The Thin Veneer of Islam
Following the birth of Pakistan in 1947, the Pakistani army, like the nation itself, had only a thin veneer of Islamic identity. As Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center in Washington, DC, points out in his article “Pakistan’s Army: Fighting the Wars Within,” although Pakistan came into being in 1947 as the most populous Muslim nation on the planet, “the debate over its national identity has neither been conducted democratically nor concluded. It has also yet to craft a stable political system that establishes the supremacy of the civil over the military, as envisioned by its founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam. Although the Muslim way of life was a motive behind the call for Pakistan, its early political leadership did not give it an Islamic blueprint for its political development or goals. The reason for this was that the movement for Pakistan was less an Islamic movement and more a movement by Indian Muslims to seek greater social and economic opportunity for themselves.”
Nawaz, who was once with the New York Times and Pakistan Television’s news and current affairs division, continues, “The Pakistan Army, the largely Muslim rump of the British Indian Army, too, was saddled at birth with this paradoxical identity: the symbols of Islam but the substance of a colonial force, quite distant from the body politic of the fledgling state. It adopted, for instance, the number 786 for the identification of its General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. In Islamic numerology, 786 represents the Arabic Bismillah IrRahman IrRahim, the invocation that Muslims intone at the start of any action or venture of note. This numerical code was emblazoned on all gate posts and vehicles, as a reminder that this was the army of a Muslim country. And for its badge, it chose two crossed swords holding up an Islamic rising crescent and a five-pointed star against a green background.
Many of the Islamisation problems that Pakistan is encountering now grew out of the actions taken and alliances made by General Zia.
“But the Islamic identity was at that stage only in name. The senior echelons of the Pakistan Army at its birth were still British officers who had opted to stay on, and they were succeeded by their native clones, men who saw the army as a unique institution, separate and apart from the rest of civil society and authority. This schism between the cantonment and the city pervaded the army’s thought processes and seemed to guide as well as bedevil the military’s relationship with the civilian sector in Pakistan.”
There is no evidence that Shuja Nawaz’s observations are anything but accurate. When, then, did the Islamisation of the Pakistani army begin in earnest? According to Stephen P. Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution, though Pakistan’s military shifted in an explicitly Islamic direction under Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the army actually began Islamising under Bhutto. “Zulfikar himself ordered alcohol removed from the mess,” Cohen says, “and one of the reasons that he picked Zia as the army’s chief of staff may have been that Zia was seen as a pious general.” It is also to be noted that in the preamble to Pakistan’s 1973 constitution, it was clearly stated that Islam would underwrite the law of the land. This was nothing less than a mandate for the state to instrumentalise Islam. This mandate was confirmed in Article 227, which categorically stated that all legislation would conform to Islamic injunctions. However, the actual infiltration of devout Islamists into the lower rungs of the armed forces began following the 1977 coup led by the Pakistani chief of armed services General Zia ul-Haq against the elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The arrival of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq at the helm of Pakistan as the chief martial law administrator (CMLA) was a watershed. A devout orthodox Muslim who belonged to a nonwealthy family, Zia set about quickly to exploit his religious piety to bring about a change within the military. Many of the Islamisation problems that Pakistan is encountering now grew out of the actions taken and alliances made by General Zia.
There is evidence that in the pre-Zia days, the Pakistani military did not have a smooth and seamless relationship with Pakistan’s Islamic parties. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out in his article “Fixing Our Pakistan Problem” (Journal for International Security Affairs, 7 July 2008) that General Mohammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler, displayed hostility toward the religious parties. Ayub Khan wrote in his diary in 1967 that “[t]he mullah regards the educated Muslims as his deadliest enemy and the rival for power,” adding that “we have got to take on all those [mullahs] who are political mischief-makers.”
Zia devoted particular attention to changing the culture of Pakistans military.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who became prime minister in 1973 following the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan, inherited a military that had failed to keep Pakistan in one piece. Bhutto, who believed he was insulated from a military coup, seized the moment and broadened the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) branch by creating an internal wing. An ambitious politician, Bhutto was keen on bolstering his own political power, and his personal leadership had a paranoid strain. Gartenstein-Ross says Bhutto wanted the ISI to conduct surveillance on friends and foes alike and the agency kept dossiers on a range of figures. Ironically, the internal wing that Bhutto helped create later played a role in the military coup that toppled him from power in July 1977.
The Rise of Zia ul-Haq
That coup brought to power General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who quickly pushed Pakistani society, and the military, in a more religious direction. Zia’s devout Deobandi background and religious zeal translated into the adoption of overtly Muslim public policy positions, as well as the government’s imposition of Islamic norms and customs—changes that began immediately after the coup.
In his article, Gartenstein-Ross cites one observer who noted in early 1979 that a “general Islamic tone pervades everything.” According to this observer, “a state enterprise advertises for a manager ‘who should be a God-fearing and practicing Muslim.’ Floggings were common. Television was greatly changed — to the accompaniment of public protest in the letters-to-the-editor column of the newspapers. Total closure of eating and drinking places between sun-up and sunset marked Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and no tea was served in business establishments or offices, private or public. . . . On December 2 [of 1978] (the first of Musharram, the beginning of the Hijri year 1399) came the long-promised announcement of the first steps toward Islamisation of the laws on theft, drinking, adultery, and the protection of freedom of belief.” Zia’s government created Sharia courts to determine the religious legitimacy of all laws and invalidate those deemed improper. The government simultaneously tried to create an “Islamic economy” that was free of interest.
“¦some of the changes to the organisational culture of Pakistans military pushed by Zia were put into practice on the battlefield. The ISI would grow exponentially during this period, and important relationships between Pakistani officials and Islamic militants would develop.
Zia devoted particular attention to changing the culture of Pakistan’s military. His reforms went beyond Bhutto’s nascent changes in three major ways. First, military training came to include Islamic teachings. For example, officers were required to read S. K. Malik’s The Quranic Concept of War and a Directorate of Religious Instruction was created to oversee the Islamic education of the officer corps. Second, religious criteria were incorporated into the promotion requirements for officers and into their promotion exams. Many skilled officers with secular outlooks were passed over for promotion, while officers with conservative religious outlooks reached top levels of command. Third, Zia reinforced these policies by mandating formal obedience to Islamic rules within the military. He required not only that soldiers attend Friday congregational prayers at regimental mosques but also that the fighting units bring mullahs with them to the front lines.
At the same time that Zia was implementing these policies, the demographics of Pakistan’s officer corps were naturally shifting. The first generation of officers came from the country’s social elites, frequently educated in English-language schools, while the rank and file of the new junior officers came from Pakistan’s poorer northern districts. Journalist Zahid Hussain, in his book Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam (Columbia University Press, 2007) notes that “[t]he spirit of liberalism, common in the ‘old’ army, was practically unknown to them. They were products of a social class that, by its very nature, was conservative and easily influenced by Islamic fundamentalism.”