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Monday, December 26, 2011

Explaining Pakistan: Politics of hate and ambition

The wave of radical protest movements sweeping across the world in the late 1960s registered strongly in Pakistan as well. Here, the mobilisation of working-class and student groups was part of a broader agitation against the unpopular Ayub Khan regime. Saadia Toor’s The State of Islam identifies that as a moment of revolutionary promise that remained unrealised and, in fact, marked the end of mass-based progressive politics in the country. A nostalgic regret for this turn of events appears as the animating force behind this book.

Toor sets out to examine the role played by the Left in Pakistan’s history, especially the vital contributions of leftist and progressive intellectuals in shaping national cultural institutions and the anxieties they aroused amongst the ruling classes.

The state’s attempts to marginalise and forcefully suppress leftist organisations began from the early years following Partition, and continued till a final assault was launched by Zia. Along the way, she also keeps reminding us of the evolving configurations of Pakistani nationalism, the place of Islam within them, and the power struggles that went into shaping these.

The best chapters of the book are those which focus on key aspects of cultural politics in the first decade following Pakistan’s independence, making good use of historical archives, including newspapers, government records and literary writings from the time. One chapter looks at the agitation in East Bengal over the issue of Urdu as the national language, and the
assumptions about Bangla, Hindu influences, and national loyalty that debates amongst the dominant West Pakistani elites reveal. The language question becomes illustrative of fundamental tensions within the Pakistani polity — a powerful central authority refusing to grant provincial rights in a federal state structure, a Muslim nationalism that renders illegitimate all expression of regional or ethnic cultural difference and has trouble incorporating non-Muslim minorities in its fold.

Another chapter presents a lively account of the Pakistani Progressive Writers Association that counted the leading lights of Urdu literature — Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sibte Hasan, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, among others — as its members and which was banned in 1954 (along with the Communist Party). In their literary journals, novels and poetry, these socially engaged intellectuals put forth a vision of Pakistani nationalism that offered an alternative to the official state discourse. Meanwhile an opposing camp of nationalist writers, which was allied closely with the ruling Muslim League, was busy attacking the progressives for everything from their socialism to their alleged lack of patriotism and disloyalty to the new state. The author delves closely into these spirited ideological battles over the meaning and contours of the Pakistani nation in those early formative years. In the end, the ruling elites used the coercive power of the state to neutralise the progressives and the perceived threat from the popularity of their radical ideas.

The twin strategies of repression and co-optation continued under the Ayub government in the 1960s, along with anti-communist propaganda and a state-sponsored modernist reinterpretation of Islam. There is an interesting description of official cultural policies from this period, such as the takeover of leftist publications, establishment of a Writers Guild, and promotion of a new literary ideology, along with voices of dissent, such as those of Faiz and Habib Jalib.

Too many pages of this slim volume, however, are spent presenting a standard fare of events and key turning points from the anti-colonial independence movement down to the Musharraf era. Much of this rehashed political history could have been treated as familiar background knowledge for readers.

The chronological approach of the book ends up obscuring the original research findings of the doctoral dissertation on which it is based.

The narrative is especially rushed after 1971, touching briefly upon Bhutto’s rise and fall, the geopolitical context and religious pandering of Zia’s military dictatorship, and the damaging legal framework put in place for the regulation of women and religious minorities. A few added insights in these later chapters come from the provocative works of feminist poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fahmida Riaz in the 1980s, and the conservative commentary on adult Muslim women’s right to marry that the court judgment for the 1996 Saima Waheed case contained. A sustained enquiry into the socialist rhetoric and grassroots appeal of the Pakistan People’s Party would have contributed significantly to the book’s argument about how culture matters. Instead, we are simply told that the radical promise of the party’s origins was replaced by an appeasement of vested interests and religious forces without fully understanding how or why that happened.

Throughout the book, the author clearly and explicitly states her sympathy for progressive causes. This only becomes a problem when political conviction becomes a substitute for careful analysis. For instance, the Jamaat-i-Islami is introduced
as a “neo-fascist” and “reactionary” party, and “reactionary” is a label applied frequently to the urban petit bourgeoisie, yet these are not terms which are explained anywhere. Nor are we told what it means to be a “liberal” in Pakistan. The nationalist intellectuals arrayed against the progressive movement of the 1950s are classified as “liberals” only because they shared the anti-communism of liberals in other parts of the Cold War world. This is the case even when members of this camp stake out positions against “the quintessential liberal [emphasis in original] values of ‘democracy’, ‘humanism’ and ‘pacifism’”. The epilogue contains harsh words for Pakistani liberals and their abandonment of mass-based politics, yet even here the confusion remains about who belongs to the category. If neither democratic principles nor support for rule of law define members of this group, then how is it even meaningful to refer to them as liberal (other than the mocking “lifestyle liberals” label)?

The book identifies and celebrates anti-imperialism as a central plank of progressive and leftist ideology, even arguing that a popular anti-imperialist sentiment is “always an important feature of Pakistani political culture”. Yet it fails to trace the process whereby the religious right appropriated and transformed this anti-imperialist position into a strident critique of the West, other than issuing a passing rebuke to liberals for failing to understand the difference between the two. For a book that aims to show the multiple meanings and political projects associated with Islam in Pakistan, there is surprisingly little attempt to understand the various parties and platforms that have made up the religious right over time. There is no doubt that the Jamaat-i-Islami has played an influential role in disseminating an Islamist ideology, especially within state institutions. But it has hardly been the sole carrier of Islamic ideas or mobilisations at every stage of Pakistan’s history, which is the impression one gets from reading this volume.

The book concludes with some over-simplified claims about the rise of Islamic militancy. On the one hand, it holds the Pakistani military and the American imperialist project responsible for the increasing radicalisation of Pakistani society. On the other, it paints any opposition to the agenda of militant Islamic groups as necessarily translating into support for the two above-mentioned war-mongering institutions.

A whole flurry of books in the post-9/11 period has come out attempting to explain Pakistan to the outside world. Similar grand ambitions surround The State of Islam and mar what could otherwise have been an interesting exploration of neglected
episodes in Pakistan’s cultural history.

The reviewer holds a PhD in Sociology and is affiliated with the Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi

The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan (POLITICS)By Saadia Toor, Pluto Press, London, ISBN 9780745329918