Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

During a recent academic conference that I attended in Lahore as a speaker, I was asked an intriguing question by a student from Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University. After saying that he agreed with my narrative, that the trajectory of Pakistan’s cultural evolution was ‘retarded’ (his word, not mine) during Gen Zia’s reactionary dictatorship (1977-88), he asked if there were a particular episode which can be explained as being the catalyst for the mentioned divergence?

He further explained his question in an interesting manner. He said that while researching for a thesis on the cultural change that took place after Zia’s coup in July 1977, he discovered that, despite the introduction of certain draconian regulations, Pakistani society did not witness an immediate flip. When I asked him to elaborate, he said, “After studying many newspapers of the time, it seems to me that Pakistanis lived their lives almost exactly the way they did before Zia’s rise to power.” In editions of Dawn and Jang of 1978 which he went through, he said that he found pages dedicated to ads of all kinds of Urdu and English films being shown in cinemas. PTV was still showing the latest English TV series and music shows and there was also news about the planned construction of a Holiday Inn and a Hotel Plaza in Karachi that would include discotheques.

This is correct. Even though I was just 10 when Zia took over in 1977, it is accurate to note that the divergence of cultural (and political) evolution that took place during Zia’s regime was a gradual slide. However, if one were to indicate a particular point from where this divergence began, it has to be the year 1979.

The country is still paying the price for Zia’s response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

An August 17, 2016 piece on Zia on the website of Germany’s state-owned media outlet, the Deutsche Welle (DW), submitted that Zia did not kick off his ‘Islamisation drive’ in earnest till April 1979 — the month when Z.A. Bhutto, the former prime minister was hanged through a controversial murder trial. However, the Hudood Ordinances were one of the first major ‘Islamisation’ policies of the Zia regime to be enforced in February 1979. The Ordinance prescribed punishments such as public flogging, amputation of limbs and stoning to death for offences such as adultery, rape, fornication and robbery. The Ordinance was a way to merge so-called theological rulings (by a reconstituted Council of Islamic Ideology) with the country’s secular penal code. But this experiment went on to create various legal complications and even incidents in which law enforcers used the Ordinance to harass and exploit vulnerable sections of the society, especially women.

Then there was the 1979 Prohibition Ordinance. The selling and drinking of alcoholic beverages in Pakistan was banned in April 1977. The fine in this regard was 5,000 rupees and four to six months in jail. Non-Muslims were allowed to consume and buy alcoholic beverages from ‘licensed’ wine shops. A 1979 Prohibition Ordinance added the punishment of whipping (80 lashes) for Muslims caught drinking or selling alcohol. The results were disastrous.

A 2015 paper ‘Extent of Alcohol Prohibition in Civil Policy in Muslim-Majority Countries’ by researchers associated with the University of Sydney found that consumption of alcohol (and cases of alcoholism) in Muslim countries including Pakistan, where a prohibition was in place, actually grew after proscription on alcohol came into effect. In Pakistan, this was mainly due to the rise of unregulated bootlegging mafias that emerged in the years after the 1979 Prohibition Ordinance.

Interestingly though, whereas the 1979 Prohibition Ordinance had described the act of consuming alcohol by Muslims a ‘major sin,’ 30 years later, in 2009, the Federal Shariat Court ruled that whipping for the offence was ‘un-Islamic’ and asked the government to amend the law. The court also ruled that consuming alcoholic beverages was ‘not a major sin.’ Ironically, the ‘shariat benches’ in courts (that would go on to constitute the Federal Shariat Court in 1980) were established by Zia in 1979.

In November 1979, a large group of Saudi salafi radicals occupied the grand mosque in Makkah. In Iran, an Islamic revolution had toppled the monarchy. Iranian radio claimed that the attack on the mosque was orchestrated by the Americans. BBC Radio quoted the Iranian radio report. Many in Pakistan took the quote as actual news, including Zia. Lt. General Faiz Chishti, one of the senior officers who had helped Zia come to power, wrote in his 1989 book Betrayals of Another Kind that during a speech that Zia made at the time in Rawalpindi, he told the audience that he had heard that the US was behind the attack. According to Chishti, this triggered a violent mob to burn down the US Embassy in Islamabad.

In a September 13, 2012 piece for the CNN website, Jeffery Lunstead, who at the time was trapped inside the embassy, wrote that the Pakistan government was “extremely slow to respond.” However, once the Pakistan military brought the situation under control and after three employees of the embassy were killed, only then did Zia appear on TV to announce that the attack in Makkah was not the work of Americans. He still didn’t mention the fact that the ringleaders of the salafi outfit were Saudis.

G.D. Castillo in her book Guilty Party: The International Community in Afghanistan writes that till then Zia’s regime had been criticised by US President Jimmy Carter for committing various human rights violations. However, this quickly changed due to perhaps the most significant event of 1979. This event would became the prime catalyst behind the radical divergence in Pakistan’s social and political evolution. It was the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet forces.

In her book G.D. Castillo writes that Carter’s criticism suddenly came to a halt and Zia was quick to take advantage of the invasion by hinting to the Americans, Pakistan’s willingness to facilitate the US (for a hefty price) to fight the Soviets from its soil.

In her essay for the November-December 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, Jessica Stern wrote that the 1979 Soviet invasion and Pakistan’s response to it, at the behest of the US, set the scene for Zia to fully express his idea of faith and holy war. He would go on to establish radical outfits and seminaries because he believed that if the Soviets had to be pushed back by a Pakistan-facilitated war, the country’s society — which had little or no historical roots in any such war — would need to be radicalised as well. The rest, as they say, is history — but one which Pakistan is still reeling from.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 21st, 2018

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