March 26th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: EDITORIAL: Indonesian President in Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Behind the skills shortage in the not-so-clever country

FOREIGN TRADE: The perils of bilateral trade agreements

SCHOOLS: Teacher unions enforcing the gender agenda

SPECIAL FEATURE: Murder and insurrection: Lance Sharkey in Singapore

BIOETHICS: UN backs ban on human cloning

OPINION: Cutting the abortion rate - the political options

THINKERS: Philosopher of greed: Ayn Rand

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dicing with our future / China rampant / Double standards?

INTERNATIONAL LAW: Behind the Timor Sea Treaty dispute

HONG KONG: China's man in Hong Kong quits

ASIA: Australia has role in great power contest

PAKISTAN: What role should Islam play in Pakistan?

Unemployment only five per cent? (letter)

How can we save our schools? (letter)

Urban riots a 'wake-up call' (letter)

BOOKS: FEWER: How the new demography of depopulation will shape our future

BOOKS: NELSON'S PURSE, by Martyn Downer

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What role should Islam play in Pakistan?

by Dr Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, March 26, 2005
Pakistan's prominence in the Muslim world stems from its large population and the army, its nuclear capability, its association with the United States in the aftermath of September 11, 2001; but most importantly from the perception - held by most of its people since Pakistan's creation - that it is an Islamic state.

Pakistan's creation, according to eminent Muslim scholar Akbar Ahmed, "was the result of a movement based on a clear Islamic vision and so the peoples of Pakistan continue to feel responsible for defining, guiding and shaping Islam."

The fundamental question, however, for Pakistanis has been: what version of Islam is the real Islam?

Ever since its creation, Pakistan has grappled with the issue of what role Islam should play in the state. When Mohammad Ali Jinnah called for the establishment of Pakistan, he advanced the two-nation theory. Muslims and Hindus, he argued, constituted two nations that could never live together.

A strict interpretation of the two-nation theory has led some Pakistanis to conclude that the country was always intended to be an Islamic state. But others have a different view. They believe that Jinnah was trying to create a country in which Muslims could live in safety, free from Hindu dominance.

In this writer's opinion, most Pakistanis do not want to live in a theocracy: they want their country to be moderate, modern, tolerant and stable.

The country has been torn since birth between conflicting cultures. It has a tribal and feudal social structure, an Islamic ideology and a legal and political system that is British in origin. Islamic and secular law are in conflict. Tribal loyalties, religious tensions and a feudal social structure distort national development. These factors have created Pakistan's political and economic uncertainty, thereby contributing to its problems of social integration.

While Islam is a major force in Pakistan, and many Pakistanis are considered devout followers, adherence to the faith has not prevented the development of considerable strife between the various nationalities that comprise Pakistan. This strife has, in fact, done much to undermine the national structure, and, in turn, has contributed to ethnic conflict.

In August 2001, Musharraf felt strong enough to ban militant organisations, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan (TJP), Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Furthermore, he banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which attempted to assassinate former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Confronting Islamic radicals

The bans marked a significant development, indicating that Musharraf was prepared to take some risks in confronting Islamic radicals. Thus, even before September 11, Musharraf had laid down the foundations of his current policy towards religious extremism.

Then, on September 19, 2001, Musharraf delivered a speech, saying: "Some scholars and religious leaders are inclined towards making emotional decisions ... They are poised to create dissensions and damage the country. There is no reason why this minority should be allowed to hold the sane majority as a hostage."

Musharraf also expressed determination to control the madrassas (Islamist schools), which had played an important role in fostering Islamic militancy.

At the time of Pakistan's independence, there were an estimated 250 madrassas in the country. During Zia ul Haq's rule, madrassas grew significantly, and they won a well-deserved reputation for producing highly motivated anti-Soviet fighters. As a result, foreign funds, chiefly from the US and Saudi Arabia, flowed into the madrassa system.

By 1987 there were 2,862 madrassas, producing around 30,000 graduates each year. In 2001, General Musharraf said that there were 7,000 or 8,000 madrassas in Pakistan, and between 600,000 and 700,000 students attending them. He has taken some steps to control them.

It should be noted that, during the 1980s, General Zia ul Haq advanced the cause of radical Islam. He used his military might to Islamicise Pakistan. He ruled for 12 years, and throughout that period he consistently promoted the role of Islam in the state. Indeed, the moment he grasped power, Zia made Islam the centrepiece of his administration.

Zia's campaign affected every aspect of the Pakistani state. The militant groups remain well-organised, well-armed and well-financed.

Musharraf is trying to dismantle Zia's legacy. From the moment he took power, Musharraf made it clear that he wanted to make it a moderate state. And he knew that many millions of Pakistanis agreed with him.

