Interview Ayesha Jalal
Pakistan: A State with a Split Personality

President Musharraf is a man with more than one face. His contradictions match Pakistan's history. This nation was defined along religious identity and the army has always been a source of unelected political power. An interview with Ayesha Jalal

President Pervez Musharraf is a man with more than one face. His contradictions match Pakistan's history. This nation was defined along religious identity and, from the very beginning on, the army was a source of unelected political power. In this interview Ayesha Jalal elaborates on these issues

photo: AP
Pakistan's President Musharraf at the election ballot

​​In 1999, General Musharraf risked full scale war with India when his army's Kargil Campaign in Kashmir thwarted peace efforts then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had initiated. Recently, however, Musharraf himself started peace talks with India – acting as a head of state who has acquired power by military coup. Musharraf's rhetoric is one of democracy and devolution of governmental powers.

Nonetheless, he has had the constitution modified in order to secure a strong, central authority for his presidential office. In the past, he was inclined to speak in islamist terms. In December, on the other hand, he only closely escaped two assassination attempts. He has become a target of violence because he reaffirmed Pakistan's position as an ally of the United States after September 11, 2001 and gave up support for the Taliban immediately.

These fundamentalist warriors, however, would never have risen to power in Afghanistan without the initial help of Pakistan's army and secret service.

Since independence, there has been a strong tendency towards military dictatorship in Pakistan – while neighbouring India has mostly seen democratically elected governments. As both countries share the same historical background, some people blame Islam for this difference. Do you agree?

Ayesha Jalal: Such essentialized and reductive interpretations raise more questions than they answer. The reasons for long spells of military dictatorship in Pakistan and a formally democratic system in India have to do with different political and institutional legacies of colonialism in the two countries. India inherited the unitary state structure from the colonial period while Pakistan had to construct a wholly new central state apparatus to govern territories separated by over a thousand miles of Indian territory.

Moreover, compared to the Congress party machinery in India, the Muslim League had limited social bases of support and an inadequate organisational structure in the territories which became part of Pakistan. In the context of the cold war and tensions with India, this enabled the non-elected institutions of the new state - the civil bureaucracy and the army – to tip the balance against parties and politicians. So it is the imbalances within the state structure, and not Islam, which has made democracy an elusive goal for Pakistan.

Is there anything about Islam as a religion or as the ideological basis of the concept of the Pakistani nation that is inherently incompatible with representative government?

Jalal: It is not Islam as a religion but particular interpretations of Islam used in defining the ideological basis of Pakistan which, together with the problems I have mentioned before, have proven incompatible with efforts to establish a stable system of representative government. All modern nation-states in principle claim to extend equal rights of citizenship, irrespective of creed, racial or any other form of social difference.

And while those nations who define themselves in religious terms certainly complicate the task of conferring equal rights on all their citizens, self-professedly secular states have hardly been more successful in ensuring equitable treatment to all, irrespective of their religious, caste or sectarian affiliations.

Are you referring to your thesis that formally democratic India has, in practice, not been substantially less authoritarian than Pakistan because the rule of law is not firmly established and traditional patterns of power often prevail in every day life?

Jalal: Yes, there are ways in which authoritarianism manifests itself in the Indian political system. What I argued in my book "Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia" was that covert forms of authoritarianism rooted in the institutional structures of the post-colonial state in India can, and do co-exist, with formal democracy. A close study of the nexus between elected and non-elected institutions in certain regions of India bears this out quite clearly.

Shouldn't one expect the egalitarian principles of Islam to be more democracy-enhancing than Hinduism's hierarchical view of mankind?

Jalal:Despite its egalitarian principles, Islam in South Asia historically has been unable to avoid the impact of class and caste inequalities. As for Hinduism, the hierarchical principles of the Brahmanical social order have always been contested from within Hindu society, suggesting that equality has been and continues to be both valued and practiced.

Is President Pervez Musharraf's promise of leading the nation to a functioning democracy credible?

Jalal: Unfortunately it is not. How can he do so by doggedly trying to retain all the powers, albeit on behalf of the corporate interests of the army? In order for democracy to take root and flourish in Pakistan, there has to be a shift in the balance of power from the non-elected to the elected institutions. This is precisely what General Musharraf is most reluctant to concede. For all his talk about creating a system of checks and balances, the general is unwilling to accept any checks and balances on his own role.

Is there any basis for democratic progress?

Jalal: Democracy can only take root in Pakistan if it is given a fair chance. The problem has been that extended periods of military rule followed by short terms of elected government are not sufficient to ensure a transition to democracy. This is the more so in a situation such as Pakistan's where there is a structural imbalance between elected and non-elected institutions of state.

At the very least Pakistan needs an uninterrupted period of elected governments. None of the elected governments between 1985 and 1999 managed to complete their terms in office. However, democracy is not simply about elections at regular intervals. One can only hope that some of the beginnings made by elements in civil society to create the space for free and meaningful debate on a welter of issues facing Pakistan will in the long run contribute to the strengthening of democracy in that country.

The international environment too could play a key role in this respect. But it is not enough to make rhetorical gestures to democracy while working with a military ruler. The United States, Europe, indeed the international community as a whole, can make a difference to the prospects for democracy in Pakistan by practicing what they preach.

What viable alternative is there other than to cooperate with Musharraf's regime?

Jalal: Cooperating with the Musharraf regime does not mean sanctioning his bid to permanently institutionalize the Pakistan army's dominance within the state structure. It is important to use the influence certain countries have with the regime to impress upon it the need to opt for a negotiated balance between elected and non-elected institutions – parliament and the military high command in particular.

