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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.

***

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.

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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