Islam and struggle in Pakistan

The State of Islam:

Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan

SINCE THE beginning of the Cold War, Pakistan has appeared in the international imagination as a minor figure in the drama between rival superpowers or as the religiously hidebound antagonist to the rise of a modern, secular India. In both instances, what has been obscured are the political debates, struggles, and movements inside of Pakistan—struggles for a future that is not the same as the one imagined by those who have been at the nation’s helm throughout its sixty-four-year history or those agents (usually American, but occasionally Saudi) who have directed its course from afar by meddling in the nation’s politics. 

More often than not, Pakistan’s current situation is blithely understood as the necessary consequence of its origins in a religious ideology, and any serious investigation of the nation’s social and political dynamics are summarily reduced to the equation of Pakistan with that baggy term, “Islam.”

As Saadia Toor deftly explains in her important intervention, The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan, the kinds of “Islam” deployed in Pakistan as the organizing ideology of the nation-state were neither consistent nor immutable, and the meaning of the religion has been hotly contested, from the left and from the right, at every stage of the nation’s development. Rather than a story of the nation moving along a trajectory of increasing degrees of religious puritanism, Toor shows that the national elites in Pakistan have selectively deployed different (and occasionally contradictory) variants of Islam in order to organize public sentiment against their immediate antagonists: Bengali speakers, religious and national minorities, particular political parties, women, and the left. 

The relationship that emerges between Pakistan and Islam in Toor’s account is one in which the rise of a particularly vicious form of militant Islam is best understood in the context of Pakistan’s role as a frontline state in Afghanistan during the Cold War—and the vacuum created by the evisceration of the political left inside Pakistan through the deployment of coercion under the sign of “Islam.”

The book begins with an account of the historical processes that led to the partition of the Indian subcontinent after the fall of the British Raj. Under British rule, Muslims were encouraged to mark themselves out as a separate demographic group from Hindus in order to receive protections and favors from the British state. The net effect of institutions such as the census, separate schools and colleges, and divided electoral polls was to create the idea of a separate Muslim nation, even when Muslims were deeply integrated into their communities. 

The increasingly tense relationship between Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League and the Indian National Congress eventually broke down in the mid-1930s, when it became clear that the Congress had no intention of sharing power. One of the consequences was that the movement for independence increasingly took on the character of a movement between two different religious communities with different ends, both stoking communal hatred to their advantage.

But inside of the movement for Pakistan were a number of different political forces. If Jinnah represented a class of professionals who were secular by disposition, he also knew that there would be risks to being a minority in an independent India, and animated, accordingly, a movement that had an Islamic idiom but not an Islamic content. Alongside him were two contradictory forces: Punjabi landlords and the Communist Party of India (CPI). The CPI sought to work towards a more radical social reorganization of India, and when its leadership adopted the idiosyncratic “Adhikari thesis” (that Muslims in India constituted a separate nation with the right to self-determination), a part of the CPI entered into the Muslim League from its left.

Meanwhile, more reactionary agrarian forces in Punjab entered the party from the right when it became clear that a Congress victory would mean land reform in order to break the power of the large landholders in the agrarian heartland. The result was the establishment of a state that was simultaneously beholden to masses of people who had been energized by left populist sloganeering and right-wing forces with a more conservative agenda. Both relied on different readings of Islam in order to advocate for their positions immediately after Partition in 1947.

This contradiction immediately asserted itself in the problem of democracy in a country made up of geographically separated eastern and western wings. The Bangla-speaking eastern part of the country with its deeper roots of radical politics numerically outnumbered the Urdu-dominated western part of the country. The conflict first appeared in the fight over a national language, in which Urdu became identified with Islam and Bangla came to be seen as connected to Hinduism (and therefore anti-national). In their attempt to consolidate the Pakistani nation-state and secure their advantage, the political elite in the western wing advanced an argument that connected Islam, Pakistan, and Urdu as synonyms and opposed that to the trinity of Hindu-India-Hindi, to which Bangla was seen as a close cousin. Toor demonstrates that as West Pakistan attempted to bring the eastern part of the country under its aegis, it also managed to produce an ideology which was helpful in suppressing the rights of other minorities: Balochis, Christians, Sindhis, and the like.

One of the more impressive contributions of Toor’s book is to show how Cold War debates between liberalism and communism affected cultural debates that were taking place in Pakistan’s Urdu letters. The dominant poetic trend, known as taraqqi pasandi, with connections to the Progressive Writers Association and the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), soon came under attack from two fronts: the Pakistani state (which cracked down on the CPP and its members) and a new liberal, nationalist poetic tradition (which attacked the aesthetics and the politics of progressive writers).

