To make sense of Pakistan -- a country with nuclear arms that cannot feed its people and exports terrorism abroad -- it is vital to understand the deeply flawed nature of its conception and birth.
Britain's reason for partitioning India in 1947 was a concession to the argument that Hindus and Muslims were two people with irreconcilable interests who could not live together in an undivided India. This was the idea devised by the land-owning Muslim elite of north India and propagated as a “two-nation theory” by the Muslim League under Pakistan’s eventual founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
The theory was deceptively simple. It held that apart from religion, Hindus and Muslims, as the region’s two largest religiously defined communities, shared many common traits and comprised two separate nations. Both remain ethnically diverse communities, but neither can be defined as a “nation” in the sense of a people bound by a common ethnic identity, history or language. Contrary to the specious theory of “two nations,” India was a land of vastly diverse people with a multiplicity of languages and regional cultures that was given a semblance of administrative unity by Britain as an imperial power. It was in this sense a composite “nation,” a political community in the making under colonial rule that could have been divided by Britain into many smaller states along linguistic boundaries.
Instead, in 1947, it was split into two separate nations. In partitioning India and providing Muslims with a state of their own, a war-exhausted Britain accepted Jinnah’s argument. And so Pakistan emerged entirely on the basis of a religion, Islam, meant to provide national identity to its people. Yet Muslims are not an ethnically homogenous people, and Islam as a religion with universal appeal cannot be reduced to providing national identity for a people without distorting it for political purposes.
The flawed theory of Jinnah and his Muslim League was revealed when Pakistan fell apart in 1971, as a result of ethnic politics that led the military to unleash a blood-bath in the eastern half of the country (what is now Bangladesh). The break-up of Pakistan and the continuing inability of its rulers, predominantly men in army uniform, to provide the country with a government representative of, and elected by, the people illustrates how an imagined “nation” has remained an internally divided society and a political community lacking consensus about its governance.
Nationalism is a secular ideology opposed by those Muslim religious leaders who supported the demand for Pakistan. For them, the making of Pakistan was a guarantee to save their version of traditionally-bound Islam from being undermined in the secular democracy that an independent India was meant to become, as envisaged by the leaders of the nationalist movement. Pakistan was instead demanded on the basis of Islam. In the opinion of religious leaders who pushed to make Jinnah’s two-nation theory a reality, Pakistan was meant to be an Islamic state.
But when Jinnah spoke to the members of the Constituent Assembly for Pakistan in Karachi a few days ahead of the independence on August 11, 1947, he declared in the new country “Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”
Jinnah’s words confirmed the worst fears of traditional-minded religious leaders about secularism as a political idea requiring the separation of religion and politics, and also indicated the confusion about what sort of country Pakistan as a modern state might become when the basis of its establishment was Islam.
In the years since Jinnah spoke on the eve of Pakistan’s birth, confusion has persisted in the unsettled nature of the country’s politics. How to define Islam, or reform it, consistent with the needs of a modern state is a question that continues to trouble Pakistanis. Consequently, a doctrinaire Islam effectively opposed any advancement of the country along modern lines of liberal democracy continues to flourish.
In fact, this extremist version of Islam – literal minded and fundamentalist, patriarchal-bound, punitive in practice, heavily-influenced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi doctrine at odds with the principle of gender equality and intolerant of non-Muslim minorities – has become dominant since mid-1970s, when General Zia ul-Haq was the military ruler, and has exacted a heavy price by undermining the possibility of democracy in the country.
Military dictatorship was one result. For more than half of Pakistan’s history, the country has been ruled by military dictators. General Pervez Musharraf is the fourth military ruler to seize power from a civilian-led government. The excuse for open military rule is corrupt politicians who endanger the security of the country. In justifying military rule, generals need an external enemy and internal allies to support their claim on power. Pakistan under the generals has fought several wars with India over Kashmir, lost half of the country, made itself a frontline state in the war against the former Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, and supported Taliban rule in Kabul until the events of September 11, 2001 when circumstances compelled the military rulers to offer the country as a strategic ally of the United States in the war against terrorism.
Pakistan’s national obsession with India has provided justification for both military dictators and politicians to pursue the objective of acquiring nuclear capability in maintaining nuclear parity in South Asia. But in the quest for nuclear power, Pakistan became somewhat isolated from the West. Particularly, its relationship with Washington suffered once the Afghan war ended with Soviet withdrawal. The secrecy surrounding the nuclear program, and the requirements for funds to support it, also led Pakistan into becoming a full-fledged participant in the nuclear black-market, selling its acquired expertise to Iran, North Korea, Libya and possibly other countries seeking to acquire nuclear capability. The public confession on February 4, 2004, in the state-run television of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, revered by Pakistanis as the father of the country’s nuclear bomb, in the presence of President Musharraf that he was alone responsible for operating the nuclear black-market was a staged event. It was done to placate the United States so the country could continue being a strategic ally of Washington even as its conduct was that of a rogue state engaged in nuclear proliferation.
The internal allies of the military rulers have been religious leaders and their entire network of religious-based schools (madrassas), political parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami, charity funded organizations, and supporters in league with or paid by land-owning rural elites. This religious network propagates the most regressive social and political views in the name of Islam, and its schools have functioned in producing a vast army of semi-literate students incapable of productive work in a modern economy.
From this pool of unemployed or under-employed students have come the foot-soldiers of “jihad." Muslim warriors who went to Afghanistan as freedom-fighters against the Soviet Union have supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and remain favorably disposed to al-Qaeda’s ideology of “jihad” (holy war) against the United States, Israel, India and their allies. This segment of Pakistani society has never been able to win sufficient electoral support in any of the fairly open elections held, and even in the rigged election of 2002 religious parties together barely polled over a tenth of the votes cast. But these parties have received support from the military as they have supported military dictators for implementing their version of Islam.
Pakistan is a declared nuclear state. But it is also a “failing state” and is listed in the top ten of the second annual “Failed States Index” compiled by The Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. According to this index, a failed or failing state is “one in which the government does not have effective control of its territory, is not perceived as legitimate by a significant portion of its population, does not provide domestic security or basic public services to its citizens, and lacks a monopoly on the use of force. A failing state may experience active violence or simply be vulnerable to violence.” The case of Pakistan as a failed state poses a nightmare scenario in a part of the world that is most strategically important for Europe, North America and Japan.
The most pressing social reality of Pakistan is a demographic catastrophe in the making with profound political consequences locally and globally. The population has more than tripled over the past three decades and is presently estimated around 160 million. During 1990s, the population grew at an annual rate of just under three per cent, and at this pace by the middle of the present century Pakistan’s population will probably reach 400 million. The capacity of the country to feed, clothe, shelter and educate its people has barely been adequate with a per capita income of less than two dollars per day. As the country is unable to meet basic needs of the people, social unrest will increase and so will repression. There is long simmering ethnic unrest in the tribal areas of Baluchistan province and along the borders with Afghanistan in the North-West Frontier Province. The continuing violence in Afghanistan more than four years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, and despite the efforts of multilateral forces to stabilize the country under President Hamid Karzai’s rule, is directly connected to the situation inside Pakistan where military rulers are unwilling to fully cooperate in the war on terrorism by denying Taliban fighters sanctuary in the tribal border areas.
A failed state breeds resentment among its people, and magnifies the politics of grievances. At the pace in which Pakistan’s population is growing, its only recourse in the short term will be to encourage people to leave. This is a prescription for its people becoming supporters of the sort of politics most vulnerable to “jihadi” influence, or providing the global network of terrorists an endless supply of recruits. For the West in general, as for the United States since 9/11, the dilemma Pakistan poses is how to provide a failing state with material support so that it does not collapse.
Since Pakistan’s break-up in 1971, its military and civilian rulers sought to position Pakistan into close partnership with the Gulf countries of the Middle East, and with Libya and Saudi Arabia as strategic allies. Funds from these countries enabled Pakistan to make its secretive bid for nuclear power, and in return Pakistan offered its services as a clearing house of Islamic militancy. In the process, Pakistan’s military, and particularly those officers who run the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), became intimately linked with the “jihadi” global network during the Afghan war, providing training and logistical support to “jihadi” recruits while supporting the aims of global “jihad.”
Any hope for Pakistan to recover from its present situation requires that the country return to elected government and the army be returned to its military barracks. The bitterness of a people repressed and betrayed by unaccountable military dictators can be dissolved only by embracing democracy, and a politics governed by the priority of meeting the long denied needs of the people might replace a culture of graft and exploitation of the weak.
For Pakistan to make it off the list of failing states, it will need to address the foundational basis for its establishment nearly sixty years ago by asking what Islam means for its national identity and survival as a decent state for Muslims. Any meaningful answer will make allowance for the reform of Islam, enabling Pakistan to reconcile itself with the reality of the modern world, and for Pakistanis to meet their basic needs without causing further injury to others or themselves. In the absence of democratic renewal, Pakistan’s future is dismal and an immense threat to global peace and security in the coming decades.
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