December Issue 2014

By | Books | Published 10 years ago

Saadia Toor’s The State of Islam offers a refreshing perspective and a much-needed objective insight into Pakistan’s history. While there is extensive literature on this theme, Toor takes the reader over Pakistan’s 67-year history, and examines it in the context of culture, combined with how ‘Islam’ came to be inexorably intertwined in the politics of the state. The book explores how a state that had been envisioned by Jinnah as evidently ‘secular’ and a ‘liberal democracy,’ accommodating the diversity of its people, came to be engulfed by the agenda of the religious right. While Jinnah had rejected outright the concept of Pakistan as an ‘Islamic state,’ we see that religious elements were at play, interfering in the state as early as 1948, with the Muslim League turning towards the discourse of ‘Islam’ to quash dissent and Islamist parties like the Jamaat stirring mistrust of secular politics among the masses.

What is worth noting is that Toor goes beyond the perception of Pakistan as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, fuelled by military dictatorship. She takes readers through pre-Partition politics, followed by the major eras of rule, the partition of Bengal, leading up to the present to show how the Pakistani establishment and the military-civilian-bureaucratic elite have collectively quashed any anti-mainstream discourse (highlight: the national language issue of Urdu vs. Bengali), sidelined progressive politics and effectively eliminated the Left over time.  In doing so, it allowed Islam to become institutionalised in the state apparatus over time. She asserts, “In Pakistan, as in other parts of the Muslim world, the rise of Islamists as a social and political force was engineered both directly, by inducting them into state institutions as Zia did, and indirectly, by ‘cleansing’ the political sphere of their only effective nemesis/counter, the Left.”

The turn towards Islam came not only from within; it also had an international dimension. With the Cold War raging, issues across the world were viewed through the prism of the East/West dynamic and key international players like the US believed that it could use Islam as an ‘effective politico-ideological bulwark’ against Communism in the region, thus pulling Pakistan into its game. Even though Islam had always been, and continues to be, used as a political tool to achieve various ends, it was during the US’s proxy war in Afghanistan that violence in the name of Islam became legitimised (as the mujahideen were said to be fighting a holy war against the Soviets). At a time when Pakistan was already struggling around its concept of a nation-state, typically to be built through a common culture, the US promoted the concept of jihad in Pakistan as they thought the majority would respond better to ‘religion’ than ‘culture’ in presenting a unified force against communism. Unfortunately, this helped sow the seeds for marginalising minorities that did not fall under the same umbrella of religion, and sectarianism and religious fundamentalism soon followed.

This Cold War agenda coincided perfectly with the reign of Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan. Toor puts it astutely when she says, “Every aspect of the Pakistani state, society, politics and culture worth noting today bears the scars of the 11 years of martial law under General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988, Pakistan’s longest and most brutal military dictatorship.” Throughout the book, Toor touches upon many of the issues that plague our society today: religious extremism and intolerance, terrorism, law and order, patronage, corruption, poverty, patriarchy/(the lack thereof), women’s rights and so forth. While these issues have been nurtured by successive regimes to become embedded today, the traces of many can be attributed to Zia’s strong hold on power. An entire chapter is devoted to ‘The Long Shadow of Zia: Women, Minorities and the Nation-state.’ At its core, Zia’s authoritarianism played strongly on the ideological aspect of Islam, with close hints to the Wahhabi ideology of the Saudi ruling family, which was further augmented by the contiguous funding for the mujahideen (considered to be the predecessors of the Pakistani Taliban) by the US and left us with the legacy of the Hudood Ordinances.

Toor also points out how Ayub Khan’s supposed ‘Decade of Development’ was built around the American model of the ‘modernisation theory’ which underplayed local culture and customs at the expense of following imperialist notions, and accumulating wealth and economic growth, at the risk of creating stark income inequality. With the military seen as the convenient ‘progressive’ force in the country, the West happily invested in it and ignored the aspirations of the masses; along with the industrialisation of the time, this allowed for the military to become entrenched in various aspects of the country. Similarly, Bhutto contributed to the growing religiosity by appeasing vested Islamist interests in order to secure his hold on power; he banned alcohol and officially designated members of the Ahmeddiya sect as non-Muslims. This was to damage the secular social fabric of the Pakistani state irreparably and, ironically, was undertaken by an individual brought to power on a socialist, populist, almost liberal agenda.

While covering this trajectory, the reader gains insight into the complex history of Pakistan, made ever-more turbulent by the dynamics of the Cold War and the military-civilian tug-of-war over the government as well as the entrenched interests of the bureaucratic elite, while being shown how the use of Islamic ideology has been encouraged and abetted by both local and global players for their stake in the Pakistani state (the downside of its strategic geo-political location).

The effect of this suppression of populist sentiment was that by the time the 2008 PPP-led government rolled in, “Pakistani liberals were (now) willing to tolerate authoritarianism of the most draconian sort as long as it was from a democratically-elected civilian government that was led by a purported ‘secular’ party.”

While concise and comprehensive, this book becomes slightly one-sided in its retelling of history and perhaps exaggerates the struggle of the Liberal and Marxist elements in society, who have indeed been sidelined from the political realm since the get-go. Nevertheless, it is a great read for all politically-inclined individuals, particularly since it is very relevant in that it explores Pakistani politics in the internationally-heralded context of the nation-state, nationalism and Islamic

This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue under the headline “The Politics of Religion.”