The Islamist Impulse

The Islamist Impulse Haunting Pakistan

By Ashok K. Behuria

April 2011

It is a truism to say that the elite in Pakistan has used Islam to perpetuate its hold on power ever since the state came into being in 1947. The judiciary in Pakistan has been the latest to emphasise its Islamist credentials to legitimise its rise as an important constituent of the influential ‘quartet’ that is ruling Pakistan today.

While it is debatable whether the current phenomenon of judicial activism will survive the tenure of the incumbent Chief Justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, it is certain that the judiciary may have sealed the prospects of all debates in Pakistan on whether Pakistan should be a secular or an Islamic state. Initially conceived as a Muslim state, Pakistan has advanced incrementally since the days of Jinnah from a notional ‘Islamic republic’ to a state where Islam has occupied prime of place.

If the judiciary now arrogates for itself the power to quash any possible parliamentary legislation to declare Pakistan a secular state, it indicates the persisting appeal of Islam in Pakistani society and its body politic. To a large extent, it also explains the phenomenon of growing Islamic radicalism in Pakistan.

Judiciary against secular Pakistan

On August 16, 2010, during the course of a 17-judge full court hearing on the 18th amendment passed earlier by the Pakistani parliament, the Supreme Court Chief Justice held that the sovereignty of parliament did not mean it enjoyed unfettered powers to introduce any amendment to the constitution. He reportedly asked, ‘Should we accept if tomorrow parliament declares secularism, and not Islam, as the state polity?’ Another judge joined him in asking, ‘Will it be called a rightful exercise of authority if tomorrow parliament amends Article 2 of the constitution which states that Islam will be the state religion?’1

Such comments drew instant criticism from a section of the media. The News on Sunday wrote editorially, ‘What is worrisome is that these were not off the cuff remarks but a considered view shared by a majority of the country’s educated elite’.2 It went on to quote a Pakistani analyst who said that ‘Islam in Pakistan . . . has ceased to be a religion and worldview; it has become an obsession, a pathology. It has been drained of all ethics and has become a mechanism for oppression and injustice’.

Army chief’s emphasis on Islam

The judiciary is not alone in its penchant for Islam. Other important constituents of the quartet have also time and again stressed the Islamic roots of Pakistani society and polity. For example, not long ago, the Pakistani chief of army staff, Gen. Parvez Kayani, reportedly said while addressing a gathering in Police Lines, Peshawar, on November 25, 2009: ‘Pakistan was founded by our forefathers in the name of Islam and we should work to strengthen the country and make committed efforts to achieve the goal of turning it into a true Islamic state’.4 A few days later, while responding to a suicide attack claimed by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on a mosque in Rawalpindi on December 4, 2009, he reportedly stated: ‘Pakistan is our motherland. It is the bastion of Islam and we live for the glory of Islam and Pakistan . . . Our faith, resolve and pride in our religion and in our country is an asset, which is further reinforced after each terrorist incident’.6

It is thus becoming increasingly clear day by day that the terms of popular discourse are being increasingly decided by the radical Islamist elements rather than the elements advocating ‘enlightened moderation’. By invoking ‘Islam’ the elite may be seeking legitimacy for its rule in an overall Islamised context, but it is perhaps unaware that it is indirectly legitimising the demand of the radical elements for the establishment of an ‘Islamic state’ in Pakistan.

The roots of the secular-Islamic divide

The debate over whether Pakistan should be ‘a Muslim state’ (for the Muslims of India) or an ‘Islamic state’ has a long history of its own. It had started in the womb of the Pakistan movement itself. In the Karachi Session of the Muslim League in 1943, Nawab Bahadur Yar Jang, an important member of the League, had clearly stated in the presence of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, ‘There is no denying the fact that we want Pakistan for the establishment of Quranic system of government. It will bring about a revolution in our life, a renaissance, a new fervour and zeal, and above all, a resuscitation of pristine Islamic purity and glory’. Addressing Jinnah, who was presiding over the session, he had stated, ‘Quaid-i-Azam (the great leader) we have understood Pakistan in this light. If your Pakistan is not such, we do not want it’. In his submission later, Jinnah had endorsed these views and held that ‘Islam was the bed-rock of the community’.

As a leader of a mass movement, Jinnah was aware of the appeal of Islam amongst the Muslim masses and did not hesitate to use it to his advantage. For example, he urged the students of Islamia College Peshawar in 1946 that the League stood for carving out a separate state and turning it into a ‘laboratory of Islam’, where Muslims were in a numerical majority to rule there under Islamic law. He used Islamic symbols to sell his idea of liberal democracy on many occasions.

Soon after his famous address to the Pakistan constituent assembly on August 11, 1947, where he asked his colleagues to work towards a system where ‘citizenship’ of the state would be more important than the religion of a person, he would ask each Pakistani to ‘take vow to himself and be prepared to sacrifice his all, if necessary, in building up Pakistan as a bulwark of Islam’, ‘to develop the spirit of Mujahids’ and be unafraid of death because ‘our religion teaches us to be always prepared for death. We should face it bravely to save the honour of Pakistan and Islam. There is no better salvation for a Muslim than the death of a martyr for a righteous cause’.

Use of Islamic symbols: Jinnah and his successors

Jinnah also used Islam as a unifier to stitch together disparate ethnic and sectarian identities which had started raising their heads soon after partition. In his speech on the occasion of the opening of the State Bank of Pakistan in July 1948, he even went to the extent of criticising ‘the economic system of the West’ for creating ‘almost insoluble problems for humanity’ and urged the audience ‘to work our destiny in our own way and present to the world an economic system based on true Islamic concept of equality of manhood and social justice’ and evolve ‘banking practices compatible with Islamic ideals of social and economic life’.8

Jinnah’s efforts to sell his idea of a liberal democratic Pakistan based on basic Islamic principles of equality and social justice sought to bridge the gulf between liberal democracy, which he wanted Pakistan to adopt as a system of governance, and a Sharia-based Islamic system, which many of his followers instinctively gravitated towards. He was perhaps aware of the contradictions he had to deal with in the process. In one breath he would dismiss the idea of Pakistan becoming a theocracy, while in another he would comfort the clergy, which was vocal about Sharia, by saying that the constitution will not be in conflict with the Sharia laws. He did not live long enough to resolve these contradictions. The constant tussle between the moderates and the conservatives would mark the political landscape of Pakistan heretofore.

The rulers of Pakistan who succeeded him inherited this legacy of unresolved contradictions. They employed the same tactics to justify their actions. The liberals like Ayub Khan (1958-1969) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (-1972-1977) used Islam to justify their actions, legitimise their rule and even to undermine their political opponents. The years of military dictatorship under Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), which coincided with Afghan Jihad, saw the balance shifting towards the Islamists. It was during this time that the Islamic content of Jinnah’s speeches was isolated and served as proof of his Islamist rather than secular orientation. Democratic leaders like Nawaz Sharif, who followed Zia, even tried unsuccessfully to introduce Islamic provisions into the constitution.

The influence of the radical elements has grown manifold in Pakistan in the post-Zia years, despite the much-advertised efforts of Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), another military dictator, to bring ‘enlightened moderation’ to Pakistan. Musharraf’s own attempt to appropriate Islamic symbols, much like Jinnah’s, could not make much of a dent into the radical Islamic constituency that is threatening to swamp Pakistan today.

Crisis of identity

The inability of the elite to define the Pakistani nation in non-religious geo-cultural terms has allowed Islam to endure as the most important marker of the Pakistani identity. This sense of identity crisis has been underlined by a Pakistani writer in the following words:

The mind of the Pakistani intellectual has often been agitated by considerations of the question of our national identity. But since the traumatic events of 1971, this self-questioning has assumed the proportions of a compelling necessity . . . If we let go the ideology of Islam, we cannot hold together as a nation by any other means . . . If the Arabs, the Turks, the Iranians, God forbid, give up Islam, the Arabs yet remain Arabs, the Turks remain Turks, the Iranians remain Iranians, but what do we remain if we give up Islam?

Ironically, as long as Islam remains the most potent referent, it will certainly emit strong Islamist impulses which will indirectly legitimise the operation of radical Islamic groups in Pakistan. Rather than leading to a consensus, the increasing accent of the state on Islam has hardened the boundaries between different sects and groups within Islam. Each of these groups has tried to define Islam in narrow and exclusivist terms and sought to impose their world views on others in militant ways. If one goes by their separate versions of Pakistan, one will find many Pakistans within Pakistan competing for influence and legitimacy.10 Rather than fighting them or trying to transcend such a fissiparous trend by promoting a progressive version of Islam, the state apparatus has collaborated with the Islamists and even granted them their mini-emirates in far-flung areas. Inevitably, the Islamist discourse has been dominated by sectarian and regressive maulanas (religious scholars) of all shades, pushing the resultant vector in the direction of growing Islamisation of Pakistani society with each passing day. The trend is too obvious to be ignored and  appears irreversible in the present circumstances.

The malaise and the remedy

The failure of democracy, prolonged periods of military rule, persisting crises of governance and a self-perpetuating highly exploitative and inegalitarian socio-economic structure have created the ideal context for radical forces to thrive in the name of Islam, which they argue could provide the panacea for all the ills Pakistan is suffering from at the moment. The Pakistani strategy of using some of these elements against India has strengthened the hold of the militant constituencies further and led to unintended consequences at the internal level. The rising incidence of sectarian violence and the spread of Taliban into the hinterland amply demonstrate this trend. Pakistan is thus likely to countenance a prolonged period of chaos and turmoil.

In the aftermath of the devastating floods, whose impact has been made even more severe by the economic crisis visiting Pakistan today, the situation may even become worse and make the state more fragile than ever. It will require a total transformation of Pakistani society to lift Pakistan out of the mess it is in today. Pakistan can arrest its decline and reverse the trend by de-emphasising Rs Islamic identity, reconstituting itself as a liberal democracy, bringing about people-centric socio-economic reforms, and integrating itself with regional economies. Is it prepared for that?

*(The writer is a Research fellow at Institute of Defence and Analysis)

–Source: Strategic Analysis