Hailing the ‘Muslim Citizen’: State Nationalism and the Social Construction of the “Heretic” in Pakistan

Posted on October 17, 2010 by


Sadia Saeed

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York, New York City, Aug 11, 2007


In this paper, I revisit the debate on the relationship between nationalism and state-formation through a focus on the Pakistani state’s historically varying relationship with its Islamic politico-religious identity. Specifically, I look at Pakistani state discourses and practices towards the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, a minority sect of Islam with roughly four million adherents in Pakistan that was declared a ‘non-Muslim minority’ by the Pakistani state in 1974, despite the insistence of the Ahmadiyyas that they were Muslim, and therefore not a minority. Through an empirical focus on this community, I argue that monolithic notions of “secularization”, “Islam”, “religious nationalism” etc. are insufficient for considering the relationship between genealogies of nationalisms, state formation, and the marginalization of minorities in contemporary post-colonial Muslim states. I argue that modern nation-states in general, and post-colonial states in particular, not only constitute themselves but defend the very foundation of their sovereignty, authority, legitimacy, and identity by representing, both institutionally and discursively, political and moral communities of the nation. It is through this struggle that national minorities are constructed, often characterized as belonging outside the moral community of the nation.


The relationship between state formation and nation building has been addressed from multiple perspectives in the social sciences. In the literature on the nation and nationalism, however, the relationship between state formation and nation building is often ignored, with the implicit assumption made that processes of nation building occur independently of the construction of state institutions. Many works have shown the pitfalls of this neglect by demonstrating that the articulation of an official nationalist ideology, and the processes which take place in the national community as a result of this official nationalism, are both aided by, and in turn aid, the formation of state institutions and practices of social closure (Brubaker 1992; Balibar 2004; Omi and Winant 1994). More empirical research must be done to clarify the theoretical relationship between nationalism and state formation. The modern religious state off Pakistan is a particularly illuminating case for investigating this relationship because of its historical complexity. The interaction between religion, nationalism, and the state, despite the myth of an eternally Islamic Pakistan, is far less transparent and monolithic than is assumed in popular and even academic discourses. In this paper, I revisit the debate on the relationship between nationalism and state-formation from an empirical focus on the Pakistani state’s historically varying relationship with its Islamic politico-religious identity, as I will demonstrate using the example of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan. A minority sect of Islam with roughly four million adherents in Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya community was declared a ‘non-Muslim minority’ by the Pakistani state in 1974, despite the insistence of the Ahmadiyyas that they were Muslim, and therefore not a minority. The specific question guiding my paper is: why did the Pakistani state shift from self- identifying as a liberal-constitutional state, committed to including all sects of Islam within the boundaries of the imagined community of the nation, to an Islamic state that forcibly evicted the Ahmadiyya sect from the community of Islam, and hence from the Pakistani nation? I suggest that the genealogy of nationalism in Pakistan is key for understanding the politics of exclusion of religious minorities. In this paper, I show how the shifting bases of Pakistani nationalism from 1947 to 1988 led to changes in the constitution and formation of the Pakistani state, which in turn caused, at least in the instance of the religious community of Ahmadiyyas, the social construction of an entirely new minority by the state.


State Theory and the Formation of National identities

The emergence and rise of nationalism as an ideology is often theoretically linked to general trends in society, such as secularization and the development of communication technologies, which open up the possibility for imagining a national community (Kohn 1967; Kedourie 1960; Gellner 1983; Hobsbawm 1983, 1992; Anderson 1991). Other theories of nationalism tend to treat the nation as a primordial entity, seeing it either as an expression of pre-modern identities; a functional substitute for religion in modernity; and/or consolidating the group and its identity above and beyond individual needs (Smith 1986; Tamir 1993; Taylor 1997; Miller 1995). In all these theories, the existence of the state is implicitly taken for granted and is the necessary condition for the emergence of nationalisms. This lack of theorization on the relationship between national-cultural formations and state-building, however, is suspect, and is also present in theories of state formation, which have similarly made a separation between the political and the social (Tilly 1985; Skocpol 1979; Mann 1986).

