would probably never have seen the light of day.
Ironically, the Arab Republics in an attempt to get rid of homegrown radicals – the product of Saudi largess they protest – released their incarcerated Islamist dissidents and paid for their fares, one-way of course, to Afghanistan. It was hoped that the radicals would be sufficiently distracted by waging holy war against the godless Communists to forget about their own ‘Pharaohs’. With any luck they would die martyrs for their cause in someone else’s backyard.
Decades on from the Cold War, the now disbanded militant movements have morphed into something more troubling. Western military intervention in the Arab World has not helped. Western leaders have subsequently switched sides from supporting Arab Dictators to welcoming into the global order religious democrats from otherwise hostile populations with no experience of democracy. Many of the elected democrats engage in a partisan form of politics. In Iraq, for instance, they epitomise the mess created in the wake of failed western policies. Iraqi society has become increasingly polarised. The new democratically elected Shia majority, backed by Iranian money and militias, consolidates its power by excluding an embittered Sunni minority that is increasingly turning to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab States for moral and financial support.
Saddam’s oppression of the Shias is now being projected in Sunni-Shia terms, irrespective of his identical tyranny of the Kurds, who happen to be Sunnis and other Sunni dissidents from the wider Arab-Sunni population.
It is within this vortex of chaos that ISIS has emerged. Its emergence is telling of a history contemporary Muslims are unfamiliar with. It reminds us of the earlier Kharijite and Wahhabi pogroms that devastated Muslim communities unfortunate to fall within their radar.
Fired up by the zeal of their corrective teachings and their love for booty quite literally I emphasise; the acquisition of booty was both material and human, they perpetrated heinous crimes. It took the Ottomans a number of years to extinguish the puritan carnage of the Wahhabis whilst, centuries earlier, the senior companions of the Prophet and members of the Prophet’s household lost their lives fighting the Khawarij. The Prophet’s descendants had to flee to the frontiers of the then expanding Muslim World for sanctuary. This is a troubling and painful history that is simply glossed over by practitioners of Muslim Identity Politics who fantasise about Islam’s glorious victories against non-Muslims. The first true victims of Muslim Rulers and their allies were the family of the Prophet, (Allah bless him and his family).
The Ottomans and the Prophet’s companions (‘Sahaba’) did succeed eventually in quelling their opponents. The vicissitudes of that earlier epoch is now given a renewed lease of life in our present time courtesy of failed Saudi policies and a global order that makes internal conflicts between Muslims all the more possible.
It would be fair to say, had the Saudi Kingdom not emerged in 1932; discovered oil; promoted its brand of religious extremism globally for myopic reasons; we would not have had the Pashtun Taliban morphing into the highly-hybridised Wahhabi-Deobandi outfit it became. We would not have had 9/11; 7/7; the Madrid Bombings; the Bali bombings; the murder of Lee Rigby; Boko Haram; the modern-day Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East; and a host of other typically combustible Wahhabi-inspired incidents. Sunni-Shia tensions in Pakistan, completely at variance with the Indian subcontinent’s history of sectarian troubles, in all likelihood, would not have occurred. The new conflicts involve the targeting of Shia and minority communities by radical Wahhabi outfits and a cyclical chain of copycat reprisals.
We know categorically who the instigators are and from which direction they come. The Shia have been on the receiving end of this violence for decades.
Commentators and experts predisposed to the Wahhabi narrative would argue otherwise, and understandably so. They would opt to lay the genesis of the problems to political Islam, or ‘Islamism’, a phenomenon that should not be confused with Wahhabism whatever the shared use of the term Salafi. There are huge differences between Wahhabism and Salafism.
The self-ascription Salafi was co-opted by latter-day Wahhabis, but it was originally employed by Muhammad Abduh [1849 – 1905] and his intellectual heirs, most notably Rashid Rida [1865 – 1935]. Abduh was an adherent of the great reformer Jamal al-Din Afghani [1838 – 1897], who incidentally was not an Afghan (Sunni), but a Persian (Shia) to appreciate fictitious identities in times of conflict. Both reformers grew up during a period of Muslim decline. They witnessed first-hand huge social change and the anxiety on the part of establishment clerics witnessing the gradual overthrow of a political order, outwardly postulated on Islamic law – a space the clerics wanted to occupy.
In practise, Muslim rulers did not defer to the clerics, although they were very accommodating of them in public. Muslim Rulers were generous to religious endowments (‘awqaaf’). The clerics were appreciative of the wealth that came their way. As the power of the clerics waned, we had the emergence of western-educated intellectuals challenging European colonialism through a European universe of meaning, rendering the clerics irrelevant, which they are for the most even today. The pan-Arabists belonged to this group as did a number of religious reformers. They blamed a floundering Islamic intellectual tradition for sapping Muslim societies of technological and scientific innovation.
Traditional Muslim scholars were opposed to all manner of pioneering developments, issuing Fatwas against the printing press, the use of loud speakers in prayer, even wearing trousers for males. It is the same cadre in the West that insists on moon sightings through the naked eye for Eid and Ramadan, splintering Muslim festivals to different dates. They insist that they are following Islamic jurisprudence, when, in fact, they are making life difficult for ordinary Muslims. Their grasp of the wide breadth of the Islamic intellectual tradition is limited to a very restrictive syllabus. They are incapable of moving beyond the rote learning that has become the basis of their insights.
In the West, proponents of the European Enlightenment eventually succeeded in relegating the Church to essentially religious matters, and not temporal issues. The West, as history bears out, triumphed beyond measure. Scientists do not seek the approval of religious clerics when engaged in pioneering research. In the absence of similar progress in the Muslim World, progressive and liberal-minded Europhiles felt their societies could never break the chains of European colonialism and compete with the Imperial Powers.
It is at this juncture that Afghani and Abduh enter the fray, both of whom were polyglots and conversant in European languages. Abduh and Afghani were trained in the Islamic disciplinary traditions and were formidable personalities; they knew the Muslim Tradition like the back of their hand, and they were open to fresh ideas.
The original Salafism of Abduh was a pioneering intellectual reformist teaching that had little in common with the austere Wahhabism of Najd and the later lay-teachings of the Egyptian Syed Qutb [1906 – 1966] and to some extent his Indian counterpart Abu’l Ala Maududi [1903 – 1979]. Maududi and Qutb were not traditional scholars in the way Abduh and Afghani were, they were engaged in what we today understand as Identity Politics.
