Review: The Idea of Pakistan by Stephen Cohen

By Saeed Ullah Khan Wazir.

Criticizing the Pakistani rulers both the civilians and the military, S.P. Cohen says:

“Pakistani officials like Pakistani beggars, become alert when they see Americans approaching” (Page 327).

Significance of reviews

The newly initiated civil service reform package by the Federal Public Service Commission of Pakistan is a positive step in right direction. The syllabus of Pakistan Affairs, in particular, requires extensive reading and clinical understanding. The FPSC has prescribed a lengthy list of suggested books which necessitates careful selection and strategic reading.

According to Malla Khan, “read one book ten times instead of reading ten books one time.” She further says, “competitive exams entail making stories out of nothing and, in turn, making things precise and lucid.”

As a voracious reader of independent books and authors, I decided to present critical, holistic review of the book, The Idea of Pakistan by S.P.Cohen which included in the FPSC new syllabus in a bid to facilitate students of CSS and PMS.The writer is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies program at the Brookings Institution.

Why Stephen P. Cohen wrote ‘The idea of Pakistan’?

In recent years, especially the watershed event of 9/11 Pakistan has emerged as a strategic player on the world stage. The ensued importance is two-dimensional–both as a potential rogue state armed with nuclear weapons and as an American ally in the war against terrorism. Due to paucity of correct information, he decided to write authentic book on Pakistan. It offers a panoramic portrait of this complex country—from its origins as a homeland for Indian Muslims to a military dominated state that has experienced uneven economic growth, political chaos, sectarian violence, and several nuclear crises with its much larger neighbor, India. Pakistan’s future is uncertain. Can it fulfill its promise of joining the community of nations as a moderate Islamic state, at peace with its neighbors, or could it dissolve completely into a failed state, spewing out terrorists and nuclear weapons in several directions? The Idea of Pakistan will be an essential tool for understanding this critically important country.

Bibliographic information

Title The Idea of Pakistan
Author Stephen P. Cohen
Length 367 pages
Subjects History, Asia, India and South Asia

Major Contents of the book include:

The Idea of Pakistan;

The State of Pakistan;

Islamic Pakistan;

Political Pakistan;

Regionalism and Separatism;

Demographic Educational and Economic Prospects;

Pakistan’s Futures; and

American Options.

PAKISTAN was not created as A NATURAL STATE but Was a Historic EVENTUALITY

He maintains that Pakistan did not come into being  as result of the efforts of  put in  the All India Muslim League,but it was the need of the time.He says that the West was fearful of the spread of communism  as from the then Soviet Union to the sub-continent to China,the leaders were socialists and communists in their outlook. Pakistan was created, as a result of expediency, to be used as an Islamic state, by the then Reagan’s and Clement Attlee’s administrations, to counter the spread of communism in the wider region. This was further aggravated by Saudi-led Wahhabism and religion was used as an important component in domestic as well as in international affairs.

Comparison with India

“One important difference between the two states is that Pakistan’s domestic and external policies are more entwined than those of India, partly because of Pakistan’s more perilous geostrategic position and partly because the dominant Pakistan army looks both inward and outward.” 

Two leaders and their overlapping narratives

While Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan was that of a secular state, Iqbal’s vision was suffused with religious overtones.

  1. State for the Muslims

State for the Muslims where minorities are accorded first-class rights.He launched political movement that converted the Ideology of Pakistan into ‘Political Reality’.

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

“Failure of vision. Pakistan’s founders expected the idea of Pakistan to shape the state of Pakistan; instead, a military bureaucracy governs the state and imposes its own vision of a Pakistani nation.”

Allama Iqbal gave ‘Philosophical Explanation’ to the Ideology of Pakistan.

2. State of the Muslims

State of the Muslims signifies a piece of land purely for the Muslims of the subcontinent.

Objectives Resolution (OR)

Page 168 – WHEREAS sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to God Almighty alone and the authority which He has delegated to the State of Pakistan through its people .for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust…‎

He stresses that this provision in the OR empowered the religious lot. It should have been, he says, sovereignty belongs to the people of Pakistan.

The above-mentioned two moderate strands were hijacked by the emerging religious class and converted state’s very political texture and cultural ethos into a misguided theocratic state.

Three conflicting visions for the future of Pakistan

Cohen presents three conflicting visions for the future of Pakistan: a state for Muslims of South Asia, an Islamic state, and a democratic state

  1. A state for Muslims of South Asia

The first vision fell apart in 1971 with the secession of East Pakistan. At partition in 1947, Pakistan accounted for two-thirds of the Muslims in South Asia. Now it accounts for only one-thirds, negating the main tenet of the two-nation theory.

