Despotic Islamisation

Of the numerous Pakistani rulers, the one person who single-handedly changed Pakistan, perhaps forever, but certainly for some decades, was the military dictator, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq. In his speech to the nation on taking over power on July 5, 1977, Gen Zia said he had done so only to defend democracy and for the well-being (baqa’a) of Pakistan, that he had no political ambitions whatsoever, and that he would leave his post of Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) after three months – the infamous 90 days – and hand over power to Pakistan’s elected representatives.


The photographs above show Habib Jalib, a poet known for his revolutionary zeal, being attacked by policemen during a demonstration organised by the Women’s Action Forum against the Law of Evidence that was promulgated by General Ziaul Haq. The photographs were taken on February 12, 1983, by Dawn photographer, the late Azhar Jafri, and symbolise the tyranny and repression that characterised Zia’s reign over Pakistan.

Moreover, the Constitution was not in abeyance, Zia told the listening public, but certain parts of it were to be put on hold. No judicial authority could challenge the proclamations of the Martial Law setup, and the CMLA seemed to be above the law. He said he had discussed the matter with the Chief Justice, who seemed to agree with him, and the Supreme Court some months later invoked the Doctrine of Necessity to allow Zia to continue with his actions for years to come.


The last few sentences of the 14-minute speech of this self-styled ‘soldier of Islam’, ended with the following statement: “Pakistan, which was created in the name of Islam, will continue to survive only if it stays with Islam. That is why I consider the introduction of an Islamic system as an essential prerequisite for the country.” As Shuja Nawaz argues, Zia became a “ferocious instrument of change for Pakistan”

GENERAL Ziaul Haq, flanked by senior officers, is seen smiling at the traditional soldiers’ feast held at the Army barracks. At least in public, Zia was all smiles all the times. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives 

If one were just to list the numerous changes Zia brought about in his 11-year rule, what stands out as his legacy to Pakistan would be a type of Islamisation – of a particularly severe kind – based on Saudi Wahabism, which was quite alien to Pakistan when it came into being. Moreover, this Islamisation, supported by a severe despotic, military dictator, led to the rise of Islamists within the military, which at the time was Pakistan’s most powerful and dominant institution. He and his government gave what can only be called state sponsorship to militant Islamic Sunni sectarian groups, which resulted in a strong anti-Shiaism in Pakistan. His tenure saw the state-sponsored export of Islamic jihad to several parts of the world.

Saudi Arabia began to play a far greater role in the religious, cultural and political life of Pakistan, and has continued to do so. Zia benefited immensely from Bhutto’s overtures to the Gulf countries in the mid-1970s, as the Gulf boom solved many of Pakistan’s economic problems. Often not considered, but equally important, was the rise of the petit bourgeois trading and lower middle classes that benefitted from the dominance of a Punjabi/Arain from Jullundur who could speak the language of a constituency which had otherwise not had a voice.

Moreover, this socially conservative petit bourgeois class, which was hurt by Bhutto’s 1976 nationalisation of rice-husking and cotton-ginning factories, found in Zia a voice which strengthened the anti-Bhutto constituency. With petit bourgeois capitalism and a Saudi-Wahabi Islam, Zia gave representative voice to new social classes that became powerful over subsequent decades.

LONDON was a favourite spot for intellectuals who tried to stay away from Zia’s Pakistan. Seen here is the iconic Faiz Ahmed Faiz at the Urdu Markaz Mushaira that was organised by the BBC in the 1980s. He is flanked here by Ahmed Faraz and Zehra Nigah on the right and Gopi Chand Narang on the left. | Photo: Faiz Ghar Archives.  

Although many liberals are uncomfortable with Zia’s Islamisation, they often ignore his gift to the lower middle classes: a political stake in the mandi towns, mainly of the Punjab. Bhutto had undertaken certain reforms that had allowed the small and medium entrepreneurs to emerge and consolidate their economic condition; Zia gave them further impetus to build their vision on Islam.


There were at least three clear phases in Zia’s endless 11 years: from July 1977 to April 1979 when the two-men-one-grave chatter became part of public conversation; from December 1979 to around 1985 when Pakistan became a frontline state in the Afghan war; and then from March 1985 to May 1988 during which he experimented with praetorian democracy and when his own system came back to challenge him.

Although all political leaders except Begum Nasim Wali Khan had been arrested, once Bhutto was released, it became evident to Zia that Bhutto was still very popular across the country as he began his campaign for the promised elections. He always had a large public following, but after being imprisoned, his status grew further. He would probably have won the elections whenever they were held.

The case related to the murder of a political opponent was registered in 1975 when Bhutto was still the prime minister, and had been settled. Once Bhutto had been removed, Zia reopened it in September 1977 in far more hostile circumstances. And, as time passed, Zia kept postponing elections, saying it was not ‘written in the Quran’ that elections were to be held at a given date.

Election activity continued as Bhutto was arrested on murder charges, and Zia decided to do what all the three military dictators have done; hold Local Body elections, rather than national or provincial elections. The PPP won the 1979 Local Body elections, and it became clear to Zia that if ever Bhutto were to be released, he would win the general elections and was bound to hold Zia accountable for what the general had done in 1977. One grave, two men. We know what happened next. Despite clemency appeals aplenty from across the world, Zia insisted he would follow the orders of the court.

Bhutto’s judicial murder was not the only event of significance which happened in 1979 which had a huge bearing on regional and domestic circumstances. In February 1979, the Iranian Revolution gave a greater sense of identity to the global, and particularly Pakistani, Shia community, which had earlier felt marginalised in world developments. Imam Khomeini’s revolution made it difficult for a Sunni Zia, who already had close ties with Saudi Arabia, to continue to marginalise the Shias of Pakistan. While still ostracised in dominantly Sunni Pakistan, the Shias fought many battles against the ‘Sunnisation’ of Pakistan, and made their political presence felt. Yet one sees the beginnings of a marked, organised, violent, sectarian divide which still has not abetted.

In October 1979, Zia moved further towards converting Pakistan into a totalitarian state, clamping a ban on political activities and gagging the press with imprisonments and the flogging of journalists.

Public floggings became a common sight during General Ziaul Haq’s tyrannical reign, especially in its early part. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives 

The economy did not do exceptionally well in the 1977-79 period, and one wondered, despite Bhutto having gone and the PPP in some disarray, if organised politics would contest this unfamiliar, severe, despotic government. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 put to rest all such speculation and made the way possible for many long years of Zia’s rule.

The story of the first Afghan war is well known, as are its consequences for Pakistan. Four million refugees from Afghanistan, millions of new heroin addicts amongst the Pakistani youths, billions of dollars in aid to the military to fight the American war in Afghanistan – backed with Saudi funding – and Jihad becoming a profession. While the CIA helped strengthen the ISI, the broader mullah-military alliance became entrenched for many decades, and probably still is.

Pakistan’s frontline status was milked to the core by Pakistani generals, with the emergence of categories of ‘millionaire generals’, many of whom were accused of siphoning off CIA funds meant for the Afghans, or then having made money from lucrative narcotic deals. Pakistan during its Islamisation phase under its own soldier of Islam was the single largest supplier of heroin globally.

Along with the trade in narcotics came the trade in arms that gave rise to the ‘Kalashnikov culture’ still on display in the country. The military, like never before, had become a corporate entity, involved in all kinds of activities; legal and illegal. Perhaps never before had Pakistan’s armed forces been drawn into a nexus of military might, money, corruption and privilege.

Despite all this and more, Zia needed to find some civilian or constitutional cover to prolong his rule after a certain time. An orchestrated Majlis-e-Shura was followed by an ill-worded referendum seeking the electorate’s approval of his Islamic reforms – getting an embarrassing approval rate in return. Then came the praetorian democracy in the form of partyless elections in 1985 that led to the elevation to prime ministership of a relatively unknown politician from Sindh: Mohammad Khan Junejo who was chosen by Zia to become his subservient prime minister.

