The wrong kind of Islamization

by: John Butt

For more than 25 years Pakistan’s politicians have used Islamization as a tool to accomplish their own ends. Now it is time for politics and Islam to go their separate ways.

In the 1980s, a term was coined in Pakistan which had not been used before. It was the word “Islamization” – that is making society Islamic. Ostensibly, it sounds like an attractive term. If society becomes more Islamic, it means that people will not be corrupt, they will tell the truth, they will be honest in their dealings, they will fear God in all that they do, they will be kind, compassionate and generous in their dealings with other human beings. That is what one would expect the meaning of “Islamization” to be.

In fact, the meaning was quite different. It referred to the enforcement of “Islam” in society though introduction of Islamic laws. Instead of being a reformative process, aimed at the individual, the word “Islamization” referred to a political process. Society as a whole was its target. But society only exists as a collection of individuals. And individuals do not become more Islamic because of laws imposed on them from above. They become more Islamic due to a deep-seated conviction welling up from within their souls. If the pioneers of “Islamization” had really wished for society to become more Islamic, they would have attempted to instill Islamic values – humility, truthfulness, honesty, generosity, piety, modesty – into individuals. By attempting to impose Islamic laws on society, they adopted the wrong approach – an approach which was doomed to failure since it had no logic, foundation or precedent in the whole of Islamic history.

But when politicians realized that the Islam-loving masses were unable to distinguish between making people more Islamic – something that we can call islah’an-nafs or tazkiyat’an-nafs – and Islamizing society, they fell for the slogan of Islamization. It was then that politicians realized that they could gain a lot of popularity by jumping on the “Islamization” bandwagon, or better still driving that bandwagon. What had begun as a wrong approach ended up as a disingenuous use of Islam for political ends – to gain power. The prime example of this was the referendum of 1984, which asked whether the people of Pakistan wanted Islamic Shariah enforced in the country. Naturally, the vast majority of the population said yes. The result of the referendum? That the President of the country was confirmed in power for the next five years. What the President had done was in fact to use people’s love of Islam as a lever with which to gain power for himself.

Further evidence that the masses are unable to distinguish between the individuals who make up society becoming more Islamic on the one hand, and on the other hand the political “Islamization” of society as a whole, came in a recent poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan. A representative sample of the population were asked: “In your opinion should government take steps to ‘Islamize’ the society?” 67 per cent replied in the affirmative, whereas only 13 per cent believed that there was no need for “Islamization”. Armed with such overwhelming public opinion in favour of “Islamization”, power-hungry politicians – on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border – are bound to make “Islamization” a more prominent feature of their election manifestos.

What the Islam-loving public of our border regions should consider is this: Islamization did not begin today or yesterday. It has been going on for more than 25 years now, ever since the referendum of 1984. But have people become more Islamic as a result of this process? Can we honestly look at ourselves and say that we are better Muslims now than we were 25 years ago? Are we more truthful now, are we less corrupt, are we more mindful of the needs of our neighbours – brothers and sisters – are we more compassionate, have we moulded our customs more in accordance with Islamic values, do we prefer forgiveness to revenge, do we pray to God with more fear and love of Him in our hearts? Very few people would say that as a result of this Islamization of the last 25 years, society has become more Islamic. Far from it.

The answer to this paradox is to take Islam completely out of the political sphere. Politicians should abandon all attempts to gain power on the back of Islam. This does not mean that politicians should become less Islamic. On the other hand, they should make even more efforts to adhere to true Islamic values: justice, compassion for the poor, allocation of national wealth on improving the lot of the common man and woman. But this should be a personal process on their part, not a political one.

Another question that we would do well to ask ourselves is this: over the last 25 years of Islamization, has the credibility of our Islamic scholars been enhanced or undermined? Again, in most cases the answer would be in the negative. The reason for this undermining of the credibility of Islamic scholars is that they have become politicized. Instead of preaching Islam in order to enable individuals to become better Muslims, they have been seen to be preaching Islam in order to gain power for themselves. Another advantage of taking Islam out of the political sphere will be the restoration of the credibility of the clergy. Everyone will see that the clergy are preaching Islam, not in order to gain power, but in order to improve the individuals who make up society. And everyone – including politicians – will then be more keen to follow their advice.

John Butt is the Director of PACT Radio and the founder of Jamiyat’al-Uloom’al-Islamiya, the Islamic University of Afghanistan.

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