His attempt to downplay the role of religion in the state directly challenges the interests of well-entrenched and highly motivated elements of Pakistani society. His success or failure will have far-reaching implications not only for Pakistan but also for the region and the international security system as a whole.

After September 11, on joining the US in the war on terror, Musharraf renewed his attack on radicals. "We must finish off religious extremism", he said. "We must not use mosques to spread hatred. We Muslims have become too emotional."

Radical organisations have undermined Pakistan's nation- and state-building endeavours. They have simultaneously pursued anti-state and transnational activity.

Musharraf added, "Terrorists are not serving Islam, but they want to harm Pakistan ... It is not a fight between Muslims, but a war against terrorism. The terrorists and extremists engaged in subversive activities have their own vested interests and are misusing religion for their interests. They are trying to create division among Muslims."

He urged Pakistanis to promote tolerance and brotherhood and to remove conflicts from their minds.

In this context, extremism can best be reduced through gradual democratisation - a process and a system of governance which the West is not actually encouraging in the Muslim world, even though the West's need for moderation and democratisation in the Muslim world should be obvious.

The West will need to take a greater interest in the Muslim world if it is to check growing anti-Western sentiments. The huge sums of money and other aid that Australia gave to Indonesia after the catastrophic tsunami is a significant step in right direction.

There are signs that President Bush is seeking to expedite the transition to democracy in the Muslim world.

Dr Condoleezza Rice, his new Secretary of State, told a Senate hearing that she would personally become involved in restarting the Middle East peace process, and said that it remained America's great task to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world.

She made it clear that, in her view, the world changed on September 11, 2001, and that only the spread of liberty and democracy could defeat the threat posed by terrorists and rogue states.

The Pakistani military administration insists that those opposing Musharraf are only a minority, representing no more than 10 to 15 per cent of the Pakistani population. There are some good reasons that justify this opinion.

It is a fact that, throughout Pakistan's history, no religious leader had been able to translate the possibility of a mass-based Islamic revolutionary movement into reality. Although some religious parties have participated in elections, they have never performed well.

It is often said that they have never won more than 5 per cent of the vote in federal elections. They may have done better in provincial elections in Balochistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), but not in national elections. There are various explanations for their lack of success, of which the most obvious is their unpopularity.

The fact remains that religious parties have never come close to winning power in Pakistan. The two most significant parties are Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami (JUI) and Majaat-e-Islami (JI).


The JUI's political heartland is in the Pashtu speaking areas of Balochistan and NWFP where the party has control of a large number of radical madrassas. It is a grass-roots party that not only promotes Islam but also campaigns against social injustice. The JUI has won seats at the national and provincial level and has joined coalition governments in NWFP and Balochistan. Unlike the highly disciplined JI, the JUI has long suffered from factional splits.

While the JUI is a largely rural party, JI draws its strength from the urban middle-classes. It is a well-organised and ideological party, and advocates nothing less than Islamic revolution. Its specific policy objectives include the imposition of Sharia Law, the banning of interest payments, and the establishment of common Muslim defence arrangements so that occupied lands such as Palestine and Kashmir can be liberated. Some elements of Jamaat argue that the party should not participate in parliamentary elections but, rather, press exclusively for revolutionary change.

Despite being well-organised, Jamaat has always remained on the fringes of Pakistani electoral politics and has posed little threat to the ruling establishment. Its credibility has always suffered from the fact that its founder, Maududi, was a strong opponent of the Muslim League's campaign for Pakistan. He viewed the Muslim League leadership, including Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, as Westernised elitists with no legitimate claim to represent the Muslims of the subcontinent. JI leaders have consistently shown a similar lack of political acumen ever since.

The third significant Islamic party is the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP). The JUP has proved to be a far less resilient organisation than either the JUI or JI. Repeated electoral failures have persuaded many in the JUP leadership that their organisation should become a pressure group rather than an electoral party.

The religious parties, especially JI, have always had a reputation for being able to organise impressive displays of street power. But their repeated electoral failures have led Musharraf to conclude that his opponents are not strong enough to destabilise his regime. He has come to believe, correctly, that most Pakistanis do not share the Taliban's interpretation of Islam.

While Musharraf has a clear idea of the type of reforms he would like to introduce, he has not had much success in implementing them. The Kashmir dispute, nuclear proliferation, relations with India and the US, the need to reform the army and also to define the role of Islam - these are only some of the issues that confront the military administration today.

Some segments of Pakistan's security force and the army support the Islamists. The alliance between Islamists and Pakistan's military has the potential to frustrate anti-terrorist operations and radicalise key segments of the Islamic world. What can be done?

Unless Pakistan backs away from Islamist radicalism, and unless the all-powerful military can be persuaded to gradually reform on secular lines, the country's vulnerability to radical Islamic politics will not diminish.

  • Dr Sharif Shuja

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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