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The passion for Bhutto


By: Nadeem F. Paracha

The majority of Muslims in Pakistan are ensconced in the popular Barelvi creed of Islam that is the mainstay of Muslims in the subcontinent. It reassures the enshrinement of the traditional Sufism that prevailed due to a long period of interaction between Islam and the esoteric strains of Hinduism and other faiths of India.

‘Folk’ Islam became the dominating creed of the rural peasant, the urban proletariat and the semi-urban petty-bourgeoisie. It incorporated the anti-clergy elements of Sufism, and a more relaxed fiqh, fusing these with accommodating forms of worship and the concept of overt religious reverence of people it considered divine. The result was a sub-continental Muslim ethos that was socially tolerant and repulsed by the puritan dogma.

Though agrarian in its worldview, ‘folk’ Islam did not negatively react to modern Islamic reform initiated by rationalists like Syed Ahmed Khan, and consequently (by the 1960s), it became the chosen expression of populist (secular) politics in Pakistan. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) became the first Pakistani political party to set the tone of its rhetoric according to the populist imagery of ‘folk’ Islam, in the process managing to attract the urban working classes and the rural peasantry towards its social-democratic programme.

Not only did the PPP chairman, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, become one of the first major Pakistani political figures to start being seen indulging in rituals associated with ‘folk’ Islam (such as visiting Sufi shrines), PPP rallies too started radiating an aura of the colourful activity found at many Sufi shrines. The 1970s in Pakistan thus became an era of populist extroversion.

With ‘folk’ Islam adopted as a populist political expression by the ruling PPP, this form of expression eventually became the tool that culturally connected the country’s secular political parties with the spiritual and political moorings of the working classes and the peasants.

The cultural synthesis emerging from such a connection was one of the reasons behind Bhutto’s image, graduating from being that of a ‘brave patriot’ (1967-68), to becoming a people’s messiah (1970s) and the embodiment of a Sufi saint posthumously.

The ZAB regime was a vibrant mix of rural and urban populism (such as through the promotion of folk and proletariat art and music), and of modern bourgeois liberalism that helped urban society maintain a liberal aura. Night-clubs, horse racing and cinemas continued to thrive; religiosity largely remained a private matter, or manifest itself in a display of passion at shrines through dhamal, qawali, etc.

However, lurking within this mix was also an awkward anomaly. As the popular variation of Islam in Pakistan peaked in the 1970s, the modern variation (tied to the Aligarh thought) started to erode when things started to change within some state institutions after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle. A move was seen afoot in the army towards puritanical strain of Islam, especially those advocated by renowned Islamic scholar and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief, Abul Ala Maududi.

The JI was an early advocate of what came to be known as Political Islam. It first emerged as an opponent of secular/socialist Muslim nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s and was also opposed to the more populist strains of the faith. The JI was eventually successful in converting a sizable section of the urban middleclass to its cause after the former stopped resonating with the modern, reformist tradition of Syed Ahmed Khan. The populist ‘folk’ Islam they began to associate with ‘Bhuttoism’ or a ‘vulgar’ populism, supposedly aimed at undoing the hold on society of bourgeois politics and economics.

Thus, the urban bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie became the main players against the Bhutto regime during the 1977 PNA movement, led by the JI and its allies. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship and the anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad that political Islam managed to find state approval.

As the US and Saudi Arabia pumped in millions of dollars of aid for the ‘jihad’, the more aggressive and puritanical strains of Islam that were largely alien to the region’s Muslims began finding official sanction as well. But in spite of the rapid proliferation of the jihadi mindset and penetration of puritanical Islam in the workings of society that Zia initiated, Bhutto is still remembered as an icon in the devotional sense of loyalty to the culture of ‘folk’ Islam.

Thus, it is not surprising that his death is not seen by his supporters as martyrdom gained through the puritanical concept of ‘jihad’ against an infidel. Instead, his execution by the Zia dictatorship is embroiled in the kind of folk imagery that would leave the Islamists cringing. It is remembered more as a murder of a modern Sufi saint who danced to the gallows in defiance of a usurper and his malicious, scheming team of puritan clerics.

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