The Islamisation of Pakistan

Maruf Khwaja
11 April 2006

In 1953, Abul A'la Maududi, founder of the movement dedicated to converting the state of Pakistan into a wahhabi caliphate, instigated the country's first sectarian riots. They were led by the Jamaat-i-Islami, a back-to-the-roots party Maududi founded in 1943.

Though shaky and unstable, the Pakistani government recognised that the religious extremism being mobilised ran counter to the liberal-democratic ideals of the country's founders. For the first and perhaps last time, a democratic Pakistani government acted with vigour against the peril: employing martial law to imprison Maududi (initially sentencing him to death) and setting up a judicial inquiry to resolve what was then called "the Ahmadi question" (namely, are Ahmadis – followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (1835-1908), a figure variously claimed to be either messiah or prophet – Muslims, or not?).

The government of a Pakistan still less than a decade old, hoping that its firm action would deny the Jamaatis a platform for their agitation, assigned to the inquiry the task of resolving once and for all the question of just who is entitled to be called a Muslim and who is not.

The commission, comprising two of the country's most eminent jurists, summoned the leading mullahs of every known Islamic sect and school of thought and asked each to define a Muslim according to his sect's version of Islam. They came up with definitions that cancelled out each other. The jurists concluded that none of Pakistan's 70 million Muslims divided by sect would, in the eyes of one or the other mullah, qualify as Muslim.

That wasn't all. If the mullahs' fatwas were to be taken to their logical Islamic conclusion, 70 million Pakistanis would have to have their heads cut off. The 387-page report raised many a laugh around the world, including the world of Islam, and brought ridicule upon Pakistan's "learned" clerics. But the mullahs showed no shame or embarrassment, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Also on Pakistani politics in openDemocracy:

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet"
(March 2004)

Muzamil Jaleel, "Kashmir's bus ride to peace" (April 2005)

Irfan Husain, "Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words" (March 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Musharraf's own goals" (March 2006)

Religion and the state

Later it became politically expedient to release Maududi, who went on to lead or instigate many more riots. But he was a good organiser and an effective writer who cunningly exploited Muslims' emotional attachment to their religion, sharpened by their many worldly frustrations. With limitless funds from Saudi Arabia (and the United States), he won adherents among the bureaucracy and the merchant class. He recruited selectively among young Muslims, whom he trained, motivated and used to harass, intimidate and persecute opponents of his extremist ideology. Leftists and progressives, especially in the mass media, were singled out.

The Jamaat brought "Islamic McCarthyism" to Pakistan, instigating witch-hunts through his supporters in a succession of regimes. They could destroy a man's career, even his life, by calling him a kafir – one who rejected the message of the Muslim prophets. But ordinary people, from the peasantry to the intellectual elite, were not fooled and, in the electoral arena, the Jamaat would remain impotent and irrelevant until rescued from oblivion by Pakistan's third military dictator, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a closet Jamaati.

Its undreamed-of propulsion into government in late 1977 was also Zia's way of thanking the party that helped create the crisis which paved the way for his military coup. The whole of Jamaat-i-Islami's well-oiled, well-financed machinery was deployed into helping the United States effort to destroy Soviet power through the Afghan war. Billions of dollars in American military equipment and aid were to be diverted into their coffers and a dedicated government department , the directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), deployed in their service at home and abroad throughout Zia's time and that of such protégées as the future prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Before he died in 1976, Maududi saw his first macabre aspiration realised at the unlikely hands of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In a desperate attempt to buy off religious parties agitating (with American backing) for his overthrow, Bhutto declared Ahmadis apostates.

The fitna, or satanic mischief, that Maududi bequeathed to his followers and fellow-travellers in laying the grounds for sectarian warfare has wreaked destruction on the poor umma, the community of Muslims. Pakistan has been eaten hollow by corrosive obscurantism unleashed by the Jamaat and its sympathisers. Through the 1980s and 1990s, sectarian violence spilled over the borders of religious belief into those that separate political ideologies, as well as ethnic, racial, linguistic and tribal identities. It undermined an assiduously nurtured, barely credible, Pakistani nationalism and breathed fresh life into separatist movements.

