Pakistan might have nukes, but it fails virtually every other measure of a nation’s worth. Instead, it provides one of the more dangerous examples or where Islam and modernity clash.
I have found the recent stand-off between India and Pakistan much more worrying than anything to do with September 11 and its aftermath. After all, the murderously spoilt poor little rich boy Osmana bin Laden was a sufficient klutz at power politics that he got all the nuclear-armed powers against him simultaneously. Having all the nuclear weapons notionally pointed in the same direction is a lot less worrying than a bitter conflict where such things are pointed both ways.

It is even more of a worry when one of the parties (Pakistan) would have a reaction time to a nuclear attack measured in single minutes and they have fought three stand-up wars since Independence in 1947 and have long had an undeclared one on their Kashmir frontier.

Still, there can be little doubt which side it is natural for any liberal democrat to favour. India is a functioning democracy; Pakistan is a near-failed state which keeps lapsing into tyranny.

Moreover, in the current brouhaha, India is very much the aggrieved party. Pakistan, in the form of sections of its military and intelligence services, has been supporting terrorism against India for years. Particularly after the recent attack on the Indian Parliament, India most certainly does have a casus belli. (Some might be tempted to read the attack as a manifestation of Pakistani democracy-envy.)

Pakistan as failure

For those who want to speculate about the political implications of Islam, Pakistan provides an excellent test case. It became independent at the same time as India, with the same heritage – British colonialism. Unlike India, it was based on a particular religion: Islam. In fact, Islam is the entire reason for Pakistan’s existence, the inhabitants of the state having nothing else in common: a reason preserved in both the name of the state (the Islamic Republic of Pakistan) and its created capital (Islamabad).

But Pakistan has performed noticeably worse in the 54 years since being granted independence than India has. Apart from the brief interruption of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (for which she was punished by the Indian electorate with being decisively tossed out of power at the first opportunity), India has maintained democratic governance – including the supreme test, changes of government at the ballot box.

India has also performed better economically: the average Indian standard of living is now about 20 per cent higher than that of the average Pakistani, according to World Bank figures.

In fact, the real measure of Pakistan’s failure is that a Muslim in India has more rights, and more secure rights, as well as a higher average standard of living, than a Muslim in Pakistan. If the purpose of Pakistan was to preserve the situation of Muslims better than they would have done in a united India, then it has been a patent failure. Indeed, there is a perfectly respectable argument that the ordinary people of Pakistan would be better off if they were just re-absorbed into India (a prospect India’s ruling BJP would no doubt view with great alarm, since it is based around Hindu nationalism: this may help account for the Indian government backing away from conflict – apart from the obvious nuclear risks, some possible consequences of victory would be very unappealing to the BJP).

All of which both explains, and makes utterly pathetic, Pakistani antipathy to India. It is pathetic because Pakistan is completely outmatched in both numbers AND economic power. It is explained because what greater insult can there be to Pakistani identity than contemplating such unpalatable truths? And what greater need than for some suitable foreign scapegoat?

This fraught history also manifests what has been called the N + 1 dynamic of proliferation. If the US has the bomb, then Russia had to. If Russia had it, then China had to. If China had it, then India had to. And if India had it, then Pakistan had to. Fortunately, there does not appear to be any other state which needs it if Pakistan has it.

Kashmir manages to package all these tensions in one disputed place. The inhabitants are overwhelmingly Muslim, so ‘rightfully’ part of Pakistan. India insists on keeping it, for reasons of national prestige and because its crucial importance for the headwaters of the Ganges river system, thereby affronting Pakistan’s very raison d’etre. It was also notable that Kashmiri’s did not rise up in support of Pakistan when it invaded in 1965. Indira Gandhi’s meddling centralism later aggravated matters by imposing rule by her cronies, thereby adding democratic and local affronts to an already volatile mix (to say India has performed better than Pakistan as a polity is not to say it has not had its own failures). Kashmir expresses both India’s claim to be a successful secular state, with more Muslim citizens than Pakistan itself, and is a standing denial of Pakistan’s claim to be the necessary state for the area’s Muslims.

Yes, but

But to move from the failures of Pakistan to saying ‘see Islam is the problem’ is a little hasty. Malaysia is an overwhelmingly Muslim society granted its independence from Britain, but is a much more reasonable, and successful, polity than Pakistan. The problem with most ‘Islam is’ statements is that there are a lot of different Islams, and a lot of different contexts in which Islam operates.

Nevertheless, it seems simply otiose to consider the different trajectories of India and Pakistan without considering the most obvious different between them, the difference which in fact defines one of them – Islam.

Remind you of somewhere?

Now, where else do you get a case of a conflict between a non-Muslim entity and mostly Muslim enemies where the minority citizens of the entity have more rights, and more secure rights, plus generally a higher standard of living, than in polities where they are a majority?

Israel of course. As with India, Muslims and Pakistan, an Arab citizen of Israel has more rights, and more secure rights, than do Arabs of any Arab state. Leaving aside the obvious exception of the oil-states (where oil IS the reason for the exception), they also have much higher average standard of living (David Landes pointed out recently in the Sunday Times that, leaving aside fossil fuels, total exports from Arab states are less than Finland’s).

In his The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman tells the story of a Syrian acquaintance who is tortured by the nightly visions he sees on Israeli TV. No, it is not Jews having fun, it is ads. Specifically, ads for yoghurt and cornflakes. The Israelis have lots and lots of different fruit-flavoured yoghurt on sale: Syria doesn’t. The Israelis have crisp cornflakes: Syria has soggy ones. Not only does Israel exist, it patently does better than his country does. As the Syrian says, ‘It is not fair that we are a hundred years behind the Israelis and they just got here’.

No, it ain’t fair. But that, along with Israel’s military superiority, is because of the same reason: Israel is a modern society and none of its Arab opponents are.

Another struggle of modernity

For those who haven’t read my earlier piece on the scapegoat politics of the Middle East, I follow the model of modernity used by Karen Armstrong in her history of monotheistic fundamentalism, The Battle for God, which is a society which has internalised the constant change of innovation, including the institutions which foster innovation. A more florid and old-fashioned definition of modernisation is

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation … all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Where is this from? A couple of C19th agitators, a K. Marx and F. Engels, in a little 1848 pamphlet called the Communist Manifesto. Unfortunately, one cannot just call modernity ‘capitalism’ because some idiot will tell you Latin America is ‘capitalist’ (well, it is in some, analytically useless, sense) or what goes on in Africa is about ‘international capitalism’ and you get nowhere (though neither response is as great a sign of being brain-dead as is calling the former Soviet Union ‘state-capitalism’). Besides, use a term like ‘capitalism’ and too many people think you are just talking about economics, when there is much more to the phenomena of modernity than that, however grounded in key economic institutions it might be. And highly intelligent people once thought socialism was a path to modernity (post-Leninist joke: What is socialism? The longest and most difficult road from capitalism to capitalism.)

The same dynamic as with the Israel-Arab conflict operates in the India-Pakistan conflict. India is a more modern society than Pakistan (or, to be more precise, India has successfully absorbed far more aspects of modernity than has Pakistan). Yet, they started at the same place. It is hard not to finger Islam as the problem.

But is it not Islam per se which is the problem (remember Malaysia, which is modernising quite successfully). It is Islam conceived as the source of identity and unity which is the problem (and Islam is the only thing which the varied ethnic groups of Pakistan have in common).

This is because Islam provides no clear pointers to how to modernise. So focusing on how Islamic you are is a huge handicap in modernising, as there is no demonstrated, clear-cut Islamic road to modernisation on easy offer. Malaysia, for example, has a Malay road to modernisation (try and copy your Chinese minority like fury, a minority which themselves are a great asset in the path to modernisation), but not a Muslim one. So, by focussing on being Islamic, one becomes diverted from what is required for modernisation. In a piece by Farrukh Dhondy in the City Journal (Autumn 2001, Vol. 11, No. 4) he describes how, growing up as a Parsee in India, he noticed how uninterested in the rest of the world and the concerns of the rest of the world, his pious Muslim acquaintances were. If you don’t try and grapple with the outside world intellectually, it is a bit pointless whining when it then behaves in ways you don’t like and don’t understand. Deciding that the United States, for example, behaves in the way it does because it is ‘Satanic’ or ‘Jewish-dominated’ may console you by appearing to provide a suitably ‘Islamic’ reason for what happens, but still remains a self-referring fantasy that does not get you far in grappling with the real world.

Though, as we have discovered, it can be quite effective at motivating people to slaughter innocents in large numbers. But, then Nazism and Leninism had strong fantasy elements too, and they have unbeaten records in the deliberate slaughter business: there is little doubt that the right sort of fantasies are a great aid to mass murder. What is not understood – but is obviously powerful and successful – can be very scary if one is locked into a very particular, and very narrow, way of looking at the world because your self-identity is wrapped up in that view of the world.

