The Rise of Religious Fundamentalism in Pakistan – Hamza Alavi

Posted on March 10, 2009 by



Religious fundamentalism has become a powerful and dangerous force in Pakistan, due mainly to the opportunism of successive political leadership that has pandered to it. Militant sectarian religious groups and parties, led by half-educated and bigoted mullahs, many of them armed to the teeth, are holding our civil society and the state to ransom. They threaten the very fabric of Pakistan society.

Threats of disruption from religious parties have escalated in recent decades. They have steadily grown in strength since the time of General Zia. They now claim that they are the true custodians of Pakistan and that it was they, the mullahs, who had fought successfully for Pakistan, to establish a theocratic state for Muslims. Facts contradict such claims. With the exception of Ghulam Ahmad Parvez’s pro-Pakistan Tulu-i-Islam, group, all religious groups and parties, including the Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Hind, the Majli-i-Ahrar and the Jamaat-i-Islami, had all bitterly opposed the Pakistan Movement and abused its leadership which was secular.

The Muslim League, the Party that led the Pakistan movement, was a party of modern educated Muslim professionals and government job seekers (whom, for the sake of brevity, we may call the ‘salariat’). It had little to do with the outlook of bigoted mullahs. It was free of any millenarian ideological pretences about creating an Islamic state. It was a movement of Muslims rather than a movement of Islam. Behind it was a new class of English educated Muslim professionals and government job seekers that came into being in the 19th century. It got organised politically by the turn of the century, seeking a better deal for themselves vis-à-vis Hindus who were advancing relatively more rapidly in these fields.

When the Muslim League was founded in 1906 at a meeting convened by Nawab Salimullah at Dhaka, the new party was immediately hi-jacked by the Aligarh group led by Nawab Viqar ul-Mulk. Aligarh was at the vanguard of the new Northern Indian Muslim salariat class, the sons of the Muslim Ashraf, who were deeply conscious of the loss of their privileges with the advent of British rule and the relatively more rapid rise of Hindu educated classes. The main base of the Muslim salariat was in UP and Bihar for, at that time, its was relatively weaker in the Muslim majority provinces.

The Muslim League was focused entirely on its secular demands of western educated Muslim professionals and the salariat. Attempts to place the issue of Islamic ideology on the agenda of the Muslim League were both rare and invariably unsuccessful. Arguably, the earliest of such attempts was one by Shibli Numani to Islamise the Aligarh syllabus. Shibli was explicitly committed to theocratic values and wanted to shift the emphasis of the Aligarh syllabus away from English and modern sciences, towards Islamic learning and the Arabic language. The response of the Muslim salariat class to that attempt is exemplified by the remarks of Sir Raza Ali, who was a close collaborator of Sir Syed’s immediate successors, Muhsin ul-Mulk and Viqar ul-Mulk. With them, Raza Ali was at the centre of the Aligarh establishment. In an article in the daily Statesman opposing Shibli’s move, he remarked that the idea of reviving Arabic knowledge was, of course, beguiling for Muslims. But he warned that they should not ignore the demands of our times, for the most urgent need of Indian Muslims was to be offered education that would be beneficial in the affairs of this world; education that would help their coming generations to earn their livelihood. Sir Raza Ali spelt out the principal concern of the educated Muslim middle class at the time. Their concern was not about a hypothetical return to original Islam and the creation of an ‘Islamic State’, ruled over by mullahs, that Shibli had dreamt about. Shibli had to leave Aligarh, for it was not the place where his theocratic ideas could flourish.

Among the rare attempts to bring the issue of ‘Islamic Ideology’ on to the agenda of the Muslim League was one that was planned for the Delhi Session of the AIML in April 1943. One Abdul Hameed Kazi (backed by ‘Maulana’ Abdul Sattar Niazi) canvassed support for a resolution, which he intended to table. That would commit the Muslim League to an Islamic ideology and the creation of an Islamic state. But pressure from everyone around him forced Kazi to abandon the idea. The resolution was not even moved. The Pakistan movement remained firmly committed to its secular concerns.

In his keynote speech before the inaugural meeting of Pakistan’s new Constituent Assembly, on 11th August 1947, Mr. Jinnah spelt out the Pakistan Ideology, namely the secular and tolerant vision of the new state. That speech was not a sudden aberration, as some Islamic ideologists, and General Zia’s hacks, were later to allege. It was consistent with what Mr. Jinnah had been saying for decades. The Muslim League had always been committed to a secular society.

