by Patricia Lee Sharpe
The complete Islamisation of Pakistan, I wrote a little while ago, “may very well creep in by degree—and decree,” not necessarily suddenly, by Kalashnikov. In fact, the process began decades ago, as Pervez Hoodbhy explains in an article which appeared in the January 2009 issue of the premier Pakistani newsmagazine Newsline. Over the years, I too have watched the evolution of a certain sort of religio-cultural “cleansing.” It’s been gradual but relentless—and should have been obvious to anyone who chose to pay attention. You don’t have to be a C.I.A. operative to see things changing and figure out where the nudge is coming from.
And yet, just a few weeks ago, the Jim Lehrer News Hour was presenting supposedly knowledgeable observers who were arguing that the Taliban problem (to use an admittedly simplistic collective label) was essentially a Pashtun problem, especially in the Afghanistan-bordering tribal areas. According to this point of view, Talibanization is a self-limiting phenomenon like tribal culture itself. Thus, they argued, panic-stricken doom-and-gloom responses to the recent events in Swat are ludicrous. After all, Swat is only a few valleys over from the F.A.T.A. area proper. Punjab and Sindh, these ostrich-like experts argued, could never succumb to the Taliban and, since Punjab and Sindh are culturally immune, the million man Pakistani army is big enough to handle any threat. There will be no messy civil war-like battles throughout the country. Fighting will be limited to border skirmishes, ugly but containable, assuming the Army is finally taking the task seriously.
But, of course, Sindh and Punjab are not immune, as Hoodbhoy demonstrates, painting a picture that’s only slightly less bleak than that in “Pakistan on the Brink,” Ahmed Rashid’s contribution to the June 11 issue of The New York Review of Books. As for me, I can attest to the growing influence of salafi Islam on Pakistan’s two most sophisticated, secular cities. That’s Lahore in Punjab and Karachi in Sindh. I’ll be describing below some of the out-in-the-open signs and symptoms that any alert and interested outsider could have picked up over the years.
The Vision Fades
It all began with the ham-eating, scotch-drinking lawyer Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who married a Parsi, not a Muslim, and was, when all is said and done, responsible for the partition of British India which gave rise to Pakistan. He envisioned a Muslim-majority secular state with room for minorities to participate as equal citizens, but he died in 1948, a year after Pakistan was born. Gradually, thanks to greed and complacency among secularists and the Islamists’ dogged perseverance, Jinnah’s vision became irrelevant. (More extreme simplification. Sigh!)
Let’s fast forward to the mid-70s, when General Zia-ul-Haq staged a coup that eventually led to the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of the recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Under Zia the on-again-off-again opportunistic nexus between military power seekers and Islamists became more like a bear hug. Sharia-inspired Hudud Laws (sometimes fatal to women) and Blasphemy laws (murderous for Christians with prosperous farms) were put on the books. No one since then has been able to annul these draconian laws, not even the avowed secularist and subsequent coupist General Pervez Mussharaf who vowed early on that he would do so.
Culture on the Defense
Back then, in the 70s, I was teaching American literature at Punjab University in Lahore under a Fulbright grant (and my husband was doing research on politics and economics, which gave me access to all kinds of social science type data). My female M.A. students* were very concerned during those days of legal transformation. Their mothers and grandmothers had come out of purda to march in the streets and demonstrate against Great Britain, the colonial occupier. These girls had no desire to go back to the bad old days of seclusion. Even so, their male classmates thought it was funny to threaten them with the veil. The girls were terrified. They were genuinely fearful of losing the freedoms the older generation had won for them.
One of my students also told me that she took sitar lessons. When the teacher came to her house, the windows had to be closed so that no one could hear the sound of music, which some neighbors considered to be un-Islamic. If it had been known to outsiders that she, a supposedly respectable young woman, was a sitar-plucking music student, even if the music she was playing was North Indian classical music, her reputation would have been sullied. This was the 1970s! In Lahore! The supposed cultural capital of Pakistan!
Back then, even though such revels were a residue of the colonial period, anyone could, quite casually, sponsor and/or attend a Halloween or New Year’s party at a hotel or restaurant. Any excuse for a party! However, by the time I returned to Pakistan in 1997, such public parties were no longer possible. These holidays were un-Islamic. They were not to be observed, except perhaps quietly in private homes. Public celebrations were likely to attract demonstrations, even violence. Hotels weren’t keen on that.
Worse yet, by the late 1990s, Pakistani music lovers could not advertise a North Indian musical performance in Karachi. We’re not talking rock concerts here. We’re talking sitar, sarod, bamboo flute, vocals of the classical non-kawwali sort, the musicology dating back to the great Moghul courts of pre-colonial India. (Even Sufi-influenced kawwali is probably suspect now, despite or perhaps because of the worldwide rage for it a few years ago.) There were, of course, many many classical music lovers in Karachi, including me, but when hotel ballrooms were reserved for such recitals, the events were recorded under the vague appellation “reception,” as if a marriage were to be celebrated. One learned about such recitals by word of mouth from trusted friends.
“Times have changed.” Over and over I heard this melancholy observation from friends, first (wonderingly) in Lahore, later (and more plaintively) in Karachi. Culture was being killed off, little by little. Life in Pakistan was becoming puritanical and dull, dull, dull. Of course, alcohol was increasingly unavailable, except under special dispensation to non-diplomatic foreigners and, always easily, to diplomats. That’s not to say that tipplers went without the peg that made life worth living. Everyone with a little bit of money had a smuggler as well as the usual driver, cook and gardener. When I gave parties, the Black Label flowed like water—and whole batches of peasants died when the cheap poisonous kind of alcohol was served as the real thing at wedding parties in a village. Oh yes, if you dined at a Chinese restaurant and the proprietor trusted you, you might get some beer served in a tea pot.