Today, driven by hate, the stormtroopers of competing sects (identified by Taliban-type turbans of various colours) swarm all over the big cities of Pakistan – the country with the world's second-largest Muslim population – and mill around street-corners, haranguing passers-by, subjecting them to aggressive proselytising. Ubiquitous armed police, on mosque-protection duties, watch warily from tops of minarets converted into watch towers. Mosques, proliferating more than ever, resemble ancient fortresses with battlements to ward off attack. Some minarets contain gun emplacements. Though the mosques remain largely empty – even the most dedicated saleheen (righteous) are daunted by bombs – the loudspeakers blare out not just azans (calls to prayer), but the entire prayer ritual at top volume. But little is understood because every loudspeaker-equipped mosque is faced by another across the street with the same decibel count and its own strident mullah.

Ideology and politics

The entire character of a nation is being distorted. The spirit of tolerance that once stood out among the ebullient, fun-loving people of Sindh and Punjab provinces has all but disappeared. Politics has been removed from its fragile parliamentary, democratic setting and set adrift in a stormy, shoreless sea. With fanatics occupying the public sphere, secular or non-religious parties have been more or less been edged out. Even the puppets of the current regime, led by General Pervez Musharraf, are seen or heard only in the government media. Those representing the detained, exiled and generally spent forces of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif, who might remotely have threatened the general, have been pushed aside or obliged to make unnatural alliances with the mullahs simply to survive in the public consciousness.

The religious parties, encouraged and empowered by a succession of autocratic regimes, have all but replaced the political process with virulent Islamic fascism. While Muslims wage war on each other for alleged "deviations" from the "true path", non-Muslims are being targeted for what little they have in the way of human rights, livelihood and property.

According to Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, violence continues to escalate in every sphere. In a report following its annual general meeting in March 2006, the commission saw "total breakdown in the law-and-order situation across the country". No citizen, it said, is safe from harm. The commission cites reports from all four Pakistani provinces and federally-administered tribal areas of deaths in "fake encounters" (set-ups by the police), daylight robberies, disappearances and police refusing to register complaints. In Sindh, feudal lords, with the help of armed thugs, have established fiefdoms within which the law does not prevail.

With the official justice system close to breakdown, parallel systems are appearing in remote areas. Impromptu tribal jirgas (councils) increasingly determine the fate of offenders without recourse to due process. Women are the most vulnerable. New cases of vani – whereby a young woman is handed over to a much older man as restitution for an offence alleged committed by a male relative of the woman, or to settle a feud – continue to come in from the Punjab. Young women are routinely handed over to men as compensation for murder under this brutal custom, in defiance of court orders banning the practice. The government is aware of the situation but, out of political expediency, does nothing.

The rights commission also pours scorn on government claims of economic growth. Thirty-five percent of the working population lives below the poverty line. There are no guarantees of access to work. The unprivileged are squeezed out of the education system, while the quality of education and the increased hold of Taliban types on it make learning less and less meaningful. Lack of job opportunities is made worse by the practice of appointing serving or retired military men to posts previously held by civilians. The military's hold over private business has also tightened. The government is either a party to the iniquitous state of affairs or a helpless spectator.

An editorial in the Daily Times, a Lahore-based English-language newspaper, delivered a stinging condemnation of a spineless regime hog-tied by the mullahs. The occasion was Musharraf's capitulation to mullah demands to outlaw Basant, a kite-flying festival that culturally unites Indian and Pakistani Punjab and provides a welcome relief from the stifling religious atmosphere:

"(Like) a rat in the dead of night, the Punjab government scurried away from the din of the mullahs and hid behind a ban on kite flying across the province … It's the same old wretched story. Whenever a mullah coughs in Ichhra [headquarters of the Jamaat–e-Islami], the mighty national security establishment, armed with nuclear weapons and F-16s and submarines, is inclined to tuck tail and run. It's called a 'tactical retreat' in order to avoid opening another 'front'. The problem is that when all such 'tactical' retreats are put together, they end up in a 'strategic' rout." ("Another shameful day in the life of Lahore", 11 March 2006.)

