Humeira Iqtidar. Secularizing Islamists?: Jama'at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa in Urban Pakistan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. xiii + 216 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-38468-9.
Reviewed by Usha Sanyal (Queens University of Charlotte)
Published on H-Asia (May, 2012)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Secularism and Islamism in Pakistan
In this slim, densely argued book Humeira Iqtidar makes an important contribution to the scholarly debate about secularism, secularization, and the liberal state. Inspired by the work of Talal Asad, Iqtidar argues that to understand secularism we need to take seriously the category of “religion” and to question our easy assumptions that while the secular is universal, rational, democratic, and tolerant of diversity, that which is religious is particular, irrational, undemocratic, and intolerant. Her paradoxical argument, based on a detailed examination of the Jama`at-e-Islami and Jama`at-ud-Dawa in Pakistan, is that these “Islamist” groups may in fact be agents of secularization in contemporary Pakistan.
A political scientist by training, Iqtidar combines an impressive mastery of the literature in a variety of academic disciplines with ethnographic fieldwork among the two Islamist groups during 2005 in Lahore. Having taught at Punjab University (the site of Jama`at-e-Islami student politics for several decades) in 2002-03, and being fluent in Punjabi and Urdu, her ethnographic chapters (chapters 3 and 4) are in my view particularly strong. Unlike the abstract, theoretically inclined earlier chapters, these give the discussion the “more granular picture” she aspires for (p. 104).
The book consists of an introduction, four substantive chapters, and a brief concluding chapter. At the outset, Iqtidar distinguishes between, and sets out to define, the terms “secularism,” “secularization,” and “religion.” Secularism, she notes, is a state-run “project” (pp. 19-20), that is, a goal and aspiration, while secularization is a process that occurs in historical time and place and in differing political conditions. Following Asad, she argues that although the analytic categories “religion” and the “secular” are regarded as alien to one another, in fact they are dialectically related, as the secular generates the religious. Furthermore, there can be no universal definition of religion, because the latter exists in historical time and place, and “consists not just of particular ideas, attitudes, and practices but also most critically of followers” who imbue those ideas and practices with meanings of their own (p. 15). As Iqtidar later argues, one of the key concepts for followers--not reducible to either false consciousness or ideology, as academics are prone to suggest, in her view--is religious belief (chapter 4).
A central theme in Secularizing Islamists? is that the Jama`at-e-Islami (JI) is a modern organization. While this observation is by no means new (see Vali Nasr’s 1996 monograph on the JI and other books on Islamic revivalism, fundamentalism, or Islamism), Iqtidar takes the argument a step further, linking it once again with secularism. There appear to be three major components to her argument for JI’s modernity: First, Muslims in Pakistan (and in South Asia generally) live in a competitive religious marketplace--they can choose to affiliate themselves with one of the ulama-led maslaks (Deobandi, Barelwi, Ahl-e Hadis, or Tablighi Jama`at, some of which have their own political parties) or with any of the Islamist groups (JI being the most prominent of them, though by no means the only one out there). Second, the JI has gone through a process of “rationalization” over its long history because it has refused to confine religion to the private sphere. And third, it illustrates the “objectification” of religion, that is, the conscious thinking-through of questions about religious identity and conduct at the individual level, where earlier generations had taken such matters as given rather than something to be problematized. Iqtidar argues that these characteristics make JI and other Islamist groups “modern,” and also “secularizing”--an argument to which I will return, as it is at the heart of the thesis of the book.
The first of the four chapters details the history of the Jama`at-e Islami, founded by Abul Ala Maududi in north India in the context of “colonial secularism.” While on the one hand the British maintained a stance of religious distance and neutrality, on the other religious identities became more prominent, less fluid, and more cohesive than ever before thanks to “codification of religious laws, political constituencies, and census activity” (p. 45). Christian missionary activity also contributed to a competitive atmosphere, leading the Jama`at to emphasize dawa or proselytism and to adopt organizational techniques borrowed from the missionaries. The fact that the Jama`at thought in political terms from its inception is also attributable, Iqtidar argues, to the colonial and postcolonial contexts in which political power resided with the state.
