The future of democracy in Pakistan is of great interest elsewhere, for reasons that have to do with security
History keeps moving, though often by imperceptible degrees. Terms that seem incompatible for many, such as Islam and democracy, are coming into focus together. This Saturday some 86 million people are being called to vote in Pakistan, where in the whole of its history not one legislature has come to a natural conclusion, thanks to successive military coups. This time, in spite of the terrorist attacks that have marred the campaign, and the corruption that bedevils the political process, the Pakistanis seem likely to elect a new civilian government.
On The Economist's recent ranking of countries in terms of the quality of their democracy, Pakistan is number 108, just ahead of Egypt and six places behind Iraq. It is seen as a "hybrid" regime, combining democratic and dictatorial characteristics. This category includes a number of Muslim countries, such as Turkey (88), Lebanon (99), Palestine (103) and Morocco (115). Pakistan has now emerged from the category of authoritarian regimes, but has yet to rise to the second class of "imperfect" democracies such as Indonesia (53) and Malaysia (64).
The future of democracy in Pakistan is of great interest elsewhere, for reasons that have to do with security. It is the only Islamic nuclear power. It has been the principal habitat of Al Qaeda, at least until the death of Bin Laden, and will probably remain so in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, which are a drone-haunted battlefield. Its territorial dispute with India simmers on, and has broken out into open fighting on four occasions. A close grip on power is maintained by the "deep state," the army and the secret services, as in other Islamic lands such as Egypt and Algeria.
The relative success of Pakistan's democracy can be seen as a testing ground for democracy in other Muslim countries
The relative success of Pakistan's democracy can be seen as a testing ground for democracy in other Muslim countries, as disillusionment spreads after the Arab Spring. One of every four of the planet's inhabitants is now a Muslim, and in the next 40 years this will rise to one in three. In view of these demographics, Islam and democracy had better learn to get along, if only gradually; because otherwise, as the clash-of-civilizations Cassandras keep telling us, things may be turning nasty around the middle of the century.
This is not just intuition. Last week the prestigious Pew Center released a wide-ranging study on world Muslims, interviewing some 38,000 individuals in 39 countries, all with more than 10 million Muslims, with the exception of Algeria, China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria.
A profile emerges of the 21st-century Muslim believer, who combines broad support for democracy, Western culture and technological modernity, with fidelity to the sharia or Islamic law, including corporal punishment, rigorous morality and the submission of women.
The Pakistani data are the most revealing, as they show us the most dogmatic and devout of believers. For 80 percent, the highest figure in the survey, the sharia is the revealed word of God and, for 84 percent, must be the official law of the land. A majority (64 percent), however, admit it should not be applied to non-Muslims, and 96 percent say that non-Muslims should be allowed to freely practice their religion. The Pakistanis, too, are the most fervent believers in corporal punishments such as whipping and amputation (88 percent), stoning for adultery (89), and the death penalty for apostasy from Islam (76).
As one might expect from these statistics, Pakistan is also among the lands where there is most concern about Islamic extremism. Some 14 percent consider Islamic suicide attacks justified, though this parameter is relatively low compared to Bangladesh (26) and Afghanistan (39), not to mention the rather special cases of Egypt (29) and Palestine (40), highest of all the countries in the survey.