INSIGHT: Debating a Dictator

Akbar Ahmed recalls a time when he couldn’t resist questioning General Zia-ul-Haq on his vision for religion, state and society – at an official event

AKBAR AHMED — Can you debate with a dictator in public on his home turf? Imagine someone challenging Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi without becoming breakfast for the pet crocodiles the next morning. The debater would have to have their head examined, you would rightly murmur. Yet I did so and lived to tell the tale.

In 1986, I was a member of the CSP, the elite civil service cadre of Pakistan, and Commissioner of the Sibi Division in Baluchistan, when I was invited to come to Multan, one of the famous old cities of Pakistan, to chair the international conference at Multan University organized by the Cultural and Historical Society of Pakistan. As President of the Society, chairing this session was of particular interest because the President of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, was to be the Chief Guest. This was a high profile event that would be widely covered by the media, televised and broadcast on the radio. I would speak first, welcoming Zia on behalf of the Society and make some opening remarks, to which he would then respond. This would be followed by a grand dinner, attended by the participants, and these included senior government ministers, ambassadors, heads of NGOs and departments —for example, my American friends, the head of   USAID and his wife, were in attendance. Zeenat my wife was with me and observing the proceedings with interest.

This particular session gave me the opportunity to be able to converse with Zia-ul-Huq in a somewhat unique manner and environment where I could actually talk to him, in public, without, hopefully, incurring his wrath. I took the opportunity of my address to raise three questions that, when I look back, were very provocative in the Pakistan context. But the questions had been very much on my mind because after traveling in the Muslim world interviewing scholars and collecting notes for my forthcoming book Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society, I believed the answers formed the essence of a good and stable society.

It is hardly surprising that Islam should emphasize compassion and humanity in society bearing in mind that the two principal attributes of God, indeed the two greatest names of God, are the Merciful and Beneficent. As for knowledge, ilm, this is the second most used word in the Quran and the Prophet (PBUH) had said, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Finally, God in the Quran describes himself as the God of the Universes, in the plural. So while Muslims have an important place in the chronology of human society, there were also other non-Muslim societies long before Islam arrived. After all Pakistan’s history is based on what is called the Indus civilization which has a glorious history and there is evidence in the archaeological sites at Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Taxila of ancient, sophisticated and complex societies. I felt therefore that these were questions that I could put to the Muslim leader who saw himself as the champion of the faith.

As I spoke Zia picked up a pen and began to scribble in an agitated manner. At this point, the call for evening sunset prayer was heard. So all proceedings stopped, and Zia got up to offer prayers

With these three themes buzzing in my head I needed genuine answers as to what was going wrong in Muslim society. So putting aside my routine cliche-ridden formal address, I said,

Mr. President, you’re head of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and you’re implementing the Islamization of Pakistan. You’re seen as the champion of Islam in the world. Can you then answer me three questions: Firstly, why is the religion which emphasizes compassion and kindness known internationally as the religion of cruelty and violence—its image is that of people’s heads and hands being chopped, of public lashings, women facing honor killings, and so on?”

Secondly, I inquired, “Why is it that the religion of Islam, which emphasizes knowledge, to the point that it is seen as the greatest part and passageway to understanding the Divine, is associated with illiteracy and ignorance? The figures throughout the Muslim world for education are most disappointing and appallingly low.”

I continued: “And thirdly, we are in Multan, where we know that history goes back to Alexander the Great and beyond. Alexander, as you know, attacked the Multan fort and almost died here. He showed acts of great heroism and he jumped over the wall into the fort by himself followed by a few companions only, was isolated and almost killed, before he managed to open the doors and get his troops in. So Multan is part of history. Yet, your philosophy of Islamization preaches that history itself begins with the advent of the Islamic religion and anything before Islam is irrelevant. That is an artificial construct of identity. There was history here before Islam came. Islam, of course, added to the culture and knowledge and so on. But, there was still an ongoing history, before the advent of Islam.”

Zeenat later said she noted from her vantage point in the front rows that as I spoke Zia picked up a pen and began to scribble in an agitated manner. At this point, the call for evening sunset prayer was heard. So all proceedings stopped, and Zia got up to offer prayers. We had made arrangements in a small room by the main stage. He left, and we waited on the stage.

As he left for prayers he paused and in an ominously low voice said to me that he would pray to God for the answers to my questions. When he came out of his prayers, he looked me straight in the eyes and smiled, but his eyes were deathly cold. His smile was the smile of the crocodile just before it pounces on its prey. And he said ominously,

You raised three questions, Akbar Sahib, and God has given me the answers.”

At that moment, a chill ran down my spine, and I sensed danger. This was the man who had ignored pleas from all over the world and on the basis of a cooked-up case had executed Pakistan’s popular Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto in a cold-blooded manner that had traumatized the nation. There were terrible stories of minorities being persecuted and ordinary Pakistanis facing brutal punishment in the name of Islam. That he used the term ‘Sahib’ when addressing me —a word of respect—further unsettled me. It was clear to me that he had taken my questions as a theological challenge, as Islam being attacked, not as a debate within Islam. He had converted legitimate historical questions into an attack on Islam and he would now repel it.

The Zia era saw the use of flogging as a public punishment

My friends, the head of the USAID and his wife, had also sensed the tension. Later that night, at dinner, they told me jokingly,

“You asked such provocative questions that we were really concerned. We said we have to look out for him [i.e. myself] at breakfast – whether he’s even present or not.”

They thought I might be picked up and disappear at night. That’s how serious people thought the questions were. It was a time of paranoia and fear in Pakistan.

But General Zia answered my questions. Standing at the podium in front of the huge audience in the impressive hall, he broke protocol, setting aside his prepared speech to answer my questions.

“Akbar Sahib has asked me these questions, and I will answer them, he said gravely.”

He gave very standardly, wishy-washy answers. He claimed, first, there is no cruelty in the Muslim world, only an attempt to impose law and order. There is no such thing as Islam being cruel. People misunderstand: Islam is a religion of peace and compassion.

“Number two, about education, on the contrary to what Dr. Ahmed Sahib has just said, we are opening up so many schools and colleges. Our teachers are dedicated and the best. We have done such a good job of opening educational centers everywhere, so you cannot say that education has fallen behind. As regards the third point,” he said, “No! The history of this place begins with the coming of Islam. Islam brought enlightenment, education, and brotherhood to a benighted land. There is no history before Islam. It’s blank. Nothing happened before Islam.”

His smile was the smile of the crocodile just before it pounces on its prey. And he said ominously, “You raised three questions, Akbar Sahib, and God has given me the answers”

Zia’s answers were a reliable and standard window to the ideas current in much of the Muslim world. Zia had typically missed the irony of having being invited to address a Society dedicated to the promotion of history. He was dismissing its very foundational principles.

However, Muslims were not the only ones who thought along these lines — Us versus them; We are right, You are wrong; History begins and ends with Us, etc. Many in America, in Europe, in India and in China had a similar view of history and society and many were prejudiced against religious and ethnic minorities. So Zia was merely reflecting a larger conceptual and intellectual failure and trend of our times.

There was great excitement when our function with Zia in Multan was over that night. Once he left, many people surrounded me, remarking that I had been so intellectually provocative and that things like this do not happen. They felt it was high time someone confronted the dictator with such questions. The next day the press reported the event widely with a focus entirely on Zia while completely ignoring my questions and our exchange. I had been airbrushed out of the event. In that environment, it was not a good sign. I did not know what would happen next.

What I do know is this: In 1988, my name had been put up with two or three other Pakistanis for the Star of Pakistan award. Makhdoom Sajjad Hussain Qureshi, the Governor of Punjab and a kindly man of deep mystic knowledge, told me what happened next as he said he had been sitting with Zia when the file came up.

“Zia picked up a pen and cut your name out,” Makhdoom said.

Makhdoom, who held me in high regard because of my scholarship, told me that he sensed I would be in trouble since Zia was taking such a drastic step. The reason was, he said, that some people around him were propagating the fact that I was trying to emphasize a new kind of Islam, a liberal, open, pluralist Islam. As proof, they referred to the Multan conference where they claimed I was asking questions which were un-Islamic. They also cited my paper for an academic conference from the mid-1980s and my recently published book Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. In these, I had discussed what I saw as the two opposite socio-political models within Islam: that of Dara Shikoh and that of Aurangzeb. Some of his staff around him, who were what we call ‘fundamentalist’ in their thinking – or pretended for his sake that they were – told Zia that this is Akbar’s kind of Islam.

“He is promoting Dara Shikoh’s Islam in Pakistan, while you’re trying to promote the true orthodox Islam of Aurangzeb.” They said I was writing about the Sufis and the mystics, and all that is very dangerous because that is calculated to mislead the public. “Worse, Akbar is projecting the late Z.A. Bhutto, done away with by Zia, as a modern Dara Shikoh.”

Now I was on dangerous ground. The argument had a profound impact on Zia and he cut out my name with his own hand. But I was neither promoting any particular brand of Islam, nor did I belong to any religious or political party. I was merely exploring the different facets of my faith as a Muslim seeker asking questions.

At that stage my fate was uncertain.

Zia could have taken action against me, he could have become very nasty, as many people found out about their fate. But we do not know because shortly after he died in a plane explosion. It had been a close call for me and my rash act. My only explanation is that as a scholar writing about those times I could not resist the temptation of raising what, to me, were fundamental and burning questions. I needed to hear from the man who was so self-consciously leading the Islamic charge.

That night, I knew we were in trouble as a society.

The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of “Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity”