Books Review


By Stephen Philip Cohen,Brookings Institution Press, Washington,D.C. Reviewed by: Mohd Asim Siddiqui

The recent trouble in Pakistan following the dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary provides yet another instance of authoritarianism in a country which has seen in its brief history many coups, many military regimes and also a few popularly elected democratic governments. Pakistan is generally perceived as a failed democracy (for some a potentially rogue state) where army is the most powerful institution and where corruption is a way of life.

Stephen Philip Cohen’s The Idea of Pakistan presents a comprehensive account of Pakistan’s political face. The author traces the genesis of the idea of Pakistan and then goes on to discuss its history. For obvious reasons the author has to take account of the history of Islam and Muslims in the subcontinent. Strangely and unconvincingly, because he does not develop this point, he traces the genesis of the idea of Pakistan to the views of Syed Ahmed Khan.By no stretch of imagination can Syed Ahmed Khan  be held responsible for the creation of Pakistan.  Predictably, he goes on to discuss the politics behind the two-nation theory, the ideas of Jinnah and Iqbal and finally the birth of Pakistan. The author points out that from the very beginning the state of Pakistan was conceived in opposition to Hindu India, was to be an extension of the great Islamic empires of South Asia, inherited a certain identity from the British India and was to be an important part of the Ummah.

Cohen refers to a number of important addresses of Jinnah in which the latter outlined his idea of Pakistan. It may surprise many to know that Jinnah had conceived a secular Pakistan. “whether Sunni, Shi’ia, Bengalis, Tamils, Pathans, Punjabis, or Hindus of any caste—not to mention Christians or Parsis—all residents of the new state were Pakistanis, Jinnah proclaimed, and he urged cooperation(p.43).”No wonder L K Advani called Jinnah secular when he visited Pakistan a few years ago though his remarks were considered politically incorrect by his party and Advani had to pay a price for his indiscretion. Cohen appropriately says that the blasphemy laws and the law declaring Ahmediyyas to be non-Muslims are “stains on the Jinnah-of-Pakistan model.” In the same way Jinnah would not have approved the rise of fundamentalism, or what is now termed Islamism, in present day Pakistan.

Cohen goes on to discuss the state of Pakistan under various rulers. Thus Ayub Khan was more concerned with Pakistan’s security and he identified the threat posed by India.  Under him “Pakistan was to undergo a transition from a homeland for Indian Muslims to a fortress, where its citizens could live more or less “Islamic” lives secure from the predatory India. Forty years later, this is still the dominant theme of Pakistan politics (61).”Cohen reminds readers of Ayub’s offer of a “joint defense” in case of external aggression which India rejected. India in its turn offered a “no war” agreement to Pakistan which was not acceptable to Ayub Khan.

Cohen comes out with some revealing facts about Pakistan’s economic progress under Ayub’s leadership. A champion of free enterprise, Ayub emphasized the role of export in strengthening Pakistan’s economy. In his time “countries such as South Korea and Malaysia saw Pakistan as a model for export- led growth strategies (66).”There was also a steady flow of aid from American, European and Japanese quarters. Cohen also reveals the unpleasant fact that under Ayub’s leadership Pakistan started manufacturing an ideology which presented army the most important or rather a sacrosanct institution in Pakistan. History was also written in such a manner that, as Cohen remarks, “today, many Pakistanis do not have access to an objective history of their own country (68).”In later years Zia ul Haq also monitored the writing of Pakistan’s history to suit his Islamization programme.

Cohen repeatedly mentions the elitist nature of Pakistan’s politics. Some twenty families exercise considerable control over Pakistan’s economy. Pakistan is ruled by an “Establishment” which consists of army, bureaucracy and feudal lords. The author also talks about the partition of Pakistan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s solution to Pakistan’s security dilemma. Bhutto turned to China for a strategic alliance to counter the potential threat from India. He also presented a blend of socialism and Islam. Another decision of Bhutto was to turn Pakistan into a nuclear power which Cohen terms fateful.

Cohen talks at length about the role of army in Pakistan’s politics. Having retained the structure of Indian army of the British period it is but natural that the Pakistani officers considered the British officers as their role models. In later years the army also invoked Islamic slogans though Islam has not “displaced the essentially professional orientation of the army (111).”It was Zia who made serious efforts to extend his Islamization programme to the army. “He firmly believed that one could be a secular scientist, soldier, or scholar, but that a man who was truly religious would be a better professional (113).”Cohen also questions the ambivalent stance of Pakistani strategists on using terror tactics and the issue of using weapons of mass destructions. The army will in all probability continue to play a major role in Pakistan’s politics as it prides itself on its professionalism, patriotism, power, and honesty.

In other chapters of the book Cohen dwells on the role of political parties in Pakistan and the Islamic character of Pakistan. Obviously the big concern of political parties is to hold on to power in the face of a permanent threat from the powerful army. A recurrent theme in the book is the corrupt ways of the politicians. As for the Islamic character of Pakistan, Cohen justifiably discusses the role of Jamat Islami in Pakistan society. However, there has not evolved any consensus on the role of Islam in Pakistan politics. As there are various interpretations of Shariat, it has not been possible to stick to any one definitive interpretation of Islam. Also,remarks Cohen, “abandoning Western-derived practices for unproven Islamic ones is a risky business (168).”A point that Cohen touches but does not develop convincingly is the link between the Jama’at and the al Qaeda. At times Cohen sounds very critical of the state of Pakistan. Thus at one point he remarks: “Pakistan would seem to be a candidate for membership in the “axis of evil”: it has terrorists, nuclear weapons, an increasingly influential group of radical Islamists, and a stagnant economy (196).”Cohen offers a perceptive view of Pakistan society when he points out that most Pakistani are not radical and that Pakistan is too occupied with problems of ethnic , linguistic and economic nature.

Cohen comes out with a very intelligent reading of Pakistan’s ethnic and linguistic complexities. Ever since its creation Pakistan has witnessed many ethnonationalist movements often resulting in language riots, and assertion of demographic identities. Cohen presents a historical analysis of the separatist tendencies in Sindhis, Mohajirs,the Pashtuns and the Baluch tribes.The  theme of the dominance of Punjab region in Pakistan politics is also developed by the author. He is also right when he comments that most of Pakistan’s ethnolinguistic problems have been caused by the centre’s dismissal of provincial governments.

In a related chapter Cohen tries to understand the demographic, educational and economic prospects of the state of Pakistan. He provides some useful data to record the population growth rate of Pakistan and compares it with some other countries. As far as education is concerned, Pakistan presents a very gloomy picture. Cohen supports the view that the products of Pakistan’s traditional Madarsas and the Westernized elites  carry two different and diametrically opposed worldviews.Although this will appear to be true not only for Pakistan but for other countries as well. “Pakistan’s public education system is appropriate for a traditional hierarchical society that need not compete internationally with similar countries for markets, technology, and investment (241).”The education system at the university level too is in need of reform.

While reading the book one can easily see the American slant of the author. The chapter titled “American Options”unambiguously views the policies of Pakistan in terms of American interests. Pakistan’s nuclear interests, its democratization, its strained relationship with India and the rise of fundamentalist forces in Pakistan are issues which, the author notes, definitely concern Washington. The author also mentions the fear of Pakistanis with regard to Americans’ shifting preferences. “Almost all Pakistanis are deeply troubled by what they see as an American tilt toward Israel in the Middle East (which they compare with America’s perceived tilt toward India against Pakistan {328})”, concludes Cohen.

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