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Islamic Movement

The failure of Pakistan's Islamic movements to challenge the country's secular establishment

Zafar Bangash

It is often alleged, both in Pakistan and in the west, that “Islamic fundamentalists” wield too much influence, grossly out of proportion to their actual support in Pakistan. It is further alleged that the ‘virus’ of fundamentalism has even infected the military in Pakistan. Were this true, general Pervez Musharraf would not be in power today. Even before the events of September 11, he was known as thoroughly secular and a self-confessed admirer of Mustafa Kemal, founder of modern Turkey. Musharraf has also made little effort to hide his other vices: drinking and participating in dance-parties would be considered his minor indiscretions. Were the true extent of his extracurricular activities fully known, he would be given stiff punishment under Islamic law if the “fundamentalists” had any weight in the country.

The secular-fundamentalist debate has come into sharp focus since Musharraf gave in to American demands and made a U-turn that surprised even his closest friends in the military. True, he wrapped his surrender in a pretence of protecting Pakistan’s “national interest”; what else could he say to justify his volte face? Musharraf has disappointed even his close friends by surrendering so precipitately to US demands when playing for time would have been more prudent. What has also emerged since then is that the Islamic political parties, be they various factions of the Jami’atul Ulama-e Islam, or the Jama’at-e Islami, represent far more closely the sentiment of the masses, yet perform dismally in elections. So what explains this apparent paradox?

Let us first deal with the relative strengths and weaknesses of the secular and fundamentalist camps. While the sentiment of the masses is Islamic, the establishment in Pakistan is completely secular. All state institutions are controlled by the secularists - be they the armed forces, bureaucracy, the judiciary, or colleges and universities. It is alleged that the armed forces have been “Islamized” because beards are allowed; this may be “Islamic” compared to Turkey, but in themselves beards do not add up to much. As the late maulana Maudoodi once said, “there is beard in Islam but no Islam in a beard.” Hints and touches of Islam are allowed in other areas as well. The preamble to the constitution says that no laws shall be enacted that are contrary to the teachings of the Qur’an or Sunnah; the country’s official name is the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan”; almost every function in the country starts with recitation from the Qur’an; thereafter anything goes. Such insult to Allah’s Book is mindboggling.

Contradictions abound in Pakistan. According to all polls, including those conducted by western sources, at least 83 percent of the population is opposed to US bombing of Afghanistan, yet general Musharraf has thrown his heart into the American campaign. He dismisses anti-US demonstrations as the work of an “insignificant” minority, at most 15 percent of the population. In support of his argument, he states that the demonstrations are small by Pakistani standards. Self-deception is a hallmark of the Pakistani ruling elite. When Dhaka fell in December 1971, Yahya Khan thundered “we will continue to fight on the western front”; before his execution in April 1979, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto proclaimed that if he were hanged there would be protests from the Khyber to Karachi: he went to the gallows unsung and unlamented. Musharraf tried to organize a pro-government rally; at which no more than 200 people showed up. It was quickly dubbed the fashion-show, because upper-class ladies attended, each outdoing the one before in the latest fashions.

While religious parties control the streets of Pakistan today, the secularists control all the handles of power. It is the secularists whose influence is grossly out of proportion to their numbers in the country. Election results are not an accurate barometer of anyone’s popularity; Pakistani elections are notorious for riggings, vote-buying and intimidation. It is a perversion of the truth to suggest that the oppressed love their oppressors but, as Steve Biko (the South African freedom-fighter who was murdered in detention by the apartheid regime) pointed out, the minds of the oppressed are the greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressors. In Pakistan the ordinary citizen feels helpless against the secular establishment. His experience tells him that if he were to lodge a complaint with the police, far from it being addressed, he would have to put up with their extortion as well. He bears his suffering in silence, but when the humiliation reaches unbearable proportions his anger explodes into violent reaction. The courts then step in to protect the status quo and show him who is really the boss.

The Islamic parties control the streets and can call large numbers of people out at short notice to prove the anti-American sentiment of the masses, yet seem unable to challenge the system successfully. The government faithfully toes the US line, daily revealing a little bit more about what it has surrendered. The first thing to go out of the window was self-respect, a commodity in short supply in Pakistan anyway. But the crucial question is: why have the Islamic parties failed to capitalise on the sentiment of the masses to overthrow the corrupt system? There are two reasons for this: first, for any movement to succeed it must have a strong and clear-sighted leader; in Iran Imam Khomeini was such a leader. Second, the movement must operate at the Islamic rather than sectarian level. The great tragedy of Islamic political parties in Pakistan (with the sole exception of the Jama’at-e Islami) is that they are all sectarian in outlook. Even while the Pakistani masses hold daily rallies against America, the ulama fail to rise above their sectarianism. If they are unable to see beyond their narrow fiqhi differences, Pakistan is condemned to perpetual internal strife while the secularists wield the whip.

The dilemma of the Jama’at also needs consideration. To its credit, it is not sectarian but the absence of a strong leader has prevented it from offering a credible alternative to the secularists. This lack is not its only failing; the real tragedy is its failure to challenge the established order as unIslamic, indeed anti-Islamic. (It is true that even the secular parties do not have strong leaders, but because they are part of the system they are not regarded as a threat and are allowed to do somewhat better in the polls.) Similarly, the Jama’at’s rigid party structure, while helpful for party discipline, has prevented the active participation of ordinary people in its activities. Islam is a movement, not a political party; yet not even an Islamic party will be allowed to come to power under a secular system. The experiences of Islamic parties in Turkey and Algeria confirm this. The secular establishment can be challenged successfully only by the Islamic movement, not by a political party, even if that party carries the Islamic flag. Wherever Muslims have been successful - in Iran and Afghanistan, for instance - they have achieved it not under the banner of any political party but as a movement, and by challenging the old order in its entirety.

Iran’s Islamic government successfully defended itself against external aggression and is striving to fulfil its Islamic obligations. It has maintained its independence in the face of persistent external threats. It is instructive to note that despite deep political and fiqhi differences with the Taliban, the Islamic leadership in Iran has not allowed America the use of its airspace or territory to attack Afghanistan. In fact, the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, condemned all terrorism, and rejected the US as unworthy to lead the fight against it. It is reported that when Mullah Umar was informed of this he said, “At least there is one Muslim country that stands with the oppressed people of Afghanistan.”

While the Taliban fall far short of the Islamic ideal - and we have repeatedly argued these points in the Crescent - it is to their credit that they have demonstrated pride, self-respect and a firm commitment to their cause. With virtually nothing at their disposal, they have chosen honourable death in preference to the humiliation of surrender to the US. By doing so they have earned the respect of Muslims worldwide. As Allama Iqbal said about and to the Afghans: “Teri ba-ilmi nae rakhli ba-ilmon ki laaj; alim fazil baech rahae hain apna deen iman: apni khudi pehchan o ghafil Afghan”, which means roughly, “Your lack of education has protected the dignity of the uneducated, while the educated classes are selling their honour; remember your self-respect, O oblivious Afghan.”

It is advice which today’s Afghans have obviously taken to heart. They have recalled and prized their khudi (self-respect, pride) despite their extreme poverty; would that other Muslim peoples were doing likewise. When a military delegation from Pakistan went recently to see Mullah Umar to persuade him to hand over Usama bin Ladin, warning that otherwise the Americans would go to war against Afghanistan, he listened to them patiently. When they had finished, he replied: “We have tasted defeat in our long struggle and we may taste it again, but you have never seen victory in your entire life.” Then he got up and left the room, leaving his Pakistani visitors speechless.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 18

Ramadan 01, 14222001-11-16

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