Former military dictator Pervez Musharraf’s rule had exposed the perils of seeking ‘moderation’ of the Islamic state envisioned by Ziaul Haq
On April 4, 2022, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan lost his government before the conclusion of his term in office. This was routine. No prime minister of Pakistan has ever completed his five-year term and Khan was clearly no different. Pakistan echoed with Khan’s recidivism of the Islamic utopia called Riasat-e-Madina where he chose to routinely vulgarize the country’s political dialogue in marked contrast to the tradition of Madina. After trumpeting a “same page” narrative for years, the Pakistan Army was suddenly seen as “neutral” in this environment of political instability. The “ideology” that eased Khan into power was not able to resist the reflex of past years.
An article by Nadeem Farooq Paracha, published in The Friday Times on Jan. 17, 2022, explains: “Imran Khan, after coming to power as prime minister, shared his thoughts on Riasat-e-Madina, or the First Islamic State that came into being in early 7th-century Arabia. He wrote that Pakistan would need to adopt the moral and spiritual tenor of that state if the country was to thrive. Even before he came to power in 2018, Khan had been promising to turn Pakistan into a modern-day state of Madina.” Pakistan’s history is a litany of military takeovers. Khan’s ouster, however, saw the Army as strictly “hands-off,” meaning Pakistan’s politicians were allowed to freely indulge in their internecine politics. Was it a break from the past? Or was it a reflex of the politicians recalling military upsets of the past?
Religion and constitution
Imran Khan took the same route that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) took decades ago. In 1967, when the PPP was formed, it’s “foundational documents”—authored by Bhutto and the Marxist intellectual J.A. Rahim—described the party as a socialist entity. To neutralize the expected criticism from Islamist groups, the documents declared that democracy was the party’s policy, socialism was its economy, and “Islam was its faith.” Religion had thus become the weakness of the state.
In 2022—with a dozen retired senior army officers of uniform mind appearing regularly on TV discussion programs—is the Pakistan Army going full circle after a period of “ideological intensity”? We have seen such transitions in the past. Army rule has been Pakistan’s “normal” rather than an aberration: General Ayub Khan in 1958-1963 and 1965-1969; General Yahya Khan in 1969-1971; General Ziaul Haq in 1978-1988; and General Pervez Musharraf in 1999-2007. General Ayub was the most “developmental” leader, whose tenure saw a focus on the economy with several infrastructure projects.
Setting up ‘Madina’ in Pakistan
Khan was not the first leader to “Islamize” the Pakistani state. General Zia, before him, was however the most transformational. After Zia, reverting to “normalcy” was difficult if not impossible. General Musharraf tried to “cleanse” the past by symbolically taking on Al Qaeda despite knowing its connections to Islamabad’s Lal Masjid. The outcome was not good for him. He held the presidency from 2001 until 2008, when he tendered his resignation to avoid impeachment.
On March 16, 2016, the Supreme Court of Pakistan lifted the travel ban on Musharraf, allowing him to leave the country while he awaited trial for treason. Two days later, Musharraf left Pakistan in order to seek medical treatment in Dubai. On Aug. 31, 2017, a court in Pakistan named Musharraf a fugitive from justice in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto; he had been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai since his departure in 2016. On Dec. 17, 2019, Musharraf was sentenced to death in absentia after a three-member special court in Islamabad convicted him of violating the Constitution by unlawfully declaring emergency rule while in power. On Jan. 13, 2020, however, the Lahore High Court overturned Musharraf’s death sentence, allowing him to return to Pakistan.
‘Liberal’ Musharraf flees to England
Tendering his resignation to avoid impeachment in 2008, “secular” Musharraf first migrated to London in a self-imposed exile. His legacy as leader was seen to be mixed; he saw the emergence of a more assertive middle class, which signaled a rise in temperature of pro-Taliban emotion and an open disregard for civilian institutions greatly weakened “democracy” in Pakistan. Musharraf returned to Pakistan in 2013 to participate in that year’s general election, but was disqualified from participating after the country’s high courts issued arrest warrants for him for his alleged involvement in the assassinations of Nawab Akbar Bugti and Benazir Bhutto.
