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Milton Viorst

Fellowship Title:

Islam As Raison D’Etat

Milton Viorst
March 30, 2011

Fellowship Year


What is this religious fervor that is gripping the Islamic world? Institutional Islam has toppled a government in Iran, threatens a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, executed a former prime minister in Pakistan. Interpreters say that the huge influx of wealth from petroleum has transformed Islam’s sense of itself and of its international importance. I have read in newspapers and magazines that Moslems are filled with a new confidence, a greater feeling of self-assurance, a vision and a hope. Are we, as some observers have written, on the threshold of a resurgence of Islamic power, of a new Golden Age for the followers of Mohammed?

I strongly doubt it. My own view is that the new Islamic wave is not the product of a new self-confidence at all but of a crisis that emerges from social frustration, inner doubt and profound feelings of inadequacy. The surge of oil wealth, far from transforming Islam’s self-image of social inferiority into a positive conception, has created new uncertainties. The Shah of Iran was not kept in power by oil money but destroyed by it. For the Islamic world to fall behind other societies when it is impoverished is one thing; to remain behind in spite of its riches is quite another. Oil money deprives the Islamic world of its rationalizations and excuses, and deepens its internal crisis.

As a social institution, the problem of Islam is that it enjoyed its great triumphs in the centuries after Mohammed, whose famous hegira took place in 622 A.D., and it has been living on memories ever since. Islam spread in those centuries from the Arabian peninsula across the southern rim of the Mediterranean, beyond Spain and into France. It circled the Mediterranean from the other direction as well, and advanced through Turkey and the Balkans to the gates of Vienna. In its centuries of military dynamism, Islam also produced great philosophers, scientists and writers. It remained a major diplomatic and intellectual power for a thousand years, which is more than a passing moment in man’s history, but with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the fall in 1918, the Islamic world became little more than a pawn in the rivalries between European powers.

The Postwar “Liberations”


The end of World War II brought the promise of a reversal in the fortunes of the Islamic world. From the Asian sub-continent in the east to the Sahara in the West, the colonial powers were being forced to abandon their control. One by one, Islamic societies acquired their independence, and in Pakistan and Algeria new Islamic nations were formed. Only in a small segment of Palestine was there no “liberation” from foreigners-but not for lack of trying. Apart from the small Zionist anomaly, Moslems could genuinely believe in an impending renaissance of grandeur.

IslamIn the fullness of its independence, the Islamic world had the power to organize its societies as it saw fit, and one of its options was the kind of theocracy, which seemed to correspond with the directives of the Koran. Instead, it elected to emulate the very Western countries from whom its soil had just been delivered. The West was strong, rich and for the most part stable, and the Moslem states, like the rest of the “third world”, embarked on a frenetic campaign of Western-style modernization. Countries like Iraq and Iran, with oil, were lucky; others, like Egypt and Pakistan, had to make do without it. Yet, with remarkable uniformity, the Islamic world attained no grandeur.

Few of the Third World countries did well, but the Moslem states seemed to do more poorly than the rest. Though they acquired Western-style weapons, the Western-style strength they had dreamed of eluded them, and they lost one war after another to Israel. More important, the developmental process gave them unstable political institutions; corrupt public officials and economic systems that, at best, enriched the few. They experienced a population explosion, and a level of agricultural production that could not keep pace, leaving them with malnourished children, even occasional famine. Perhaps most wounding to their pride, they remained the pawn of big powers, forced to turn either East or West, but unable to rely upon themselves. And so they asked themselves what had gone wrong.

Their religious leaders told them that they were themselves to blame, for having turned their backs on Islam, for being seduced by the false faith of Western materialism. They had abandoned prayer, pilgrimage and purdah for industrialization, alcohol and blue jeans. Sadat, for one, rejected such an answer. In Egypt’s case, at least, too many wars were to blame, he said, with too little modernization, and too much chasing after the chimera of Zionism’s defeat. But the priests of Islam insisted shrilly that the people had lost their moorings, and from the Himalayas to the Atlantic it became apparent that confused and unhappy Moslems were prepared to take this explanation seriously.



Pakistan, where I recently spent several weeks, has been at the leading edge of the Islamization wave and its experience, for being less dramatic than Iran’s, is perhaps a better index of the change that has been coming over the Moslem world. Pakistan was founded when the British quit India in 1947. The premise of the state was that the Moslem minority on the subcontinent needed its sovereignty to be free of Hindu domination, and to develop within the framework of its own culture. Politically, Pakistan began without institutions or traditions; economically, it was grievously underdeveloped. Though it has never grown prosperous, it has probably dealt more successfully with its economic than its political and social problems. In 1956, Pakistan ended its dominion status within the British commonwealth and declared itself an “Islamic republic”. But what that meant was never clear and, over the decades, Pakistan wrote and abandoned several different constitutions, and experimented with various systems of government, both military and civilian. None ever really worked.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Throughout this period, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto served many governments, in both diplomatic and domestic posts. A member of the landed aristocracy, he was educated in Britain and United States, and he returned to Pakistan in the early 1950’s. He was generally acknowledged to be brilliant, articulate and ambitious. He was also quintessentially Western, at a time when Western values and methods were held in high esteem. He was obviously more at ease in Western than in Eastern clothes, and he liked Western literature and art. I remember one reporting trip when he and I finished most of a bottle of scotch, with no Islamic reservations on his part. Though he was a spellbinding orator in Urdu, the principal language of Pakistan, he liked English better, and he was clearly more comfortable in the company of diplomats and statesmen than he was with other Pakistanis.

