City of Brass

City of Brass


Pakistan’s constitutional Islamism

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Ali Eteraz has a lengthy, lucid article on the root of Pakistan’s problem – namely, that it’s 1973 constitution has made it an Islamist state rather than a democratic one. Eteraz provides a lengthy historical background and context for how the constitution came to be and what motivated it’s implementation – in short, cynical politics rather than genuine religious idealism. Here’s how that history begins:

Most people in the world, including some Pakistanis, live under the illusion that the country is secular and just happens to have been overrun by extremists. This is false. Pakistan became an Islamic state in 1973 when the new constitution made Islam the state religion. Under the earlier 1956 constitution Islam had been merely the “official” religion. Nineteen-seventy-three, in other words, represents Pakistan’s “Iran moment”–when the government made itself beholden to religious law. Most western observers missed the radical change because the leader of Pakistan at the time was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a whiskey-drinking, pseudo-socialist from a Westernized family. Those that did notice the transformation ignored it because the country was reeling from a massive military defeat in 1971, which led to half the nation becoming Bangladesh.

Under a section entitled “Islamic provisions,” the ’73 constitution proposed a Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a board of anywhere from eight to twenty religious scholars, who were to represent a cross section of Islam. The Council’s role would be to advise legislative bodies as to whether the laws under consideration were in conformity with Islam. The CII, incidentally, had an anti-democratic history: it grew out of a 1962 organ called the Islamic Advisory Council which had been created by the military dictator Ayub Khan to pacify the religious parties.

Chapter 3A of the ’73 constitution, inserted in 1980, also gave the government the authority to create a Federal Shariat Court, which was a parallel system that would adjudicate matters on the basis of Islamic Law and only permit Muslim judges. The FSC could–on its own motion or upon a petition of any citizen of Pakistan–”decide the question whether or not any law or provision of law is repugnant to the Injunctions of Islam, as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet.”

Under the constitution, the FSC’s rulings were binding on every court except the Supreme Court. At first blush this would suggest a neutral oversight mechanism, except that appeals from the FSC did not go to the full bench. Instead, there was to be a special appellate division within the Supreme Court, composed of two ulama, or religious scholars, and three judges, all of whom had to be Muslim.

The Islamization of the ’73 constitution, in other words, had two parts: the CII existed at the front end of legislation while the FSC monitored.

Bhutto’s Islamization, however, was cynical rather than sincere. He cared not so much about empowering the Islamists as about appropriating their agenda–which allowed him to represent Pakistan favorably to the Arab monarchies from whom he wanted economic assistance. It was for this reason that he sent his minister, Ghulam Mustafa Khar, to bring Jamat-e-Islami’s Maulana Maudoodi on board in support of the constitution, and also why he went so far as to call his distributionist domestic platform by the name of “Islamic Socialism.” This term was significant not because of the policies it represented–centralization and government control of major industries–but because it signaled that in Pakistan all future political agendas would be coated in religious garb.

Even though Bhutto did not actually erect the institutions in the constitution, the open affirmation of a religious approach led Pakistan’s Islamists, primarily those of the Jamat-e-Islami party, to grow insistent. They immediately demanded that Bhutto officially declare the ahmadiyya sect to be non-Muslim. The prime minister had no choice but to follow his own matrix to its logical conclusion, and in 1974, he engaged in what became, in the nation-state era, the first act of collective excommunication in the Muslim world. No postcolonial Muslim state had previously thrown people that self-identified as Muslim officially out of the religion. Contrast this with India, where under a 1971 court case, the ahmadiyya were allowed to refer to themselves as Muslim, even as the vast majority of Muslims were not obligated to acknowledge them as such.

Almost as if to prove that the 1973 constitution encouraged a leader to flout the rule of law–and get away with it by calling it “Islam”–in 1977 a general by the name of Zia ul Haq engineered a coup and hanged Bhutto. To legitimize his rule, Zia affiliated his government with an old theological term known as “Nizam-e-Mustafa”–the “Way of Muhammad.”

The Islamists, ever principled, cheered Bhutto’s hanging and declared Zia their savior.

Gripping, and insightful stuff… and the tale continues at length. There is a LOT more – all of it is essential reading.



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