In defence of Ziaul Haq

Published: August 17, 2016

As hard as it is to admit and harder to write, Zia ul Haq was Pakistan’s most influential ruler. Photo: REUTERS

Pakistan’s liberal classes revile no other figure as much as Ziaul Haq. To them, he is the embodiment of whatever ails Pakistani society today. They put the onus of Pakistani Taliban on that sole grave under the shade of Faisal Mosque. They are quite virulent in their protests that Pakistani society became intolerant and vastly more Islamist solely due to him.

Perhaps they forget that the marde-momin mard-e-haq did not declare Ahmadis non-Muslims: Bhutto did.

Sadly, the man cannot even take credit for banning alcohol and gambling: Bhutto did.

The Objectives Resolution of 1949, calling for the creation of an Islamic rather than a secular Republic, was passed when Zia was a mere Major in the army, with no influence in the annals of policy making at the highest levels of the State, or so I suspect.

There is no doubt that Zia was an Islamist to the core, a fundamentalist who wanted to shape society according to the teachings of his religious godfather: Maulana Maududi. In this though, he was merely echoing the wishes of the common Pakistani. The problem is that it was not only Zia, but the Pakistani society, as a whole, that is Islamist to the core. Ask any man or woman on the streets: what kind of government they want and the overwhelming answer would be: an Islamic government. Gallup conducted such a poll five years ago and more than two thirds of those polled expressed their desire to have an Islamic government.

Moreover, despite our rampant patriotism, most Pakistanis consider themselves Muslims first and Pakistanis second.

Jinnah was another Pakistani leader who gave the Pakistani masses what they wanted: more Islam. Jinnah’s political rebirth in the late 1930’s happened only after he embraced political Islam: the use of religion to propagate political aims. Perhaps an astute politician like Jinnah should have realised quite early on in his career that the communal Indians had no use for his European secularism and constitutionalism. After all, religion is, to use an oft quoted phrase, “the opium of the masses”. Therefore, why should the subcontinent have been any different? The Mard-e-Momin was only following in the footsteps of Quaid-e-Azam.

Ziaul Haq’s name frequently comes up when armchair warriors discuss our on-going war against Islamist insurgents. While it’s easy to blame one man for a policy debacle vis-à-vis Afghanistan, it was not only Zia but the entire military establishment that is responsible for our myopic Afghan policy of the 1980s. Even that sordid episode could have ended neatly after the death of Zia and Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, but our very apt Generals began to harbour a fondness for these newly found “freedom fighters”. Redirected to Kashmir, they provided us with a strategic leverage over India which no American arms or even our nuclear capability could. As Hillary Clinton often reminds us,

“If you keep snakes in your backyard, don’t expect them to bite just your neighbours.”

Nothing riles up Zia’s haters more than the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. While Zia was a vicious tyrant like any other third world dictator, he was not evil per se. Bhutto’s hanging was not personal. Zia was a smart man: Bhutto’s cockiness and his rise in popularity after his removal foretold the General that either Bhutto would hang from a noose or Zia would – and he sure as hell did not want his neck on the line. After all, any sane man would strive for self-preservation ­– no matter what the cost.

It is true that Zia created a sectarian rift within the country: we are still bearing the brunt of that divide. Yet, despite his known hatred for Shias, he is not responsible for the 1400 year long Shia-Sunni schism. Zia indeed suppressed democracy. He cracked down hard on leftist student leaders and politicians – in fact on democrats as a whole. But in all seriousness, if despots do not go after democrats, who else will? To be very fair, Zia, along with Pakistan’s other military dictatorships, have been very benevolent – godly even – when compared to the dictatorships found in Middle Eastern and African countries.

As hard as it is to admit and harder to write, Ziaul Haq was Pakistan’s most influential ruler; he changed our country for the worst for many a decade to come. Do judge him for that; for Islamising Pakistan, for destroying the relatively tolerant social fabric of the country, and for imposing this never-ending insurgency on us. But don’t forget that he wasn’t solely responsible.

A million people turned up at his funeral. It’s because he gave the Pakistani masses exactly what they wanted: more religion.

Shajeel Zaidi

Shajeel Zaidi

The author works in alternative financing on Wall Street, and has a fascination with modern history and politics. He tweets as @shajboi ( and can also be found on Instagram as shajboi (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • qqo

    lots of guts to write this as it is. Glad you are outside of Pakistan so not within harm’s distanceRecommend

  • vinsin

    This is the best article ever written on Pakistan and subcontinent Muslims or in general for any nation state. Even till today majority Indian Muslims reject secularism and for Sharia laws. Nations and society becomes what people want. Even if someone makes Pakistan a secular state, Pakistani Muslims will vote for political parties again to make it an Islamic state. It is futile to discuss what Jinnah wanted or do not wanted, as in the end it is the collective consciousness of masses that defines a nation.Recommend

  • Salman

    Glad to know u are studying finance as its obvious u have no idea about politics Recommend

