Friday, May 28, 2010

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

Mubarka Ahmed

The military regime under Zia-ul-Haq entered the political arena in 1977 as a “caretaker ninety-day government whose “sole aim was “to organize free and fair elections. The “directionless drama
eventually spanned over the course of eleven years, having been granted a legal license to persist by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

It soon experienced a remarkable shift in policies, with religious reform becoming a top priority before long. A. K. Brohi, General Zia’s Law and Religious Affairs Advisor, claimed in less than a year after Zia’s take over that the “main concern of the military coup had been “to put the country on the Islamic system.

The process of Islamisation started almost immediately, and soon emerged strongly in the shape of legal amendments.

Just five days after coming to power, new Martial Law regulations with strict Quranic penalties for a series of crimes were announced. Zia persistently advocated his support for complete Nizam-e-Mustafa (Order of the Prophet) in Pakistan. Over the years, innumerable promises over a starkly broad range of issues to Islamize the legal and social dynamics of the country were made, but much of it remained un-implemented . This led to an increasing sense of superficiality associated with the selective process of Islamisation, appearing to be a matter more concerned with state convenience, impression-building, and political tactics as opposed to genuine motives to find the right place for Islam within Pakistan’s political structures. As Ali rightly states, “Whatever Islamisation Zia had been enforcing was more to consolidate his own personal power than to establish a genuine Islamic order. 

In the wake of election-postponement, Zia unveiled a four-tiered priority agenda with Islamisation at the top of the hierarchy . This eleven-year rule dedicated to Islamisation, saw in its very first year the making of a parallel legal system that looked to the Quran and Sunnah for precedents, the performance of which was limited to ‘law-finding’ and not ‘law-making’. 

Various other legal amendments followed in the name of Islam. The controversial Hudood Ordinances were duly approved the next year. The Law of Evidence (Qanoon-e-Shahadat) was then amended to severely affect the rights of women, followed by the compulsory deduction of Zakat, and other such changes. It was the first time in the history of Pakistan that strict Islamic penalties, as in operation in Saudi Arab, were being legalised. Modifications in Pakistan’s economic system through the establishment of Islamic Banking, abolition of bank interest (riba), mandatory collection of zakat (social welfare tax), introduction of Islamic bank tax (ushr) and establishment of various institutions to study Islamic economics were all contemplated as well. Educational reforms were mandated by setting up the International Islamic University, Shariah Training Institute, and various ulema training institutions. Social reforms were also introduced under the new Nizam-e-Mustafa; re-enforcement of the pre-existing bans on gambling and alcohol, stricter measures to encourage the observance of purdah (veil) and so forth. 

Religion also served as the prime justification for the military regime. It allowed the gap between the ‘Islamic’ way of governance and that specified by Western standards to be widened substantially; the un-Islamic nature of democratic forms of governance thus came under question. “The rhetoric of Islam and the inculcation of an Islamic identity have been deployed by the rulers of the state to justify arbitrary and undemocratic practices. Zia made sporadic comments on the need for a strong presidential form of government, it being more in line with the “thinking and psyche of Muslims, since they “believed in one God, one Prophet, and one Book, and their mentality is that they should be ruled by one man. He contended that true Islamic values envisioned a strong presidential system as opposed to the formerly established parliamentary one – another example of the use of Islam to entrench personal power. 

Amidst innumerable cases of non-implementation, those implemented resulted in acute social, political upheavals. Resentment followed from various quarters of society, particularly women and the Shia community. State-led Islamisation was in effect being reduced to ‘Sunni’ Islamisation which undermined the universalist claims of the entire process.

Academic scholarship of the time clearly saw the weaknesses and superficiality associated with these reforms. ‘Political noise’ regarding Islamisation was at its peak, but the unimplemented reforms showed a lack of genuine interest - Zia’s reform agenda had more force in words and vision than in practical reality.

On most occasions, it merely re-enforced Bhutto’s pre-existing reforms (bans on gambling, alcohol etc.) or made cosmetic changes to existing policies, e.g. zakat collection schemes. Most crucially though, many of the policies were simply left unimplemented; e.g. textbook reform, the ban on riba and so forth. Where there was implementation, it constituted a very minor change in existing policies, e.g. general educational reform and introduction of ‘Islamic Banks’. Kennedy cites these examples to illustrate the superficiality associated with Zia’s process of Islamisation, and the severe fickleness behind the entire procedure . Joshi reiterates, “Islamic regulations came to have but one source - the volition of Zia. 

