ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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National Identity and Religious Difference in Pakistan

Desecularisation as an Instituted Process

Religious norms have significantly shaped the evolution of political and legal institutions across many Muslim societies. The public visibility of Islam has been analysed through multiple and overlapping lines of scholarly inquiry, which draw attention to the poverty of the "secularisation theory" - the thesis that modernisation leads to a decline of religion in individual minds and social institutions. The case of Pakistan, analysed in this article, is particularly suggestive for highlighting one historical modality of the relationship between religion and politics. Through focusing on concrete instances of exclusion of religious minorities across time, this article proposes the conceptual usefulness of desecularisation as a historically contingent, instituted process for analysing how distinct notions of politics, citizenship and national identity have become embedded in Pakistan. It argues that desecularisation has led to the slow exit of religious minorities from organised political life, an increase in the cultural power of religious parties in dictating the religious content of state policies, and the entrenchment of both politics of expediency and politics of fear in the way state authorities respond to physical and symbolic violence against religious minorities.

Religious norms have significantly shaped the evolution of political and legal institutions across many Muslim societies. The validation of Islam as the state religion in numerous constitutions (Arjomand 2007), the increasing electoral presence of Islamist parties in countries with diverse political trajectories (see Bayat 2007; Tugal 2009; and Zubaida 2005 for comparative discussions on Egypt, Iran and Turkey), and a host of other factors attest to the continued relevance of Islam for Muslim states and politics. This public visibility of Islam has been analysed through multiple, and often overlapping, lines of scholarly inquiry. A number of scholars have noted the “resurgence” of religion in general and Islam in particular in the past few decades (for example, Eickelman and Piscatori 1996; Gole 2002; Hurd 2007). Others have examined historical processes of religious reform dating back to the colonial era, and the subsequent transformations of religious life in the postcolonial period (Asad 2003; Zaman 2002). A third line of inquiry has focused on Islamic (and other) “fundamentalisms”, examining “reactionary” bursts of violence as a rejection of secular values (see Appleby 2011). Finally, a fourth line of inquiry is increasingly depicting how modern Muslims are dynamically engaged in articulating individual and social subjectivities (Khan 2012; Mahmood 2005).

All these interventions draw attention to the poverty of the “secularisation theory” – the thesis that modernisation leads to a decline of religion in individual minds and social institutions (see Gorski and Altinordu 2008 for a review of recent scholarship on secularisation theory and its critics). The historical experiences of Muslim societies depict a world characterised by the active presence of religion in shaping political and institutional realities, although with significant differences across time and place. The case of Pakistan, analysed in this article, is particularly suggestive for highlighting one historical modality of these relationships.

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