Things in Pakistan are not what they seem

Why is it easier for us to get along with Ahmad than with Vijay? We talk about Pakistan, ‘India’s evil twin brother’ with Dr. Jakub Wilanowski-Hilchen, an Indologist

Katarzyna Makarowicz: Why precisely did you take up work on Islam in South Asia and not the dominant religion in India, Hinduism?

Dr. Jakub Wilanowski-Hilchen: It started very mundanely. I just found it easier to get along with Muslims.

But how is that possible? With Muslims, with whom supposedly everything divides us?

And yet. We share a certain symbolic universe, that is, we describe and interpret the world in a similar way, with similar associations. This has its social consequences. In the monotheistic religions – Islam and Christianity – we also find a similar way of managing emotions. For example, the emotion that controls undesirable social behavior in these religions is guilt. There is a category of sin in them, which can be forgiven under various conditions, and the reward for living a good life is the promise of eternal life.

In Hinduism, on the other hand, social behavior is primarily controlled by shame. This control includes, for example, marrying the right person: one who is similar to us or better born, or who to associate with.


Hinduism is a religion based on the dharmic system. This means that social and religious structures are connected by one element: dharma. Dharma, generally speaking, is a set of social rules that apply to every Hindu. In a nutshell, it is the rules that the family instills in us from childhood. Therefore, actions that violate social norms, such as breaking taboos, dressing inappropriately, or talking to the wrong people, have deep religious and moral consequences. Failing to fulfill the duties that dharma imposes on us (like starting a family) disrupts the cosmic order. Here’s how it works. 

In the Muslim-Christian order, there are other consequences for violating desirable social rules, less related to the community. With the concept of forgiveness of sins, the consequences of inappropriate actions will be much less painful than a violation of dharma principles in Hinduism. 

This is because in Hinduism, violation of these rules simultaneously means defiance of collectively made decisions, the expression of which is usually the father, or “head of the family.” With the contestation of the rules comes shame – both in the “violator” and in his or her immediate community.

What else do we have in common with Muslims?

I will answer by putting Muslims and Christians in contrast to Hindus again. One of the markers of adulthood in our culture is the ability to make our own decisions about our lives. The same is true in Islamic culture. With Hindus it will be different: people become adults there when they are accepted into the community and can participate in family, collective decision-making. They are not made individually.

That’s why when I first went to India, I was surprised how much easier it was for me to communicate with my colleague, who had a Muslim name, Ahmad, than with someone who had a Hindu name, Vijay.

You are also involved in research on Pakistan.

Yes. My interest in Pakistan was probably born out of spite. When I went to India on a scholarship and experienced first-hand the resentment against Pakistanis there, I couldn’t help but check out this “evil twin brother of India.” I went to Pakistan. And I experienced one of the biggest shocks of my life.

What happened?

The first Pakistani city I visited was Lahore. The Islam that dominates there is quite different from what the average European or European woman associates the religion with. It is a very “ethnic” faction, where there is a lively worship of saints who mediate between the divine and human worlds. So I knew that the Islam I would encounter there would be different from that of, say, Saudi Arabia. 

But what was surprising to me was that the first Muslims who contacted me and my friends were rather menacing-looking, bearded mullahs from Kashmir who introduced themselves as “progressive Marxists” and invited us to a party spiked with Chinese vodka. We ran into each other in the elevator. And we went to the party together.

A few days later, we went in turn to the urs, or anniversary of the death of a saint. It was about Shach Jamal – the patron saint of the excluded: female sex workers and transgender people, among others. We imagined we were going to a serious religious ceremony. When we arrived at the hill where the multi-story temple was located, it turned out that our religious celebration was actually something that looked like a kind of rave to the 20-year-old me. There were drummers on every floor of the temple and a crowd of clapping and dancing people who played until dawn. Like a wedding – urs is the anniversary of a death, but the literal meaning of the term is the “nuptials” of a saint’s soul to God.

Pakistanis love to party and they party hard. I haven’t seen parties like that in India. Rarely in Poland.

I hope you forgive me for the perspective of a twenty-something profane at the time, who was totally bewildered by his first trip to Pakistan.

I forgive you, but will Muslims forgive you?

Those there at the urs forgave. As Europeans, we aroused great interest. Everyone wanted to befriend us and explain the significance of the event we were participating in.

Which year could it have been? Certainly it was happening during the American occupation of Afghanistan. Europe was buzzing with stereotypes about Islam. There was confusion between the “Islam” of the Taliban and the Islam of Afghans and Afghan women. The dominant message was that of shackled, repressed women. In the media coverage, all Orientalist tropes returned with full force.

And we in Pakistan experienced an encounter with a welcoming, hospitable, welcoming Islam. It was an entry into an Islam that is completely out of step with European perceptions of a harsh, rule-bound religion.

And since we’re talking about women, what is their situation in Islam practiced in South Asia? Does it differ from that in Islam in the so-called Middle East?

Yes, there are times when the position of women in “South Asian” Islam and their relationship with men is different from what we usually associate it with. In some mountain communities in Kashmir, for example, there is no principle of gender separation, even though Sunni Islam is dominant there. Sometimes women don’t veil themselves either, and their social position is close to that of men.

I once spent a lot of time in Kashmir, where I worked. Thanks to this work I had the opportunity to be in villages, smaller towns, off the beaten tourist track. There were many times when I came to some man on professional matters for an interview and he was not at home. Often women would then open the door for me, invite me in, offer me tea, and assure me that “my brother will be home in half an hour.” A woman and a man, who are not family, alone at home? A situation unthinkable in many communities in the so-called Middle East.

I once went trekking in the Pakistani part of Kashmir. A guide, a Pakistani, was with me. On the trail we met a woman, a Muslim woman, who, without waiting for a reaction on my part, shook my hand in greeting, and started puzzling me about where we were from and where we wanted to go. According to my guide, her behavior was not at all out of the norm.

In Pakistan, things are simply not what they seem. Or maybe it’s just time to let go of stereotypes about majority-Muslim countries?

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Dr. Jakub Wilanowski-Hilchen – Assistant Professor in the South Asia Department of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Warsaw. Author of the book Witnessing Karachi. Urdu Literature as Testimony to Urban Upheavals (2015). In the past, he was a translator of Hindi and Urdu at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Pakistan and India.

As Salam Lab, we are part of a unique grant and educational project EMPATHY (Let’s Empower, Participate and Teach Each Other to Hype Empathy. Challenging discourse about Islam and Muslims in Poland), which assumes a comprehensive and intersectional approach to countering Islamophobia in Poland. You can read more about it on our website

The project is co-financed by the European Union. However, expressed views and opinions are solely those of the author or authors and do not necessarily reflect those set out in EU legislation or European Commission regulations. The European Union and the supporting organization cannot be held responsible for them.

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