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Catch 79

Published Jun 20, 2013 10:47am

1979 was the decisive year. If one is to pick a year from where Pakistan’s political and cultural slide towards a curious faith-based neurosis began, that year is bound to be 1979.

The lead up to this decisive year was 1977’s military coup against the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government by his own handpicked General (Zia-ul-Haq).

In one of his initial addresses to the nation on PTV, General Zia-ul-Haq suddenly cut away from his written speech, looked up into the camera and claimed that he knew why most people had stopped watching Pakistan Television (PTV): “Mujhey pata hai log ab PTV kyon nahi daikhtay. Chirian jo urr gain” (I know why some people have stopped watching PTV. All the birds have flown [from the channel]) (1)

While announcing one of his many promises of holding fresh elections, (none of which he would ever fulfil), Zia had persuaded the Jamaat-i-Islami and some conservative anti-Bhutto politicians to join his martial law regime.


Ziaul Haq addressing the nation on PTV after taking power through a military coup in July 5 1977.
Ziaul Haq addressing the nation on PTV after taking power through a military coup in July 5 1977.


The Jamaat members were given a free run of the ministry of information, and one of the first acts of the ministry was to devise a brand new censor policy for PTV and the cinema.

A list was drawn banning a number of actors, actresses, producers and playwrights from appearing on PTV (because they were deemed pro-Bhutto). (2)

The same list also contained names of certain Pakistani films, songs and PTV plays that were not allowed a re-run because they were either labelled ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ or ‘subversive.’

For example, songs like Naheed Akhtar’s ‘Tutaru Tara Tara’ and Alamgir’s ‘Daikha Na Tha’ were judged ‘obscene,’ while plays like Shaukat Siddiqui’s ‘Khuda Ki Basti’ – a 1973 play based on Siddiqui’s novel about poverty and crime in Karachi’s slums – were not allowed a re-run because the new Jamaat-led censor board thought the play glorified socialism, an ideology the Jamaat claimed was ‘atheistic’.


One of Pakistan’s first pop stars, Alamgir, in Karachi in 1973. His 1977 song, ‘Deikha Na Tha’ was banned (on PTV and Radio Pakistan) in August 1977 by the Zia regime for being ‘obscene.’
One of Pakistan’s first pop stars, Alamgir, in Karachi in 1973. His 1977 song, ‘Deikha Na Tha’ was banned (on PTV and Radio Pakistan) in August 1977 by the Zia regime for being ‘obscene.’


The new Ministry of Information also ordered the destruction of all recorded speeches of Z A. Bhutto from PTV’s archives and video library, and disallowed the usage of the words ‘Bhutto’, ‘Jamhooriat’ (democracy) and ‘socialism’ in plays, talk shows and news bulletins.

Zia gradually adopted the anti-Bhutto Pakistan National Alliance’s election slogan of ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa,’ explaining it as an expression of what Pakistanis wanted, using it to continue delaying fresh elections because he claimed his military regime had to ‘cleanse the society and politics from corrupt and un-Islamic elements’ before people were subjected to another bout of elections.

Even before Zia formally announced his Islamisation policies (in 1978), the Jamaat-run ministries had already set the tone for what was to come by banning a number of TV commercials, songs, and performers and re-cutting certain films that had been approved by the preceding censor board.

The idea was to prepare the ground for the full implementation of ‘Islamic laws and culture’ – an initial step in Jamaat leader and scholar, Abul Ala Maududi’s overall thesis on the formation of an ‘Islamic state.’

Maududdi was an important figure in the early shaping of Zia’s Islamisation process. Zia was known to have handed out books written by Maududdi to young officers. (3)


Abul Ala Maududi (centre) with a Saudi guest at a reception in Karachi, 1977.
Abul Ala Maududi (centre) with a Saudi guest at a reception in Karachi, 1977.


By 1979, the Jamaat-i-Islami was convinced that it had (through Zia), finally managed to make its way into the corridors of state power, and even though its leader Maududdi’s original thesis envisioned an Islamic revolution brought on by a society that had been systematically ‘Islamised,’ the Punjab leadership of the party attempted to hasten this process by encouraging Zia to quicken the dishing out and implementation of ‘Islamic laws.’

