The conflict within – by Eqbal Ahmad


JIHAD International Inc. and the contestation between Iran and its detractors developed at a time when the Pakistani environment was particularly hospitable to religious activism. General Mohammed Ziaul Haq had inaugurated the process of “islamisation” which had aroused anxieties among minorities including the Shi’a minority of Pakistan.

One response from it was the formation of the Tehrik-I-Nifaz- e-Fiqah-e-Ja’fariyya (TNFJ) which demanded that Shi’a be subject to their own Fiqh, a comprehensible demand which nevertheless served to arouse the Sunni die-hard. The Sipahe Sahaba followed on the heels of TNFJ. In Pakistan’s multi-denominational environment the proposal to construct the state, its laws, and institutions according to religious injunction was necessarily viewed as a differentiating, discriminatory agenda.

Zia’s Islamization, like Z.A. Bhutto’s consignment of Ahmedis to minority status, served as a framework for dividing this country and pitting its diverse people against each other. This had to be so particularly in a Muslim society. For our history is seeped in centuries of theological, often violent disputes, a point that is lost even on the current crop of politicians who have been witnesses to the pointless killing and dying of the last decade and a half.

Religious sectarianism was an inevitable outcome of the so- called “Islamisation”. There is first of all the simple insight that appears to have escaped several generations of politicians and soldiers of Pakistan: when a state claims a theocratic mission, it is bound to provoke conflicts over whose model shall prevail. Secondly, when religion is pushed explicitly into politics it becomes a currency of power. Anyone can use religion to garner support and undercut actual or potential rivals. To verify this, one may need count only the number of religion- wielding newcomers in national and local politics since Zia’s Islamaisation began. The most virulent hate-mongers of today also belong to his era.

Once religion becomes a hard political currency it has to be deployed in the political arena by means fair and foul. Those aspirants in politics who lack other political capital – large land holdings , modern education, industry, family connection – are likely then to use religion the more, and most virulently. It is not surprising then that the Sipah-i-Sahaba and its off- shoot Lashkar Jhangvi were born in Jhang. There, Shia landowners have traditionally held power. Economic changes in the last four decades have, nevertheless, produced a new middle class which is compelled to compete with the traditional power holders. The SS’s new middle class leaders were keen to dislodge the old. The ideological environment of 1980s compelled them to deploy anti- Shia Islam in their battle. The logic of escalation is integral to ideology of hate; the results are before us.

There are other less obvious factors at work. The most important of these may be the highly skewed relationship that exist in contemporary Muslim societies between the past and the future. Throughout history, there has existed an ironic connection between them: Those who glorify the past and seek to recreate it almost invariably fail while those who view it comprehensively and critically are able to draw on the past in meaningful and lasting ways.

People who have confidence in their future approach the past with seriousness and critical reverence. They study it, try to comprehend the values, aesthetics, and styles which invested an earlier civilization its greatness, or conversely, caused it to decline. They preserve its remains, enshrine relevant values, and draw enrichment from the images and events of the past both collectively and individually.

By contrast, peoples and governments with an uncertain sense of the future affect distorted engagements with their past. They eschew lived history, shut out its lessons, shun critical inquiry into the past, neglect its remains but, at the same time, invent an imagined past – shining and glorious, upon which are super- imposed the prejudices and hatreds of our own time. The religion- political movements of South Asia and the Muslim world bear witness to this truth. In this region, both Hindus and Muslims of right-wing persuasion view history in ways that arouse sectarian hatred.

Thus for decades many Muslims viewed the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as symbolizing the strengths and virtues of Muslim rule in India. On their part, Hindu nationalists presented the Maratha chief Sivaji as an embodiment of Hindu resistance to Muslim rule. In reality, both were tragic figures out of sync with their own history, signalling the decline of Indian statehood, and the rise of a European empire in India. In this instance, as most recently in the Babri mosque affair, history became a casualty of communal myth making.

Since the 1970s, when Pakistan Studies was introduced as a compulsory subject in schools and colleges, it is the distorted and sectarian version of history that is fed to the overwhelming majority of children and youth who are not privileged to travel the O and A level road. During the decade of Mohammed Ziaul Haq’s rule the trend toward the sectarianiazing the educational system advanced to the point that Sunni and Shia were assigned separate Islamiyat syllabus, a practice which continues today. While they issue daily denunciations of sectarian politics, our government officials have retained the sectarian, hate-mongering syllabus in schools and colleges.

Pakistanis are by no means unique purveyors of sectarian history. In the summer of 1990, I visited Ayodhya and Mathura while researching the campaign which militant Hindu movements – BJP, VHP, RSS, and Bajrang Dal – had launched to demolish the Babri Mosque and build a temple on the site which they claimed was the real birth place of Lord Rama two thousand years ago. I was amazed at two features of this campaign. The Hindu revivalists had put out an enormous body of publications and ‘educational material’ on the alleged excesses of Muslim rule in India, and Hindu resistance to it.

Apart from books, colourful posters illustrated in graphic detail the presumed atrocities and heroism of the Hindu-Muslim encounter in India. Narratives in prose and songs were also available by the dozens on audio cassettes. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume invented, poisonous history. To their lasting credit, the most eminent among India’s historians have consistently debunked the revivalists’ version of history. When I mentioned this to him, M.R. Malkani, a BJP ideologue, was unsparing in his judgement of these historians: “Inn historians kay liye Hindustan men koi asthan naheen hai”.

The differences between Pakistan and India are, nevertheless, worth noting. One is that during crucial periods of our history, governments have favoured sectarian elements, and actively discouraged historical research, instruction, and inquiry. The other significant difference is that because our institutions of higher learning sharply deteriorated and our insecure rulers – Mohammed Ziaul Haq occupies the highest place in this pantheon – needed the crutch of inverted history, in Pakistan historians did not thrive. History and culture, including Islamic culture and history, ceased as a subject of serious study.

In fact, few subjects have suffered greater distortion in Pakistan as Islam and Muslim history. Here, Islam and its history have been invoked for more than four decades. Yet, throughout these years neither religion nor history have been accorded serious attention by the state or society. I know of not a single noteworthy work on these subjects to have been published in Pakistan. The curriculum of Islamiyat, a compulsory subject in our schools and colleges, is almost entirely devoid of a sense of piety [taqwa], spiritualism [roohaniyat], or mysticism [tassawuf]. At best it is cast in terms of ritualistic formalism. At worst, it reduces Islam to a penal code, and its history to a series of violent episodes.

This was written by prominent Pakistani writer, journalist and anti-war activist  Eqbal Ahmad on 15 February, 1998.