Zakaria: What People Will Die For

In the press conference at which the 19-year-old son of Benazir Bhutto was crowned co-head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, one note was striking. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's brief comments began with a pledge to "stand as a symbol of federation." His words were carefully chosen. Pakistan's deepest cleavage is not between religious extremism and liberalism, nor even dictatorship and democracy. It is between the country's various regions. And in this regard, Pakistan is part of a growing phenomenon—the persistence and growing strength of subnational groups. With the end of the battle of ideologies—communism, socialism, liberalism—human beings' oldest identities have moved to the core of politics. It is why people vote and what they will die for.

Benazir Bhutto was admired, respected and beloved by Pakistanis throughout the country. But she was also from Sindh, a province that comprises about 20 percent of the country. Most of the riots and demonstrations after her assassination took place in Sindh. Punjab, the largest part of Pakistan, with almost 50 percent of its population, has traditionally dominated the country and its armed forces. Non-Punjabis—Sindhis, Pashtuns, Baluchis—demand greater representation, respect and autonomy from this Punjabi establishment. During elections, they also court Punjabi voters assiduously. Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir's widower, co-head of the PPP and the power behind the throne, has been flanked by leading Punjabi politicians in his recent press appearances. He closed his first conference as party co-president with an emotional remembrance of the guards who died protecting Benazir, all of whom, he pointed out, were Punjabi.

Many in the West hope that elections will heal some of these divisions, but last week's elections in Kenya had the opposite effect. Kenya is a loose collection of 40 tribes, and they have lived in relative peace since its independence from Britain. But the recent campaign broke down largely along ethnic lines. President Mwai Kibaki won a close race allegedly by rigging the polls, which then triggered violent reprisals against the Kikuyu, his tribe. This is not unusual. Iraq's elections—badly designed and prematurely introduced—are the bloodiest example of polls that furthered divides within a country. None of these fault lines were created by democracy, but elections can exacerbate divisions.

Nor is economic growth a miracle cure for the assertion of identity; in fact the two seem to go happily hand in hand. Two weeks ago, one of India's fastest-growing states, Gujarat, re-elected an unabashed Hindu nationalist for a third term as chief minister. In 2002 Narendra Modi presided over the first genuine pogrom in independent India's history—that is, an event in which the government actively assisted mobs in killing, raping and displacing tens of thousands of Muslims. Modi's campaign was designed largely around regional identity. He couched issues of development, governance and sectarianism around the core idea of "Gujarati pride." Throughout India, caste, region and language are proving far more durable sources of identity and political power than any national idea.

Subnationalism is thriving even in postmodern Europe. A crucial political issue facing Europe and the United States this month is the status of Kosovo, a part of Serbia that wishes to secede. Last year Belgium went six months without a government because its Flemish- and French-speaking populations have starkly divergent visions of their country's future. And in Britain, Scotland has elected a ruling party committed to pursuing independence, which would unravel the 1707 Acts of Union that created the United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales.

Why is this happening, and why now? Globalization and democratization are the broad trends of the day, and both have the effect of empowering small groups within countries and weakening the nation-state. Gujarat can prosper without much reference to or help from New Delhi. The Sindhis can maintain their sense of identity far better today—with the proliferation of regional television, Web-based communities and cheap communication—than ever before. The Scots know that a small nation of 5 million is completely viable in today's European Union and open world economy. In such circumstances, the pull of old identities—all of them much older than the nation-state—dominates politics.

The United States has often tried to impose its own narrative onto events in foreign lands. But often this storyline—of a struggle between Islamic radicals and secular democrats, for instance—is a mask for these more basic battles. Whatever Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's failings, his successor will surely have to deal warily with the rise of Pashtun nationalism, which is the underlying base of support for the Taliban. Even without Iran's support, Hizbullah's appeal among Lebanese Shiites ensures that that country will remain precariously balanced. Even if violence continues to diminish, the divide between Iraq's three communities has become the country's core political problem. There are no good answers other than the long, hard work of nation-building—political bargains, compromises and institution-building, none of which is easily affected by outsiders. All this makes for a world that is becoming rich, empowered and unmanageable.