Updated: An open letter to the PPP – by Shams Rehman

With the dropping out of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) from the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government suddenly looks vulnerable. And the fact is that it has become vulnerable. The possibility of the revival of the defunct Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) has already been raised.

The historical parallels are very chilling. Those who witnessed the clerical movement in the late 70s against Z A Bhutto’s elected government have reasons to be fearful of the developing scenario. What is, therefore, imperative is to derive the correct lessons from history so that we do not repeat it, for the very thought of it sends shivers down one’s spine.

The first thing that the PPP needs to do is shun its obstinacy and habit of placing the responsibility of Bhutto’s fall and subsequent long persecutions of party workers on the unconstitutional actions of certain individuals or on adverse circumstances. A clear assessment should be made of the achievements and failures of the founder of the PPP, keeping in mind that the latter by no means diminish the former. All great leaders do make mistakes but the tendency to overlook them by their followers often leads to the eclipse of what they had achieved.

To put it briefly, the chief mistake that Bhutto made was the appeasement of the clerics. Why did he do this? This is a complex question but it was chiefly his foreign policy vision that determined the change in the course on which he had won the mandate to rule. His coming to power was a revolution, for he mobilised the masses and got himself elected on a socialist, progressive agenda that demanded radical socio-political changes in society. It included striking at the power of all the forces of reaction, of which the feudal lords, clerics and the army were the three interlinked wings. However, while in power, he gradually distanced himself and got alienated from the progressive agenda and the forces representing it.

The change of course was determined by his thinking that Pakistan would gain more by unifying the Islamic world around his leadership, tapping the resources of the Islamic world and creating a third bloc besides the ones led by the US and USSR. Such thinking marked a reversal on the home front that led to legislation such as the banning of alcohol and declaration of the Ahmedis as non-Muslims. This was a dangerous path that he chose for himself. What he failed to see was that in the Cold War era, the clerical forces were deeply allied with the US. Therefore, his strategy of standing up to the US while appeasing the clerics at home was bound to lead nowhere but to his own downfall.

Now political parties, by their intention and structure, are driven to political power. Parties are indeed formed, as the PPP was, on idealism, but once a party becomes part of the establishment, there is no room for idealism in its discourse or strategy. Thus Benazir made peace with the executioners of her father at home and abroad and made her party electable once again.

Since then the leadership of the party has come to believe that with its roots in all the provinces of the country it has secured its right to rule the country in a democratic set-up. But that is not the case. The religious right considers democracy that invests power to legislate to the people and their elected parliament as contrary to shariah and therefore un-Islamic. According to their vision of Islam, the ultimate authority in Islamic society rests with the ideologues and guardians of shariah, namely the clerics.

It is a brilliant fact of the history of this country that its people decisively rejected this view of Islam in 1970 in both parts of the country. Leading the Islamic world from the front, they demonstrated their understanding that the clerical view of Islam was only an ideology of the obscurantist forces, forming a nexus of clerics, feudal lords and the army, which seeks to maintain the outdated and unjust social and economic structure of society. Now, although this view continues to hold the Islamic world in thrall, the Pakistani people have never, in any free elections since 1970, voted for the religious parties. This is the core fact that we must remember in our review of the strategy being proposed.

The second core fact in this regard is the radical change in the geopolitical situation of the world. For now, after the fall of the USSR, a war has broken out between the former allies that brought the USSR down. The US, the remaining superpower, though increasingly on the wane, is at loggerheads with the global network of Islamic clerics. For the present PPP leadership, therefore, it would be a folly to follow Benazir’s policy of appeasing both the US and the clerics. Even from a purely pragmatic or realist perspective, which guided Benazir to revise direction, it is no more conducive to keep the party in power.

It is well worth pointing out that the west, led by the US, has all along betrayed its own ideals of enlightenment by supporting the forces of reaction in the non-western world. It has been content to create and support westernised elites in these countries that exercise control over their people by whatever means. The policy no doubt helped them in beating their international foe but the price was unimaginable even in their wildest dreams, for it is now widely feared that Afghanistan might also become the graveyard of the remaining superpower. For this reason, the US seems prepared, however unwillingly, to support the Pakistani government to take on the clerics and cut them down to size.

This remarkable development and change in the global situation provides the PPP leadership and workers with a historic opportunity to take that revolution further that their leader unleashed in 1970 and which was left unfinished. Now, with all quiet on the western front, it is this very realism, with the objective to remain in power, which demands that the PPP abandon its fear of the clerics and leading the people from the front, confront them and curb their power, hugely disproportional to their vote bank, that they continue to enjoy in our society. (Source)

Part II

In the current debate over the blatantly unjust Blasphemy Law and the persecution of a helpless Christian woman, the cat has once again come out of the bag. The clerics, who are hugely supported by the other two partners in the nexus, have made it clear that they do not accept the sovereignty of parliament and its right to legislate however it deems fit, or even the right of the constitutionally elected president to exercise his right to grant pardon to anyone condemned by any court of the country. Thus, once again, it is this simple question at the centre of the debate about whether the people govern this country through their elected representatives or the clerics by virtue of their self-professed divine right.

The PPP leadership and workers, therefore, need to wake up and read the situation correctly, which is hugely in their favour this time. It is perhaps an opportunity of the same magnitude that came the way of their leader in 1970 and which he lost as much due to his own failures as for the determinations of history. They must not lose it this time, for on its fulfillment hangs the fate of our future generations.

For President Zardari it would be a folly to believe that he can survive by giving in to the clerics; their appetite for power is insatiable. They know that they cannot win in a general election so they are bent upon using Islam to create a situation whereby their partners in the nexus can intervene in the name of national security and install a government that keeps them happy.

I understand that for President Zardari it would be difficult to make a U-turn and renounce the legacy of not only the latter-day Bhutto but also of his own spouse. But Zardari has a huge advantage at his disposal, for the US-cleric coalition that framed the unfortunate legacy is now broken. Our country has become a laughing stock for getting all our money from the outside world to fight the militant vanguard of the clerics while internally keeping their lifelines intact. It is indeed mind boggling that a government that openly claims to be an ally of the US in the so-called war on terror should leave the lifeline of its vocal internal enemies intact. Choosing the path of confronting them openly will surely enhance the stature of this country in the international community and will wash the stigma that this is a nation of hypocrites run by a hypocritical government.

Zardari has nothing to lose, for he has nothing substantial to his credit for which the Pakistani people can hold him in special reverence. Now he has the opportunity to make his name in history and grow even larger than his late spouse by becoming the second person to lead the people in their struggle to free themselves from the yoke of reactionary forces.

He must not consider, like Bhutto, that the seat he sits on secures him. He must come out of the Presidency, for if he thinks it is a castle, he must know that it is built on foundations of sand. He must go to the people and seek a fresh mandate on the simple question as to who possesses the right to govern this country: the people or the clerics and their allied network.

In a personal meeting recently I heard from a PPP MNA, a close associate of Zardari, that when party members come to him with long faces, frightened by the rising dangers to their power, he raises their spirits in no time and they leave happily, saying, “He is all right, he says all is well and there is nothing to fear as long as we stand united.” He enjoys the reputation of being a brave man among his party cadre. But Bhutto was no less a brave man; in the end, he said to his executioner: “Make it quick.”

The truth is that it is only the people of Pakistan who can save Zardari if he opts to come out to them. He must rally the enlightened intelligentsia of the country around him and prepare his party to fight the battle on two fronts. First, that it is the people of Pakistan and their elected representatives who have the sole right to govern their country and not the clerics, and second, that the view of Islam and shariah as propagated by the clerics is a tendentious, obscurantist view that conflicts with the teachings of the Quran and message of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

On my part, I, a member of the academia in this country, can offer support on the second front. And I will conclude this brief letter with two questions. First, the clerics claim their authority higher than the people’s legislature in the name of the divine right of the ulema to guard Islam and the lives of its adherents. Is this right sanctioned in the Quran? The simple answer is no, it contradicts the teaching, even the words of the Quran, and, further, it has no sanction in the history of pre-modern Islamic civilisation. It is simply the other side of the conventional belief in the divinity of kings and the Quran supports neither the one nor the other, for both stand and fall together.

There is an important concept of asbab an-nazul (the reasons or causes behind the revelation of the verses of the Quran) employed in the exegesis of the Quran, which helps us understand the answer just given. Extending this concept, we must ask what the reasons of the descent of the Quran itself were and the institution of a separate religion other than Judaism and Christianity whose texts it affirmed again and again. One of the chief reasons was the institution of priesthood in both Judaism and Christianity that claimed a position between the believers and God and thereby claimed the right to control the whole mental and practical life of the believers. In the new dialectic between the individual and community that the Quran developed, each and every individual stood face to face with God while the right to legislate was invested in the community. It is clear then that the divine sanction of the clerical authority derives from Jewish and Christian influences and is therefore un-Islamic, for it is completely rejected by the Quran.

As for the second question, the clerics hold that the Quran is pre-eminently a book of law, or shariah, and since they hold all knowledge of it, they also hold the ultimate authority on how the people of this country should live their lives. Now there are 6,236 verses in the Quran of which only 290 deal with the law. What are the rest of the verses about? The truth is that they virtually do not exist for the clerics.(Source)


The writer is an academic and teaches at the Quaid-i-Azam University



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