Pakistani society is in crisis. But trying to understand the roots of this crisis all too often feels like a futile endeavour. After all, there’s no shortage of explanations for why the country is economically impoverished, why its government is chronically unstable, or why Islamist terrorism has permeated so many levels of its society.
Some observers believe the crisis is due to the lack of economic opportunities, while others argue that it’s a result of foreign meddling and disproportionate military power. The reality, though, is that these are all consequences rather than the cause of Pakistan’s troubles. Taken as a whole, they underscore a deeper crisis within Pakistani society that goes right to the nation’s very foundations—a crisis of identity that originates in the late 19th century, when the idea of an independent Muslim nation in South Asia first emerged.
As Pakistan was founded in truly modern terms—inspired by the principles of self-determination that were prospering during the wave of independence movements in the post-World War II era—the best place to start understanding Pakistan isn’t actually one of these former colonies, but a future colonist: post-revolutionary France.
Not only does Pakistan’s post-independence trajectory bare an uncanny similarity to that of France’s First Republic, but the critiques of its path are similar to those of the French Revolution.
Consider that both the First Republic and the Islamic Republic began with a radical social movement that ostensibly fought for the rights of impoverished and underprivileged minorities: in the case of France it was the ‘common man’ who had lived under centuries of feudal and aristocratic rule; in Pakistan it was the South Asian Muslim who had experienced Hindu-dominated rule in colonial India.
But soon, the fervour of these movements degenerated into a world of radicalism and terror. While attempting to unify the new nation through a common language and state-directed education, the nations’ leaders resorted to political repression, turning the movement’s supposed beneficiaries into victims. Ultimately, the high spirits of revolution collapsed into political disorder, ending in a coup d’état followed by military rule.
Instead of pursuing reform from within the existing structures under which they lived, the leaders of both movements attempted to radically recreate the idea of their societies (Indeed, this was the source of Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution in his Reflections). No longer was France, and later Pakistan, bounded by actual history. As Lord Acton observed in 1862, in France, ‘The Revolution repudiated alike the agencies to which France owed her boundaries and those to which she owed her government. Every effaceable trace and relic of national history was carefully wiped away.’ A similar process occurred in Pakistan’s independence movement.
Indeed, in the early 20th century, a group of elite Muslim intellectuals in British India began to argue that the Muslims of South Asia weren’t simply a religious group in a pluralistic society, but instead a separate nation with their own culture, customs and history that directly descended from the Islamic empires that once ruled parts of the subcontinent.
It was (and still is) difficult to justify such a claim. While these empires did indeed bring Islam to South Asia, there was by this point little in common between a Punjabi-speaking Muslim from North India and a Tamil-speaking Muslim from South India. Over the course of history, the cultures and religions of India had mixed in many unique and divergent ways.
But for the leaders of Pakistan, it was Islam that stood at the core of their national identity, and they resorted to coercive measures to enforce this identity across their newly independent country. For example, Urdu—a language that isn’t even native to the territory—was mandated as the country’s official language, much to the chagrin of the Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis. When they rebelled, the army retaliated, and in 1971 the two sides engaged in a bloody civil war that ultimately led to the independence of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Furthermore, to this day, many Pakistan Studies textbooks in public schools declare that Muhammad-bin-Qasim, an Arab general who led the Umayyad conquest of the Sindh and Punjab regions in the early 8th century, was Pakistan’s first citizen—a full 12 centuries before its independence in 1947.
The citizens who didn’t conform to these idealized notions of ‘Pakistaniness’ suffered the consequences of both the autocratic regimes and radical Islamists that filled power vacuums across this nation. As the country’s identity crisis trumped all other challenges that its leaders faced at home, Pakistan’s economy regressed and security deteriorated. This was coupled with an increasing tendency towards belligerence abroad (in India, for example) in order to consolidate power at home—a parallel with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s adventures in Europe as he tried to gain control over the French Republic.
If Pakistani society is to stave off chaos, it’s clear it will have to plumb the ideas that underpinned the country’s creation—it will need to look back before moving forward. Rather than creating a separate, politically convenient interpretation of history, it should re-engage with its actual past, much of which includes ties to ‘Hindu’ India. And it will have to face the reality that there are fundamental flaws to the current ‘idea of Pakistan.’
In 2008 and 2009, a group of Pakistani citizens circulated a petition to ‘bring back Jinnah’s Pakistan.’ Evoking the spirit of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, these revivalists argued that a Pakistan that truly reflected its founding values would liberate itself from the factional politics and insecurity that have dominated their country’s post-independence history. Looking more closely at these founding ideals, however, it’s clear that Pakistan’s troubles are rooted in the ideals themselves and not in some misinterpretation or divergence from them.
Pakistan stands at the centre of so many of the most critical international challenges—from the war in Afghanistan to the fight against radical terrorism to its relationship with an emerging India. It’s therefore crucial to realize that change in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan won’t come through military aid, development assistance, or better diplomacy. Instead, it will have to start with a better understanding of the ideological and historical underpinnings of this Muslim-majority society in South Asia and what the ‘idea of Pakistan’ really means for the country today.
Apoorva Shah is a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington D.C.