Following Mr. Jinnah, his political successor, Liaquat Ali Khan, too reiterated the Muslim League’s secular values. When Liaquat moved the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly in March 1949 he declared that ‘As I have just said, the people are the real recipients of power. This naturally eliminates any danger of the establishment of a theocracy.’ Despite that clear statement by the mover of the Objectives Resolution, later religious ideologues, notably General Zia and his hacks, have claimed that the Objectives Resolution was a charter for the imposition of the ‘Sharia’ (as they would interpret it) although the word Sharia does not occur anywhere in that Resolution. Their argument is based on some conventional generalities in the Resolution, which said that ‘Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives, in the individual and collective spheres, in accord with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunna’. That, did not amount to a charter for the creation of a theocratic, ‘Islamic’ State.

Liaquat’s position on the Muslim League’s traditional secularism was, however, soon to be reversed. Not so very long after the Objectives Resolution was passed, Liaquat began to change his tune for his political base was threatened by of splits in the Muslim League in the Punjab, which was the power-base of Pakistan’s ruling elite. That was due to factional conflict between Daulatana and Mamdot who left the Muslim League to form a rival Party. Liaquat was now in a panic. He decided to exploit Islamic rhetoric, to hold together his crumbling Party. He began to speak of ‘Islam in Danger’. He also began to equate loyalty to the Muslim League with loyalty to the state. Those who opposed him or his party were denounced as traitors.

There was, however, a second and a much more important reason why Liaquat decided to abandon his secular stance. Powerful regional movements had arisen in East Bengal, Sindh, Baluchistan and the NWFP, whose people felt that they were not being given their due in a Punjabi dominated Pakistan. They demanded regional autonomy and fairer shares of resources. The Centre, which was seen as ‘Punjabi’, was in fact dominated by a cohesive bureaucracy, under Chaudhri Muhammad Ali as Secretary General to the Government. It was the centralised bureaucracy that ruled Pakistan whilst politicians, including Liaquat, went through the motions.

Arguably, it was the challenge to the centre from regional movements which was the more important factor in precipitating Liaquat’s ideological volte-face. Abandoning Mr. Jinnah’s (and his own) firm stand against pandering to the mullahs, Liaquat sought to negate regional demands by issuing calls for ‘unity’ in the name of Pakistan and Islam. We were all Pakistanis and Muslims, it was now argued, and therefore we could not be Bengalis or Sindhis or Baluch.

The bureaucracy, rather than Liaquat, was in effective control, and it was not prepared to make any significant concessions to the mullahs. The mullahs could be given a visible public role, but without any real share in power. For that purpose a Board of Talimaat-i-Islamia, was set up. It provided a few jobs for some senior mullahs, the Ulama. But the Board was to be no more than a façade for the new found religious rhetoric of politicians. It was not to have any real powers. Its function was purely advisory and that too only on matters that were referred to it. When the Board did make some suggestions they were unceremoniously ignored. Nevertheless, the Ulama seemed to be content with the arrangement. They remained quiescent for nearly two decades. Recalcitrant Mullahs, such as Maulana Maududi, found themselves in jail. The mullahs were under control.

That basically peaceful scene was disturbed only temporarily in 1953, when Islamic militants launched Anti-Ahmadi riots in the Punjab an d Martial Law was proclaimed. Although religious zealots of the Majlis-i-Ahrar and the Jamaat-i-Islami led the riots, they were in fact being used by cynical political forces, led by Punjab Chief Minister Mumtaz Daulatana. That was done in the context of US attempts to destabilise the Nazimuddin Government at the centre and to counter the Bengal group of MPs in the matter of the proposed Pakistan-US military Alliance which they opposed. That is a long and complicated story.

A decade and a half later, religious rhetoric was indulged in by the illegitimate regime of General Yahya Khan, but without conceding any formal role to the mullahs. General Sher Ali, redefined ‘Pakistan Ideology’ as ‘Islamic Ideology’. The Yahya government’s primary concern was to de-legitimise the increasingly powerful Bengali nationalism. Yahya’s Bengali adviser, Prof. G. W. Choudhury, had persuaded him and his coterie of Generals, that East Bengali nationalism was limited to only a handful of intellectuals, who were in the pay of the Indians and that the vast majority of Bengalis had no sympathy with them. That tragically false picture could account for the ferocity and reckless manner in which Yahya tried to suppress the Bengali people in 1971. Would they have embarked on that policy if Yahya had even the slightest inkling of the depth of Bengali feelings ?

The mullahs were quiescent, however, until they were stirred into action by the foolish populist rhetoric of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who misguidedly decided to exploit religious ideology. Thereby Bhutto sowed the seeds of his own destruction, for the re-activated mullahs became the vanguard of the campaign against him. That set the scene for Gen. Zia’s coup d’etat.

It was under General Zia that narrow and bigoted religiosity became state policy. The General sought the political support of the mullahs for his illegal regime, for he had no other political base. He also sought financial support from the Reagan regime in the US. Both of these objectives, he thought, could be secured through an Islamic Jihad which he proclaimed against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. The CIA joined took over the task of organising armed religious groups in Afghanistan, in cooperation with Pakistani agencies. When the Russians left Afghanistan, however, the CIA was withdrawn precipitately from the scene, leaving it to Pakistan to deal with the mess that they had created. Foolish Pakistani policies since then, especially under Benazir Bhutto and her successor Nawaz Sharif, got Pakistan even more heavily involved with these once US sponsored ‘terrorist groups’. The present government has done little to turn away from these policies to extricate Pakistan from the mess that was inherited from Zia’s Afghan policy.

When he seized power illegally, Zia badly needed some source of legitimacy for his regime. Being politically bankrupt, he decided to exploit the credulity of Pakistani Muslims by invoking Allah. He claimed to have experienced ilham (a divine revelation) in which, he declared, he was enjoined by the Almighty himself to Islamise Pakistan and to transform it into a fortress of Islam. New ‘Islamic Laws’ were promulgated that were crude and cruel distortions of Islamic teachings, such as his Hudud Ordinance which, for example, had the effect of punishing a rape victim (for fornication) while the perpetrator of the rape went scot-free because of impossible conditions of proof now needed to prove his guilt!

Zia also bequeathed to his successors undemocratic Shariat Courts, that are answerable to no one. They issue binding decisions on the state and on the people, in the name of the Sharia. That role, in the name of Islam, is rejected by the philosophy of Sir Syed Ahmad who pointed out that Islam did not decree the office of a Pope with powers to issue binding decrees in the name of the faith. Islam, he said, is a religion of the individual conscience. No person or institution has the right to issue binding fatawa, laying down what Islam is and what it is not. Indeed, no other Muslim country has the equivalent of our Shariat Courts. They were set up by Zia’s illegitimate regime and should be dissolved.

The Shariat Courts are manned by persons who hold rigid religious views. Their most damaging decision so far is an order that requires the abolition of interest, ‘in all its forms’, by 30th June, 2001. This threatens to bring Pakistan’s already very shaky economy to a complete halt. No enemy of Pakistan could have devised a more potent weapon to destroy the country. In arriving at their decision the judges of the Shariat Bench of the Supreme Court set aside the advice of a very large number of scholars who came before it as witnesses, who resisted this interpretation of the Sharia. Instead, the Court appears to have been misled by bogus claims of ‘Islamic Banking’. They seem to be ignorant of how a modern economy functions and do not seem to have understood at all the obvious implications of their decision in a modern day capitalist economy such as that of Pakistan. They appear to be ignorant of the difference between interest in a modern capitalist economy (sood) and usury (riba) in pre-capitalist economies to which Quranic strictures apply. What the Shariat Courts have produced is a time bomb which, if allowed to go off, threatens to blow up Pakistan’s economy.

The present Government seems to be paralysed in the face of the die hard religious lobby which seems to be triumphant about this. It has poor advisers. As soon as the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court announced it decision, the minister of Finance, who is an ex-banker declared, without pausing to think, that the Court’s decision would be implemented in full. But, after months of deliberations by several high powered committees, the Government still has no idea whatever of what is to be done. It speaks with two voices. At a recent meeting, the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs declared that the Government has drafted all required laws and regulations, which are ready to be promulgated and that the Government is ready to implement the Shariat Court’s decision in full, and without qualifications. But at the same meeting, the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (the country’s central Bank) declared that they do not as yet know how the Shariat Court decision can be implemented. He said that the Government needs more time to work out viable solutions and that it has asked for an extension of time.