The expediency of the propagation of this Islamisation process with reference to the international arena was a highly important factor for Zia too. Saudi concern in Pakistani politics, their support of adherents and advocates of Saudi Islam (Jamaat-i-Islami) and their vested interests in facilitating socio-religious dominance in Pakistan were key factors acting as catalysts for the Islamisation process. The Saudi interest in promoting their breed of Islam all over the Muslim world has been a constant feature of Pakistani politics, and was at its peak under Zia. Zia forcefully supported Saudi causes in Pakistan. The Afghan war proved another catalyst for this support, “The Afghan war in the 1980s once again raised the prospects of communism reaching the shores of Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf was quick to respond. Generous funding infiltrated the borders of Pakistan, to support and propel Islamic activities, thereby strengthening Pakistan’s Islamic identity. 

The fount of Zia’s Islamic ideology came from Maulana Maudoodi and his Jamaat-i-Islami party. Zia was heavily reliant upon the Jamaat until his power became entrenched; the Jamaat on the other hand was interested in having an ideological stronghold in Pakistani politics that would outlive Zia’s temporary government. This resulted in a proximity that would heavily influence Zia’s policies and politics; an appeased JI meant a stronger power-foothold. This is, for many academics, one of the key explanations for Zia’s interest and keenness towards religion and religious reform. Joshi opines that, “It is obvious that in the priorities of the Jamaat, Islam was the most decisive consideration. Since Zia’s veneer of Islam fitted in with the Jamaat fanaticism, the two-some forged an alliance of collusive concurrence with a view to holding Pakistan to ransom.

The question put to the citizenry of Pakistan for the 1984 referendum is indicative of the manipulative use of religion for political gain. The people were asked a single question, the crux of which was whether they supported the Islamisation process and “the Islamic ideology of Pakistan. A yes vote would automatically serve as a vote of confidence for electing Zia as the president of Pakistan for the next five years. The manipulation was evident in the referendum; for emphasis, the yes column of the ballot was printed in green (symbolic of Islam) and the rest in white. 

Thus Zia’s era saw the use of religion has a highly charged entity, loaded with possibilities to justify an unconstitutional regime, entrench power, build external alliances and win domestic support. Islam, originally a matter of individual choice and preference, ultimately evolved into a prime governance tool subject to the heaviest forms of manipulation.


One way of understanding the reasons behind such use and abuse of religion under both regimes is to remember that Pakistan has always operated on an ‘Islamic mandate’, even under its most secular regimes. 

Bhutto for instance, was “arguably Pakistan’s most secular leader, but even before he reverted to the politicisation of religion for personal gain, the central PPP credo was, “Islam is our ideology, socialism our economy, and democracy our politics. 

Pakistan’s leaders have thus always reckoned the expediency of using Islamic rhetoric to support changes in policies, but what differentiates the two aforementioned regimes in this regard has been the ugly abuse of Islam and religious sentiments to further personal and politically charged agendas. Kennedy has argued that these legal and social changes brought under the name of Islam did not do much damage in practical terms; but many authors have debated that these “islamisation measures have created an environment of fanaticism and extremism in Pakistan . A hostile atmosphere, foul with fanaticism, has emerged and strengthened over time, finding its roots in the events that unfolded under the Bhutto and Zia regimes and the atmosphere of intolerance created therein.

Additionally, legal structures have suffered drastically, most primarily because of the ambiguity that has been created by the absence one standard source of law – the sources now being the Quran, Sunnah and the Constitution, all operating under a wider ambit of ‘Islam’ as the primary source. This ambiguity has facilitated the abuse of religion that has taken place in Pakistan, and has wreaked havoc in the legal system. Religion, by its very essence, allows for numerous interpretations, and thus as a non-standardized source of law, has given rise to drastic vagueness. 

The fact that there has been no ‘popular movement’ questioning the wisdom behind these laws is evidence that people are queasy questioning religion. Surely this is not something that places Pakistanis society alone but the way Islam has come to be viewed by many as unarguable. Even attempts to rationalize religion in light of modern day society have often been stomped down by fanatics as heretical advance to foil orthodox religion. Reform is slow, as society is uneasy about challenging anything validated under the guise of Islam. 


Cyra said...

Can you please give references to the quotes and facts you used.

Anonymous said...

well said. if only everyone thought like this!