Political leaders in Pakistan have used religion to further their political agenda, and to garner votes in elections and place themselves in position of power and influence. The Objectives Resolution of 1956 injected religion agenda into our politics. It has become a part of our national political discourse with the promulgation of the 1956 constitution. Seventy-five years on and nothing has changed. Our erstwhile national leaders are still harping on the same tune for partisan political gains. During the last two decades Pakistan has lost over 80,000 innocent lives to religious extremism and sectarian hatred and we have every right to expect our political leaders to show some maturity and political sense and avoid this dangerous and damaging policy of gaining political mileage in their bid for political office.
Our political history is replete with instances when this card was used with devastating effects. President Ayub Khan used it in 1964 when he opposed Mohatarma Fatima Jinnah who contested the elections against the incumbent president in the massively rigged election based on basic democracies of the 1962 constitution. In 1988 we again witnessed the blatant and shameful use of the religion card against Benazir Bhutto who was elected as the first female prime minister and the first Muslim woman to hold such an office. The left leaning socialist intellectual Z.A. Bhutto launched his Pakistan Peoples Party in 1967 after breaking away from the Ayub regime, and in spite of protests and opposition from party stalwarts, he called his campaign and political program “Islamic Socialism”.
The religion card has not helped or saved any ruler so far. The close advisors of Imran Khan should give him a history lesson on how to avoid this tried and tested method. Bhutto turned the 1973 constitution more Islamic than the 1956 and 1962 constitutions. The same religion card was used by the opposition parties after he was accused of massive rigging in the 1977 elections. The anti-Bhutto campaign launched by the combined opposition took the shape of Tehreek-i-Nizam-i-Mustafa. Bhutto was then clutching at the proverbial straw when he declared Friday as a public holiday and banned alcoholic drinks in the country. But all his efforts to appease and placate the religious fanatics could not save him, and the result was the third Martial Law of General Ziaul Haq on July 5, 1977.
General Zia known for piety and strict observance of religious rituals used the religious card to strengthen his grip on power, and prolong his illegal rule in the country. He started a campaign for the Islamisation of society and to introduce the rule of Sharia. To legitimize his draconian rule, he held a national referendum in which five questions about his Islamisation policy were asked. Majority response in the affirmative was supposed to mean that he could continue as president for the next five years. When the result of the referendum was announced, lo and behold, 95 percent of the people voted for him. This was nothing but a blatant lie, the result was rigged.
Complete separation of state and religion may not be possible in Pakistan. But instead of blowing the Islamic trumpet and enforcing moral policing, the PM should concentrate on the grave economic conditions, education, unemployment, terrorism, and the political isolation as a result of pro-Taliban policies.
In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. During this conflict, the religion card was used to get support for the Afghan resistance and to launch a holy war or jihad against the invading Russian forces. During this time over 25,000 madrassahs or religious seminaries were established all over the country and were used to provide Islamic warriors or cannon fodder for the war against the Soviets. This use of the religion card during the Zia period resulted in an influx of drugs and weapons into Pakistan and promoted religious extremism and sectarian hatred.
In the first election after the demise of Ziaul Haq in 1988, then head of the ISI, Hamid Gul, used the religion card blatantly. He formed the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) and huge amounts of money were distributed among the anti-Benazir Bhutto politicians to launch a campaign that the nation should not accept a woman as the prime minister. This tactic failed, and Benazir was elected by the people of Pakistan.
Today there are over 30,000 religious seminaries in Pakistan, and most of them are controlled by the Deobandi school of thought, funded by Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries. After 9/11, the world changed drastically and Pakistan joined the US in its War on Terror. At this stage, the religious parties exploited the US-led attack on Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban regime in their favour, and subsequently an alliance of religious parties, MMA, swept the elections in KP, and also emerged as big force in urban Sindh. This was for the first time in history that religious parties won so many seats in the parliament and for the first time formed a government in KP. The MMA was however dubbed as the Mullah Military Alliance by the media.
Imran Khan, the leader of the PTI, has adroitly exploited the sentiments of the people by the utopian promise of forming a Riasat-i-Madina, and the use of religious jargon in his public speeches. He has shown complete sympathy with the Taliban and has won elections in 2013 and 2018, with the active support of the religious parties. He shook hands with Maulana Tahirul Qadri and then Maulana Khadim Rizvi.
Imran Khan should know that the repeated use of the religion card has not helped any previous ruler and it will not do him any good. Complete separation of state and religion may not be possible in Pakistan. But instead of blowing the Islamic trumpet and enforcing moral policing, the PM should concentrate on the grave economic conditions, education, unemployment, terrorism, and the political isolation as a result of pro-Taliban policies.