The Government does not seem to understand the gravity of this issue. They should know that they cannot allow the economy to collapse. But they also appear to be too intimidated by religious fundamentalists to overturn the Shariat Court’s decree. Meanwhile, the top nine religious parties in the country have declared that they will launch a mass anti-Riba movement, on the lines of the movement that brought down Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, if the Government fails to abolish interest by the date laid down by the Shariat Bench of the Supreme Court, namely the end of June, 2001. They have declared, ominously, that the time has come for a decisive war between Islamic and secular forces in the country !

A major factor in the present situation is a development since the time of Zia. That is the proliferation of deeni madaris, religious schools, that have spread throughout Pakistan. They receive generous foreign funding, not least from Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia. The deeni madaris have little difficulty in recruiting pupils (taliban), who are turned into fanatics, ready to die for what they are taught to believe are sacred causes. A factor that has greatly helped their recruitment is the creation of a huge number of unemployed families, people without a livelihood and without hope, as a consequence of farm mechanisation, especially in the Punjab. Every tractor displaces at least a dozen families of sharecroppers. Hundreds of thousands of them are now without a source of livelihood. In that context, the appearance of the well financed deeni madaris, who take over their children, give them free ‘tuition’, accommodation and food, cannot appear to be anything other than a great blessing. The enthusiastic young taliban, are taught to recite the Quran. They are also indoctrinated, their minds filled with distorted and intolerant ideas about what Islam is and what it prescribes. The taliban are thus turned into fanatics. Most of the ‘deeni’ madaris also give them military training for jihad initially ostensibly against the Soviets and now for the liberation of Kashmir. But already Pakistan itself is experiencing the inevitable heavy fall out from this. The armed groups, many of them with battle-hardened taliban, are in the vanguard of sectarian killings throughout Pakistan, which are on the increase; killings of members of rival sects, Sunnis against the Shi’a, Deobandi Sunnis against Barelvi Sunnis and so on. They have also begun to issue threats against the state itself and the society in Pakistan.

Instead of a viable policy designed to disarm and liquidate such groups, successive regimes in Pakistan have pandered to them. The current military government, unlike the military regime of General Zia, has not indulged much in religious rhetoric, except for the occasional utterances of its Federal Minister for Religious Affairs. Indeed, the Government’s liberal interior minister, General Moinuddin Haider, has given calls, from time to time, about doing something to bring the so-called deeni madaris under some sort of control, reforming their syllabi to introduce some useful, career related, educational input into their activities. For that he has become the bête noir of the religious parties, who have warned the government, firmly, against meddling in their affairs.

The government, for its part, seems to be intimidated by the militant Islamic groups. In December last, for example, one Maulana Muhammad Akram, leader of the Tanzimul Ikhwan, threatened to march on Islamabad with ‘hundreds of thousands’ of his followers, to force the Government to promulgate the Sharia. The Government’s response was to placate him. It despatched the Punjab Home Secretary and the Inspector General of Police to parley with Akram. That was apparently not enough, for it then sent Dr. Mahmood Ghazi, the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, as reinforcement. After long drawn out talks, Maulana Akram ‘graciously agreed’ to defer his plan to storm the capital. It has been suggested by the media that Maulana Akram has ‘a lot of influence among middle-ranking officers of the army’. If that is so, that must surely be extremely worrying. Could it be that which explains the Government’s apparent paralysis in the face of serious threats from fanatical religious groups? It must know that a do nothing policy will not solve anything. Left to itself, the situation can only get worse.

Theories of the state, democratic or otherwise, are premised on the state’s monopoly of legitimate force. But here we have a situation where the state’s monopoly of force is undermined by the numerous armed religious groups (who often work in concert) that have agendas of their own. The Government must realise that the more they try to accommodate religious zealots, the stronger and the more intransigent they become. What the situation demands is a firm and well thought out policy to disarm such groups and bring them under control. It is surprising that Pakistan’s professional military does not yet seem to have realised the very serious threat that this situation poses to itself as well as to the State and society as a whole. In the meantime, until something is done, Pakistan will continue to stagger towards an uncertain future, with contradictory state policies.