Ishtiaq Ahmed on "Islamism" in Pakistan

Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed offered a historical perspective on Islamism in Pakistan for the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.  Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center, moderated the following Q&A session.

In his presentation, Professor Ahmed outlined how and why Islamism came to dominate Pakistani politics, despite the secular vision of the state put forth by its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in 1947:

If you change your past and work together in a spirit that everyone of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make. … [Y]ou will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah passed away a year later, and his inclusive vision of a state was quickly replaced with religious infighting; first between mainstream Muslims and the Ahmadis, the latter of which were officially declared “non-muslims” in 1974, and subsequently outlawed and further persecuted; and later, between Shia and Sunni Muslims throughout the 1980’s.
Both the cause and effect of such tensions, Shia President Ali Bhutto was desposed and executed in 1979, and his successor, Sunni General Zia ul-Haq (Correction by Professor Ishtiaq Ahmad: There is one error in the reporting, however. I did not say, but the reporter has said that ZA Bhutto was a Shia who was overthrown by a Sunni Zia-ul-Haq. The fact is that both were Sunnis.), subsequently remade Pakistani law based on a conservative Sunni interpretation of the Qu’ran.  His revision of the national Penal Code led to stricter criminal punishments (including hand amputations, stoning) the debasement of female testimony and the outlaw of alcohol. In addition, children and teenagers were radicalized through the influence of such groups as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the anti-Soviet, pro-jihad teachings propagated in most madrassas — all of which contributed to generational shifts in religious intolerance.

In conclusion, Professor Ahmed commented on the future of Pakistan.  If the country is to become a vibrant, contemporary democracy, Pakistan must update its outmoded laws and move into the 21st century. Furthermore, the Pakistani government must return to its founder’s intent to see all citizens protected with the same rights, united under a national identity instead of a strictly religious one.  According to Professor Ahmed, democracy and Islam are not incompatible, as many suggest, so long as a nation permits its citizens to practice their faith without impediment, including honoring the five pillars of Islam.  Anything else, including the instrumentalization and politicization of religion, has and will continue to hinder Pakistan on its path towards a more stable, cohesive identity.

More on Ishtiaq Ahmed:
Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore and a Professor of Political Science at Stockholm University.  He published his doctoral thesis, “The concept of an Islamic State: An analysis of the Ideological Controversy in Pakistan,” in 1987.  His other works include, a comparative study of separatism in South Asia entitled State, Nation and Ethnicity in South Asia, The Politics of Group Rights: The State and Multiculturalism.


At the ISAS, he has begun working on a research project “Is Pakistan a Garrison State?”  The aim of the study is to generate a comprehensive analysis of the reasons why the military came to play the dominant role in Pakistani politics.  He is also in the process of completing a major study based on first-hand accounts of the partition of the Punjab in 1947.  He has written extensively on the politics of South Asia, especially Pakistan, in the Pakistan English-language newspapers, The Daily Times and The News International during May 2002 and June 2007.  He is on the editorial advisory board of Asian Ethnicity, Journal of Punjab Studies, IPRI Journal and PIPS Journal of Conflict and Peace Studies.

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