In December of 1970, under a military administration, Pakistan held the only free election of its history. Bhutto, running as leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, which he had founded, came in second Rather than accept the results, however, he announced he would not sit in parliament with the winners, and from this ensued the civil war from which emerged an independent East Pakistan, to be known as Bangladesh. Bhutto became prime minister of the western segment of the country, which was all that remained, and proceeded under martial law to govern with intelligence and vigor. Given Bhutto’s Western orientation, Pakistan looked forward to the creation of strong and democratic institutions, to end the country’s endemic instability and misgovernment.

The Irony of Bhutto


But instead Pakistan got demagogy and corruption. Not everything Bhutto did was bad, of course, but almost all was dedicated to entrenching his own power. He dissolved provincial assemblies to keep opposition parties from ruling them. He arbitrarily nationalized businesses and factories to break potential opposition in the middle-class. He stuffed his supporters into the civil service, the one institution that had kept the state functioning through decades of crisis. While relatives and courtiers blatantly entrenched themselves, he summed up his indifference to popular concerns by having a $20 million presidential palace built for himself.

It was actually Bhutto, sensing the growth of disaffection with his rule, who launched the Islamization process in Pakistan. Though the country was an “Islamic” republic, and most of the population was rather pious, Islam ‘ had very little place within the political structure. Several Islamic parties existed, but none had ever received more than a few percent of the vote in any election. Then, Bhutto began suddenly to talk of replacing Anglo-Saxon law with Koranic law, and he took the first tentative steps to ban alcohol throughout the country. His was a desperate and rather belated effort to link himself with Pakistan’s equivalent of motherhood, and even apple pie.

Entrenched habits die slowly, however, and in the election of March 1977, Bhutto could not resist the temptation to engage in massive fraud, although he would surely have won without it. Opponents were locked up, beaten and in some cases killed by his secret police apparatus. On election day, Bhutto’s party won 156 seats to the opposition’s 36, a result which so grotesquely misrepresented the national will that even many of his supporters found it unacceptable. Throughout April, there were massive street demonstrations in the major cities, to which Bhutto responded by imposing martial law. Throughout May and June, he negotiated with the opposition over a new election, but reached no agreement. Finally, on the morning of July 5, the army overthrew Bhutto’s government and put Bhutto in jail.

General Zia-ul-haq, chief of staff of the army, was a family man of simple tastes, educated in Pakistan, a fervently practicing Moslem. He has said that only after the coup did he learn of the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Bhutto government. Zia concluded that Bhutto’s Western habits and ideology were at the root of the evil days that had befallen Pakistan. Though Zia had an array of crimes with which to charge Bhutto, the choice made little difference-and Bhutto was ultimately executed. Zia had made up his mind to be rid of Bhutto as a symbolic suppression of foreign influence. Zia also surrounded himself by the politicians of the extremist Islamic parties whom the voters had again and again rejected, and he instructed them to cleanse Pakistan of Western rot.

I found it difficult listening to some of the men who set the tone for the present government. A few impressed me as fanatics but I found most to be intelligent, even thoughtful. But their words seemed far removed from my Western experience.

Complete Code of Life


“Islam is our raison d’etat,” said former Justice Cheemah of the Supreme Court, who currently heads the Islamic Ideology Council, a major advisory body. “Among the reasons for which the previous regime fell was that it was not perceived as Islamic. Islam is not something on the side for us, as religion is in the West. It is a complete code of life, and the nation as a whole sincerely believes in its promulgation.”

“The atmosphere created by Bhutto was one of lying, drinking, adultery,” said Iftikhar Ahmed Ansari, Minister of Religion. “It was headed for atheism. In the first hundred years of Islam, there were no evils in society. People were pious. They were happy. It will be that way again.”

Professor Ghafoor Ahmed, Minister of Production and the most influential of the ideologists around Zia, did not find it necessary to go back to the beginnings of Islam. His analysis of economic policy, which sounded like the thinking of a Harvard Ph. D., was sprinkled with such observations as: “In the first thirty years of our history, we failed to set up an Islamic society in Pakistan. Our goal is to establish a just society. We want to create a code of life, and make this world a heaven.”

Not all Islamic scholars agree on which laws are mandated by the Koran, but some of these that the government envisages have already been put into effect. The principal one is prohibition, which now blankets the country. There have been lashings for thievery and, officially, there is stoning to death for adultery, though the punishment may never have been evoked. The government has announced enforcement of obligatory tithing and other Koranic taxes, but administrative complications have delayed implementation. The abolition of interest on loans has also become policy, but no one has yet determined how to do it without the economy’s total collapse.

Obviously, there are many people in Pakistan who are less than enthusiastic about the government’s Islamization program, but it is difficult to find one who will say so publicly. Businessmen and bankers shrug, and maintain that they will somehow manage. Women admit to worry but, because Islamization has a less antifeminist quality in Pakistan than Iran, they hope the wave will pass them by. Lawyers and government officials seem willing to observe the letter of the law, while trying to evade its inconveniences. Most important, everyone seems to recognize that any effort to oppose it now would be quixotic. It is Pakistan’s new strategy for reversing a history of social failure, and Islamization undoubtedly possesses the virtue of lying close to the society’s roots. Islamization will be around a while in Pakistan-as it will be in the rest of the Moslem world.

©1979 Milton Viorst

MILTON VIORST’s Fellowship project is Zionist and Islamic Ideas in the Mideast Crisis.