Far too frequently, Pakistani commentators bemoan the fact that mainstream Arab commentators and even politicians in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine fail to recognise the relevance of Pakistan in spite of the fact that the world is in the early decades of the ‘Asian Century’. Some Pakistanis even feel “insulted” when they look to the most culturally cultivated parts of the Arab world in the hopes of connecting great civilisations of the Ummah (wider Islamic world) only find that their aspirations are met with either a closed door or worse from the Arab side.
First of all, in order for Pakistanis to view this issue rationally, Pakistanis must view the histories of south Asia and the Arab world in a realistic rather than a romanticised manner. The majority of modern Arab states received their independence around the same post-second world war period in which Pakistan received its independence.
The main difference is that whilst the word ‘Pakistan’ is a modern creation which reflects the ethno-geographic makeup of the country (in addition to meaning “land of the pure”) the newly independent Arab states of the mid-20th century used ancient names rather than contemporary ones. This makes it seem as though state entities like Syria and Lebanon are more ancient than Pakistan when in reality those Arab states merely used ancient names to try and create cultural continuity with a glorious Arab past that had long ceased to be by the 20th century. In any case, the names in question were given to the modern Arab states not by Arab leaders but by French and British administrators who ruled much of the Arab world following the demise of Ottoman Turkey. By contrast, the name Pakistan was invented by a genuine indigenous genius – Choudhry Rahmat Ali.
Pakistan clearly had its own purpose for using a concocted name upon achieving its independence. Pakistan required a name to reflect the fact that it was a state forged in a struggle for independence against both European rule and modern Hindutva supremacist ideology which resulted not only in the horrific Jammu massacres but also in the assassination of Gandhi who was deemed insufficiently Hindu by his Hindutva assassin. As such, Pakistan’s name reflects its geography and more importantly the name reflects Pakistan’s purpose. Circumstance mandated the creation of a new and unique name for Pakistan whilst the same did not apply to the post-Ottoman and moreover post-European ruled Arab states.
When one moves past names, it becomes obvious that the history of the civilisations within what is now Pakistan are just as rich and glorious as the ancient Arab civilisations. That being said, whilst the Mughal Empire remained a glorious civilisation into the late modern era (the 19th century to be precise), the benign Ottoman domination over the Arabs resulted in centuries of cultural inertia in the Arab world during times when Pakistan’s direct civilisational predecessor (the Mughal Empire) was filled with supreme vitality. Thus, Pakistani culture is not “newer” than Arab culture, it merely has assigned itself a newer name.
Moving beyond this, whilst Islam’s predominance as the religion of the majority in both Pakistan and the Arab world creates some natural cultural linkage between the two, other less easily defined cultural characteristics separate the two immeasurably.
Pakistan is ultimately an instinctively conservative Asian society whose population can and should relate most closely with Muslim cultures in Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of central Asia and parts of the wider Persianate world. Outside of the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Arab societies tend to be far less instinctively conservative than Pakistan.
Levantine culture due to its long tradition of religious pluralism and interaction with European cultures has developed a distinctly laissez-faire cultural characteristic. This explains why although Pakistan has traditionally been ruled by conservative leaders (whether nationalists, those religiously inclined or a combination of the two) the modern politics of the Levant has been dominated by those cultivating moderate leftist politics. Arab socialism is indeed a term that has become almost interchangeable with Arab nationalism. Leaders ranging from Nasser to Assad and Habash to Saddam all happily called themselves socialists.
In general, socialist politics tends to develop in societies that are either moderate in terms of relaxed social attitudes or in societies prepared to become more moderate in terms of relaxed social attitudes. It is therefore helpful to remember that the Arab socialist societies of the mid-20th century were fairly similar in their socially relaxed attitudes to those of secular western societies. The only difference is that whilst western societies have descended into ultra-liberalism in the 21st century, the normalisation of adultery, heterodox perversions and the sexualisation of children has mercifully been totally shunned by Levantine culture.
