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Pakistan - before and after Zia-ul Haq

Shamil Shams
August 17, 2016

Many people in Pakistan blame former dictator General Zia-ul Haq for the rise of extremism in their country. But was he really the architect of the Islamization drive in the South Asian nation? DW examines.

Zia-Ul-Haq, during a press conference, in Paris, after a meeting with French president Francois Mitterrand, during a 24-hour official visit in France (Photo: PHILIPPE BOUCHON/AFP/Getty Images)

On August 17, 1988, General Zia-ul Haq, along with his top military officials and two American diplomats, died in a mysterious plane crash in the eastern Pakistani city of Bahawalpur. Since then, the general has remained a deeply polarizing figure in the Islamic country.

While his supporters - mostly right-wing Pakistanis - hail him as "hero" who had prevented a wider Soviet incursion in the South Asian region, the liberals hold him responsible for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in their country.

The Afghan war of the 1980s changed the political landscape of Pakistan forever. Islamabad decided to become a party to the war at the behest of the West to achieve its own strategic goals - to expand its area of operation in Afghanistan to counter Indian influence. Haq promoted a hard-line Islamic ideology in his country and cracked down on liberal political groups and activists. He expected the West to turn a blind eye to grave human rights violations in Pakistan, as he believed he was doing a favor to the US by fighting its proxy war in Afghanistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, former Paskistani president and then prime minister adressing the Nation over TV (Photo: STF/AFP/GettyImages)
General Zia hanged elected Prime Minister Bhutto in 1979Image: STF/AFP/GettyImages

Zia-ul Haq dreamed of expanding Pakistan's sphere of influence first to Afghanistan and then to the rest of Asia.

'Pernicious ideology'

"Islamic extremists, who were created by General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, are now wreaking havoc in our country," Karachi-based human rights activist Abdul Hai told DW.

But analysts say Haq's "disastrous" influence on Pakistani politics is way more far-reaching than only the consolidation of Islamic militancy.

After hanging Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a popular elected prime minister, in 1979, Haq launched a vigorous drive to change the liberal nature of the constitution. His critics allege that he introduced Islamic laws, Islamized the educational curriculums, opened up thousands of religious seminaries across the country, inducted Islamists into judiciary, bureaucracy and the army, and created institutions headed by Islamic clerics to oversee the affairs of the government.

"I believe that although Haq is physically dead, his pernicious ideology is very much alive in Pakistan," Majid Siddiqui, a Karachi-based journalist, told DW. "He used religion as a tool to strengthen his power. He also exploited the international agenda against communism to his favor and ruled undemocratically for 11 long years. Today's Pakistan is a reflection of Zia-ul Haq's policies, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get rid of it," Siddiqui added.

Taliban fighters hold their heavy and light weapons before surrendering them to Afghan authorities in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
Pakistan has been in a grip of violent Islamist attacks for the past ten yearsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Gul

A policy matter

But a more academic account of Pakistani politics does not pin all blame on Haq. Prominent Pakistani scholars such as Ahmed Rashid and Ijaz Khan argue that the alliance between the Pakistani state and religious extremists had started much earlier than Haq's rise to power.

"Pakistani decision makers have found religious extremists a natural choice for alliance/usage as tools of foreign policy due to, a) its own religious identity basis; b) perception of India as a Hindu state which has not accepted Pakistan as an independent state; c) The United States also considered Islamic forces as good allies during the Cold War against the Soviets; and d) the centrist, post-colonial state dominated by the military has always considered secular, nationalist and democratic forces a challenge to its hold on power," argues Khan in one of his papers.

Arif Jamal, a US-based Islamism expert, traces back the roots of Islamic militancy in Pakistan to the country's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He says that while Pakistani liberals admire both Jinnah and Bhutto for their secular posture, both leaders adopted the policy of using jihadists to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Some scholars accuse the country's founder Jinnah of backing Islamic militants in KashmirImage: Radio Pakistan

"It was Jinnah who violated the stand-still agreement with the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and sent tribal mujahideen to the valley. Similarly, it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had invited Afghan jihadists like Hekmatyar and Rabbani to Pakistan in order to destabilize the neighboring country. General Haq carried these policies forward," Jamal told DW, adding that Bhutto's daughter Benazir followed the same path when she came to power in 1988.

Naufil Shahrukh, an analyst at the Islamabad-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), shares this view: "It is a historic fact that Haq's predecessor Bhutto started interfering in Afghanistan by opposing pro-India president Daud. In response to Daud's support for terrorist groups in Pakistan, Bhutto backed Islamist groups in Afghanistan. The earliest Islamists started arriving in Pakistan to get military training in order to fight against the communist regime in Kabul during Bhutto's tenure," Shahrukh told DW.

Popular demand and geopolitics

Some analysts, however, argue that the demand for an Islamic system in the country has always prevailed in Pakistani society and no ruler could ignore it.

"Since Pakistan's independence, a majority of people in the country have wanted an Islamic system. The public emotions were indeed exploited by General Haq to strengthen his dictatorial rule, but the growth of extremism in Pakistani society was a direct consequence of the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region," Shahrukh underlined, adding that Iran's attempt to export its revolution to neighboring countries was countered as a state policy under Zia.

Supporters of Pakistan's outlawed Islamic hard line group, Jamaat ud Dawa (JD) shout anti-US slogans during a protest in Lahore against drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas in Lahore on July 5, 2013 (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
There is little room for secular politics in the present-day PakistanImage: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Sartaj Khan, a leftist intellectual and activist, believes that Haq did what was a geopolitical demand in the 1980s. "But his policies were perpetuated by his successors like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Haq was doing what the state had demanded of him. He was not the sole decision maker," Khan added.

Khan also asserted that Haq's Middle Eastern and Western supporters could not be exempted of the responsibility for the mess Pakistan finds itself in today.

"Blaming Haq for Islamization and all other problems is an over-simplification, something which is fashionable with the Pakistani liberals," Khan said.