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Pakistan: Where’s Ataturk when you need him?

Countries that lack strong leadership at their birth suffer serious consequences

Haroon Moghul

Published: Updated:

When founded, Pakistan - including today’s Bangladesh - was the world’s biggest Muslim country by population, and intended to be a democracy. So much hope. So much promise. The honor returns, but at a different tide. By century’s end, a bruised, partitioned Pakistan will have passed Indonesia to become the world’s most populous Muslim country once more.

Mind you, Indonesia’s some three times Pakistan’s size. One cannot help but wonder - and I apologize if I’m channelling Bernard Lewis - ‘what went wrong?’ Was a country founded on religion doomed to fail? Or is it states founded on one particular religion? If only answers were as easy as questions.

No one should be blind to the potential for religion’s misuse; many countries, though, have religious components to their collective identity - though the political abuse of nationality, language and even science is historically equally grave. Nazi Germany was plenty oppressive; meanwhile, what was the Soviet Union – a theocracy? Conversely, some argue Pakistan isn’t a “real” country.

I don’t find that persuasive either. Egypt’s last few decades have been terrible, yet few countries have a stronger national identity.

Others blame Partition, the vicious process by which South Asia was ripped in 1947 and then ripped again in 1971. There’s something to this, but not enough. Modern Turkey has a peculiarly parallel history, right down to a formative experience of violence, genocide, and population exchange. And yet modern Turkey outperforms Pakistan by leaps and bounds.

Part of the answer is the Ataturk Rule.

Countries that lack strong leadership at their birth suffer serious consequences; during a country’s infancy, a strong leader can bring competing factions to the table - especially in highly pluralistic societies, like Pakistan’s. It doesn’t even matter whether the leader in question was a secular dictator, like Ataturk, or a religious dictator, like Khomeini, or if he governed democratically.

At the nation’s birth

The strong, Ataturk-like leader had to be there when the nation was formed. And he (overwhelmingly, the figure was a “he”) had to be able to persuade enough people to follow him. The Ataturk Rule applies to almost any country you care to study. After independence, America relied on the “Articles of Confederation,” which were found wanting. A convention is responsible for the America we know, but it wouldn’t have worked without a leader like George Washington, behind whom many (white, propertied, male) Americans could rally.

Countries that lack strong leadership at their birth suffer serious consequences; during a country’s infancy, a strong leader can bring competing factions to the table - especially in highly pluralistic societies, like Pakistan’s.

Haroon Moghul

The Ataturk Rule even applies to Ataturk himself. Turkey emerged as a modern country by 1923; Ataturk ruled for the following fifteen years. After he died, his protégé, Ismet Inonu, took the helm.

Who did Pakistan have? Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, died within a year of independence. Jinnah was succeeded by Liaquat Ali Khan - Pakistan’s Inonu - except Khan was assassinated within three years, leaving Pakistan without a single nationally recognized politician. Likewise, Bangladesh’s first leader, Mujib ur-Rahman, died a few years after his country’s independence. Both countries suffer the consequences.

And India? Nehru was in charge for a full seventeen years. So critical has Nehru been to India that he has deeply dented its democracy, or at least his family has - look at the last name they’ve taken on, and the role too. (Read Perry Anderson’s “The Indian Ideology” for more information on this.) Would India be a democracy today had Nehru not survived the country’s first few years? Would India have held together?

And what would’ve happened to Pakistan if Jinnah lived till 1964? We have no idea - but we can imagine it may have been very different. Not that it really matters for right now.

Too late

It’s too late for the Ataturk Rule to work anymore, and thank God for that. Countries must develop mechanisms of governance without the brutal convenience of engineering people; with mass and social media, reasonably widespread education and new infrastructure and technology, you can’t just remake ethnicities. You need to know why something isn’t working to fix it, but that doesn’t mean what you missed so long ago is what you need right now.

Pakistanis must be empowered. This is the promise of the country’s youngest political movement, the Tahreek-i Insaf (“Movement for Justice”). Its founder, Imran Khan, has lured tens of thousands into politics who would not otherwise have come. Can the party turn enthusiasm into momentum, and momentum into clear direction?

A leader can make sure there’s a table across which to start the conversation we elsewhere call politics; an empowered people must demand the right to have adequate seats at the table for that conversation to mean anything. This is what the Turks have been doing, in fits and starts, with Ataturk’s legacy, and not because someone told them to. They have long wanted it for themselves.

Do Pakistanis?


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Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon’s writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today’s Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul

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