New Book Cries in the Wilderness for Pakistan’s Religious Reform

Apr 11th, 2017 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates

By Andrew Harrod, PhD. exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition

Former Pakistani parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahani analyzes “Pakistan’s foundational dilemma—Muslim homeland or Islamic state” in her new book, Purifying the Land of the Pure:  A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.  Therein she provides an observant overview of how recurring drives for Islamic theocracy dashed any founding vision of Pakistan as a secular state, to the detriment alike of Pakistan’s Muslim-majority and non-Muslim minorities.

Ispahani begins her historical review with the 1947 partition of Britain’s Indian colony into the newly independent states of India and Pakistan.  “Pakistan was carved out of British India as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims—a majority enclave designed to protect against minority status in an undivided India” with its Hindu-majority.  Given disparate ethnicities and new borders drawn along Hindu/Muslim sectarian lines, “Pakistan was not a territorial nation in the traditional sense.  Its leaders had to explain its raison d’être, and most found it convenient to do so in religious terms.”

This faith-based identity appears in Pakistan’s name, the source of Ispahani’s book title.  Pakistan arose amidst the 1930s Muslim India independence movement from an acronym encompassing the future country’s regions.  Yet Pakistan also means “Land of the Pure” in Urdu, a “meaning embraced by Islamist activists since the country’s founding.”

While Pakistan’s population today is only three percent non-Muslim, Ispahani notes that in 1947 Pakistan (then including modern Bangladesh) was almost 23 percent non-Muslim.  This previously more pluralistic Pakistani population drew hope from Pakistan’s founding Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader), Muhammad Ali Jinnah.  Days before Pakistan’s August 14 independence, his famous August 11, 1947, “speech advanced the case for a secular, albeit Muslim-majority, Pakistan.”

Several of Jinnah’s fellow Muslim League leaders tried to suppress his speech’s publication, indicating for Ispahani the controversy surrounding Westernized, secular Pakistani leaders like him.  “As time went on, Pakistan’s religious parties ferociously attacked Pakistan’s elites for their un-Islamic lifestyle while demanding greater Islamization,” demands often receiving appeasement.  “Each round of Islamization was followed by demands for an even greater role for religion in public life.”

Already in 1949, notes Ispahani, Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, offered a “vision for Pakistan diametrically-opposed to the secular one Jinnah had offered” in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly.  “Liaquat, an Oxford-educated and thoroughly westernized landowner not known for personal religiosity,” supported the Objectives Resolution declaring an Islamic state as the objective in the drafting of Pakistan’s constitution.  Many believe that he thereby “intended to placate clerics and Islamists only in the most cosmetic sense.”  Nonetheless, Pakistan’s 1956 constitution, with the Objectives Resolution as preamble and numerous Islamic references, proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Ispahani examines a similar duality in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Pakistan’s 1970 elections.  He “spoke of Islam as the personal religion of the majority” on the campaign trail but under his leadership Pakistan’s new “1973 constitution not only retained the Islamic provisions from earlier versions but also added new ones.”  A 1974 constitutional amendment then began the ongoing persecution of the Ahmadi sect by declaring them non-Muslim.  “Rejecting Bhutto’s hard-cultivated Islamic credentials,” his Islamist opposition in the 1977 elections emphasized his alcohol consumption.

Following the elections, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto in a coup and had him executed on trumped-up charges.  Many associate Pakistan’s Islamization with Zia, Ispahani notes, who “used the phrase ‘soldier of Islam’ to describe himself in his very first speech” in power.  Until his death in a mysterious 1988 plane crash, this dictator’s “Islamization of the nation was global in its scope and almost obsessive in its thoroughness,” as she documents in detail.

Bhutto’s daughter Benazir then ran for prime minister, and people “who voted for Bhutto’s PPP in the 1988 election did so with the expectation of turning away from Zia’s Islamization,” Ispahani notes.  Unfortunately, “Bhutto’s ostensibly secular government was cast as a helpless observer while the Islamists thwarted its leader’s vision” with support from Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Nawaz Sharif, her political opponent.  Security forces pursued national objectives with jihadist proxies in Afghanistan and against India while the businessman Sharif “was interested primarily in opening up the economy and advancing free enterprise.”  “[B]oth the ISI and Sharif depended heavily on Islamist factions for support in the streets…ISI would get its jihad and Sharif would be able to advance his economic agenda only if they conceded greater space to the Islamists.”  After Sharif became prime minister in 1990, his government passed an overwhelmingly popular sharia bill in 1991 declaring the “Quran and Sunnah as the law of the land, not just the guideline for legislation as had been the case since the Objectives Resolution.”

After overthrowing Sharif in a 1999 coup, Army Chief of Staff General Pervez Musharraf maintained national security strategies supporting jihadists fighting against India and in Afghanistan like the Taliban.  “Bold statements about limiting the role of religion in Pakistan led to speculation that Musharraf’s role model was Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic,” writes Ispahani, but Musharraf could not control Pakistan’s jihadists.  “Musharraf—a personally secular, Westernized general—ended up presiding over a Pakistan where armed militants and suicide bombers became the face of Islamist fanaticism.”

Ispahani reviews that Pakistan at its founding “was alone among majority-Muslim countries in describing itself as an Islamic state,” thereby forming a “trendsetter” for modern Islamism worldwide.  The results are brutally clear to see as “[f]rom North Africa to Pakistan, the greater Middle East is currently embroiled in conflicts fueled by fanaticism.”  “A pluralist Pakistan is the only way forward,” concludes Ispahani, the daughter of a renowned South Asian business family and graduate of Hillary Clinton’s alma mater Wellesley College.

Ispahani thereby comes full circle to Jinnah, under whom her grandfather, a fellow Shiite Muslim in Sunni-majority Pakistan, served as Pakistan’s first ambassador to the United States.  Yet her courageous scholarship underlines the often elite nature of Jinnah’s and her views.  Redemption for Pakistan’s Shiites and other long-suffering minorities will be long in coming.

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

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