  • Hash

    i am amazed at how complicated realities can be honestly and truly presented in simple, short and precise manner. good job.Recommend

  • talha

    Just a wild guess, you must be the son of a military man? Please correct me if I am wrong.Recommend

  • ammar

    Very good article. I fully agree with the author….. No doubt Zia was the lowest of the low but we cannot just ONLY blame Zia for the mess. Bhutto, Maududi ….. and whole nation is responsible for it.Recommend

  • salim

    Zia overthrew bhutto was external move. He killed him was unfortunate. Still Zia’s fight to russians occupation, obstruction their next move for warm waters was great. Allied forces ditched region after Russians defeat, abandoning the messs. Lack of leadership to bring back US to clear mess, never done on time.
    That gave region incredible multiple losses from blood unruly drugs klashinkove mass immigration extremism terrorism civil war un stability.
    In History Zia tagged bad spots and good ones alongside his allies.
    His gifted extremism nation still tasting sour, how long, God knows.Recommend

  • Critical

    Finally someone could see through the mist and call the spade a spade…. Zia Ul Haq just continued manuring the tree of hatred which was planted by Jinnah and nurtured by Liaqat Ali Khan and Bhutto…Recommend

  • Hasan Rehman

    Very well put! I always wondered why someone with his picture making du’a on the back of trucks could be so famous if everyone today labels him as the root cause for the insurgency problems Pakistan is facing with today. It was definitely the collective effort of the generals of that time, and we still see the same generals in talk shows today making same stupid recommendations as if it were still the cold war era. Unfortunately our leadership and masses “use” Islam for their own benefits instead of following the core principles laid forth by it that are the foundation of any honest and sane society. It were those principles guaranteeing “justice for all”, that were the real reason for the establishment of Pakistan and not the ones that certain parts of our society portray in the name of honor killings and blasphemy laws for their own evil needs.Recommend

  • C M Naim

    Telling it as it is. Congratulations. Please write it in Urdu and send it to Humsub or some other Urdu blog for publication.Recommend

  • Xyz

    But if a country is founded on the basis of religion and belief that coexistence with other religions is impossible then isn’t it obvious that “religion” will be the driving factor in every thing? Recommend

  • Zubair Khan

    Yes he did all the things, what Hitler dis with Jews Zia did with Pakistani people because he was Mulana Mododi follower a true Muslim. Pakistani nation deserve it because they are not following Mulana Mododi philosophy.Recommend

  • Rahul

    Wonderful article, Zia-ul-Haq is Pakistan’s favorite scapegoat but to find the real culprit, they have to look in the mirror.Recommend

  • Keyboard Soldier

    Yup, this is it.

    Most people forget that Islamisation started in 1949, just two years after its birth.

    Pakistanis and Muslims all over the world want a Khalifa type ruling system, because democracy has no place in Islam.

    Muslims must be ruled by a Khalif. There are no ifs and buts around this subject.

  • Acorn Guts

    Yes Zia did not declare Ahmadis non-muslims but my Ahmadi elders were still able to call adhan, say ‘salat’ in a ‘masjid’, recite ‘kalima’ and read ‘Quran’ albeit with some difficulty before Zia.

    My generation who had misfortune of growing up in Zia’s era had our mouths shut to stop us from calling adhan, we forced to do ‘ibadat’ in our ‘ibadat gah’, kalima was forbidden for us and we couldn’t even call Quran ‘Quran’ amongst countless other things that my fellow Muslims take for granted .. tell me should I blame him for taking away my right to religious practice or would you object to that too? What about my friends that were sent to prison for simply ‘acting’ like Muslims under 298-B and C? Who gave respectable clerics this constitutional weapon to make life impossible for us?

    Yes, I agree he perhaps personified the wider sentiments of the society but still, to me he will forever remain the face of everything that is wrong with Pakistan.

    Appreciate your approach to the subject though and I must admit that you have some very good points, very well written.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Such a contradictory article. There is no cogent argument,one contradictory argument after another.Recommend

  • Ahmad Raja

    Therefore, why should the subcontinent have been any different? The Mard-e-Momin was only following in the footsteps of Quaid-e-Azam
    The above is not TRUE.