I object to such a theorization on two grounds. First, it occludes the ways in which processes of state-formation occur through appropriations of cultural idioms (Anderson 1991; Appadurai 1981; Brubaker 1992); and second, it ignores that the state itself is a social construction and a cultural formation (Hansen and Stepputat 2005; Steinmetz 1999). The very elusiveness of the idea of the state, and the difficulty of identifying it with anyone or anything in particular (Runciman 2003), sets the ground from which the state seeks to constitutes itself as a sovereign entity through symbolic and discursive representations that function to define and stabilize the very meaning of sovereign power and authority, though these meanings vary historically (Weber 1995). Thus, I propose that we study the state both as a system – “a palpable nexus of practice and institutional structure”, and as an idea – a historically constructed and contested “exercise in legitimation, in moral regulation” (Abrams 1988: 82, 81; Mitchell 1999).

My thesis is that modern nation-states in general, and post-colonial states in particular, constitute themselves and defend the very foundation of their sovereignty, authority, legitimacy, and identity by representing, both institutionally and discursively, political and moral communities of the nation. It is through this struggle that national minorities are constructed, often characterized as belonging outside the moral community of the nation. Theories that either tend to primordialize the nation, or view the emergence of nationalisms and their attendant exclusions independently of processes of state formation, elide the way mechanisms of state building, nation formation, and construction of national “Others” are conjoined, and how interactions among them give historically varying responses to the very basis of ‘national identity’.

Recently, a growing body of literature has convincingly revealed how identities, attachments, and minorities are culturally and politically created, changing in time and place (e.g. Chatterjee 1993; Alonso 1994; Burguiere and Grew 2001; Kemper 1991; Van der Veer 1994). However, in contrast to Western European countries where understandings of citizenship and nationhood and processes of state-building have developed organically and culturally over the course of centuries (Brubaker 1992; Corrigan and Sayer 1985), similar processes in postcolonial countries have spanned much shorter time periods and have entailed, on the one hand, construction of new “citizens” that were formerly relegated to the status of “subjects” under colonial rule (Mamdani 1996), and on the other, continuation of colonial idioms of rule, often premised on the routinization of violence (Chatterjee 2005; Pandey 2006). These states have, in other words, actively undertaken the task of the construction of the ‘nation form’. Categories and distinction of caste, religion, and ethnicities that were constructed under colonial rule survived into the post-colonial period that had now to be re-negotiated afresh. I contend that it is in this re-negotiation of the boundaries of the nation, through official nationalist discourses, that new social imaginaries of the nation were constructed, which in turn shaped state practices and institutions of social closure through which the cultural inscription of the very idea of a sovereign state was secured.

By engaging with the above literature, the present paper attempts to make two contributions: first, to general theories of the role of nationalism in the construction of states, by pointing out not only the socio-political constructedness and historical contingency of national identity, but also of the historically varying political-institutional embodiments of this identity; and second, to the historical understanding of the association between national identity, state formation, and construction of minorities by conjoining a theoretical framework with a detailed empirical study of the Pakistani case.

II. Pakistan as the Case Study

In this section, I engage with how the above literatures on states, nationalism, and post-colonial theory can be used to bring into sharper focus a specific problematic relating to the formation of the Pakistani state, its historically varying relationship with its politico-religious identity, and the construction of ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’. I attempt to outline some preliminary questions that are suggested by the above, along with themes that emerge from a specific focus on Pakistan. In the first part of this section, I argue that monolithic notions of “secularization”, “Islam”, “religious nationalism” etc. are insufficient for considering the relationship between genealogies of nationalisms, state formation, and the marginalization of minorities in contemporary post-colonial Muslim states. In the second part, I argue that modern nation-states in general, and post-colonial states in particular, not only constitute themselves but defend the very foundation of their sovereignty, authority, legitimacy, and identity by representing, both institutionally and discursively, political and moral communities of the nation. It is through this struggle that national minorities are constructed, often characterized as belonging outside the moral community of the nation. I highlight not only how the political definitions of “Muslim citizenship”, “heretic” etc. have shifted through the course of Pakistani nationalism, but also suggest the institutional mechanisms and practices through which these definitions have been enacted. Lastly, I suggest some of the ways in which these shifts in Pakistani nationalism and state formation can be approached empirically.


Islam, Modernity, and the State

A number of issues are immediately posed in the framing of the above questions. The first relates to the issue of the ‘proper’ analytical approach towards ‘Islam’ in studying politics in Muslim societies. Let me consider the issue of secularization in this regard. Simply put, the issue is as follows: is the denial of basic citizenship rights to Ahmadiyya community, and their expulsion from the symbolic nation of Pakistan attributable to a lack of “secularization” within Muslim societies, as has been suggested by mainstream Western historians of Islamic societies? More broadly, is “secularization” a useful analytical tool for the study of resurgent religious nationalisms around the globe, or should it be discarded as an ideology, as a discourse implicated in the workings of the Empire?

Standard accounts of the relationship between religion and politics, popularized by modernization theory in the 1970s, have increasingly come under criticism, as has the related concept of ‘secularization’. Modernization theory argued that one of the key distinguishing features between “traditional” societies and “modern” societies was that the former relied heavily on traditional and religious norms, values, and authority to organize their public and private lives, whereas modern societies were characterized by a shift towards “secularization” – i.e. the shift away from religion in public institutional life and in private subjectivities alongside the secularization of religion itself (Berger 1967a; Berger 1967b). In his critique of this position, Robert Wuthnow argues that in the face of the changing relationship between religion and politics in many parts of the world in recent decades, not only modernization theory but also other macro- theories of social change such as world-systems theory and critical theory are inadequate for studying this relationship (Wuthnow 1991). While world-systems theory rightly critiques the isolated-society model of modernization theory, Wuthnow argues, it nonetheless remains too deterministic and mechanical to account for the historically shifting meaning-making work that contemporary religions are being put to (8). Similarly, critics like Jurgen Habermas, while being sympathetic to the short-term goals of religious movements in the West, which are analyzed as protests against the bureaucratization and monetization of the lifeworld, nonetheless advocate a secular, communicative ethic for the organization of political and ethical life in the long run (10). Wuthnow argues that this perspective too is inadequate for understanding the changing world-wide role of religion, for, firstly, it is too narrowly focused on short-lived protest movements in Western societies; secondly, its normative claims are problematic in that “they deny the power of myth and symbolism, neglect the human need for meaning and construe the intricacies of language”; and lastly, the advocacy of a communicative ethic in the public sphere is bourgeoisie-elitist and does not capture the essence of public life in most of the world (10). In similar vein, Rodney Stark argues that secularization thesis has never been consistent with empirical reality and its five most prominent ‘prophecies’ – the increase in secularization with increasing modernization; decline in individual religiosity; continuing animosity between science and religion; the irreversibility of secularization; and the global spread of secularization – have all failed to materialize (Stark 1999). If Wuthnow, Stark, and other critics of secularization thesis are correct, and I believe they are, it begs the question why terms like “secular”, “secularization”, “secularism” etc. have such hold in both academic and public discourse. Jeffrey K. Hadden, a prominent critic of secularization argues, secularization theory is more a doctrine than a theory and that it represents “a taken-for-granted ideology rather than a systematic set of interrelated propositions” (Hadden 1987: 588). Hadden relates the ‘sacrilization’ of secularization thesis to the cultural and social context within which sociological theory itself emerged under the influence of evolutionary theorists like Herbert Spencer.

