By Anjum Altaf
I wish to explain Pakistan’s long drift to the religious right while going beyond the argument that Islamism is at the root of all the country’s problems, a formulation that begs many questions: Why was Pakistan amenable to Islamism? Why this particular form of Islamism? Why with seemingly so little resistance?
My focus will be on the structural factors that opened the political space first for Islam and then for Islamism while remaining cognizant of the fact that an explanation is not intended to be an excuse. Nor is it an attempt to shift blame, distinctions many are too impatient to make. The blame rests squarely on Pakistanis but that does not obviate the need for an alternative but coherent explanation of the events of the past sixty years.
Pakistan was born drenched in a religious ethos. How religion acquired a salience in the electoral politics of British India and how various players came to occupy the positions they did over time is a story that has been retold many times. The fact remains though that the midwives of Pakistan’s birth were not the representatives of religion but secularists who employed religion as an instrument of strategy, one they tried to reverse unsuccessfully after the birth of the country.
This sets up the central question. The founders of the country were secularists with a declared intent to provide a secular foundation for the country and at its birth there were many forces in contention that were not at all religious in orientation – communist parties, parties representing workers and peasants, regional parties, the labor movement, and radical academics. At the same time the religious parties were on the defensive for having opposed, or at least not enthusiastically supported, the demand for Pakistan. Why, given this constellation of forces, did the effort fail?
I will argue that two factors had a key influence on the initial trajectory of events. The first was Pakistan’s imbalanced federal structure in terms of the peculiarities of its constituent units. There were only five units at the second tier of government separated into two unconnected wings. Electoral power was concentrated in Bengal, the eastern wing, with more people than the other four units combined; in the western wing, Punjab had more people than the other three units put together. Economic power was concentrated in the Punjab and military power in the Punjab and NWFP with virtually no representation of Bengal, Sindh and Balochistan. The second factor was the circumstance that much of the new country’s bureaucratic elite was comprised of migrants from India with no roots in any of the provinces of the new country.
The conjunction of these two factors had a number of implications. First, the imbalances meant that unlike in India there were no political deadlocks that could only be resolved by means of bargaining and give and take, the essence of a democratic mode of governance. In Pakistan, if the arbiter of decision-making were the vote, Bengal alone could trump the others; if the arbiter were force of arms, the Punjab could call the shots. Second, the concentration of military power meant, again quite unlike the situation in India, that a very small number of individuals could conspire and successfully seize power to nullify the weight of votes. Third, the imbalance of economic resources meant there was extreme reluctance to share power equitably with the constituent units. Fourth, over-representation of the migrant elite without local roots generated the incentive to perpetuate the centralization of power. And fifth, as eventually happened, the separation of Bengal would do nothing to correct the imbalances in the western wing; Punjab was left in an even more dominant position among the four remaining units.
The resolution of these imbalances led to a path diametrically opposite to that observed in India. Whereas India had no real alternative to seeking unity in diversity, the Pakistani elites could preserve their privileges by making diversity disappear under the mythic unity of Islam and Urdu. The amalgamation of all the constituent units of the west into One Unit and declaring its parity with the east were all machinations aimed at undoing the unyielding power of votes.
One consequence of this rhetoric of Islam and Urdu, once again the use of emotive issues for purely political ends, was the crackdown on the forces of the left in general and on the parties representing regional demands with their vilification as anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan. The first decade of Pakistan’s existence saw the progressive strangulation of these forces.
Despite all these maneuvers, it was not possible to deny the power of the vote, now polarized by unhappiness in the marginalized units, indefinitely. The only way out of the impasse was to discredit the politicians and replace them with an authoritarian arrogation of power. This duly occurred with first coup in 1958 and once the junta allied itself firmly with the Americans to shore up its own position, the crackdown on the secular democratic opposition was a foregone conclusion. Democratic politics itself was deemed contrary to the interests of the nation. Either Pakistan was not ready for democracy or needed one that was guided and controlled by the men in uniform. The pattern was a repeat of the experience of American client regimes across Latin America and the Middle East.
The left-wing and secular elements having been thus vilified, discredited and sidelined, the field was left open for the right to expand its presence and authoritarian governments both encouraged and relied increasingly on religious forces to create a constituency for themselves; hence the conflation of the champions of Pakistan with the champions of Islam. Even someone like the great pretender who declared himself a devotee of Ataturk and styled himself a CEO and an enlightened moderate was hand in glove with the religious right in order to keep at bay the secular political forces whose leadership he exiled and promised never to let back in.
This process of eliminating the non-right from the political space got its big counterpoint boost in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the US put together the great Islamic Jihad against godless communism. It was a coincidence that another military dictator was in power in Pakistan at that time himself trying to secure his legitimacy through religion. This positive injection of jihadi Islamist rhetoric along with the paraphernalia of training camps foreshadowed the high noon when Pakistan assumed the role of the defender of Islam and the two started to become very much indistinguishable from each other.
But it is by no means certain that this conflation would have been sustained after the Soviet withdrawal and the sobering reality of the bitter inter-Islamic conflicts in Afghanistan without another major triggering event, the revolution in Iran in 1979. It was then that the Saudi offensive to shore up its ideological defenses in the Middle East went into overdrive with strategic interventions in all neighboring countries with significant Shia populations.
The Saudis were smart enough to see the fallacy in treating a country as a person or a unitary actor. They identified clearly the groups within Pakistan that were open to buying into their version of Islam and funded them with enough money to propagate their views and purchase the loyalties needed to advance their agenda. It was a long-term vision to infiltrate all the key sectors of society – education, the bureaucracy, mosques, media, and the armed forces being the key amongst them. The jihad against atheism provided the perfect cover under which such a major infiltration could proceed while eluding effective resistance by segments within Pakistani society; the anti-Islamic label was powerful in suppressing dissent. From the perspective of the Saudis and their partners in Pakistan the effort succeeded brilliantly in changing the mindset and the orientation of Pakistani society.
The jihadi rhetoric also made it easier to extend its scope from godless atheists to all self-declared enemies of Islam, a gambit that came in handy to fan the easily inflamed anti-India sentiment whenever the need arose for such a diversionary tactic. But even in the midst of all this, there remained constituencies within Pakistan desirous of promoting cultural and trade relations with India. It is only in such a scenario that one can make sense of an intervention like Kargil. It was a successful attempt by one set of forces to derail the plans of another that wished to reorient the relationship between the two countries to benefit the mass of the people rather than narrow elites that thrived on the perpetuation of hostilities.
It is worth pondering that all through this period that Pakistan was being jerked to the right there were no obvious countervailing moves by India. Unlike the Saudis, who had a differentiated strategy, the stance of the Indian political elite continued to conceptualize Pakistan in anthropomorphic terms – Pakistan was a rogue state, a belligerent state, an unreasonable state, a treacherous state, a stab-in-the-back state – without going into the details of who in Pakistan was doing what or encouraging the forces that desired a normalization of relations. It seemed it was just assumed that there were none. The compulsions that caused the Indian political elite to assume this stance deserve analysis in their own right.
It is a moot point whether the situation in Pakistan has deteriorated to the extent that countervailing political measures would be insufficient to arrest its collapse. Pakistanis are paying and will continue to pay the price of an infection imported into the country which they were insufficiently vigilant or insufficiently powerful to challenge. Any collapse does not promise to be neat, nor is Pakistan likely to fade away quietly. It is still in the self-interest of all who are likely to be affected by the fallout, including first and foremost the citizens of Pakistan, to see through the rhetoric of religious indignation and imagined enmities and to grasp the reality of the politics that has brought the country to this pass. At the same time it is a sobering thought that there are things for which some people claim they are willing to pay any price.