Islamization & Pakistani Society

(This post was published on the Let Us Build Pakistan blog on December 1st, 2011. To see the published version, click here.)

Khamosh Pani is a film about a widowed mother, Ayesha, and her teenage son, Saleem, based in Charkhi, Punjab, which is coming under radical influence. The story begins in 1979. President Zia-ul-Haq has imposed martial law, & manipulated the interpretation of Islam, misguiding a whole generation of uneducated young people, needed by the government to serve as mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He was able to do this partly because of the influx of Western culture during President Ayub’s era (1958-1969), and the degree of secularism established at that time. Bhutto’s nationalistic approach paid lip-service to the Islamic elements in the country, but made little practical development, which disgruntled many conservatives.

The theme focused on in this paper will be the impact of Islamization; I will attempt to discuss the overall effect of these policies on the Pakistani people, keeping in mind how this is portrayed in the film. These effects are interrelated, and can be categorized as social & political.

Zia ruled under martial law from 1977 to 1985.  In this time, Pakistan experimented with a new policy approach: bringing the country’s laws into conformity with shariah. The main reason for this was Zia’s strengthening of his regime by denouncing the work of his predecessors. The secession of East Pakistan (1971) had a psychologically disconcerting effect on the people. Serious doubts were raised about the Two Nation Theory, Pakistan’s ideology and statehood; an “identity crisis” emerged. A new quest for national identity – caused by the defeat by India – tended to reaffirm Islam as a national source of salvation in the 1970s and 1980s, the two decades identified with Islamization in Pakistan.

Islamists recognized this opportunity and pointed out that East Pakistan was lost because our leaders betrayed the cause of Islam; this loss was not the result of Islam’s failure to keep the country together, but that of our rulers’ un-Islamic policies and conduct.  1971 thus became a rallying point for many Pakistanis, to “go back” to Islam as an ideological cure. This is what Zia capitalized on. (Ahmad, 2011)

America’s strategic goals were satisfied (in relation to Afghanistan) and Pakistan retained control over the western border through jihadi groups, not to mention Zia retained complete authority. This was a time when Pakistan emerged as a front-line state, fighting as America’s proxy in the war to contain communism in Afghanistan.

It is Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan which emerges as the main source of social conflict in the film. The Soviet occupation not only strengthened the turn towards Islamization, but helped consolidate it. Islamists not only fought for the adoption of the shariah in Pakistan, but also recruited fighters for the jihad. The inspiration to change Pakistan into a religious state was reinforced by the Afghan war. We see how Ayesha’s seemingly idyllic world destructs when Saleem turns progressively fundamentalist, until, torn between his duties as a son and political activist, he pushes his mother too far. This is just one example of the social divide created between families as a consequence of ‘the holy war’.  Religious rigidity set in, modernist concepts such as the love marriage were declared blasphemous, and resistance was contained with public flogging, mass arrests, and muzzled press.

Many young men lived with a sense of insecurity as to their futures, and the purpose of their lives. This conflict was portrayed by Saleem, as he says in the film, “A village boy stays in the village.” He views his decision to join the fundamentalists as a step towards gaining a purpose, working for the national cause. “It’s given me direction. People listen to me now.” (Sumar, 2003) The simple mindsets of uneducated Pakistanis with little exposure to the developed world were easy to manipulate. Young men willingly fought for a greater good that they could now identify themselves with.

This thinking was promoted by the Zia regime in public gatherings glorifying the Islamist cause, declaring that Pakistan was built in the name of Islam, and anyone who identified themselves as Pakistani was duty-bound to ‘rescue’ the nation. This was another method employed to cement Zia’s power. Civil opposition movements had popped up, challenging his  claim to authority. To the people, Zia was presented as ‘the bringer of light’, preaching the mantra of Muslim unity. Despite his extensive use of the media as a propaganda machine, many were left thinking, “Whom does Zia represent?”

The legacy of the Zia era can be clearly discerned in the heightened Islamic sectarian sentiment that emerged in Pakistan and by the impact of the Afghan conflict with its jihad mentality and huge supplies of weapons. (Talbot, 2009) The connection between sectarian and jihadi groups, regional and international organizations, which has grown dramatically in the last few years, was first established during the Afghan conflict (Grare, 2007). Drug use and availability increased exponentially, since opium was the main source of funding for the war. Opium was also covertly introduced to the lower classes to pacify them. The introduction of zakah, ‘ushr and the enforcement of other shariah laws have brought to the surface the old doctrinal differences between Shiites and Sunnis.  The question of which interpretation of Islamic law should form the basis of public policy became a major source of conflict both between Sunni and Shiite clergy and also among different schools of Sunnis.  These controversies have caused frequent violent incidents, including sectarian riots and the assassination of several prominent Sunni and Shiite scholars.  Sectarian politics has also given rise to militant organizations.

