Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The state of Pakistan, especially one of its sturdiest institutions, the military, is trying to rapidly alter its ideological make-up.

The move (mainly orchestrated by the military high command under Gen Raheel Sharif), is seeking a gradual departure from the mindset which drove and defined the country’s military establishment for over three decades.

Ever since the late 1970s, a concentrated effort was made by the dictatorship of Gen Zia (1977-88), to change the supposed ‘Anglicised’ nature of the armed forces and transform it into becoming an ‘Islamic’ one.

And even though religious symbolism in times of war was often used by the institution in the past, under Gen Zia, such symbolism became a mainstay, along with the state-backed proliferation of devout ritualism within the forces, achieved through allowing the wholesale entry of both political as well as apolitical evangelical outfits inside the barracks.

Studying Gen Ayub’s regime might have some tips for the military establishment as it attempts to revamp the country’s ideological narrative

This was a pragmatic move as much as it was an ideological one. Soviet forces had entered Afghanistan, and Pakistan had become the launch pad for a number of Afghan guerrilla groups, aided by the US and Saudi Arabia, and facilitated by the Zia regime.

According to a reclusive Brigadier-General, S.K. Malik, who became a spectral ideologue behind much of what emerged within the armed forces during the Zia regime, ‘every citizen in an Islamic republic should think like a holy warrior,’ and that ‘war inspired by faith should be turned into a national policy’.

Malik wrote this in Religious Concept of War, a book he authored in 1979. It became a necessary read for officers.

The military’s character was successfully transformed, and it was this transformation which was perceived to have made the institution stronger and more influential in the region. This largely misappropriated perception encouraged its continuation, despite the fact that it clearly began to struggle in finding relevance in a world where the Cold War had ended, and the Soviet Union had collapsed.

Its relevance then completely eroded in the post-9/11 world. What’s more, the aforementioned perception had created a collective ego which soon began to challenge its own architects. The architects settled for holding the perception as is, but the ego now wanted it to evolve further. This ego’s desire to do so now meant a war not only against the ‘infidels’, but against the state and society as well.

So what the Pakistan military establishment under Gen Raheel is now attempting to do is to construct a brand new narrative which could replace the one that has failed to find relevance in the post-9/11 scenario, and has, in fact, become a major thorn in the side of the Pakistani state and polity.

This again is a pragmatic move, and it should be. But it will require some ideology as well, especially in a country whose polity has been heavily indoctrinated in understanding Pakistan as an ‘ideological state’.

Part of the answer to this may lie in an interesting period of Pakistan’s history. That period constitutes the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69). Much can be learned from it about what to do and what not to, in the context of what the military is now attempting to achieve.

Ayub Khan imposed Pakistan’s first Martial Law in 1958 with the backing of an all-powerful president, Iskandar Mirza. Mirza and Ayub blamed rising corruption, a spiraling economy, and political chaos as reasons for the Martial Law. Both then went on to describe the 1956 Constitution as ‘the selling of religion for political gains’.

The Constitution had renamed the country, ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’. Mirza and Ayub changed it to just Pakistan. Both were of the view that Pakistan was created as a modern Muslim-majority state by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and not a theological one.

Mirza was ousted by Ayub just 20 days after the coup, and Ayub became the president in 1959. Ayub’s coup was a popular one. This gave him the leeway to aggressively deflect (through policy) all he thought could be detrimental to a young country.

He was allergic to leftists (who he believed were anarchic and disruptive expressions of progressive thought); and religious outfits repulsed him (who he accused of being ill-informed about Islam, backward and archaic).

In a 1960 speech, he claimed: ‘Pakistan was not achieved to create a priest-ridden culture but it was created to evolve an enlightened society …’

He then continued: ‘In fact, it is a great injustice to both life and religion to impose on 20th century man the condition that he must go back several centuries in order to prove his credentials as a true Muslim …’

In Political & Social Transformation, Dr Anita M. Weiss writes that Ayub believed in a synthesis of modernist and traditionalist interpretations of Islam in order to make it compatible with changing modes of time.

In a 1985 essay, renowned Islamic researcher and scholar, late Dr Fazal Rehman Malik, wrote that during the first phase of the Ayub regime (1958-65), there was an important development as the era ‘pushed the confused and ambiguous attitudes of the earlier official Modernists towards a clarity making Islamic Modernism different from the fundamentalist conservatives (sic) …’

Ayub’s policies based on his understanding of ‘Islamic Modernism’ were seen as secular and Westernised by the religious parties, especially when he banned polygamy and the 1962 Constitution renamed the country, ‘Republic of Pakistan’. In 1964, he banned the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).

But Ayub’s popularity was such that he remained unmoved, even though, eventually he had to alter his radical family planning policies; again redefine the country as an Islamic Republic; and when the Supreme Court overturned the ban on JI.

In his essay on the Ayub era, Dr S.H. Ansari, states that from 1965 onward, Ayub’s regime began to change complexion. This undermined his project of Muslim modernity which, had it continued, might just have moulded a somewhat different future for the country.

Ansari gives three reasons for the project’s rollback. First, to get re-elected as president in 1965, Ayub allowed his information ministry to co-opt certain ulema who asked to negatively highlight the gender of his opponent, Fatima Jinnah. Secondly, after the 1965 war with India ended in a stalemate, it negatively impacted the country’s economy. Ayub began to lose popularity and increasingly began to use religious rhetoric.

Muslim modernists began to abandon him, while the country’s polity, now suffering from a stressed economy, began moving left (PPP, National Awami Party, Awami League); or right towards religious outfits.

Thirdly, by the time he resigned in early 1969, many of Ayub’s desperate ministers had begun mending fences with religious outfits (to negate leftist opponents).

But all this could not save Ayub’s fall. A floundering economy and an attempt to repackage and repaint his stumbling regime with more ‘pious’ colours only ended up providing his erstwhile opponents the space to make a re-entry into mainstream politics.

This is also the same ploy Z.A. Bhutto would attempt during the tail end of his populist regime in 1977, only to also fall and set the stage for the likes of Zia and whatever followed his regime and legacy.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 10th, 2016



Budget for stabilisation
Updated 13 Jun, 2024

Budget for stabilisation

The proposed steps lack any “disruptive policy changes", especially to "right-size" the govt, and doubts remain on authorities' ability to enforce new measures.
State of the economy
13 Jun, 2024

State of the economy

THE current fiscal year is but another year lost. Going by the new Pakistan Economic Survey, which maps the state of...
Unyielding onslaught
Updated 13 Jun, 2024

Unyielding onslaught

SEVEN soldiers paid the ultimate price in Lakki Marwat on Sunday when their vehicle was blown up in an IED attack,...
X diplomacy
Updated 12 Jun, 2024

X diplomacy

Both states can pursue adversarial policies, or come to the negotiating table and frankly discuss all outstanding issues, which can be tackled through dialogue.
Strange decisions
12 Jun, 2024

Strange decisions

THE ECP continues to wade deeper and deeper into controversy. Through its most recent decision, it had granted major...
Interest rate cut
Updated 11 Jun, 2024

Interest rate cut

The decision underscores SBP’s confidence that economic stability is gaining traction.