Zia Unmourned

By Rushdie, Salman | The Nation, September 19, 1988 | Go to article overview

Zia Unmourned


Rushdie, Salman, The Nation


Then a tyrant falls, the world's shadows lighten, and only hypocrites grieve; and Gen. mohammad Zia ul-Haq was one of the cruelest of modern tyrants, whatever his "great friend" George Bush and his staunch supporter Margaret Thatcher would have us think. Eleven years ago, he burst out of his bottle like an Arabian Nights goblin, and although he seemed, at first, a small, puny sort of demon, he instantly commenced to grow, until he was gigantic enough to be able to grab the whole of Pakistan by the throat. Now, after an eternity of repression (even the clocks ran slowly under the pressure of Zia's thumb), that sad, strangulated nation may, for a few moments, breathe a little more freely.

Deferential, unassuming, humbly religious Zia, the plain soldier's plain soldier; it was easy for a man as brilliant, patrician and autocratic as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto - no stranger to despotism himself -to see such a fellow as a useful, controllable fool, a corked and bottled genie with a comical Groucho mustache. Zia became Bhutto's chief of staff in 1976 largely because Bhutto felt he had him safely in his pocket. But Pakistani generals have a way of leaping out of such pockets and sealing up their former masters instead. The protege deposed the patron in July 1977 and became his executioner two years later, initiating a blood feud with the Bhutto dynasty that could probably only have ended with his death. One of the more optimistic aspects of the new situation is that Pakistan's remaining generals have no reason to fear the Bhuttos' revenge if power should return to Pakistan's long-denied democratic forces.

Pakistan under Zia had become a nightmarish, surreal land, in which battlefield armaments meant for the Afghan rebels were traded more or less openly on the country's black markets; in which the citizens of Karachi spoke, with a shrug, of the daily collusion between the police force and large-scale gangs of thieves; in which private armies of heavily armed men defended and serviced one of the world's biggest narcotics industries; in which "elections" took place without the participation of any political parties. That such a situation should be described around the world as "stability" would be funny if it were not vile; that it had been concealed beneath a cloak of religious faith is more terrible still.

It needs to be said repeatedly in the West that Islam is no more monolithically cruel, no more an "evil empire," than Christianity, capitalism or communism. The medieval, misogynistic, stultifying ideology that Zia imposed on Pakistan in his "Islamization" program was the ugliest possible face of the faith, and one by which most Pakistani Moslems were, I believe, disturbed and frightened. To be a believer is not by any means to be a zealot. Islam in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent has developed historically along moderate lines, with a strong strain of pluralistic Sufi philosophy; Zia was this Islam's enemy. Now that he has gone, much of the Islamization program may quickly follow him. Pakistan neither wants nor needs a legal system that makes the evidence of women worth less than that of men; nor one that bans the showing on Pakistani TV of the women's events from the Seoul Olympic Games. …

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