The lay-teachings of the Egyptian Salafists, Maududi’s Jamat-e-Islami and Saudi Wahhabism, aside from ideological accretions that move between them have been implicated in the radicalisation of Muslims in many parts of the world. Today’s Wahhabis like to present themselves as Salafis unaware of the term’s earlier trajectory.
The Salafi Label; Oil, Conflict and the new Sunni Orthodoxy
The ‘Salafi’ label has been a malleable one. In its earliest years, outside the literal purport of linguistic and scriptural meaning, it conveyed the sense of rational reinterpretation of prescriptive Islam. The large body of classical juristic thought that underpinned the Sunni Orthodoxy of the time was considered stoic and outdated. And so the Reformers coined the phrase ‘returning to the generation of the pious predecessors’ (‘Salaf al-Salih’) to bypass centuries of ancient and medieval scholasticism in the liberating spirit of seeking a freer hand in their own interpretations. The intellectual trends that then followed the demise of Abduh, although subsumed within the mantle of his label, did not quite share his intellectual priorities and less his spirit for independent enquiry.
Decades later, the label was adopted by the protagonists of the austere Wahhabism of Central Arabia now firmly entrenched within the religious structures of the Saudi Monarchy.
How this happened is open to debate. It is generally believed that Rida made overtures to the emerging Saudi polity as he grew increasingly disillusioned with the pan-Arabists to whom he had originally oscillated. In gratitude to the funds he received from the then Saudi Ruler, he penned some works in praise of Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab, now presented as the “Reformer”. Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, although grounded in the Muslim disciplines, had not been particularly celebrated for his scholarly accomplishments. On the contrary, he was positively disliked for all the troubles he unleashed onto ordinary Muslims because of his “Takfir” or excommunicating attitudes. Rida and Ibn Abdul Wahhab belonged to different intellectual traditions.
Howsoever we interpret the actions of the unlikeliest of bedfellows, the earlier intellectual impulses of the original Salafi reformers was eclipsed by the literalist impulse of a less tolerant Movement. The Wahhabis evoked the label in the same vein as the original Salafis to guarantee their own continuity with the Prophetic teaching outside the teachings of mainstream Sunni Orthodoxy and its classical heritage. The traditional custodians of Sunni Orthodoxy, the established schools of Sunni thought and creed, rejected both the modernist Salafis and the radically literalist Wahhabis as heretical.
Traditionally, Sunni scholars have been more tolerant of heretics and generally, have never sought to extirpate them whatever their personal loathing. Sunni Rulers were less accommodating of proclamations of apostasy, paying lip service to divisive fatwas and judgements.
Whatever the similarities and differences between various heterodox strands of Islam and howsoever we appraise their distinct ideological cleavages, we cannot downplay the connection of Saudi petrodollars with the rise of a global and potent Salafist movement that parades itself as the authentic and exclusive teachings of Sunni Orthodoxy, whichever tolerable strands it co-opts in that quest.
The Soviet-Afghan war [1979 – 1989] and the role Pakistan played as a strategic partner for western interests coupled with financial assistance from Saudi Arabia is a point in question not least because Pakistan’s earliest and most substantive ‘Islamification’ policies emerge during the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq [1977 – 1988].
Saudi oil-money freely flowed into Pakistan courtesy of the Saudi-American partnership and the austere teachings of Wahhabism followed suit. The sectarian movements that have gone on to destabilise Pakistan today in the full glare of international cameras, targeting the popular cult of the country’s mainstream Sufi traditions, whilst being fervently anti-Shia, have their origins in Zia’s stewardship of Pakistan’s outward Islamic vision. This is not to say General Zia was supportive of confrontations between internal groups, but it was he who, inadvertently, opened Pandora’s Box, empowering fringe and fanatical voices that have entrenched themselves into the social fabric of the society.
In this vein, we shouldn’t conflate the reckless invasion of Iraq by Coalition forces as the genesis of the current sectarian conflict in the Middle East in what now appears to be the redrawing of national borders. Wherever the arena of bloody conflicts, whatever their linear causes and effects, and however badly mismanaged the imposed political settlements in the name of democracy, we cannot ignore the sub-layers of Salafism now festering at a grassroots consciousness.
But even this is to mildly put aside the present undoing of the colonial formations that gave us our haphazard Middle-East with its equally cumbersome nation states. The ramifications of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement between Imperial Britain and France concluded in 1916 forced diverse ethnic peoples with historical memories of their own homelands into the random artificiality of newly formed ‘countries’. We see ethnic peoples re-emerge today to reshape the now tenuous national borders, and I only see this strengthening in the Digital Age.
The indigenous Kurds lived in parts of the Middle East transcending the territorial borders created by the Imperial Powers. Their homeland traverses parts of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. When the borders of the Middle East were first being drawn, France and Britain prioritised the interests of Arab bedfellows with little regard for Kurdish national aspirations. The Kurds became persona non grata in their own ancestral tracts. Iran and Turkey, two countries never colonised by the Western European Powers, directly at least, bore the consequences of the new borders too.
Today the Kurds have reemerged to become an important piece of the changing jigsaw. Tellingly, for the purpose of debunking ideas of a universal Muslim brotherhood, the Kurds do not present their struggle in religious or sectarian terms which is very insightful of what is actually going on in the Middle East. Their occupiers are Muslims. They are Sunnis, Shias, Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis – you should get the point.
Given how the Muslims World is configured, the Kurds lack backers from the Ummah. The Kurds get nothing by employing religious narratives in the pursuit of their nationalistic aspirations. Something completely lost on Kashmir’s pro-independence ‘Azad’ Kashmiris in Azad Kashmir and the UK. Such is the nature of unjust power dynamics and undemocratic partnerships in the Muslim World.
In any case, the apparatus that made the outflow of Wahhabi thought a characteristic feature of our modern world particularly in its most intolerant manifestations is firmly entrenched and located in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it is routinely represented as Sunni is an irony that shouldn’t be lost on any of us as it expunges the Sunni classical heritage from regions unfortunate to encounter its puritan charms. The celebrated city of Timbuktu in the African Republic of Mali serves as an excellent metaphor.
Here in this West African bastion of traditional Sunni (Maliki) Sufi Islam, thousands of saintly graves have been destroyed, mosques levelled to the ground, ‘apostate’ Muslims killed and precious manuscripts burnt, some of which were hundreds of years old – the cultural property of the people of Mali. This tragedy is being repeated in Muslim countries in the full glare of international opprobrium wherever Wahhabi fanatics and their loosely affiliated outfits get a foothold. Mainstream Muslim communities, around the world, continue to be lulled into inaction and disbelief. In the West, only non-Muslim aggressors receive the opprobrium of Muslims, which just shows how dangerous the Muslim Ummah Syndrome actually is. In Pakistan, the tribulations are reduced to Western conspiracies. Media outlets, with the full backing of the Military Complex, give platform to a range of pseudo-experts offering salacious explanations and end-of-time scenarios.
Muslim Ummah Syndrome; Pakistanis & the Saudi Marriage Ban
What does the foregoing have to do with the Muslim Ummah Syndrome and the marriage ban? The recounting of history is by no means a waste of this writer’s energies.
Put simply, Pakistan is not immune from events that unfold around it, ones that its leaders have, at one point or another, been mired in, sometimes unceremoniously. Outside the Saudi-Pakistan partnership courtesy of the old Cold-War, both countries are part of a globalised order that is in retreat everywhere. The ‘left behind’ are asking their own sets of questions, but the current incumbents are ill-prepared to deal with the possible ramifications. Globalism is not restricted to exchanges between elites and cosmopolitan groups, but involves ordinary people.
We readily accept that young Pakistanis from different backgrounds are fond of emulating Western celebrities, keeping abreast of the latest fashion trends from the Western World. It is thus perfectly understandable that Saudi Arabia will have votaries in Pakistan when it comes to issues of Identity Politics. The social reality of the events now unfolding in front of our eyes is mired in the history I narrate because of their interrelated nature.
Pakistan’s closeness to Saudi Arabia in geographical and economic terms means new spiritual ties will emerge. The current pioneers of Wahhabi Islam have a firm presence in neighbourhoods across Pakistan. The currents of Wahhabism are being felt on the streets and university campuses of Pakistan, because Saudi endowments fund mosques and educational projects in Pakistan. There is a reason why the country’s most iconic Mosque designed by an architect trained in France of Turkish origin, to give you an idea of the globalised order, is named ‘Shah Faisal Mosque’. It sits in the country’s new capital, Islamabad, built courtesy of Saudi petrodollars, some 130 million Riyals of it, which in today’s value would roughly translate to well over 100 million dollars.
An emerging and increasingly confident religious consciousness has been unfolding in Pakistan courtesy of arrangements steeped in a centre of gravity located in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan’s security agencies have not been immune from this Pandora’s Box, now pitied against an ineffectual civilian leadership that will turn against the Military Generals with the help of ordinary civilians across the world. The Rulers of the Military will find no sanctuary in the Muslim and Western World.
Pakistan’s Military remains sympathetic to the ideals of Zia’s Islamic Republic, with no sense of how far this is pushing Pakistan onto the frontiers of irrelevancy. Some western security analysts have accused the ISI, Pakistan’s foremost security agency, of turning rogue and operating autonomously of the executive branch. Whether this true, it is a good indication of how Pakistan is being viewed by outsiders – a dysfunctional State.
The Saudi-Pakistan partnership is more than a political and economic arrangement borne of certain necessities and policy prescriptions. It has serious social and cultural implications to the disadvantage of ordinary Pakistanis. In the past, Pakistani expatriates returning from Saudi Arabia bought with them their Wahhabi inspired faith, installing it in their extended family networks and communities. The patrons of the new faith built shopping complexes and malls through the proceeds of savings and investments. Architecturally these buildings were characterised by a Wahhabi-induced ethical standard; separate entrances for women, separate seating areas, gender-assigned entrances/exists. The long sojourn in Saudi Arabia had serious implications for members who remained behind.
Critically, Pakistan’s new religious middle class emerging confidently in their authentic and puritan strand of Islam, adorning the attire of origin myths, will still have to face the prejudices and bigotry of coreligionists in Saudi Arabia, who don’t treat the Pakistani expatriate community as equals, aside from structural inequalities in Saudi society.
Racism is not unique to Saudi Arabia. The history of community relations in North America, Europe and Australia all share in these ugly commonalities. The West, however, demonstrably has a better track record when dealing with religious and ethnic minorities because of liberal and secular values. Western countries have social cohesion policies that actually work because of functioning political and legal systems that can deal with any number of minority grievances. The political culture is rooted in the primacy of transparent and equitable laws, a culture that is distinctly absent from the Saudi experience or consciousness. Saudi Arabia has a terrible record on human rights and dispensing social justice. Like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is a violator of human rights, the type that separates the Civilised World from the non-Civilised World.
This ethical expectation of the Modern World does not register with Pakistani Muslims who have bought wholesale the myth that the Muslim Ummah is one body summed up in the belief, “when one part hurts, the other parts feel the pain”. Even when we accept tentatively that we have a Muslim ‘fraternity’ worthy of an embryonic continuity with the Prophet of Islam’s nascent community in Medina, it is certainly not equal or egalitarian. The most preponderant groups that oppress Muslims globally are Muslims themselves.
Equality, Human Rights & Democracy Vs Muslim Fraternity & Sharia Values
Devotionally, Muslims might consider the unity of the Muslim Ummah a religious obligation, but it has no practical substance outside the cleric’s sermon. In the heydays of an expanding and triumphant Islam, it was merely accepted that Muslims, non-Muslims, males, females, masters, servants, occupational groups and slaves were not equal, because the primacy of Islamic law was never rooted in the enlightenment ideas of humanism. It was rooted in the patriarchy of a Muslim private juristic enterprise – male jurists were determining what rights non-Muslims, females and slaves accrued on becoming subservient to the “Will of God” as determined by them.
From the perspective of our modern-day secular values, people are equal because we are human beings from which we accrue our human rights. We do not turn to higher legislative sources to rationalise this proposition; human rights are human rights and not god-given rights determined by Christians, Jews, Muslims and others – usually males with prejudicial views of out-group members.
There is no comparable tradition of human rights in Islamic law – ‘shari’a’ as codified by private jurists that’s applicable to all human beings. Islamic law is religious law with an inherent bias towards 1), Adult Muslims 2), Males 3), Freeborn 4), of noble lineages and 5), respectable occupations. It is largely a product of the epoch in which it was codified. Muslim women, for instance, do not enjoy the same rights that male counterparts take for granted, they have a semi-legal personality below that of non-Muslim males. Muslim women in Islam, according to the Islamic law codified through hundreds of years of scholarship, are lessor social beings because they are adjudged to be weaker than men, with reduced mental capacity. There are two female witnesses to every male witness; females requested divorce need the input of male jurists; Muslim women have to cover their bodies; female slaves can leave their breasts exposed; sweepers cannot testify in legal cases; males of low-birth can have their marriage contracts to women of high-birth invalidated by fathers; hermaphrodites can not lead the prayer; females have lessor shares in inheritance than men; compensation payouts for accidental death of non-Muslims is less than Muslims; homosexuality is punishable by death. On the basis of Islamic law, Muslim women, non-Muslim men, people of low-birth are discriminated against, because traditional Muslim societies have been hierarchical. In the majority of Islamic rulings across the various schools of thought, Muslim apostasy is punishable by death, but conversion to Islam is encouraged and financed through Zakat charity.
Those who argue otherwise, for instance, demanding that their Islamic (‘shar’i’) obligation (‘fard’) to wear the ‘Hijab’ is, in fact, a human right are ignorant of the incoherence of their religious claims. This is not to conflate such considerations with the identity discourse. For some Muslim women, the Hijab has become a cultural practise connecting them to a group identity; I am pointing out the incoherence of religious claims within the context of secular values.
Crucially, whatever the claims of religious Muslims about their god-given laws, it is still human beings, more correctly, male jurists of particular backgrounds, creating, extracting, interpreting and codifying “God’s Laws”. None of us can turn to that Higher Source to validate the ensuing claims of the private Jurists. Adherents of Islamic laws are at the mercy of mostly religious men, who demand loyalty to themselves as a proof of religious virtue. This is a form tyranny that requires the ‘God discourse’ to justify the ongoing influence of intolerant males and females in the affairs of ordinary Muslims. It is not God that is the determiner of religious propriety but male clerics. The women who follow them are lessor legal and social beings according to the Islamic Law they defend. The idea of human rights within its chiefly European Enlightenment context has no resonance with Islamic law. Those who argue otherwise, passionately, are either ignorant or disingenuous.
And so, for religiously-minded Muslim females adorning the hijab (‘Mutahajib’), the act maybe voluntary from the perspective of exercising freewill and agency, is still not a choice but a religious obligation with penal consequences for those failing to dress appropriately where the dictates of Islamic Law have enforcement through Muslim Emirs and Judges (Qadis). Islamic legal manuals from every school of thought, Sunni and Shia, stipulate the various punishments for infractions against Islamic Law. In traditional Islamic societies, a man has the right to impose the Hijab on his wife and daughters through coercion. Those who argue otherwise are revisionists. Of course, they can argue against the validity of coercing Hijab on Muslim women citing evidence from the same primary sources, but they can’t deny the existence of rulings that are as old as Islam. Saudi Arabia and Iran are not innovating anything new, religiously-speaking, when they choose to enforce their religious codes. There is a reason why the Hijab is legally mandated for women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the incumbents of the two legal systems are not innovating anything from their own traditions.
Western Muslims, normally apologetic ones, who claim on panel-shows that the ‘Sunni’ Saudis and the ‘Shia’ Iranians are somehow perverting the true practise of ‘Islam’, are disingenuous. How can anyone take such claims seriously? Western Muslims have the freedom to practise their religion freely because of secular norms, whilst they criticise coreligionists in Saudi Arabia and Iran for perverting Islamic law? These Muslims are disingenuous to a highly evolved legal tradition that is not conterminous with priorities of freedom of thought, expression and personal autonomy, because it has not germinated from the seed of European Enlightenment principles.
The social landscape for which Islamic law was developed does not obtain in the West, such legal (‘fiqhi’) pronouncements are thus obsolete. It is the height of intellectual dishonesty to somehow present oneself as a more credible expert on centuries of Islamic law than hundreds of jurists trained in the old seminaries of the Muslim World unperturbed by the need to apologise and defer to non-Muslim audiences. I repeat, this is nothing more than intellectual dishonesty.
There is of course a wider point here when one tries to contextualise the Muslim Ummah Syndrome and the emotional belonging to a fraternity committing infractions against its own members. The King of Saudi Arabia may be the self-styled ‘Custodian’ of the two Holy Sanctuaries (‘Khadim ul-Haramayn’), but he is also the figurehead of an old patriarchal system that guarantees its privileged survival at the expense of impoverished masses. Ironically, the ongoing viability of this order is strictly dependent on global dynamics and power-arrangements agreed with Western powers, crucially outside the limited experience of young, naïve and impressionable Muslims posturing through Identity Politics. The actual priorities of a Muslim Identity for Saudi Monarchs are not underpinned by imagined religious ideals however dramatic the internationalist sermons of the state-patronised preachers.
Saudi Arabia has all the trappings of a modern state, but it is not a product of modernity that not only gave us the rationalisation of the nation-state as the natural outgrowth of uniform ethnolinguistic groups, but governance paradigms that put people at the centre of such considerations. As I said, there is no comparable tradition in Islamic law that locates in the human being the inherent right to be treated equally by virtue of one’s humanity. The modern concept of citizenship has moved on massively from the idea of being a Monarch’s ‘subject’ – a lessor legal person, a relationship that was historically sanctified by Christian clerics. The Monarch has the ultimate right to dispense justice, the subject does not, he is a lessor person in terms of his legal personality. It can be said that he is not an “equal” to the Monarch. Saudi Arabia’s secular and religious patrons of the State are not heirs to Enlightenment principles that humanise the human person by giving him or her inalienable human rights and dignity.
Saudi Arabia, from a handful of countries, abstained from being a party to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time when the declaration was announced in 1948, abstaining countries included Apartheid South Africa (whites were superior to blacks) and the former Soviet-bloc countries (Stalin was deporting entire populations to Siberia, whilst murdering his opponents in the Gulag). The Saudi objection was simple though, ‘freedom of religion’ (a human right) violated Islamic law. The Saudis were being true to their conscience, they disagreed with the idea that a Muslim could become a non-Muslim, or a Muslim woman could have the right to marry a non-Muslim man.
