Deciphering Pakistan

There’s not much good news coming out of Pakistan these days. But at a conference at Wesleyan University on October 1, a group of Pakistan experts were cautiously optimistic about some of the trends unfolding in that troubled country.

Since its creation, Pakistan’s identity has been defined in contrast to India. Veteran journalist Najam Sethi, editor of Lahore’s Friday Times, explained that in Pakistani politics the foreign policy tail wags the domestic politics dog – and that means the army, as the guardian of national security, can play a pivotal role. Despite the track record of four coups against civilian governments, Sethi argued that a coup is unlikely in the near future. Recent years have seen the activization of a combative media (local TV as well as newspapers) and an independent-minded judiciary. Equally significant is the fact that the opposition Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif has signaled that it has no inclination to support a military coup against the incumbent People’s Party government. Previous coups were only possible because of the compliance of rival parties, and the judiciary.

Facing creeping political marginalization, the army has stepped up its nationalist appeal. But one other recent trend according to Sethi is a shift from anti-Indianism as the cornerstone of Pakistani nationalism towards anti-Americanism – a trend accelerated by the uptick in drone attacks and the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden. This development may be bad news for America – but it may ironically contribute towards peace in the region if it facilitates reconciliation between New Delhi and Islamabad.

At the Wesleyan panel, Harvard economics professor Asim Ijaz Khwaja likewise saw grounds for optimism in the increase in civil society engagement, as evidenced for example by the spread of private (non-religious) schools, now accounting for one third of all pupils. He acknowledged that there was an increase in self-identification as Muslim, but he saw this as complementing and not substituting for Pakistani identity.  Sethi saw these two identity categories as in tension with each other, claiming that polls show 70% of Pakistanis identify primarily as Muslim.

London University professor Humeira Iqtidar had an interesting and somewhat controversial take on the rise of political Islam. She defines Islamism as the movement to develop a political agenda based on Islamic principles – that is, to engage with the modern state, and to start a discussion about what it means to be Muslim. Islamism is not simply a pietist desire to return to a traditional past. But in becoming engaged in politics, Islamist movements are forced to compete and bargain with other groups, and this find themselves inadvertently contributing to the emergence of a de-facto pluralism within democratic rules of the game. You can find her argument in this June 2011 article from the Guardian. She is the author of Secularising Islamists? Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Pakistan (2011).

Another challenge to Pakistani identity is the growing regionalism. Decentralization was a consequence of the 18th amendment to the constitution passed in April 2010, weakening the powers of the presidency. More power has been devolved to the provinces  – another reason why a military coup is less likely.  I discussed Baluchi separatism in an earlier blogpost. As discussed in a recent article in the The Dawn, there is also a modest separatist movement in Sindh, building its identity as “land of sufis” more tolerant than Punjab.

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