Phrases such as "failed state" and "country on the brink" have been bandied around about Pakistan for so long that many people might hazard a guess about the causes of the country's woes: a history of military rule; corrupt and inefficient politicians; a failure to confront extremists; or the thrall of the US. All are undoubtedly factors in the current woes of Pakistan, a country of huge potential, which seems held back by the perpetual problems of political instability and, more recently, militant violence.
But Farzana Shaikh has a more radical analysis of the origins of Pakistan's problems. The Chatham House fellow (and occasional contributor to this newspaper) argues that the troubles of the country stem from its very inception; from an uncertainty about what Pakistan, as a nation, should represent, and what it means to be a Pakistani. She argues that the ambiguous but generous role afforded to Islam by the country's founders set policy priorities for the newly created nation that have perilously restricted its progress ever since.
"It is," she writes, "the country's problematic and contested relationship with Islam that has most decisively frustrated its quest for a coherent national identity and for stability as a nation state capable of absorbing the challenges of its rich and diverse society."
Shaikh is not the first to take this approach. Stephen P Cohen, among others, has pointed to the presumed security needs of a newly created Pakistan, sitting alongside a more powerful neighbour, as having set the course of its direction for the following 60 years. But Shaikh's valuable analysis goes back further, to the ideas that inspired the likes of Syed Ahmed Khan, an early proponent of a two-state model for an independent India, and Muhammed Ali Jinnah, generally credited as the founder of Pakistan. Jinnah, who was famously ambivalent about the role of Islam in a future "land of the pure" – sometimes arguing that Pakistan should be a country for people of all religions, while on other occasions claiming it should be based on the "principle of Islam".
This confusion over what sort of Islam, if any, the new country might embody, only grew after Jinnah's premature death in 1948. It took politicians nearly a decade to draw up a constitution, and even longer to ratify it. Religious parties pushed for Islam to have a greater role, while the more secular-minded simply wanted to acknowledge the religion as a central component of the state's culture.
The repercussions of this uncertainty, argues Shaikh, were immense. Within three years of the constitution's promulgation, and with the country still lacking an elected government, the army stepped in – setting in place a cycle of military and civilian governments that each tried to seize Islam for their own ends. The success of policies was judged not on whether they delivered social or economic benefits, but on whether they strengthened the "putative Islamic purpose of the state".
Looking at Pakistan today, it is not hard to see the continuing struggle over the role of religion, and the often seemingly contradictory situations which this throws up. In the troubled north-west, the military is now confronting Taliban militants who want to impose a strict form of Sharia law, having previously supported these fighters as useful "jihadis" or "holy warriors" in both Kashmir and Afghanistan. President Asif Ali Zardari seeks to portray himself to the West as a secular, can-do politician (in much the same way as his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf), yet it was his government that, earlier this year, agreed a ceasefire with the Taliban that resulted in the establishment of Sharia law. (That ceasefire agreement is now defunct – hence the military operation.)
Given Pakistan's projected image as a hotbed of religious extremism, it is also worth pointing out that Pakistan's religious parties have rarely done well in the country's elections. Last year, the MMA religious coalition slumped badly. At the same time, the avowedly secular and democratic Awami National Party (ANP) secured provincial power in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the location of much supposed extremism.
Shaikh finds reason to be optimistic about the future of Pakistan. A newly freed media, an active legal community, artists and human- rights activists have all encouraged Pakistanis to imagine their country in an entirely new way. The goal, she says, will be for Pakistan not just to rethink its relationship with its old foe, India, but to shift away from a militant Islam that is at odds with the religion's longer tradition in South Asia.