Islam wasn’t always like this

A point several commentators have made is that Islam used to be very intellectually open and interested in the world around it. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy, in a recent piece in the Washington Post (December 30, 2001), points out that Islam used to be the centre of world science, before the closing of the Islamic mind around the fourteenth century (common era, the eighth century in the Islamic calendar) when the focus became how Islamic you were, with Islam as the centre of all that was intellectually important (so he has had a colleague who calculated the speed of Heaven and knows of an Pakistani nuclear engineer who advocated harnessing the power of genies for energy: all based on impeccable Qu’ranic sources).

Meanwhile, the West has come to completely dominate intellectual innovation. When Peter Watson composed his book on great ideas of the twentieth century (A Terrible Beauty: a history of the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind, also published as The Modern Mind: an intellectual history of the twentieth century), he failed to find a single important scholar, Western or non-Western, among about 150 scholars consulted who could nominate a single important new idea that had come from outside the West during the century. As my old teacher David Stove said, the key basis of Western success is that it is the only civilisation which has truly learnt how to learn.

Islam, by contrast, has spent the time since the fourteenth/eighth centuries forgetting how to learn. Now, the most virulently Islamic whine and moan that they have been overtaken by mere infidels who have learnt more powerfully than has ever been achieved before what their own civilisation quite deliberately forgot. And forgot because its intellectual life became dominated and devastated by, well, people with attitudes like theirs. They are a symptom of the disease, not a solution.

A depressing dynamic

So the prospects for Pakistan are not good. And now they have nuclear weapons, and a Hindu nationalist party has become a key party of government in India, the solution of re-absorption into India is not on offer (and even a seriously Machiavellian anti-BJP Indian government which might calculate that all those extra Muslim voters could be a good idea would have the obvious drawback of why would said voters vote for their conquerors? It is notable that India has not used either of its victories in the two Indo-Pakistani Wars to increase its territory).

Which is a recipe for more of the same. That is, a nuclear-armed Pakistan which is a failure in terms of its alleged purpose, teetering on the edge of being a failed state, seeking to hide and exorcise its failure by the scapegoat of Indian enmity (which it in fact does much to provoke) yet lacking the wherewithal to modernise, so becoming ever more of a patent failure compared to its much bigger, more politically stable and ever more richer rival, so ever more driven to failure-exorcising and scapegoating enmity. The pattern of the last Indo-Pakistani wars – the Pakistanis initiated the major military action, followed by Indian victories – manifests the essential dynamic of the tension between the two countries.

This, needless to say, is not a terribly encouraging long-term prospect. If India can keep its nerve with those nuclear weapons pointed at it, the balance between the two will continue to shift ever more strongly in its favour. So, provided it does not find the strain too much, it has little incentive to do more than slap Pakistan periodically if it goes too far. This probably also reduces the incentive to ‘take out’ the Pakistani nuclear capacity in the way Israel did against Iraq in 1982. India does not have a single target and does not face the possibility of obliteration in the way Israel does.

Pakistan, on the other hand, faces an ever more unpleasant situation of deteriorating relative power and increasingly obvious relative (and absolute) failure. The temptation to do something drastic before things get even worse is likely to be commensurately greater.

But probably not so great as to do anything REALLY stupid. After all, a Pakistan which used its nuclear weapons is a Pakistan which would cease to exist: not only would India retaliate but it would become crystal clear that Pakistan’s continued existence as a state was a risk India could no longer tolerate. The prospect of the US joining up with India (which, for obvious reasons and painful experience, was extremely willing to sympathise with the US over September 11) was what gave Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf no choice but to sign up for George W. Bush’s war against terror. The much greater danger is accident and misjudgment, which why the US has volunteered to help both sides with protection and control mechanisms for their nuclear weapons.

Does Pakistan need a Khomeini?

So, is there no way out for Pakistan? Oddly enough, there is a maybe-model worth considering. That model is the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini.

For Khomeini was much more of an innovator than he pretended to be. In fact, in many ways he was more of a Iranian moderniser (and Westerniser) than the Shah his revolution overthrew. In the end, the Shah was a sort of low-grade Peter the Great: someone who could force a facade of modernisation on his society, but not the inner heart of it (it is one of the ironies of history that the most successful moderniser of Russia before Yeltsin and Putin was the last Tsar, Nicholas II: under him Russia achieved economic growth rates the Soviets never matched, but he proved completely incapable of managing the political consequences of what this let loose – mind you, World War One was a lot to cope with).

What Khomeini’s revolution did, as Bernard Lewis has wickedly pointed out, was adapt a whole series of Western institutions to Iran while throwing a Islamic cloak over the top of them. He created something that looks very like an episcopate, and established an elective Parliament and Presidency that, while not supreme, certainly count. Parliamentary and electoral politics are much more serious in Iran than they are in any other Middle Eastern state, apart from Israel and Turkey, though Jordan comes close.

The current consequences of that dangerous democratisation is a spreading revolt against the Islamic puritanism of the clerics. But, then, Restoration England rejected Cromwell’s puritanism while it adopted and adapted his system of government (the way Charles II governed was a lot more like Cromwell did than like his executed father had: but Charles Jnr didn’t let filial loyalty stop him adopting what did work and rejecting what didn’t; his brother James II, on the other hand, displayed truly spectacular incompetence being the strongest ever Stuart king on his accession and yet being tossed out in a mere three years). Iran might end up going down the same path of adapting an existing model in an unexpected way.

If the consequence of Khomeini turns out to be a workable model of Islamic democracy, then the third wave of post-colonial Islamic politics (radical Islam) will have generated a path to modernisation after all.

The prototype of the second wave of post-colonial Islamic politics, radical secularism, did as well. But Ataturk had the great advantage with having Turkish nationalism to deal with, not an Arab nationalism which anchors in no particular state and keeps directing you back to the key prop of Arab pride – being the people of the Revelation. And it is a model that has not yet been successfully adopted by any other Middle Eastern state. As Geraldine Brooks points out in her fine Nine Parts of Desire, all Arab nationalism has led to is military defeat and crumbling economies.

Whether Iran does evolve a workable Islamic democracy is still a big if at the moment. And even more problematic as a model, since it will be an Islamic path that ends up rejecting narrow Islamism. It might prove to be as much of a one-off as Ataturk’s model did.

Still, Pakistan will not progress until it finds a way to make Islam and modernisation compatible. For Islam provides it only source of purpose and identity, while true modernisation is its only path out of snowballing failure.

Michael Warby is a Melbourne writer. [email protected]

The subscribers weigh in :

Former Age journo Richard Plunkett has written five books on India for Lonely Planet. He writes:

Dear Crikey,

I was interested to read Michael Warby’s piece on the ‘failure’ of Pakistan. However a couple of corrections are warranted.

1. India is not holding onto Kashmir because Kashmir holds the headwaters of the Ganges River. The Ganges begins about 700km south-west of Kashmir in the entirely Indian state of Uttarakhand. The main rivers in Kashmir, the Indus and the Jhelum, flow straight into Pakistan.

2. Pakistan hasn’t always been a ‘failure’. During the 1950s and 1960s it was a model of third world development. In fact South Korea adopted Pakistan’s industrialisation policies, and look where it went. Pakistan had a higher average income than India right up until the early 1990s.

3. The chances of India reabsorbing Pakistan are nil. India in fact has already had an opportunity, and passed on it. This was in 1971 when the ‘east wing’ of Pakistan, now called Bangladesh, fell into civil war. India’s leaders debated whether or not to reabsorb the territory, before deciding that taking on another 70 million odd Muslims would be destablising. The Indian army liberated Bangladesh, then withdrew, leaving Bangladesh to become independent. There has been a longrunning debate in India over what to ‘do’ with Pakistan. One argument goes that it would be better to keep it as one country, another goes that Pakistan should be dissolved into separate nation-states based on language; Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and a Pashtun state in the North-West Frontier Province. The risk of the latter is that it may encourage Indian states (most of which are divided along language lines) such as Tamil Nadu to try to break away.


Richard Plunkett

Michael Warby re


Richard Plunkett is right about the Ganges, a silly mistake on my part. (Ed: this reference has since been deleted) On the point about India not absorbing Pakistan, I rather thought I set out reasons why no Indian political party would be interested. On the point about Pakistan’s failure, these things tend to snowball. Pakistan may have outperformed India economically earlier on (the permit Raj was pretty unfortunate in its consequences) but India rapidly pulled ahead in governance, and this has had the divergent effects we are now seeing. Korea’s governance being persistently better than Pakistan’s, it is not surprising that the transplanted industrialisation policies did better in Korea. This is rather my point.


Michael W

And then subscriber Natalie weighed in:

I’m surprised Crikey is giving space to Mr Warby’s warblings. The tosh that this man passes off as comment is exemplified in his comment in this piece that:

“Malaysia is an overwhelmingly Muslim society granted its independence from Britain, but is a much more reasonable, and successful, polity than Pakistan. “

Is Mr. Warby referring to the Malaysia which uses an internal security act to detain without trial (a legacy of British rule also used against opposition forces in Singapore I believe), has corrupted the judiciary to the extent that trumped up charges are successfully used to silence the main opposition to the ruling party, and which has only just dropped defamation charges against a lawyer for remarks in court while defending his client. From this angle it looks like not much of a contest.