From Arabization to Turkification – The Identity Crisis of Pakistan

Turkish President Erdogan meets PM Imran, President Alvi upon ...
Image credit: Prime Minister’s office


by Fraz Ash’hab Syed 17 May 2020

Pakistan – the cradle of one of the most ancient Indus Civilization – has been suffering from the identity crisis since its independence in 1947. The conflict of identity crisis was evident since the beginning as the Western culture mostly influenced the political elite, while among the common masses, the Islamic roots were embedded. To bridge the gap, the common ground was found in the shape of the Arab. The emotional association of Pakistani public with the Arab land, especially Saudi Arabia, and the financial and political benefits of Pakistani political elite with the Arab Monarchs, helped both the state and the society to start a joint venture. However, today, the trend seems to be altering towards Turks as Arabs have begun to lose their charm.


Pakistani society remained an inclusive platform over which the traditions of Sufism flourished. The moderate nature of the organization began to fumble when the Arabization was introduced in the 1980s. The Arabization brought the segments of fundamentalism and “Salafism,” i.e., to return to the practices of forefathers. Hence, any new method was termed as blasphemous, which bred the sectarianism in the country. The formation of sectarian groups, target killings, and the rise of Islamist parties were the notable features of this process.


Arabization was the by-product of the funding for Afghan Jihad. As the religious factor motivated the masses to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, US arms and KSA funding helped establish the madrassahs and train the students. Resultantly, in the name of Islam, the foreign ideology was implanted in the minds of the masses, and Arabization became synonymous with Islamization. However, two factors supplemented the diminishing status of Arabization within Pakistani society. One is the arrival of Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, who introduced the modernization while the second is the weakening status of Arab Monarchs in the region and beyond.

Thus, the Pakistani elite and society, which relied upon the Arabs for the interpretation of Islamic norms, were left in disarray. The vacuum was filled by yet another player who has the history of enjoying the equally respected status in the Pakistani society i.e., the Turks. Turks have had an essential role within the context of the subcontinent considering the Mughals who traced their roots back to the Turkish origin. Another critical factor is the honour of the Ottoman Empire, which was much celebrated among the Muslims of the subcontinent. The Khilafat Movement against the dismantling of the Empire was the testimony of the sentiments of Indian Muslims.


Regionally, Turkey is eyeing at reviving its status of being the leader of the Muslim World. The Islamist roots of the Justice and Development Party from which President Erdogan belongs and the subsequent ideology of “Neo-Ottomanism” indicate Turkey’s intentions. Along with that, its rivalry with Saudi Arabia has both the historic and strategic essence.
Historically, it was the House of Saud who collaborated with the British in disintegrating the Ottoman Empire and establishing the independent Arab states. Strategically, Turkey’s greater engagement in the neighbouring countries, along with its opposition to Israel for Quds, has bestowed it the distinguished status among the ordinary Muslim masses. Conversely, the growing relations between Arabs and Israel have influenced the sense of betrayal among Muslims. However, ironically, Turkey is one of the major trading partners of Israel in the region and beyond.


Nevertheless, the growing affiliation of Pakistani public with Turkey lies in the latter’s support for the cause of Kashmir upon which Arabs generally remained silent. The cultural intervention through the Turkish Drama Industry has also captivated the minds of the public. Recently, the decision of PM Imran Khan to air the Turkish Drama Serial “Diliris Ertugrul” has had the mesmerizing effect on the Pakistani people who feel “revealed” after knowing the “Islamic History.” All of this is an attempt to keep the relevancy of the Islamic values among the public. As Arabs remained the cradle of Islam, Turks generally dominated Islamic history from the late 1200s to the early 1900s.


However, in the quest to find the appropriate meaning of Islam, the Pakistani political elite has always compromised on the indigenous values. The “import” of Islam from Arabs and Turks has weakened the socio-religious fabric of Pakistani society. In the name of Islam, foreign ideologies have been the intruding factor among the public, confusing them with the brand of Islam. Under President Erdogan, the Turkish Nationalism has blended itself with the Islamic consciousness, resulting in the Pan-Islamist version of Turkey, otherwise known as Neo-Ottomanism. Through the Pan-Islamist approach of Arabs, Pakistan has borne the consequences in the wake of intolerance, now the replication of the same method through the Turkish version would not be of any benefit. To evolve in international politics, the state must maintain its own identity and ideology rather than being the party to the geopolitical rifts.

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