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Gurmukh Singh
Gurmukh Singh

Gurmukh Singh

Pakistan is paying the price for Arabization Add to ...

Wishing to build the world's biggest Muslim country into a bastion of secular, liberal middle classes, Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared at the nation's birth in 1947: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has got nothing to do with the business of the state …"

Sixty-three years on, and Pakistan is anything but its founder's dream. Liberal middle classes are in retreat as fundamentalism, sectarian violence, religious bigotry and creeping Talibanization turn the country into "the epicentre of global terrorism" and put it in imminent danger of implosion.

Unfortunately, the new nation lost its script very quickly because of its founder's sudden death in 1948. Jinnah's successors, including his prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, showed no qualms about using religion to craft an identity. In 1956, they rechristened the country as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, bringing religion - clerics and their street power - into politics.

Once religion was incorporated to crystallize the nation's identity, religious symbolism or Islamization became a tool for clever ruling elites - feudal politicians and the army - to appease the clergy and harness their street power to further their ends.

It was wily Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who struck the first blow for fundamentalism by banning alcohol, proclaiming Friday as a weekly holiday and declaring the Ahmadis as non-Muslims to cleverly project himself as an undisputed Muslim leader at home and on the global stage.

The appeasement of the clergy was part of his dream to gather Muslim nations around him to create a new power bloc in addition to the Soviet and Western blocs in the Cold War era.

Ironically, Mr. Bhutto ended up being swept aside by the same obscurantist forces he unleashed to fortify his position. It was his successor, military dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who pulled out all the stops to turn Pakistan into "fortress Islam" by stamping the country's South Asian social, educational and cultural identity and its institutions with Arabization and Wahhabism, the Saudi version of Sunni Islam.

To bring about a quick Arabization of his society, he made Arabic studies mandatory and introduced newscasts in Arabic on television and radio. He ushered in an Islamic justice system by setting up a federal sharia court to try cases as per the Koran, introduced amputations for robbery and theft and flogging and stoning death for adultery. Liquor, cabarets, clubs and non-Islamic dress were banished.

Under his chadar aur char diwari (the veil and four walls) policy, women were told to discard their South Asian dress, including the highly popular sari, in favour of top-to-toe Arabic chadars and stay behind four walls.

Blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed was made punishable by death.

Poor Christian woman Asia Bibi, who's on death row for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet, and Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who paid with his life for standing by her, and the subsequent glorification of his killer by crowds and lawyers are the latest manifest examples of the dictator's draconian laws.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 came in handy for General Zia to speed up the Arabization of Pakistan as his Saudi friends and the CIA showered with him petrodollars to set up madrassas (religious seminaries) and mosques and supplied Arabic teachers to raise die-hard mujahedeen to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

It was Gen. Zia's obsession to Arabize Pakistan that turned the country into a virtual theocracy, a safe haven for global terror networks - from al-Qaeda to the Taliban to the homegrown Tehrik-e-Taliban and sundry lashkars (militias) - and a jihadist-churning factory with its network of more than 18,000 madrassas. And as usual, the country's clever ruling elites are looking the other way.

Gurmukh Singh is the Canada correspondent for India's Indo-Asian News Service.

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