Intolerance for other religious groups, such as Sikhs, began to spread. Many were accused of being spies by political activists, who were quick to label ‘traitors’. The same people, who, before Partition, had lived amongst the Pakistanis as brothers, were now seen as ‘kaafirs’ (disbelievers). A punishment was declared for associating with non-believers, and anyone thought to do so faced severe social backlash.

Another social consequence that cannot be ignored is the enhancement of gender roles. The interpretation of Islam used as the basis of the shariah laws was orthodox, and often, the role of women was undermined and misinterpreted. Women in Zia’s Pakistan found themselves increasingly pushed back, veiled behind high brick walls and shrouds of cloth, all for their own ‘protection’. Laws such as the Hudood Ordinance were often misused as tools of repression, with “hundreds of incidents where a woman subjected to rape, or even gang rape, was eventually accused of Zina” (NCSW). Respect for elders, equality of wife and husband – these were social characteristics that were subordinated where stringent Islamic beliefs came into play. In the film, Saleem thinks nothing of behaving disrespectfully when he feels his mother is in the wrong about his involvement with the activists. Though this culture was, to some degree, in place before Zia’s time, Islamization caused it to transform into mutated Islamic beliefs, legitimized by the government.

What were the political effects of Islamization? Many viewed these policies as Zia’s “search for legitimacy” in order to keep “dissident political forces at bay” (Rizvi, 2003). The stringent orthodoxy of the Islamization laws often led to injustice, causing the public to lose  confidence in political leaders as ‘politics’ became synonymous with ‘corruption’. One of the characters in Khamosh Pani is a carefree barber who says, “Every time elections are announced, my business goes up because everyone’s hair stands on end.”  Zia’s initial promise of elections after 90 days, and repeated promises thereafter became a joke. It was clear that behind the façade of ‘protecting the state’ Zia wanted nothing more than to retain power.

At the same time, Pakistan’s ties with the United States were increasingly strengthened, as funds and supplies slipped over the Afghan border for the war effort. Aid had been set at $3000 million over five years, bolstering Pakistan’s security and reducing the military imbalance with India (Talbot, 1998).

All in all, we see that Zia’s Islamization policies caused a fundamental shift in the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. Society was irreversibly altered as fundamentalism spread through the masses. Zia’s legacy was one that injured Pakistan, leaving heightened sectarianism, rampant use of narcotics, & the spread of militant violence. In conclusion, I would like to agree with Malik, who states that, “under General Zia… Pakistan suffered the most suffocation years of its existence… regimented ideas like chaadar and chardiwari denoted women’s place in the home, democracy was portrayed as an anathema to Islam, and media was made use to silence the opposition.” (Malik, 1997)


Ahmad, M. (2011). Pakistan. Retrieved April 17, 2011, from Michigan State University Website:

Grare, F. (2007, April). The Evolution of Sectarian Conflicts in Pakistan and the Ever-Changing Face of Islamic Violence. Journal of South Asian Studies , XXX (1), pp. 127-143.

LaPorte, R. J. (1999). Pakistan: A Nation Still in the Making. In India & Pakistan: The First Fifty Years (pp. 45-61). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malik, I. (1997). State and Civil Society in Pakistan. London: Macmillan Press.

NCSW. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2011, from National Commission on the status of women’s report on Hudood Ordinance 1979:

Rizvi, H.-A. (2003). Military, State & Society in Pakistan. Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan: Sang-e-Meel Publications.

Sumar, S. (Director). (2003). Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters) [Motion Picture].

Talbot, I. (1998). An Overview of Political and Economic Changes in Pakistan Since Independence. In I. Talbot, Pakistan: 50 Years (pp. 16-23). London: Berkley Communications Ltd.

Talbot, I. (2009). Ever-Decreasing Circles: Pakistan Politics Since 1988. In I. Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History (3rd ed., pp. 287-293). New Delhi: Foundation Books.