  1. An Islamic state

Cohen dwells upon the mélange of conflicting sects and their major doctrinal differences which create polarization and tensions.

  1. A democratic state

Democracy has, historically, been faced with major challenges, especially the all-powerful military juggernaut.

The military regimes and their relations with the west

Pakistani generals steadfastly hold that “What is good for the army is good for Pakistan.” He further says, “The army lacks the capability to fix Pakistan’s problems, but it is unwilling to give other state institutions and the political system the opportunity to learn and grow; its tolerance for the mistakes of others is very low, yet its own performance, when in power, has usually dug the hole deeper.”

Cohen rightfully critiques militarism and describes how it has harmed national security. Ironically, the West has often supported militarism in Pakistan. Samuel Huntington of Harvard called Field Marshal Ayub Khan a Solon after the great Athenian lawgiver. Nixon praised General  Yahya for giving him the opening to China. Reagan and Thatcher praised General Zia for being a bulwark of freedom against the USSR. Bush praised General Musharraf for his role in the war on terror.

“Pakistan now negotiates with its allies and friends by pointing a gun to its own head” (Page 270).

Pakistan a Rantier state

Over time, “Pakistan has adapted to changing strategic circumstances,” Cohen observes, “by ‘renting’ itself out to powerful states,” such as the US, Saudi Arabia and now China. This strategy has not yielded any clear benefits to Pakistan.


Cohen opines that “the establishment’ is an informal political system that comprises of the senior ranks of the military, the civil service, the judiciary, and other elites possessing a common set of beliefs that:

1• India has to be countered at every move and issue militarily, thereby giving the military a primary role in Pakistan.

2• The national interest is understood only by the army, not by civilian politicians.

3• Nuclear weapons have obliged Pakistan with security and status

4• Kashmir is the unfinished part of the partition plan,

5• Large-scale social reforms such as land redistribution are unacceptable

6• Verbal Muslim nationalism is desirable but Islamism is not

7• The armed forces are considered a “model” and democracy is seen as good only as long as it does not interfere with the governance of the elite.

8• Washington should not be trusted but should be taken maximum advantage of.

9• The media need to be on a tight leash.

10 • Existence of radical Islamic extremists could be a useful tool for state policy

11 • “something or someone will always come to Pakistan’s rescue because of its location” (Page 270)

Four generations

He describes Pakistan Army, evolved through four generations as follow:

According to a popular but rather humorless Pakistani joke, “all countries have their own armies, but (in case of Pakistan), an army has its own country.” As Cohen remarks, “regardless of what may be desirable, the army will continue to set the limits on what is possible in Pakistan (p.97).” For all these reasons, the army despite its self-perceived guardianship role is part of the problem of Pakistan’s instability.

1.The British Generation

2.The American Generation

3.The Pakistan Generation

4.The New Generation

 “Pakistan’s army is strong enough to prevent state failure, but not imaginative enough to impose the changes that might transform the state” (Page 274).

Six scenarios of the future

Cohen presents six scenarios of the future:

(1) continuation of the status quo, which involves rule by the oligarchy, now known as the Establishment,

(2) liberal, secular democracy,

(3) soft authoritarianism,

(4) an Islamist state,

(5) divided Pakistan and

(6) postwar Pakistan.

Key drivers and likelihoods

For each, he appreciates its environment, identifies key drivers and likelihoods. The book lays out six scenarios of the near-to-mid-term future:

(1) Continuation of the status quo, which involves rule by an establishment-dominated oligarchic system,

(2) Liberal, secular democracy,

(3) Soft authoritarianism,

(4) An Islamist state,

(5) Divided Pakistan and

(6) Postwar Pakistan.

Concluding Remarks

Cohen concludes his book by saying, “Americans must remember that although Pakistan will pursue its own vital interests as it sees them, an opportunity may exist to incrementally shape Pakistan’s future in a direction that is compatible with important American interests.

“You are in integrity when the life you are living on the outside matches who you are on the inside.”

We wish and  hope Pakistan stand victorious in the face of insurmountable challenges!

About Author:

Saeed Ullah Khan Wazir is a freelance writer,human rights activist,aspirant to CSS and having specialization in English Literature and Linguistics from NUML,Islamabad. He can be reached at 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *