Pakistan: Eye of the storm
Ever since its creation, Pakistan has grappled with the issue of what role Islam should play in the state. Most Pakistanis do not want to live in a theocracy: they want their country to be moderate, modern, tolerant and stable, writes Owen Bennett Jones.
THOSE Pakistanis old enough to remember the advent of independence in 1947 could be forgiven for thinking that they have been in the eye of a storm all their lives. Ever since its creation, Pakistan’s political development has been turbulent and chaotic. The country has been under military rule for nearly half its existence. No elected government has ever completed its term in office. It has had three wars with India and has lost around half of its territory. Its economy has never flourished. Nearly half its vast population is illiterate and 20 per cent is undernourished. The country’s largest city, Karachi, has witnessed thousands of politically motivated murders. Religious extremists have been given free reign. Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan, Iran, India and China; its political volatility; and its need for huge foreign loans; have ensured that the country has always been the subject of considerable international concern. But after May 1998, when Pakistan conducted nuclear tests, those concerns became still more acute. Indeed, South Asia’s nuclearisation has rendered it one of the most politically sensitive regions on earth and made the dispute over Kashmir one of the world’s most potentially dangerous conflicts.
Because of its sense of
vulnerability, Pakistan has always been on the look-out for big-power
friends. When, during the cold war, Delhi tilted towards Moscow,
Islamabad was quick to see its chance. Pakistan’s first military
ruler, Ayub Khan, declared Pakistan to be the United States’ ‘most
allied ally’. Twenty years later, another military ruler, General Zia
ul Haq, adopted a similar approach. After the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan he ensured that Pakistan became a frontline state in the
battle against communism. In 2001 another military man, General Pervez
Musharraf, was ruling Pakistan. Within hours of the 11 September attack
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon he remained true to the
policies of his predecessors, abandoned his Taliban allies and aligned
Pakistan with Washington.
Pakistan’s efforts to ingratiate itself with the United States have never produced long-lasting dividends. One of Pakistan’s greatest political thinkers, Dr Eqbal Ahmed, used to liken the relationship between the United States and Pakistan to that of an errant husband and his mistress. When in the mood, the United States would overwhelm Pakistan with loving attention and generous gifts. But the tempestuous relationship was never steady. And when Washington’s ardour cooled it would abandon its South Asian partner without a thought. Many Pakistanis consider the US to have been a disloyal, inconstant friend. General Musharraf hopes that, this time, Washington’s declarations can be taken at face value. He will almost certainly be disappointed.
Indian strategists have done their best to undermine Pakistan’s somewhat desperate search for foreign friends. For years now Delhi has tried to portray Pakistan as a rogue state filled with Islamic extremists hell-bent on exporting terrorism. While this message has resonated neatly with Western anti-Islamic prejudices, I shall argue in this book that such a depiction of Pakistan is unfair. This is not to deny the indisputable fact that successive Pakistani governments have given a remarkable amount of leeway to Islamic extremists. It is an appalling fact, to give just one example, that in recent years Islamic militants have been able to tour Pakistani mosques displaying the heads of Indian security personnel killed in Kashmir. The state’s reluctance to rein in the militants has been, in part, a result of the perceived need to support anyone involved in the struggle for Kashmir. But deeper factors have also been at play.
Ever since its creation, Pakistan has grappled with the issue of what role Islam should play in the state. When he called for the establishment of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah advanced the two-nation theory. Muslims and Hindus, he argued, construed two nations that could never live together. A strict interpretation of the two-nation theory has led some Pakistanis to conclude that the country was always intended to be an Islamic state. But others — and in my opinion the majority — have a different view. They believe that Jinnah was trying to create a country in which Muslims could live in safety, free from Hindu dominance. Most Pakistanis do not want to live in a theocracy: they want their country to be moderate, modern, tolerant and stable.
During the 1980s this vision of Pakistan received a substantial setback. General Zia ul Haq — perhaps the only one of Pakistan’s four military rulers to deserve the epithet ‘dictator’ — consistently advanced the cause of radical Islam. The effects of Zia’s Islamisation campaign are still being felt today. The militant groups remain well-organised, well-armed and well-financed. The current military ruler. General Musharraf is trying to dismantle Zia’s legacy. His attempt to downplay the role of religion in the state directly challenges the interests of well-entrenched and highly motivated elements of Pakistani society. His success or failure — the likelihood of which are discussed in the final chapter — will have far-reaching implications not only for Pakistan but also the region and the international security system as a whole.
The Kashmir dispute, the relationships with India and the United States and the need to define the role of Islam are only some of the issues that confront Pakistan today. There are many other serious challenges. The country’s most economically important city, Karachi, has for years been plagued by huge displays of politically motivated violence. In some outlying rural areas, where feudal landlords rule like kings, many people feel greater loyalty to their province than they do to Pakistan. The army’s willingness to overthrow civilian governments has stifled democratic development. The very high levels of corruption have led many Pakistanis to become deeply disillusioned with their ruling elite.
(Excerpted from Pakistan: Eye of the Storm by Owen Bennett Jones. Penguin Viking)