The second chapter looks at the JI in Pakistan, setting out its complicated history during the past sixty years, including its engagement in the political process. In this context Iqtidar claims that the JI is “the most internally democratic national political party in Pakistan” (p. 59). A central concern here is to explore the JI’s relations with the political Left. Pointing out that Maududi initially saw the “Communist Party of Pakistan as a tactical ally against its main enemy, the Muslim League,” Iqtidar echoes Nasr’s view that the JI “is the best Leninist party in Pakistan with its strict membership rules, cadre-based organization, continuous ideological training, and centralized decision making” (p. 66). And although by the 1960s the JI began to define itself in terms of its opposition to the Left, it was thanks to its political engagement with the latter that the JI deepened its connections with constituencies it would not otherwise have reached, namely, students, labor unions, and farmers. In the section on the JI’s student wing, the Islami Jam`iyat Tulaba (IJT), Iqtidar shows how the 1968 student demonstrations that brought down the Ayub Khan government in 1969, and further student demonstrations against East Pakistan in the 1971 war, propelled the IJT to national prominence, giving it the authority to act independently of the JI at times.
In chapter 3, Iqtidar explores intra-Islamist competition between the JI and the Jama`at-ud-Da`wa (JD), whose militant wing is the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, to illustrate the fallacy of scholarly assumptions of Islamist homogeneity (p. 103). Among the differences between them are the JI’s long history as a national party versus the JD’s relatively fragile existence, and the JI’s participation in national elections versus the JD’s lack of such participation. But because they also share much in common--emphasizing an individual, unmediated understanding of the Qur’an and hadis, unlike the traditionalist ulama who emphasize adherence to one of the four Sunni madhabs (schools of law); attaching great importance to dawa or proselytization; and valorizing physical jihad over spiritual jihad--they compete with one another for followers. Vivid illustration of this competition is provided by the story of a young man who, although a JI member earlier, had recently joined the JD, and whose mobile phone and phone card shop were vandalized at gunpoint in broad daylight by JI men.
The ethnography in this chapter and the next shifts the focus to the women of these two movements. In chapter 4, Iqtidar asks why women join movements which outsiders consider to be misogynist. Her answer--illustrated through the stories of specific women--is that membership in these organizations can actually widen their options and life trajectories, giving them access to careers within the framework of strict adherence to the rules of female seclusion and a greater pool of marriage partners than they would otherwise have had. In this, she echoes the recent work of Saba Mahmood on women in the mosque movement in Egypt.
This brings us full circle, back to the argument that these Pakistani Islamists are “facilitating secularization at a societal level even as they continue to oppose secularism as an official policy.” At the individual level, they have changed religious practice “into a largely individualized decision that must be justified internally, that is, within a subject, and externally, to others around the subject” (p. 157). In the introduction, Iqtidar writes: “My attempt here is not to suggest that the Islamists are secular in the sense of consciously identifying with the ideology of secularism--in fact it is very much the reverse of that--but that they are secularizing, that is, they are facilitating a process of secularization as rationalization of religion” (p. 22).
Following the logic of Iqtidar’s argument, the rationalization of religion that the JI is facilitating in Pakistan will change the nature of that country’s religious--and political--landscape over the course of time. The direction of this future change is open to speculation--will the country become more democratic and pluralistic, more receptive to the participation of women in public life, and more egalitarian in economic terms? Will it consequently be less hospitable to particularistic tribal or caste-like social formations and more open to global competition and the free exchange of goods and ideas? Will it become less dependent on the privileged and all-powerful military establishment? At the present time, such a scenario seems rather far removed from the realities on the ground, particularly in view of the “war on terror” in the region as a whole.
Nevertheless, as one who has been researching the work of Al-Huda, an offshoot of JI--an organization initially geared to upper-class Pakistani women but which now has a popular online presence on many continents, established through the personal networks of its founder Farhat Hashmi--I see the JI having vastly increased its influence beyond the small group of leaders (the “vanguard”) that Maududi wanted to recruit from the upper class, into the middle and lower-middle classes in Pakistan and beyond. But given that the goals of the Islamists are to Islamize society, and that the narrative of the JI and its affiliates and offshoots is centered on its interpretation of the Qur’an and hadis, can they truly be an agent of secularization? Perhaps we should look at other parts of the world for an answer, particularly Egypt in the post-Mubarak era, where the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to assume political power for the first time in its history.
. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).
. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
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Usha Sanyal. Review of Iqtidar, Humeira, Secularizing Islamists?: Jama'at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa in Urban Pakistan.
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