Pakistan was meant to be a model, an example for other nations to emulate. It was founded after World War II, as the sun was setting on the British Empire and India was preparing for independence. India’s Muslims, though glad to see the end of the Raj, were apprehensive about becoming a minority in a Hindu-majority land.
They envisioned instead what might be called a “two-state solution”: the establishment of a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims in areas where Muslims were in the majority. Their new nation was to be free, pluralist and tolerant. “We are starting with this fundamental principle,” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) declared in 1947, “that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”
What went wrong? In an excellent new book, “Purifying the Land of the Pure,” Farahnaz Ispahani both recounts and laments Pakistan’s “descent” into what it has become today: unfree, undemocratic, intolerant and both a sponsor and victim of terrorism.
A Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Ms. Ispahani spent years as a journalist and high-ranking Pakistani official. She clearly loves the land of her birth. It’s doubtful that she’ll ever be able to safely return.
Pakistan, she writes, started out “as a modern state led by secular individuals.” But it was not long before important “religious and political leaders declared the objective of Pakistan’s creation to be the setting up of an Islamic state.”
This tension reveals itself even in the country’s name. Pakistan is an acronym for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan. But in Urdu, the country’s lingua franca, the word means “Land of the Pure.” To what Ms. Ispahani calls “Islamist activists,” that implied a state that would embrace Muslim values and Islamic laws — as they defined them.
Following partition in 1947, millions of Indian Muslims moved to Pakistan while millions of Hindus moved in the other direction. This was not unique: After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire earlier in the century, Christians fled Turkey and Greek Muslims resettled in the Turkish heartland. A population transfer would occur also among Jews and Muslims in the Middle East. All these transitions from the colonial era caused suffering, but on the subcontinent both the scale and the lethality were greater: up to 12 million people displaced and as many as 2 million killed in intercommunal violence.
Despite the migrations, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Christians and Jews constituted 23 percent of Pakistan’s population at independence. Perhaps their rights would have been better protected had Jinnah not died in 1948. The following year, however, Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly officially declared “the objective of Pakistan’s constitution to be the creation of an Islamic state.”
In 1956, Pakistan became, Ms. Ispahani notes, “the first country to declare itself an Islamic Republic.” Nineteen years later, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took power in a military coup. Until his death in a plane crash in 1988, his primary mission was to further Pakistan’s Islamization.
As a consequence, minority communities today constitute only 3 percent of Pakistan’s population — but in a population of 195 million that’s still a large number. The prejudice and persecution they face continues unabated. It’s probably worsening.
Consider the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian who, Ms. Ispahani writes, in 2009 worked as a farm laborer and was “asked by the village elder’s wife to fetch drinking water. Some other female Muslim farmhands reportedly refused to drink the water, saying it was sacrilegious and ‘unclean’ to accept water from Asia Bibi, as a non-Muslim. Asia Bibi took offense, reportedly saying, ‘Are we not human?’ “
That led to an argument following which she was arrested, convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Salman Taseer, the (Muslim) governor of Punjab advocated on her behalf and against blasphemy laws. Mullahs issued fatwas condemning him and he was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. Asia Bibi remains in prison.
I first visited Pakistan in the early 1980s. I even met briefly with President Zia, though I can’t tell you I was savvy enough to understand the harm he was doing. My last visit to Pakistan was in 2009. I recall an acquaintance in Karachi telling me how cosmopolitan the city had been when he was young.
“It was a better place then,” he said wistfully. And forcing out those who had made Karachi diverse, he added, has not improved relations among the more homogenous demographic that has remained. On the contrary, there is now serious discrimination and frequent attacks against non-Sunni Muslims, including Ahmadis (who have been officially declared non-Muslims), Sufis and Shias.
I raised these issues during a lecture at the University of Karachi. One student threw a shoe at my head. It didn’t make contact but the next day, on the front pages of the country’s newspapers, he was depicted as a hero, standing up for Pakistan’s honor. I was presented less sympathetically.
A subsidiary point: Ms. Ispahani could not have written this book had she observed the strictures of “political correctness.” The belief systems that have led Pakistan to where it is today cannot be adequately described as “violent extremism.” She talks instead of “Islamism,” “jihadism,” “Islamist militancy” and “Islamist terrorism” — terminology that begins to open a window into the ideologies and theologies that now threaten free peoples (and those who might like to be) around the world.
I would argue that Pakistan’s history teaches at least three lessons. The first: Elections alone do not produce democracy. The second: Majority rule without minority rights leads to egregious illiberalism. Third: A state committed to the pursuit of religious “purity” will always find some of its subjects in need of “cleansing.” Down that path despotism lies.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.