By: Hamida Ghafour Foreign Affairs reporter, Published on Mon Aug 26 2013 Toronto Star
In Mohammed Hanif’s dark and brilliant satire A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Zia ul-Haq is described as “fattened, chubby-cheeked and marinating in his own paranoia,” the military ruler of a nation who consulted the Quran every morning “as if it were not the word of God but his daily horoscope on the back page of the Pakistan Times.”
It is a memorable description of the Sunni fundamentalist general known at home simply as “Zia,” who ruled Pakistan with near absolute power for 11 years until his death in an unsolved plane crash on Aug. 17, 1988.
In the West, Zia is an obscure figure, but as Pakistan marks the 25th anniversary of his death, his influence remains strong — and controversial.
It was under his tutelage that religious radicals became pillars of the regime, shaping policy and forming alliances with the military and intelligence services that endure today.
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As Pakistan’s prime minister from 1973 to 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promoted Zia ul-Haq but was rewarded with a military coup. zoom
Zia may not be responsible for all of Pakistan’s ills, but the policies and laws he issued contributed to the troubles that plague the turbulent nation: the blasphemy laws and proliferation of jihadist outfits supported by the state.
His legacy remains “enduring and toxic,” says Abbas Nasir, former head of the BBC Urdu Service and former editor of Dawn newspaper.
“Zia’s ideology, which I say is toxic, dropped roots and took hold,” Nasir says in an interview from his home in London. “Although people used to laugh at him and say he is a mullah.”
It may be hard to remember, considering the shocking levels of religiously motivated violence — 5,872 killed or injured last year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan — that the country’s founding laws are secular, dating back to British rule.
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Zia believed Pakistan’s survival required it to be an Islamic state run by Sharia law, under the guidance of the military and intelligence agencies, wrote Husain Haqqani in Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.
His views were shaped by personal and national traumas: the violent partition of British India in 1947, which created the state of Pakistan, two agonizing wars with bigger rival India over disputed Kashmir, and the breaking away of its eastern province, now Bangladesh, in 1971. His own hometown, Jallander, was left in India after Partition.
“I will tell you what Islam and Pakistan means to me,” he said in 1983, according to Shahid Javed Burki, author of Pakistan Under Zia. “It is a vision of my mother struggling on, tired, with all her worldly possessions in her hands when she crossed the border into Pakistan.”
His humble origins — his father was a civilian army clerk — and his deep Sunni faith put him at odds with more worldly fellow officers who laughed at him, Burki wrote. They drank and gambled in their spare time and organized partridge shoots, while Zia prayed. That religious devotion increased as he rose through the ranks, Haqqani wrote.
“Pakistan’s fundamental identity according to many Pakistanis and in particular Zia ul-Haq is that Islamic identity is what holds the country together.”
assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto
His devoutness, professionalism and seemingly apolitical views appealed to then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who did not consider Zia a threat and promoted him over more ambitious senior officers to become his chief of army staff, wrote Burki.
But within a year Zia outmanoeuvred Bhutto, a scion of the landed gentry that ran Pakistan, declared martial law, and in 1979 had Bhutto hanged.
Continuing Pakistan’s tradition of the army interfering with politics, he became the third military ruler since Pakistan was created, but with a difference. He immediately began shifting the nation toward an Islamic-oriented political identity, says Aisha Ahmad, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
“Pakistan’s fundamental identity according to many Pakistanis and in particular Zia ul-Haq is that Islamic identity is what holds the country together,” says Ahmad.
It began with small measures. Official government letters now began with an invocation of God. His predecessors, including Bhutto, also used religion as a political tool, as Haqqani points out, but Zia took it further.
The constitution was amended to give Zia broad powers, the judiciary’s authority was curtailed and religious parties such as Jamaat e-Islami became “pillars” of his regime, writes Haqqani.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was an opportunity. U.S. President Ronald Reagan described Pakistan’s regime as a “front line” against communism and the Americans gave Zia $3.7 billion in economic aid and military assistance from 1978 to 1988, in addition to $2 billion channelled through the intelligence agency, ISI, to Afghan mujahideen groups.
The head of ISI, Akhtar Abdur Rahman, suggested to Zia the idea of arming Islamists to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan, where the indigenous resistance against Soviet occupation had started as nationalist, even secular. In later years, the flames of jihad stoked by the Soviet war led to the creation of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other homegrown fanatical groups.
“Undoubtedly Zia went farthest in defining Pakistan as an Islamic state and he nurtured the jihadist ideologues that now threaten to destabilize much of the Islamic world,” Haqqani writes.
But ideology was sometimes conveniently set aside.
Zia accepted weapons from Mossad, Israel’s intelligence, to send to Afghanistan, allegedly joking with the Israelis, “just don’t put any Stars of David on the boxes.”
The strategy was to bolster Pakistan’s standing internationally, says Ahmad.
“This is not the story of an Islamic zealot who changed Pakistan, this is a story of a strategist who had the interest of Pakistan in mind at a time and a place where Islamization was a strategic choice,” Ahmad says.
The notorious Hudood Ordinances restored medieval punishments such as floggings, amputations for theft and demands that a rape victim had to produce four Muslim witnesses or risk being charged with adultery. Zia also expanded the blasphemy laws. Clauses were added to the penal code that made insulting the Prophet Mohammed a crime punishable by death.
The impact a generation later has been chilling.
A Christian mother of five, Asia Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 for allegedly insulting Mohammed. Two prominent politicians who spoke out against the blasphemy law and Asia’s conviction were assassinated the following year.
“Once you introduce a law that is quote, unquote ‘Islamic’ it is impossible for any government to do the ‘unIslamic’ thing of repealing it,” says Nasir.
Zia gave religious parties state land on which to build hundreds of religious schools, madrassas, most of which practiced intolerant strains of Islam instead of the Sufi traditions common to Pakistanis, says Nasir.
“If you travel through Pakistan now, the major urban areas are dotted with madrassas on state-given lands, at strategic points like exits, entries, close to residential areas,” he says. “Zia gave them an unimaginable amount of influence in urban, social life.”
He had the support of many officers who shared his religious background and lowly origins, but Zia’s mandate was not popular among most voters. His appointed cabinet members were defeated in the election that was finally held in 1985, writes Haqqani.
To hasten the pace of Islamization, a law was issued in 1988 that stated every judicial decision would have to be based on Sharia and the judges were required to consult theologians.
Several weeks later, on Aug. 17, after watching a tank demonstration in Bahawalpur in Punjab province, Zia boarded a C-130 Hercules to return to the capital Islamabad.
Ten minutes after takeoff, the aircraft exploded. Among the dead was the U.S. ambassador, Arnold Raphel. American investigators at the time concluded the cause was mechanical malfunction but the full truth hasn’t been established.
Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the leader Zia had executed, was elected prime minister soon after. But she was assassinated in 2007 in a suicide bomb attack as Pakistan continues to reap the whirlwind of the Zia era, long after his famously hooded eyes and hard-set mouth faded from public view.