70 years later, its preachers continue to teach intolerance of Jews, Christians and other less favourable non-Muslim ‘heathen’ communities – a medieval perennial anxiety that in theological paradigms translated into an eschatological conflict with apocalyptic implications. More eccentric preachers toy with the idea that slavery isn’t really that bad an institution, obtaining ‘concubines’ through war could alleviate the infidelity of promiscuous husbands. One can YouTube these videos to understand and appreciate how backwards some parts of the Muslim World are despite having all the trappings of modern life.
At the level of state-sanctioned policies, members of the Saudi Royal Family – thousands of Princes, are guaranteed jobs before supposedly equal citizens. The State continues to uphold the values of an extreme patriarchy. The Kingdom has the unique accolade of being the only country on earth to prohibit female drivers; religious Saudis are extremely proud of the prohibition whilst the more cosmopolitan citizens find the legal impediment utterly embarrassing. The reasons given are extremely insightful of the mindset that pervades Wahhabi discourse – some of the health reasons are bizarre when couched in ‘scientific facts’ that it stupefies observers about the nature of education in Saudi Arabia!
And yet Saudi Arabia has the highest number of female university graduates in the region, a reality that many Saudis are proud of in the belief that this demonstrates that the Kingdom is gender-equal. Of course this largess owes more to the wealth opportunities put at the disposal of the natives than any transformative yearning to give women personal autonomy. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, may have emphasised the importance of female education, a trope routinely recycled by Muslim scholars reminding the West about Islam’s emancipation of women 1400 years ago, but for the patrons of the Kingdom, females working in a male-dominated society is a problem.
In public spaces, the law demands that women be accompanied by male chaperons of ‘non-marriageable status’ (‘ghayr mahram’). Every part of their bodies can be a cause of sexual excitement to males. They must cover up from head to toe – not even their voices are spared, a seductive organ that could potentially overpower unsuspecting males. How far people digress from the Kingdom’s sanctioned morality is another question altogether – although agents of morality are always lurking in the shadows. The fact that a Saudi woman cannot obtain a passport, or any other official document without the consent of a male guardian should be food for thought.
There is of course a point to mentioning this state-enforced discrimination. Inequalities that appear outrageous to a mind-set reconciled with the idea of modernity and the principles of a secular liberal democracy – whatever the ideological misgivings of diehard traditionalists – are simply rejected by those who see in the European Enlightenment ungodly proportions. To feel outraged at the discriminatory treatment of one’s nationals at the hands of Saudi patrons presupposes that equality is a universal value. In Saudi Arabia and in many parts of the Muslim world it isn’t. For die-hard Muslim traditionalists, equality and human rights are western inventions, not God-given laws.
The most deluded of ideological Islamists living in the safe spaces of their Muslim bubbles in the West have no qualms rubbishing what I have just said. In the West they complain about the ill-treatment of Muslims by Racists and Islamophobes, with no thought spared for the fact that their freedoms and liberties are protected by a secular liberal code, and not an Islamic one. It is as if, to point this out, one is being racist to Muslims and being politically incorrect.
I am not merely speaking of civic or political rights but something much more. I speak of rights that are universal and shared by virtue of our shared humanity, without which human beings would be unable to give expression to the very things that make life worth living. It is at this juncture, we must accept that the present issue is not merely about discrimination, a side-effect of a structural system rooted in the old patronage networks, but about values that are seldom understood by Muslims.
Why shouldn’t Pakistanis be treated differently in Saudi Arabia to the mass of other nationalities that are treated unfairly, oftentimes destitute Arab and Muslim migrants from Morocco, Egypt or Yemen? The Saudis are being true to their conscience and they haven’t promised Pakistanis equal treatment because they are Muslims. Following Islamic Law presupposes inequality.
But, if still this offends Pakistanis, how often do Pakistanis decry the Saudi treatment of Filipinos or Sri Lankan maids? These abuses are frequently reported in the Western Press, individual cases are taken up – pro bono – by human rights organisations headquartered in Europe and North America.
Many observers have noted that the ‘Kafalah’ system, a system that requires ‘Agents’ by way of natives (citizens) to dispense legal instruments, in the Gulf Monarchies, is exploitative of live-in domestic maids from South and Southeast Asia. The Agents treat the maids as if they were purchased, often times hiding their passports and subjecting them to harrowing abuse. The maids are not employees with rights, but indentured labourers, to use a colonial analogy. And yet, one would be hard pressed to hear anyone from Pakistan speak about this tragedy.
How often do we hear of a Pakistani Human Rights Organisation advocating on behalf of aggrieved expatriate workers in Kuwait for instance? How often do we hear of Saudi Human Rights Organisations advocating on behalf of Christian bonded labourers forced to work as virtual slaves in the brick kilns of Pakistan Punjab?
The Muslim Ummah Syndrome presupposes that devotion to the Ummah will offer Muslims safe passage and equitable treatment in the lands of Muslims. It presupposes equality between Muslims. The purveyors of such an idea are misguided.
Saudi Arabia with its modern army courtesy of western technology and petrodollars will not come to the defence of Palestinian Arabs whose Islamist leaders it loathes whatever the clerical sermons of brotherly love from state-sanctioned pulpits. It constantly strives to quash the democratic urgings of its own errant sons and daughters in the name of Arab tradition and religious morality, so why should it intervene in Palestine and disrupt the Israeli occupation because of an Ummah delusion?
The Snowdon Leaks, for instance, revealed Saudi proclivities to encourage America to militarily attack Iran, a fellow Muslim country subsumed within the universal fraternity of the Ummah Complex. Others intimately attuned to Wahhabi theology would decry my sloppy misrepresentation, arguing that Iran’s patrons are of dubious faith! But the point remains.
There is no universal fraternity of Muslims anywhere in the world. And so why should the grievances of expatriate Pakistanis matter in this overall scheme of ordered inequality?
