[This is one in a series of posts responding to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. For more on the situation in Pakistan, see the recently launched SSRC essay forum, Pakistan in Crisis.—ed.]

The violence that engulfed Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto’s murder was neither new nor unexpected but was part of the process of creating an ideological state. Against the background of the present, it is worth recalling that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, so often called the “Father of Pakistan” had not envisioned a Pakistan based on a controlling Islamic ideology. “Now what shall we do?” he had asked as Pakistan was created in August 1947. His answer: “Solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, especially of the masses and the poor…You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State…You will find that in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” This is a statement of secularism that matches the usage, in its Constitution, that declares that India is a “secular” state.

This vision quickly faded, however, after Jinnah’s death, when the Constituent Assembly in 1949 adopted “The Objectives Resolution” defining the nature of Pakistan. The heart of the Resolution was that Pakistan was to be a state where Muslims could lead their individual and collective lives “in accord with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah.” “Requirements” is the operative word for an Islamic state. It is instructive that General Ayub Khan, after he had engineered the first military takeover in 1958, was aware that a major obstacle to the development of a modern state was what he called “the irreconcilable nature” of the conflict between “the forces of science and reason and the forces of dogmatism and revivalism.” The reply to Ayub came from Syed Abu’l–ala Maududi, the learned and influential Islamic activist who had founded the Jama’a-i-Islami in India, the organization that was to be central to the insistence that Pakistan should be a true Islamic state, not just a nominal one. “We are already committed before God and man and at the altar of History about the promulgation of Islamic constitution and no going back on our words is possible.” It is probable that most Pakistanis would think this was a reasonable statement; otherwise, why had Partition taken place? That political leaders have not contradicted this understanding of the nature of Pakistan is fundamental to its social and political life.

In their search for a stable Pakistan, its early civilian rulers sought financial support from the United States to build up its military forces. The United States then saw Pakistan as an ally against the Soviet Union and later much more directly as a crucial ally in the war it was leading against Islamic terrorism. When John Foster Dulles visited South Asia in 1953, his comments on India and Pakistan had the religious coloration that came easily to him. Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, seemed unable to appreciate the moral divide that separated the United States from the Soviet Union, and he was “an utterly impractical statesman.” Dulles was delighted, however, with Pakistan, as a country, unlike India, that had “the moral courage to do its part in resisting communism.” He was also deeply impressed by the “martial and religious qualities of the Pakistanis.” General Ayub, who was soon to become the military ruler of Pakistan, epitomized those virtues. While some American diplomats were concerned about getting too deeply involved with Pakistan, the American Ambassador concluded that Pakistan was “a tolerable risk.” In words that could have been written in December, 2007, he argued that the Pakistani administration needed financial and military help to protect its political prestige. “In view of the lack of any signs of other political leaders, or knowledge of their sympathies should they appear, the prestige of the current administration is a real asset to the best interests of the United States Government.”

Civilian rule was restored under Zulfiqar Bhutto from 1971 to 1977, and with his stated aim of giving Pakistan a sense of nationhood after the secession of Bangladesh. The new constitution promulgated in 1973 was intended do this, when, like the previous ones, it recognized Allah as the sovereign ruler of Pakistan and declared that all legislation would be in accordance with Islamic law. Bhutto’s overthrow by General Zia marked the beginning, from 1977 to 1988, of the firm establishment of authoritarian military rule and strenuous attempts to create a truly Islamic society. Pakistan would be so united as an Islamic society, Zia promised, that “no wedge can be driven [in it] and no cracks and fissures can be created.” The process of Islamization under Zia denied the concepts of secularism and democracy, as generally understood in the West and by liberal groups in Pakistan. A major part of the process was the enforcement of the Hudood Ordinances of 1979, which prescribed in detail the enforcement of Islamic laws. Women’s organizations and human rights groups denounced some of them as brutal and degrading to women. An important aspect of Islamization, according to official education documents, was the emphasis on the primary duty of education at all levels “to preserve the Islamic way of life” for “Pakistan as an ideological state cannot ignore its ideological moorings.” This is one explanation of the great growth of religious schools at all levels, usually referred to in Pakistan as Madrasahs.

The return to military rule under General Musharraf in 1999 was accepted without much opposition, after the years of civilian rule by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, which were marked by charges of mismanagement and alleged corruption. Pakistan became, at least in the eyes of the American government, an ally in the war against Islamic terrorists, and the symbiosis of religion and violence has become characteristic of Pakistan during recent years.

General Musharraf’s comments on this are interesting. He insists that at the core, the people of Pakistan are religious and moderate, living in an Islamic state created for the Muslims of the subcontinent. There is, however, a small fringe of extremists, holding “rigid, orthodox, even obscurantist and intolerant views about religion,” which they want to impose on others. The vast mass of Pakistanis, who live in rural areas, are moderate in their religious opinions, “but because of their illiteracy, poverty and desperation, the extremists try to recruit them and often succeed.” But Musharraf is well aware that many extremists are neither poor nor uneducated. So what motivates them? His answer is far more sophisticated that that of politicians in the United States leading the war on Islamic terrorism. They are driven to violence, he believes, by “their revulsion at the sheer pathos the Muslim condition: the political injustices, societal deprivation, and alienation that reduced many Muslims to marginalization and exploitation.” This is how religion gets mixed with violence. So success against terrorism will only come when injustices against Muslims are removed, and he adds, rather surprisingly, that this can only be done by the West, “particularly America.” Pakistanis can, however, remove from school texts all material promoting sectarian or religious hatred.

Violence has been accepted, then, by jihadis, warriors defending Islam, as a necessary step in creating a purer Islamic society. They are motivated at least in part by Muslim teachings on tolerance, charity and service. Many Pakistanis, however, see violence legitimized by religion as signaling the demise of civil society, and it is hard to believe that violence, rooted in the fabric of society, can be uprooted without great turmoil and bloodshed. And this can only be accomplished by Pakistani leadership.