For more than two decades, from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s, Pakistan had a higher per capita income than India, the country from which it separated in 1947 and against which it has fought four wars. While independent India enjoyed relative political stability and—following its economic reforms in the early 1990s—material progress, Pakistan has regressed. Poverty and violence have ravaged this country of 160 million people, who suffer from the misrule of an impotent civil government, the paranoia of an omnipotent military and intelligence network, and the terror of radical Islam.
Indeed, almost every ruling government in Pakistan’s history has been marred by violence or political tumult—from General Mohammad Ayub Khan’s coup d’état in 1958 to the hanging of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979 to the ouster of President Pervez Musharraf in 2008. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, on the other hand, have wielded disproportionate power over the country’s foreign (and often domestic) policies. In their efforts to subvert India and other foreign rivals, the services have even provided covert training and financial support to Islamist militants and terrorists. After 9/11, these linkages made Pakistan the nucleus of the global war on terrorism and earned it the title of the most dangerous place in the world.
Disproportionately more international terrorists hail from Pakistan than from any other place on earth. For 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and perhaps even Osama bin Laden, this country has served as a refuge or training ground. While radical groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami continue to operate freely in Pakistan and plot attacks against India, the homegrown Pakistani Taliban has become an enemy of the state, responsible for a spate of suicide bombings that have terrorized major Pakistani cities like Karachi and Islamabad. More remote areas of the country such as Swat Valley and Quetta are, or at some point have been, completely under militant rule, devoid of any state control.
What does the news of Osama bin Laden’s death means for Pakistan’s already troubled situation?
What happened? Why has radical Islam become so entrenched in this supposedly secular Muslim state? After all, Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a Scotch-drinking, British-educated barrister, once said, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
For many observers, both in South Asia and in the West, Pakistan’s troubles are rooted in specific difficulties: the lack of economic opportunity, political corruption, foreign meddling, or hyper-militarization, for example. By tackling these issues, they say, Pakistan could finally become a “normal” state, saved from the grip of radical Islam. But these ills are effects rather than causes of Pakistan’s troubles. In fact, they underlie a deeper crisis that traces back to the country’s founding movement, a crisis not between the forces of Islamism and secularism—as is commonly perceived among Western policymakers and even secular Pakistani elites—but rather within the nature of the “Islamic Republic” itself.
In the late nineteenth century, a growing group of Muslim intellectuals in the Indian independence movement began to push for a separate status for Indian Muslims in the subcontinent. Their motives could be traced to 1857 when, following the first Indian Rebellion against British company rule, the final vestiges of the Mughal Empire were dismantled and the British Crown took control of India. In the minds of the Muslim intellectuals, the end of the Mughal court meant the loss of the South Asian Muslims’ unique culture, language, and kingdom. But by gaining a distinct political status, they could begin to reassert the Muslims’ historical influence and prestige in India.
However, the idea of a separate state for Indian Muslims did not emerge until 1930, when the Muslim poet Muhammad Iqbal, then leader of the Muslim League, began to call for two nations within an independent India. Four years later, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was a member of the Indian National Congress from 1905 to 1930 and held the position of “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity,” returned to India from London to help Iqbal revive the Muslim League and direct the movement for an independent Pakistan. In a lecture in Lahore in March 1940, Jinnah articulated the rationale for this new country with the “two-nation theory”: “Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literatures. They neither inter-marry nor inter-dine together and, indeed, they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. . . . It is quite clear that Hindus and Musalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history.” This theory would ground the “idea of Pakistan,” positing not only that Hindus and Muslims had distinct cultural traditions, but separate histories. For Indian Muslims, this history harked back to the Mughal era of Muslim dominance in India, which, they argued, was what defined and distinguished them from the other cultures and religions of the subcontinent.
