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Pakistan: A Political Enigma

ISSUE:  Summer 2003
Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan. By Mary Anne Weaver. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.00.
Pakistan: Eye of the Storm. By Owen Bennett Jones. Yale University Press. $29.95.

Pakistan is perhaps the most notorious political enigma in the second half of the 20th century. It was conceived as a nation-state for a minority community of 100 million Muslims of British India who felt threatened by the political ambitions of the majority Hindu community of nearly 300 million. Pakistan embarked upon the task of nation building when it was established in 1947, at that time comprising two parts divided by 1000 miles of Indian territory.

It was a daunting task to build a nation-state whose peoples had only one uniting factor—their abiding faith in Islam. Other than that, there was nothing to bind them together as a nation. Subsequent political developments in Pakistan clearly showed that even the “abiding faith in Islam was merely a mirage,” not a solid factor of political integration.

Within 25 years of the nation’s founding, Pakistan’s geographically divided parts became two separate nations as the result of a brutal war presided over by India. The new Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan) continued to survive, now dominated by a religious-military political culture, which in the meantime replaced the progressive liberal idealism that had led the Pakistani movement for independence. Today’s new Pakistan has not only become a nuclear power, but also has earned the distinction of being one of the most corrupt nations in the world. It has also become a crucial center of world politics since September 11, 2001.

Around 1950 Pakistan initiated so many basic programs, both national and international, that it had the potential of becoming a second Japan. In 1949 it had adopted an “objective Resolution” for enacting a national constitution. In 1950 it started economic developmental programs for the nation’s enormous human and natural resources. In 1949 Pakistan also initiated a nonalignment movement by organizing the first International Islamic Economic Conference, while spreading the idea of a Third Bloc in a bipolar world.

Why and how all these constructive initiatives failed to develop Pakistan as a modern state are questions that never have been adequately analyzed. But the facts remain that the 1951 assassination of Liaqat Ali Khan, the First Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the violent anti-Qadyani religious movement of 1953 had profound implications for the subsequent political behavior and culture of the country. Forces of national disintegration then erupted, culminating in the war of 1971 which resulted in the creation of the nation of Bangladesh.

Since 1971’s traumatic experience, Pakistan has not settled down. The country still needs to define itself and devise a process of governance. Pakistan’s political culture of the last 30 years is nothing but a prescription for total national disintegration, despite its success in developing nuclear weapons and missile systems. It may be noted here that despite these scientific achievements, there is evidence of a corresponding societal decay: the rise of fanaticism at the expense of liberalism which had successfully led the Pakistan movement.

Plenty has been written about Pakistan’s politics and its abysmal failure in nation building. American journalist Mary Anne Weaver and British journalist Owen Bennett Jones have given us two new books on Pakistan. Weaver’s is more a human story covering the 20 years of her stay in Pakistan (from about 1981 to 2001). Often she provides brilliant exposes of Pakistani leaders’ characters, but very little in terms of their legacy or lack thereof on the governance of the country. She depicts, for example, a very painful portrait of Benazir Bhutto’s sufferings in the prisons of General Zia ul-Haq, but does not say why those sufferings failed to inspire Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in becoming a more dedicated leader. Weaver indirectly raised the question with Benazir, but does not make any analysis or observation about the answer. As an observant journalist, she perhaps owes it to her readers to provide some clues as to why Benazir failed so miserably in governing the country and in directing its political process along a more constructive path.

In addition to instances of timid analysis, Weaver’s book is also diminished by the inexplicable omission of important facts and events. For example, even though, during her stay in Pakistan, the MQM (Mohajirs Qaumi Movement) agitations developed into a very serious confrontation between the Muhajirs (Muslim refugees who came from India in and since 1947) and the native Sindhis, Weaver avoids discussing the issue. It should also be noted here that the refugees played a dominant role in the governance of the country and its economic development since the inception of the country. Overall, her book leaves the reader with a superficial sense of Pakistan’s political problems but little beyond that.

Owen Bennett Jones, Pakistan, however, is a refreshing departure from many contemporary publications. It is a clear and concise analysis of Pakistan’s political sociology. Perhaps his style of journalistic writing and insight makes the book appealing. In 328 pages he analyzes the various issues that the country has faced during its 55 years of history. In doing so he shows how the country’s political structure and the political elite failed to meet the demands of creating a modern state. Beginning with the professional politicians down to the clergy, bureaucrats, soldiers, lawyers, businessmen, industrialists, intellectuals: all of them sought political dominance for the sake of power rather than building and serving a potentially progressive society.

Jones also very adroitly brings to the fore the fact that the western powers under United States leadership have allowed Pakistan to become a threatening center in South and Central Asia, and beyond. The book is a good primer to understand the issues that bedevil much of the Muslim world.


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