Benazir Bhutto & Islamic Reforms

Benazir Bhutto campaigned strenuously against Zia’s Nizam-i- Mustafa both before and after Zia’s death. Benazir particularly objected to what she perceived as the “anti-female” bias in the Islamization program, and this theme became a major issue of the PPP campaign in 1988. As indicated above, Zia’s policies were an easy target. Benazir stressed the reactionary nature of Zia’s policies and, whether intentionally or not, exaggerated the speed and scope of their implementation. Zia’s government did little to counter such charges. Zia was trapped in a dilemma of his own making. If he argued that the pace of reforms was prudent, he would leave his administration open to the countercharge from the opposition that Nizam-i-Mustafa was merely a sham. Accordingly, he adopted a policy of restraint, and instructed relevant institutions not to enter into public debate with the opposition on matters pertaining to the Islamic reforms. This gave Benazir and the PPP free rein and she exploited her advantage with great skill. Indeed, the issue of Islamic reform and particularly the issue of the status of women in Islam became one of the most visible issues of the 1988 National Assembly campaign; and her successful management of the issue can be partly credited with providing her with the margin of victory in the election.

Subsequent to the election, however, the issue of Islamic reform has faded from center-stage. This development is consistent with my central hypothesis. Namely, once Benazir came to power the focus of her interest shifted from gaining political advantage vis-a-vis the government in regard to the reforms to dealing with the complexities of implementing the reforms (i.e., from gaining to exercising power). Accordingly, Benazir’s government has done little to hinder the operation of the Nizam-i- Mustafa as implemented by Zia. Her administration has not dismantled the Federal Shariat Court nor the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court. Neither has it rescinded the Hudood Ordinances, nor challenged the implementation of the Ramazan Ordinance, nor curbed the activities of the Council of Islamic Ideology.

One could rightly counter, I think, that Benazir’s administration is constrained from dismantling Zia’s Islamic reforms due to its narrow electoral mandate. It has also been thwarted procedural- ly by the operation of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution which made Zia’s actions during Martial Law (1977-85) nonjusti- ciable. Notwithstanding these observations, Benazir has consciously pulled her punches regarding Islamic reform since her assumption of power. One of her first acts as Prime Minister was to perform umrah, and upon her return she upheld the governmental ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, publicly January 1989.

Perhaps she has been well-advised to moderate her opposition to Nizam-i-Mustafa for, if the thesis of this chapter is correct, Zia’s reforms have had only a minor impact on political, legal, social and economic institutions of the state. Moreover, directly challenging the reform would entail considerable political costs to her administration. It seems most likely, therefore, that Benazir will not dismantle Nizam-i-Mustafa in the near future. Rather, her administration will continue to incrementally emasculate through bureaucratic neglect the already anemic program that she inherited from her predecessor.


Source: Islamization of Laws and Economy: Case Studies on Pakistan, Charles Kennedy. Republished with permission.
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