Skip to Content

Between the Islamists and the liberals in Pakistan

by April 9, 2016 General

There is a general notion on this side of the border that the only voices in Pakistan are those of the mullahs and the generals. The Americans were seen as the puppeteers. In the last one-and-a-half decades of this century, it is made to appear that the jihadists represent the thinking classes in the country. This oversimplified and caricatured version of Pakistan is certainly popular in India, and it has gained much credence in the United States post-9/11. But it is humbling to come across arguments from Pakistani scholars who challenge these populist perceptions and who are able to critique power politics in their country with greater accuracy and intellectual honesty. It is unfortunate that we in India do not follow the debates in Pakistan with enough interest. Even our Pakistan-watchers look at just the military aspect of the neighbour’s politics, which translates into listening into the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and jihadi groups like Jama’at-ud-Dawa and its terrorist subsidiary, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). These voices are considered to be that of the Islamists. There is no effort to distinguish between Islam, Islamists, political Islam, secularism, Jama’at-e-Islami (JI).

There are two books, both of which were published in 2011, which address some of the issues with verve and honesty, something sorely missing in the work of Indian scholars on the political situation with regard to fundamentalism and secularism. Most Indian scholars are happy to work with the binaries of secularism/fundamentalism, which is such an un-intellectual approach. Saadia Toor’s The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan (Oxford University Press) and Humeira Iqtidar’s Secularizing Islamists?: Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama’at-ud-Da’wa in Urban Pakistan (Permanent Black) should open the eyes of many Indians, who take a lively interest about the affairs in Pakistan, especially on the social media. Toor is Professor of Sociology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, and Iqtidar a lecturer in politics at King’s College in London.

Toor makes the acute observation at the beginning of her book about how Indian narratives about Partition and Pakistan distort the complex truth. She writes: “Within the historiography of the subcontinent, dominated as it is by Indianists, the establishment of Pakistan is projected as the culmination of an essentially religious movement, which destroyed the social fabric of India.” She posits the view that demand for Pakistan was not based on religious, but, ethnic, nationalism; that Pakistan was not intended to be a homeland of Muslims as Israel was for the Jews.

Her argument runs along familiar lines of showing how the communists and progressives have been marginalised and hunted out in independent Pakistan. The conservative political class of the Muslim League at the time of independence did not like the progressives and the communists. The liberals, many of whom were leftists in the pre-independent period, became strong and even inimical critics of the progressives, and they made the leftists out to be anti-Pakistan and anti-national. In the interesting chapter titled Post-Partition Literary Politics, she quotes Samad Shaheen, a liberal anti-communist writing in 1948: “Pakistan is being constructed from scratch. Along with this we have to lay the foundation of a new literature…loyalty to the state should always be paramount in our literature. Our literature should be infused with religious ideas like Milton’s Paradise Lost or Goethe’s Faust.

Our literature should reflect the cultures of different areas of Pakistan’s different regions like that of Walter Scott…Our literature should hate communism because, after all Arthur Koestler and Andre Gide aren’t talking nonsense when they say that the counter-revolutionaries are in charge in Russia…” She shows that the communists have also been blamed for the language riots in Dhaka in the early 1950s and their support for Bangla.

Iqtidar’s book is based on field work among Jama’at-e-Islami (JI) and Jama’at-ud-Da’wa (JD) cadres and she comes up with interesting insights. She shows that JI’s students’ wing, Islami Jami’yat Tulaba (IJT) was not an original idea. Before Independence, Muslim League had its Muslim Students’ Federation (MSF). In the 1960s, there were Leftist groups, Professors’ Group and Young People’s Front in Lahore. The IJT feared both marginalisation and decimation. It became an active anti-leftist force. Iqtidar writes: “In universities and colleges, identification either with IJT or its opponent groups was increasingly forced on students, and by the mid-1970s the IJT had already built a reputation of clashes and violence with other students organisations.” She also notes that during the Zia-ul-Haq regime, the IJT got government support, and that the Leftists complained that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when in power tacitly supported IJT to counter radical student organisations. Interestingly, the IJT opposed Pervez Musharraf’s move to set up Board of Governors in the universities, which was seen as a step towards privatisation of higher education institutions. She says that IJT, where it is strong, caters to “lower-middle-class-men and middle-class women.”

But the more interesting part of Iqtidar’s book is where she narrates her interaction with women members of the Jama’at-ud-Da’wa. In the chapter titled, Harbingers of Change? Women in Islamist Parties, she starts off with the basic questions: “Why do women join Islamist parties? And once they join, what is the impact of their presence?” In an interactive session with a JI women’s think-tank, the members suggested discussion on honour killings, and this is what Iqtidar has to report: “They felt that the issue had been given disproportionate attention by Western governments to pressurise Muslims. At the same time, they were unanimous in declaring that honour killings were un-Islamic, a product of illiteracy and general cultural licentiousness, and most critically, a result of the contamination of Islamic ideals by what they perceived to be Hindu practices.”

Iqtidar is no apologist for reactionary trends but she is looking critically at the failure of liberal modernism which has given rise to fundamentalism. This is the kind of critique of modernism that few in India, excepting Ashish Nandy, have undertaken. Both Iqtidar and Toor are firmly rooted in liberalism, but they are not willing to remain complacent liberals.