Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

Founding Fathers, Foundering Sons

07.05.2010 · Posted in History, Pakistan, U.S. Politics

It’s not just about those who found nations; those who nurture them are just as important.

Yesterday—July 4—was the day marking the anniversary of the United States’ declaration of independence in 1776. As with such anniversaries all over the world, it is a time for a country’s citizens to remember the founding of their nation, and give thanks to those who made it possible. Other than unbridled patriotism and overanxious self-appraisal, a recurring theme of such anniversaries is the reinforcement of longstanding historical narratives, specifically those concerning today’s lesser mortals standing on the shoulders of moral or philosophical giants.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, the Pakistani scholar Akbar Ahmed makes the comparison between Thomas Jefferson—the third American president, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the key ideological drivers of the U.S. constitution—and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whom he describes as “the Muslim world’s answer to Thomas Jefferson.” Biographical parallels aside (both were worldly lawyers born subjects of the British Empire) Professor Ahmed focuses on Jefferson and Jinnah’s shared commitment to individual liberty and freedom of religion.

But Pakistan is clearly not the United States, and the drawing of such tenuous parallels between two individuals—however important—only obscures the reasons behind their countries’ different trajectories. The United States has experienced 223 years of constitutional continuity and the leaders that followed Jefferson and his peers, while consistently upholding the original document, addressed—if belatedly—its weaknesses regarding such matters as slavery, civil rights and female suffrage. In Pakistan, the original constitution of 1956—which took almost nine years to craft—lasted less than three. The current 1973 constitution is still not universally accepted, let alone consistently upheld.

Several broad reasons have been given for this. By 1951, the only two leaders capable of consolidating the new state of Pakistan—Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan—were dead, depriving the country of a generation of formative leaders during a delicate transition period. Second, historians have pointed to Partition leaving Pakistan with far fewer bureaucratic resources than India, a factor that empowered the military relative to civilian administrators. According to this reading, Pakistan’s present-day civil-military dysfunction can be seen as inherent to its creation, if not virtually pre-ordained. A third view, championed mostly by non-Pakistanis, is that Pakistan—as an essentially conservative, Islamic state—was socially not hard-wired to be a post-colonial, parliamentary democracy. For those of us who espouse a more Whiggish reading of history, none of the three explanations are entirely satisfactory. Founding fathers have turned despots, civil bureaucracies and administrations have grown and strengthened over time, and Muslim societies are not fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

The essential fact, then, is not that Jinnah was a Pakistani Jefferson, but rather that Iskander Mirza, Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were not Pakistan’s answers to Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. The purity of founding ideals is, in a sense, a necessary but insufficient guarantor of a nation’s future. Just as important, if not more so, are how those ideals are maintained and tended by subsequent generations of leaders.

Comments are closed