Muslim immigrants are not allowed to own properties or assets of any kind in the Kingdom. By law, they must have Saudi Agents – reminiscent of the ancient ‘Arab’ tribal configuration, which in the early days of Islam’s founding required non-Arab converts to Islam bear the names of their Arab benefactors. This history, the real account expunged from Islamist and Wahhabi history books, is a precursor to a lot of the structural discrimination we find repugnant today. Social norms of outward discrimination have the full weight of Saudi Islamic Law, and are taken for granted without ever perturbing a religious consciousness from which, supposedly, flows a universal sense of shared Muslim fraternity.
The Old Boys Network; Elites take care of Elites; Masses Fend for Themselves
The nature of Saudi Arabia’s monarchical polity means political elites of Pakistan, dynasts in their own right, are inevitably treated better than the general mass of ordinary expatriates. Saudi Arabia needs ‘nuclear’ Pakistan, perhaps a lot more than Pakistan’s political elite need Saudi foreign aid. They have enough aid money through the IMF and the World Bank to siphon. Given Saudi ambitions to contain Iran, Pakistan is an important bulwark with strategic importance beyond its otherwise periphery status. Pakistan is also a reliable source of cheap labour, a pliable country that offers little diplomatic protection to its citizens. Pakistanis are second class citizens in Pakistan and third class “subjects” in Saudi Arabia.
Successive Pakistani governments have never been in the habit of promoting the welfare of their citizens abroad. Pakistan’s elite takes care of itself. For the few privileged Pakistanis in the Kingdom, the onerous structural impediments of the State are quickly and arbitrarily relaxed. So, why would a privileged elite in Pakistan, whose peers have availed fortunes and social prestige through propensities for corruption, lobby against the treatment of poorer and less-connected fellow-citizens in the Kingdom?
These political and social realities stand in stark contrast to everything we take for granted in the West, even as minority communities. Born and brought up as Muslims in the lands of unfettered debauchery, we can demonstrate, for the most part, that the rule of law actually rules supreme. In Britain, Europe, North America, Muslim minorities have had an unparalleled existence to that of religious minorities in Saudi Arabia; can any of us honestly say with a straight face that life for non-Muslim communities in Saudi Arabia is better than life for Muslims in Britain, or in parts of Western Europe or North America?
Non-Muslims are not allowed any form of religious expression in Saudi Arabia. Non-Muslims cannot assemble for religious worship, or build a religious structure for their communities. Resident females irrespective of belief must cover their hair and be accompanied by male chaperons – exceptions duly made for diplomats and Heads of State. Power being the ultimate criterion.
So, to be denied rights by fellow Muslims, to enter into a marriage contract with a Saudi national for instance, whilst harbouring the mistaken belief that all Muslims are equal, proves the delusions of the Muslim Ummah Syndrome. For Saudis, Pakistanis are not nationals of the Kingdom. There is a hierarchy of nations, and Pakistans are at the bottom somewhere.
Throughout the Arab world, whenever clerics and preachers ask God for blessings, they entreat Allah “to bless the Arabs and the Muslims”. This popular phrase exposes a dichotomy in the minds of self-affirming Arabs, who are just automatically assumed to be Muslims whilst non Arabs are converts to Islam. The fact that the Ummah is dichotomised in this way by state-appointed clerics shouldn’t be lost on Pakistanis.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a separate relationship with the Muslim World’s Elite. It can be counted on to fling open its doors to fleeing dictators. A recent case in point would be to cite the Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine and his family. The wife of this ousted dictator allegedly stole upwards of 60 million dollars worth of gold bullion and tens of millions of dollars through government accounts before fleeing the country. This money belongs to the Tunisian people, if indeed you believe countries do not belong to Monarchs and Military Dictators. We are told the Abedines first choice of refuge was France. France politely turned them down mindful of domestic critics and the international media. The Saudis on the other hand didn’t have any such anxieties. They welcomed the Abedines with open arms, and have no intention of returning these fugitives to Tunisia despite international arrest warrants.
I cite another example, Idi Amin and his expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972.
Amin came to power through a peaceful military coup having overthrown President Obote who was in Singapore at the time. The South Asian community comprised of approximately eighty thousand people, and had been living in Uganda for more than a century because of colonialism. Overtime, they became an affluent community, described as the backbone of the country’s economy. This led to widespread resentment from the indigenous Africans, sentiments that were greatly exploited by Amin, leading to the expulsion native-born African-Asians. I’m not trying to discount the racism South Asians showed Africans and the backlash. It is an accepted fact that some Ugandan Asians were racists towards Africans, especially at a time, when racism was tolerated across the world.
Approximately 50 thousand Ugandan Asians were British passport holders; 30 thousand or so settled in Britain. The rest were resettled in Canada, the US, Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, India and Europe.
Idi Amin was a Muslim. Some of the South Asians were Muslims too, having been indentured from the poorer parts of South Asia. The rest were Hindus and Sikhs and originally belonged to a socioeconomically dispossessed community that sought its fortunes in Britain’s colonies.
After a sizeable time in Africa, Idi Amin stripped South Asians of their wealth and forced them to leave the country with nothing but the clothes on their back. Some were imprisoned and others were tortured. A few were disappeared. It is generally acknowledged that Amin was a ruthless dictator responsible for the deaths of approximately 500 thousand people. His regime was utterly brutal and was accused of war crimes. His epithet sums him up well, ‘the butcher of Uganda’. He was despised by his own people, and neighbouring African nations. The point in mentioning all this is to point out that there was no outrage in any Muslim country at the time; the fleeing Muslims ended up in the West.
In 1979, Amin was overthrown by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles. He was then airlifted to safety to Libya with an entourage of approximately 80 members of his family. He had been a good friend of Qaddafi, another brutal Arab dictator that lots of Pakistanis seem proud of; I speak of my interactions with British-Pakistanis speaking highly of Qaddafi. Qaddafi fell out with Amin accusing his entourage of having Aids.
Amin then finally sought sanctuary in Saudi Arabia where he lived with his family until his death on a generous stipend courtesy of the Saudi Monarchy. The Saudi Monarchy spared no thought for the victims, Muslim or otherwise of Amin’s extreme barbarity.
In Pakistani online forums, one reads of a popular bugbear, the difference in treatment between Muslims from the Developing World and ‘whites’ from the Developed World that includes expatriate Muslims on account of their Western passports. Westerners, we are told, are treated preferentially. The resentment is understandable, but not rational given the nature of global power-dynamics.
