Escaping India: An Explanation of Pakistan's Middle East Orientation

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Pakistan is an integral part of South Asia in geographic, cultural, linguistic and historic terms but its rulers have emphasized the country's relations with the Middle East since independence in 1947. The desire to simultaneously find national cohesion and a significant role on the world stage has shaped Pakistan's history as that of a state in search of a national identity. This article analyzes Pakistan's foreign policy, right from its origins, in order to explain this key feature of its external relations. The emphasis on ideology led to a foreign policy that rested on Islam and Islamic unity as its principal drivers. Just as Islamic ideology was to be a substitute for nationalism and the basis for a distinct Pakistani personality, Pakistan's foreign policy highlighted closer ties with Muslim Middle Eastern nations at the expense of normal relations with India.

Keywords: South Asia, Pakistan, Islam, Foreign Policy, India, Ideology, Nationalism, Middle East, United States.


After the creation of Pakistan the feeling of brotherhood and sympathy with the cause of the Arab world became all the more crystallized and found an unambiguous expression in the country's foreign policy which is in fact a carry over policy pursued by Muslims of the subcontinent during the last one century.--Zafar Mansoor, 'Pakistan's contribution to Arabs cause,' Dawn, August 14, 1959 (1)

Pakistan is an integral part of South Asia in geographic, cultural, linguistic and historic terms, but its rulers have emphasized the country's relations with the Middle East since independence in 1947. It seems that Pakistan has been making a conscious effort to redefine or escape its shared heritage with India, out of which it was carved at the end of the British Raj. Closer identification with the Middle East is part of that strategic decision that is aimed at consolidating a unique Pakistani identity. Each one of Pakistan's principal ethnic and language groups overlaps with neighbouring countries, leaving the Islamic religion as the only readily available unifying factor. Pakistan, some scholars argue, has 'nationalism without a nation' (2) because of the difficulties that have emerged in defining Pakistani nationalism and nationhood.

Nationalism refers to the attitude that the members of a nation have about their national identity. (3) Ernst Gellner describes nationalism as 'a political principle which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent.' (4) In the case of Pakistan, divergent ethnic and cultural characteristics vie with the identity provided by the political unit. The solution offered over the years has been to emphasize the shared Islamic religion over other attributes of national distinctiveness. In the sphere of foreign policy, the religious dimension has resulted in accentuating affinity with the Islamic Middle East. Pakistan's conscious attempts to redefine its locus have resulted in some ironies: India's name is derived from the river Indus, which now flows primarily through Pakistan. Most of Pakistan's pre-partition history is the same as that of India. The term Pakistan is an acronym patterned on place names used in Central Asia, (5) names that were brought to India by rulers of Central Asian origin. They are not Arabic in origin. Pakistanis do not speak any of the major languages identified with the Middle East-Arabic, Persian and Turkish--and their cuisine and costumes, too, have greater similarity with South Asian food and clothing. With the exception of the Islamic religion, Pakistan has less in common with the Arab Middle East than it does with India and the rest of South Asia.

Pakistan's relatively short history provides evidence for the constructivist argument that states have constructed collective identities and that these identities define their behaviour in the international system. (6) The identity leaders choose or try to create for a nation impacts both domestic politics and foreign policy. …


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