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Reviewed by:
  • Making Sense of Pakistan
  • Shabana Fayyaz (bio)
Making Sense of Pakistan, by Farzana Shaikh. 288 pages. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. $24.95.

Farzana Shaikh's penetrating analysis of Pakistan's continued search for national identity in religious terms is a timely study. It is an essential wakeup call to policymakers and intellectuals to remove the haze that envelops the national and international discourse on the future direction of the country. Dr. Shaikh explores the history of the creation of Pakistan to examine why and how Islam was used as a medium of mobilization and unification to achieve a nation-state for the Muslims of the Subcontinent.

However, after the establishment of Pakistan, Islam became a scorecard for the political, institutional, and religious contenders for power. Islam was used to achieve, remove, sustain, and legalize regimes and governments of civilian and military actors. This resulted in the growth of sectarianism, nepotism, and "shariatization," as well as lopsided economic, social, and cultural development. Instead of being a force for "unification," Islam was misused to divide and discriminate against other religious groups in society.

Shaikh contends that, "it is the country's problematic and contested relationship with Islam that has most decisively frustrated its quest for a coherent national identity and for stability as a nation state capable of absorbing the challenges of its rich and diverse society" (p. 209). She believes that the way forward is to reclaim Islam in its true meanings based on "reconciliation of Islam's Universalist message with respect for the rich diversity of its peoples" (p. 212).

The author discusses in depth how the past military regimes, particularly that of General Zia ul-Haq, used Islam to prolong their rule and fused the security and the strategic outlook of the state in religious terms. The negative costs of such short-sighted policies are obvious today with the privatization of "foreign and domestic policy." However, she attributes the ongoing India-Pakistan arms race solely to Pakistan's "identity crises" versus India. Similarly, Shaikh oversimplifies the complex on the ground realities by explaining Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan primarily as the desire to "dominate against Indian influence." This part of the argument could have been enriched by a discussion of the genuine fears or insecurity felt by a state (Pakistan) towards its more powerful, dominant neighbor (India).

The study also identifies several positive trends in Pakistan, such as its vibrant and vocal private media, revitalized legal community, human rights activists, and civil society networks. These seeds of change give readers a much needed dose of optimism about Pakistan's future.

In sum, readers interested in Pakistan —a state currently in transition —will find this book to be thought-provoking. And those interested in helping shape the country's future will come away understanding why now is the time to move on with clarity and resolve to reclaim Pakistan as an Islamic state that respects unity in diversity both in words and deeds.

Shabana Fayyaz

Shabana Fayyaz, Assistant Professor, Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad



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