Nikki Keddie traveled to Pakistan in 1985 and 1986 to investigate groups that in various ways have worked against President Zia ul Haq’s attempts to “Islamize” Pakistan’s legal system. Many of these activists are from women’s organizations; the Shi‘i community and certain lawyers groups have also mobilized protests. This activity flies in the face of the popular wisdom that Islamist politics is becoming more and more popular everywhere in the Middle East. Keddie’s observations suggest that it may be much less popular in countries which are actually experiencing Islamization. Keddie is professor of history at the University of California-Los Angeles. Eric Hooglund and Joe Stork interviewed her in Washington in December 1986.

What first engaged you in this project?

I went in 1985 as part of a comparative project on Islam and politics and was very taken by Pakistan. They have the most effective women’s movement of any Muslim country that I’ve been to. There are a lot of women activists, from the countryside as well as the city.

A few years ago, when Zia’s Islamization laws were introduced, many impinged upon women’s rights. A number of women’s organizations got together and protested laws which threaten the existing legal rights of women, or restrict them. An example of restrictive laws are the “Islamic” rules of evidence, whereby a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man. They’re sometimes discouraged that they haven’t stopped all of these laws, but they’ve definitely helped slow down the pace of Islamization.

Where did this Islamization push come from?

It started under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was under pressure as a secularist. Pakistan, for all its Islamic raison d’etre, had always been ruled by secularists. Bhutto used Islam to offset his identification as part of the Westernized ruling intelligentsia. Also, Islam looks attractive as something which will unite those ethnic groups and provinces which barely identify with Pakistan as a united country. Late in his rule, Bhutto outlawed alcohol and said that the Ahmadiyya sect was non-Muslim. Hence, Islamization was not purely an invention of the present ruler, although Zia certainly made it much stronger.

Would it have happened in the absence of the Iranian revolution?

That was a factor, but there are others — including closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, which also began under Bhutto; workers and military personnel moving to and from that area; the Saudis sending money back.

Have the Saudis and the World Muslim League been heavily involved?

They spend a lot of money, but not in a very high-profile way. A lot of it is believed to go to the classic Islamist organization, the Jamaat-e Islami, founded by the late Maududi. The one highly visible institution is the International Islamic University in Islamabad.

In the broad spectrum of opposition to Zia, how important is this anti-Islamization activity?

Increasingly so. Pakistan is a particularly difficult country to Islamize. For the vast majority of people, Islam has not been “high” Islam — the kind that believes in no depictions of people, no shrines, no “superstitions.” It’s been a localized, Sufi-centered system, without a very strong ulama. Government-sponsored Islam is bound to be a more centralizing, neo-traditional kind of Islam where everybody should believe the same thing and follow the same laws. This has brought major resistance. There are at least two other organized political parties, mainly Sunni, which oppose the government and the Jamaat-e Islami.

What is the Sunni-Shi‘a breakdown?

They don’t record it in the census, but the guesses average around 20 percent Shi‘a, very spread out around the country. When I say Shi‘a, I mean Twelver Shi‘a. There are also a lot of Ismailis or Agha Khanis, some of them up in the far north on the way to China, but they don’t enter into the political equation.

What about the Jamaat-e Islami?

They never get many votes when they run in elections, but they’ve got a lot of money, and they’re centralized, and they’ve got a student group which is very powerful. In the beginning they were allied with Zia. They now want to distance themselves to some degree from him, but they’re still that party closest to him outside the Pakistan Muslim League, the party that’s been recreated to support Zia.

Is the regime of one mind about Islamization?

Is Zia of one mind — that’s the real question. He wants to do what will keep him in power. I think he’s had some doubts about whether wholesale Islamization will keep him in power.

Did the women’s groups you studied exist before Zia?

Many did. The Women’s Action Forum began under Zia. It was at first a coalition of existing groups formed to oppose laws harmful to women, but it operates now as a membership organization of really dedicated women. Many other women’s groups are organized by profession — the lawyers’ or the business and professional women’s groups. Then there is a more social work-oriented organization which has existed for a long time, the All-Pakistan Women’s Association. They have done some very good social and education work, and take a position on bills affecting women. They are not political activists, but they have large numbers, and certainly have to be figured into the total impact of the women’s movement.

