Much has been written about how the Gen Zia dictatorship in Pakistan turned the country’s politics and society on their head. There is also an abundance of literature detailing the many policies imposed during the dictatorship which marked the proliferation of religious extremism as a political act and, subsequently a mindset in Pakistan.
Even though most authors and commentators in this context have correctly surveyed the damage that the Zia regime dealt to the country, very few have shed any light on how or why Zia was, for so long, able to play havoc with the constitution and society of Pakistan. There are ready-made answers to this question, such as the way his regime was financially and politically supported by the US and Saudi Arabia and the way he used the military and police to severely suppress dissent.
There is nothing wrong or exaggerated about this. Yet, what most commentators miss out is the fact that, on various occasions, his regime did manage to draw support from some large segments of the society. In The Nature and Direction of Change (1980), the late scholar and author Khalid Bin Sayeed writes that, during the protest movement against the Z.A. Bhutto regime in March and April of 1977, a large number of urban middle- and lower middle-class men and women participated.
The movement promised an ‘Islami nizaam’ (Islamic system) and was being bankrolled by some industrialists. Riaz Hassan, in an intriguing essay authored for the July 1985 issue of Middle Eastern Studies, writes that the call for an Islami nizaam held a lot of traction for many members of the above-mentioned classes.
Hassan writes that an increase in the rate of literacy from 1972 onwards meant that more and more urban Pakistanis were exposed to the writings of scholars operating outside the intellectual and political edifice of Muslim Modernism that, till then, was being aggressively promoted by the state.
By the late 1970s, they had begun to question the sincerity and feasibility of the Muslim Modernism project. Due to the impact of the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, many tended to agree with the anti-modernists that the project had been selective and engineered to keep the economic and political elite in power.
According to Hassan, the rapid increase in the urban population meant that a large segment of the population led a highly precarious existence. This frustration generated a considerable amount of disillusionment with the modernist governments and their policies of economic and social development.
Hassan adds that the persistent insecurity of urban existence among many shopkeepers, traders and their families — over the years — resulted in the emergence of various religious movements. The number of mosques in the cities multiplied and, through them, religious influence permeated social life.
Combined with the social consequences of the rising rate of literacy, the continuous economic and social insecurity experienced by the aforementioned segments provided considerable support for the Islamisation process, especially when Zia presented it as a framework for the social, economic and psychological well-being of the masses. Hassan writes that the social, political and economic impacts of the violent movement against the Ayub regime in 1968; those of the 1971 East Pakistan debacle; and of Bhutto’s populist policies, left a majority of (middle-class) Pakistanis “believing that the traditional basis of authority relationships, such as those between teacher and student, tenant and landlord, worker and capitalist, women and men had eroded. The erosion of the traditional authority structure regulating these relationships left a social vacuum. It were the Islamic parties and then Zia who succeeded in offering Islam as the new basis to replace the vacuum created by the attrition of traditional authority and power in society.”
Another interesting fact regarding Zia is that ‘Islamisation of Pakistan’ was never his immediate goal. Two factors forced his hand. Firstly, he had adopted the slogan of ‘Islami nizaam’ which the anti-Bhutto parties had used in 1977. But it still took him almost two years to finally begin to unfold his “Islamic policies.” According to the book Betrayals of Another Kind by Lt Gen Faiz A. Chishti, Zia only got the confidence to do this once he had made up his mind to send Bhutto to the gallows.
Many commentators have maintained that the start of the “Afghan jihad” was an overriding reason. Not quite. The so-called ‘jihad’ would not begin till 1980-81, whereas Zia unfurled his regime’s first set of “Islamic Laws” in February 1979 — the year and month the Islamic Revolution in Iran toppled the Shah.
Emmanuel Murphy, in his book The Making of Terrorism in Pakistan, writes that after the eruption of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Zia had become cautious so as not to allow his Islamisation drive to cause a similar upheaval in Pakistan. The thinking was that Islamisation was to be gradual and not radical because Pakistan was a region of many Sunni and Shia sects, unlike Iran which had a dominant “Twelver Shia” majority.
But hesitation on Zia’s part to more forcefully unfold his Islamisation process can also be seen as a consequence of the country’s economic and political establishment simply changing colour and rhetoric to remain afloat, instead of rocking the boat.
No wonder then, as once-demoralised and chastened state institutions such as the military and the bureaucracy as well as the struggling industrial and business classes managed to grab prominent seats on the boat because of their now swearing allegiance to an Islami nizaam, the mission really was to retain this posture and halt the possibility of a revolution, which could only spell anarchy in a polarised country such as Pakistan.
Those beneath the ideologically realigned and reimagined state went along with the charade. But by the mid-1980s, when Pakistan was being ripped apart by deadly ethnic riots, sectarian violence, rising inflation and corruption, thousands poured out in 1986 to greet Bhutto’s daughter Benazir in the streets of Lahore. Zia, though politically weakened, still had his laws, imposed to shield the dictatorship from any threatening criticism, because these laws meant that such criticism could now be judicially and constitutionally derided as a criticism of Islam.
But none of these laws could keep Zia from dying in a plane crash in 1988. However, the democratic governments which followed his demise could do precious little to dislodge or even amend these laws. Instead, they decided to play by the rules laid down by the departing dictatorship.