What makes life truly worthwhile and beneficial are the experiences that we encounter, the events that make or break our conceptual development and lead us to a path that would ultimately bestow us with the maturity of thought and action and an insight that would help us distinguish the good from the bad. Whatever else there is, is, mostly, thin air; the people around us, those we grow up with, those who take care of us, and finally, those we can relate to are like pedestrians on a bridge who come and go with the passage of time, but, at times, leave indelible marks on our lives. That’s my little, somewhat parochial, take on this enigma we call life!
A few days back a close friend raised an obnoxiously intriguing question: Why is it that a good number of folks from my generation who grew up during General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule are so severely antagonistic and aggressive when it comes to a conversation that is inclined towards Islam being a religion of peace?
I normally don’t go around asking questions to people and not many ask me questions, but I wasn’t shocked by this rather blatant inquiry! It did make me scratch my head and wonder if the guy had a point!
I was in my very early years of life when Zia took over the reigns of power in Pakistan back in the 1970s. However, I do remember vividly the days when and how the change was brought about. Yet another elected government was toppled by the military, thanks to the mullahs conniving with Zia, who himself was son of a Muslim cleric.
Right from the word go, Zia talked in terms of Islamization, starting from interest-free banking to severe punishments for those who committed crimes. Intense propaganda was waged on the state-run television and radio networks, calling for strict adherence to principles and precepts of Islam.
Slowly and gradually a network of sorts was created that included, amongst others, construction of mosques at every nook and corner, huge incentives for those who took Islamic courses in the universities and applied for government jobs on the basis of their religious qualifications; shutting down of all businesses at the time of Friday prayers and enforcement of Wahibized trends that were nothing but truly unnatural to the texture and tenor of the Pakistani social psyche.
Right around the time when Zia started his circus, the Soviets decided to march into Afghanistan. Millions of refugees from across the border began to trickle into Pakistan. That proved to be an important point in Pakistan’s history. With the never-ending flow of the refugees and with the ‘Jihad’ discussed left, right and center, Islam became the hub of all activities that had to do with governance and administering the country.
Things changed. From changing of the dress code of government employees to the permission to take prayer breaks during work hours to the ‘pampering’ of those who were helping in the propagation of the dictator’s brand of Islam, all that mattered in life was hopelessly changed.
The bottom-line was that all possible measures were taken to effectively promote Islam and its ‘richness’. The objective, obviously, was to meet certain vicious political targets that would help Zia and his backers to carry out a sustained effort to change the very ethos of the Pakistani nation and, of course, prolong their rule.
This process of penetration increased manifold. School curriculums were infested with Islamic studies. One witnessed a mushroom growth of Islamic schools all over the country. The religious political parties became stronger and meaner; huge government grants were provided to maintain and ‘safeguard’ institutions that were ‘helping out’ in the process of Islamization. Constitutional changes were introduced and the outdated Shariah became an integral part of the basic law for the first time in the country’s history. In no time, the nation was plunged into the dark ages!
There was this feeling of a syndrome that engulfed the entire nation that Islam was perhaps the best available ‘tool’ that can salvage us – the evil and the dreadful of the earth – from the burning fire that we were destined to face in our after lives!
I remember there was this Saudi crony, a Wahabi mullah, Israr Ahmad, who would appear on the state-run television right around the prime time and would scare the hell out of folks for about half an hour or so every night about how miserable they will be in their respective after lives if they did not follow the precepts of Islam and how dreadfully the angel of death will treat us if we faltered or deviated from the ‘right path’!
This religious stunt lasted for eleven long years. Religion became so institutionalized that it was hard to comprehend if anything else existed beyond the realm of the Holy Book, the sayings of the prophet of Islam or, as for that matter, the ‘virtues’ of the ‘amir-ul-momineen’ – a title that Zia had bestowed upon himself!
As a young man, this was all astoundingly sickening to my mind; the agitation against the happenings around was immense inside me. I tried to read what other nations were thinking about Pakistan; I approached and talked to the liberals, those who were critical of the horrible changes that Zia was bringing about; I questioned the logic of his Machiavellian ways. I wondered why were issues like Kashmir and the nuclear bomb were associated with Islam. I could sense very well that a devastating turnaround was being brought about and that Pakistan, as a nation, would be ‘disabled’ for all times to come to be creative and imaginative enough to charter its own course and break the shackles of the confined boundaries of the fallacious, politicized Islam.
Zia died in 1988. It will be safe to say he indeed was the father of Talibanization of Pakistan. Twenty years after his death Pakistan is a dead state, a failed polity that has been gripped by the same issues that Zia had sowed the seeds of. It has become the center of terrorism. It faces the worst problems with respect to fundamentalism. There seems to be no end whatsoever in sight, no chance and no let up from the fanatics to give up destroying the very fabric of the Pakistani nation.
As for me, I grew up and distanced myself from the wretched miseries of religion that I saw evolve around me. The image of modern day, ‘functional’ Islam is that of Zia, fundamentalism, Arab extremism, Palestinian insanity, Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s lunacy and hundreds and thousands of folks, innocent individuals that have fallen a prey to the brutally agonizing, non-virtuous ways of those who claim to be Muslims but have nothing to do with peace and tranquility.
Islam, to me, is a stressed faith, unwilling and too rigid to be flexible, unable to learn from other great traditions. Pakistan represents its worst possible form. What’s happening there is unique in a way that that people there are not oblivious of the imperfectness of the scenario and dilemmas that encounter this nation of almost 160 million individuals.
What is perhaps missing is knowledge, the knowledge to connect, the understanding of the sentiments of public opinion by the leadership. The people have, for long, been alienated and ‘left alone’ by those who rule over their destinies.
The scourge of fanaticism is not going away anytime soon. While we sit and observe the turmoil and human suffering, there is not much that been done – it is hard to revive a failed system, especially when there are too many vultures and leeches within the system itself that are part and parcel of the fundamentalist networks.
Pakistan needs a major ‘facelift’ and serious soul searching. All the goodness, if it ever existed, has turned into worseness. I hear a lot of respect, hope, and expectancy from the ‘new leadership’ that has emerged after last month’s general elections. I think its totally absurd optimism, bordering on the superlatives that hardly convey any sense.
The ground realities haven’t changed and will not change unless the powers-that-be are serious enough and ready to grapple with the issue of fundamentalism. The edifice of negativity laid by the evil days of Zia remains strong, versatile and deceptively widespread. Pakistan will have to dig deeper and toil harder to reach some concrete conclusion to attack the epidemic.
And, yes, although it is hard for me to forget the ‘unforgettable’ period of massively tantalizing Islamization undertaken by Zia, I feel for Pakistan. My problem is that I do not see much light at the end of the tunnel!
–Ahson Saeed Hasan