Another response to the secularization thesis has been provided by Talal Asad in his genealogical study of the concept of “secular” and the project of “secularism” (Asad 2003). Regarding the former, Asad contends that “secular” emerged as an epistemic concept in the West “that brings together certain behaviors, knowledges and sensibilities in modern life” (4). In turn, Asad regards “secularism” as a project involving a particular vision of the abstract individual that leads to a separation between public and private spheres in democratic states, thereby privileging a particular form of public participation on politics. The project of secularism is thus intimately tied to the very project of modernity:

Assumptions about the integrated character of ‘modernity’ are themselves part of practical and political reality. They direct the way in which people committed to it act in critical situations…. Modernity is a project–or rather, a series of interlinked projects–that certain people in power seek to achieve. The project aims at institutionalizing a number of (sometimes conflicting, often evolving) principles: constitutionalism, moral autonomy, democracy, human rights, civil equality, industry, consumerism, freedom of the market–and secularism.” (p. 13)

Asad regards this homogenizing project of modernity as inherently undemocratic and critiques the Habermasian public sphere that it privileges as a space of social exclusions, especially with regard to Muslim minorities in the West. Asad also focuses on similar processes in Muslim societies where this imported project of modernity, especially through the experience of colonialism, has posed especially vexing problems. In the chapter titled “Reconfigurations of Law and Ethics in Colonial Egypt”, Asad argues that the separation of politics and religion demanded by colonial and post-colonial governments “presupposes a very different conception of ethics from the one embedded in the classical shari’a” (209). Asad acknowledges that the shari’a courts were only one of the many systems of law and administration in colonial Egypt and other Muslim societies, and in many cases, one located at the margins of social practices. However, what Asad is calling for is not a re-initiation of some seemingly historical conjoinment of the public and the private but for a “decentered pluralism” characterized by a “continuous readiness to deconstruct historical narratives”, which thereby opens up space for a multiplicity of overlapping, as opposed to discrete and exclusionary, social identities (177-8).

Despite the above interventions in the study of religions, scholarship on Muslim societies and politics persists in drawing from Orientalist conceptions of Islam, thus rendering Muslim societies and Islamic thought as ahistorical and anti-modern. The issue of the relationship between secularization (and modernity in general) and Muslim (to be distinguished from “Islamic”) societies has a special significance given the historical moment we are living in. Mahmood Mamdani in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (2004) examines the premises of popular Western discourse regarding “good” and “bad” Muslims, where “good” Muslims (and by extension, societies) support the ‘modern’, the secular, and Western civilizing missions, and “bad” Muslims support terrorism etc. In academic discourses, less extreme versions of this discourse have taken hold through discussions about the compatibility between Islam and democracy, modernity, human rights, secularism etc (Langman & Morris 2002; Lewis 1991, 1998; Juergensmeyer 1993 ). What such scholarship ends up doing is regarding “Islam” as a monolithic religion supporting an ahistorical system of thought that is perceived to be easily locatable through a highly limited nexus of “Islamic” discourses and practices. In radical contrast to this position, Abdullahi An’ Na’im has forcefully argued that even the most seemingly entrenched and doctrinal Islamic laws in fact are socially constructed and emerge from historical contexts of power relationships and social structures of authority and domination. Thus, for example, the dichotomy between ‘pure’ religious and secular discourses is misleading since so-called secular discourses may be intimately informed by religious motivations while religious texts always go through interpretation and human agency. Commenting specifically on the popular discourse about the incompatibility between women’s rights and Islam, An-Na’im argues that “since shari’a [Islamic law] is merely a historically conditioned understanding of Islam, alternative interpretations in the modern context which are conducive to the human rights of women are possible, indeed imperative…” (An-Na’im 1995: 57). Sami Zubaida has demonstrated that the notion of an unchanging and omnipresent shari’a, passed on for centuries, is a myth held by both radical Islamists and Western critics (Zubaida 2004). Furthermore, Zubaida shows that there has been an active distrust, and resistance, towards the idea of the collapse between religious and political authority in most Muslim societies – not because of a commitment to the project of secularism that Asad discusses but because such a fusion is perceived as threatening to the rights and well-being of ordinary citizens.