Again, it presupposes equality between Muslims as a shared value when there are no common bonds between the disparate parts. I hope to have shattered such an illusion. At the political level, there shouldn’t be any confusion either. America is the military patron of the Arab Monarchies. It will be American military boots that protect the Arab Monarchies from imploding given the latent feelings of hatred lurking in the domestic population. As American reliance on oil imports decline and the Israeli-American partnership loses its geo-political bearings, the Middle East will become less important to the outgoing Western Powers. Europe is already in decline. China, Brazil and India are emerging as the new economic powers. All three countries have large populations and aspirations of their own. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Saudi Royal family is probably reevaluating its own standing. If it continues as normal, it will become a sitting duck for the religious forces it sponsored only narrowly suppressing as the Kingdom fights its proxy wars with Iran. Its government-appointed analysts are reappraising the Kingdom’s direction of travel.
Naive Muslims worshipping the idea of the Muslim Ummah are unaware of these priorities. One can understand the reasons why Americans and Europeans are welcomed in the Arab Monarchies, afforded treatment seldom offered to Pakistan’s duskier expatriates – the Saudis aren’t much fairer either. The issue here is not race, a sub-text that has its own issues, but power and the colonial legacy.
The Pervasiveness of the Colonial Legacy; the West & the Rest; Imposed Servitude
At the societal level, the infatuation with all things ‘western’ in the Muslim World follows on from the same attitudes Pakistanis exhibit towards the West. Saudi proclivities are by no means dissimilar to Pakistani proclivities or Iranian proclivities. Cross-cultural borrowings reveal personalities harbouring a level of inner-disquiet. The Muslim Ummah Syndrome is predicated on the belief that to be true to one’s faith, one must somehow deny a bit of oneself, almost distance oneself from one’s actual cultural heritage and past. Native cultures become dirty things. Political Islam becomes a positive.
Saudis have their own peculiar self-loathing, crossovers that are symptomatic of the modern world borne of colonial configurations and corresponding anxieties. Skin whitening creams are plentifully available in the Middle East. It is big business in Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. The fetish for blonde-streaks, perfectly straight-hair and piercing blue contact lenses are clear for anyone watching Arab singers perform, showing off their latest nose-jobs. Iran’s plastic surgery industry is booming and the demand for thinner, finer, button-noses is revealing of what Iranians actually value, and how they perceive themselves.
Why anyone would assume such features to be absolute standards of beauty, or defining features of Western Europeans is another point altogether but that’s how power-dynamics work. The people who think like this are unaware of how far their minds have been polluted by the colonial legacy; a heritage that many in the West are keen to critique and criticise.
On any number of Iranian websites, budding bachelors and bachelorettes describe themselves as ‘Caucasians.’ By the term ‘Caucasian’, Iranians mean “white”. Being Middle Eastern or Asian are lessor identities, being Muslim is a lessor identity to seeking proximity to whiteness. Iranians are no more ‘white’ than the Irish, Greeks and Italians were white in 19th century America. If indeed Iranians were convinced of their Caucasian roots, and by this I mean European appearances – that’s what really being worshipped, I doubt they would be spending so much money trying to change how they look to an imaginary European racial profile. There is nothing Caucasian about Iranians in any racial sense of the term. They are no more Caucasian than Nordic Germans or Anglo-Saxon Britons are Aryans. These racial fictions had been debunked almost a century ago.
We are dealing with people’s fantasies and delusions. The humiliating self-hatred that some Pakistanis are fond of displaying when assuming European or Arab airs is not unique to them. It is characteristic of a people ashamed of who they are. The sad reality of such disavowal is the ignorance that accompanies it.
The Pakistan Project, its ideological bearings and its desire to construct from scratch a totally ahistorical identity has been catastrophic. It has amplified Pakistan’s inferiority complex because it alienated itself from its own heritage. Pakistanis are heirs to a past that courtly elites in medieval Europe once marvelled. This self-loathing, entirely of Pakistan’s choosing, has strategically located Pakistanis at the bottom of an illusory Muslim pecking order that moves westwards from the direction of the River Indus.
The newly liberated and ideologically-minded Pakistanis by virtue of their association with pagan India are eager to point out, at every turn, that they are not Indians. They naively deprecate a heritage that has been thousands of years in the making, and one of the world’s few ancient Civilisations. This heritage is universally admired by educated and enlightened people.
The delight that Pakistani women take in being told they look ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Arab’ completely unaware of the heterogeneity of Mediterranean people is not a figment of this writer’s imagination. It is a daily curse that is discernible in Pakistanis, who get satisfaction of being told they don’t look like other Pakistanis. To tell a fair-skinned Pakistani with supposedly European features, (nonsensical ‘race’ ideas) that she looks Indian is to flatten her ego and wash her body in the sacred waters of the Ganges.
This plague is not unique to Pakistan or the Middle East . It has poisoned Indians too. Bollywood is a good place to start with its crazed obsession with fair-skinned actors and a beauty industry worth billions of dollars that seeks to castrate the Indian Summers for bitterly cold European Winters. In which other national film industry do we encounter large numbers of European foreigners dancing to the beats of native drums movie after movie?
Which other film industry imports actresses who happen to have a hint of an ‘Indian’ ancestry to assume leading roles on big budget movie-sets, their voices dubbed given their non-native accents? This madness is a debilitating form of neurosis. It has poisoned an entire nation with the ridiculous expectation that to ‘get ahead in life’ one must fight the forces of nature and pander to the egos of privileged idiots. In cyclical motion, it disempowers and condemns itself all the while it tries to understand the pervasive impact of colonialism. Where is the home-grown Indian voices in the ensuing critiques that will project India on its own terms? There are many for sure, but they are deafened by the louder cacophony that passes as Indian entertainment, fashion and social-class conventions. But why stop with the impressionable populations of the Middle East and South Asia?
Western Europe and North America are not aloof from the dynamics discussed above. The West has its share of problems. Emaciated ‘beauties’ of the Catwalk strut their feminine charms, incidental to the skimpy clothes they promote with their persons. Being skeletal is not a feature of the European ‘race’, if we are permitted to engage in race myths of our own; to starve oneself in order to look ‘beautiful’ is not an instinct borne of the evolutionary process. Why else would “beautiful” women, on account of being skinny – that’s the definition the Media worships, starve themselves to ensure the garments they wear carry the full attention of the day. And yet this commodification is presented as ‘high-brow’ fashion.