Thus, whilst Levantine cultures have been happy to act as part Islamic and part secular cultures in the same way that in the mid-20th century the west was partly secular and partly Christian, Pakistan has always naturally veered away from socialism and away from pronounced secularism. This is not to say that Pakistan is naturally theocratic. There is clearly no majority in Pakistan that would advocate for a Saudi style state or even a republican theocracy along the lines of revolutionary Iran. Pakistan is best described as a nationalist and conservative minded state guided by its traditional Islamic roots. The proof of this lies in the fact that when a Pakistani leader deviates from this natural inclination, the country itself becomes fragmented and fraught with strife.
When contrasted with the Arabs of the Levant, Pakistan has more in common with the kind of religiously inclined post-colonial nationalism that is instantly recognisable in south east Asia and in particular, Pakistan has much in common with the Islamic majority states of the Asia-Pacific region in terms of sharing a natural political comportment.
The next obvious question becomes: why do Pakistanis ignore these realities?
The first answer and the most obvious indeed lies in the name. When Pakistanis hear names like Lebanon, Syria and Palestine they somehow feel that these names have more continuity with an ancient Islamic heritage than their own. This is somewhat ironic as the names Lebanon, Syria and Palestine all predate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) whilst Pakistan’s capital is specially named for the Islamic faith.
Beyond this, whilst western nations tend to fetishise over the Arab world, they tend to more often than not ignore Pakistan. The reasons for this have everything to do with geo-strategy rather than culture.
Whilst Pakistan’s conflicts with its neighbours only aroused western attention in the 1980s during a shared war against Soviet Communism, since the 1940s, the western world has been caught between having to rely on Arab oil and a growing tendency to support Zionism. In the wider western world, traditional moderates would prefer to ignore the vexed Arab-Israeli conflict entirely and simply let the chips fall where they may. Such moderates sit quietly in-between two other sets of hopelessly Middle East obsessed westerners. First, there are the so-called Arabists. Western Arabists reached their zenith at the height of the Cold War when the socially moderate Arab world remained open both towards economic and security relations with the Soviet Union and with the NATO bloc. Opposing the Arabists is the pro-Zionist faction that naturally sees Israel as an extension of western elements that happens to be located in the heart of the Arab world. Since the end of the Cold War, Arabists have all but vanished as there is no longer a Soviet Union to repel from the geo-strategically located and vast Arab world.
This however is no reason for Pakistanis to feel inferior to the Arabs and consequently it is no reason for Pakistanis to feel dismayed when Levantine Arabs in particular have little understanding of Pakistan and even less of a desire to learn. As a naturally conservative Asian culture, Pakistan in many ways has more in common with even the non-Islamic countries of Asia than with the majority of Muslim Arabs.
Finally, whilst under Turkish rule, the traditional Arab system of law and education continued without molestation, Pakistan’s history of British rule has given Pakistan both a distinct advantage and a distinct disadvantage over the more self-contained education systems of the Arab world.
The command of the English language among educated Pakistanis is a clear advantage in the modern world. However, whilst the British education system of the 19th and early 20th centuries was quite conservative, today it has become a morass of liberal indoctrination that is completely divergent from the conservative characteristics of Pakistan.
As such, Pakistan ought to learn from Singapore which retained the rigour and crucially the English language excellence of its colonial era education system without seeking to “upgrade” its system to fit with modern trends in Britain that even conservative English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people find repellent.
Sadly, Pakistan’s enthralment with a liberal dominated western education system has led many Pakistanis to feel naturally inferior to Arabs who to their credit generally ignored foreign influences in respect of their education systems.
In conclusion, there are clear cultural and sociological reasons why Levantine Arabs and Pakistanis will never have anything in common beyond the Quran. The fact that the Levant is home to an indigenous Christian minority also separates the Levant from a Pakistan whose ultra-small Christian minority is made up of generations of converts.
As such, Pakistan should not try to forge ties with a place that is almost as remote from Pakistan’s culture as is that of Greece, Italy or even Finland. Instead, Pakistan should forge ties with the great states of Asia whilst retaining close cultural ties with the Turkic and Persinate societies of Pakistan’s wider global region.