THE OTHER MALAYSIA: Down Pakistan’s road? —Farish A Noor
Pakistan’s slippery slide towards violent sectarian religious politics was not started by conservative Mullahs or even the military dictator General Zia-ul Haq, but the secular leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
The recent announcement made by the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak, to the effect that “we (Malaysia) are an Islamic state” is mind-boggling, to say the least. Speaking during a conference in Kuala Lumpur on the theme of ‘The Role of Islamic States in a Globalised World’, the Deputy Prime Minister claimed that Malaysia has “never been affiliated” with a secular position and that Malaysia’s development “has been driven by our adherence to the fundamentals of Islam”. (Bernama, 17 July 2007)
One cannot help but wonder if this was a case of a cynical historical revisionism at work, for there is ample historical data to show that the opposite was the case, and that the forefathers of the Malaysian nation — from Tunku Abdul Rahman to his own father Tun Razak and Hussein Onn — were keen to ensure that Malaysia remained a constitutional democracy where the state would play the role of honest broker and govern a Malaysian public that was multi-racial and multi-confessional.
The comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister would suggest a totalising discourse that fails to take into account the pluralism that is at the heart of the Malaysian nation and nation-building project. When he states that “we have always been driven by our adherence to the fundamental principles of Islam”, is he referring to the entire Malaysian population that includes not only Muslims but also Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and peoples of other faiths? Or by the term “we” is he referring to the oligarchy of Malay-Muslim elites who man the helm of UMNO and the ruling National Front alliance that governs the country?
At this crucial stage in Malaysian history, when the Constitution has been all but been forgotten, it would be wise to reflect on the mistakes made by other Muslim leaders elsewhere who have brought their countries to the brink of ruin by playing the ‘Islam card’. One country that comes to mind is Pakistan, which today is black-listed as a den of terrorism and has been cast as a pariah state internationally. Yet Pakistan’s slippery slide towards violent sectarian religious politics was not started by conservative Mullahs or even the military dictator General Zia-ul Haq, but the secular leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
As soon as he came to power in 1971 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched his own ‘people’s revolution’ in Pakistan. While preaching his ideology of ‘Islamic Socialism’ (which Muammar Ghadaffi of Libya also claimed as his idea) Bhutto announced the immediate nationalisation of ten major industries, including iron and steel, basic metals, heavy engineering, petrochemicals and motor vehicles. Bhutto also introduced new legislation that was meant to improve the working conditions of the country’s illiterate and backward workers and peasants. These reforms were inspired in part by the example set by Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi of Libya, and Bhutto’s close contacts with China. During his trips to China, Bhutto had been advised by Mao Tze-Tung and Chao En-Lai to set up a ‘people’s army’ that would support his nationalisation project.
The sudden and unexpected nationalisation caused the country’s already weakened economy to collapse completely, sending the stock market downwards and causing the flight of capital from the country.
Fearful of losing the support of the population, Bhutto then began to play the Islamic card as well. He assured the Islamist leaders that his own brand of ‘Islamic Socialism’ had nothing no do with Communism per se and that it was not an atheistic ideology. In 1972 he made a deal with the Jamiat-ul Ulema-i Islam (JUI) under Maulana Mufti Mahmood. Bhutto promised to allow Maulana Mahmood and the JUI to expand their activities in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) as long as they would support his own PPP party in the National and Regional Assemblies. He also promised Islamist parties like the JUI and Maulana Maudoodi’s Jamaat-e Islami (JI) that he would introduce new laws and constitutional amendments that would make Pakistan an Islamic state.
ZA Bhutto attempted to streamline the process of Islamisation in Pakistan via political and constitutional means. Like Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan before him, he tried to use the state as a means to control and patronise the religious powers in the country. In 1972 Bhutto managed to get Pakistan to host the second OIC summit in Lahore, in an attempt to bolster his own Islamic credentials. By virtue of the 1973 Constitution, the state was officially the guarantor of marriage and the family, the protector of the mother and the child and the guardian of equality before the law by formally prohibiting all forms of sexual discrimination.
Yet, the third Constitution of Pakistan had received the tacit assent of one of the most vociferous opponents of Ayub Khan: Maudoodi himself. Maudoodi’s support in the early 70s was understandable for the reasons that the Constitution had for the first time declared Islam as the religion of the state; had imposed the preservation of religious ethos (by prohibiting prostitution, drugs and obscenity) and had laid down the official definition of a proper Muslim (which would serve as the basis for the excommunication of the Ahmadis in 1974). Furthermore, Bhutto had systematically purged his ex-allies from the radical Left with the expressed support of none other than Maudoodi. In return for these efforts of ‘purification ‘ (particularly on the campuses of the country), Maudoodi gave his tacit endorsement to the 1973 Constitution.
But despite all these moves and concessions made in favour of the religious lobbies (including prohibition of alcohol, gambling etc.), the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, appeared to be theocratic in theory but secular in practice. This was the conclusion that the Islamist camp eventually came to by the mid 70s. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP government was caught in a trap of its own making. The feudal Bhutto attempted to present himself as a democrat and a populist, and he introduced many radical policy changes that were destined to have a long-lasting impact on the country itself. He pushed Pakistan into the nuclear race even when it was clear that the country could not sustain such a project either economically or politically. His desire to entrench himself on the terrain of Pakistani politics led to a sustained assault on the country’s civil service and judiciary, and culminated in the formation of his own private para-military force (the Federal Security Force FSF).
Bhutto’s crypto-socialist policies also led to the demoralisation of the ruling elite, many of whom took the opportunity to immigrate to the West. In one vital area this was to have a potentially dangerous effect: The higher ranks of the armed forces were no longer the exclusive purview of the ruling elite but was finally left open to the newly emerging urbanised middle classes, who were much more conservative and religiously inclined. In 1976 he picked the comparatively junior General Zia-ul Haq as Commander in Chief, in an attempt to pre-empt any coup attempts by more senior generals. This would later prove his undoing.
Today, after decades of Islamisation at the hands of Pakistan’s Mullahs that went unchecked by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later Zia-ul Haq, Pakistan has become an outcast state there religious politics has proven to be divisive and detrimental to the plight of women, non-Muslim minorities and minority sects among Muslims. All of this could have been avoided by sticking to the secular principles of the Pakistani constitution, but that same constitution has been torn to shreds by successive politicians — including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — who found it expedient to play the ‘Islamic card’ whenever it suited them, just to garner some cheap votes at the elections.
The rest, as they say, is history and that history now weighs heavily of Pakistan and its people.
Is Malaysia heading down the path of Pakistan? Well, at the moment Malaysia has several ‘Islamic’ features that even Pakistan does not have, such as the morality police squads, Islamic detention centres and the like. Thus far from being a model moderate Muslim state that naïve outsiders like Kofi Annan seem to admire so, we seem well on the path of an increasingly divisive, sectarian religiously-based politics that has spun out of control.
Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, and visiting professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta