Tag Archives: Pakistan

American Discourse and Islamic States

globeIn contemporary American discourse, the ways we talk about Islam and the Muslim world tend to be limited. The phrase “Middle East” has become synonymous with Islam in the American imagination. In recent years, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” has dominated western discourse about a large and malleable region of the world, but the concept of an Islamic state has appeared in numerous other historical moments, warranting a more nuanced understanding of the phrase.

Edward Said points out that “before the sudden OPEC price rises in early 1974, ‘Islam’ as such scarcely figured either in the culture or the media. One saw and heard of Arabs and Iranians, of Pakistanis and Turks, rarely of Muslims” (36). Discussions of nationality and ethnicity were practical for American discourse. Economically and politically, American discourse began homogenizing these polities under one overarching category: Islam. Oil price changes, revolutions in Iran, protests in India, and socialism in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s slipped away as Americans perceived dozens of countries as simply “The Middle East.”

The concept of the Islamic World actually has its roots in Medieval Islamic thought as the dar al-Islam, or the abode of Islam, which was a (most likely idealized) view of the Medieval world in which a Muslim could move freely throughout regions with Muslim rulers, ranging from Spain to the borders of China. The dar al-Islam was not a state, but a conceptualization of territories.

An older article in The Atlantic defined a Caliphate as “an Islamic State,” which is a historically insufficient definition.Nation-states emerged in Europe as a result of geographic borders solidified by absolutist monarchs who dictated what qualified as citizenship, namely religion, taxation policy, and loyalty to the crown. As European nations and colonies swept aside absolutism and attempted to create secular liberal republics, the concept of the state as a geographic fence with a common language and fiscal arrangement remained the same: a homogeneous block of identity.

Thomas Barfield calls this the American Cheese model of statehood, and uses Swiss Cheese as a metaphor for premodern regions of Central Asia such as Afghanistan (Barfield 67). Rather than a solid block, polities were porous, malleable, and not always ruled through and through by a dominant king or ideology. This is true, I think, of what most Americans call the Middle East. It is largely Islamic, but it is far from homogeneous. The relationship between citizen and state often differs from the easy system many Americans paint onto the world, trying to mark which populations are with us or against us. The U.S. and Pakistan share more in common historically, as republics formed from anti-British/anti-colonial independence movements, yet the U.S. has a better working relationship with Saudi Arabia, an oppressive regime that likes to bomb its neighbors and censor its people. (Maybe the U.S. has more in common with Saudi Arabia than I’d thought).

Likewise, the Caliphate did not function the way we often think state-religion relationships function today. The nineteenth century Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh wrote that Muslims never experienced “something that resembled the power wielded by the Papacy of Europe, nor were they ever exposed to a Pope-like figure who could and did exert power to remove Kings and banish princes, extract taxes and decree Divine laws” (Haj 93). Writing from the 1900s, his statement was true. Caliphs were not believed to rule the way Popes and monarchs claimed to, as infallible and acting as spokespeople of God to his otherwise hapless subjects. This is not to say that Caliphal rule was always just, but suggests that religion and state in the Islamic world grew up functioning alongside one another, but never competing with one another for control.

For most of Islam’s history, the initial Caliphate “remained head of the umma [community of believers] and a symbol of Muslim unity” but “would represent the administrative and executive interests of Islam while the scholars and Sufis defined Islamic religious belief” (Lapidus 102), and even that diminished as the Caliphate moved around, ending up in the Ottoman Empire where, after World War One, it was officially abolished. Smaller caliphates appeared every so often, but the use of the phrase “Islamic state” to describe a caliphate is too simplistic, because for much of history the Caliphate represented the separation of Islamic doctrine from political administration, at least in theory.

As such, the concept of a secular state grew up differently than it did in the west, perhaps with a greater dissonance. A single glance at the United States today, which passes laws about abortion based on religiously inspired magical definitions of personhood, suggests that we have yet to actually implement the separation of church and state.

Depending upon what is convenient for media and politicians, the Middle East contains parts of Africa, the Arab world, and Central Asia. If used literally, the Muslim World should be expanded to include China, Russia, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and regions of the Western Hemisphere where African Muslims were forcibly shipped during the Atlantic slave trade. The majority of the world’s Muslims are in Indonesia, not western Asia. The Islamic World is neither unified nor homogeneous, and instead encompasses a broad spectrum of religious, philosophical, and political discourses.

When Americans talk about the Islamic world, they typically think only of the Arab world plus Iran, because, as Said points out, it became convenient for Americans to think of themselves as persecuted by a collective polity (Islam) during the 1970s and 1980s. Violent extremists exist within a unique historical context; their crimes are not justified by that history, but they should nevertheless be understood as stemming from particular origins. It is neither useful nor intelligent to homogenize one billion people. States are intrinsically porous and malleable; Americans should recognize that this applies to the U.S. as well as the rest of the world.


Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Haj, Samira. Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition. Stanford University Press, 2009.

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Random House Vintage, 1997.

A Very Brief History of Pakistan

Official Flag of Pakistan

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Recently, the Taliban massacred 141 civilians, the majority of them children, in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Amid the grief, shock, and moral outrage, it is necessary to fully understand how it is that a Pakistani branch of an Afghan organization came to commit atrocities in a very new state. Pakistan has a complex recent history, and many nations have played a part in shaping it. While it is important to remember that the attack was the direct result of men who decided to pick up guns and murder innocent children for seeking an education, I believe that historical context provides an even deeper understanding which is important in directing and expressing our collective outcry.

