The history of Pakistan has been overdetermined by three sets of tensions all rooted in contradictions that were already apparent in the 1940s.

The first one can be summarised by the equation “Pakistan = Islam + Urdu”.

While all the ethnic groups of Pakistan could identify with one variant or another of Islam, they could not easily give up their linguistic identity, all the more so because it often epitomized full-fledged nationalist sentiments (or movements). Hence a first contradiction between the central(ising) government and centrifugal forces (which sometimes have given rise to separatist movements).

The second tension pertains to another form of concentration of power that the army officers and the politicians have developed over the course of time.

Indeed, from the 1950s onwards, Pakistani society has been in the clutches of a civil-military establishment which has cultivated the legacy of the pre-Partition Muslim League in the sense that it was primarily interested in protecting its interests and dominant status. The elitist rationale of the Pakistan idea therefore resulted in social conservatism and the persistence of huge inequalities.

Certainly, some politicians have fought for democracy, but they have never managed to dislodge from power a very well entrenched civil-military establishment and promote progressive reforms in a decisive manner – either because they were co-opted, or because they eventually turned out to be autocrats themselves. In fact, some of the main opposition forces to the system that have emerged have been the judiciary (when the Supreme Court had the courage to rise to the occasion), civil society movements (including the media) and the Islamists.

In the absence of a credible political alternative within the institutional framework, the tensions that have developed have been especially radical. What has been at stake in most of the crises that Pakistan has experienced has been the regime itself, not only in political terms, but also, sometimes, in social terms.

The role of Islam in the public sphere is the root cause of the third contradiction.

Jinnah looked at it as a culture and considered the Muslims of the Raj as a community that needed to be protected. They were supposed to be on a par with the members of the religious minorities in the Republic to be built. His rhetoric, therefore, had a multicultural overtone. On the contrary, clerics and fundamentalist groups wanted to create an Islamic state where the members of the minorities would be second-class citizens. Until the 1970s, the first approach tended to prevail. But in the 1970s the Islamist lobby (whose political parties never won more than one-tenth of the votes) exerted increasingly strong pressure. It could assert itself at that time partly because of circumstances. First, the trauma of the 1971 war led the country to look for a return to its ethno-religious roots. Second, the use of religion was part of Z. A. Bhutto’s populist ideology, which associated socialism with Islam. Third, Zia also used religion to legitimise his power and to find allies among the Islamists.

The promotion of Islam by Bhutto and Zia was partly due to external factors as well. The former supported Afghan Islamists who were likely – so he thought – to destabilise the Pashtun nationalist government of Kabul. The latter backed the same Afghan leaders and other mujahideens (including Arab groups like Al Qaeda) against the Soviets in order to make the Pakistani army’s presence felt in Afghanistan and thereby gain “strategic depth” vis-à-vis India. Zia’s Islamisation policy also (re)activated the conflict between Sunnis and Shias, an opposition that was exacerbated by another external factor: the proxy war that Iran and Saudi Arabia fought in Pakistan from the 1980s onwards.

The critical implications of the legacy of Zia’s Islamisation – which also resulted in the massive infiltration of jihadis in Kashmir in the 1990s – became clear after 9/11 when the US forced the Pakistani state to fight not only Al Qaeda but also the Taliban and the Islamist groups that the ISI had used so far in Indian Kashmir and elsewhere. In response, these groups turned their guns towards the Pakistani army, its former patron, and intensified their fight against their traditional targets, the Shias and non-Muslim communities, creating an atmosphere of civil war.

Excerpted with permission from The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience, Christophe Jaffrelot, Vintage Books.