Unlike earlier dictatorships in Pakistan, Musharraf's military regime is hardly known for civil rights abuse. For instance, the press is still reasonably free and articulate. Does this imply that civil society has taken deeper root?

Jalal: Yes, Musharraf's military regime is different in many ways from Zia-ul-Haq's. But one cannot assume that there are no abuses of civil rights in Pakistan under Musharraf. On the contrary, those on the wrong side of the power equation would be the first to tell you that the pressures they are being put under are in some ways as bad, if not worse, than those under Zia.

And there are skeptics who say that Musharraf is in some ways more dangerous than Zia because he is lulling segments of civil society into a false sense of security. What they mean is that while Musharraf perpetuates his authoritarian rule by claiming to be secular, moderate, liberal and 'democratic', Zia made no bones about the conservative and ruthless character of his authoritarian rule. However, there is no question that Musharraf's regime has created far more space for debate - the press is for the most part relatively free - than was ever permissible during the eleven years of Zia's dictatorship.

His regime has also tried, however unsuccessfully, to clamp down on the sectarian groups who have been wreaking havoc on Pakistan's fragile social weave. And finally, there have been attempts to give certain non-governmental organizations greater access to state institutions, thereby strengthening their role in civil society.

All this might create the impression of a deepening of civil society in Pakistan. But the problem is that under Musharraf's scheme of things in which the military has to reign supreme, there is little scope for effectively widening the role of civil society vis-a-vis a military dominated state.

Before September 11, 2001, Musharraf seemed quite close to the "sectarian groups" you mentioned – for instance in his rhetorical support for Muslim activists in Kashimir and particularly during the army's Kargil campaign there. Why did he need such islamist rhetoric?

Jalal: The Islamist rhetoric has been part and parcel of the ideological projections of Pakistan's military dominated state ever since Zia-ul-Haq hitched his wagons to the American backed jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Musharraf inherited that policy, became a key player in its effective promotion and, after assuming power, sought to execute it according to his preferred vision of Pakistan's 'national interest'. The use of Islamic rhetoric in justifying Pakistan's Kashmir policy in the 1990s served the Pakistan army's interest.

Despite the imbalance in conventional military prowess between the two neighbors, such a policy meant keeping a considerable portion of the Indian army locked in a low intensity conflict in Kashmir with no appreciable new burdens on the state exchequer or immediate threat to Pakistan's international borders with India.

New Delhi's decision to go for the nuclear tests in May 1998 only strengthened the military high command in its belief that whatever happened along the line of control in Kashmir, India would not risk an attack across Pakistan's international border.

Pakistan is a seriously troubled state – not least because it is entangled in Afghanistan's tragedies. How does the US-led "War on Terror" change the domestic situation in Pakistan?

Jalal: On the positive side, September 11, 2001 forced the Pakistani military establishment to rethink its pro-Taliban policy which had had disastrous international, regional as well as internal consequences. This brought Pakistan out of international isolation and opened up sources of desperately needed external assistance. So on the economic front, the situation has improved though much more needs to be done to reverse the alarming increase in poverty during the past decade.

Politically, the 'war on terror' has created headaches for Musharraf's regime. It has meant forging a tactical alliance with the United States and exposed Musharraf to the charge of 'selling out' to American imperialism, one that touches a raw nerve not only among the so-called Islamists but also many moderate liberal nationalists. But while the US-led 'war on terror' has been a mixed bag of treats for General Musharraf, he has undoubtedly gained in stature internationally.

This has encouraged him to pursue his domestic political agenda in a more determined fashioned which, in turn, has resulted in the constitutional deadlock with the opposition parties over the issue of the Legal Framework Order.

Do Islamists pursue a genuine religious agenda or are they serving other?

Jalal: There is considerable variation among the 'Islamists'. Most of them believe that they are promoting a religious agenda. Certainly their critiques and demands are couched in Islamic idioms. However, it is a moot point whether their motivation is 'purely religious' insofar as it is most often based on mainly temporal considerati ons.

Without making a facile and generalized distinction between the 'religious' and the 'secular', I will only say that one has to look at each instance carefully before determining the extent to which issues of religion are more important than those of temporal power per se.

Does religious fundamentalism thrive on the fact that most other social forces in opposition to the national government have lost their credibility?

Jalal: Yes, to a large extent this is true. The high hopes of the paragons of modernization that economic development would improve the overall quality of life for all and sundry have been shattered. Instead the boons of economic development have ended up privileging the few at the expense of the many, creating space for political forces drawing upon ideologies of religious salvation to challenge the legitimacy of pro-Western ruling elites in defining national agendas.

Have the traditionally close relations between the USA and Pakistan ever rested on a shared ideology other than anti-communism and animosity towards India?

Jalal: Relations between the USA and Pakistan have been based on self-interest which has kept shifting from one historical period to the other. During the height of the cold war, Pakistan was seen by Washington as a useful partner in the containment of communism. But it is arguable whether enlisting Pakistan's support in the battle against communism was based on animosity towards India. It was just a matter of convenience since India was then wedded to a policy of non-alignment.

For its part, Pakistan joined the American bandwagon in the Middle East and South East Asia in order to qualify for military assistance and thereby raise an effective shield of defense against India. So the relationship had always been based on the contradictory objectives of the two sides. With the end of the cold war and the warming of relations between the USA and India, Pakistan had been feeling the chill winds of exclusion until September 11.

Ayesha Jalal

© Ayesha Jalal 2004

Prof Dr Ayesha Jalal teaches South Asian history at Tufts University in the USA

This interview originally appeared in Magazine for Development & Cooperation 3/2004.

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