Contested Representations, Conflicted Identities: The Contestation of Religion in Pakistan's Public Sphere

Bizaa Zeynab Ali

Contested Representations, Conflicted Identities: The Contestation of Religion in Pakistan's Public Sphere
Ali, Bizaa Zeynab
Thesis Advisor(s):
Zaidi, Syed Akbar
Master's theses
Liberal Studies
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Islamic Studies
Persistent URL:
M.A., Columbia University.
This study will discuss how the current discussions on religion in Pakistan, and by implication secularism, are attended by shrill polemic from two opposing world views. The 'liberals' look down on 'Islam' and present the specter of 'Talibanization of Pakistan' to banish Islam from the public discourse while the fundamentalists use religious dogma for political purposes to undercut rivals and demand unwilling submission from the public. The contestation over religion manifests itself in debates on sartorial and linguistic choices among other social habits and even over national icons. Such contestation takes place in the media and academia and even literally in public places, so that public spaces become 'sites of contestation'. Given the nature of the contested public sphere, this study seeks to meaningfully analyze and identify various socio-political categories and characterizations along with the assumptions that they uphold in the context of Pakistan. Eventually this paper argues that these categories are all elite discourses, which do not matter much to ordinary people in Pakistan. However when such categories have been used by the Pakistani elite as 'articulations of power' and ' forceful policy prescriptives' they subvert social reality and constrain the agency of the masses. This paper will therefore attempt to analyze the way in which the rigid opposition between secular and sacred space, that seems so inherent to everyday practices of modern life, is complicated by the 'other ways of being' in Pakistan where religious diversity cuts across the contested and opposed categories upheld by the Westernized liberal elite and the orthodox Islamist elements. In this regard this paper underlines the distinction between popular religion, which has largely been relegated to people's private lives, and the politicized and institutionalized Islam which has long dominated the public sphere. This distinction helps us understand the current socio-political context in Pakistan where Islam has become a 'problem' in the public sphere and has come to be contested between those who want to banish it from the public sphere and those who want to impose rigid interpretations of it. Therefore this paper concludes that narratives of religion that emerge from the contestation between the dominating 'lifestyle liberals' and the Islamic civil society' stifle and constrain the creativity of the popular debate on religion, by not allowing it adequate space for meaningful articulation in the public sphere.
South Asian studies
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Suggested Citation:
Bizaa Zeynab Ali, 2012, Contested Representations, Conflicted Identities: The Contestation of Religion in Pakistan's Public Sphere, Columbia University Academic Commons, http://hdl.handle.net/10022/AC:P:13568.

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