If you rise to the rank of a general in Pakistan, it appears to intrinsically shift your worldview, as was proved in the autobiography of Gen. (retd.) Shahid Aziz, whose story explains the religious psychosis of the middle-class military officers in the country. But if you rule Pakistan after staging a military coup and you are also non-religious then you are absolutely non compos mentis. The Taliban wanted Musharraf’s head for killing countless warriors fighting against America and found resonance with Pakistan’s powerful clergy. The non-ideological Baloch, too, have massive head-money on him for killing their chief Bugti; and an Islamabad High Court heard a case against him for having murdered ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto. But what took the cake was the trial against him for killing Rasheed Ghazi, the cleric of the infamous Lal Masjid of Islamabad.
Pakistan’s nemesis: Red Mosque
After ascertaining that Islamabad’s Lal Masjid was infested with Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, Musharraf had ordered his Army commandos to smoke them out. The operation ended up killing a number of girl students of a madrassa attached to the mosque, whose imam was sending out vigilante groups to punish un-Islamic practices in the capital and threatening the biggest hotel there with suicide bombs. The Lal Masjid also hunted the Shia, because its founder, Maulana Abdullah, was killed in a sectarian clash. The law enforcing authorities of Islamabad were supine before Lal Masjid, which shocked the nation as most Pakistanis thought Musharraf controlled the federal capital. Musharraf should have looked closely at the capital city of Pakistan and noted its religious landscape.
In 2007, there were 88 madrassas in Islamabad imparting religious education to more than 16,000 students. Students of these institutions came from all over Pakistan, but especially present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the erstwhile tribal areas. Breaking down the numbers, Deobandi madrassas housed 5,400 students; Barelvi ones 3,000 students in 46 seminaries; Ahle-Hadith had 200 students in two madrassas; while Shia Muslims had 700 students in eight madrassas and the Jamaat-e-Islami-led Rabita al-Madaris housed 1,500 students in 18 madrassas.
According to one newspaper’s investigative report, “the present number of seminarians in the federal capital is almost equal to the combined strength of the seminary students in Balochistan (6,374 students) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (2,835 students).”
The omnipresent Al Qaeda
After the Lal Masjid was attacked by the army commandos, the proletariat of the city turned against “General President” Musharraf; as did the media. In consequence, Al Qaeda won the day and the public fervor led to Musharraf’s ouster from power in 2008. The terror group’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, vowed revenge and founded the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which continued to terrorize Pakistan for years. The superior judiciary—of which Musharraf had dismissed 100 judges in 2007—were to decide how many times to hang him. The nation loved Lal Masjid, and the media spoke with a forked tongue, apotheosizing the dead terrorists as “martyrs of Lal Masjid” in Urdu, while exposing them as criminals working for Al Qaeda in English.
Zahid Hussain, in his book The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan and how it Threatens America, noted: “Lal Masjid clerics Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rasheed Ghazi had learned their militancy from their father, Abdullah Ghazi, who received funding and guidance from the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies for jihad. After the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, Abdullah Ghazi became closely associated with Al Qaeda.
“Two months after the Lal Masjid siege, an 18-year-old boy blew himself up inside the high-security base of Zarrar Company, the elite commando unit responsible for Operation Silence; 22 commandos were killed. It was an insider job.” Hussain continues: “One of the officers identified was Captain Khurram Ashiq, who had served in Zarrar Company.” Ashiq died in Helmand fighting on the side of Al Qaeda. His brother, Major Haroon Ashiq, too, worked for Al Qaeda, killing SSG commander Major-General Feisal Alvi in Islamabad.