  • Ajay

    Have the leaders of Pakistan realised that more mixing of religion in Education, social norms, justice system, politics and government etc is harmful for society and leads to intolerance, fanaticism and sectarian strife?
    I am proud to say the forefathers of India’s political system chose the right path of secularism and democracy , which seems alien to Islamists like. Zia ul Haque.Recommend

  • Faisal Suhail Butt

    The problem is not what Zia did rather how he did it. Had he been a politician (elected), his actions would’ve been justified as he would’ve been a representative of the majority. Zia, however was a military general. His actions can never be proven as a reflection of the people’s wishes. If majority of Pakistanis want sharia law than it is a crime not to impose it.Recommend

  • Mohammad Amanullah Haneef

    one possible fallacy I see in this article is this:
    You said Zia wasn’t the only fundamentalist islamist to the core but the Pakistanis are too. The issue I see is that you are comparing two different time frames. Gallup survey was recent, when the society was already islamised. The question is, were Pakistanis islamist before Zia came into power? If they were then it shows that Zia wasn’t the only one responsible.
    I doubt your claim because we have been always shown proof of the liberal state of our society in the pre-Zia era.
    I hope you clarify this one pointRecommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    The writer’s claim that Jinnah’s political rebirth happened because he embraced political Islam is a historically inaccurate statement. Jinnah was quite clear that the issue was of a political nature i.e. rights of the Muslim minority. Jinnah envisaged a modern democratic state and was quite clear about it. Furthermore Jinnah stood for civilian constitutional rule. He was also quite clear throughout that Pakistan would not be a theocracy to be run by priests with a divine mission. So to say that Jinnah’s political rebirth happened through the embrace of political Islam is a statement that might appeal to Indians and Jinnah-bashers and some Islamists in Pakistan, but no historian – from Ayesha Jalal to Neeti Nair – actually quite agrees with that formulation.
    Of course it is also correct that we are not necessarily bound by Jinnah’s vision – Pakistan should be what Pakistanis want. The problem with General Zia is that he was a usurper. It does not matter if Pakistanis think of themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second. Self identification is a fundamental human right. General Zia ul Haq’s Islamization process was thus unconstitutionally and illegally imposed on the people of Pakistan.
    A military dictator therefore cannot be said to be following Jinnah, when the latter believed in constitutional civilian rule. Constitutional civilian rule would have ensured that the laws passed by the parliament would have all the legitimate safeguards for minorities… which was Jinnah’s vision. An example of this is Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to pass 15th Amendment which was blocked by the senate.
    So I am afraid this blog – while clearly appealing to those with a limited understanding of history and Pakistan – is just another attempt to blame the crimes of a military dictatorship on Jinnah who had no truck with Islamism whatsoever.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You have attempted to take on a heavy subject ……. and not really done justice to it.

  • Miyagi Jr.

    After the first 2 sentences “it wasn’t Zia but Bhutto” I was like, hmm facts.
    but what happened afterwards was a complete mess of Jinnah’s ideology.Recommend

  • MR.X

    It is our duty as msulims to strive for Shariat no matter what a liberal says etc. Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    No one converted for spiritual reasons or for personal quest like of Siddharth Gautam to find Nirvana.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Indian forefathers didnt choose secularism or democracy. Muslim appeasement is not secularism. Recommend

  • vinsin

    So why those so many liberal Pakistani didnt oppose Zia policies?
    What about Ahmedi in pre-Zia era?
    Liberalism :
    1) Freedom of religion – didnt exists even in pre-Zia era
    2) Freedom of Speech and Expression – again highly restricted.
    3) Dating Laws, feminism etc – didnt exist even at that time.Recommend

  • vinsin

    If Zia policies were not reflection of the people wishes then why they didnt protest vehemently against those policies? Anyway in a democracy, no policies is permanent, so why people have not challenged them in court or elected leader who can reverse those changes?
    Without support from the masses the changes were never possible for Zia to implement.Recommend

  • vinsin

    How Muslims were minority? Who was majority? Werent Sunni Muslims in majority?
    In a modern democratic state there is no concept of religious minority.
    What about Sikhs, Jains, Tribal people, Dalits, Zoroastrians, Jews etc? Were they minority or not? Why Jinnah didnt fight for them?Recommend

  • pork lover

    Jinnah wanted to get famous and today he is a king for some 170 million pakistanis.Recommend

  • Lakhkar Khan

    So should many Indians in India. India’s has long changed from Gandhi’s softer image to a mass murderer and racist Modi.Recommend

  • rationalist

    “Pakistan should be what Pakistanis want”
    Over 80% of Pakistanis want strict Shari and Islamic rule.

    ” So to say that Jinnah’s political rebirth happened through the embrace of political Islam…”

    Jinnah definitely chose to ride the “plitical Islamic tiger” to create Pakistan. The consequence is Pakistanis now can’t get off of this tiger without being eaten aliveRecommend

  • Imtiaz

    Good Article. A different perspective and seeing things from different angle.Recommend

  • Farrukh Akhtar

    Best analysis I ever readRecommend

  • The Mayor Of Medina


    Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan has only 1 seat out of 104 in Senate, 4 seats out of 342 in National Assembly, 1 seat out of 371 in Punjab Assembly, and 7 seats out of 124 in Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.

    Meanwhile, BJP with its right-wing Hindutva ideology is in power in India.Recommend

  • The Mayor Of Medina

    Its must be your secular ideals that led you to elect Narendra Modi, a man who presided over pogroms in Gujarat that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Muslims and Hindus. No wonder Kashmir is burning again.Recommend