Then in 1979, Maududdi died.


As Zia started to introduce unprecedented Islamic laws, society stood still, as if in a limbo between what had passed and what was about to come.

This static, uncertain state of the society was reflected in the way it reacted to certain prominent events in 1979.

In July, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that its Skylab satellite that had been orbiting the planet since 1973 had developed a fault and was expected to fall to Earth. (4)

NASA wasn’t sure exactly where it would crash, but experts believed that the burly satellite was likely to fall either over Australia or over the Indo-Pak subcontinent.

Though the same experts also stated that the satellite would start to burn after it entered the Earth’s atmosphere and most probably end up in sea, the story took a life of its own in Pakistan.


The damaged NASA Skylab about to plunge down to Earth, July 1977. It was 86.3 ft in length and weighed 169,950 Ib.
The damaged NASA Skylab about to plunge down to Earth, July 1977. It was 86.3 ft in length and weighed 169,950 Ib.


The state-owned PTV started to run regular bulletins on the latest whereabouts of the Skylab, usually read by Azhar Lodhi – a newscaster, who would go on to become a ubiquitous presence on PTV across the Zia years.

Lodhi maintained a sombre tone in the bulletins, and then started to punctuate them with equally sombre pleas for prayers.

Suddenly, most Pakistanis who till then had taken the affair lightly began using apocalyptic overtones while speaking (to PTV and newsmen) about the event.

Many even went to the extent of wondering whether the fall of the Skylab (on Pakistan) may announce the beginning of Allah’s Day of Judgment! (Qayamat).

A somewhat soft (but tense) strain of panic and fear cut across Pakistani society. But it was as if the military regime was purposefully using the occasion to instil fear into the people’s minds by allowing Lodhi to use an apocalyptic tone and pleas for prayers, perhaps alluding that in such a testing hour, Pakistan required a pious ruler.

Interestingly, in those days, more Pakistanis visited Sufi shrines than they did mosques, (5) with much of the middle-classes going to the mosques only on special occasions.

However, with Zia’s Islamic laws starting to come into force, and PTV doubling the number of Islamic programmes in its transmission, many young middle-class Pakistanis saw themselves being led towards the mosques as Lodhi continued to dramatically announce the closing in of the falling Skylab.

Lodhi would often appear during special bulletins with a swollen expression:
Nazreen, NASA reports kay mutabek, Skylab Asia mein Dakhil ho chuki hai. Aap sey guzarish hai, apni masjidoon mein ja kar Pakistan ki salamti ki dua kerien and Allah sey toba kerien. Aap ko hum Skylab kay mutabek aga rahkey gain …’ (Viewers, according to NASA reports, the Skylab has entered Asia. We implore and request that you go to the mosque and pray for Pakistan’s well being and ask God for forgiveness. We will keep you posted on the status of the falling Skylab).

Though for a couple of days PTV invited its science man, Laique Ahmed, who used to host a science show in the early 1970s for the state-owned channel, to explain why the Skylab was falling, but as interest in the falling space station grew, he was replaced by religious preachers who at once began alluding that it was warning sign by the Almighty to the Pakistanis.

Pakistani viewers had never seen or heard a cleric commenting on a non-religious event or issue. But it soon became a norm and carries on to this day when even the modern private-owned channels are not immune to inviting Islamic clerics to comment on events like earthquakes, tsunamis and floods.

The Skylab eventually fell (on July 12, 1979), over the ocean and the deserts of Western Australia, and once the feared Day of Judgment did not come, the episode was quickly forgotten about.


Front page of Australia’s Sydney Morning Tribune reporting that the Skylab had fallen into the sea and desert of Western Australia.
Front page of Australia’s Sydney Morning Tribune reporting that the Skylab had fallen into the sea and desert of Western Australia.


