I had questioned General Zia-ul-Haq about core aspects of his Islamization policy, at a public event in Multan. I was, by all means, in perilous waters.
We go back to the essence of this note, which is my own perspective on how closed-minded Muslims see their society and history. I believe it is a failure in the main of the Muslim mind, with some honourable exceptions, to grapple with ideas self-critically and objectively. Muslims should be able to say, “What is going wrong? And how do I fix it?” But we find all too frequently that they are not doing that. They are simply saying, “If something is going wrong, others are making it go wrong.”
True to form the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq would blame outsiders and foreigners for the problems of Pakistan. And in Pakistan, when they say “outsiders and foreigners” they mean either the Indians, the Israelis or the Americans.
I talk of ilm in the ideal. In reality my experience is that the normative attitude to knowledge in society has been generally indifferent and in some cases even hostile. Take this example from my own experience a few short years before that Multan conference where I questioned General Zia.
The file carrying my application requesting study leave to pursue PhD studies in the UK, to which I was entitled, moved 36 times from one level of government to another over two years before I was able to proceed to London. At two points on this long and complicated journey, the file was lodged in a bureaucratic hole and seemed lost but for the intervention of Zeenat’s maternal uncles, who were then members of the shaky provincial government and threatened to pull out of the administration, allowing it to collapse, if the file was not processed. In the other case, the late Hayat Khan Sherpao of the former Frontier Province personally rang the Establishment Secretary, who was known as an inveterate opponent of the CSP and in the habit of routinely rejecting any CSP case, and threatened to take the file personally to the Prime Minister. As Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto was known to have a foul temper with bureaucrats and as Sherpao was a favourite back then, my file was approved by the Secretary. The PhD process itself was a difficult experience juggling the elements of racism and bureaucracy. When I came back and was posted in the Tribal Areas, I was told by a senior officer not to use the word “doctor” with my name. “The only doctor should be the agency surgeon. You are a CSP officer and do not need a PhD”
However, judging by the number of doctors today, and especially among women, I can see that progress has been made over the years.
The attempt to Islamize the past was not simply pedagogical. It had its political roots in India where there was an increasing movement towards glorifying the pre-Islamic past
By Pakistanis like Zia denying the past historical legacy of Pakistan, the country ironically loses a rich part of its history. The ancient sites of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, the quintessential Indus Valley cities, are believed by historians to have had an advanced society – a sewage system, a democratic order (as there was no evidence of large palaces), no priesthood as there were no temples, and inclusive societies that welcomed arrivals from different cultures outside India. In short the Indus Valley civilization was sophisticated, democratic and multicultural. To dismiss this rich archaeological and cultural heritage because the inhabitants were “Hindus” and not Muslims made little sense.
The attempt to Islamize the past was not simply pedagogical. It had its political roots in India where there was an increasing movement towards glorifying the pre-Islamic past. Historians, polemicists and journalists were conjuring a time of such marvels as helicopters, missiles and brain surgery that could compete with the best the modern world had to offer. The subtext was simple and clear. India was a highly advanced and integrated civilization until its purity was violated with the arrival of the corrupted and corrupting Muslims. For this purpose Muslims were depicted not unlike Donald Trump’s description of Mexicans arriving in the US – rapists and murderers. Reading current textbooks gives us evidence of the widespread revision of history that is taking place. Muslim rulers are dismissed as drunken buffoons lusting after Hindu women. Their achievements and accomplishments are rarely, if ever, mentioned.
Even Akbar the Great, once the favorite of British and Indian writers for his generosity and inclusiveness towards non-Muslims especially Hindus – contemporary accounts in the celebrated Akbar Nama about his reign confirm this – has been denounced by a BJP minister and others as a Hitler and a fascist. Place and street names honoring Muslims are being replaced.
This subtext of the predatory and alien Muslim in India had grown and spread into the mainstream. There would come a time when the stabbing to death and lynching of ordinary Muslims on their way to perform routine chores would become so common as to barely cause comment. The entire community was guilty – as eaters of the divine cattle and therefore culpable. As a consequence Muslims were openly vilified in the media and faced discrimination. Even well known Muslim movie stars were denied flats and houses for rent because of their faith.
Inevitably there was a correlation between the spread of communal ideology and politics. Starting from virtually zero in Parliament – the association with Nathuram Godse, a member of the right-wing RSS who assassinated Gandhi in 1948, affecting their popularity – the BJP exemplified right-wing ideology and aggressively supported the idea of the Hinduization of India. Over time, it gained sufficient support in parliament to win the government. By the 1990s it had its first prime minister in Delhi. PM Narendra Modi, a hardcore BJP supporter forever tainted with the 2002 massacre aimed at Muslims when he was head of government in Gujarat State, is a product of this background.
