The basic socio-political mindset of the Pakistani society is the outcome of various faith-based experiments conducted by the state and the armed forces.
In 1995, sometime in May, an uncle of mine (an ex-army man), was invited to a party of sorts.
The invitation came from a former top-ranking military officer who had also worked for the Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI. He was in the army with my uncle (who now resides abroad) during the 1960s.
My uncle, who was visiting Pakistan, asked if I was interested in going with him. I agreed.
The event was at a military officer’s posh bungalow in Karachi’s Clifton area. Most of the guests (if not all) were former military men. All were articulate, spoke fluent English and wore modern, western clothes.
I was not surprised by this but what did surprise me was a rather schizophrenic aura about the surroundings. Though modern-looking and modern-sounding, the gathering turned out to be a segregated affair.
The men’s wives were placed in a separate room, while the men gathered in a wider sitting area.
By now it become clear to me that I wouldn’t be getting served anything stronger than Pepsi on the rocks!
I scratched my head, thinking that even though I was at a ‘party’ in a posh, stylish bungalow in the posh, stylish Clifton area with all these posh stylish military men and their wives and yet, somehow I felt there very little that was ‘modern’ about the situation.
By modern, I also mean the thinking that was reflected by the male guests on politics, society and religion. Most of the men were also clean-shaven and reeking of expensive cologne, but even while talking about cars, horses and their vacations in Europe, they kept using Arabic expressions such as mashallah, alhamdullila, inshallah, etc.
I tried to strike up some political conversations with a few gentlemen but they expected me to agree with them about how civilian politicians were corrupt, how democracy can be a threat to Pakistan, how civilian leaders do not understand India’s nefarious designs, et al.
Then, alas, as if right on cue, the moment I began telling them that I was actually a working journalist (they thought I was a college student in some foreign university), in came two senior journalists who seemed to be very close to some of the men there. These journalists were known for their somewhat right-wing views. They are still around.
I thought hard about what had just taken place. Especially when (quite accidentally) I glanced into the ladies’ section, I saw smart women (designer handbags, blow-dried hair and the works) chatting away, unperturbed by the fact that their gaudy modernism somehow did not include mixed gatherings.
What was even more surreal was the presence of some hijab-clad ladies among the army wives, and I overheard many of them (both the hijabis and the non-hijabis), enthusiastically mixing their tales of fashion-related escapades with sincere talk about what dua to say at what time and how Pakistanis are moving away from ‘true Islam’.
So what was going on?
The Pakistan Army was once a staunchly secular beast. All across the 1950s and 1960s it was steeped in secular (albeit conservative) traditions and so were its sociological aspects.
In fact, until the late 1960s, Pakistani military men were asked to keep religion a private matter and religious exhibitionism was scorned at as well as reprimanded – mostly during Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s dictatorship (1959-69).
However, some Islamic symbolism was tactfully used by the military during the 1965 war against India, but this did not last long – especially in an era when a secular military dictatorship was being challenged by an equally secular and left-leaning civilian opposition (the National Awami Party, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Awami League).
The situation in this context remained the same during the early 1970s, during the democratically-elected government of Z. A. Bhutto (1972-77).
Nevertheless, the fact was that the kind of Islamisation which began engulfing the Pakistani society from the 1980s onwards, actually began taking root within the barracks of the Pakistan Army.
Believing that populist Islamic symbolism to be compatible with his regime’s staunchly nationalistic and progressive posturing, Bhutto wanted to strike a balance between secular, left-leaning moves and rhetoric with controlled Islamic bluster.
He thought that this way he would be able to keep in check both the secular opposition coming from radical nationalist groups in Sindh, Balochistan and NWFP and that from the Islamist parties which, although electorally weak, had a large nuisance value.
Bhutto also thought that by bolstering Islamic symbolism and myths in school textbooks, the military and eventually the society in general, it would help him keep Pakistan intact after the failure of the Two-Nation Theory in 1971 when the country’s eastern wing broke away to become Bangladesh.
One must remember that all this remained to be a social experiment during the Bhutto regime and Pakistan’s society remained largely secular until about 1975.
This experiment was first performed in the military. Often, military symbols were fused with those of Islam, and many senior officers began introducing ‘Islamic practices’ in the barracks.
For example, alcohol in Pakistan was first banned in the barracks of the Pakistan Army (1973), a good four years before it was banned across the country (in April 1977).
Apart from also introducing enforced prayers and Islamiyat courses, many officers also began introducing writings of the conservative Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Maududi, to the soldiers.
In fact, his books almost became mandatory reading when men like General Ziaul Haq (before he toppled Bhutto in 1977), began handing out books authored by Maududi to soldiers along with medals.