Is there an overlap in membership with the Women’s Action Forum?

Yes. You also have some important women and groups on the left. There is a Democratic Women’s Movement, headed by the daughter of a very conservative prime minister in the Punjab, a famous figure in the 1930s. The wife of Wali Khan, the leader of the main leftist party in Pakistan, took over for the others when they were in jail and is still a leader in that broader leftist political movement. They believe in women’s equality but they don’t have a special program for women.

The women’s movement has more allies on the question of the shari‘a laws than it does explicitly on many other issues. Most of the political parties will at least sign statements opposing shari‘a proposals.

How would you place the Women’s Forum members socially?

Educated women with a certain amount of money and time. Many of them work as lawyers or businesswomen or something similar. They sometimes are put down for representing only a limited social class. But if you look at feminist movements everywhere, that’s how they started. The Forum has made real efforts in a number of cities to reach out to other strata of the population.

How does opposition leader Benazir Bhutto intersect with this movement?

She has evidently never had very strong opinions on anything that anybody can attest to except that democracy — by which she seems to mean what existed under her father — should be restored. She has very little in the way of a program. Women have failed to get her to come out on women’s issues. It is perhaps understandable that a woman in her situation would not want to make a big point of women’s issues, but the fact is she doesn’t want to make a big point of any issue beyond the obvious one of elections. And she doesn’t want to alienate the US. Her fire is directed entirely against Zia, but not specifically because of Islamization.

It’s not surprising, is it, that women and lawyers of a somewhat Westernized upper class would take this position against Islamization? A similar situation existed in Iran.

These women have risked a lot, going out on demonstrations and getting locked up and beaten up in considerable numbers. Also, Zia’s Islamization has made many of these women go back and study Islam. They are reinterpreting Islam in ways that I find more compelling than those of Ali Shariati. This is important in reaching out to other social groups in the country. They are not seen, as they were in Iran, simply as a totally Westernized people. They have more roots in their own culture than their counterparts in Iran. Middle-class families kept more of the traditional customs than they did in Iran.

This is not really a secularist movement, then?

No, but none of the so-called secularist movements in the Muslim world, except maybe Atatürk, were really secularist in the Western sense. It’s been more a question of whose version of Islam is right, and who controls it. Some of these people are secularists, but they are not insisting on a rigid separation of religion and state.

Is the Shi‘a involvement primarily an anti-Sunni manifestation?

A serious program of Islamization has got to pick its shari‘a and its rules. That immediately alienates the people who don’t follow that particular version or those rules. The Shi‘a first protested in huge demonstrations in Islamabad in the early 1980s against the zakat ordinance. The government had decided to take a 2.5 percent levy out of bank accounts and turn it over to a zakat fund for distribution to the needy. The Shi‘a immediately said their zakat should go to religious leaders for distribution, not to the government. The government backed down and exempted anybody who signed an affidavit saying that this form of zakat was against his or her religious law. People say this created a lot of instant Shi‘a.

Practically all Shi‘a think that if any religious law is applied, it should be applied by their community voluntarily, and not by the state.

How do Pakistanis view the Iranian revolution?

Aside from the Shi‘a, Iran seemed to be of no great importance to people. They regard Iran as a normal country. Their government has good relations with Iran. This would keep most intellectuals from identifying too closely with Iran, given their attitude towards their own government. There is the Imamiyya Student Organization of Shi‘i students and some others, who want an Islamic revolution in Pakistan, but don’t associate Islamization in Pakistan with the Islamic revolution in Iran. There is a second group, again mostly Shi‘a, who admire Ayatollah Khomeini as a great leader who has stood up to the US and the West without falling under the Soviet Union, but they show no sign of wanting that kind of government in Pakistan.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork, Eric Hooglund "Pakistan’s Movement Against Islamization," Middle East Report 148 (September/October 1987).

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