Upon hearing the news that Zia-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the 2007 Mumbai attacks, is to be released from prison, and while following developments in the Mumtaz Qadri case, particularly with regards to the start of a protest movement by various religious parties and organizations demanding his acquittal, I could not help but recall debates within the government that took place in the early 1950s. In a recently declassified ‘Top Secret’ report produced by the Ministry of the Interior in February 1952, it was argued that the biggest internal threats facing Pakistan at the time were infighting within the Muslim League, Provincialism, Communism, and, interestingly enough, Islamic Ideology. After describing the activities of foreign and local Islamic leaders and organizations, the Report suggested that, ‘talk of an Islamic state in and out of season and without defining at least the broad principles governing such a state is fraught with considerable danger, and is fully exploited by the enemies of Pakistan to discredit it abroad as well as by the obscurantist elements inside the country’. Noting, with dismay, the manner in which Islam was being used to mobilize people in order to persecute minorities and challenge the writ of the state, often in connivance with opportunistic politicians, the Report suggested that the solution lay in greater state control of religious activities and narratives, as well as a greater emphasis on policing potentially subversive religious activity. Indeed, the Report concluded by saying that if, ‘unrestrained religiosity continues to be maintained at present, there is bound to be a violent reaction’.

This sentiment was echoed by the Munir Commission, which was set up to investigate the violent anti-Ahmadi riots that wracked Punjab in 1953, and which published a report on its findings later that year. While this Report is rightly remembered for the way in which it argued how it was impossible to arrive at a standard definition of who could or could not be called a Muslim, with this conclusion being reached after interviewing dozens of religious scholars who failed to agree on what it meant to be a Muslim, it is often forgotten that the Report also had much to say about the role played by politics and religion in fostering an atmosphere of bigotry, hatred, and violent intolerance. Reproducing the testimony of Mumtaz Daultana, the Chief Minister of Punjab who was removed from office for his role in failing to effectively deal with the riots, the Report stated that, ‘the vague religious basis of the ideology of Pakistan, which, due to the stress put on it in and out season, gave strength to mullaism and plausibility to the mulla’s way of dealing with political principles’. Laying the blame for the disturbances of 1953 squarely on the shoulders of the Majlis-i-Ahrar and the religious parties that supported it, the Report also drew attention to how members of the police, bureaucracy, and political leadership exacerbated the situation by either sympathising with the Ahrars or by using that organization’s overheated religious rhetoric to score political points of their own.

Sixty years later, it is all too evident that fears and misgivings about mixing religion and politics have proven to be correct. Indeed, if there is a lesson to be learnt from the reports mentioned above, it is that from the very outset, Islam in Pakistan has been used as a tool to mobilize political support, target opponents and opposition groups, and to deflect attention away from more pressing issues of governance. With the benefit of hindsight it is also possible to point towards something overlooked by these reports, namely the way in which the military establishment has also been complicit in this process; Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization programme may epitomize the military’s use of Islam as a means through which to legitimize its rule, but the origins of this tendency can be traced back to the formation of Pakistan itself, when a predominantly Punjabi civil-military oligarchy invoked a narrowly defined religious nationalism as a means through which to counter the supposed dangers of Bengali political aspirations and communism, as well as to justify the disproportionate emphasis placed on the military in response to the perceived threat posed by an India defined and demonized in terms of its allegedly ‘Hindu’ character. The bloodshed of 1971, in which tens of thousands of Bengalis were killed, was accompanied by a discourse that portrayed Bengali culture and religious practice as being intrinsically ‘contaminated’ by Hinduism, thereby suggesting that there was no place for it in Pakistan, the ‘Land of the Pure’. The cynical way in which Pakistan’s official religious orthodoxy, championed and promoted by the military and civilian leadership, came to be imbricated with notions of ethnicity and citizenship, demonstrates how the events of 1971, more so than any other chapter in Pakistan’s often ignominious history, represent the inevitably tragic consequences of using religion as a means through which to determine who does or does not have a right to be included in the body politic.

As such, when witnessing hundreds of lawyers rushing to the support of Mumtaz Qadri, and when hearing two former judges of Lahore High Court defend him by arguing it was perfectly acceptable for him to commit murder in response to alleged blasphemy, it would be a mistake to take this as a manifestation of irrational religious belief, just as it would be problematic to take this view when attempting to understand the conduct of the hundreds of people who participate in the lynching of Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis. Instead, it makes sense to see this as the logical result of seventy years of ideological indoctrination and the cultivation of a public discourse in which religious orthodoxy, defined by the state and its collaborators on the religious right, has been used to legitimize the pursuit of specific political and strategic objectives. To focus on the ‘irrationality’ of specific individuals and actors, and to treat their beliefs as being beyond comprehension, serves to shift attention away from the systemic roots of this problem, and hinders attempts to identify and critique the role played by the state and its allies in creating this situation.

At a time when the National Action Plan is reportedly being diluted to avoid having to take action against Islamist organizations in Punjab, and the consensus that emerged after the APS attack has seemingly been reduced to an agreement on unconditionally supporting military action in FATA without asking broader questions about Islam, militancy, and extremism in the rest of Pakistan, it is once again necessary to raise the issue of whether or not the powers-that-be are truly committed to eliminating religious bigotry, intolerance, and violence. In the early 1950s, there were some people who clearly saw what was happening, and recognized how the potentially dangerous religious narrative emerging at that time could not do so without support from the state. The same is true today, and as the Qadris and Lakhvis of the world continue to benefit from the attentions of a state that is evidently unwilling to see them brought to justice, one can only speculate about how much more blood will need to be spilt before the political and military establishment recognizes the costs of continuing to rely on religion to achieve their objectives.

n    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.