Part – I
The writer is a poet and author
based in Islamabad.
There may be nothing new for some informed and insightful readers today. But it is important to reiterate what we have gone through at the hands of Western imperial ambition to control the global economy on the one hand and our own intellectual and political frailties across the Muslim world on the other. Today, the combination of the two makes us, and the rest of the world, suffer from the scourge of extreme forms of terrorism in the name of Islam.
Who emerged as popular leaders in the Muslim-majority countries of the world in the 1950s and 1960s – irrespective of their internal strife and inconsistencies – with many succeeding to form political governments? Some of the prominent among them were Sukarno in Indonesia, Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh and Muammar Al-Gaddafi in Libya. What was common among them for the people they led?
First, they were all hugely popular. Second, they were all nationalists and believed in the sovereignty of their countries. Third, they all wanted to – and in many instances did – take full control of the economic resources and sources of revenue from the Western colonial powers. Fourth, they were all secular without being areligious in their policy or rhetoric. Meaning thereby that Islam, the faith of the majority of the populace they represented, was a part of their cultural and political sensibility but neither seen as a tool to be used to galvanise people for political expediency nor an instrument to create divisions between faiths and sects.
What happened to these leaders? Let me begin with Sukarno. He was the first president of the modern Indonesian republic after successfully leading the anti-colonial resistance against the Dutch. He brought together a multi-ethnic and tribal population and created a sense of nationhood and dignity among his people. He brought stability to Indonesian state and society to the extent he could while containing the expansion of the military influence and that of Islamists – both supported by the Americans. He let the PKI, the party of Indonesian communists, campaign freely and brought himself to closer to China and the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Major General Suharto, with unflinching support from the Americans and other Western powers, staged a coup in 1967 – bringing an end to Sukarno’s rule. An estimated half a million leftists across Indonesia were killed and a military-dominated government was installed; this government remained in power for 31 years.
Suharto himself was not an Islamist but in his later years renamed himself Haji Mohammad Suharto, reached out to and cajoled Islamists, introduced religion in the body politic of Indonesia like never before and attempted to diversify his power base from his traditional base of Indonesian military. Democracy was restored in Indonesia in 1998 but a strong Islamist movement with international linkages has taken deep roots in Indonesia.
Mohammad Mosaddegh, a leading lawyer, efficient administrator and progressive and secular politician of Iran, got elected as its prime minister in 1951. His administration made transformational social and economic changes in Iran including land reforms. He introduced legal and policy provisions to protect the rights of labour and peasants. But his fate was sealed when he decided that the Iranian government take control of oil production and sales of Iranian oil by nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which later became British Petroleum.
Mossadegh was overthrown by the British and American intelligence agencies in 1953. He was so popular among the masses even many years after his removal that he was buried in his own home in 1967 so as to pre-empt any unrest.
We have witnessed what has happened in Iran since then. The unpopular government of the Pahlavi dynasty with different prime ministers in charge were finally dismissed by the Islamic clergy, liberal democrats, communists under the Tudeh party and the Islamic socialists in 1979. The democratic revolution was followed by a complete and violent takeover of the country by the Islamists.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president from 1956 to 1970, after overthrowing monarchy introduced wide-scale land reforms in his country. He was virtually hated by the Western powers – particularly the Israelis, British and the French. In 1956, they had invaded Egypt to gain control of the Suez Canal and to destabilise Nasser’s government. They failed in that due to the pressure from other international governments including Soviet Union and the UN itself.
Consequently, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Attempts were made on Nasser’s life by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. He was ruthless in his dealings with the Brotherhood but his popularity remained unchanged. A record five million people attended his funeral. He was lucky to survive attempts made by the Western powers and the Islamists for his death or ouster.
Ahmed Ben Bella, another socialist who was not against the practice of faith either, led the famous war of independence from France. He was also deposed two years after becoming the first president of Algeria in 1963. His land reforms and agenda for modernising Algeria without taking the monopolistic capitalist route did not sit well with the Western powers. His successor, Houari Boumediene, was not an Islamist but his policies could do little to curb the rise of FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front.
In neighbouring Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi was another nationalist who called himself an Islamic socialist. He was also a champion of Arab unity and African unity. He can never be absolved of clinging to power for that long but the way he was brutally killed and what has happened to Libya since his death is for all of us to see. Nato had intervened in the Libyan civil war and was supporting his opponents.
The civil war itself was instigated by the West in the garb of the Arab Spring. When the West realised that the Arab Spring was likely to bring Islamists to power in many countries – those it had either nurtured or encouraged itself to neutralise the modern, secular and nationalist forces in the past but were now posing grave threat to the world – it decided to quietly retract its support and brought in people like General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt.
And now the Subcontinent. What happened between the eastern and western wings of Pakistan and the Bengali nationalism leading to the secession of East Pakistan and liberation of Bangladesh cannot be ignored when recounting the rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, what is interesting to note is that his political ideology was similar to that of his counterpart in West Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Sheikh Mujib was also a practising Muslim but completely pluralistic in his outlook and founded the People’s Republic of Bangladesh with secular democracy and socialism as its basic tenets. His policies led to his bloody removal with the help of the armed forces of Bangladesh, a coup that was allegedly supported by the American intelligence. None of his family members present in the home with him were spared.
In Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto never called himself secular and began his political slogans by declaring Islam as the faith but did not use religion as his rallying point. He was a professed socialist who introduced fundamental changes in economy and society, created a sense of nationhood and embarked upon heavy industrial, agricultural, public service and military programmes for the country. He was in power for less than six years, hanged by Gen Ziaul Haq in 1979.
Bhutto had fallen out with Americans although he had never remained pro-Soviet. Zia and his coterie of military generals and civilian advisors were the most faithful and well-paid custodians of Western imperial interest in the region. They promoted and institutionalised the orthodox and hyper conservative form of religion – not only in Pakistan but in many countries across the world – to perpetuate their power.
When young, we were taught ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. The secular West helped radicalise Muslim societies.
To be continued