It's the Education, Stupid
All this time, madrassas or Islamist schools, often funded by money coming from Saudia Arabia and the Gulf, were proliferating in villages and cities throughout Pakistan. In the cities such institutions adopted the veneer of top secular schools and they were far more affordable than the private schools favored by the elite, so even relatively secular middle class parents took to sending their kids to Islamist schools. As for the rural areas, during the late 90s, when I was responsible for the U.S. Consulate’s public affairs programming in Sindh and Baluchistan, I drove frequently to Quetta. I varied my route, not for security purposes, but in order to see what I could see and learn what I could learn, from the lay of the land and the look of life outside the cities. Frequently, in Sindh as well as Baluchistan, we passed crude little signs pointing toward village madrassas. The number of such little schools had increased dramatically, according to my Pakistani colleagues, who had been plying these routes for decades.
Why were these “schools,” with their constricted curricula, attracting students? Simple. Muslims, including those who are not themselves literate, want their kids to be educated, if at all possible. Had there had been decent public schools, village families would have sent their boys (and girls) to the government schools for a proper modern education with the potential for a real job at the end of the educational tunnel. But Pakistani elites never prioritized anything like universal education. Result: kids were and are sent to schools where all they do is memorize the Koran in an Arabic they don’t understand—and get free lunches. They also get free room as well as board in some such schools. (Remember: there’s nothing pernicious about Koranic study as such. A Muslim should know his or her Koran as well as a Christian knows his or her Bible. What’s objectionable is the way that naive peasants are led to believe that primitive memorization mills are actually educating their children. The Bible, of course, is also used in intellectually indefensible ways.) As result, there are thousands of semi-educated young men throughout Pakistan, in Punjab and Sindh as well as the Northwest Frontier province, who are predisposed to sympathy with Talibanization. Many of them would be candidates for radical mobilization. The Pakistani army, if it came to that, would have to fight from village to village throughout the country. A million men, even if all remained loyal to a secular government, might not be enough to prevail. Win or lose, the destruction and loss of human life would be horrendous.
Door to Door
Meanwhile, pressure to convert Pakistanis to a more severe form of Islam was being applied to the people living in the big cities. The shuttlecock burkha had long been the typical veil for women in conservative families in South Asia. When I was first in Pakistan, even that was seldom seen outside the old city precincts of Lahore or the areas in Karachi where migrants from rural areas lived. When I returned to Pakistan in the mid 90s, however, I encountered women shrouded in the Saudi abeya and not merely when I visited the diplomatic enclaves of Islamabad. One day over lunch a Karachi-based friend of mine told me of a strange new phenomenon in his upper middle class neighborhood. Abeya-clad women were going door to door, seeking entry so they could persuade educated Pakistani housewives to become “proper” veiled and secluded Muslims. Such conversations could be very productive. What believer, Muslim or Christian, doesn't feel a little defensive about the adequacy of his or her practice of the faith?
As Hoodbhoy wrote in his Newsline piece,
For three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Indian subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian peninsula. This continental drift is not physical but cultural, driven by a belief that Pakistan must exchange its South Asian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the rich soil that had nurtured a magnificent Muslim culture in India for a thousand years. This culture produced Mughul architecture, the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Asadullah Khan Ghalib, and much more. Now a stern, unyielding version of Islam (Wahhabism) is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis and saints who had walked on this land for hundreds of years.
This change is by design. Twenty-five years ago, the Pakistani state used Islam as an instrument of state policy. Prayers in government departments were deemed compulsory, floggings were carried out publicly, punishments were meted out to those who did not fast in Ramadan, selection for academic posts in universities required that the candidate demonstrate a knowledge of Islamic teachings and jihad was declared essential for every Muslim. Today, government intervention is no longer needed because of a spontaneous groundswell of Islamic zeal. The notion of an Islamic state – still in an amorphous and diffused form – is more popular now than ever before as people look desperately for miracles to rescue a failing state.
Villages have changed drastically; this transformation has been driven, in part, by Pakistani workers returning from Arab countries. Many village mosques are now giant madrassas that propagate hard-line Salafi and Deobandi beliefs through oversized loudspeakers. They are bitterly opposed to Barelvis, Shias and other sects, who they do not regard as Muslims. The Punjabis, who were far more liberal towards women than the Pukhtuns, are now beginning to take a line resembling that of the Taliban. Hanafi law has begun to prevail over tradition and civil law, as is evident from the recent decisions of the Lahore High Court.
And so on. Ahmad Rashid is even more pessimistic than Pervez Hoodbhoy.
And the Future Will Be...
I’m not so certain that the slide down the slippery slope cannot be stopped. But if the process of Talibanization is to be reversed, the battle will not end once the Army announces that the thousands of internally displaced people can return to their homes, however ravaged, in Swat. The People’s Party and the Muslim League will have to form a United Front for real. The government will have to take on dozens if not scores of radical preachers in mosques around the country, and the Army will have to continue the battle right up to the Afghan border. This time, it’s likely that authentic tribal leaders, those who have managed not to be among the hundreds assassinated by the Taliban, will cooperate with the Army. Well, they will, if they believe the Army will stick around and protect them. By now, even the tribals know that the Taliban and the Arabizing Islamists are as eager to erase traditional tribal cultures as they are to obliterate the remaining traces of the modern Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah thought he was founding.
And all of them will understand that they are fighting for the integrity of Pakistan, not for the United States.
*Note for the State Department re Fulbright grant effectiveness: one of my students in now a professor of American literature in Pakistan.