From its Cold War role as a bulwark against the irreligious, evil empire of the Soviet Union to its status as a major non-NATO ally in the post-9/11 war on terrorism, Pakistan has flaunted its various religious credentials. Vacillating from jihad to enlightened moderation, Pakistan’s ruling civil and military elite has unscrupulously employed religion as a means to gain domestic and international legitimacy.

Washington has been an active accomplice. During the Cold War, the United States helped to grow religious extremism in Pakistan. And now during the post-September 11 era, the United States is again ignoring democracy in favor of an unstable combination of military authoritarianism and presumably moderate Islam.

Islamic State: Theory and Practice

The use of Islam as a tool of politics precedes Pakistan’s inception. The country was carved out of British India owing to the religious divide between Muslims and non-Muslims on the subcontinent. The country’s founding fathers claimed that India’s Muslims were a nation separate from non-Muslim Indians. The Muslim League, led by a secular westernized Mohammed Ali Jinnah, demanded a separate homeland in India’s Muslim majority areas in the northwest (the Pakistan of today) and the northeast (Bangladesh since 1971). The political slogan of that time — that Pakistan will be home to all of South Asia’s Muslims and prevent them from becoming a permanent minority in India — proved untenable. One-third of the subcontinent’s Muslims stayed behind in Hindu-dominated India after partition in 1947. The remaining two-thirds were roughly divided in the country’s two eastern and western wings more than a thousand miles apart.

Other than the majority Bengali-speaking Pakistanis in the eastern wing, the country was made up of Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis, Balochis, Urdu-speaking migrants from India, Seraikis, and many more ethno-linguistic groups. In the chaotic power struggle that ensued in the new state the West Pakistan-dominated military, in cahoots with the bureaucracy, outmaneuvered and forced out the political parties. Throughout this period, Islam was touted as the unifying factor that was supposed to override banal ethnic and geographical divide. As the formative decades of Pakistan also coincided with the start of the Cold War, the military-led Pakistani elite had a double incentive to espouse Islam as the defining characteristic of state and society. At home it used Islam to co-opt and reward the clergy of all Muslim sects to keep the secular, democratic political parties at bay. Internationally, the Pakistani government showcased its Islamic credentials to prove its allegiance to the anti-communism cause. Beneath that veneer of religion, however, internal schisms continued to simmer. At the first opportunity that the people had to express their democratic will, the situation exploded.

In the 1970 elections, the eastern wing almost unanimously voted for the pro-autonomy secular Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. The socialist-leaning party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s father, won in West Pakistan. Islamic parties, some of them backed by the military, were routed. The military regime refused to transfer power. A civil war followed which turned into a Pakistan-India war and culminated in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The ideal of a nation based on religion, transcending ethnic diversity and bridging the geographic distance, fell apart.

The leftover West Pakistan assumed the title of Pakistan. Refusing to learn the lessons of the post-independence 25 years, the framers of the new constitution led by Bhutto continued to play the religion card. The new constitution of Pakistan was full of Islamic content. General Zia ul-Haq, who toppled Bhutto in 1977, further strengthened these Islamic provisions. His 11-year rule coincided with the final decisive juncture in the Cold War: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S.-sponsored jihad led by Zia’s Islamized Pakistan.

Islamization and Jihad Years

In theory, the new Pakistan became an Islamic theocracy. Article 2 of the much-mutilated 1973 constitution declares Islam as the official state religion. Another constitutional obligation is that all laws shall accord with the injunctions of the Qur’an and Sunnah, i.e. teachings of Prophet Mohammed. The state also pledges “to enable the Muslims of Pakistan, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to provide facilities whereby they may be enabled to understand the meaning of life according to the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah.”

It would not be surprising if religion were to unite the people and play a central role in Pakistan’s polity. After all, more than 96% of Pakistanis profess Islam to be their religion. But, surprisingly, religion hasn’t and doesn’t.

Peel off the rhetoric of Islam and the all-too-familiar pattern of power politics can be seen running through Pakistani history. In an attempt to dodge, fudge, and suppress the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country, successive civil and military regimes have played up religion as a symbol of unity. None of them has been successful. In fact, the more the state relied on Islam as a political slogan, the sharper and more irreconcilable these divisions have become.

In the process the myth that Pakistan is a religiously homogenous Muslim country has also been shattered. Those who identify themselves as Muslims are more precisely either Shias or Sunni-Barelvis or Sunni-Deobandis, or Wahhabi or Ahle-Hadith or Maududi’s followers, or belong to one or the other of the many mutually exclusive sects and cults. (Even the constitution of Pakistan concedes that “[I]n the application…to the personal law of any Muslim sect, the expression ‘Qur’an and Sunnah’ shall mean the Qur’an and Sunnah as interpreted by that sect.) So problematic has been the task of interpreting “true” Islam that the constitution had to be amended to insert a clause to define who is a Muslim — rather who is a non-Muslim. Similar sectarian disputes, which have marked efforts to Islamize education and laws, have often taken a violent turn.

The story of the Afghan jihad and Pakistan’s role in it is well known and has been told many times over. The jihad was complemented by General Zia’s consolidation of his military rule through Islamization at home. The Shia Iranian revolution galvanised the Sunni sentiments in Pakistan. The Zia government introduced new laws based on ultra-orthodox Sunni interpretations of Islam and formulated Islamic rules and regulations for every institution. It thus subjected all sectors of society — from education to the media and from the cultural policies to official rules of business — to an Islamic code of conduct. Sectarianism flourished. This growing army of extremists in Pakistan fought the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad alongside the Arabs and Afghans and then served the cause of jihads from India to Bosnia to Chechnya. The next generation of the same mujahideen groups is now the main protagonist in America’s war on terrorism.

The momentum of militancy created by Zia has continued after his demise in 1988. The semi-civilian rule of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto could do little to stem the tide of Sunni militancy which has taken a two-track approach to advance its cause: at home against the Shias and other minorities and internationally against western targets. During the Musharraf period many of them have turned against the military itself.

Future of Politics of Religion

President Musharraf had made “enlightened moderation” his motto after ditching the Taliban and joining the war on terrorism. He portrayed himself as a liberal Muslim and parroted moderate Islam to appease the West. Yet, in the eight years of his military rule General Musharraf too displayed an ambiguous attitude towards the religious right in Pakistan. On the one hand, his regime is an ally of the United States in the campaign to curb extremism and militancy. On the other hand, the religious parties, some of them overtly pro-Taliban, have been his political allies and helped to sustain his illegitimate rule by acquiescing in his post-2002 experiment of controlled democracy. Under General Musharraf, the religious parties were able to win elections in one of the four provinces and became the major coalition partner in another in partnership with the pro-Musharraf faction of the Pakistan Muslim League. Both these provinces — the Northwest Frontier Provinces and Balochistan — share a border with Afghanistan and have been the hub of Talibanisation. In Balochistan, the military has used the Sunni-Deobandi parties to counter the threat of Baloch nationalists who are in a virtual state of civil war with the army.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history religious zealots have introduced suicide bombings as a tactic to terrorize Pakistani society. Even as Musharraf banned most of the militant groups, in effect they remained active and grew in power. Musharraf’s plan to reform madrasas never went beyond the pronouncement stage. Several Sharia movements have sprouted in the Pashtun areas of the country and even reached the capital. In brief, Musharraf has little to show for his anti-extremism effort, the high number of captured or killed al-Qaeda suspects notwithstanding.

An International Crisis Group report summed up the Musharraf period, saying: “Despite his propensity to rule through decrees and ordinances, President Musharraf has been unwilling to use his powers to implement his pledges to control religious extremism. On the contrary, his constitutional amendments, contained in the Legal Framework Order 2002, have undermined the domestic standing of moderate secular parties. Moreover, the military has actively supported the religious parties during and after the October 2002 elections. The MMA, an alliance of religious parties, is a major beneficiary of the military’s use of all available means to manipulate parliamentary alliances and forge acceptable governments.”

In the run up to the first general elections since Musharraf’s abdication of his military office, all signs point to a contest between secular parties with the religious parties once again appearing on the margins. The pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl group), which was the most successful religious party in the 2002 elections, is seeking an alliance with the pro-Musharraf faction of the Muslim League. Yet, by all accounts, the electoral front runners are the Pakistan People’s Party of Benzir Bhutto and the Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif.

Most observers, including Human Rights Watch, believe that fair elections are not possible under Musharraf and without an independent judiciary. But, however curtailed and constricted political freedoms may be, the electorate is poised to show once again on January 8, 2008 that religious extremism is the inorganic product of many periods of undemocratic military rule and does not reflect the will of the majority of Pakistani Muslims.

The United States has been directly involved in this process of Islamization and militarization of Pakistan. From General Ayub Khan to General Zia and Musharraf, every military ruler has received almost unqualified backing of Washington. Pathological fears of communists and now terrorists have been proffered as an excuse to prop up dictatorial regimes. Whereas Washington helped the jihadis during the Cold War, in the era of anti-terrorism the Bush administration has turned its attention to making Pakistani Islam moderate. Which, again, comes at the expense of secular sections of Pakistani society. Democracy, as usual, has been expendable. It’s time to realize how perniciously counterproductive these religion-focused policies have proved to be — both for Pakistan as well as the United States and the rest of the world. It’s time to keep religion out of it.

Najum Mushtaq is a project director at the Pak Institute for Peace Studies and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (

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