Though he came from nowhere in the wake of the partyless polls of 1985, Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo, donning a Jinnah cap here, tried to be his own man. He raised and pointed the finger a few times too many and paid the price on May 29, 1988, with the dismissal of his government – and the National Assembly. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives

Even Junejo grew in confidence in this short span, and insisted that martial law be lifted. He disagreed with Zia on the end-game in Afghanistan, and, following the Ojhri Camp blasts in April 1988 which exposed the growing relative independence even of a partyless legislature, the National Assembly stood dissolved in May 1988; Zia using the Eight Amendment which was inserted into the Constitution as a prerequisite for parliament to proceed and for martial law to be lifted in 1985, and allowed Zia to dismiss parliament under Article 58-2(b). Like Islamisation, the Eighth Amendment was Zia’s gift to the Pakistani pubic, and determined all political and electoral activity for a decade after his death. Unlike his Islamisation programme, however, parliament was eventually able to rid itself of 58-2(b) although, as the recent dismissal of Nawaz Sharif shows, key elements of the Eighth Amendment still determine the fate of politics in Pakistan.


The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), starting in August 1983, was up against a government which was trying its best to convert the very concept of democracy into something abhorrent and objectionable. Right across the country, activists came under brutal attack by police as a matter of routine. And yet, they had the last laugh, even if a rather muted one, when partyless polls were announced in 1985. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives 

No matter how despotic a ruler, and no matter how well the economy did – under Zia the economy grew on average 6.7 per cent, with remittances playing a strong distributive effect – dictatorship always gives rise to resistance. The MRD movement of 1983 and 1986, and Benazir Bhutto’s triumphant return to Pakistan in 1986 were all expressions of defiant protests. Religious minorities, in particular Ahmadis, suffered the most and were made third class citizens with few rights. Still worse, they were often unable to even protest since the environment had turned hostile against them.

Not fully recognised is the role of women’s groups, particularly that of the Women’s Action Forum, which took on the might of a misogynistic state. The punitive measure and restrictions imposed on women included the Law of Evidence, Hudood Ordinance as early as 1979, and Zina Ordinance which obscured the distinction between rape and adultery. The struggle for women’s rights provided further sustenance to the demands for greater democratic and universal rights, and women, perhaps led by Sindhiani Tehrik and WAF, symbolised resistance to a despotic dictator more than any other constituency, social, political, ethnic or religious. Women became the symbols of resistance and played a key role in the revival of democracy under Zia.

BUSHRA Aitzaz, a human rights activist, was one of the women who were arrested during a protest organised by the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore in February 1983. The protestors were subjected to brutal violence at the hands of policemen armed with batons and teargas. | Photo: Aitzaz Ahsan Archives. 

One wonders what would have happened if Zia’s plane had not fallen from the sky on August 17, 1988, because we really don’t know who killed the general. Jo Epstein, in a very interesting article in Vanity Fair, gives a list of many elements that had reason to see Zia go. The fact the list is long only highlights how unpopular Zia really was. It included such diverse and divergent forces as the Indian RAW, Israeli Mossad, Soviet KGB, Afghan KHAD and right down to the Al-Murtaza branch of the PPP.

Perhaps elements in the American CIA might have wanted to tackle Zia, but since he was such a sycophantic ally, one wonders why they would have gone this route. Quite possibly, there were some in the military who by then had felt tired of Zia’s ways. They knew they could not just wish him away, and must have hoped for some miracle from the skies. We will never know.

But it cannot be denied that many people must have looked up to the heavens on August 17, 1988, and raised their hands in prayer.

Despotic Islamisation by S. Akbar Zaidi. The writer is a political economist based in Karachi. He has a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, and teaches at Columbia University in New York and at the IBA in Karachi.



HBL has been an indelible part of the nation’s fabric since independence, enabling the dreams of millions of Pakistanis. At HBL, we salute the dreamers and dedicate the nation’s 70th anniversary to you. Jahan Khwab, Wahan HBL


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