Pious follies

Published September 3, 2009

Islam is believed to be the basis of nationalism on which the Pakistani state was constituted, even though this notion continues to be hotly contested. Liberals hold the view that Pakistan was created for the Muslim community of India, which Muhammad Ali Jinnah treated as a separate ethnic and cultural community, rather than a strictly religious group demanding an Islamic theocracy. Either way Islam is accepted as the core social and political institution in Pakistan, giving it a special role in Pakistani society.

However, this was not always the case - especially between 1947 and 1970 - when the principal tenor of the state and society was largely secular and Islam largely remained a matter of personal faith. But the roots of what came to be known as ‘Islamisation’ of society stretch back to the 1950s.

A dichotomy is born

Islamisation as an official socio-political ideology was first introduced in public life in shape of the symbols of the state. For example, Quranic verses emblazoned on state buildings and constitutional debates about Islamic law started to emerge sometime after 1956.

During that period, the leadership of the Muslim League was overwhelmingly secular and steeped in English Common Law. The party leaned towards the creation of a liberal modern society that embraced Islam’s universal principals. On the other end of the debate, Islamic parties such as the Jamaat Islami (JI), and the now defunct Nizam-e-Islam party, argued for a state where shariah would rule.

The Islamic State vs. Moderate Muslim Republic discourse hung quietly in the background throughout the 1960s. It was brought forth by the politico-religious parties during the 1970 elections. But their argument and political instruments were soundly defeated at the polls.

Things started to change after the 1971 debacle in East Pakistan. Interestingly, this was also when the force of Islam was for the first time used by the Pakistan Army when it started to patronise combative Islamist youth groups, Al-Badar and Al-Shams, mainly consisting of young JI activists and members of its student wing, the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT). These groups assisted the West Pakistan Army in attacking Bengali nationalists. One can also describe the two groups as the earliest manifestations of militant Islam in Pakistan. Notably, this was the first systematic collaboration between the army and lslamists.

The burning debate that erupted after the East Pakistan catastrophe squarely revolved around the question: what would keep that which remained of Pakistan together?

Z A. Bhutto suggested populist democracy and ‘Islamic socialism.’ His offer was of an egalitarian and modern version of Islam that he paraded as the new model for the struggling, post-’71 Muslim nation. The second ideological response to the question came from the Islamists (JI, JUP, JUI, etc.). Blaming the failures of the republic on the ‘flouting of Islamic principals’ – both by the rulers and their subjects – they insisted that only shariah would keep Pakistan together.

The two models went to war in the politics of labour unions, student unions and lawyers associations. Though the Islamists were successfully kept in check by the stronger progressive labour unions, things were tighter in student politics where Bhutto’s model was defended on campuses by organisations such as National Students Federation (NSF) and People’s Students Federation (PSF), whereas the Islamist model was propagated by the IJT, Anjuman Taliba Islam (ATI), and Muslim Students Federation (MSF).

Then in 1973, when the second major Ahmadia riots erupted, the Islamists tasted their first major victory in the country as the Bhutto regime agreed to declare the Ahmadi community non-Muslims. Their second victory arrived in 1976-77 when - with the help of industrialists, bankers, bazaar merchants, and small-town entrepreneurs – Islamic parties formed the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), and successfully agitated against Bhutto’s ‘un-Islamic regime,’ consequently paving the way for the Ziaul Haq coup.

With the arrival of Zia, the Islamists thought they had finally found state power. Their drive for Islamic order also meant changing culture and reorganising society. For this, Zia adopted the JI’s agenda: prohibitions on drinking, betting and dancing, and encouraging the usage of public flogging. Furthermore, Zia’s aids helped him exhibit ‘pious’ examples. Offices, schools, and factories were required to offer praying space; textbooks were revised; mosques and madrassahs multiplied; and conservative scholars became fixtures on television. These cultural shifts were all enforced through government edicts.

The worst aspect in this context was the demagogic reengineering of the country’s education curriculum. After the 1971 break-up of Pakistan and the war with India, educational discourse on nation-building in Pakistan became much more introverted. A violent, militaristic and negative nationalism, which saw enemies on every border, was reconstituted. And during General Zia’s dictatorship, religion as an instrument of homogenisation and control took centre-stage in educational policies.

