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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.