The above interventions suggest that monolithic notions of “secularization”, “Islam”, etc. are insufficient for considering the relationship between genealogies of religious nationalisms, state formation, and minority rights in contemporary post-colonial Muslim states. A more profitable direction is to move the question of nationalist-religious exclusions in Muslim societies away from a focus on an essentialized conception of ‘Islam’ or modern Muslim societies towards the nature of political modernity as such. I believe that it is in the consideration of concepts of state, sovereignty, modernity, and nationalism that we will find clues to the problematic of the shifting role of “Islam” in formations and constitution of “Muslim politics”. Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori employ the notion of “Muslim politics” to refer to “the competition and contest over both the interpretation of [religious] symbols and control of the institutions, formal and informal, that produce and sustain them” (Eickelman and Piscatori 1996: 5). However, the term “Muslim politics” does not capture the full spectrum of political practices and institutions at play in the formations of nationalisms in the formation of nation-states in post-colonial Muslim societies. I turn to the case of the social construction of Ahmadiyyas as Muslim heretics by Pakistani state to explicate this point.

Pakistani State, Nationalism, and the Social Construction of a Religious Minority

The Pakistani case provides an interesting instance of locating processes of state formation that have developed in conjunction with the construction of a national identity. Both Pakistan and India emerged as independent states in 1947 following the breakdown of British colonial empire in South Asia. The processes leading up to the partition of India in 1947 had not only accepted religion as the primary social marker of identity (Hinduism for India and Islam for Pakistan), but also as the basis upon which statecraft operated (Riaz 2002: 53). However, the political leaders who founded the state of Pakistan turned away from the proposition of an Islamic nation-state and instead adopted a conception of a secular, multi-religious Pakistan (Ahmed 1997). The subsequent history of Pakistan reveals a fundamental tension between the ideals of a liberal-democratic society and an Islamic moral community that lies at the very heart of the idea of Pakistan itself (Cohen 2004). Stephen Cohen observes that “the most important conflict in Pakistan is not a civilizational clash between Muslims and non-Muslims but a clash between different concepts of Islam, particularly how the Pakistani state should implement its Islamic identity” (Cohen 2002: 113). Nowhere is this more visible than the Pakistani state’s relationship with the Ahmadiyya community, a minority sect of Islam constituting around 4% of the population. While the Ahmadiyya community has always considered itself as belonging to the Muslim ummah (or “Community of Muslims), it has been deemed heretical to Islam by the Sunni Muslim majority since the formation of the Ahmadiyya sect in late nineteenth century in the state of Punjab in colonial India . The fundamental doctrinal difference between Ahmadis and Sunni Muslims, on the basis of which Ahmadiyyas are deemed heretical, concerns the second coming of Jesus that was foretold by the Prophet Muhammad himself. The Ahmadiyyas, although differing amongst themselves on the exact nature of his prophethood, consider the founder of their sect, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), to be the Promised Messiah, while the majority of Sunni Muslims consider him an apostate (Friedman 1989).

The case of Ahmadiyya exclusion indicates a number of paradoxes. First, it remains far from clear why the Pakistani state felt itself fundamentally threatened by a group of Muslims that constitute such a small number in Pakistani population. In the absence of formal statistics on the social make-up of Ahmadiyya community, my informal interviews conducted with Ahmadiyya community leaders suggests a diversity of socio-economic backgrounds which do not differ markedly from the social make-up of the Pakistani society at large (Alavi 1983), thereby ruling out class-based and materialist explanations for their marginalization. Second, the timing of anti-Ahmadiyya legislation (1974), and the larger context of the state adopting a new Constitution in 1973 that declared Pakistan an “Islamic State” for the first time in its history, itself presents a paradox, given that these changes were made by the first democratically elected and secular-socialist regime of Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto (1971-77). Additionally, during the course of the 1970s, Bhutto increasingly came to characterize his regime as an “Islamic socialist” one, and legislated a number of policies that introduced Islamic measures in Pakistani state and society, such as banning alcohol, and switching the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, considered a holy day in Islam. However, no substantive Islamization reform program was implemented by this regime, a task later undertaken by the regime of military General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88).

Many studies have documented a global turn towards an increased importance of religious identities (e.g. Casanova 1994), especially with regard to ‘political Islam’ (Roy 2004). Similarly, many studies have observed that the shift from liberal-secular states to religiously- or ethnically-defined states characterizes state formation in many post-colonial countries. Nilufer Gole identifies two different phases of the rise of ‘Islamism’ in Muslim societies . Gole defines the first phase as starting at the end of the 1970s and culminating with the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979, and “is characterized by mass mobilizations, Islamic militancy, a quest for an Islamic collective identity, and the implementation of a political and religious rule” (Gole 2002: 174). The second phase is characterized by a decline in revolutionary fervor, and a shift from “a radical political stance to a more social and cultural orientation” that is nonetheless political and decisive for the formation of subjects, organization of public life, and the constitution of social imaginaries. This periodization of the rise of “Islamism” is broadly consistent with socio-political history of Pakistani society, especially when viewed through the issue of the exclusion of Ahmadiyya community.

On 21 January 1953, an ultimatum was delivered to the Prime Minister of Pakistan by a delegation of ulama (religious leaders) to the effect that if the state did not declare the Ahmadiyya community, a minority sect of Islam with roughly four million adherents in Pakistan, non-Muslim and remove all Ahmadis from key posts in the state, their parent organization, Majlis-i-Amal, would resort to direct action against the government. A little over a month later, the government rejected the ultimatum and authorized the arrest of prominent members of Majlis-i-Amal. In the wake of widespread anti- Ahmadiyya agitation in the province of Punjab that ensued , the committee set up by the state to inquire into the disturbances noted in its final report the importance of the question of Muslim identity for the newly formed Pakistani state but concluded that question of who was and wasn’t a Muslim was almost impossible to decide, further noting that the ulama themselves “hopelessly disagreed among themselves” on this ‘fundamental’ question (Lahore High Court 1954: 205). The report forcefully upheld the importance of individual conscience in religious matters along with that of full citizenship rights, including the right to religious expression, and declared that the riots had been instigated by radical Islamic groups in conjunction with the ruling party in Punjab to deliberately cause disturbances. This incidence clearly reveals that the self-representation of the state, and the twin questions of the basis of Pakistani nationalism and the boundaries of the citizen-national-Muslim nexus were premised on a secular-liberal order that nevertheless privileged a narrative of a strong state capable of maintaining law and order at all costs over that of democratic citizenship. In sum, the history of the Ahmadiyya question in national debates reveals that from the inception of Pakistan, in 1947, until 1973, when Pakistan’s constitution was re-drafted for the second time, the state had actively resisted demands by the right-wing religious parties to declare the Ahmadiyya community non-Muslim (Kaushik 1996). When Muhammad Ali Jinnah, considered the founder of Pakistan who later became the first Governor-General of Pakistan, was asked to comment on the religious status of the Ahmadiyya community by a journalist during a press conference in 1944, Mr. Jinnah observed, “Who am I to declare a person non-Muslim who calls himself a Muslim?” 1 I call this phase the moment of accommodation with regard to the relation between the state and the Ahmadiyya community.

When the ‘Ahmadi controversy’ emerged on the national scene again in 1974 following a violent clash between Ahmadiyya and non-Ahmadiyya students on a university campus that led to unprecedented violence against Ahmadiyya community throughout the country, the political climate had changed radically, with one half of the country now lost in the wake of an international war, and the first democratically elected regime of Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto firmly in place. During the re-writing of the constitution of Pakistan in 1973, Bhutto had resisted all demands by religious groups to declare Ahmadiyyas a non-Muslim minority (Kaushik 1996: 42-3). In response to the riots, Bhutto decided to

(1 Quoted in Rashid Tasir, Ta rik-i urriyat-i Kashmir. Vol. 2. Srinagar: Muhafiz Publications, 1973, p. 291 (translation mine). Revisionist historiography on Jinnah is increasingly beginning to challenge the Pakistani state’s narrative of Jinnah as committed to an independent state of Pakistan. For example, Ayesha Jalal (1985) argues that Jinnah never abandoned the image of India as a homeland for both Hindus and Muslims until 1946. Other scholars have showed that the vision of the Pakistani state that Jinnah envisioned was premised on a secular constitutional-democratic order (Ahmed 1997).)

place the issue before the National Assembly which, consisting almost entirely of secular parties, made constitutional amendments that legally defined a Muslim in Pakistani law, thereby explicitly rendering the Ahmadiyya community non-Muslim. The interpretation of the amended clause 260 (3) read as follows:

In the Constitution and all enactments and other legal instruments, unless there is anything repugnant in the subject or context (a) “Muslim” means a person who believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him), the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet, in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever, after Muhammad (peace be upon him); and (b) “non-Muslim” means a person who is not a Muslim and includes a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Parsi community, a person of the Quadiani Group or the Lahori Group who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name or a Bahai, and a person belonging to any of the Scheduled Castes. (Constitution of Pakistan 1974)

Dawn, the widest circulating English language newspaper in Pakistan, hailed the incidence of democratic triumph, observing that “The manner in which the decision was taken augers well for the growth of democracy in the country. Constitutionality is the breath of life in a democracy. The same decision coming as an official decree would not have meant the same thing” (Dawn Karachi, 10 September 1974). I term this stage in the state-Ahmadiyya relation as the moment of nationalist exclusion.

It was this moment of nationalist exclusion that set the grounds for a subsequent legislation that made it a criminal offence for Ahmadiyyas to refer to themselves as Muslims. In February 1984, a group of ulama, in a move almost identical to their counterparts in 1953, issued an ultimatum to the government of military General Zia-ul-Haq who had acceded to power through a military coup in 1977. Various religious groups nation-wide put forward their demands regarding the Ahmadiyya community, which included: the immediate removal of all Ahmadiyyas from key posts in the state; the arrest of the spiritual head of Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan; identification of Ahmadiyyas as ‘non-Muslims’ on identity cards and passports; and demolition of all places of Ahmadiyya worship (Kaushik 1996). In striking contrast to the official response in 1953 to a similar ultimatum, the government of General Zia-ul-Haq immediately promulgated an ordinance that prohibited Ahmadiyyas from ‘posing as Muslims’ by using Islamic symbols and nomenclature in describing their religion or places of worship, making it a crime punishable by death, imprisonment, and/or heavy fines (Pakistan penal Code 1984). I call this moment the moment of criminalization of the Ahmadiyya community.

The issue at hand is therefore the factors that account for what Gole has termed “the public visibility of Islam” at a particular historical moment. Gole argues that a focus on ideologies of Islamist parties or political formation such as the state is insufficient for accounting for “the public visibility of Islam” and the “new ways of imagining a collective self and common space that are distinct from the Western liberal self and progressive politics” (174). At the analytical level, therefore, Gule makes a distinction between “ideologies” (of particular social groups); political formations (e.g. the state); “Islamic makings of the self and the micropractices associated with it”; and the “public sphere”. Gule, however, goes on to privilege the ‘public place’, as the “field of cultural meanings and social practices” in which widely shared modern social imaginaries are articulated, shared, and negotiated. The organization of the “public space” in this theorization is, among other things, the site of performance of secularism, modernity, and religiosity.

Gule’s theorization of the visibility of Islam implicitly regards the state as a neutral, political actor that stands aside while actors in the public sphere enact social imaginaries through “gendered, corporeal, and spatial performances” (185). While such an approach is suitable for describing the ways that a collectivity imagines itself, it is inadequate for studying the mechanisms through which such imaginaries come to be, both at the subjective level and in regard to how they become politicized by the state. In the case of the expulsion of Ahmadiyya community by the Pakistani state, the public space of constitutional debates around the definition of a “Muslim” and “heretic”, and the role of the state and official Islam in defining the boundaries of “Muslim citizenship”, were crucial for not just displaying the already-existing imaginaries of the nation, but for enacting new imaginaries. Similarly, the use of law itself to legally enact sanctions against the Ahmadiyya community recall both Corrigan and Sayer’s observations regarding the state as an institution of moral regulation and cultural revolution, and Giorgio Agamben’s theses about the “exception” as always founded upon the exclusion of “bare life”, or simple biological life, the figure of which is historically varying (Agamben 1998). In the case of the Pakistani state, this figure came to be embodied by Islamic heretic who quite literally had to be disciplined into shedding Islamic symbols from their public religious practices. The expulsion of Ahmadiyyas from the community of Islam and Pakistani citizenship is manifestly about re-organizing public space, re-ordering the boundaries of the nation-state, and institutionalizing a vision of “Islam” that is far from being the dominant or hegemonic one in Pakistani society. Rather than assuming an unproblematic affiliation between an “Islamic” identity and the Pakistani nation-state, a focus on the Ahmadiyya community suggests the following questions: What is the relationship between structural and institutional transformations and the re-orientation of Pakistani national identity along religious lines? What is the relationship between the political system and the definition of national identity? Under what conditions does state formation lead to the symbolic and institutional construction of the ‘internal Others’ of the nation?

While much emphasis has been laid on aspects of Ahmadiyya religious thought in theory and practice (Spencer 1974; Friedmann 1989; Gualtieri 2004) and the documentation of marginalization of the community by the Pakistani state through both legal-constitutional and extra-legal means (Gualtieri 1989; Kaushik 1996; Khan 2003), there is no systematic study of the socio-political contexts that have given rise at different times to different responses by the state towards the religious and citizenship status of Ahmadiyya community. Scholarship on Pakistani state’s negotiations with its Islamic identity has tended to bypass the issue of the Ahmadiyya community altogether, implicitly regarding the latter’s marginalization as an inevitable outcome of a ‘failed’ state attempting to use Islam as a political tool for its own ends (Malik 1997, 1999; and Jalal 1990). Dismissing post-colonial states such as Pakistan’s as “failed”, “weak”, or “partial” occludes the particular modalities of rule in post-colonial states, and the ways in which the boundaries between the center and periphery, public and private, lawful and un-lawful, are drawn. A focus on the historical constitution of such boundaries, especially through a focus on the “margins” suggests, as Das and Poole observe, that “such margins are a necessary entailment of the state, much as the exception is a necessary component of the rule” (Das and Poole 2004: 4).

I argue that both the institutions and practices of citizenship and official nationalist discourses on the role of Islam in the self-definition of the state were historically articulated in conjunction with processes of state formation in Pakistan. Specifically, the threats that the state felt on its sovereign power led, in each moment, to the state adopting a different discourse on the moral community of Pakistan. Thus, the self-identification of the Pakistani state in the aftermath of independence from British colonial rule in 1947 was premised on a secular-liberal order that nevertheless privileged a narrative of a strong state capable of maintaining law and order at all costs (Jalal 1990; Ahmed 1997). Equally importantly, the geo-political context of Pakistan, with India lying between the two wings of East Pakistan (which would later become Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (now simply Pakistan), necessitated the forging of a Pakistani nationalism that stressed a narrative of ‘national unity’ over that of an ethnic or religious nationalism. At this moment, attempts by right-wing religious parties to exclude Ahmadiyyas from the Pakistani nation were perceived by the state as threats to its own capacity to maintain national unity.

The second moment – exclusion – occurred in the wake of Pakistan’s war with India in 1971 that resulted in the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh. Following this monumental event, and in the context of an increase in ethnic tensions and sectarian violence (Zaman 1998), questions about the very identity of the nation-state of Pakistan resurfaced, which resulted in the state identifying itself as an ‘Islamic state’ for the first time in its history, though maintaining a delicate balance with principles of a democratic-constitutional order (Burki 1998). Thus, I argue that the state legislation of 1974 that relegated the Ahmadiyya community to a ‘non-Muslim minority’ status emerged from the pressures that the state felt to re-define the basis of Pakistani nationalism. However, the specific signaling of the Ahmadiyya community was only possible because of an already present narrative in Pakistani society that deemed Ahmadiyya religious thought heretical and the community pro-Zionist and historically loyal to the British during colonial rule, a discourse that was now appropriated by the state (Gualtieri 2004).


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