Pakistan: Democracy, Terror and the Building of a Nation

Farzana Shaikh finds a thoughtful account of a country's history marred by its portrayal as a victim

May 20, 2010

It has become fashionable among Pakistan's beleaguered liberal classes to try to dilute the influence of a heavily Islamised state narrative by promoting an alternative vision. Invoking the pre-Islamic history of the country's ethnically diverse regions, it summons the idea of a Pakistani "nation" whose defining feature is not so much a shared religion - Islam - but the collective culture of communities long settled in the valleys of the River Indus.

This attempt to recast Pakistan as an "Indus Valley nation" has two objectives. The first is to settle the question of Pakistan's national identity by identifying its "local" roots. By so doing, Pakistan appears as a nation that is heir to a distinct Indus Valley civilisation, whose appropriation of Islam is judged merely to highlight that which separated it from the predominantly Hindu societies of the Gangetic plains - differences formalised in 1947.

The second objective is to promote Pakistan as a "composite project" embraced by all communities indigenous to the Indus region without regard to their religion, race or ethnic background. The agenda is to widen the space for a more liberal-democratic and pluralist discourse in Pakistan than that allowed for by a state exclusively dedicated to Islam.

These themes find a strong echo in Iftikhar Malik's analysis of Pakistan's troubled engagement with issues of identity, democracy and pluralism since 9/11. Reflecting on the travails of this "modern nation in an ancient land", he concludes that, notwithstanding significant odds, there are still some residual opportunities for "democracy, dialogue and distributive justice". He points to feudal dynasties such as those of the Bhuttos, who were long accustomed to exercising seigneurial rights but have been forced to bow to the ballot box; to authoritarian military regimes, which have been obliged to surrender to the rule of law; and to medieval-minded religious extremists, who have been effectively contained by a nascent middle class committed to progress and tolerance.

Nevertheless, these tensions have taken a heavy toll. A widening Islamist insurgency, broken institutions, an ever-ambitious military and a virtually paralysed economy threaten the country. Their causes are complex, yet for Malik (as for most Pakistanis), the fault lies chiefly with foreign powers, notably the US and India. Their nefarious role looms large in his account of the spread of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, of the country's failed experiments with democracy, and of the iron grip of its dominant military. Even the crisis triggered in 1971 by the secession of the country's eastern province (East Pakistan), which led Pakistan to adopt a sharper Islamic profile, is blamed on others, namely India, for "push(ing) the Indus Valley nation into seeking greater commonality with West Asia and other Muslim states".

This temptation to portray Pakistan as a victim whose history has been made and mangled by others is unfortunate, as it obscures what is otherwise a thoughtful exploration of this country and its many misfortunes. For Pakistan did make choices - choices that have left it today hopelessly vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers and their ideas. By choosing not to clarify its key relationship with Islam, the state fell prey to the tides of political Islam, whose roots lay beyond its borders. Equally, by choosing to elevate the cause of Kashmir above the welfare of its own citizens and pitting them in a futile conflict with India, Pakistan invited foreign interference. These facts, unpalatable though they are, need to be addressed if we are to move towards an intellectually honest interpretation of a country that demands to be better understood.

Pakistan: Democracy, Terror and the Building of a Nation

By Iftikhar Malik

New Holland, 208pp, £9.99

ISBN 9781847734532

Published 4 May 2010

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