Pakistan, Islam and Democracy

Pakistan, a country 97 percent Muslim, has just made its first successful transition from one elected, civilian government to another since its founding in 1947. The country has had long bouts of military rule, and a history of coups against elected prime ministers, as well as, in the 1990s, a series of presidential decrees dismissing governments before their term was up (a prerogative the president no longer has). In 1999, Gen. Pervez Musharraf made a coup against then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, sending him into exile in Saudi Arabia. Today, Sharif is on the cusp of forming a new government, and Musharraf has just had to post bail in a criminal case against him.

The election in Pakistan had some difficulties, and one international observer termed it only 90% upright, 10% corrupt. In particular, the large port city of Karachi has seen a lot of contention about the outcome, and a prominent politician there was assassinated. Still, the over-all outcome of the election appears to be on the up and up. People really were tired of the largely corrupt Pakistan People’s Party, which had difficulty delivering basic services like electricity and water. The major opposition party organized to win at the polls, the Muslim League, has emerged as the single largest party, and has attracted enough independents to cross the aisle that it can form a government without going into coalition. The Pakistan Justice Movement (PTI) of Imran Khan made an amazing showing as a set of fresh faces, and became the third largest party. It will form the provincial government in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (the old North-West Frontier Province), the Pushtun-majority area that has been bedeviled by Taliban extremism, and where voters prefer secular alternatives.

The emergence of Imran Khan’s PTI as a third force in Pakistani politics, standing, it says for human and women’s rights, is an important indicator of change. Likewise, the Pakistani judiciary and rule of law has begun playing a more forceful role in the country’s politics since 2008. The army seems happy enough to be back in the barracks and is focused on its contest with India in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

A persistent meme in punditry, which sometimes has found echoes in academic literature, saw Islam as inimical to parliamentary democracy. It was always a stupid argument. Arguably, Islam per se has seldom been very important in Pakistani politics, which like all politics are primarily about competition for state resources among large socio-economic groups. The small fundamentalist Jama’at-i Islami has never done very well in elections, and did not do well in this one. Aside from 1970 and 2002, it has seldom broken above 3% of seats in the federal parliament, and only once been a dominant force at the provincial level (it was part of a ruling coalition in the North-West Frontier Province in 2002=2008). Pakistan had difficulties with democracy in part because of the way the 1947 Partition from India worked out. West Pakistan had virtually no industry, was largely rural, and cities like Lahore were hurt by the departure of Hindu and Sikh mercantile classes. It inherited a lion’s share of the old British Indian Army (the British had categorized Muslim Punjabis as a ‘martial class,’ good at fighting). So you had a country of officers, hacienda landlords, and peasants, and it wasn’t a recipe for democracy (as the similar social profile in much of Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s also was not).

Ironically, some of the punditry about Islam being incapable of democracy was generated by the Israel lobbies, which wanted to position Israel as a democratic ally of the US and similar to it, and to castigate the Muslims as prone to dictatorship and aligned with whatever the enemy du jour of the US was– Communism, Third Worldism, al-Qaeda– it didn’t seem to matter. It is ironic because there are real issues in Israeli, Zionist democracy, which treats non-Jews as second class citizens and privileges groups like the Ultra-Orthodox, not to mention ruling undemocratically over millions of stateless, Occupied Palestinians.

But Pakistanis have many roles and identities beyond their religion, and those roles can change rapidly. The Pakistan urban middle classes have grown by leaps and bounds since 2000, and they are enthusiastic about parliamentary politics. The proportion of people living in cities is now 36% , and if you include the rurban population (many villages around Lahore, e.g., are now integrated economically with the city), people living in the orbit of urban life are likely a majority.

The two big storied parties in Pakistan have been the Pakistan People’s Party, which just lost big, and the Muslim League. The PPP began as a populist party, analogous to the US Democratic Party before 1965, putting together a coalition of urban workers and southern (Sindhi) rural landlords and peasants, and it had a rhetoric of secularism and left of center ideology. It won the 2008 elections but has governed very badly, and was punished at the polls.

The Muslim League began as a vehicle of Muslim representation and then separatism in the old British India before 1947. After 1947 it picked up various constituencies, including Punjabi landlords and many of their peasants (thus succeeding the old Unionist Party of the colonial era), as well as shopkeepers and the budding class of business entrepreneurs. Hence, the party’s current leader and the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is a steel magnate. The party favors private enterprise and more open markets. Roughly speaking, the Muslim League has some resemblances to the US Republican Party. Despite the “Muslim” in its name, the party is not notably fundamentalist in orientation, though its deputies have been willing to pass legislation strengthening the hold of Islamic law (just as a lot of American Republicans are not themselves pious but are willing to pass laws restricting abortion to get the evangelical vote). George W. Bush, during the 2007-2008 transition from military rule, tried to campaign against the Muslim League, confusing it apparently with the Jama’at-i Islami or even al-Qaeda!

All religions have had difficulties coming to terms with Enlightenment ideas, but religion has seldom been determinative in the formation of modern nation-states. Is Austria less democratic because majority Roman Catholic? Yet in the mid-19th century the pope condemned most democratic practices as a modernist heresy, and at some points forbade the faithful to vote in elections. An argument was also sometimes made that Confucian societies had difficulty with democracy, hence Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese militarism and the Chinese one-party state.

Such culturalist arguments always flounder in the end because culture itself is fluid and changing. Once Japan, then South Korea, then Taiwan, underwent democratic transitions, the old Confucianist argument fell by the wayside. Likewise, the argument about Islam being incompatible democracy seems increasingly threadbare.

What happens in Pakistan matters to the rest of the world. Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous country, with some 176 million people (after China, India, the United States Indonesia and Brazil). It is the world’s 46th largest economy, trailing Egypt and the Philippines, even though its population is much greater. It is a nuclear state, like the US, Russia, France, Britain, China, Israel and India. Keeping its parliamentary democracy going will require that Pakistan develop economically.

Cole’s Laws of Economic development are that 1. Poor countries must grow 6% faster than their populations for many years in a row to raise per capita income; 2. Poor countries must wring corruption out of their governmental system; 3. Poor countries must invest in infrastructure, including electricity (you can’t run factories during blackouts) and security; 4. Poor countries must make things others want to buy at an attractive price and quality; 5. The rich in poor countries must be made to pay their taxes and 6. Poor countries must attract foreign investment because local business elites are small and weak.

Islam seems to me largely irrelevant to these sorts of policy. Saudi Arabia manages to attract a lot of foreign investment despite being a fundamentalist Wahhabi state far to the right of Pakistan (which has a lot of Sufis, urbane Shiites and secularists).

Pakistan under the Pakistan People’s Party was doing the opposite of these six things. Pakistani population growth rates are high, and its economy has only been growing 3% a year, which means virtually zero per person increase. The infrastructure has been neglected, and the shortfall in electricity production is an astounding 40%. The PPP, though not only it, is extremely corrupt. Only 25 percent of the economy is taxed.

The good thing about Nawaz Sharif being prime minister is that he is a businessman and understands some of these issues. He lowered barriers to trade in the 1990s. But with regard to development, Pakistan has been going in altogether the wrong directions. It needs to find ways of growing the economy faster than it is growing its population. Turning it around so that it avoids social and economic deterioration will be no easy task.

I doubt any of it has much to do with Islam one way or another.

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Responses | Print |

16 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole,

    Thanks for this. For a somewhat alternative, little-reported view of post-elections Pakistan, please see my own piece, published on election day, May 11: link to

    Please also share widely and feel free to comment and criticize.

    Best wishes,


  2. The sixt most populous country, but only after 1. China, 2. India, 3. USA, and 4. Brasil? That looks like fifth…

  3. Let’s hope the third time around is the charm for Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan. Since the establishment of Pakistan in 1947, Pakistan has experienced both military and civilian governments, and neither has performed well, not in the political sphere nor in the economic sphere.

    I certainly subscribe to “Cole’s Laws for Economic Development.” They are fundamental prerequisites for economic growth and development, and hence for bringing large segments of the population out of poverty. Examples over the last thirty years are China, India (to an extent), South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Chile. All subscribed to an export-led model, while welcoming foreign direct investment and eschewing the old “import substitution” model, the heavy hand of the state, and the printing of money that led to inflation, all of which drove so many Latin American countries into the ground from the 1960s through the 1980s, and some even today.

    The problem with Pakistan is that the old elites are so entrenched that one wonders if they can accept foreign direct investment and other changes that threaten their “iron rice bowls” (to use a Chinese expression describing those segments of society with what appear to be lifetime sinecures). One can hope.

      • “By the way, the rules are neutral as to big public sector or big private sector. China did fine.”

        Agreed! South Korea also has closely intertwined government and private business working together, as does China with its state-led enterprises working with privately-owned enterprises. Sometimes its hard to tell them apart.

        Nevertheless, I think the key to a nation’s economic success, whether the economy is largely private sector driven or public sector driven, is to let the market determine production, prices, and distribution. The major problem with the old command Socialist economies of the USSR, China, Eastern Europe, and even India, is they were tied down by their “Five Year Plans.” They operated outside the market economy. This led to stagnation and shoddy products. Once they entered the market driven economy, they had to face competition, and this led to more efficiency and better products that could compete.

        One hopes Pakistan will follow suit.

      • Furthermore, the big protests and riots that are happening in the backwater towns of China seem to be about layoffs at state enterprises and the corruption of government by money. Yet if these eruptions are discussed on the Internet at all it’s by pompous neocons looking for signs that the Chinese people are about to overthrow the government in favor of Ayn Rand. Let’s not forget the violent riots by workers in India. They’ve all suffered through a period much like that of the capitalist Gilded Age in the West, whose abuses were the sole cause of the worker radicalism that followed. These citizens are more opposed to rule by corporations than we Americans, so far.

        • “Furthermore, the big protests and riots that are happening in the backwater towns of China seem to be about layoffs at state enterprises”

          “These citizens are more opposed to rule by corporations than we Americans”

          So what is the point of your two observations? That protests against layoffs from state enterprises indicate citizens are opposed to rule by corporations? That is a non-sequitur.

          Historically, all economic transformations have resulted in disruption. The development of Capitalism in Britain and the West resulted in the Enclosure Laws and Milton’s “Satanic mills” in Manchester, and labor-management strife in the US. It was far worse in the Socialist command economy of the Soviet Union, where Stalin’s forced industrialization and agricultural collectivization resulted in 20 million deaths. Not a pretty sight.

  4. “Turning it around so that it avoids social and economic deterioration will be no easy task.”

    Is Tom Friedman’s “Flat Earth” book available in the appropriate languages, to help the businessmen in Pakistan figure out the ways to “turn it around?” The “business”-based approach has worked so well on the rest of the planet? Which direction is the vector of survival?

    • Apparently one size doesn’t fit all. Some of the policies that helped make Turkey successful destroyed Argentina; Turkey obviously did some other things right. There is a set of intervening variables between success and neoliberalism tout court that Friedmanesque economists clearly don’t understand.

      • The Friedman suggestion was of course intended ironically. With human populations, with all the local and larger variations on the underlying themes of human behavior in all its ranges, one size or even a duality does not begin to fit all, depending of course on the goals of the game as set among the players who get to call the changes in the Calvinball rules.

        My prayer is that whatever the structures form into in the processes between here and extinction, that the vast majority of us human critters at least are blessed with fulfillment of the first two tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy. Since my ignorant, little-informed sense is that there is actually, if people put their minds to it and eschewed most of that greed thing and inhaled the essence of the ol’ Golden Rule, enough of everything that really matters to go all the way around the table. But most places (except Red China and a few others) still elevate that last of all human freedoms, the freedom to fornicate and reproduce, for a variety of reasons… so the “pitch” of the seating at the table keeps changing.

  5. Ever since the early 70s a small group of zionists met at Rands Organizaton to form the ‘Neocon Club’with the aim to grab the nuclear program of the third world nations and hand them to Uncle Sam, specially those from Islamic block.
    I 1990 they introduced the New World Order and we saw the epic of the Desert Storm with the knighthood of the Bush Clan! Nawaz Sharif has to please the Neocons of America and Saudi Arabia to stay in power for the next five years.

  6. Juan Cole, great piece of work I must say. Pakistan has been struggling for a stable political system of governance for a long time. The early military coups and through

  7. Unstable governments and the separation of East Pakistan are the reasons why the political system seems chaotic . The elections 2013 mark a change and hope for betterment since Imran Khan’s party ‘Tehreek e Insaf’ has emerged as the second largest party making a new history by raising voice to end status quo and feudal democracy and mobilizing the youth.

    • Farah, the separation of East Pakistan is being harped for no reason, its past time we move ahead and come out of confusion.
      Conflicts are seeds that we sow for our vested interest and that we need to stop. Today both the government and opposition
      have to mend their attitude towards socio-economic development
      in case the want to minimize terrorism,until we can completely
      get rid of the menace through proper Civic Education of the masses.Which means complete overhaul of our education system based on reality and not fake Islamic values.

  8. Thank you for this lively and informative piece on Pakistan, it should be widely read. To my view Professor Cole offers a winning analysis of Pakistan’s party politics in the context of the 11 May elections, and I think “Cole’s Laws of Economic Development” deserve underscoring—and I think the sort of economic growth – in light of Pakistan’s population growth — Cole calls for is right. His reflections on Islam and democracy – and his placing those reflections in the context both of Pakistan’s and the region’s history, as well as in the context of East Asian history, and so forth—are of particular interest to me. In all, what a masterly, telling, concise, and insightful post on Pakistan—I learned a good deal in reading it. (I will leave in abeyance the issues regarding Israel that he raises.)

    I write from Islamabad where I am a Fulbright scholar principally working with faculty and graduate students at Quaid-i-Asam University, among other things. A few years ago (when I was visiting professor at University of Michigan teaching courses in the history and American Culture departments) I attended two of Professor Cole’s public lectures. In both addresses he suggested the importance of engagement with the Middle East and South Asia by American scholars. I was inspired by his words. Later this morning (it is 7:30 a.m. in Islamabad as I type) I deliver a public lecture at Quaid-i-Asam University. The title of my talk is, “Contemporary American Politics in the Context of The American Founding [read: the eighteenth century Enlightenment]: The Importance of Founding Ideals; with Remarks on Parallels with M.A. Jinnah’s 11 August 1947 address before the National Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.” Okay, the working title is a mouthful—the posters announcing the talk offer a shortened version. Wish me luck. –All good wishes from a warm, sunny May morning in Islamabad. –John Louis Recchiuti

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