The Politics of Religion in Pakistan: Islamic State or Shariía Rule

by Hassan N. Gardezi

[14 April 2003]

The Islamist parties in Pakistan, i. e. parties that use Islamic beliefs as the basis of their political agenda, initiated their demand for converting Pakistan into an Islamic state soon after independence in 1947. Although they were unable to generate popular support for their mission, the ruling elite did start a process of giving the Pakistani state an Islamic identity for reasons of their own political expediency. But for the first three decades of Pakistanís history all official measures in this direction were cosmetic exercises aimed at legitimizing authoritarian rule and keeping the vexatious mullahs happy.


It was not until the Islamization project of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq that the concept of Islamic state began to acquire substance and the Islamic parties began to move to the center stage of Pakistanís politics. The General who had deposed an elected prime minister in 1977 and later had him executed by manipulating the judicial process could turn nowhere but to religious sanction to legitimize his dictatorial rule. Claiming to be divinely inspired he embarked on a frantic mission to ìIslamizeî Pakistanís state and society, with generous input from the coopted leadership of the Jamate-e-Islami.

The centerpiece of this Islamization process was a selective implementation of punitive shariía laws. The Hudud Ordinance issued by him in 1979 laid down the so called Islamic penalties for a number of offences such as drinking, theft, fornication and adultery prescribing exemplary punishments of public floggings and hangings, amputation of limbs, and death by stoning. Although the more gory of these punishments remained few and far between, there was an orgy of public floggings not only for petty thefts, corruptions and alleged sexual offences but in a large number of cases for political dissent.

ìShariía flourishes under the shadow of the sword,î as the old adage goes. But this was not all that Zia left as his ìDivineî legacy when he met his sudden death in the mysterious crash of his military plane in 1988. He left behind parallel shariat courts with wide ranging powers to declare any statute in the existing civil and criminal codes as un-Islamic, a draconian blasphemy law to be used as a tool of witch-hunting of religious minorities and secular intellectuals and a number of other legal innovations promoted as ìIslamicî banking and taxation including the official collection of zakat, a charity or poor dues mandated by Islam. And most fatefully he implicated Pakistan in the US sponsored anti-Soviet Jehad (holy war) in Afghanistan after the 1979 abortive Communist revolution.

Ziaís civilian successors, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif who ruled alternately between 1988 to 1999 as prime ministers without being able to complete their respective terms of office could do little but live with the dictatorís legacy. Nawaz Sharif during his second term in office even tried to improve upon it by introducing a Shariía Bill of his own, as 15th amendment to the Constitution, in the parliament where his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), PML(N), had over two-thirds majority. The purpose of the bill was to give himself the power as a Muslim ruler to adjudicate what was rightful Islamic conduct and what was not. Mercifully for the sinners, yet another military coup in October 1999 resulted in the dissolution of the parliament before his bill could be voted upon.

The Birth of Jehadi Islam

In the meantime the politics of Islam was undergoing a major qualitative change as a result of Ziaís decision in 1980 to involve Pakistan actively in Afghan warlordsí anti-Soviet jehad. As this involvement became deeper and deeper, Pakistan armyís Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, ISI, took over full control of implementing the state policy on this front. Initially the ISI operatives acquired the services of Jamat-e-Islami (jI) to funnel CIA procured arms and money to Afghan warlords masquerading as mujahideen (holy warriors). After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the degeneration of Afghan jehad into a prolonged civil war, the ISI shifted its support to Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam ( JUI,), the more fundamentalist and sectarian of Pakistanís Islamist parties subscribing to the Deobandi-Wahabi doctrine. The Taliban militia that overran the strongholds of earlier mujahideen warlords in the mid-1990s and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under Mulla Omar was mobilized from the religious schools (madrasas) of the JUI.. The JUI also had doctrinal affinity with the fundamentalist Wahabi Islam of Osama bin-Ladin and his Arab followers planted by CIA in Afghanistan to wage anti-communist jehad.

The co-optation of Islamist parties as jehadi arms of Pakistan army in Afghanistan sent out a clear signal that waging jehad was a legitimate political activity. All sorts of jehadi formations sprouted out of the existing Islamist parties, as well as independently, to wage their holy wars against ìunbelievers.î Flush with Arab oil money, public zakat collections diverted to them and private donations, the Islamists consolidated their power by glorifying jehad from their pulpits and public platforms, ran an extensive network of madrasas and military training centers to raise their youthful cadres, and mounted threats to Pakistanís ruling establishment to surrender to their ìIslamicî dictates. The arena of Jehad expanded to free Kashmir from Indian control, as well as to free Pakistan from the rule of secular politicians.