Jinnah and Gandhi

Pakistan was born from the Indian Independence Movement of the 1930s and 1940s, and became a state in 1947 when England implemented a Partition plan under the Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten. The central conflict for Indian Muslims at that time was the representation of the Muslim minority in what would be a newly independent state. Then, the Independence Movement was led by a diverse group of people representing a variety of ideas: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were among those. Jinnah was the leader of the Muslim League, and wanted Indian Muslims to have satisfactory representation or their own state. Because Hindu Nationalist organizations such as the RSS, which was responsible for Gandhi’s assassination, were often openly hostile to Indian Muslims, it is no surprise that Jinnah wanted a separate state to protect the Muslim minority.

East and West PakistanIn 1947, Pakistan and India became two states; Pakistan, however, had two separate territories. It was divided into two sections, East and West, with India between them. The Partition of India was abrupt and dissatisfied both new governments. On August 15, 1947, millions of people woke up in a new country; many people found themselves in what they feared was the wrong country. This caused a massive migration and territorial dispute, resulting in the the relocation of 15 million people and the death of over one million.

After Independence, Nehru and Jinnah led their new countries as Prime Minister and Governor-General respectively. Whereas Nehru was elected and reelected numerous times and led his country through political and economic turmoil, Jinnah died one year after the founding of Pakistan. He was unable to lead the country he helped create as Nehru was. Pakistan remained in the Commonwealth until 1956 when it became a Republic. Unfortunately, a coup put into place a military dictatorship; Ayub Khan ruled from 1958 to 1969, when he handed power to another general, Yahya Khan, who ruled until 1971.

Before 1970, Pakistan and India had engaged in two wars, first in 1947 and then in 1965. Both involved the disputed territory of Kashmir, a princely state with a Muslim majority that nevertheless became part of India. The third Indo-Pakistani war involved East Pakistan’s independence and Pakistan’s first election. Yahya Khan allowed for an election in 1970, the first in Pakistan’s history, but when the East Pakistani Awami League won a majority, Khan sent West Pakistani military forces to quell the nationalist, pro-independence movements in East Pakistan. Civil War broke out, India entered the conflict, and the Pakistani military engaged in large-scale atrocities against Bangladeshi communities. During this Bangladesh Liberation War, approximately ten million refugees fled to India, and the Pakistani military massacred about three million civilians in what is now recognized as an act of genocide. East Pakistan became Bangladesh, an independent state. In addition, over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers became prisoners of war, and Khan ceded power to Zulfikar Bhutto in late 1971.

New Pakistan

Pakistan witnessed rapid-fire succession of Presidents and Prime Minsters as well as a series of military coups. For the most part, Pakistani leaders have had little time to make significant accomplishments; leaders have ranged from socialists to dictators who oversaw wars, land disputes, and a genocide.

Jinnah’s plan for Pakistan was to create a Muslim State, but not an Islamic State in the traditional sense. Jinnah himself was a secular leader, and wanted a secular state which would nevertheless offer security for the interests of Muslims in the wake of Hindu Nationalists threatening to undermine their rights in India. For the most part, Pakistan has suffered conflicts between military rule and democratic representation: its first constitution was replaced by martial law under a military dictatorship in 1958; its second constitution was replaced by martial law under a military dictatorship in 1977. There have been three periods of military rule, four wars with India, and various domestic and foreign conflicts largely stemming from the botched 1947 Partition. It has nevertheless witnessed largely secular leadership.

Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto

While the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan and instituted strict religious and political rule that oppressed women, Pakistan saw the election of its first woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in 1993. She had two nonconsecutive terms during the 1990s while the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan.

The arrival of violent Islamist militants largely followed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The mountainous, tenuous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is often difficult to navigate, and provided a convenient hideout for Taliban militants fleeing Afghan, U.S., and NATO forces between 2001 and 2003. When President Bush decided to shift U.S. military attention to Iraq, Taliban militants had a moment to regroup, and have retained a solid foothold in Northeastern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. Despite Pakistan’s support for the U.S. in its military endeavors, relations have been strenuous as drone strikes and military operations have caused damage to Pakistani civilians, infrastructure, and security. Islamist insurgents remain strong in Pakistan despite the country’s intellectual diversity, place in world politics, and relatively secular leadership.

Mountains separating Pakistan and Afghanistan

Mountains separating Pakistan and Afghanistan

The Pakistani Taliban, then, is a very new organization in a very new country whose history is categorized by episodic military interruptions of political, economic, and cultural development. The problem is not that Pakistan is struggling to define itself as an Islamic Republic or a developing nation; the problem is international. India on one side, Afghanistan on the other, and the U.S. above, Pakistan is locked amid the puzzle pieces of international diplomacy, colonially defined nation-states, and disputed borders and territories.

It is difficult to argue that Pakistan is at a crossroads because every moment in its history can be described as such. Instead, we should not let the Taliban’s violation of human rights define Pakistan; we should let the children attending school to learn math and language and geography and science and art and politics define Pakistan.

-jk