The “marked intensification of the ‘Talibanization’ of Pakistan…reached a crisis and turning point in early December 1998,” wrote House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare Director Yossef Bodansky in 1999. His book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, documented the recurring destabilizing dominance of Islamic politics in Pakistan.
Bodansky defined this “‘Talibanization’ of Pakistan” as the “transformation of the state and society into the kind of harsh ultraconservative regime run by the Taliban in Afghanistan.” This process
has been in progress since late summer 1998. Faced with insoluble social, political, and economic crises that threatened the very existence of Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sought to compensate by adopting a strict version of the Sharia as the country’s legal system.
By mid-September, Islamabad was arguing that Islamization offered the only chance of holding Pakistan together as it slid toward political and social collapse amid technical bankruptcy and increasing political assertiveness by the local Islamist parties. Relying on their powerful militias and allied Kashmiri terrorist organizations, the Islamist parties flexed political muscle Nawaz Sharif could no longer confront. By the end of the month the Pakistani government was hanging by a thread, and the crisis was exacerbated by economic disaster and a collapsing social order that brought the country to the verge of a civil war. The Islamist members of the army and ISI high command warned Nawaz Sharif that the only alternative to chaos was to implement “Talibanization”—the transformation of Pakistan from a formally secular pseudo-democracy into a declared extremist Islamic theocracy.
Pakistan’s National Assembly voted 151 to 16 on October 9, 1998, for what Bodansky described as a “constitutional amendment formalizing the Talibanization of Pakistan,” namely by implementing Islamic sharia law. As Guardian journalist Jon Boone wrote in 2013, “Sharif tried to turn Pakistan into an Islamic caliphate ruled by sharia.” However, the bill died in Pakistan’s upper house, the Senate, where Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League—Nawaz (PML-N) was in the minority, after the Senate refused to vote on the amendment. This qualified Bodansky’s assertion that Pakistan had become “formally an Islamist theocracy committed to the spread of militant Islam.”
Nonetheless, Sharif had other avenues to promote Pakistan’s Islamization, such as by magnifying long-term trends in the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). As Bodansky noted,
Sharif orchestrated a profound purge of the entire military and ISI high command, throwing out the Westernized elite and replacing them with Islamists who are ardent supporters of bellicosity toward India, active aid for the war by proxy in Kashmir, and assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan and other Islamist jihads.
Sharif’s promotion of sharia preceded his 1997-1998 term as prime minister. During his first administration in 1990-1993 as Pakistan’s chief executive, he introduced the 1991 Enforcement of Shariat Bill, which both of Pakistan’s legislative houses adopted by simple majority. As Pakistani journalist M. Ziauddin noted, this “Act sought interpretation of all laws in the light of Shariah and also sought setting up of commissions for Islamisation of educational and economic systems and the media.”
As finance minister and then chief minister in Pakistan’s Punjab state in the 1980s, Sharif had previously accepted the Islamization campaign under military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988). As the Pakistani journalist Khaled Ahmed wrote:
When ideology stiffened under the pious military ruler, General Zia, Nawaz Sharif was with him, following the lead given by him and didn’t object when the laws against blasphemy and desecration of the Quran were passed and even made more draconian. Zakat tax meant to be spent on the poor can’t be spent on non-Muslims who are counted among the poorest communities in Pakistan. Muslims who are born in Christian hospitals and study in English-medium schools funded by Christian charity don’t mind if poor Christians are not helped with Muslim charity.
Another Pakistani general, Pervez Musharraf, overthrew Sharif in 1999, leading to his exile in Saudi Arabia in the years 2000-2007. When he returned to Pakistan, he reentered politics and became prime minister for an unprecedented third term in 2013-2017. At the time of his election, Boone noted, “old foes and longstanding friends say Sharif is a changed man.” “One former enemy said the years living in exile in Saudi Arabia had partly cured Sharif of any enthusiasm he might have once had for giving religion an even bigger role in national affairs,” the journalist explained.
Boone observed why some would
argue that the 63-year-old leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is the best equipped to tackle a daunting in-tray, including a failing economy, chronic energy shortages and an ever-rising tide of extremism. Sharif has scored full marks for refusing to conspire with the army to bring down the last government, something of a tradition in a country that has seen three bouts of military rule. Instead he chose to allow the stumbling coalition led by the PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] to become the first elected government ever to finish a full five-year term.
Given such daunting problems in Pakistan, minor changes of heart in leaders such as Sharif are small consolation. Moreover, support for Islamization in Pakistan extends far beyond a few political figures, as the next article in this series will discuss.