Foreign and Defense Policy, Terrorism

Pakistan’s Identity Crisis

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Sadanand Dhume aptly notes that Pakistan has produced a disproportionate number of terrorists that have either attacked or attempted to attack the West. In addition to the failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, Pakistani terrorists include

The CIA shooter Mir Aimal Kasi; the 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef (born in Kuwait to Pakistani parents); 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapper, Omar Saeed Sheikh; and three of the four men behind the July 2005 train and bus bombings in London.

Dhume argues that Pakistan’s terrorist production capability can be traced to its founding as the world’s first modern nation based solely on Islam. “From the start, the new country was touched by the messianic zeal of pan-Islamism,” he notes. “The country’s name means “Land of the Pure.” The capital city is Islamabad. The national flag carries the Islamic crescent and star. The cricket team wears green.”

He proposes that the goal for reforming Pakistan should be to “replace its political and cultural DNA. Pan-Islamism has to give way to old-fashioned nationalism” (italics mine).

However, Dhume’s solution overlooks the idiosyncratic nature of the Pakistani state itself.  From its founding under Muhammad Ali Jinnah to its “Islamisation” under General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistani nationalism has been just as much a part of the country’s experience as Islam. This is because the country’s founding is rooted not merely in religion, but also in politics. Jinnah believed that under a united India, Muslims would never wield enough political power to balance the Hindu-majority. Therefore, he wanted to create a nation for Muslims separate from India, but one which would continue to be secular.

Thus the problem in Pakistan is not a dichotomy between Islamism and nationalism but rather a crisis of identity. While India has remained secular, it never proposed to be both Hindu and secular. Pakistani founders, on the other hand, wanted to be both secular and Muslim. But because Muslims continued to live peacefully in India (for the most part) and because of the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 from what was originally East Pakistan, Pakistan couldn’t truly justify its existence as a political refuge for Muslims in South Asia. This identity crisis produced factions in Pakistani politics that prevented good governance and institutional development. Other cultural identities—Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi—and conflicting degrees of Islamic identity produced a political system rife with polarized political parties. Almost every ruling government has ended in gridlock, assassination, or crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that the country has had difficulty governing the frontier regions that have served as a haven for terrorists.

Dhume may be correct that Pakistan does need to adopt a nationalism characteristic of normal countries. He’s also right that “an expansionist foreign policy needs to be canned in favor of development for the impoverished masses. The grip of the army, and by extension the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], over national life will have to be weakened.” But this reformation should not include the “old-fashioned nationalism” of Pakistani lore. It’s that nationalism that has been complicit in producing the ISI, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and even Faisal Shahzad.

Apoorva Shah is a research associate at AEI.

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