Pakistan and Its Future: A Response to Wajiha Ahmed

Wajiha Ahmed recently wrote a refreshing post on Pakistan on Sepia Mutiny.   Here are the two key points for me:

democracy is not an event, it is a process.

a structural reality: prolonged military rule (for more, read Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc or Ayesha Jalal’s Democracy and Authoritarianism).

If these two items are taken together, they effectively capture the problem that Pakistan's polity faces - how do you go from a political system and economy dominated by and increasingly suffused by various parts of the military / military bureaucracy / other non-elected institutions to one that is liberal or social democratic?  I would guess that in practice, this will HAVE to involve some resurgent democratic Pakistani populism in order to stretch its roots down from the lawyers/"civil society" to shop owners, etc. to become stable and socially embedded enough. And as with many other places, this could speak through the language and discourse of Islam, as much as we might hope that it would not. 

But this is a guess - the devil is in the details.  I don't understand the social structure of Pakistan well enough, nor how it interacts with Pakistan's politics.  I don't know what the divisions within the military as an institution are like today and how these can be exploited (e.g. perhaps akin to the BDR mutiny in Bangladesh - though I don't know enough about that either).  But I do know enough to know that in Pakistan, often surface level phenomenon-- for example "civilian rule" in the 1990s that was completely under the control of the military--are deceptive if the underlying forces are not revealed.   Siddiqa's book does this to some extent as does Jalal.  I would also recommend Ian Talbott, Christophe Jaffrelot, Hamza Alavi, among others.

Moreover, the most important point that is rarely considered in discussing "Pakistan's" problems is that the conditions and events that would lead to a more democratic system have to be allowed by external forces like the U.S. and Europe.  In the past, because of Pakistan's lack of power (autonomy) and the legitimacy problem its governments face internally, the industrialised world has been able to consistently foster conditions that would make a democratic transition virtually impossible.  You can read about its beginnings in a book by Jalal or an essay by her in South Asia and World Capitalism, ed Sugata Bose or in some of Hamza Alavi's work, for example.  This is very different from China or India.

As a result, the more outsiders and outside elites focus on "Islamism" or Afghanistan/NW or "terrorism" in their discussions of Pakistan, the more they make it unlikely that they will pursue policies that will allow a successful democratic upheaval or a prolonged democratic movement as partly occurred in Iran or British India or in Pakistan in the 1960s, to take just a couple of examples. 

Will the U.S. government and the media tolerate a democratised state with a subservient-enough military that controls its internal territory even less than now?  Will they tolerate an islamized democracy? In the near term, it's hard for me to imagine though it is possible - the world is changing.  Or will the swings between nominally civilian and actual military rule continue along the present path continue while the military increases its dominance over society?   This seems easier to imagine, but harder to vouch for morally or even analytically since, as we know, past performance is not always indicative of future results.

Are the conditions there for democratisation in Pakistan? Will the West allow them to exist?

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Dr. Anonymous, I appreciate

Dr. Anonymous,

I appreciate your framing of Pakistan's current challenges. But I take issue with the following point: "this [democratic movement] could speak through the language and discourse of Islam, as much as we might hope that it would not." If Pakistanis chose to employ some of the Muslim cultural symbolism familiar to them, why is this problematic? The Sepia post (referred to above) pointed to the incorrect conflation of any form of Muslim activism or symbolism with terrorism or militant activity.



Anonymous, thanks for your

Anonymous, thanks for your comment and your question, which I've thought about some since I read it.  I think there are a few angles to it.  

Firstly, does one believe in substantive secularism, in which people of all faiths and beliefs are not socially, economically, or legally discriminated against on the basis of that faith or belief?  I think we would probably agree that yes this is a good idea. 

Secondly, does one believe that an absolute separation between any religious notions and the state's self-definition (which usually takes the form of nationalism) is a good idea?  I would say that in theory I do, but in practice, today, this is not always the highest priority I would have.  Pakistan might be a good example of this, where people's day to day bread and butter issues, reduction of violence and instability, need for self-determination and autonomy, and a lot of other features would take higher priority for me than any ideological preference I might have, but I think it is worth considering. 

The third, and trickiest question for me, is, if you once accede to the notion that the state can define its identity in terms of a particular religious faith or other belief system, whether in substance (legally, bureaucratically, in its mythology or otherwise), what implications will that have for the future?  This is why I think it's important to think carefully about the second question in terms of its material effects.

The fourth question, which I haven't given enough thought to at all, is what the extranational consequences are the transnational consequences of adopting a particular faith.

None of this should imply in any way that religious faiths or any other belief systems, cultural motifs, or ideology should be wedded to the extension of power for the powerful or violate basic basic norms of human welfare (which is of itself worth discussing).

In any case, thanks for the thought-provoking question.

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