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Like army, like nation

Published Apr 21, 2011 06:37am

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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.

The party

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 experiment

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.

Maududi was a puritan who believed in jihad and his writings had already influenced a number of extremist outfits like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria.

Also, being the chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in Pakistan, his party had actually held demonstrations in the 1960s against popular Arab nationalist leaders like Gamal Nasser whose government had hanged a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt.

The Islamisation experiment seemed to have worked well in an army demoralised by the 1971 defeat against India, and this experiment soon began seeping into the society through revised school textbooks and the state-owned media.

State-owned TV (PTV) and the film industry (Lollywood) were hitting a peak in the 1970s and many of its creations at the time were largely progressive and liberal.

However, in 1975 PTV conducted its first experiment in constructing a popular serial based on the newly conceived Islamised narrative being developed in the military.

A big-budget historical melodrama (produced by young TV director Mohsin Ali) called Tabeer (Reality) was televised. It was based on the history of the Muslims of India from 1857 until the birth of Pakistan in 1947.

This was also the first time when Pakistanis in general were fully introduced to a completely revised history of the region in which Muslims were seen as being completely separate and different from rest of the people of the subcontinent.

For example, the TV series begins during the end of the Indian Mutiny against the British in 1857, an event in which disgruntled Muslims as well as Hindus played leading roles. However, in the serial we only see the Muslims leading the revolt and Hindus are nowhere to be seen.

As the series continued, with each episode more revisions came to light when Muslim characters hardly ever hark back to great proto-secular Mughals like Akbar and Jahangir, and in fact, the last Mughal, the weak and spineless Bahdar Shah Zafar, is shown using words like ‘jihad.’

Also, allusions are constantly made to the Muslim roots lying in Arab nations and lands and India being a land that was conquered by the Muslims but had become a ‘darul harb’ for them after the fall of the Muslim empire.

Such narratives and revised history would soon become mainstream thought by the time Ziaul Haq took over.

The Islamisation experiment in the military too became a mainstay. It especially began consolidating itself during the military’s involvement in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad in Afghanistan.

As more and more soldiers and officers became radicalised, this radicalisation was then introduced (by the ISI) into the society through a number of militant Islamist groups, sectarian outfits and madrassas that were then used as recruiting grounds for the US-backed ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan. Much of the funding for these came from Saudi Arabia.

The mutation

By the late 1980s, while religion had begun to play a major role in the soldiers’ lives, and the revised historicity first introduced in the late 1970s became the new mainstream historical narrative in Pakistan, one now saw senior officers with even the most liberal and secular habits, spouting Islamist rhetoric.

But this too was about to give in to even more Puritanism. In the early 1990s, the influential Islamic evangelical movement, the Tableeghi Jamaat, began making its way into the military.

Though an apolitical movement that emphasised on ‘correct’ Islamic ritualism and attire, its entry into the barracks produced a surreal mix when it came into contact with the highly political philosophy of Maududi that had by then deeply entrenched itself in the army.

Interestingly, this episode was another example of how an Islamic experiment that was first conducted in the Pakistani army soon seeped out to become a phenomenon in the society in general as well.

The Tableeghi Jamaat which was formed in 1929 had, until the 1980s, been more associated with working/peasant-class Muslims from the Deobandi sect and (in the 1980s) became popular with the trader classes.

A move was seen by the Jamaat from the early 1990s onwards in which a conscious attempt was made to attract upper-middle and middle-class Muslims, and this was achieved when various senior Pakistan Army officers joined the Jamaat.

The army’s influence on the Pakistani society and politics meant that the Jamaat not only began to bag recruits from well-to-do urban classes, but for the first time it also managed to attract a number of celebrities such as TV actors, pop musicians and cricketers.

What I saw at that ‘party’ was actually the socio-political outcome of the above elaborated process.

A process that saw a secular army going through an experiment in political Islam that then was dissipated across the society and consolidated itself as a mainstream phenomenon.

This phenomenon was then fused (in the army) with ritual Puritanism of the Tableeghi Jamaat and this fusion too became a mainstream sociological mainstay amongst various urban classes.

Thus the schizophrenic happenings at the ‘party’ were a modern, upper-middle-class expression of the said process.

Interestingly it is the mindset emerging from this fusion and process that also dictates the choice of the kind of political leaders that the classes embroiled in this phenomenon would like to see.

The choices too have increasingly become equally schizophrenic.

For example, these classes whose politics are a fusion of classical political Islam, Tableeghi Jamaat ritualism and modern-day consumerist capitalism want their leaders to be professional white-collared men, urban in outlook, educated, good to look at, but at the same time, religious, anti-West, anti-India and highly tolerant of Islamic exhibitionism, even sometimes to the point of being apologetic about those who take this exhibitionism to a more violent levels.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.