Against the socialist vision of the progressives, the liberals advocated a “discourse of loyalty” and more formalist approaches to poetry in their scathing attacks on the progressives as simultaneously anti-national and anti-Islam. The perpetual political crises manufactured by the state also allowed the liberals to present the progressives as agents of either India or the Soviet Union, while the pretext of the Rawal­pindi Conspiracy case was then used to crush the communists and their literary organs.

When General Ayub Khan’s coup transferred power from the civilian government to the military in 1958, it allowed the industrial elite in the country, now advised by the Harvard Advisory Group on International Development, to pursue an aggressive strategy of development throughout the 1960s. As part of this project, the Americans encouraged the Pakistani establishment to use Islam as a specific kind of ideology to enforce labor discipline and anticommunism. Modern industrialization was intended not to root out tradition but to manage protest, which were growing throughout the 1960s in response to both global political developments and aggressive domestic austerity. 

But modernity and Islam were not an easy fit. In order to connect the two, a space had to be opened to discuss the benefits of Islam for modernity. In the debate that emerged throughout the 1960s, one side advocated a kind of Islamic socialism, which revived interest in the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, a leading member of the Muslim League under British rule. The other side put forward a “Pakistan ideology,” which became the framework of the establishment-patronized writers and the Jama’at-e-Islami, a religious party that had originally opposed of the idea of Pakistan. As the state increasingly relied on a manipulated variant of Islam, the leftist poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Habib Jalib emerged as strong cultural antagonists to the increasingly sclerotic ideas of the state.

Many opponents of the Ayub dictatorship were easily co-opted into Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, which came to power after the disastrous civil war with Bangladesh in 1971. Bhutto, though, moved decisively to the right almost immediately. He cracked down on labor unions and used the military to suppress the left-nationalist uprising in the western province of Balochistan. Once he had manhandled the left, Bhutto appeased the right-wing Islamist organizations by imposing some restrictions on drinking and gambling and declaring the Ahmediyya sect to be non-Muslim. 

When Bhutto rigged the 1977 elections, General Zia ul-Haq had the pretext he needed to organize another military coup, and immediately Islam became the way to legitimize authoritarianism. This time, it was the growing dependence on Saudi aid—Bhutto had pulled Pakistan out of the US-aligned SEATO alliance and cut ties to American coffers—that most affected the choices made by the state. Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative Saudi creed, became a more prominent presence in Pakistan under the Nizam-i-Mustafa—Zia’s name for his campaign of Islamization. 

Zia enacted cruel restrictions, especially on women, under the Hudood Ordinances, which attempted to impose a set of putatively Islamic laws on Pakistan. Women’s groups were in the forefront of the opposition to Zia, as groups like the Women’s Action Front organized protests and meetings to challenge the regime’s sexism. This is also the period that created the likes of Fehmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, and Parveen Shakir, who all infused feminist themes into extraordinarily innovative poetry.

If the 1990s are commonly seen as the “lost decade” in Pakistan, then Toor uncovers a history of legal resistance, especially to Zia’s neoliberal economic agenda, the increase in sectarian conflict, and the evisceration of the rights of women and minorities. By focusing on two important cases—the honor killing of Samia Sarwar and the “love-marriage case” of Saima Waheed—Toor recuperates an important legacy of legal activism in the defense of women’s rights. What these cases also mark, though, is the opportunistic deployment of contradictory variants of “Islam”; judges often relied on customary practices such as the Pukhtoonwali code of honor in order to trump rights granted to women by both Islamic law and the Pakistan Penal Code. The book ends with a description of important recent grass-roots challenges to the state: the landless peasant movement in Okara Punjab, and the heroic strike of telecommunications workers against the privatization of Pakistan Telecommunications Limited. The picture that emerges at the end is one of a constantly shifting terrain, on which Islam, neoliberalism, and the state are met with bold kinds of opposition at every stage.

If there is one place where the argument of the book falls a little flat, it is in its defense of the errors of the Pakistani left as “strategic” rather than “political.” In fact, it was the dominance of Stalinism and Maoism in the various left groups throughout the early decades of Pakistan’s history that produced an upward limit to the kinds of strategies of resistance that the left would deploy. Even from the earliest stages, with the entry of the Communist Party into the Muslim League—part of the global Stalinist strategy of popular front politics—the left locked itself into strategic alliances with the “patriotic” bourgeoisie as the dominant strategy for advancing a left agenda, which always meant that political compromises were to the benefit of the capitalists. 

Even though the left has been able to draw out large protests against the excesses of the state, it bears underlining that it was quiet about Bhutto’s ruthless campaign in Balochistan and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thus, while some of the deformation of the Pakistani left can be blamed on state repression, there’s more to the story. This, though, is only a minor problem. The crucial work of Toor’s account is to restore women, minorities, peasants, and workers to the center stage of Pakistani history where they belong.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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