Anatol Lieven’s book is an almighty antidote to the ahistorical and often shrill narratives that dominate any discussion on Pakistan. One cannot give Lieven enough credit for writing a book that combines all the eloquence and sophistication of an academic with the commonsense approach, humour and precision of a journalist. Maybe that is because Lieven is both a scholar and a journalist and has written books on Chechnya and the Baltic states among others. With Lieven’s work one does not have to sacrifice subtlety, intricacy and nuance for readability or accessibility — this book is for the scholar but also for non-specialists around the world who are trying to get to grips with this enigmatic nation.

The book seamlessly flows with historical analysis, anthropological investigation, and painstaking contextualisation. Mixed in are beautiful accounts of the different provinces of Pakistan along with conversations and interviews from a vast demographic spread of citizens. It is both grand in its scholastic description and in its journalistic flair, providing the reader with a real texture of the multi-dimensional nature of Pakistan’s people. Rarely do we get to hear the views of ordinary Pakistanis from the landowner to the farmer, clerics to intelligence officials, that Lieven manages with supreme grace. We have a narrative that is all embracing rather than awkward presentations replete with one-dimensional dichotomies (such as dividing Pakistanis into either “Islamists’’ or “secularists’’).

Lieven makes some articulate points. Pakistan is not Somalia or Iraq, and indeed he argues that the wrong question is being asked. Tariq Ali too argues that given the crippling socio-economic pressures in the country, the failure of civic institutions, and the weakness of the Pakistani democratic state, why are Islamists not making more ground? Why are the Islamic parties, Lieven argues, still so weak in Pakistan? Why do they have a minimal social base and remain a marginal political force?

In this observation, Lieven documents Pakistan’s social conservativism which para-doxically acts as a buffer against revolutionary-theocratic Islamism but also against the development of liberal politics and modern democracy. Pakistani political discourse is a bulwark of inertia that simultaneously protects society from the excesses of Islamism and hinders progressive reforms of the feudal structures that define the country’s social conservativism.

Pakistan’s political culture is heavily dependent on the idea of making “connections’’, exploiting one’s ties towards a particular tribe, clan or kin. Pakistani politicians can only access power by being entrenched and swallowed up by this traditionalist system of politics. Hence even when Pakistani politicians take over offices and enter into the world of modern political decision making, they are still worn down by the obligations and duties towards the social parties that got them in power in the first place, much like US lawmakers who pursue the agenda of their backing lobbies. The whole idea of the nation-state, rule of law and democratic politics that Pakistan inherited from its colonial masters simply does not fit in with this system of cultural politics. Pakistan’s human rights issues are hence compounded not by Islamic law per se but by the patriarchal and regressive ethos of the feudal culture which encapsulates Pakistan’s political culture. Democracy is fundamentally at odds with the traditional systems of social power entrenched in the fabric of Pakistan.

Pakistan is hence not a “failed state’’, but it’s not democratic either. In many ways, it is not a modern nation-state at all, but a social conglomeration defined by the ideals of patronage and kinship. It is this durable socio-economic glue that has kept Pakistan going over the last 63 years. It is not a state in the modern sense at all but awkwardly combines the deep rooted customs of patronage politics with the outer trappings of a democracy. Democracy isn’t a philosophy of life in the country because that space for social deliberation and political negotiation is taken up by pre-modern paradigms of negotiation and conflict resolution. There is no space for democracy in the Pakistani public sphere, not because of radicalism but because of traditionalism.

Pakistani policy makers are in a fix. Advocating reforms of traditionalist feudal structures may pave the way for liberalisation, but as Lieven warns, it may opena Pandora’s box where provincial nationalism ultimately fragments and breaks up any hope of a universal Pakistani narrative. The clientele of the feudal lords to the authority of the Pakistani state is paramount to its continued existence.

Furthermore, the appeal of the Islamist parties does not stem from deep theological commitment to the political project of the “Islamic state’’. On the contrary, it is actually the deep seated aggravations and frustrations with the fragile and anaemic civic, juridical and political organs of the nation’s nascent democracy. It is the failure of the westernised “liberals’’ of Pakistan through their acquiescing to the feudal leadership that has created a space for Islamist protest.

The theocratic Islamist project is one born out of protest, frustration, alienation and anxiety — it is an ideology of “resistance’’. In the words of Khaled Abou El Fadl it is “an orphan of modernity’’ that struggles to find certainty and justice in the messy aftermath of colonialism. In this respect Alaistair Cooke’s study, Resistance — The Essence of Islamist Revolution complements Lieven’s work on this topic.

In many ways Lieven argues that Pakistan is closer to 18th century Europe in terms of its political culture rather than Somalia. Pakistan’s socio-political conservativism also provides the foundations of economic transactions. The resources of the state are not redistributed through modern means, such as welfare politics, as in Europe for instance, but through the same traditional institutions that have loomed large over sub-continental life over the last few hundred years. But stagnation has set in — the landowners of Sindh have kept such monopolistic control over politics that any hope for the emergence of creative enterprise or economic liberalisation is squashed in the rural hinterland. The big landowners are perhaps the most serious obstacle to democratisation, universal education and other cherished virtues of meaningful politics.

The challenge for Pakistan is to develop a distinctly indigenous and organic discourse of democracy that reconciles the conflicting political psychologies at play when operating in a democratic framework and in a feudal framework. But such suggestions in the past have come only from dictators and never from elected representatives.

The challenges, Lieven mentions, are not unique to Pakistan but are rather symptomatic of the post-colonial experience. In fact, the most grievous challenges to Pakistan’s social organisation do not emanate from Islamists but from the brutish forces of mother nature itself. Lieven writes that, “Over the next century, the possible long-term combination of climate change, acute water shortages, poor water infrastructure and steep population growth has the potential to wreck Pakistan as an organised state and society’’. He goes on to proceed ominously that “Human beings can survive for centuries without democracy, and even without much security. They cannot live for more than three days without water.’’

Lieven also talks about the threat of anti-Americanism with great empathy and subtlety. Some of Pakistan’s own liberal commentators are too quick to dismiss the deep seated emotions at play in this crucial issue. Overt displays of military action by the American administration may ultimately undermine the only stable institution in the country and that is the military. The discussion of the drone attacks and the radicalisation of the urban middle classes aren’t given enough room — indeed radicalisation of the urban middle class youth is something perhaps that is lacking in Lieven’s narrative.

Lieven, though, talks at great length about the problems of democratisation but his commentary on the role of the ISI and Army in Pakistan politics can be perceived as not going far enough in terms of scrutiny. Maybe it is the regional geo-politics that Lieven argues forces the Pakistan Army into a position to support the idea of “strategic depth’’ to counter the threat of Indian encroachment. This involves backing the Taliban in some respects, but at the same time, the Army has to fulfil its obligations to its western allies. The Army’s partnership with the West is conflicting with its India-centric worldview which has defined the army’s intervention in public life.

Lieven’s book is definitely a narrative of Pakistan as understood by a foreigner. His approach is simply to go “beyond Islam’’, which is marking a new discourse of studying Islamic societies as seen in the works of Asef Bayat and echoes Sami Zubaida’s work, Beyond Islam — A New Understanding of the Middle East. This work is a synthesis of cultural commentary, sociological clout, anthropological investigation, political psychology and moral empathy.

Pakistan: A Hard Country (CURRENT EVENTS) By Anatol Lieven Allen Lane, UK ISBN 978-1-846-14457-8 360pp. Rs1,295