Culture and Thought — Personal Journey:
The Day I Broke With the Revolution
By Husain Haqqani
The Asian Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Over the last three decades, I have alternated between being attracted to
and repulsed by political Islam. Growing up in Pakistan, I could not fail to
notice poverty and injustice in the world around me. In the manner of
human beings everywhere, I judged my universe and sought answers
through the values imparted by the religion in which my parents raised me.
Yet the notion of Islam as a redeeming political force entered my life in
the person of a kindly stranger. I was 12 at the time, and agitated over
the lack of drainage in the lower income area where we lived in Karachi.
The only person willing to do something about it turned out to be an
elderly accountant living in our lane. It also turned out that he belonged to
the Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s main Islamic political party at the time.
The two of us became allies of sorts, getting neighbors to demand better
facilities from the municipality. We also did some cleaning of the sewers
ourselves. The twelve-year old liked the civic-minded neighbor and
decided that he was a good guy. The devout accountant introduced me to
politico-religious books written for children. By the time I reached
university, I was convinced that Islam, the religion, was also a viable
political and economic system.
What better system could there be? I did not know about liberal
democracy because it was not practiced in my country. Besides, my
youth was spent in the middle of the world-wide struggle against
Communism. And in most Muslim countries, the main opponents of this
odious system were the Islamists. Although the West did not seem to
mind the Islamists at the time, our Islamic mentors taught us that the West
was no better than the communist world because of its permissive, liberal
ways. Capitalism seemed too greedy and so unfair.
The religion of Islam, on the other hand, offered the reasonable middle
way. It made us more moral through fear of God and the hereafter. It
allowed freedom of choice in the economic sphere without encouraging
greed. Its exponents were nice people like the honest accountant who
once helped me clean up neighborhood drains, and the well-intentioned
professors and fellow students I met at university. If only God-fearing
Islamists had political power, Pakistan would be a great place to live in.
Or so many young Islamist fellow travelers and I thought.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the first inkling of a difficult path
ahead came in 1979, after armed men seized the Grand Mosque Makkah
in Saudi Arabia. Someone started a rumor in Pakistan that the United
States was behind the outrage, a huge mob overran the U.S. Embassy in
Islamabad and set it on fire. Down in Karachi, where I was president of
the university’s student union, the Islamists, Communists and other student
radicals urged me to lead a similar attack on the U.S. consulate there. I
eventually talked them out of it, calming them down with a speech about
how we must wait for proof of American perfidy before we took action.
What I never said out loud is that burning down the consulate would have
wrecked the wonderful library there, and deprived me of access to all the
books I found so useful for my studies in international relations.
By then I had also begun to travel abroad, and I what I found there made
me question some of my basic assumptions. There were nice people,
even nicer than the caring Muslim accountant, all over the world. They
followed different religions than mine, and some were even without
religion. But it was clear that no community could be said to have a
monopoly over greed or, for that matter, over morality. Charity had
always been described to me as a Muslim virtue. But I met many
non-Muslims who were just as devoted to charity. While there were
decadent individuals in the West, there were also many God-fearing ones.
Obviously, the world was a little more complex than I had been brought
up to believe.
While I reflected on these issues, Iran’s Islamic revolution jolted the
world. It was the most cataclysmic manifestation of political Islam in
recent times. The Iranian students studying among us in Karachi narrated
the horrors of the Shah’s regime. The Islamic revolution, they said, had
liberated them of tyranny. Their country now enjoyed a circumscribed
democracy — circumscribed, that is, by religious values. Wasn’t this
better than the Western notion of allowing a majority to change everything
from moral values to ordinary laws?
Then the news of the executions began coming in. I heard about the
Ayatollah Khalkhali — known in Western media as “the hanging judge” —
and the thought of his 10-minute trials and the summary executions that
followed offended my sense of justice. Prophet Mohammed was an
apostle of greater humanity. The word Islam literally means peace. How,
then, could an Islamic revolution be so violent and cruel? Islam is about
changing people’s hearts, but in Iran they were using it to chop off heads.
After the disappointments for many of Iran, Islamic militant dogma found
new impetus during the Afghan war, where the anti-Communist jihad
galvanized the entire Muslim world. Even the West found the mujahideen
heroic for fighting the might of the Soviet Empire, and supported them
with arms and money. Meanwhile, Muslim young men from all over the
world descended on Pakistan, which was the staging base for what was
to become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. It was a time of terrible suffering
but also one of soaring inspiration not only to Muslims but to the entire
world. I covered the war as a journalist and eventually came to know all
the major figures involved in the world of political Islam.
During this period I also developed a personal bond with Pakistan’s
military ruler General Muhammad Zia ul Haq. General Zia was staunchly
pro-Western, but had an Islamic vision of sorts that could be captivating.
He saw himself as God’s instrument in getting rid of the communists in
Afghanistan, which (he correctly foresaw) would mark the disintegration
of the Soviet Union. The Muslims of the world, numbering almost one
billion, would then be drawn to their faith with ideological fervor. The
Iranian revolution had been violent and anti-West. But General Zia
predicted that the evolution of political Islam in the rest of the world
would be peaceful, and that it would be possible to coexist and
cooperate with the technologically advanced nations of the West.
None of this impressed me in the end, though. The General, alas, did not
think much of democracy. Zia was a dictator. I went to bed many nights
wondering how such a person could possibly be a pious ruler capable of
presiding over the moral and material uplift of Muslims in Pakistan and
Looking back today, I realize that I have been uncomfortable with
political Islam since the days of my exposure to the Afghan war. Initially,
it was the fights among resistance leaders. After the simple innocence of
ordinary Afghans willing to die for God and country, the spectacle of their
leaders squabbling over money and power was a disturbing sight. Men
truly seeking redemption in the hereafter don’t fight each other over the
distribution of weapons and worldly wealth.
But worse was to come. The collapse of the Soviet Union deprived
Islamic militants of their adversary, the godless communists. So their
ideologues spun new doctrines that transformed the permissive and
decadent West into Islam’s principal enemy. First came liberation wars on
behalf of Muslims under non-Muslim rule, then attacks against
unrepresentative and un-Islamic regimes in the Muslim world. Finally,
terrorism against America and other Western democracies was unleashed
and then justified as part of the struggle for Islam’s revival.
Thus has the idealism of the God-fearing accountant I met 30 years ago
given way to brutal power plays. Communism’s lack of freedom,
capitalism’s greed and the supposed amorality of secularism have all crept
into Islamic political parties. Islamic political movements seem less
concerned with reviving religious values and morality, and the emphasis
on social service as a means of redemption has disappeared. Political
Islam is more about politics than anything else. Instead of making better
Muslims, it is teaching young men to become more violent, less tolerant.
But I am not able to demonize the West, or to accept violence and
harshness as justifiable means of settling historical scores. For me,
decadence and morality are no longer related to geographic regions or
supposed ideology. The Shah of Iran probably would have been
decadent even if he had not received Western political backing. The
Muslim rulers whose profligacy encourages an Islamic reaction cannot be
condemned as Western stooges. They are bad because they are bad, not
because ties to the West made them evil.
It is tempting perhaps to cloak personal ambition in ideology. I am afraid
many Muslim leaders are doing so all over the world today. It is no
different from the Holy Roman emperors and medieval popes who
secured temporal power through ecclesiastical means.
I have learnt through my own journey that there are many innocent people
who start along the road of political Islam while trying to clear clogged
drains or fixing broken sewers. My older Islamist friend, the accountant,
wanted to do just that. Both of us are still committed to our faith and
practice it to the best of our ability. I don’t know what he thinks now. But
I feel I can work on the neighborhood drains and sewers — and even
more significant tasks — without killing anyone or getting anyone killed. In
all these years, I have not picked up a weapon, nor will I. My faith tells
me that Allah’s mercy will definitely still be with me.
Mr. Haqqani is a Karachi-based columnist. He has served two prime
ministers and was Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka.