Author profile: Farzana Shaikh discusses her latest book - Making Sense of Pakistan

Farzana Shaikh's identity leads to some distrust of her work on Pakistan. Unfazed, she tells Melanie Newman she expects more criticism for her exploration of the country's identity crisis

July 23, 2009


It is hard to believe that Farzana Shaikh was accused of overemphasising the importance of religion to Pakistan when her first book was published in 1989.

Her latest book, Making Sense of Pakistan, which concludes that the country's uncertain national identity and ambiguous relationship to Islam lie behind its social and political decline, is likely to prove equally controversial.

"I have no doubt in my mind that this will sharpen criticism against me in Pakistan," says Shaikh, an associate fellow at Chatham House, the foreign policy think-tank. "Many in Pakistan will read it as a book that questions the legitimacy of the state."

Her first book, Community and Consensus in Islam: Muslim Representation in Colonial India 1860-1947, highlighted the role of Islamic ideas in shaping political thinking before the partition of India. "It was clear that at the time I was running against the grain of much academic scholarship on partition," she says. The liberal view saw the creation of Pakistan as driven by the purely economic and political interests of an Indian Muslim bourgeoisie who were fearful of Hindu domination. Shaikh wrote Community and Consensus in an attempt to reconcile the tension between this view and that of "the vast majority" of Pakistanis, who saw the country as representing a "safe haven" for Islam as well as Muslims.

Liberal historians not only accused her of overemphasising Islam's influence but of insinuating that Islam was incompatible with liberal democratic principles. Not until the 9/11 attacks by Islamist terrorists did the debate on Islam's relationship to Muslim politics begin to open up properly. But analyses of Pakistan continued to blame the country's predicament on its underdeveloped political institutions or its long spells under military dictators. "Together they were blamed for the state's opportunistic use of Islam and for its chronic dependence on foreign powers," Shaikh says.

Making Sense of Pakistan claims that uncertainty about what Pakistan stands for has strengthened Islam's hold on the public sphere, "pre-empted a stable constitutional settlement, distorted economic policy and encouraged Pakistan to pursue dangerous foreign policies that seek to validate, by fair means or foul, the country's fragile claim to nationhood". Meanwhile the military, forced by an absence of cultural unity to appeal to "Islamic values" to bolster its legitimacy, has formed dangerous links with jihadis.

Of course, Pakistan is not the only country finding it difficult to to define itself: what it means to be British is a perennial subject for discussion, as is the UK's perceived lack of social cohesion in the absence of "Christian values".

However, Shaikh says: "Pakistan differs from other countries in that its ideological confusion has bred dangerous consequences that go well beyond the frontier of the state. Until the country clarifies its relationship with Islam, it cannot be expected to do more in the war on terrorism."

In Making Sense of Pakistan, Shaikh expresses a hope that her country will move away from militant Islam. "I have tried hard to be optimistic," she says. "But the emphasis has to be on the word 'hard'. At the moment, there are few grounds for optimism."

She finds heartening signs, however, in the development of a vibrant and independent media and a burgeoning number of campaigning groups. As the Lahore-based journalist Ayeda Naqvi wrote in Pakistan's Daily Times on 16 June, "there are many strange things happening in Pakistan these days". As an example, Naqvi cites a citizenship group that has recruited student volunteers from elite private schools to sweep Lahore's streets on the weekends. The hitch, Shaikh says, is that the political background to these changes is one that is still heavily dominated by the military.

"This political dispensation shows no sign of shifting, either to allow a reorientation in the country away from seeing itself as entirely surrounded by enemies - the chief one being India - or towards a broader appreciation of a plural society. It's still extremely narrow in its understanding of the meaning of Pakistan and the idea of Pakistani-ness."

There are suggestions of a shift in the national mood, with widespread support for the military's campaign against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. "But it's far from clear whether the military has changed its own mindset or whether this so-called shift will be squandered over time because the military is still behaving in the same way," Shaikh says. "Ultimately the battle of Pakistan can only really be won by ideas. We know very well what we stand against - India and extreme versions of Islam - but we are still far from knowing what we stand for."

Shaikh's own identity means her opinions are subject to intense scrutiny, she suggests. She was born and brought up in Pakistan; her father was a Bengali civil servant with an aversion to political debate and her mother a devout Muslim. She is married to a Frenchman, lives in Britain, has spent many years in the US and sees India as her "intellectual home". "I'm comfortable with my multiple identities, but it's perceived by others to be a much greater threat. Whatever I say, do or write is always subject to scrutiny by those who feel I've committed an act of treachery or blasphemy or betrayal. I'm not naturally a reckless person, but however carefully I choose my words they cannot be chosen carefully enough for some."

Some of her most vocal critics come from within the Pakistani community in Britain, who may feel betrayed by her assertion that there is no "wilful demonisation" of Muslims or Pakistanis in the UK. "Certainly no more than the kind of cruel demonisation of the West or America or Jews or Israel that takes place in Pakistan or any other Muslim country," she insists. But she acknowledges a communication problem between the white British majority and Pakistani groups.

"It is clear that they are talking at cross purposes. But it is far from clear whether the grievances expressed routinely by the diaspora stem from relative deprivation or from anger against Britain's involvement in a war that is perceived by Muslims to be against Muslims. If Britain were to disengage today from the US-led War on Terror, I'm not sure whether that would reduce the sense of grievance."

In April, 11 Pakistani men who were in Britain on student visas were arrested, along with another man, on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack. Gordon Brown announced a "successful" police operation and stated at the time that "we are dealing with a very big terrorist plot". Just days later, all the men were released without charge. They were immediately seized for immigration offences and now face deportation. A week before the arrests, the Prime Minister had told his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, that most of the terrorist attacks in Britain originate in Pakistan.

Shaikh says: "Those were ill-judged, poorly chosen words to use at a time when you'd expect the Prime Minister to be concerned not to escalate tension and (not) to add to the mood of anger."

Yet on 12 April, just after the arrests, Shaikh wrote in The Independent: "There is now an almost fateful inevitability that a major terrorist attack in the UK will carry a Pakistani imprint." Pointing out that Pakistan had "vigorously contested" the suggestion that the London suicide bombings of 2005 and other international attacks originated in Pakistan, she said, "last week's arrest in the north of England of 11 undisputed Pakistani nationals could be a turning point. Henceforth, it will be far more difficult for Pakistan to deny that homegrown Pakistanis do indeed choose to commit terrorist atrocities abroad ... Gordon Brown, who recently warned that three quarters of all terrorist attacks planned in Britain could be traced to Pakistan, has been vindicated."

In hindsight, she says, the men suffered a miscarriage of justice. But she remains unwilling to single them out as a special category of victim by reason of their nationality or faith. "There have been a large number of miscarriages of justice associated with the (UK Government and military's) actions in Northern Ireland - they deserve condemnation but they do happen. I'm reluctant to suggest that there was any deliberate attempt to tar this group of young men. I don't think there's a monumental conspiracy by the West, Britain or the US against Pakistan and Muslim states. It just doesn't tally with my world view."

Farzana Shaikh's Making Sense of Pakistan is published by Hurst.

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