This gradual Islamisation succeeded in creating an aura of religiosity in everyday life. In reality, there was no necessary improvement in justice, equality and morality. Indeed, the government’s edicts split society between a public life of Islamic pieties and a private life characterised by personal gain.

This dichotomy between public and private has become Zia’s legacy. Since 1971, the state, military and the politico-religious parties have insisted on enforcing a convoluted, myopic and singular ideological mindset – ‘Islamic state’ – in an otherwise multi-sectarian, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. This insistence created, on the one hand, various sectarian and ethnic fissures, and, on the other, a psyche that is extremely vulnerable to paranoia along with an almost schizophrenic patriotism.

Religion for sale

Pakistan is going through testing, but interesting times. We seem to be caught in a rather dynamic form of social and political anarchy in which the absurd and the audacious – negative and positive, creative and destructive – have become casually plausible.

This anarchy has opened doors to forbidden rooms and fruits, as Pakistanis (especially in the country’s burgeoning electronic media), are now much more likely to question and debate the political role of Islam in Pakistan, and more so, whether the years of enforcing a singular ideology on a religiously and ethnically diverse mass of people was such a good idea.

In such a scenario, all sections of liberalism in the country are expected to take an active part. On intellectual and political levels liberals are doing that, but there are still sections of this liberalism that have failed miserably to comprehend the explosive zeitgeist taking shape. Take the example of large multinational corporations and advertising agencies, both of which have been the leading purveyors of openness and liberalism in the country’s cultural, economic and social milieu. But if one goes through the kind of advertising that emerges on our TV screens every Ramadan, it is a baffling sight to say the least.

Ever since Zia, Islam (as a myopic, all-purpose national ideology concocted by the state) has become a most lucrative asset not only for the country’s politico-religious parties, but for corporate capitalism as well. Take, for instance, a recent Umra package announced by a travel agency in which as a ‘prize’ it unabashedly offers the faithful a trip to the holy land with a highly controversial and demagogic Islamic televangelist, Aamir Liaqat, who was last year also embroiled in a controversy in which his show was accused of encouraging violence against the Ahmadi community in Lahore.

At play here is exactly the kind of ethical duality that developed during the Zia regime. The more ‘liberal’ corporate multinationals are not any better. In fact, every Ramadan, the nature of their advertising become an all-too-obvious example of a classic meeting of capitalism and religion. Religion, rather the religious sentiment that sort of heightens during the holy month, is nonchalantly exploited to make that fast buck. All that is required are the right imagery and words.

Telecommunication companies and food brands do a roaring business by offering convoluted innovations (titled ‘Ramadan offers’) on the back of the kinds of televised sound bytes and imagery whose roots lie in the manipulative, dualistic and hypocritical cultural episodes during the Zia regime.

Models (male and female) in crisp shalwar-kameez with a holier-than-thou expression and tone of voice brandish assorted products to a soundtrack punctuated by the azaan or a naat and images of well-lit mosques; an open Qu’ran is illuminated by a light from the skies; and worn-out pious stereo-types that have little to do with reality but everything with the kind of sterilised and homogenised religious bourgeois mind-set that turns faith into a mechanised exhibition  of what really is glorified and sanctified xenophobia. In other words, imagine the robotic characters in the infamous film, the Stepford Wives as pious Muslims!

It is distressing to see corporate advertising continuing to create the myopic and narrow imagery about Islam and Pakistan that is now being openly questioned after playing a destructive role in the social and political matters of Pakistan for many years. It is strange that corporate capitalism in Pakistan hasn’t yet swallowed the fact that more than ever, Pakistan today is trying to prove itself as a vibrant pluralistic and diverse society.

Advertising that continues to glorify and advocate a narrow and singular notion of Islamic nationhood - most recently seen in a glossy TV commercial of a popular milk brand – or turns faith into a mindless set of rituals and self-righteous sacred posturing (as seen in the Ramadan campaign of a large telecommunications company) must remember that that such imagery today will only be appealing to an introverted (read: deluded) branch of the country’s urban middle-class that has yet to comprehend the fact that Pakistan is not a collective milieu of homogenised Islamic ethics and sentiments, but rather a dynamic mass of people with assorted interpretations of Islam and Pakistan.

Unity in such a country has to come from a democratic recognition of its diversity, and not through the engineering of a single, wholesome notion of faith and nation.

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.



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