I’ve been reading about Pakistan and Islam recently, not least to spite the rather plentiful books on India which are either explicitly Islamophobic, or simply drop Pakistan after Partition.

A good short history of Islam, by the way, is Karen Armstong‘s A Short History of Islam. Despite the title, it feels meaty.  One of her theses is that Islam is focused on politics in the way Christianity is focused on theology. This is partly due to Muhammad ending up, unlike most religious founders, as a head of a burgeoning empire; also to the fact that the main religious schism within Islam was originally pure politics: whether Muhammad should be followed by his son-in-law Ali or by someone else. But in her telling, even from the beginning Muhammad was chiefly motivated by a desire for unity and equality among the Arabs of his time. So Muslims have always been worried about how to create an Islamic state, and always been bothered by injustice and inequality, the very things Islam was supposed to eliminate.

Tonight I finished V.S. Naipaul‘s Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1982).  I emphasize the date because books about Islam are often books about the decade they were written.  Naipaul was writing just after the Islamic revolution in Iran, a time when Muslims around the world were contemplating reform, revival, or revolution. He spends time in Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Naipaul is a good interviewer and portraitist– you get to know and like all the Muslims he meets. At the same time he is very much out of sympathy with their projects.  He appreciates Islam as a religion, but doesn’t think it has much to say about politics or development. Basically he thinks the countries he visits would do better to concentrate on economics, law, and technology; his informants seem to think that no particular programs or institutions are required, only prayer and piety. At the same time, he’s very good at teasing out, from each informant, just what they find bothersome about the modern world (or their country), and how they decided that Islam was the solution. So he sees that in Iran, religious revival was caught up with the eagerness to topple a hated dictator; while in Malaysia, it’s tied to nostalgia for the simple peasant life of the tropical villages, uncorrupted by colonizers and the influx of dismayingly successful Chinese.

He likes to tease out absurd ideas people have about the West, such as that it’s full of atheists who have sex in public, or that Britain is 60% homosexual. One Malaysian sees his pajamas, which he condemns as un-Islamic; Naipaul amusedly informs him that pajamas are a Persian invention.

Curiously, the one country he seems to really like and enjoy is Indonesia.  The local Muslims are (or were) more moderate, and less political (though at the time they were unable to do much politics, as the country was a dictatorship). He likes the fact that Indonesians had, at least till then, diverged from the stark rules and pieties of the Arabs, and incorporated their own cultural history.  One of the national pastimes was the puppet play, and the chief subjects were still the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata– though in the local version, the five Pandava sons represents the five pillars of Islam.

His basic method is clear from the book: rely on recommendations and chance meetings to find interviewees who, hopefully, represent the country’s mood. As a sampling technique, it’s likely to be biased– after all, his informants have to speak English, which eliminates most of the population, and they have to have time to spend a day or two with him, which would lean toward the more disaffected and underemployed of the Anglophones. Not that he doesn’t have a good eye… in Indonesia one of his contacts turns out to be a future president. Still, as a method, it’s only a few steps up from Tom Friedman interviewing his taxi drivers.

Especially in Pakistan, and despite growing up in Trinidad, he sounds like many an American visiting the Third World for the first time: why is there so much poverty and corruption, why aren’t they developing fast enough, why are they simultaneously angry at the West, fascinated by it, and dependent on it?  It’s not wrong to ask these obvious questions, but he doesn’t get too far in finding the obvious answers: it takes a lot of effort to go from subsistence agriculture to (post-)industrial, and these countries are doing it in fifty years rather than the three hundred the West took.

As a portrait of Pakistan, I preferred Anatol Lieven‘s Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011), which goes far deeper into the institutions, regions, and conflicts of the country.  Pakistan worries people (Naipaul was worried too, and yet another book I’m reading, by Mary Anne Weaver, is also worried).  But Lieven makes a case that it’s far more stable and resilient than people think.  Which is good, because it’s subject to far more stress than most countries. (For instance, it’s #3 in the world for suffering terrorist attacks.)

His main point is that Pakistan’s institutions of government, inherited from the British Raj, are far weaker than its ancient, powerful, violent clan system.  Civil politics, in fact, is largely an extension of the clans– e.g. the PPP party is controlled by the Bhutto clan, and all the parties are weak on ideology, strong on handing out jobs and skimming off state money.  Many practices that outsiders and even Pakistani call “Islamic” are really non-Islamic clan custom, such as the tradition of settling clan disputes by trading extra daughters. Clan justice is preferred to state justice because the latter is inconceivably slow, distorted by bribes, and doesn’t satisfy local values. (A clan member might well complain, “the law has hanged my brother’s killer, but now who is to support my dead brother’s family?”)

All this gets in the way of state institutions; on the other hand, it helps make Pakistan far less unequal than it would be otherwise. Clan leaders maintain their power by largesse. If they have no money or jobs to distribute, they have no power.  And almost everyone has someone they can court for favors.

Outsiders worry about Islamism; here Lieven’s reassurance is that there are too many Islams in Pakistan for any one of them to dominate.  Sunni and Shia, Pashtun and Balochi and Punjabi, moderate Barelwis and severe Deobandis, radical Taliban and mellow Sufis– no one group can impose its vision on the whole country.  (This is also the reason that, since Bangladesh left, the country has held together despite its centrifugal tendencies for 45 years.)

The one state institution that works, and stands apart from the clans, is the military. (Of course it’s also the one institution that’s fully funded.) Naipaul was appalled at Pakistan’s periods of military rule, but as Lieven points out, the distinction between military and civilian rule doesn’t really mean what we think it does here.  When the civilian parties are essentially coalitions of clans who take the opportunity to persecute the opposition, a period of rule by the one competent institution in the country can be a relief, at least until it becomes evident that the army can’t really rule the whole country as it does itself.

Outsiders also worry about Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. A number of elements converge here:

  • The US and Saudi support for fundamentalist fedayin in Afghanistan starting in the 1980s to resist the Soviet occupation. One you release this jinn, he doesn’t easily go back in the bottle.
  • Pakistan’s longstanding grudge against India, and its perceived need for an allied state to its west.
  • The fact that the Taliban are Pashtun, the same people as the northwestern part of Pakistan.
  • The fact that, historically, neither the British nor the Pakistanis nor anyone else in the last centuries has ever really had control over the Pashtuns.

So, in brief, most Pakistanis like the Taliban because they were a known, friendly element in a strategically important neighbor; and they were not fond of non-Pashtun alliances or governments. They were much less fond of their imitators, the Pakistani Taleban.

Anyway, Lieven is perfectly aware of how dysfunctional the country often is, and yet the book comes off as more hopeful than most Western journalism.

The other important bit about Pakistan: it’s really very similar to India, and Sri Lanka for that matter. The clan system, the clan-linked political parties, the clashing ethnicities and religions that have lived together for centuries, the limited state institutions, all are South Asian rather than Pakistani realities.