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Struggle between Islam and secularism in Pakistan

Zafar Bangash

Since its creation more than 50 years ago, Pakistan has been trapped in a crisis of identity. For the ruling elite, it has meant the continuation of raj by other means with all the attendant pomp, ceremony and priveleges. For the Muslim masses, it has been an unending series of disappointments, each day bringing more misery and suffering.

Pakistan’s plight is not unique. It is repeated almost everywhere in the Muslim world. The post-colonial ruling elites have one thing in common: their record has been a roaring failure. Even the much-touted Asian tigers have turned out to be toothless. Most of them have been forced to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help.

One could argue that their economies were undermined by foreign money speculators. That may well be true but the regimes themselves provided opportunities for such speculation and exploitation. Crony capitalism is a peculiarly Southeast Asian phenomenon. From the Marcoses to the Suhartos and the Mahathirs, all have allowed their relatives to dip their grubby hands in the national exchequer as if it were a family fortune.

Unlike Pakistan, however, these countries have not sought refuge behind a facade of ‘Islamicity’. Pakistan’s dilemma is its inability to reconcile two irreconcilable trends: the secularism of the ruling elite and Islam of the masses. Since the elite have monopolised all power, resources and decision-making, the failure in Pakistan must be placed squarely in their corner.

Islam’s case has been lost by default. The secular elites have made sure that Islam is projected in the most negative light. Here, the local maulvi, who is identified as the flag-bearer of Islam, has been a handy tool. He is the butt of every sort of joke. Since he lacks proper education and confidence, he is no match for the machinations of the wily secularists. This is not to deny the maulvi his nuisance value. This, too, however, is often exploited by the secularists for their own ends.

The masses’ attachment to Islam has been exploited by all and sundry. Even someone as thoroughly secular as Benazir Bhutto successfully exploited this by donning the dupata (head scarf) to project an image of modesty. In Pakistan, substance has always been subordinated to image. The secularists’ failure is so glaringly obvious that one does not have to prove it. Pakistan is reeling under massive foreign and domestic debt. Servicing this debt alone consumes nearly 80 percent of the country’s earnings. Its future has been mortgaged to international lending institutions. Corruption has reached dizzying heights. Even the elites admit it. The country’s infrastructure is creaking and on the verge of collapse; its banks are insolvent and there is a general breakdown of law and order. There is little trust left between the rulers and the ruled. All this is well-known and documented. This is compounded by the subservience of the elites to US interests. Virtually every major policy is dictated by the Americans.

Despite this, no coherent case has been made for Islam’s liberating and egalitarian principles. Instead, it is presented as being narrowminded and oppressive. Since liberation is defined in peculiarly western terms, all debate is subordinated to a vulgar concept of freedom equated with nakedness and decadence.

The existing socio-economic and political system in Pakistan has run its course. Having got Pakistan into this mess, it cannot now rescue the country. The oppressive system of feudalism can be successfully challenged by Islam’s egalitarian principles. Here again, unfortunately, the maulvi has been co-opted by the feudal lord to do his bidding. Even the political parties that operate under the Islamic label have failed to grasp this fundamental point. They have not challenged feudalism to seek liberation of the oppressed masses. Nor has a case been made to liberate the country from the clutches of US imperialism.

If the secularists have failed in the socio-economic and political fields, Muslim armies have had no success against the enemy on the battlefield. This is true from Palestine to Kashmir and all places in-between. Only the mujahideen have scored victories against enemies many times their numbers. This has been witnessed in Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and in Chechenya. Such victories far exceed all logical expectations or explanations. In Iran, a serious effort is being made to establish the first truely Islamic state and society in modern circumstances and conditions, with considerable success. In Pakistan, secularism has demonstrably failed. Not only has Islam has never been implemented but it has been exploited by scoundrels of all hue, using it to seek sentimental legitimacy for their illegitimate rule. It is not without reason that Islam in Pakistan is frequently talked about in the context of oppression and inflicting suffering on ordinary people. It is deliberately equated with lashing poor people, locking women up or denying them their legitimate rights. Such oppressive tactics have nothing to do with Islam. This is dhulm of the highest order and condemned by Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala in the noble Qur’an.

The liberating force of Islam is not brought to bear against feudalism or the injustices against people. The elite live in opulence while ordinary people are locked in a daily grind for mere survival. When has Islam justified such inequalities? The disparities in Pakistan are immense: its rich enjoy a standard of living comparable to those in industrialised countries of the west but its poor cannot even get clean drinking water or a square meal each day.

Unfortunately, the Islamic parties and members of the Islamic movement have been silent about such oppression and tyranny. The debate in Pakistan should not be about whether it needs a parliamentary or presidential form of government. First, the system of exploitation in which a small coterie of people enjoy all the privileges of life and power while the vast majority are forced to suffer deprivation and humiliation must be ended. Similarly, Pakistan’s subservience to the US must be exposed and condemned. America is not and has never been a friend of Pakistan or the Muslims. People can be mobilised on the basis of social and economic justice by exposing those who are responsible for exploiting them. A great opportunity for mobilisation is being missed while the secularists are allowed to project a negative image of Islam. Pakistan’s true potential will only be realised once the masses have confidence in the system. The present post-colonial system has run its course and failed.

It is time for an Islamic order - including social, economic and political systems - to be implemented to save the country from a certain doom.

Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 3

Dhu al-Hijjah 04, 14181998-04-01

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