What is so similar about Pakistan and Turkey?

Published: January 10, 2017

General Zia and Erdogan both came into power after a coup against the establishment.

You have a neighbouring Islamic country whose government you don’t seem to like much. You would appreciate if its rulers changed. The United States of America shares the same opinion as you. They want you to help settle a few scores of their own.

You collect motivated youth from around the world, all aligned in a certain sectarian direction. You provide them with military know how, modern weapons and defence strategies, in your own backyard. You send them charging to your neighbour, hoping that these motivated proxies will overthrow their government for you. While doing all this, you never calculate the cost of failure and any calamity that it might bring.

Russia is not happy with your involvement in this affair and invades your air space. You promptly shoot down its military plane. Terrorists take advantage of your lax policies towards religious activism and attack you at places you least expected. You hope that this is just an isolated incident. But with the passage of time, the intensity of these attacks keeps increasing.

They attack your airports, your weddings, your funerals and your public places. This is the story of Turkey in 2016, but if you take a look at newspapers from Pakistan during Ziaul Haq’s regime, you will find uncanny similarities and realise these words are equally applicable to Pakistan. The attack that took place in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve is a replica of the Taliban attack on a volleyball game in Bannu, exactly seven years ago. The explosion at the Gaziantep wedding is similar to the carnage on a bus carrying wedding guests in the Mohmand tribal region.

The attack on the Istanbul airport is a déjà vu moment for those who know of the Karachi airport attack in 2014. Despite how far apart we are on the map, if you look closely you’ll spot many similarities between what Turkey has become under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and how Pakistan had changed under General Ziaul Haq’s rule.

Can Turkey learn from our mistakes and have a soul searching moment of its own?

The similarities are there, if you look closely.

Both General Zia and Erdogan reflect a conservative mind-set. The 1970s, before Zia came into power, was one of the most liberal times in our national history. Zia felt beleaguered by a minority that had changed the outlook of a conservative society deeply rooted in Islamic principles. Erdogan perhaps feels the same.

Army and judiciary might be secular but a majority of the middle class, especially in the rural areas, is religious and does not identify with the principles of an elite minority. Despite being in power at differing times, both eventually concluded that a change of course was needed to bring back some balance in the society. The revival of the pulpit and the glory of sermons needed to be reaffirmed.

Both General Zia and Erdogan had domestic disturbances to contend with. Ziaul Haq dealt with a popular movement known as MRD (the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) headed by democracy stalwarts, urging the public to overthrow his government. At that time, Pakistan Peoples Party was a real grass root party, and there were many others among the political centre who were looking for a democratic solution for Pakistan. General Zia knew that the only way to resolve the issue at hand was by diverting the public’s attention towards a new cause.

Islamic jihad was a tranquilliser injected into the veins of a nation hungry for purpose. Books, newspapers, television programs, public forums were all fine–tuned to churn out a unified message of a big bear knocking at our doorsteps. The fear of any external enemy is a great unifier and Erdogan did the same thing. Even before the military coup, Erdogan had a very active secular opposition vouching against him and it was only the pulsing heart of the religious fundamentalists who could cure such a malaise. Erdogan’s overtures to Islamic fundamentalists were thus a balancing stone to gain a loyal following. It was a move that did pay him off during the ill attempted coup when his supporters threw themselves against military tanks to restore him as the president.

Both General Zia and Erdogan dreamed of a greater role for their countries. Pakistan was declared a citadel of Islam and, as a corollary, it was agreed that the world must be scared of the only Islamic country in possession of nuclear power. The Afghan invaders from the past, specifically Ghaznavi and Ghori, were ideal Muslim heroes, a pan Islamism transcending ethnic divides between the conquerors and the conquered.

For Turkey, there is a greater historical context. It used to be a super power and, up till a century ago, it was the lone khilafat (Caliphate) in the whole Islamic world. The memory of Suleiman, the magnificent, might not be such a subdued part of Erdogan’s musings and his involvement from Flotilla to Ikhwan is a testimony of the same aspirations that General Zia once had.

During General Zia’s time, it was Afghanistan which had a rogue government. We felt an existential threat by the presence of a superpower in our neighbourhoods. We allowed the Jihadi schools and recruitment centres, often with state patronage, to flourish. A young Jihadist would first get brainwashed in a Pakistani madrassa and then go on to neighbouring Afghanistan to get the necessary training.

The truth became apparent after 9/11 when these disgruntled elements launched a backlash against the state itself. Turkey found its nemesis in neighbouring Syria. There are indications that a similar story might be unfolding in Turkey as well.

A few years ago, University of Columbia’s program on Peace-building and Rights assembled a team of prominent international experts on terrorism. The team took its inference from various sources of news on this issue including prominent newspapers and on ground sources. The results of the effort were summarised in an article by David L Phillips the Director of the program in The Huffington Post titled Research Paper: ISIS-Turkey Links.

The research paper examined in details what the nature of these allegations is and what evidence seems to support that:

1. At the height of insurgency, a majority of ISIS fighters cross the border via Turkey through a patch labelled ‘Gateway to Jihad’ as a few Turkish border soldiers turn a blind eye toward them.

2. Trucks sponsored by the Turkish Government supplied weapons to terrorist groups.

3. Turkey provided financial aid to al Qaeda associates.

3. Turkish officials stamped passports of known ISIS militants

4. Turkey trained ISIS militants.

4. Turkish hospitals treated high-level ISIS militants.

5. Turkey exploited lucrative oil profits.

6. Turkey turned a blind eye to the rampant radicalisation of the state.

Denied by the Erdogan government, these allegations serve as a trail of how Turkey used proxy war in a neighbouring country as a policy tool.

Anyone familiar with Pakistan’s own record on Afghan issues, especially those familiar with works of prominent writers, such as Ahmed Rashid, Amir Mir and Saleem Shehzad and Ayaz Amir, will find it all too familiar a story. In our hatred for the enemy, we both introduced piranhas in our aquatic ecosystem, hoping they will target a particular brand of fish only. We believed that these fighters were good, and that they would only fight the bad guys. We never paid any heed to the indicators suggesting that not all of them are good, and that perhaps they are the ones responsible for the sectarian carnage in our own backyard.

General Zia and Erdogan both came into power after a coup against the establishment. Both strengthened their control over the government by employing similar tactics: oppressing freedom of expression, arresting and torturing political opponents, controlling educational and religious institutes and harnessing the tides of global politics for their own benefit. They also suppressed several hidden and some open rebellions.

Erdogan seems to slowly be turning back on this policy, but is this genuine effort toward bringing some sense into Turkey’s policies or is it one more gimmick?

General Zia wasn’t alive to see how his tyrannical policies brought about havoc. But if he had, would he have repented too? It’s hard to tell.

One thing is for sure; there is much that separates us in our demographics and geography, but there is a lot that makes us relate to one another in our failures.

One of the most ironic lessons we have learnt from history is that we have never learnt from it. These attacks on Turkey are a replica of the same failed policy that Pakistan had adopted in the 1980s. You pick bits and pieces from the most putrid of corpses around the world, you mix and match them, drive that magical spark of religious fervour through them, send them to the most ideal of targets and hope that they will do the job for you.

The problem with such monsters is that no matter how far you have left them behind, they have a way of tracing back their steps. There is always this Freudian obsession, that father of all Oedipus complexes that makes them challenge the very hand that created them. You can always guarantee a backlash when these monsters don’t get what they believe is their due right. Perhaps the greatest truth of current times is that modern proxy revolutions eat not only their only children, but the children of those who financed them.

Akhtar Abbas

Akhtar Abbas

The author is an entrepreneur, photographer, travel enthusiast and amateur writer. He writes on society, politics and things that trouble ordinary mortals. He tweets @Faded_Greens (twitter.com/Faded_Greens)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ahmar

    Great writing and a very accurate analogy.Recommend

  • Rahul

    There are many other similarities between Turkey and Pakistan including the conspiracy theories peddled on TV about the foreign hand behind every incident and the enemies of Islam destabilizing the country.


  • Keyboard Soldier

    Jihad against infidels (includes all non-Wahhabis) is an integral part of Islam. This will go on until the very last person on earth becomes a Wahhabi Muslim.

    Entering Islam is easy. Going out means death.Recommend

  • Critical

    There is a huge difference

    Modern Turkey was formed based on secular ideals separating religion from state

    Pakistan was formed on the basis of Two Nation theory and creating a separate haven for Muslims..

    The hounding of Hindus and Sikhs,post partition riots, the mistreatment of the Bengalis, Declaring Ahmaddiyas as non Muslims all happened even before Zia came into power…Zia just accelerated the path Pakistan were leading into..Recommend

  • Saadi

    Best wishes to Turkey! Like Pakistan, you too shall overcome!
    – Erkek KardesinRecommend

  • Milind A

    The article covers most of the valid points, however misses a valid point… There’s a sizeable and vocal following for secularism & modernity in Turkey, something which is absent in Pakistan. Additionally Turkey’s constitution is not tampered with, whereas Pakistani constitution – the less said the better…Recommend

  • M R Gooda

    Zia was a usurper. Erdogan is a democratically elected president. Erdogan took Turkey out of financial straits, repaid all IMF loans and offered credit to the IMF.
    All your ISIS suppositions are nonsenseRecommend

  • 19640909rk .

    Pakistan gave birth to Taliban and Al Qaida. Turkey gave birth to ISIS. Recommend

  • Umair

    I will second MR Gooda
    “Erdogan is a democratically elected president. Erdogan took Turkey out of financial straits, repaid all IMF loans and offered credit to the IMF.
    All your ISIS suppositions are nonsense”
    All your theories are nonsense. ISIS is created by Americans and now they are doing research that Turkey is funding them and all – height of stupidity for us to believe it. This article may give the writer some applause line from the west.Recommend

  • https://www.facebook.com/ ather khan

    totally irrelevant. pakistan was created as a muslim state not an islamic state. there is a huge different. a muslim can be practicing, moderate even secular. thats why it was bound to be a muslim majority secular state. as dreamed by jinnah. but zia turned it into a terrorist state.Recommend

  • https://www.facebook.com/ ather khan

    pakistan’s moderate society is also sizable. it only needs to be organized.Recommend

  • https://www.facebook.com/ ather khan

    during zia’s time economic situation in pakistan was also great. unsustainable economic boom in the cost of structural damage of the society should not be appreciated. turkey is rapidly going toward becoming second pakistan.Recommend

  • https://www.facebook.com/ ather khan

    irrelevant. if that was true there shouldn’t be any hindus left in north-west india. hindus were soldiers, vizers and commanders in almost all the muslim dynasties in india.Recommend

  • Sajjad Ashraf

    To put it straight the biggest similarity that both involved themselves in someone else’s wars in their neighbourhood and are paying for it – Pakistan for the last 35 years and Turkey now.Recommend

  • Rohan

    Both are terror sponsoring countriesRecommend

  • usman saani

    such a lame article, contorted facts with hint of biasness, no wonder its a work of an amateur authorRecommend

  • Spin Kahn

    Zia killed of innocent Palestinian in Jordan, I do not believe he was a good Muslim. Also Turk played a good role for Muslim and Islam during Khilafate Usmani. Pakistan was a Britain Agenda to devide Muslim of India and planted problem in the region such as Bangladesh and Durand Line.Recommend

  • Milind A

    How can it be irrelevant? Are you saying its fine for minorities to be decimated if its a Muslim state and not an Islamic state? Nobody outside sees the difference and is able to tell the difference between the two.Recommend

  • Milind A

    How can you compare the moderate society in Pakistan with the secular society of Turkey? Any Pew poll will show the opinion of the majority on Ahmadis, secularism, co-existence, Sharia… Its the same in almost all Muslim countries, except probably Turkey.Recommend

  • Milind A

    How many Hindus are left in northwest (Pakistan)? Aren’t they fleeing, theirs daughters kidnapped? Can they openly profess their faith? Agreed Hindus were soldiers, viziers, but that happened when Muslim warlords turned upon each other and needed manpower. Some Hindu chieftains couldn’t be defeated and Muslim dynasties entered into alliances with them.Recommend

  • gp65

    Were the Bengalis massacred before or after Zia came to power, Were Ahmadis declared non-Muslim before or after Zia? Was the objective resolution passed before or after Zia?Recommend

  • gp65

    Where are the sizeable moderates when it comes to protesting against missing bloggers or missing Baloch? Where are the sizeable moderates when goons who endorsed Salman Taseer murder now bay for his son’s blood? But lakhs of people come out in support of his killer.
    In India lakhs came out to oppose emergency. Lakhs came out to support Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption and same to demand better laws and street safety for women in the wake of Nirbhaya gang rape.Recommend


    Both countries do not have self respect in general always dance according to the of west and east .west for Turkey AND west and east for PakistanRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    The writer is obsessed and traumatised with the period of army rule in his land and is looking for simalarities with other leaders of the muslim majority countries. It is ironic and that he has identified the most popular leader of our times who successfully eliminated the role of army governance and despite setbacks is still vying for the countrys membership in the European Union. How can one compare the one who rode roughshod on the States Institutions with the one who is upholding and protecting them. How can one compare the military man with the civilian who is trying to bring peace among the syrians against all odds with the man who sowed the seeds of discontent in his own land.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Razzy

    The very same could be said about Shivaji. He also massacred many a Hindu during his raids Up north and down south. It is an accepted fact that every king (well almost all of them) desires more territory. WHen Taimor attacked Delhi, it was ruled by Ibrahim Lodhi and had a huge Muslim population. However he didn’t think twice before spilling blood just as Shivaji didn’t think twice before killing his religious brethren in (modern day) Baroda or Gwalior or Mysore. Check up some real text books not what the state gave you in your child hoodRecommend