The 9/11 Windfall

Despite all the power flowing from their financial affluence and jehadi guns what the Islamist parties lacked thus far was some semblance of national legitimation through the ballot box. That opportunity opened up when Gen. Parvez Musharraf overthrew the elected government of Nawaz Sharif on October 12, 1999. After taking over as head of the state, Musharraf initially projected himself as a secular reformer, referring to Kamal Ataturk, the president and builder of secular Turkey (1932ó38), as his role model. Despite the fact that he was not prepared to disengage the Islamist parties from their state condoned jehad forays into Afghanistan and Indian held Kashmir, he did voice his intent to curb religious bloodshed within Pakistan, check the abuse of blasphemy laws, regulate the curricula and funding of madrasas and enforce gun laws, all welcome news for the citizens constantly harassed by the armed Islamist vigilantes. Although his liberal rhetoric was never translated into action, it did put the Islamists on guard to defend the sources of their power and privilege. They began to close their ranks in preparation to meet any official threat to their assets and operational freedom.

While Musharraf was trying to accommodate the Islamists into his ìliberalî scheme of things the events of September 11, 2001 brought him under fierce US pressure to cut Pakistanís ties with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and stop the appeasement of jehadi formations inside Pakistan. Citing dire consequences of defying the Americans, he forthwith took a volte-face from Pakistanís long-standing Afghanistan policy and acquiesced to the use of Pakistani territory by American forces in their infernal onslaught to crush the Taliban regime and hunt down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda jehadis now redefined as terrorists.

On October 7. 2001 the United States launched its devastating carpet bombing of Afghanistan provoking a wave of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan which swept the entire country. This anger at US action was felt and displayed much more acutely in the provinces of NWFP and Balochistan where people are ethnically closer to the neighbouring Afghans and the JUI has historically exercised stronger religious and political influence. Taking full political advantage of this situation the Islamist parties went on the offensive, staging anti-American demonstrations and denouncing the Musharraf government for compromising Pakistanís sovereignty by allowing US Air Force and FBI agents to set up operations inside the country. At the same time their armed jehadi offshoots and holy warriors of various other nationalities fleeing into Pakistan to escape American fire in Afghanistan unleashed a new wave of bloody terrorist attacks on resident foreigners, Christian churches, Christian run schools and hospitals as well as minority Shia Muslims and their places of worship.

The Musharraf government, with its gaze fixed on the elections scheduled for October 2002, remained constrained and vacillating in dealing with this violent turn of events. While the Islamist parties and their jehadi offshoots were allowed to exploit the post-9/11 political situation freely, the government was preoccupied with its maneuvers to undermine the two mainstream political parties, the PPP and the PML(N), that could pose a real threat to Musharrafís hold on state power in the approaching elections. By means of a series of decreed constitutional amendments, disqualification orders, ISI pressure on politicians, and raiding of the PML(N) to create a new ìkingís party,î the stage was set to hold elections for restoration of a parliamentary democracy in the country to be presided over by Gen. Musharraf as the all-powerful head of state.

All these events converged to produce a windfall for the Islamist parties boosting their electoral fortunes. Unified into a six party conglomerate called Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) or United Action Forum, they entered the elections capitalizing on the upsurge of anti-American sentiment, while benefitting also from the officially erected roadblocks in the way of the mainstream political parties. When these stage managed elections concluded the MMA alliance walked away with 58 seats in a 342 seat federal parliament forming the third largest block in a house where no party was able to win a clear majority. The alliance also scored a major victory by winning a majority of seats in the provincial assembly of NWFP to form its own government. In the Balochistan assembly MMA won enough seats to become part of the ruling coalition. This was indeed a major breakthrough for the Islamist parties giving them a measure of control they never had before over the instrumentalities of parliamentary governance whatever its functional limitations under Musharrafís controlled democracy.

The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq on March 21, 2003 coming as it did soon after Afghanistanís ordeal will no doubt further enhance the political fortunes of MMA. This Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, condemned universally by people of all faiths including millions of Christians in Europe and North America, is portrayed by Pakistanís Islamists as a Christian war on Islam. Their simplistic logic presented through inflammatory sermons and speeches appeals to the mass of Muslim audiences more than the anti-imperialist discourses of secular politicians and intellectuals. The message of the Islamists is equally simple. The establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan is the only way to help the cause of beleaguered Muslims everywhere.

The Islamic State or Shariía Rule

Clearly, the project of converting Pakistan into an Islamic state initiated by Islamist parties that opposed the very creation of the new state has come a long way. But the basic question still remains to be addressed. Having gone through half a century of pursuing the celebrated objective at the cost of fracturing the civil society with violent religious, sectarian and ethnic conflicts, what kind of an Islamic state do they have in the works for Pakistan? Realistically speaking, there is no ideal-type model of an Islamic state to go by that can be derived from the political history of the Muslim world. What is sometimes referred to as the original pristine Islamic State, ending with the assassination in 661 AD of Ali, the fourth rightly guided Caliph, is a misnomer because the seventh century Hijaz was a tribal society in transition which had not yet evolved into a nation state. There is no consensus among the Islamists even on the basic question of whether the Islamic state is going to be a hereditary monarchy, a dictatorship or a democratic republic. The founder of Pakistanís Jamat-e-Islami and the chief theoretician of the Islamic state, late Maulana Maududi, maintains that the Islamic state will be a Caliphate (Khilafat), ruled by a caliph as the ìvicegerent of God,î whose duty it will be to enforce the ìLaws of God.î While the Maulana explicitly repudiates ìWestern democracy,î he remains noncommital on the method by which the caliph of the Islamic state will be appointed to his exalted office.

In practice, therefore, the introduction of shariía laws torn out of their socio-historical context has become the sole defining feature of the Islamic state in post-colonial societies from Pakistan to Nigeria. With all the political gains they have made in Pakistan, the Islamists of the MMA have little to reveal in their plans of action other than widening of the punitive net of shariía laws. Since their electoral victory of October 2002 elections, for example, the MMA government in NWFP has been busy proscribing singing, dancing, music, cinema, cable television, coeducation, tailoring of womenís garments by men outfitters, in short whatever its clerics consider to be contrary to Islamic shariía. It also lost no time to appoint an advisory body on the implementation of shariía, the Nifaz-e-Sharia Council, which has already submitted its report to the provincial Chief Minister for a thoroughgoing substitution of all post-colonial laws with supposedly immutable Islamic laws.

Even if it is granted that an Islamic State can be created simply by introducing shariía laws, a fundamental sociological problem remains. No legal system functions in a vacuum. The hudud laws of the seventh century Hijaz, for example, were the product of a tribal society. They were unwritten norms of conduct learned through primary socialization in self- contained family and kinship groups. There were no formal structures of law enforcement such as trained police forces and judges, courts, prisons and formalized rules of judicial procedure. People lived and worked in small communities where everybody knew everybody else, and they conformed to the norms of their society, not because of threat of punishment by formal state agencies, but as a result of strong group pressure and consciousness of kind, what Ibne Khuldun called ìasabyia.î Corporal punishment existed but rarely needed to be applied. Restitution was more common in cases of wrong doings leading to personal loss.

A simplistic and overzealous introduction of the laws of a totally different social formation into the socio-political fabric of a post-colonial, urbanizing, pluralistic society with increasing break down of primary group ties can neither serve to maintain peace nor meet the ends of justice. On the contrary it can breed violence and contempt for the existing legal system and rule of law.

The reason for this is quite simple. The idea that laws are divinely ordained and fixed for all time can easily be carried over to any set of archaic, traditional customs whether they fall within the orbit of shariía or not. In such cases blind faith, superstition and even ulterior motives can outweigh the more rational considerations for conformity to the formally instituted legal system of a civil society, and give rise to vigilante justice meted out at the spur of the moment or administered by self-styled local assemblies such as ìjirgasî to replace the rule of law and due process. It is no wonder than that the era of hudud laws and jehadi Islam has also brought with it in Pakistan an epidemic of honour killings, ìkaro kariî killings and mob executions of whoever happens to be accused of blasphemy. It is the price the society is paying for the fallacy of regarding the shariía punishments as the essence of Islamic teachings instead of the universal human values which many Muslims believe to be the foundation of their faith. The fundamentalism of the Islamists consists of e xclusive preoccupation with establishing the identity of the Islamic state and its citizens by means of ritual conformity to certain fixed codes of conduct. It does not matter to them whether such conformity serves the interests of social justice, protection of human dignity, compassion, equality and peace. The Islamists and their mullah fraternity have for too long thrived on legislating ritual conformity to gender specific codes of conduct and appearance by the exercise of their traditional authority to issue fatwas (judicial decrees). The building of a just political order on Islamís transcendent values is neither compatible with their professional training nor with their vested interests.

Realizing the Islamic State

Against this backdrop it is not difficult to figure out the nature of the state the Islamists intend to establish in Pakistan. From all indications the model of Islamic state towards which Pakistan is being led at the moment is that of the now defunct Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This model in fact was the outgrowth of Wahabi-Deobandi madrasas and seminaries of Pakistan spread from Akora Khattak to Karachi, controlled by JUI factions. Its precipitation in Afghanistan was greatly assisted by Pakistanís ISI, contributions of the American CIA to the anti-communist jehad and the influx of Arab jehadis as noted earlier. It was imposed on the people of Afghanistan by the barrel of the gun wielded by Taliban. The repression carried out by them and their Amir, supreme leader Mullah Omar, is now too well known. The destruction of Buddhaís statutes along with museums and works of art depicting living beings, the hacking of TV sets and VCRs, the burning of films and cinema houses, the banning of singing and dancing, stripping women of their jobs and confining them in homes and burkas (veils), punishments of death by stoning, massacres of Hazara shias and heterodox Tajiks and Uzbeks were by no means random acts of savagery. They were part of a plan to create an Islamic state by enforcing a comprehensive code of conduct which they thought was divinely ordained. The necessity of violence and blood letting arose because the inward looking normative Islam of their conception was not even compatible with Afghanistanís largely tribal society and culture.

Needless to say that the repatriation of this style of Islamic statehood to Pakistan is not going to be any less of a coercive and bloody project for several reasons. To begin with, Pakistanís society is too far removed in time and space from conditions under which shariía laws ever operated. The 21st century Pakistan, except for the relative isolation of some tribal communities in NWFP and Balochistan, is very much exposed to the cultural influences of a global urban industrial civilization. These influences are now very much integrated in the social and cultural life of the people of Pakistan and cannot be eradicated without the use of a great degree of physical force and coercion. Todayís Pakistan has a long history of living experience with British jurisprudence and its local adaptations going back to at least a century and a half. Compared to this, the enforcement of shariía was never a tradition in any part of the country until Gen. Zia-ul-Haq issued his controversial hudud ordinance which still remains to be fully implemented because of its anachronisms.

It is also noteworthy that the orthodoxy of the Islamist political establishment in Pakistan, particularly the JUI brand of Wahabi-Deobandi Islam, does not have its roots in the soil. This brand of Islam is doctrinaire, virulently intolerant of diversity, misogynist and obsessed with jehad as opposed to the faith and spirituality of ordinary people of Pakistan which is syncretic, tolerant, devotional and blended in the mystical spirituality of the Indus Valley and its languages. Song, music and dance are very much part of this folk spiritual tradition. This populist tradition will have to be suppressed in order to establish the supremacy of the orthodox, normative Islam in Pakistan.

Given the great dissonance between the political agenda of the Islamists and Pakistanís existing socio-cultural realities, one cannot escape the conclusion that the people of Pakistan will have to be subjected to an unbelievable scale of coercion, inward looking isolation and tribalization before the Pakistani state is given its Islamic identity by means of enforcing a nationwide uniform gender specific code of conduct which the Islamists consider to be divinely ordained. For such a project to be realized, the cultural mosaic of Pakistan will have to be destroyed, ethnic plurality eliminated, diversity of religious beliefs curbed and severe restrictions placed on forms of art and entertainment. What the MMA government has initiated in the NWFP is only a hint of things to come. The JI, a major component of the Islamist alliance is going to provide a more comprehensive, albeit a miniature, view of Pakistanís Islamic state through its shariía-based city of ìQartabaî which it is planning to build some 80 km from Islamabad.

How far the Islamists can go to achieve their ultimate objective depends on how well they do in retaining and expanding their political power in the unfolding dynamics of Pakistanís internal and geo-political situation. There are a number of uncertainties ominously looming overhead at the moment What is the capacity of Islamist parties to stick together in the MMA alliance? How well can Gen. Musharraf and his government manage its balancing act of apprehending the al-Qaeda fugitives for the United States while at the same time appeasing the militant Islamists and jehadi formations at home? With its declared possession of weapons of mass destruction, warned against involvement in terrorist operations in Indian held Kashmir and accused by the Bush administration of trading nuclear and missile technology with North Korea, how long is the sole Superpower on earth going to wait before making another Iraq of Pakistan? To what extent is Gen. Musharraf and his military establishment willing to make peace with India and seek a political solution of the Kashmir conflict? The answer to all these questions is critical in determining the limits of power enjoyed by the Islamists and indeed the very fate of the Pakistani states as a sovereign entity. .

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