In many ways, the mobilization of Islamic leaders was a valid response to the socioeconomic and political challenges their community faced in the subcontinent. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Muslims were increasingly marginalized from major political structures in the colonial government. But while the average Muslim in South Asia faced discrimination and was generally poorer than his Hindu counterpart (as is still the case in India today), there was little historical precedent for the concept of a discrete Muslim identity founded in Mughal rule. Indeed, through the hundreds of years that the Muslim empire had reigned over South Asia, cultures, cuisines, languages, and even peoples had mixed, creating new and unique identities that were neither “purely” Muslim nor Hindu. As Stephen P. Cohen writes in The Idea of Pakistan: “For all their distinctiveness, Muslims shared many interests with the other populations of India, and on the regional level their cultures were intertwined. Punjabis—whether Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh—had a similar worldview and approach to life. Likewise, many South Indian Muslim communities had more in common with their fellow Tamil or Malayalam speakers than with the Urdu or Punjabi speakers to the north.” But as Muslim leaders of South Asia, legitimately concerned with the economic and social state of their minority in the region, escalated their demand from separate status to separate state, their version of history went from being an intellectual and cultural concept to an important political tool. Much of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Lahore speech in 1940 was concerned with practical issues of constitution formation and electoral power rather than with colonial history or cultural inheritance.
Because of this politicization of Islam, not all Indian Muslims accepted the idea of a separate Muslim state. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a former member of the Muslim League who switched to the Indian National Congress in the 1920s, remained loyal to a free but undivided India for all of his life. For leaders like Azad and the prominent Deobandi scholar Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani, the idea of creating an Islamic nation was erroneous simply because there was no such thing as an Indian Muslim nation separate from the broader global Muslim community, or ummah.
Yet Jinnah, Iqbal, and other Muslim leaders in British India insisted that South Asian Muslims did have a distinct political identity that merited an independent nation. By crafting a revisionist history of Islam in South Asia, in which centuries of cultural, religious, and ethnic mixture were erased in favor of a “pure” Muslim identity, and by wielding this history as a tool for political autonomy, the leaders achieved their dream of an independent Muslim state. On August 14, 1947, Pakistan—an acronym for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, and Baluchistan—was born.
As the dust of the turbulent independence era settled, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and his fellow leaders needed to continue to consolidate this national identity among the diverse groups and cultures that lived within Pakistan’s new boundaries. While the country was majority-Muslim, Punjabi, Bengali, Sindhi, and Pashtun cultures (among many others) were also represented within Pakistan and had their own distinct languages and traditions. It was the job of the elites to instill a unified sense of citizenship among these peoples. The challenges in doing so would become the source of the country’s greatest crises.
A first step was linguistic and ethnic consolidation. Originally encouraged by the Indian Muslim scholar and politician Sir Syed Ahmed Khan as the Muslims’ lingua franca in 1867, Urdu (which did not originate in any of the land that became Pakistan but was rather the mother tongue of the Indian Mohajirs from Uttar Pradesh) became Pakistan’s official language and the country’s language of education immediately following independence. But linguistic rifts had already begun by December 1947, when Bengali students in East Pakistan demanded that Bengali be made an official language as well. By the following March, the students had organized a general strike that led to large rallies and confrontations with police. That month, as the crisis grew worse, Mohammad Ali Jinnah came to Dhaka and accused a “fifth column” of creating a language controversy to divide the Pakistanis and declared that “Urdu, and only Urdu” would remain the state language. Such conflicts would continue between East and West Pakistan for the next two decades.
A second component of the Pakistani consolidation process was public education. As noted by A. H. Nayyar and Ahmad Salim, in a report for the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Pakistan, the educational system in Pakistan was designed “from the very beginning” to reinforce “one particular view of Pakistani nationalism and identity, namely that Pakistan is an Islamic state rather than a country with a majority Muslim population.” Furthermore, the educational system needed to produce an image of a “singular homogeneous majoritarian Muslim identity that could be sharply differentiated from that of India, even though it meant suppressing the many different shades within Pakistan.”
This was done through myth-making and the embellishment of history. In a chapter on “Historical Falsehoods and Inaccuracies” in Pakistani education, Salim observes that many Pakistan Studies textbooks declare that Muhammad-bin-Qasim, an Arab general who led the Umayyad conquest of the Sindh and Punjab regions in the early eighth century, was Pakistan’s first citizen—a full twelve centuries before its independence in 1947. Indeed, one textbook simply declares that “although Pakistan was created in August 1947, . . . the present-day Pakistan has existed, as a more or less single entity, for centuries.”
In addition, the Pakistani public education system developed a strongly anti-Indian and anti-Hindu bias in its curriculum. For example, one social studies textbook from the Punjab Textbook Board declares that “the Hindus in Pakistan were treated very nicely when they were migrating as opposed to the inhuman treatment meted out to the Muslim migrants from India.” A report from the National Commission for Justice and Peace also found that in many textbooks in Pakistan, the word Hindu “rarely appears in a sentence without an adjective such as politically astute, sly, or manipulative.”
