Chemical weapons in Syria, suicide bombings in Iraq, revolution gone awry in Egypt, and assassinations in Afghanistan: there’s a lot of bad news pouring in from Muslim countries. Some conclude that we are witnessing the death of Islamic democracy as an idea and believe that Islamic and Western civilizations are set on divergent, irreconcilable paths. But I have a difficult time giving in to hopelessness. The experiment of Islamic democracy has a much longer and richer history than the news headlines, and it is a history that offers promise.

I say this as an American born to Pakistani parents who has spent nearly half of his life living in Pakistan, the birthplace of Islamic democracy. Pakistan was the first country to declare itself an Islamic republic, in 1956, years after it was cleaved from the British Empire. It is the world’s longest-running experiment in Islamic democratic constitutionalism. I grew up hearing stories—some jubilant, some despondent, some conflicted—from the multiple generations of my own family who have been part of this experiment. And this summer, once again, I witnessed Islamic democracy in action.

I was in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, this May covering the country’s parliamentary elections for an American magazine. I had a front-row seat to vibrant political campaigning, and to the extreme violence that accompanied it. In Pakistan, the party that wins the most parliamentary seats chooses the country’s prime minister. As dozens of candidates took to the campaign trail, more than a hundred people were killed in the month leading up to the elections, many at the hands of armed groups such as the Taliban.

I woke up early on election day to drive my parents to the local polling station so they could cast their ballots first thing in the morning. This was a historic election for the country. There had been many democratically elected governments before this, but they had all had their terms cut short by military coups, the dissolution of parliament, or war. This was the first time since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 that an elected government had completed its full term and was ready to hand over power to the next one on time.

As we drove toward the high school that served as the polling station, my parents shared their memories of Pakistan as a fledging democratic republic. My mother told me about the first time she voted, in 1963. She was only fourteen years old, far below the legal voting age, when the new military ruler, Ayub Khan, held a referendum after he came to power in a coup. The election, the first one held under military rule, was a farce. The general didn’t care who voted, as long as they voted for him, and so my mother, who was a ninth grader at the time, was given four different ID cards and told to vote four times for Ayub Khan.

My father recalled the rallies he attended in 1970 in support of Zulfiqar Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party who helped end the military rule of Ayub Khan. My father, and millions like him, were filled with hope by the charismatic populist leader. The 1971 election, Pakistan’s first national parliamentary election, was briefly celebrated but led straight into a bloody civil war in which Pakistan broke in two halves separated by a thousand miles of Indian land.

Pakistan’s experiment with Islamic democracy predates even the founding of the country. My grandfather was a British colonial subject who supported the All-India Muslims League, a political group formed in 1905, which demanded a separate country for the Muslims in South Asia. When they won independence from the British in 1947, they called their new country Pakistan.

My grandfather was a young bureaucrat with dreams of rising through the ranks of his new country when Liaquat Ali Khan, an Oxford-educated lawyer and Pakistan’s first prime minister, declared that he wanted his country to be a “laboratory” to demonstrate that Islam is “a progressive force in the world.” Pakistan’s first assembly passed a resolution that listed eight points that would form the basis of any constitution. Among them was the requirement that the new country be a “democratic state” that would be guided by “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice as enunciated by Islam.”

That was more than sixty year ago. Civil wars, simmering separatist movements, regional and international wars, crippling health and power crises, military coups, natural disasters, corrupt autocratic rulers, as well as bureaucratic negligence and incompetence have smothered Pakistan’s experiment in Islamic democracy. But along the way, the country has also achieved some rare feats. Pakistanis elected Benazir Bhutto, the world’s first female Muslim head of state. Popular protest movements have repeatedly toppled military dictators. The state recognized transsexuals as a third gender in 2009. There have been Olympic golds and World Cup trophies and yes, also nuclear power. But one basic achievement eluded Pakistan for sixty-six years: the timely transfer of democratic power.

As my parents disappeared into the polling booths, I waited outside and very soon news of bombings, shootings, and chaos at other polling stations started trickling in. The handful of strikes by shadowy militants, early in the morning, appeared to be an attempt to rob Pakistanis of a political milestone. But the militants didn’t succeed. The polling was a success, with the largest voter turnout in Pakistan’s history. Outside the country, most people were riveted by the violence that marred the election. Politicians were murdered, and voters were intimidated. But despite the international headlines, Pakistanis knew they had achieved an important milestone in their country’s experiment with Islamic democracy.

After the polls closed on election day, my parents and I watched the results roll in on live TV. When the numbers were added up, the candidate my parents had voted for lost badly. Instead, it was his main rival who became the new prime minister. Democracy, Islamic or otherwise, is always full of disappointment for some. But in the quiet gloom of the dinner table, my father saw a silver lining. “Maybe it’s better if he sits in the opposition for a few years,” he said about his candidate. “This will be his chance to prove himself.” And my mother completed the thought: “Next time will be better.”

Shahan Mufti is a journalist who has contributed pieces on Pakistan and the political evolution of Islam to Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, Boston Sunday Globe, The Nation, Bloomberg Businessweek, Columbia Journalism Review, and many others. He teaches journalism at the University of Richmond and splits his time between the United States and Pakistan. He is author of The Faithful Scribe, now out from Other Press.


This article originally appeared in the September 2013 edition of the Other Press e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe.