Zia, army & Islamization

The fact that the West-Pakistani army committed thousands of recorded and unrecorded atrocities against their own countrymen and women  further proved that Islam alone could not build a nation and that on both sides the incipient regional and ethnic differences had resurfaced, differences that Islam was unable to bridge.

To suggest that the Pakistan army became completely Islamized during the Zia regime would be an extreme exaggeration and a false assertion and I am not suggesting that at all. My purpose in this brief article is to offer a sort of genealogy of Zia’s Islamization project, its role in defining certain aspects of military life, and, most importantly, its strategic role in legitimizing Zia’s illegal and unconstitutional rule.

Zia came into power at a very turbulent time in the history of Pakistan: Pakistan had already lost East Pakistan and thus the idea of a religious identity capable of forging a strong national identity had already been squashed. The Bengalis, despite being predominantly Muslim, had relied on the concepts of ethnic identity against the supremacy of the West-Pakistanis to fight and create a separate nation. The fact that the West-Pakistani army committed thousands of recorded and unrecorded atrocities against their own countrymen further proved that Islam alone could not build a nation and that on both sides the incipient regional and ethnic differences had resurfaced, differences that Islam was unable to bridge.

Also, for the first time in Pakistani history a seemingly secular political party (PPP), having lost East Pakistan, was contesting elections against a conglomeration of nine Islamist political parties. The 1977 election, thus, was an election that had the potential of defining Pakistan’s future as a complex democracy or as a pseudo Islamized state. By eliminating Bhutto, Zia, within the logic of his coup, automatically foregrounded the Islamist view of the nation. So, in a way, Zia was not really an agent—no one is—but an important tool within the logic of Pakistan’s struggle to define itself.

Those of us who are old enough to remember are aware that Zia, who had promised to hold elections in ninety days, was not the die-hard Ameer-ul-Momineen that he presented himself to be in his later years: he was in fact a Dunhill-smoking mediocre general raised to the level of COAS simply because of his meekness his suitability to Mr. Bhutto. But, as is often the case, the seemingly meek general eventually came to take upon the persona of a modern day Mujahid and savior of Islam.

In order to sustain his regime, Zia needed to court two important constituencies at home: the mullahs and the zamindars. He was able to court both these groups successfully, promising Islamization to the former and a status quo on land reform to the others. It is no wonder that both these groups, by and large, remained loyal to Zia throughout his years of illegal rule. The other major power source that was needed to legitimize Zia’s regime—like that of all other Pakistani dictators—was the support from the United States. The US, we should remember, was already predisposed to supporting Zia for forestalling leftist tilt of Z. A. Bhutto, but the Soviet entry into Afghanistan rehabilitated Zia and created, once again, Pakistan’s client status within the instrumental logic of US policy in the region. Thus, these national and international forces came together to give Zia, whose regime was also buttressed by the most innovative verdict ever to be given by a court of Law [the law of necessity argument!], the support required to sustain his regime.

So did the army become completely Islamized during Zia regime: the simple answer is no. Majority of army officers remained in that liminal space where one can find an Islamic cultural identity merged with a modern secular world-view, but in symbolic terms a lot of things became possible for the Islamist groups to start having an impact on the rank and file of the army.

For example, as young officers we were never told to go to the mosque or forced to become outwardly religious, but imperceptibly one knew that holding and displaying a sort of Islamized identity could not hurt one’s career. I will dwell on the influence two religious organizations that I witnessed first hand during my career. I must point out that these organizations did not have the official recognition of the Zia regime, but as the climate was altered to suit a purely Islamist view of the nation and the world, more and more officers were lured into the arms of such organizations.

The first to reach the officers group was the Tablighi Jamaat. A pacifist organization, though extremely conservative in its interpretation of the Sharia, the Jamaat encouraged young officers to grow beards, dress in a Muslim fashion, and to give their time for Tabligh and regular chillas. One interesting instance that I remember was from my tenure as a student at the School of Infantry. One of our brilliant instructors had converted to the ways of the Jamaat and could be usually seen roaming our campus in the evenings in a traditional white tunic with a nice white turban. Pretty soon, his students caught on and instead of learning the skills in classroom to do well in the course, the smart ones amongst us “converted” to the ways of their instructor and spent valuable time in learning the ways of their master. It was, to be honest, quite a comical situation but its consequences were grave: in whatever limited way, an outside the army religious organization had enough symbolic power to govern the conduct of Army officers. This symbolic power reached a level where the said officer, if required to choose, was more prone to listen to his religious mentors instead of following the military chain of command.

The other more dangerous and more insidious organization that was making inroads into the officer corps—not in large numbers though—was Doc. Israr Ahmed’s Tanzeem-e-Islami. I am more familiar with their working as I was, during the last two years of my service, seriously courted by the local leaders of this organization to join. While I never really joined the Tanzeem, I did spend quite a lot of time reading Doc. Israr’s work and listening to his recorded lectures. A vehement critic of Shia Islam, Doc. Israr Ahmed was opposed to electoral politics and spent most of his life in theorizing an Islamist system of government. His main political theory is contained in one slim volume: Munhij Inqalab Nabvi [The Basis of Prophet Muhammad’s Revolution]. According to Doc. Israr, the Prophet’s life provides a staged account of success of the Prophetic revolution and the main feature of this historical revolution is not popular but elitist. So, the Tanzeem believed, and maybe still does, that if you could convert a large segment of the national elite—including the army officers—to the Tanzeem’s religious views then a staged revolution could be launched. The major phase of this revolution—as described by Doc. Israr—was the pacifist phase, in which the Tanzeem, having gathered enough elite members, was to declare its intentions in open hoping to be persecuted by the state. It was hoped that seeing what was being done to the lovers of God, people would join the revolution and the entire edifice of Pakistani state would be reconstructed in the true image of the ninth century Arabia.

Exceptionally masculinist in his views, Doc. Israr was a strict Batinite scholar and interpreted the Qur’an as a self-referential text and hoped to share the true meaning of the Qur’an by finding the most unsullied roots of the Arabic words used in the Qur’an. In such interpretation, only a purist retrieval of the original message of God could save the Muslims, thus marrying the future of Islam to a purely Islamic past retrieved only through an incisive interpretation of the Qur’an. In other words, as we literary critics understand it, the sacred text was transparent and held hidden meanings that could be retrieved through a masterly grasp of Arabic. Needless to say, I was deeply impressed by Doc. Israr’s erudition and grasp of Arabic language, but was able to escape any deep indoctrination simply because I could not bring myself to even imagine that I, being a single human being, somehow had the capacity to truly understand the mind of God.

By far the most damaging symbolic influence for the Pakistan army and Pakistan was Pakistan’s involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war. I have written extensively on this topic, so I will only briefly rehearse my position. The Afghan Jihad became the core legitimizing narrative for Zia regime: it enabled Zia to latch on to power in the name of Islam and in the cause of Afghanistan against an “infidel” power, thus solidifying his national constituencies, and it also provided Zia a crucial spot within the logic of American regional interests. Pakistan, thus, became a staging ground for training, supporting, and launching of all kinds of Jihadist groups into Afghanistan and of course it is during this time that ISI also developed into the masterly agency that it is now. While Afghans died in thousands, their puppet masters in the United States and Pakistan coordinated weapons supply, training, housing, and medical care.

In symbolic terms, Pakistan’s articulation of Afghan civil war in Jihadist terms, linked all forms of male Muslim identity to a jihadist and masculinist subjectivity. And it is this legacy that we are dealing with right now. In way, then, The Zia regime, the United States, and the Saudis (who funded the war) were all responsible for moving Pakistan into a kind of Islamism that is inherently masculinist and relies on a perpetual threat from outside—ideological and material—to sustain its violent and ruthless practices. In terms of instrumentalizing the Islamists for strategic purposes, even Pervez Musharraf—who built his legitimacy by investing in secular values—used the fundamentalists as volunteer fighters in his misadventure in Kargil.

Another by-product of this entire experience is the cadre of retired and some serving officers who are still caught up in those old supranational ideologies of Khilafat and a purist Islamist system. The fact that this system is driven by a Wahabi or Deobandi interpretation of Islam is yet another aspect of militant Islam in Pakistan. The problem with the teachings of Abdul Wahab and his followers is that it interiorizes Islam to that of a private affair by foregrounding Tauhid as the core principle. Thus, emphasis is placed on Ibadaat and the every day actions or interactions cease to matter so much. In the end, one finds a subjectivity created through material and discursive modes that is essentially male, self righteous, and unapologetically atavistic.

How is Islam likely to survive as a viable way of life with its ninth century interpretations of the sacred is beyond my limited grasp; it has already become the most hated religion in the world partially due to ignorance about it but mostly due to the actions of its most visible advocates and adherents.

So, did Pakistan army play a major role in this turn to fundamentalism? The answer is yes and no. Yes, in a sense because the Zia years did foreground a religious identity in all aspects of political life, and no because not all army officers are religious fanatics or terrorist sympathizers. Is there a cadre of retired and serving officers invested in Jihadist ideologies and sympathetic to entities outside the military chain of command? I think only people with more current and expansive knowledge of Pakistan army and its affiliated institutions can seriously answer that. But if there is such a group, I hope the ISI is keeping a better track of them than they did in case of the most wanted terrorist in the world.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

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  3 comments for “Zia, army & Islamization

  1. samson.sharaf@gmail.com'
    samson simon sharaf
    June 12, 2011 at 4:16 am

    A good one but you excluded the role of JI, the precursor to this mindset and identity that never fitted Jinnah’s vision. You begin somewhere in between.

    But Zia left behind something more than a mindset. Gens like Beg, Ghulam Mohammad, Mehmood, Aziz, Usmani and some of their staff, now Lt. Gens are all those who still patrol the mindsets of soldiers in different ways. The misnomer of Strategic Depth, Militancy in Kashmir, Obsession with a Two front War and Violence as the only means of Statecraft are the spinoffs of this mindset and unfortunately still there.

    • June 12, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      Thank you so much. It is an honor that people such as you are reading and responding to my humble attempts at public expression.

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