No surprise, therefore, that vultures of the apocalypse continue to circle over Pakistan's dark, desolate political landscape. Of late, though, they have been concentrating more on the north of the country – not necessarily to feast upon the casualties of the "war on terror" straddling the Pakistani-Afghan border; or further south-west, above the gas fields of Kohlu and Dera Bugti, where Baluch tribal people continue to tie down several army divisions; or further north, in Gilgit and Skardu, where dozens of minority Shias were butchered in well-organised fundamentalist violence. No, the vultures are looking for "really big fish" – in fact the biggest fish in the country.

Among Maruf Khwaja's writings on openDemocracy:

"The suicide of fundamentalism" (August 2001)

"The past in the present: India, Pakistan, and history" (August 2002)

"Becoming Pakistani" (August 2004)

"Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable"
(July 2005)

"Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures" (August 2005)

"Pakistan's mountain tsunami"
(October 2005)

"The Baluchi battlefront" (February 2006)

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The general at midnight

But if he is nervous or panicky, Musharraf is not showing it. He ought to be. For his campaign in Waziristan, at the combined goading of his putative American and Afghan allies, has resulted in a serious backlash. An increasing number of Pathan officers are refusing to wage war on their kith and kin in the region, which borders Afghanistan. The Waziristan conflict, which began in 2004, has so far cost the lives of 700 Pakistani soldiers (many of them ethnic Pathans), fifty Americans and 2,000 tribesmen or their al-Qaida supporters. As a result, at least one Pathan major-general from the Orakzai tribe has been prematurely retired, while more than a dozen colonels have had to be posted elsewhere. Musharraf is hanging on.

But how long can he do so? How long can this go on? As the song says, "Sometime, somewhere, somethin's got to give". Who, what or where will it be? And when? There are parliamentary and provincial elections scheduled for 2007. The religious parties are, uncharacteristically, ready and willing. This could be because – at least in the North-West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces – they've got everything fixed, from controlling voter turnout to stuffing ballot-boxes.

The March 2006 senate election made clear that the ruling religious parties have effectively ended women's voting. Women won't count. The minorities dare not even leave their homes. The Musharraf regime has been most cooperative in tying down potential People's Party and Nawaz League candidates. Many are embroiled in bogus cases and many others will become so the moment they raise their head. No fear of national or international monitors. Which foolhardy souls among them will risk monitoring in remote Wana, Miranshah, Bugti or Kohlu?

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have survived as political leaders despite the efforts of the Musharraf-led, army-dominated government to exclude them from the political process. Their long absence from Pakistan has not made them irrelevant. They sustain popular appeal and constitute the most powerful challenge to Musharraf.

The Bhutto-led Pakistan People's Party (PPP) got the highest number of votes and sixty-two seats in the national assembly in the October 2002 general elections. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won fifteen seats. Subsequently, the government caused defections from these parties and reduced their political clout in parliament, although that did not neutralise the street power of the two leaders. The government then used the legal system and the state authority to restrain them. In this, it enjoyed the quiet support of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) because the absence of Bhutto and Sharif from the political scene helped its political fortunes. Similarly, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) benefited from Bhutto's absence and the Sindh government's policy of undermining the PPP in the province.

The weakening of the nationwide political parties has strengthened local, regional, ethnic and hardline religious groups. Regional and ethnic elements also consolidated their position, thanks to controversies such as that over the proposed Kalabagh Dam on the Indus river, which only the grain-growing Punjab province supports. Pakistan's political domain is more fragmented today than it was in 1999. This has reduced the prospects of a sustained anti-government movement, giving the government a false sense of stability. The regime now faces a treacherous internal threat from political fragmentation and growing regionalism, which can get out of hand.

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