The event elapsed quickly from memory, but the apocalyptic outlook that it had triggered in the Pakistani society lingered, and it was this grim point of view (alluded through official propaganda as a kind of a warning sign from the Almighty) that worked well for the Zia dictatorship to intensify its ‘Islamic’ man oeuvres and appeal.


The state of social limbo too lingered, and it was this state that also resulted in the silent reception Bhutto’s execution through a controversial trial received from the people.

Bhutto was hanged on April 4, 1979 after what was described as a farcical trial conducted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

His death triggered only sporadic rallies and some incidents of violence. It seemed much of the Pakistani society was still suffering from the exhaustion it had felt after the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement led by the 9-party alliance of religious parties and anti-Bhutto outfits.


Bhutto being escorted back to prison from the Lahore High Court.
Bhutto being escorted back to prison from the Lahore High Court.


By 1979, with ‘real Islam’ being promised by a ‘pious’ military General, and the decade of extroverted populism coming to an end with the collapse of the PPP regime and the death of its leader, the Pakistani society – especially the urban middle-classes – also seemed to have started to collapse inwards, becoming stoic and introverted.

The society’s newly-acquired apocalyptic frame of mind got some more fodder to burn on when soon after the Skylab incident, Pakistanis woke up to the news that Islam’s holiest place, the Ka’aba in Makah was stormed and taken over by dozens of armed men.

On November 20 1979, members of a shady and ultra-rightist Islamist group entered the premises of the grand mosque in Makah. (6)

The besieging group was made up of about 10 dozen men, most of them Saudis.

All of them were followers of Abdul Aziz bin Baz who was Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti.

Baz had been incensed by the presence of western workers in Saudi Arabia, who had been hired by the Saudi monarchy to manage the large amounts of oil wealth the Kingdom had accumulated.


Abdul Aziz bin Baz in 1979.
Abdul Aziz bin Baz in 1979.


The mosque was taken while pilgrims were present. Some were allowed to leave, while a number of others were taken hostage.

Mayhem ensued. For days the militants fought bloody gun battles with Saudi forces.


Saudi troops trying to break into the Grand Mosque area. The walls and doors of the sacred mosque had been riddled with bullet holes from the intense exchange of gunfire between the troops and the militants.
Saudi troops trying to break into the Grand Mosque area. The walls and doors of the sacred mosque had been riddled with bullet holes from the intense exchange of gunfire between the troops and the militants.


PTV was telecasting a cricket Test match between Pakistan and India being played in the Indian city of Bangalore on the day of the siege, when the transmission was suddenly interrupted and Azhar Lodhi appeared on screen.

Again in his dead-pan sombre tone, he announced the attack without giving many details about the attackers, leaving the viewers guessing as to who these men could be.


Azhar Lodhi.
Azhar Lodhi.


PTV did not return to the Test match; instead it started to run naats – odes to Prophet Muhammad – and recitations from the Quran.

PTV had the details of the attack, but on the advice of the military regime, it did not announce that the attackers were all Muslim. (7)

Pakistanis tuned into BBC Radio’s Urdu service that quoted the official Iranian media – now under the control of an Islamic revolutionary government. The reported quote suggested that the attacks were the work of the “American-Zionist lobby.” (8)

The very next day, large rallies condemning the siege appeared in major Pakistani cities. The biggest rally took place in the country’s capital, Islamabad.

It was a spontaneous gathering held outside the American consulate building. It suddenly turned violent when some right-wing student leaders made fiery speeches blaming the United States for the attack on the Ka’aba.

The gathering soon turned into a rampaging mob and forced its way inside the consulate’s compound and offices.

The mob was acting upon what it had heard on BBC believing that the Iranian quote that the radio network had used to be news.

The Iranians were well aware of the reality behind the takeover of the mosque by Saudi fanatics. But they used the opportunity to embarrass both the Americans and the Saudis by claiming that it was a part of an Israeli/US plot to ‘occupy’ Makkah. (9)

Though Pakistan’s state-controlled media kept rather mum about the event and only asked the people to ‘mourn the takeover’; the Zia regime advised PTV and Radio Pakistan not to let out any details of the occupation.

The people knew nothing about the men who’d executed the diabolic undertaking. They switched to BBC for details. But since Saudi authorities had blocked any news coming out of Makkah, BBC began to quote speculative views from other sources, specifically Iranian.

One such report that merely quoted an unsubstantiated claim made by the Iranian state-controlled radio was picked up and treated as actual news by a few Urdu dailies in Pakistan.

The Zia regime, unimpressed by American criticism of its take-over (in 1977) and facing American sanctions, did absolutely nothing to reveal the details of the attack, in spite of the fact that Zia had offered military help to the Saudi monarchy to dislodge the fanatics from the mosque.

Suddenly, unchecked by the Zia regime, the bogus news broadcast by Iranian radio and reproduced by some Urdu newspapers in Pakistan was used as a plank by members of the student-wing of the pro-Zia Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) to organise a sit-in outside the US embassy in Islamabad.

Accusing the US of the attack on the mosque, the sit-in was then suddenly penetrated by some boisterous young men who instigated the gathered people to attack the embassy.

The mob surged forward towards the embassy, setting it on fire. The attack lasted for hours, but the police stayed put.

Pakistan army helicopters hovered over the burning building but only landed on the roof of the crumbling structure after the mob had already killed two American and two Pakistani employees of the embassy. Two protesters also lost their lives in the chaos.


A Pakistan Army helicopter hovers over the burning US embassy in Islamabad, 1979.
A Pakistan Army helicopter hovers over the burning US embassy in Islamabad, 1979.


The violence and the rallies stopped once the military regime decided to release the full details of the attack.

The attackers were all Muslim, mostly indigenous Saudis. The American government, however, accused the military regime of failing to stop the mob from attacking the US consulate in Islamabad.

In Makah, the first few days of the battle saw the militants gaining the upper hand – scores of Saudi soldiers were slaughtered.

Watching the situation spiralling out of control, the Saudi regime contemplated using outside help. Since no non-Muslim is allowed to enter the Grand Mosque, the Saudi regime pondered using Pakistani and Jordanian commandos.

But the Saudis eventually called in French commandos and asked them to supply training (just outside Mecca) and weapons to the bloodied Saudi forces. It took another three days for the Saudi forces to defeat the militants and clear the mosque. The battle cost over 900 lives.

Pakistanis were flabbergasted at what had transpired. So, what really happened?

Leader of the siege: Juheyman bin Muhammad.
Leader of the siege: Juheyman bin Muhammad.
On November 20, 1979, a group of armed Saudi fanatics entered the premises of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The group was being led by a man called Juheyman bin Muhammad. With him as his second-in-command was one Muhammad Abdullah.

The group was made up of about a 100 men, most of them Saudis, but also comprising Egyptians, Yemenis, Syrians, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Libyans and at least two African-American converts.

All of them were followers of Abdul Azizi bin Baz who was Saudi Arabis’s Grand Mufti.

Baz had been highly critical of late King Faisal’s moderate reforms that had seen the setting up of the Kingdom’s first television station.

Faisal had also given conditional permission to the Kingdom’s women to work in offices.

In his fiery Friday sermons, Baz attacked the monarchy for moving away from the path set by the monarchy’s predecessors, especially King Al-Saud (d 1953) — even though it was under Saud that the discovery of the vast amounts of oil in Saudi Arabia was made with the help of British and American firms.

But Saud knew that to retain power he had to remain on the right side of the powerful clerics.

That’s why, though flushed with oil money, he was painfully slow to initiate reform. Instead, he kept the Kingdom running on the ultra-conservative principles of puritanical Islam. No wonder, to Juheyman and his men, they were doing exactly what they were taught at Saudi schools and universities: Purge ‘false Muslims’ and ‘infidels’ from Islam.

To counter the rise of secular Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism in the 1960s initiated by regimes in Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Syria (and later), Libya, King Saud’s successor, King Faisal, started implementing some soft social reforms.

The Kingdom’s clerics accused Faisal of turning Saudi Arabia into a ‘liberal’ country, though almost all of these clerics were on the payroll and perks of the monarchy.

In 1975, Faisal was assassinated by a member of his own family who too was a Baz admirer.

Baz’s blazing sermons eventually gave birth to a group of young fundamentalists quoting an ambiguous hadith to justify that Juheyman’s colleague, Muhammad Abdullah, was the Mehdi (The mythical saviour of Islam). The supposed hadith also mentioned that the clash between Mehdi’s followers and ‘infidels’ will take place in the Grand Mosque of Makah.

The mosque was taken while pilgrims were present. Mayhem ensued. For days the militants fought bloody gun battles with Saudi forces.


Explosions go off in and around the Grand Mosque in Makah.
Explosions go off in and around the Grand Mosque in Makah.


Misled by rumours that attributed the Mosque take-over to an ‘American-Zionist conspiracy’, mobs in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Libya attacked and burned down American embassies in their respective countries.

Finally after days of fighting, Saudi troops helped by French military experts managed to take control of the mosque. Nine hundred people died that included militants, pilgrims and members of the Saudi armed forces.


The militants who got captured. They included Saudis, Jordanians, Libyans, Eygyptians and Pakistanis. The non-Saudi militants were either based in Saudi Arabia as workers or were students at various Saudi universities. They were all beheaded.
The militants who got captured. They included Saudis, Jordanians, Libyans, Eygyptians and Pakistanis. The non-Saudi militants were either based in Saudi Arabia as workers or were students at various Saudi universities. They were all beheaded.


French military experts with a Saudi Army commander just outside Makah.
French military experts with a Saudi Army commander just outside Makah.


Then in late December of 1979, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. In a complete about-turn, the American government decided to mend the deteriorating relations between itself and Pakistan.

American concerns over the military regime’s atrocious human rights record against its opponents and its decision to implement “barbaric laws” like flogging and amputation of limbs too vanished, as Zia now asked for an unconditional acceptance of his military regime if the United States wanted Pakistan to play any role in becoming the launching pad for America’s proxy war against the Soviets.


Soviet troops enter Afghanistan, December 1979.
Soviet troops enter Afghanistan, December 1979.


An early batch of ‘Afghan Mujahideen’ gather in the tribal areas of Pakistan, late December 1979.
An early batch of ‘Afghan Mujahideen’ gather in the tribal areas of Pakistan, late December 1979.


Then by early 1980, as American aid started to slowly trickle in, and for the first time in three years the Zia dictatorship began to feel a lot more sure about its standing, this was the moment that urban middle-class Pakistan took that fateful social, political and cultural turn.

The craving behind this turn was first for a just, progressive and democratic order; a longing that by the late 1970s had evolved into a desire for a modern Islamic system of economics and governance.

However, the middle-classes had suddenly gone into a static mode and into a limbo of sorts when the agitation for the latter demand had brought in a military dictator and laws that were somewhat alien to the sub-continental Muslim societies.

But by the dawn of 1980, the Pakistani urban middle-classes seemed to be coming out of its sudden static state, and appeared to be moving again.

But their movement now was into uncharted territory. The era of populist social and political extroversion had finally come to a close, giving way to a conservative introversion that really had very little to do with reflection, and more with a need to hide one’s political and social self in an era of open religious propagation and reactive legislation that was opposed to the 1970s’ populist bearings.

Within a year (1979) the country’s social and political ethos (and pathos) took a sharp rightwards turn. A turn it is yet to recover from.

(1) Tahir Wasti, The Application of Islamic Criminal Law in Pakistan (BRILL, 2009) p.101.

(2) Hamida Khuro, Anwar Mooraj, Karachi: Megacity of our time (Oxford University Press, 1997) p.270.

(3) Mubashir Hassan, The Mirage of Power, (Oxford University Press, 2000).

(4) ‘Skylab’s Fiery Fall’ (TIME, 15 July, 1979).

(5) Annemarie Schimmel, Islam in India & Pakistan (BRILL 1982) p.44.

(6) Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca, (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008).

(7) Bhurranuddin Hassan, Uncensored (Royal Book Company, 2000).

(8) Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca, (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008).

(9) Ibid.