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In Pakistan, as in Israel, an Experiment in Building a Nation—With Mixed Results

In a new book, an American-born journalist explores the invention of a homeland, and sees the seeds of political instability

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Muslims flee India on foot and with carts in Lahore on Aug. 27, 1947. (AP)
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If we meet at a party in New York you might ask me where I’m from. People usually end up asking me that. It’s not that I’m very exotic looking. I am average height, slim, and I have ambiguously brown skin. I wear those dark-framed glasses that are pervasive in the legions of writers and journalists who find their way into this city, and I have plentiful facial hair that swells and recedes depending on the number of deadlines I am juggling. None of this makes me stand out terribly in New York.

What might make you wonder about me is my language—specifically, the way in which I use and pronounce words. At first my American-accented English sounds perfectly natural. You will likely assume that I am American, and you will be right. But in the flow of conversation, I might use a word—“supper” instead of “dinner” maybe—that pricks your ears as unusual. Spotting the lull in conversation, you may finally lean in and, over the pleasing din of courteous conversation, ask, “So, where are you from?”

“Pakistan,” I will reply. “Well, my parents were both born in Pakistan.” I was born in the American Midwest, but I have shuttled back and forth between the United States and Pakistan for my entire life. I know that in your mind you linger on that word: Pakistan. You probably recognize the word well. It’s the pop of a gunshot in the room: “Pakistan!” Later in the evening, we might find ourselves together again, a group of common friends sitting around a coffee table loaded with empty glasses and half-eaten hors d’oeuvres. The conversation might flow more freely now, and more honestly. Why is Pakistan such a mess? It’s a fair question, but unless you have a few days to talk about this, I will try to point to just the kernel of the problem.

In August 1947, months before the State of Israel was created as a refuge for the nation of Jews, Pakistan appeared on the map as a home for the 100 million Muslims scattered over South Asia, who then made up more than a quarter of the world’s Muslim population. That hot summer, millions of Muslims packed up the stuff of their lives and migrated to this new state to begin the life of a new nation—a Muslim nation.

It had to be this way. Like Israel, the country was to be home to millions of people who did not share a single language and who came from vastly different cultural backgrounds. The one thing the citizens of Pakistan shared was a common religious identity, and so it was hoped that, despite all their differences, their shared bond with Islam would seal the nation.

But, again like Israel, Pakistan sits in a tough neighborhood. Pakistan is the meeting point of the Middle East and South, Central, and East Asia. Afghanistan and Iran are to the west; the Persian Gulf nibbles on the southern coastline; China is to the northeast; and along the eastern border lies India—the other country carved from the old British colony. And then, of course, there’s America. It’s very far away, but for better or for worse, America has been there at every tortuous turn in Pakistan’s modern history. Other countries in the world might be able to draw an imaginary line in time between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror, but for Pakistan, America’s first global war bled fluidly into the next.

Yet to blame America would be a lazy explanation for the deep problems of a complex country. Before the War on Terror there was the development of a nuclear bomb and the fear of nuclear-armed neighbors. The wars for the state’s survival fought against neighbors in the late 1940s, the mid 1960s, and once again in the early 1970s had shifted borders, left the country with wounds and unforgettable lessons. Before all that, there had been the founding of the state. There was the adoption of a common language, native to no one, so that all the new citizens could find a way to exchange ideas. Before the state ever existed there was colonial rule of the British Empire, and that is when the ideas about the rights to land first spread. And before all this was the creation of a nation from an extraordinary idea—that a group of people, tied together by a common religious identity, deserves to control its destiny.

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How does a nation become? The partition of Britain’s South Asian colony, which created the independent nation-states of Pakistan and India, was one of the most violent episodes recorded in history. After the end of World War Two, more than 13 million people in the region were torn from their homes and moved to some other place on the land, over a period of mere months.

Some of the homeless refugees traveled hundreds of miles by horse cart or train, others traveled thousands of miles across the sea in ships, and some simply walked a few miles to cross an imaginary line in the sand. Some were driven away because their neighbors were out for their blood, but others moved of their own free will. These people would have believed that their home had somehow slipped away from them. They probably felt a tug deep inside their gut, an invisible force that pulled them across desert, rivers, and mountains. Some might have acted on blind faith that the direction they moved in was the right direction, toward a people who were more familiar.

All this occurred on the geographical landmass commonly known as the Asian subcontinent, because it is a continent, but not quite. Over the past few thousand years, the subcontinent, half the size of Europe, became one of the most densely populated places on the planet. The people living there developed in diverse ways. They began speaking many different languages. Their blood mixed with the various people who came from across the highlands to the north, east, and west or from across the seas in the south. Countless different empires, kingdoms, and principalities fought over and shared the space for millennia.

In this long history, there are only a handful of instances when the subcontinent was united under one rule. Emperor Ashoka, a Buddhist king, was the first to extend his kingdom from the mountains in the east to the mountains in the west and all the way down to the Indian Ocean, a few centuries before the birth of Christ. Ashoka’s kingdom disintegrated after his death, and for another 2,000 years not a single ruler would conquer the entire subcontinent. Islam first came to the land decades after Muhammad died in Medina, in the 7th century, but it wasn’t until near the end of the 17th century that the last of the great Mughal emperors—a haughty Muslim king by the name of Aurangzeb—succeeded in extending his dense web of bureaucracy to cover the whole of the subcontinent from north to south and east to west.

The third and last time the subcontinent came under one rule was during colonial times. It took the British many decades to take over the entire land. The British East India Company, a corporation established in the early 1600s, won a charter to trade there in 1617 from the reigning Mughal emperor. It set up a trading post in the eastern region of Bengal, and from there the British engaged in heated battle, economic and military, with the other European powers that had set up trading posts—the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch—for domination of the region. By the 1840s, the British multinational had conquered nearly all the lands of South Asia and controlled all the lands down to the Indian Ocean. In 1857, after a brief war between the company and local rebels, the British crown decided to take over the ownership of the subcontinent from the corporation and made it part of the mighty British Empire. The British named their newest colony India, after the Indus River.

Meantime, a revolutionary and wondrous idea was sweeping Europe. It was called nationalism, and it was changing the very map of that continent. Nations, Europeans were proclaiming, were large groups of people tied together by innate, almost instinctive, primordial bonds of kinship. A nation could be recognized by common ethnic origin revealed by the shapes of people’s faces or the color of their skin, or a nation might recognize its own by the sounds the people make with their mouths, speaking similar languages. It did not even have to be something so obvious. Sometimes, a nation was formed on nothing more than a shared belief in a fantastical story, about God or man or earth.

And what was the purpose of finding and identifying and recognizing these nations? In it was the real prize: land. In Europe, each nation was entitled to its own piece of land, a place called state. Without nation, there was no state, and without state, nations argued, there was simply no way to express nationalism. So, an essential factor in creating any nation was to identify the piece of land that belonged to it and that it belonged to. It also became important for nations to identify the “other” who did not belong to the land or the nation. That other not only reinforced what made a nation special and different, it also allowed the nation to draw an invisible line called a national border where the claim to the land ended. Through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the political leaders of Europe negotiated, often in very violent ways, these invisible lines that separated one nation from another, which created the modern political map.

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The first Pakistani constitution declared the country a “democratic state” that would be guided by “principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance, and social justice as enunciated by Islam.” While in one passage it stated that “the Muslims of Pakistan should be enabled individually and collectively to order their lives in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam,” in the next it promised “adequate provision” for minorities “freely to profess and practice their religion and develop their culture.” The first article of the constitution gave the country a name: “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” It was the world’s first Islamic democracy. President Harry Truman wrote a letter to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, to tell him that the new country “embarks on its course with the firm friendship and good will of the United States of America.” There had never been a constitution quite like Pakistan’s before.

But after 2001, Pakistan’s experiment in bridging all these peoples with a single unifying religious idea – and the ideals of Western democracy with Islam – became a central set piece in the larger global war against terrorism. The clash of civilizations tore open inside Pakistan. The results of the country’s founding experiment were laid bare for the world to see. As violence consumed the country, the nation of Muslims began searching desperately for a path that would deliver them from the bloodshed and misery. Some said the only way left was to erase all traces of Western ideals from the Pakistani state and to remove any symbols and institutions that represented Western civilizations in the country. Others argued that unless Islam was carved out from the soul of the nation, it would consume it like a cancer. They said an Islamic democracy was a mirage. Most Pakistanis simply yearned for a just, peaceful, and prosperous life. They did not care whether it came in a secular or an Islamic guise. Through the decade of violence, those who continued to hold fast to the founding ideals of the country grew fewer and fewer, and quieter.

The violence is difficult to explain. All violence, I find, is difficult to explain. As a journalist, I have seen plenty of violence. I could try to describe it to you. I could do my best to explain how sizzling slabs of human flesh tend to cling to the walls or hang limply and quietly from tree branches after a bomb has ripped through a bustling marketplace with deadly ease. I could describe the trajectory along which a suicide bomber’s limbs tend to scatter and what that might tell us about the kinds of explosives he is using. But you probably don’t want to hear all this right now, and I don’t like talking about this much either.

Exhausted by our collective curiosity about the world faraway, we might just drift back closer to home, back to the lighter experiences of being. We might chat about the richness and poorness of life in our shared city, New York. Maybe someone has discovered the best food truck selling fish tacos deep in Queens. As people begin shuffling out the door I would call after you. Clasping your hand, I would bid you a fond farewell. I would tell you that I sincerely hope we meet again at “one of these things.”

The truth is, I would feel good about our encounter. But I must be honest: I would also know that I failed once again to explain the real story about a country that you really were hoping to learn more about. It’s not your fault, or mine. How could you even begin to understand the story of a whole nation in one brief encounter? How could we ever expect to understand each other’s life stories in all their perfect contours? It would be impossible even if we lived down the street from each other. The words that make up a nation’s history are vivid and colorful to that nation, because they choose those words carefully. Your stories are familiar and stirring because they are your special stories. And each story builds perfectly on the last one, because like people, nations decide the architecture of their existence in this world.

When you pick one story from this edifice and share it with a stranger, it doesn’t always translate. A word that you might have learned from your grandfather or from your founding father, which so clearly evokes a warm feeling in you, might sound like garbled noise to a person who speaks another language. And since others don’t know how a particular story fits into the larger structure, they can never understand its full value or its meaning. At the end of it all, only you understand the grand scheme of your palace of stories.

Reprinted with permission from Other Press from The Faithful Scribe by Shahan Mufti. Copyright ©2013 Shahan Mufti.

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In Pakistan, as in Israel, an Experiment in Building a Nation—With Mixed Results

In a new book, an American-born journalist explores the invention of a homeland, and sees the seeds of political instability