Pakistan has a long and dark history of missteps, many of which have cut deep wounds and cast a dark shadow over our young nation. Of all these events, none come close to the July 5, 1977 coup by Ziaul Haq. Zia’s reign oversaw the judicial assassination of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the empowerment of fundamentalist and militant groups, the jailing and torture of thousands of activists and a number of constitutional amendments that are, to this day, part of our current constitution. It would be fair to say that Pakistan is still battling the forces unleashed by Zia and is still trying to turn a new corner as a nation. To solely blame Zia and his regime for all these issues, particularly religious extremism, is a mistake. Such an analysis relies on historical cherry-picking.
The process of Islamising Pakistan, based on a narrow interpretation of Islam, began in 1949 when the Objectives Resolution was tabled by then prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan. The resolution laid the foundations of an Islamic State and while its writers might have had the right intentions, the resolution was the crucible of an obscurantist and constricted interpretation of religion. In reaction to this resolution, Hussein S Suhrawardy said, “if Pakistan eliminates non-Muslims from its folds and forms a Muslim state, Islam will be destroyed in Pakistan.” This resolution, while opposed by secular-minded individuals in the Constituent Assembly, was hailed by Islamists led by Maulana Maududi. It should also be noted that Maududi opposed the Muslim League and the independence movement. Despite having no representation in the Constituent Assembly, Maulana Maududi was able to influence politicians in implementing his restrictive vision of religion.
It did not take long for the violent forces of religious extremism to rear their head in Pakistani society. On February 23, 1953, riots targeting Ahmadis in West Pakistan broke out, leading to the dismissal of the government on April 17, 1953. A judicial commission, investigating these events and its causes, released its conclusions in the Munir Commission Report. This was the first of many judicial commissions that would become a sad part of our history, for such reports were filed in the archives and none of the proposed recommendations were ever implemented. The report argued that the Objectives Resolution was ‘nothing but a hoax’ and reasoned that this resolution contains ‘not even a semblance of the embryo of an Islamic State.’
The findings of the report were subsequently ignored and the Objectives Resolution continued to be a fundamental part of all future constitutions. The first constitution was short-lived as Ayub Khan conducted a coup in October 1958, and developed a new constitution in 1962. Such was the power of the religious right that even a dictator had to backtrack on his decision to rename the country ‘The Republic of Pakistan.’ Today, Pakistanis look at Ayub as a rather secular-minded autocrat and view his era as a relative period of growth and prosperity. This perspective ignores the fact that it was during Ayub’s regime that a new Islamic ideology was developed in a bid to unite Pakistani society. His goal was to develop a new narrative based on Islam that would overtake the ethnic and religious diversity of Pakistan.
A decade after the Munir Commission Report, riots once again engulfed Pakistan and this time, minorities in East Pakistan suffered. The January riots of 1964 led to the death of almost 50,000 Hindus and the displacement of over a hundred thousand others, many of whom migrated to India. East Pakistan had been treated as essentially a colony of West Pakistan and while Pakistanis today would like to believe that the formation of Bangladesh was a conspiracy, the fact of the matter is that colonial policies lasting decades were ultimately responsible for the independence of Bangladesh.
Even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a man who was successful in tapping into the emotions of the Pakistani society, was unable to stem the rise of religious extremism, intolerance, and bigotry. In 1974, under Bhutto’s watch, anti-Ahmadi riots engulfed Pakistan once again. The government was unable to stop the violence for months, and only after Bhutto succumbed to the pressure of the religious right did the rioting stop. On September 7, 1974, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in Pakistan, and a secular-minded leader also failed to close the Pandora’s box opened in 1949. A few years later, Zia took over, hanged Bhutto, and the process of Islamisation reached its peak. The school curriculum was changed to reflect a narrow interpretation of faith; Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy Laws, and more laws targeting Ahmadis were passed under his watch. Militant groups were given patronage by the state to fight against the Soviets, and while American and Saudi aid gave these groups a shot in the arm, these militant groups were being used by Pakistan long before the arrival of foreign money and weapons.
Today, Pakistan is in the midst of a serious crisis where the very forces once considered assets are causing the disintegration of the country. Minorities are under constant attack and every wave of religious intolerance has become more extreme and more violent. Those that have spoken against religious intolerance, bigotry and discriminatory laws in our constitution have been gunned down or forced into exile. Forced conversions of children and the targeted assassination of minorities has become the norm in Pakistan. This violence has forced minorities to seek asylum abroad.
The current military operation being carried out in North Waziristan has been rightfully supported by society. However, the hope that terrorism and extremism would be defeated as a result of this operation is naïve. The roots of religious intolerance and extremism go deep into the very fabric of Pakistani society. Rather than try to understand how Pakistan ended up here, we like to put the blame of our troubles on certain individuals. Zia is blamed for Islamic extremism, Musharraf for the current wave of terrorism, and now Kayani for being indecisive against terrorists in the tribal areas. Attaching blame to these individuals is akin to diagnosing only the fever caused by an infection. The infection running in our society has permeated the very soul of Pakistan. Introspection and a deep look into our history is a first step in curing Pakistan of this malady.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2014.