The 1979 Iranian Revolution is often regarded as the turning point in the uneasy relationship between religion and state in the Middle East. And yet it was Pakistan, not Iran, which became the world’s first official Islamic republic several decades earlier, in 1956. Upon the breakup of the British Raj in 1947, Pakistan was created as a home for the Muslims of the Subcontinent, alongside the Hindu-majority nation of India. The military and civil authorities that have run Pakistan in alternating succession since independence have generally fostered its religious rather than its national identity. 

In the 1970s, religion began to play an even greater role in Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy. For the first few decades of its existence, Pakistan had included the territory of present-day Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan. Yet the Pakistani state was unable to prevent the secession of its ethnic Bengalis – who made up more than half its population – in 1971. Hundreds of thousands died in Bangladesh’s war of independence, in which the Pakistani army committed wide-scale atrocities with the assistance of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party. Abdul Quader Molla, a leading figure in the Jamaat-e-Islami, was executed last year for his role in those atrocities.

The Jamaat-e-Islami was founded by Islamic ideologue Abul Ala Maududi, who declared secularism to be a form of kufr or blasphemy. So close were the ties between Maududi and the Pakistani military that Army Chief of Staff Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq even distributed copies of Maududi’s works to his soldiers. Thus, the Pakistani army was distinct from its Cold War-era counterparts in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt in embracing political Islam rather than nationalism. Seizing power in the 1977 coup, Zia began to use the Jamaat-e-Islami both to Islamize his own country and to gain influence in Afghanistan, which was run by a pro-Soviet regime. Led by figures like Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghanistan’s Jamiat-e-Islami (modeled on its similarly-named Pakistani counterpart) began receiving full support from Zia soon after he took power. 

Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. became a strong supporter of Zia’s regime. Throughout the 1980s, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Wahhabi and Salafi groups flocked to Pakistan from all corners of the globe for indoctrination and military training. Zia used these foreign combatants, as well as Afghanistan’s own 3.5 million refugees, to build an Islamist puppet regime in Afghanistan, while billing the anti-Soviet jihadis to the U.S. as “freedom fighters.” At first, the U.S. had dismissed Zia’s pan-Islamism as mere rhetoric. But as the 1980s drew to a close, it realized it had been sowing the dragon’s teeth in backing the jihadis, and withdrew its support for them. After the Soviet pullout, the U.S. vainly attempted to keep power from falling solely into the hands of its former protégés in Afghanistan.    

At the end of the Cold War, the Pakistani army was left with a legacy of thousands of armed jihadis. With the support of Pakistani intelligence, these groups escalated the conflict in Kashmir, while also carrying out terrorist attacks in large cities in India. Once again, Pakistan tried to obtain U.S. aid for its jihadi “freedom fighters.” However, Pakistan’s support for terror only led to its further isolation. Then came the September 11 attacks and the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Reluctantly, the U.S. sought assistance from Pakistan in overthrowing the Taliban regime. 

Today, Pakistan is a textbook example of a failed state. Technologically advanced enough to possess nuclear weapons, it experiences frequent power outages lasting for hours. The country’s literacy rate is less than 40 percent. Its frontier provinces lie outside the army’s control, while its cities are plagued by sectarian conflict. In fact, Pakistan is merely a more extreme version of a well-known global phenomenon which one might term “Pakistanization.” Pakistanization refers to a society divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. A society in which the state is owned by interest groups and cannot function effectively. A society where merit has lost all meaning, where frantically chasing after profit is all that matters. A failed state and a failed society. Does this sound at all familiar?

The influx into Turkey of nearly 2 million refugees of Iraq’s and Syria’s sectarian wars, and Turkey’s geographical proximity to radical groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on its southern border, have recently led to the frequent use of the term “Pakistanization” in reference to Turkey. Having spent a week talking to journalists and academics at panels held at Pakistani universities, my impression is that Pakistan looks with admiration upon the secular, democratic nation of Turkey, whose political experiences of the last 90 years have been followed very closely in Pakistan.

Pakistani intellectuals see Turkey – with its secular, democratic system and its aspirations to EU membership – as a shining star in the Eastern world. Indeed, the further East one travels, the more one appreciates the gains that Turkey has made since 1923.

*Behlül Özkan is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations at Marmara University.