The Army of the Faithful
The armed forces in Pakistan were raised as the Army of an Islamic state. The ideology of the Islamic state offered itself readily as the bedrock on which the character and morale of the men in uniform were to be raised. Although not recognized as one of the Five Pillars of the Faith—kalima, namaz, zakat, fasting, haj—jihad, as war, was central to the Islamic jurisprudence of the state. Although sealed from politics in its early phase, the military used the concept of jihad as a part of its doctrinal drill. In essence a national army—or the army of a nation-state—was looked at by the rank and file as an Islamic army.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of a Shia Islamic state of Iran in the neighborhood in 1979-80, Pakistan began to feel the first serious symptoms of radical Islam. The reign of General Zia was heavily flecked with his personally embraced vision of a puritan society, encouraging the growth of madrassa networks with the financial help of Saudi Arabia. When he thought of reviving democracy in 1985, the idea of the state was already couched in radical-Islamic terms. The parliament that came into being after elections was called Majlis-e-Shoora and it was “party-less” as per the Ansari Commission Report, which had found consensus with the earlier “party-less” and “opposition-less” state under Imam Khomeini in Iran.
The aberration of ‘secular’ Musharraf
In the post-Zia period, governments were overthrown under a system of power troika by often accusing them of rolling back Islamic reform or not fulfilling their promises. When General Musharraf took over as the next military ruler in 1999, his “secular” outlook did not sit well with the officers’ Islamized view of Pakistan and the world. After 9/11, he had to purge many fellow-officers who had helped him come to power by overthrowing the Muslim League government of Nawaz Sharif. It is said that senior Islamized officers did not reconcile to his decision to become partners with America after the 9/11 act of terrorism planned in Pakistan by a member of Al Qaeda. In particular, there was opposition to his policy within the military-dominated intelligence network.
Many scholars agree that it was the handling of the non-state actors as “Islamic warriors” that radicalized the upper echelons of the military. The concept of low-intensity covert war through proxy warriors gave further fillip to the process of Islamization. It was the coming to grips with Islam in the battlefield that led to radicalization, a kind graduation from a philosophy of a way of life to that of conquest and conversion. The training of non-state actors in Afghanistan contributed to the hardening of the faith, to its sectarian focus and to ‘correction’ of society through coercion. The privatization of war through the non-state actors led to the delinking of the institution war from the institution of the state. As the clergy increasingly taught the delinking of the conduct of war from the state, the Army became inclined to treat their faith as a supra-state measure of judgment. The practice of letting the cadres go on furlough for ‘tabligh’ (preaching)—which was frequently used by the officers and soldiers for fighting in the ranks of non-state actors—strengthened this trend.
Embarrassing narrative of terror
The partnership with America in the war on terrorism has intensified the contradictions that Al Qaeda and its ancillary jihadists had with the state of Pakistan. Unlike the Maoists spearheading insurgencies in some states of India, Al Qaeda seeks to promote an ideology that is not only the same as Pakistan’s, but also seeks to supersede it with a harder version of it, based on rejection of a realistic coexistence with the West in general and America in particular.
Pakistan has discovered that there are elements within the armed forces willing to “correct” the ideology of Pakistan as an Islamic state through radicalizing it. Al Qaeda has demonstrated through many incidents that it can replace the state of Pakistan in the loyalties of the jihadi organizations once fielded by the military against the Soviet Union and India. The media, mainly Urdu-language, in Pakistan has indirectly encouraged this trend by stoking the fires of anti-Americanism rampant in the Islamic world, especially affecting the outlook of the Pakistani soldiers and their officers.
The Pakistan Army must stand squarely behind the elected government in its efforts to rescue the national economy from disaster through a flexible approach in the conduct of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The radical trends in Pakistan are a product of a long economic downturn and the failure of the state’s capacity to impart modern education to the masses. A more realistic foreign policy opening the national economy to the two successfully growing states in the neighborhood—India and China—can begin this process of de-radicalization.