The Muslim world is in a state of turmoil. I use the term “Muslim world” as a collective classification not meant as a Manichean opposite to the ‘civilised’ West, but because the concept of Ummah is a creedal belief that resonates with 1.5 billion Muslims around the world.
Historically speaking, the flag-bearers of the Islamic world had generally been the Arabs, Turks and Persians – all of whom have contributed to the diverse cultural and demographic makeup of Pakistan. Whether it is the conquest of Muhammad bin Qasim under the banner of the Umayyad Caliphate, the era of the Mughal Empire, or the formation of the Muslim League, Islam will always be a defining aspect of Pakistan’s identity.
After the colonial rule of the British Raj and the subsequent independence movement which gave birth to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947, the region classically known as ‘Hind’ would never be the same again. The economic instability, the political destabilisation, and the foreign interference that has ravaged Pakistan since its inception, is merely reflective of what is occurring in large swathes of the Muslim majority world.
Despite this unfortunate reality, Pakistan has emerged as a regional force to be reckoned with. Mainly due to its long-lasting enmity with neighbouring India and its durable alliance with the US during the Cold War, Pakistan stands today as the strongest Muslim nation-state from a military perspective; being the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons and a standing army of nearly 700,000 personnel (sixth biggest in the world) – no other Muslim country comes close.
Sadly, with all its military might and nuclear capabilities, Pakistan remains a politically unstable country. From military coups to a corrupt elite who dominate the two-party political system, to a domestic insurgency quagmire born out of the US-led ‘War on Terror’, the sole reason for Pakistan’s inability to reach its true potential can be narrowed down to the absence of an independent and transparent leadership.
Since 2002, Pakistan has received $33 billion in military aid from the US with another $225 million in the pipeline under the Trump administration. This substantial amount of ‘strings attached’ military aid means that Pakistan for all intents and purposes, is obliged to protect and advance US interests in the region – and accommodating the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the subsequent military operations in Waziristan and elsewhere in FATA are a testimony to this.
However, with this lack of political willpower and prevalence of corruption being common knowledge, it comes as a surprise to hear some Muslims speak romantically of Pakistan as one of the Muslim countries that will “one day” lead the Islamic world out of the darkness of occupation and oppression to strength and prosperity. This then begs the question – is a nation’s ‘strength’ solely based on its military capabilities, or does the quality of leadership and autonomy also matter?
Whatever the case may be, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pakistan along with Turkey and Egypt are commonly regarded as the three Muslim countries that have the ability to change the dire situation of the Muslim world – for some – irrespective of prioritising their own domestic issues. Whilst this expectation is usually qualified with the citation of military statistics, this belief isn’t just based on unsubstantiated romanticism. Both Turkey and Egypt, like Pakistan, have strong militaries that have fought more wars and skirmishes than any other Muslim country. All three states are located in geostrategic locations, which makes them an important ‘ally’ (or target) of the US on the one hand, and potential liberators for the Muslims of Syria, Palestine, Myanmar and Kashmir on the other.
Additionally, another common trait Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt share is the strong Islamic sentiment that exists among the masses at a time when secularism has been systematically enforced by successive western-backed dictators. And whilst there is an undeniable nationalist fervour among the vast majority of Pakistanis, Egyptians and Turks, the izzat the wider populace has over their Islamic heritage is equally, if not more apparent.
Whether it be the legacy of the Ottoman Caliphate, the historical prestige of Al-Azhar University, or the founding belief of Pakistan as a ‘home’ for Muslims – one cannot help but begin to appreciate why many Muslims do look to these three countries as beacons of hope for the Muslim world. Of course, this ‘idea’ can be simply dismissed as an absurd assessment of the political reality void of any grasp of how the complexities of diplomacy and geopolitics work – and detractors wouldn’t be entirely wrong to do so. However, citing the US’s prolonged interference in these nations, along with the domestic issues troubling them, is an indicator of Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey’s potential if they were to abandon their American suzerain.
I guess the first step for Pakistan towards this noble aspiration is to break away from the colonial shackles of the US. These ‘shackles’ manifest in many forms: economic shackles in the form of military aid, political shackles under the guise of ‘combatting terrorism’, and ideological shackles in terms of normalising secular liberalism. Understandably, this change will not occur overnight and will naturally require time, but what Pakistan must avoid at all costs is the ‘cosmetic facelift’ that many Arab states experienced during the Arab Spring, where dictators like Colonel Ghadaffi, Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali fell, but their despotic regimes remained intact.
In the same way that Muslims look to Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey as the ‘darlings’ of the Islamic world that have the capability to change the status quo, the conscientious among the higher echelons of power must also work towards a political vision beyond the insular interests of the nation-state and essentially nurture a unique type of thinking, which will strengthen its institutions and free it from the control of external powers – only then will this dream of leading the Muslim world from darkness into light become a foreseeable reality.