The Strange Case of ‘Moderate’ Pakistan

Mohsin Ali Syed considers why Pakistan's rulers find it difficult to concede to the religious nationalism of the mainstream

The Strange Case of ‘Moderate’ Pakistan
Being a moderate or living a life at peace with modernity in Pakistan can be considered wishful thinking. Unfortunately, history has proven so. Pakistan is perhaps the only Muslim country in the world to be built on an ideology. An ideology on which the founding fathers vowed to make a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Subcontinent at that time. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Allama Iqbal – these leaders were modernist Muslims. They were guided by a vision of progress for the Muslims of the Subcontinent.

The Two Nation Theory which can be traced back to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan eventually led to the campaign for a separate state so that Muslims could practice their religion and get equal rights. Hence, one cannot deny that Pakistan was founded on the basis of religious nationalism.

It begs the question: why, then, has Pakistan been shying away from the facts of its own history and been ruled by relatively moderate forces?

Like a number of other Muslim leaders, the founder of Pakistan Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, too, recognized and identified the need for creating a separate homeland for the Muslims, who at that time were facing a difficult future at the hands of Hindu nationalists.

But was he a religious nationalist? The Lincoln’s Inn-educated barrister was never famous for his observance of ritualistic Islam or the restrictions which go with it. Apart from this, he also made it clear in his 11th August 1947 Constituent Assembly address that all Pakistani citizens are free to practice their own respective religions.

However, over the years we have witnessed the rise of a very conservative ideology which in our society promotes a particular sect of Islam and rejects all those who do not fall within its domain. This lens shapes the perception of the masses at the grass-roots level.

However, things at the top (read government level) seem to be ‘moderate’ by comparison. The majority of Pakistani rulers, with the exception of General Zia-ul-Haq, have all been moderates who have promoted a modernist agenda. Such an agenda was brought centre-stage by the founding father of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto through his socialist reforms. During Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s rule, Pakistan’s religious zeal and fervour was very much present – but it was far from manifesting itself as we today know it. Alcohol was widely available in society during Bhutto’s tenure - even with the presence of religious parties. It was not until the 1977 elections, where the opposition cried foul, that Bhutto Sahab announced a widespread ban on alcohol and shifted the public holiday from Sunday to the Muslim holy day of Friday. Both moves were to please the religious opposition parties within the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) so that they could stop accusing the PPP of rigging the election.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto conceded to Islamist demands gradually

The public holiday of Friday was taken back during the second PML-N government in the 1990s yet the prohibition on alcohol still exists. Many experts and commentators are of the view that the Islamist laws brought forward during General Zia’s reign have further slipped Pakistani society into a religious frenzy and on such basis, any expectation of the mainstream becoming moderate is nothing but a dream.

During General Zia’s reign, the conflict in Afghanistan saw the birth of extremist groups in Pakistan which were sent to fight the Soviets. As a result, Pakistan is now defending itself from such groups that threaten its own territory.

Much later down the line, General Pervez Musharraf re-introduced a desire for modernity into society. His dream and ambition was to make Pakistan a country like Turkey where the legendary leader Mustafa Kamal Ataturk separated the state from religion. During General Musharraf’s rule the media expanded to several channels and moderate faces were introduced on the screen. However, by the end of his tenure it was evident that this bubble was going to burst and Pakistan would be back to it’s ‘original’ identity.

So addressing the question asked earlier: why is Pakistan not being ruled in a theocratic manner in spite of such religious zeal and fervour in society?

To put the matter simply, Pakistan’s economic situation since independence has not allowed it to survive on its own. The world’s power centres and their all-important loan lending institutions want to see Pakistan as a relatively moderate Muslim country which spends in the way of socio-economic development all the while being a transit route into Afghanistan and Central Asian countries. To see a Muslim country being ruled by a theocracy and possessing advanced weaponry is a frightening sight for the world’s elites.

Modernity in Pakistan requires emphasis on the state investing in education, science and technology. It was the relative open-mindedness in the Muslim empires of the past which led to achievements such as the adoption of the compass, coffee and algebra. However, the masses in Pakistan view modernity as a suspicious concept which promotes Western values and threatens to weaken Islam.

And so the question remains as to how long Pakistan will be ruled like a paradox – one where the rulers are moderate but the masses infused with religious nationalism.