Religious extremism in Pakistan (Part XV)

The period in which religious extremism grew the most in Pakistan was during the time of General Ziaul Haq. He began his ‘Islamisation’ process long before he seized power. After becoming the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Zia not only changed the motto of the Pakistan army to iman (faith), taqwa (piety), jihad fi sabil Allah (war for the sake of God), but also “urged all ranks of the army during his visits to troops as well as in written instructions, to offer their prayers, preferably led by the commanders themselves at various levels. Religious education was included in the training programme and mosques and prayer halls were organised in all army units” (Khan, Lieutenant General Jahan Dad, Pakistan Leadership Challenges, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 158).

When Zia toppled the Bhutto government through a coup d'état, the religious parties strongly supported his move. This gave him an opportunity to legitimise his rule. Despite assurances to Bhutto that new elections will be held soon, Zia exploited the anti-Bhutto movement, especially the religious elements, to garner support for himself. He presented himself as someone who wanted to achieve the ‘vision’ of those who sacrificed their lives for an ‘Islamic’ Pakistan. In his first address to the nation on July 5, 1977, General Zia said, “Pakistan, which was created in the name of Islam, will continue to survive only if it sticks to Islam. That is why I consider the introduction of an Islamic system as an essential prerequisite for the country” (Ritcher, W.L., ‘The Political Dynamics of Islamic Resurgence in Pakistan’, Asian Survey, no 9, June 1979).

Bhutto’s pan-Islamism had turned the US against Pakistan, but Zia was lucky that political developments helped him win back US support. The ouster of the pro-West Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, after an Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini in 1979 turned Iran into a pariah for the US. “With the Iran-Afghanistan border denied, the only access to Afghanistan open to the US-led West was through Pakistan. This made Islamabad an important element in the Western attempt to defeat the Soviet presence in Afghanistan…The Western media suddenly ‘discovered’ that Zia, the dictator, was in fact a ‘good guy’. His opposition to the communist invasion in Afghanistan evoked sympathy and support…Pakistan’s decision to act as a conduit for Western weapons to Kabul was eulogised” (Arif, General K.M., Khaki Shadows: The Pakistan Army 1947-1997, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2001, p.181).

When the Soviets occupied Kabul in 1979, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) started its mantra of ‘Islam in danger’ and ‘jihad’ to fight the communists, who were termed as ‘godless’. “Quite early on, Zia had already started to fund the seminaries [madrassas] whose graduates, he expected, would swell the ranks of his supporters. Now many of these foot soldiers of Islam would turn north for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, though most of the fighting was to be done by indigenous Afghans themselves. And as the US got Saudi Arabia to match its own contribution to the war effort on a ‘dollar for dollar’ basis, the seminaries mushroomed and their output increased exponentially…” (Abbas, Hassan, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror, London: M. E. Sharpe, 2005, p. 112).

During the Zia era, both Saudi Arabia and Iran competed for influence in Pakistan. This led to a divide between the Sunnis (who were being supported by the Saudis) and the Shias (who were supported by Iran). While Saudi Arabia funded Sunni organisations, Iran funded Shia organisations, ultimately leading to sectarian conflict. In 1980, under the Sunni Islamic law, General Zia promulgated the zakat (wealth tax) and ushr (farming tax) ordinances. Since the Shias have a different methodology of calculating zakat than the Sunnis, they demanded the repeal of these ordinances. The Shia militant organisation, Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqah-e-Jafria (TNFJ), was then formed. It was funded by Iran. This led to a Sunni backlash in the form of a Sunni militant organisation, Anjuman-e-Sipah-i-Sahaba (ASSP), formed by Deobandi ulema and former members of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). The ASSP was later renamed as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and was funded by the Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern bloc. More ‘religious’ militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), also emerged during Zia’s time. Both Sunnis and Shias were slaughtered during this time, while the Zia regime only fanned the rising antagonism.

