Friday, May 28, 2010

Islam as a Political Tool: The Bhutto Era of Islamization of Pakistan

Mubarka Ahmad

The process of Islamising the state of Pakistan started as early as 1949. It was then that Pakistan’s career as a theocracy began in theory; with Liaquat Ali Khan’s (Prime Minister, 1947-51) move to secure the adoption of the Objectives Resolution by the Constituent Assembly, thereby substituting divine sovereignty for the sovereignty of the people. However, despite the fact that successive constitutions declared Pakistan an Islamic Republic, the use of Islam in politics remained chiefly rhetorical, to the great displeasure of religious organizations who championed the desirability, if not the necessity, of making Pakistan a truly Islamic state. 

President Ayub Khan (1958-69) showed clear modernistic tendencies; yet retained a modest complacency towards a degree of pre-existing Islamic ideology legitimized by the Pakistan movement, but took it no further . The trend of predominantly religion-free politics continued with Yahya Khan (1969-71), who similarly showed little sympathy for the religious parties. Till the rise of Pakistan People’s Party in the 1970s, the political stance regarding religious parties had been unsympathetic, as evidenced by the imprisonment and original announcement of death sentence of Maulana Maududi, head of the Jamaat-i-Islami in response to the Punjab disturbances in 1953.

It was only after the fall of Dhaka that the role of religion in politics was drastically altered. Power was handed over to Bhutto, who had won a clear victory in West Pakistan in the 1971 elections. Much to the consternation of the people and despite his liberal-progressive leanings, it was Bhutto who signed the risky merger between religion and politics soon after. It was with his coming to power that Islam became a catalyst for furthering political motives.


The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had won the 1971 elections on a heavily leftist map for governance; entrenched as it was in socialist ideals and thereby enjoying massive support. However, it was not long before the tide shifted. “It was not until Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to power at the end of 1971 following the secession of East Pakistan that any elements of Islamic ideology began to appear in Pakistan’s substantive foreign policy
. Islam came to the forefront of all policy and law-making decisions, and, ultimately, a vast host of issues, economic , policy-related etc. were increasingly dressed in Islamic colours. Religion soon after became the official legitimising strategy for all political manoeuvres. 

The PPP’s view of the role that religion would play in Pakistani politics was an issue controversial from its very inception. Bhutto introduced the term ‘Islamic Socialism’, but was never truly able to define its tenets . The ambiguity was ultimately used to an advantage when the political expediency of religion became evident. “Devotionalism
", however, had never originally been part of the PPP’s strategy to rally the masses for support, and Bhutto had never been seen to portray himself as an observant Muslim; the rightly guided leader of a Muslim nation . For the most part, religion remained distinct from the politics of substantive policy-making. The PPP’s governance policy never encompassed a theocratic Pakistan, merely a socialist state based on principles of Islamic justice – whilst retaining Islam as a personal matter for the individuals of the state. This further supported PPP’s leftist stance as originally envisioned. This strongly leftist and somewhat secularist stance, however, was soon drastically altered. 

What were the reasons, then, for the shift in policy; why did the PPP feel the need to resort to religious rhetoric and appeal to religious justifications as key guiding factors for policy and law-making? “If most of Pakistan’s leaders were not particularly enthusiastic about Islamisation, why did so many take the initiative to bring it about, or at least acquiesce in it, when the populace has never once opted to vote for religious parties committed to the creation of an Islamic Pakistan? The attempt is to understand why and how religion began to carry this value as a political tool for governance.

Amongst other factors, the events of 1971 are of crucial importance in this regard. Bhutto was handed a country that had only recently been split into two. International politics and external alliances were in complete disarray. Having lost its only significant ethnic and religious minority, the Hindus, Pakistan drew closer to its neighbours in the East . The Governments of Saudi Arab and the United Arab Emirates supported “all kinds of Islamist activities in Pakistan to save it from falling in the clutches of socialism, and negating its thus-far latent Islamic identity. Bhutto acknowledged this interest, and realised the advantages of building alliances with these oil-rich states. The most powerful alliance Bhutto would seek with the Gulf would be an ideological one; Islamic brotherhood. 

At the level of public diplomacy, the Islamic Summit in Lahore was seen as the right political move to further this growing bond. Socialism, the initial guide to policy- and law-making was put aside and international politics began rapidly leading to a change in priorities. The crucial aspects of this dependency were, “economic assistance… temporary migration and employment of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis in the Gulf States. Bhutto’s commitment to the Gulf-alliances, and the value he attached to them became manifest when the emergence of Pakistan’s nuclear program was accompanied by deeply Islamic rhetoric, alarming many. It was one of the first in a series of moves to create an ‘Islamic identity’ for Pakistan. 

These events relating to external affairs and foreign policy amalgamated to create an environment that led Bhutto to realize the latent power in religious rhetoric, and the crucial role that Islam would play for economic advantages and initiating alliances with these hugely wealthy Gulf monarchies. As Delvoie elucidates, the need for “strengthening ties with these countries… to diversify Pakistan’s sources of financial and political support at a time when he thought the country had become overly dependant on the United States and precisely when the Gulf states were beginning to deploy the wealth accumulated as a result of spectacular increases in the price of oil had hit the PPP hard. 

However, a far more dangerous shift was soon to follow: the use of Islamic rhetoric for internal politics – rallying the masses, seeking legitimacy for controversial policies, and Islam as a means to ensure popular support. The political use of Islam was now evident to the PPP, not just for international alliances and fiscal benefits, but more so for the growing internal threats to power. By the late 1970s, the PPP was facing a substantial threat from the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA); an umbrella organization of nine opposition parties that was to contest the upcoming March elections. The primary uniting feature of the resistance was a general dislike for Bhutto’s politics, but given varying and sometimes even contradictory party-agendas (Asghar Khan’s secularism, Khan Abdul Wali Khan’s socialism, and Maududi’s assertive Islamism), an agreement on the necessity of a positive role of Islam in policy-making became the ‘official’ party-agenda for the PNA . This signified the emergence of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) as one of the key players in Pakistani politics. 

As a result, the legal structures began to be heavily influenced by this process of Islamisation, if simply as a means to prove the Government’s loyalty to Islam by infiltrating it into the Constitution. Subsequent amendments to the Constitution followed; making Islam the state religion and setting pre-requisites for the head of state to be Muslim. In a frenzy to break the momentum of the PNA-led movement, numerous Islamisation measures erupted. Shariat laws were introduced; gambling, horse racing, and alcohol were banned. The PPP manifesto was duly amended, making Friday the weekly holiday, introducing Quranic studies as mandatory for all students, establishing Ulema (clerical) academies and so forth . A new newspaper “Musawat" was founded to propagate Islamic justification for the PPP rule. These steps were of course accompanied with the appropriate rhetoric seeking to allow Bhutto to gain electoral support from the more religiously inclined quarters of society. ‘Socialism’ was accordingly replaced in party literature for “Musawat-i-Mohammadi"(‘Equality of Mohammad’), i.e. Islamic egalitarianism. These moves established the PPP’s dedication to the cause of Islam, which became Bhutto’s most powerful defence to fight the PNA in their own battlefield. One of Bhutto’s last desperate bids to buy off religious parties agitating for his overthrow with U.S. backing was to declare the Ahmadiyya Community non-Muslim in 1974. In 1976, he controversially appointed General Zia-ul-Haq the Chief of Army Staff in another move to appease the JI, of whom Zia was a close compatriot. Ironically, upon the advice and persuasion of Mian Tufail, the militant leader of JI, Zia overthrew Bhutto in 1977 . Later expressing regret for his political tactics, a resigned Bhutto claimed before the Supreme Court of Pakistan, “I appointed a Chief of Army Staff belonging to Jaamat-i-Islami, and the result is before us all. 

Islam had thus evolved into the most predominant political factor to facilitate in both external and internal scenarios, by the end of Bhutto’s regime and as a result thereof. Although his insistence upon the role of Islam in Pakistani politics during his final days in power could not save his fading popularity, it did serve to reinforce the centrality of Islam for the military regime that followed. The dangerous alliance between military might and religious pressure thus found its seeds in Bhutto’s policy shifts, only to find renewed force under the approaching military rule. 

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