Pakistan : The rise of extremism – Dr Manzur Ejaz

Dr. Manzur Ejaz

The rise of extremism

courtesy: WICHAAR

After the Afghan war ended, the US left in haste, leaving behind the mess of several hundered thousand jihadis. The Pakistani establishment, intoxicated by the routing of the Soviets, undertook ventures to conquer Afghanistan and Kashmir, and destabilise India. The mullah-military nexus was further strengthened.

The rise of the right wing conservative religious forces in Pakistan was due to a combination of factors. A changing economy, military adventures and backward state institutions played a main role in giving rise to jihadism, etc. It was not dictator Zia or other military rulers who were the only players in such an outcome. The evolution of Pakistan has to be reviewed in a broad historical perspective.

The 1965 war had done irreparable damage to Ayub Khan’s regime; the economy started sagging, food shortages became common and prices of necessities saw a steep rise. In such a depressing environment, Ayub Khan and his son’s corruption scandals became the diet of daily political discussions. In a shrinking job market and increasing population, the post-partition born educated work force was seeking jobs with no success. Later on, Zulifqar Ali Bhutto’s breaking away and his exploitation of the Tashkent Agreement further undermined the Ayub regime.

Around 1965-66, on the surface, Ayub Khan was very strong because there was no credible opposition to his rule except in East Pakistan. It appeared that Ayub and his descendants were set to rule forever, but from within the regime had been hollowed out by incurable termites and pests. The internal corrosion of the regime and the overall system was not being noticed by anyone.

The parties on the left — National Awami Party along with the newly founded Pakistan People’s Party (in 1967) and Awami League — apprehending the weakness, had started raising the heat. Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and other right wing parties were active as well, but they had not much public following. By 1968, when Ayub Khan was celebrating his ‘Golden Decade of Progress’, a strong anti-regime movement was taking root both in East and West Pakistan. When the riots broke out in both units (more ferocious in East Pakistan), Ayub Khan, by now in declining health, gave in to General Yahya Khan in 1969.

Yahya Khan’s regime, incensed by the rising tide of the left, the popularity of PPP’s roti, kapra aur makan and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s six point agenda for East Pakistan’s autonomy, had reverted to taking help from religious conservatives, particularly the JI. Yahya Khan’s confidant General Sher Ali Khan was deputed to undertake the ideological cleansing of the media and educational institutions. Mian Tufail Mohammad is on record as saying that Yahya Khan had promulgated all necessary Islamic laws and it was up to the citizens to practice them.

When the general elections were held in 1970, none in Yahya Khan’s regime expected the results that came out: Awami League won all but two seats in East Pakistan and Bhutto’s PPP swept West Pakistan. Religious parties had popularised anew the slogan: “Pakistan ka matlab kya…” but their use of the Quran in processions did not work. Such slogans may have been there even before partition, but they were made operative in the 1970 elections.

The army and Yahya Khan, along with most of the people in West Pakistan, did not want the Awami League’s rule at the Centre because of its real or perceived separatist ideology. Bhutto and others are blamed for not reaching a deal with the Awami League, but the fact of the matter is that East Pakistan had been lost much before the elections, as Yahya Khan acknowledged in one of his interviews later.

The military operation in East Pakistan played havoc with Pakistan’s economy and its international standing. A genocide-type murderous military operation and the ultimate routing by the Indian military (justified or not) created a mullah-military alliance in the remaining Pakistan. Besides, the JI had fought along with the military against the Bengali Muslims. Pakistan’s armed forces were ideologically so insecure that they developed a strong belief that it was only religion that could save the rest of Pakistan. Therefore, instead of being thankful to Bhutto for bringing thousands of prisoners of war home, they felt threatened by his not-so-Islamic ideological stance. Bhutto tried to placate them through his own Islamisation, but it never worked.

The anti-Bhutto mullah-military alliance also strengthened because of the rapidly changing intra-class status quo and mammoth changes in the political economy. Bhutto had awakened the masses to get their genuine rights, which did not go down well with the traditional middle classes and the elite from where the military is recruited. In addition, the old mode of agrarian production was changing from the thousands of years old ox and wooden plough into mechanised cultivation. Internal migration from the rural to urban areas was accelerating. These trends were accentuated by the Bhutto regime’s liberal passport policies, resulting in the mass migration of workers and foreign earnings flowing into the economy. In short, the political economy was changing fast while the state was stuck in its old mode. The gap was filled by rising religious ideology aided by the elites and the military. By 1977, the mullah-military-elite alliance was so strong that Bhutto’s election victory did not matter and he was hanged eventually.

Ziaul Haq, an extremely conservative Muslim, built upon the Islamisation Yahya Khan and Bhutto had started. At this point, the communist takeover in Afghanistan and the eventual military intervention by the Soviet Union furthered the cause of Islamisation. In its effort to defeat the Soviet Union, the US threw in billions of dollars and weapons, and provided training to bolster the Islamisits and jihadists. As a matter of fact, it was the US that injected the concept of international jihad into the Pak-Afghan localised religious movements through systematic propaganda and even a change in the curriculum being taught in Pakistan.

After the Afghan war ended, the US left in haste, leaving behind the mess of several hundered thousand jihadis. The Pakistani establishment, intoxicated by the routing of the Soviets, undertook ventures to conquer Afghanistan and Kashmir, and destabilise India. The mullah-military nexus was further strengthened, playing havoc with all other institutions of the state. The rapidly changing political economy of Pakistan through the electronic media and other technologies was unsettling the institutions as well. This was the worst combination of factors that created anarchy and lawlessness in the country. This phase has been prevalent till very recently, despite the US intervention after 9/11. However, the situation has been changing for the last few years with some institutions of the state getting stronger and the mullah-military alliance teetering. Emerging trends need a lengthy discussion which is beyond the scope of this column.

The writer can be reached at

February 9th, 2010

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