Zia took many steps to “restructure the polity on Islamic lines. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) was reconstituted and expanded so as to accommodate more religious scholars; Shariat benches were created in all the High Courts in 1979. One year later a Federal Shariat Court was set up in place of Shariat benches in each High Court. The Shariat Court has the power to strike down any law or administrative action as un-Islamic if in its opinion it violates the fundamental laws of Islam; Islamic punishments, i.e. amputation of hands, stoning to death and lashing, were prescribed for theft, adultery and drinking respectively. An interest-free banking system described as Profit and Loss Sharing (PLS) System was initiated in January 1981. By mid-1985, all Pakistani banks switched over to this system; The revised education policy (1979) laid special emphasis on the projection of Islamic teaching and ideology of Pakistan in the syllabi of various classes. Copious funds were made available for religious education. ‘Nazimeen-e-Salaat’ (organisers of prayers) were appointed in August 1984 to encourage people to offer prayers regularly in government departments. They were required to submit reports to the government on the religious conduct of people in their respective areas. The mass media was directed to reflect orthodox Islamic values, film censorship was stricter than ever, various cultural activities considered not in conformity with the fundamentals of Islam were discouraged…” (Rizvi, Hasan Askari, The Military and Politics in Pakistan 1947-1997, Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2000, pp. 247-48). The Zia regime earned dubious fame for making the ‘dupatta’ mandatory for female newscasters and anchorpersons, in addition to committing many more bigoted acts to project its religious fervour.

Under the guise of ‘Islamic’ laws, some laws were extremely draconian, for instance, the Hudood Ordinances that targeted women and the Blasphemy Law that targeted the minorities. Under the Blasphemy Law, a death sentence was mandatory for anybody who used derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Zia also made it a criminal offence for the Ahmedis to ‘pose’ as Muslims or to preach and/or propagate their faith.

Even today, Pakistan is reaping the seeds of Zia’s ‘enthusiastic’ Islamisation drive. He entrenched Islamic fundamentalism in every nook and corner of society in such a way that it would be nearly impossible for any ruler to undo Zia’s legacy. “Throughout his period in office, Zia rewarded the only political party to offer him consistent support, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Tens of thousands of Jamaat activists and sympathisers were given jobs in the judiciary, civil service and other state institutions. These appointments meant Zia’s Islamic agenda lived on long after he died. The campaigns for women to cover their heads, for shutting down restaurants during Ramadan and for enforcing the Hudood and Zina ordinances can all be ascribed to the fact that, after Zia, Islamic radicals held positions of authority” (Jones, Owen Bennett, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, p. 18).

General Zia held a referendum in December 1984. In the referendum, the people were asked whether they stood for Islamic Shariah or not, and if they did, then Zia stood chosen as president for five years. Although the official results said that 95 percent of the votes were cast in Zia’s presidency, many believe the results were rigged. The referendum was a big joke and a cruel manipulation of people’s religious sentiments. Having arrogated to himself the role of arbiter of the people’s destiny and guardian of their faith, Zia ran amok with his Islamisation, turning Pakistan into a theocracy, which turned the Quaid’s ‘moderate’ vision on its head. Ironically, in this Islamist pursuit, the US became his bedfellow. It is not of insignificant importance that the lessons of jihad were taught to the students of religious seminaries from the textbooks prepared and distributed the US, currently rabidly anti-jihad. Zia’s handpicked Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo could not deviate much from the Ziaist path.

When Junejo tried to tread a separate road on the issue of the Geneva Accords on Afghanistan and showed the guts to try to probe the Ojhri Camp blast, in which many Stingers that the US had provided to the mujahideen had been dumped but remained unaccounted for upon scrutiny, he was kicked out of office by President General Ziaul Haq through the 8th Amendment. The August 17 midair explosion removed Zia, but his no-holds-barred Islamisation left a deep mark on the national polity. When Benazir Bhutto assumed power in 1988 following a compromise with the establishment, she talked about nudging Pakistan towards a progressive future, but soon she was seen constantly fingering prayer beads to mollycoddle the religious fringe. So much so that she appointed the ‘ever smart’ Maulana Fazlur Rehman as the chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee. On the other hand, the star of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), Mian Nawaz Sharif, surpassed his mentor Ziaul Haq by making a failed bid to become amir-ul-momineen through the 15th Amendment in 1999.


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