All of these observations leave out another aspect of education in Pakistan that has gained international attention in the last decade: privately run, radical Islamic madrassas. Many of these religious schools have been accused of affiliating with organizations like the Taliban and cultivating scores of young terrorists. While these schools are of concern to many observers, it is the state-driven indoctrination that remains the bigger worry. As the SDPI report notes, “the educational material in the government run schools do much more than madrassas. The textbooks tell lies, create hatred, inculcate militancy, and much more.”
Since Pakistan was a state created on the basis of Islamic identity, religion continued to play a critical political role in consolidating nationhood. Indeed, other than Islam, Pakistan only possessed a negative identity: it was Pakistan because it was not India. Thus, religion was the integral tool for cohesion among these disparate and diverse peoples. How exactly this cohesion was to be achieved became a major component of Pakistan’s identity crisis.
Following the death of Jinnah in 1948, just one year after independence, Islam in Pakistan remained in limbo. The founding father had never fully articulated the role religion would play in the state. Instead, he had cast a big tent over diverse viewpoints during the process of independence. As Cohen writes in The Idea of Pakistan, Jinnah’s arguments were “deliberately vague” in order to “muster support for independence and opposition to Hindu domination, but not to build a consensus on the kind of state Pakistan was to become.” Subsequently, different interpretations of Jinnah’s intent emerged. Many saw his inaugural speech as a call for secularism and a rejection of overtly pro-Muslim rhetoric. Others, particularly those in the military, began to adopt a more militant and jingoistic view of Islam to suppress what they thought was continued Hindu subversion from India through issues like the Kashmir dispute and the East Pakistani independence movement.
With the rise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the early 1970s and the “Islamization” of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s, Pakistani secularism, as embodied in Jinnah’s inaugural address, effectively disappeared from the country’s political system. By this point, the struggle for the country’s identity had come down to two rival discourses of Islam. In her book Making Sense of Pakistan, British-Pakistani scholar Farzana Shaikh observes that one of them was communal, and favored the Muslim ruling elites and military, while the second was Islamist, and grounded in a radical reading of Islam. In Shaikh’s perception, this dichotomy, “rather than any disjunction between a ‘secular’ leadership and a ‘religious’ establishment,” has defined Pakistan’s crisis of identity.
Today, we see this conflict continue to play out through the division between Pakistan’s powerful military elite, which still views Indian subversion as Pakistan’s biggest threat and supports radical Islamist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba because they plot against their longtime rival, and Pakistan’s radical clerics and Islamist groups like the Pakistani Taliban, who view domestic political institutions and leaders, as well as India and the West, as enemies. This conflict explains the contradiction in which the Pakistani military is eager to weed out domestic terrorists that assassinate political figures and bomb its major cities, but concurrently funds and supports domestic-based terrorists that further Pakistani strategic interests.
But even in 1944, three years before Pakistan’s independence from the British Empire, there were signs of internecine division—rooted in these conflicting discourses of Islam—in what would become the new Muslim nation. Abul Mansur Ahmed, a writer and president of the Bengal Muslim League, declared that ”Religion and culture are not the same thing. Religion transgresses the geographical boundary but tamaddum (culture) cannot go beyond the geographical boundary. . . . For this reason the people of Purba [East] Pakistan are a different nation from the people of the other provinces of India and from the “religious brothers” of Pakistan.” Such sentiments foreshadowed a future of ethnic discord within Pakistan. Instead of allowing ethnic groups like the Bengali movement to operate within the Pakistani federal framework, it resorted to more centralization, consolidation of power, and even military brutality.
The uncertainty over the correct course for Pakistan created significant political instability, and internal conflicts played out through a similar series of coups and undemocratic power shifts. The first was in 1958, when President Iskander Mirza suspended the 1956 constitution due to political instability and declared martial law, only to be deposed by the military chief he appointed, Ayub Khan. In 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq deposed the ruling Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto during a period of unrest within the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. Two years later, Bhutto was sentenced to death for murder in a shady trial with significant political meddling from Zia-ul-Haq and numerous judges.
Perhaps the most notable example of this political instability is the aftermath of the 1970 elections in Pakistan. With a larger population, Bengali-speaking East Pakistan had been allocated 162 seats in Parliament while the less populated, Urdu-speaking West Pakistan had 138. That year, as the popularity of the pro-Bengali Awami League party in the East reached an apex, it won 160 of the 162 seats in Parliament, while Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won only 88 out of the 138 seats. So it appeared that parliamentary power would shift over to East Pakistan and that the Awami League would appoint the new prime minister from their party. But Bhutto refused a power-sharing deal and declared that no national government could be formed without the consent of his PPP. As this tension escalated into a general strike across East Pakistan, the West Pakistani–dominated military responded with categorical harshness, and in one particularly violent episode massacred a large number of students at a university that was perceived to be a center of resistance to the regime. Ultimately, these events led to the bloody Bangladesh Liberation War and the independence of East Pakistan from the West in 1971.
By attempting to forcibly create a uniform language, public education, and religion, Pakistan became an unstable society, building a political and economic system over a weak foundation. Tumultuous political transitions have been commonplace in the Pakistani polity since independence, and infighting within political parties has created new parties simply based on the cult of a single personality such as former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The majority of Pakistani citizens, particularly those in the lower and middle classes, simply have been stuck in the middle of a country struggling to define its raison d’être—and have suffered the consequences: political instability, ideological and cultural persecution, and economic immiseration.
In Making Sense of Pakistan, Farzana Shaikh argues that her country’s “problematic and contested relationship with Islam” prevents the country from achieving a coherent national identity and stability as a nation-state. She finds that while this “perennial uncertainty” with Islam created a world “in trouble from the start,” a newly formed civil society, emancipated media, and intellectual community in Pakistan have entered a paradigm shift in which they are reengaging with the common history of South Asia and working to create a more grounded, normal country.
The next challenge for these leaders of public thought, then, will be to justify this social awakening to the political, military, and religious elites in their country, so that they also recognize the multiethnic, multicultural nature of the Pakistani state. Instead of consolidating “Pakistaniness” through an artificial conception of South Asian history or by returning to the ambiguous pseudo-secularism of Jinnah—as some young Pakistanis have pushed for in recent years—Pakistanis can work together to decentralize the country’s governance to pre-existing political structures within states such as Punjab, Sindh, and Baluchistan, for example. A recognition that Pakistan is nothing more than a confederation of diverse ethnicities, religions, and cultural traditions that just happens to be Muslim-majority will be a difficult but necessary step in the process of renovation.
But it is hard to see how the paradigm shift that Shaikh describes can fully occur until structures such as the military and intelligence services are divested of their centralized power and influence. A confederative system cannot survive in the shadow of a powerful military elite. Nevertheless, the military will retain an important role in eradicating elements within the country that threaten its stability and the stability of its neighbors—in other words, Islamist terrorist groups.
Indeed, as has been noted by Dr. Shaikh, Stephen Cohen, and other observers, Pakistan’s success, in the long run, will require a direct re-examination of the country’s complicated relationship with Islam. Political Islam, which has been a recurring component of the country’s history from the day its “idea” first emerged, does not seem to fit into the new definition of the state’s legitimacy. Rather, this legitimacy will be derived from the simple fact that Pakistan now has its own history, its own cultural tendencies, and its own administrative structure—none of which it had at its founding. As Shaikh concludes, it must reengage with this history (and its extensive ties with “Hindu” India) rather than search for a unique South Asian “Muslimness” that does not exist and never has.
But devolving Islam from the official state apparatus does not mean that Islam itself would be removed from the state. Instead, the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” would merely become the “Republic of Pakistan” that just happens to be Muslim-majority. Stephen Cohen envisions a society that resembles “Catholic Poland or Jewish Israel, or Buddhist Sri Lanka and Thailand, with religion playing an ancillary but ultimately subordinate role.” It would be a society that vindicates the views of Maulana Azad and the other Muslim dissenters in the Indian independence movement who argued that Islam, a universal religion in their minds, should not associate itself with the earthly matters of nationalism or politics.
While these steps may appear far-fetched given the tumult and violence emerging from Pakistan on a daily basis, they are not radical reforms but rather gradual changes based on the existing structure of Pakistani society. They do not re-draw borders, dismantle institutions, or deny the right of existence for the state of Pakistan; they simply stress the need for soul-searching and, ultimately, comfort with a new, reformed “idea of Pakistan” that is neither revolutionary nor reactionary.