Western Europe’s craze for tanning shops and spray tans and the rise in skin cancers reveal something rotten about the human condition. Bigger breasts, plastic surgery, the need for fuller lips, liposuction, are the hallmarks of people unhappy with nature’s providence.
Westerners have become captive to their own ludicrous ideas, racial myths and inflated egos that somehow locate ‘whiteness’ at the top of an imagined civilisational scale, whilst their children become fodder for the commercial interests. They ignore decades of scholarship which reveals how entire communities of poor ‘whites’ from England were shipped off to the new colonies; the idea of “white trash” has its origin in the dehumanising sensibilities of the rich. London, it was argued, would be more pleasant for the chattering classes once expunged of the vagabonds.
In the New World, the ambiguous ‘whiteness’ of the Irish, the Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans and others was initially rejected. Eventually, it wasn’t the race scientists who determined whiteness, but the federal courts. Such are the mechanics of race, group fictions and power.
Challenging Unjust Power Dynamics; Campaigning for Equality and Rights
There are powerful lobbies and intellectual movements that understand this history. We have civil rights activists, feminists, academics and others challenging bigotry, racism and discrimination. They are not afraid to offend people by speaking truth to power.
American HipHop is a good example to cite. Its artists have followers in the hundreds of millions across the world. The propensity of youngsters in Poland to let their trousers drop off their backsides is no longer a badge of prison credentials of American gangs. In the realm of social acceptability, the practise has taken on a different meaning.
But the keenness to call women ‘bitches’ and sing the praises of ‘gangsta’ culture is utterly degrading to women and law abiding citizens. The Artists may argue HipHop is an art form, and they are merely using poetic license to express deeper truths in deprived ghettos, but they have vocal critics drawn from the African-American community. HipHop worships hyper-masculinity, which has become its USP. It attracts naive adolescents to feverishly download the latest tracks, who associate the genre with ideas of being cool and attractive. It smacks of a contradiction that cherishes music as an art form, whilst its explicit ‘X’-rated lyrics are anything but civilisational. It helps confirm latent prejudice that African Americans belong to a lower strata of human consciousness. I have in mind the image of “pimping bitches”, “being gangsta”, “buying a hundred thousand dollar shoes”, “selling drugs” because it’s easy money and dangerous. This group fiction is just as dangerous as the fictions of Identity Politics.
Howsoever we understand or debate the various claims about the disparaging content of Hip-Hop, the point I’m making is that there is an abundance of critics bemoaning this art-form as a vehicle that glorifies violence. Reasoned voices are made irrelevant by the cumulative weight of what passes as American entertainment, fashion, sponsorships, and crucially, commercial profits.
But, what is the equivalent voice in Pakistan?
With a handful of a few impassioned critics, there aren’t many given the nation’s deep love for conspiracy theories and the Military’s complete takeover of society. Instead, we have religious movements that want to challenge the impiety of the nation by making Pakistanis less Indian. To do this they venture into the murky world of Identity Politics, creating a totally fictitious past.
They find the West repugnant. They despise Pakistan’s self-immolating liberals in the quest to expunge base abnormalities of colonialism, and so, they end up emulating the most conservative elements in the Middle East. Why shouldn’t Pakistanis take the road that leads to this virtue, increasingly paved in Saudi gold?
The ‘Two Nations’ Theory’ may have been the ideological ploy of politicians seeking to mobilise their Muslim masses against the perceived dangers of a dominant Hindu order, but today it is hobbling Pakistanis to even more dangerous interests. To deny one’s Hindu or Buddhist heritage because of misplaced religiosity is to deny one’s past and to give the lie to the claim that India’s heritage can only be understood exclusively in atavistic terms. This is akin to Hindu Nationalists clamouring against the banality and death-cult of extremist Muslims, whilst speaking poetically in the Persian-influenced Hindi on their way to visit the Taj Mahal.
The Muslim Ummah Syndrome is thus much more than a couple of Pakistanis wearing ‘Thawbs’, ankle-length robes and ‘Ghutras’, head coverings in the typical Saudi style, calling each other respectfully – or at least those with children – “Abu” so and so. The trend in Pakistan to use number plates adorning the inadequate Arabic pronunciation of ‘Pakistan’ – ‘al-Bakistan’ is a metaphor not least because there is no letter “p” in the Arabic language.
Outrage at the treatment afforded to Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia is nonsensical when we fail to grasp Pakistan’s inability to stand on its own two feet. Its structural inequalities mirror poetically the structural inequalities of Saudi Arabia. It exposes the hubris of Pakistanis that they’ve redeemed themselves by discovering authentic Islam whilst being outraged by the iniquities that come by way of an imagined identity and illusory fraternity.
Benign human acts follow on from human values that seek to treat people equitably and fairly. They are not beholden to myths around Identity Politics. If our values are stuck in a timeless rut, where acting humanely is merely a tribal deed, and not a commitment to human rights and individual liberties, then we shouldn’t get upset when we’re treated inhumanely by people we admire. A fair, caring and equal society demands a lot more than just a few courteous words expressed in the typical Muslim salutary greetings of “al-salamu alaikum” (“peace be upon you”).
If the Saudi Princes prohibit their less-equal nationals from marrying the less-equal nationals of Pakistan, we mustn’t forget that the Saudi Monarchy never promised expatriate Pakistanis equal treatment. If Pakistanis still feel a little dejected, a little humiliated, heart-broken, they should turn to the West and learn how Classical Liberals put the concerns of ordinary human beings at the centre of a minimalist governance system that can only exist for the welfare of human beings. Oppressive and tyrannical regimes have no right to exist, because they only exist for the upkeep of their elites. At the core of this belief system is a commitment to individualism, liberty and equal rights, affording everyone dignity and respect on account of our shared humanity. Only then do collectives that emanate out of these principles, wedded to socially constructed group identities of language, culture or religion make sense. The idea of the Ummah falls terribly short of this expectation and history bears out the cruelty shown by Muslims to other Muslims. In our contemporary setting of the Muslim World, Pakistanis need to apply for visas to visit any number of Muslim Countries, whilst Westerners can jump on a plane and get their tourist visas on entry. The idea of the Ummah is thus a scam, it offers Pakistanis nothing but an illusory sense of fraternity and solidarity.