We have to be cautious of generalizations, however. The right-wing was not a monolith: as the examples of leading BJP members A. B. Vajpayee, L. K. Advani and Jaswant Singh illustrate. They could look at Muslims, Pakistan and even the Quaid-i-Azam at certain periods of their lives with more discernment than others of their ilk.
We have to be cautious of generalizations, however. The right-wing was not a monolith: as the examples of leading BJP members A. B. Vajpayee, L. K. Advani and Jaswant Singh illustrate
Zia and people who think like him in Pakistan then represent a mirror image to these right-wing developments across the border. In Pakistan, text books depict Hindus normatively in a negative light. The very word “Hindu” in society especially in the villages generally signifies an unclean and lowly person. In Pakistan the notorious case of Asia Bibi highlighted the prejudice and dangers that minorities face. While drinking water at the village, she was accused of violating the purity of the utensils – a cultural practice influenced by notions of Hindu castes – and in the argument that followed, accused of blasphemy. She was quickly ensnared in a nightmare and sentenced to death. A perfectly innocent woman was incarcerated for a decade waiting to be put to death when a hearing of the Supreme Court found her innocent in an appeal and ordered her to be freed. In the meantime numerous lives had been lost, including that of the Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, in the passions aroused by the Asia Bibi case. Such was the level of irrationality that the killer of the Governor, a member of his bodyguard, became a folk hero – with thousands hailing his lawyers as saviours of Islam.
These South Asian societies are convulsed in palingenetic narratives.
My questions to Zia, however, were not situated in the Indian-Pakistani context although they had lessons for both. They were more philosophical and pedagogical in nature and related to the larger Muslim world. Without rigorous academic research and interpretation, the past can all too easily be manipulated into ideological shapes that suit the politicians of the time. It leads us into the trap of creating a totally imaginary past. In the context of South Asia it also has a deadly corollary – if our community is pure and the other impure and therefore evil, we must attack it and attempt to remove it.
Ironically, very similar, ugly and distorted mirror images of the Other have developed in India and Pakistan. Inevitably this distortion of facts and the creation of an imagined past have affected communal relations and violence has followed. Minorities in India and Pakistan, especially Muslims in the former and Hindus in the latter, have suffered egregiously.
Not long after my encounter with General Zia in Multan, appreciating that discretion is the better part of valour, I accepted the Iqbal Chair of Pakistan Studies at Cambridge University and in 1988 headed for the safety and sanctuary of a Western university.
Emma Duncan, who worked for the Economist, provided an explanation of how I had got away with my ideas so far in her contemporaneous book on Pakistan, Breaking the Curfew (1989):
“Akbar Ahmed is the commissioner of Sibi, and an anthropologist with impeccable academic credentials: Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge, and a list of well-reviewed books as long as your arm. His survival in the civil service is a remarkable tribute to his brains. Although an intellectual, he is regarded as an asset, not just because he writes about Islam and Islamic anthropology, but because his talents are recognized internationally. His book-launches, he told me, are big events, attended by ministers and ambassadors. His social pedigree is equally smart. Meeting his wife, you understand the meaning of breeding, in the nineteenth-century sense. The granddaughter of the last Wali of Swat, she has a calm, reserved beauty that demands no tributes” (p. 136).
It was the same degree of protection from Zia’s anti-intellectual regime, and his spirit of retribution, that allowed me to survive after Multan.
It would be another decade and the behaviour of another benighted dictator which would lead me to sending in my request for early retirement from the service. Disgusted with the shenanigans that I confronted in the leaders and bureaucracy of Pakistan, I retired in self -imposed exile to the USA to spend my time on campus. Once there, the students, the research and the debates around Islam kept me happily occupied. I was done in dealing with egomaniacal dictators who stifled independent thought, reveled in ignorance, and promoted cruelty in the name of my faith. New debates and new challenges awaited me in the US.
I had got a new lease of life and, most importantly, a platform to continue my attempts at disseminating the permanent and inclusivist ideas of Islam, especially where they overlapped with other cultures and religions. I felt that we still had something significant to contribute to human civilization, especially with a view to the greater global crises that faced it. It also allowed me to explore and discover more fully the wonders that lay in the faiths and cultures of others. In short, to become a bridge-builder between cultures and religions.
It gave me a golden opportunity to become once again a seeker and a student.
The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of “Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity”