The Day I Broke With the Revolution

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.