Karachi: It is a virtual truism these days to assert that Muslim societies are at crossroads. For the disciples of Maulana Maudoodi and Syed Qutb — the globally acknowledged fathers of modern Islamist thought — Muslim societies have been struggling against “jahiliya” for decades.
“Secular” Muslims, on the other hand, have become conscious much more recently of the decisive battle unfolding in Muslim societies between those like themselves and “extremists”.
On both sides of this impermeable ideological divide is a conviction in the absolute righteousness of the cause. Notwithstanding casual references made to historical events, each antagonist clings to an almost timeless perception both of oneself and the proverbial “other”.
In fact, the history of Muslim societies is not different from others; conflicts of various kinds have come to the fore but their nature has changed with time.
In the current period the range and scope of conflicts within Muslim societies is quite staggering. It is not possible to view all of these myriad conflicts through predisposed lenses. We need look no further than the so-called Arab Spring to recognise the complexity of contemporary political developments.
In Egypt, 30 months after the euphoric scenes that culminated in (secular) Hosni Mubarak abdicating his throne, we have just witnessed popular forces demanding and then celebrating a military coup against an elected government. That the government overthrown was led by the Muslim Brotherhood lends legitimacy to the generals. But where does that leave us?
In Syria, where the (secular) dictator has not even been overthrown yet, the so-called “Free Syria” rebel Army has been paraded as a beacon of hope.
In fact it is an unholy concoction of imperialist powers and a healthy dose of radical Islamists. It was even reported in Pakistan that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was considering sending its men to fight against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Libya is not even in the news anymore, despite the fact that a low-intensity civil war continues to rage there. Why did being repulsed by Muammar Gaddafi and his antics translate into support for an incredibly short-sighted “humanitarian intervention” led by yet another group of despicable characters fronted by Italy and other Western governments?
In all of these cases, and others, we take political positions on the basis of caricatures of society proffered by the corporate media. While there are exceptions, the press within Muslim and Western countries both tells us nothing about the real social conflicts unfolding in Egypt, Syria or Libya.
Not that there is a great deal more meaningful interrogation taking place in the much more decentralised world of social media. Without exception, on Facebook and Twitter one also observes an urge to oversimplify matters.
Of course no analysis of contemporary Muslim societies would be complete without Pakistan. Pakistanis insist on making all social conflicts primarily ideological ones at their own peril.
Yes, it is true that — given the genesis of the state and its subsequent evolution, particularly since the Zia period — Pakistanis have to vociferously challenge the statist version of Islam that threatens to shred them to pieces.
But it is just as true that class, gender, ethnic and other contradictions run as deep as ever in Pakistani society, and that forcing all such faultlines to conform to “secular” imperatives is a self-defeating exercise. Indeed, the Islamists have done a much better job of adapting their politics to the real material demands of ordinary people in society than the “secularists”.
Every militant movement of the right that has made inroads into Pakistani society has engaged with class, caste and even gender issues. The instrumental and cynical nature of this engagement does eventually become clear for those initially taken in by the rhetoric. But the strategy has paid dividends.
It matters not a jot that Pakistanis are crying bloody murder at the violence that is ravaging society. Until they recognise that the rise of Islamist organisations is explained at least in part by the lack of meaningful political alternatives to the status quo, they will continue to bark up the wrong tree.
Thirty years ago, while many of today’s most committed “secularists” were sitting in the comfort of their homes thanking their lucky stars that the military had rid Pakistan of left-wing populism, the irreplaceable Pakistani political scientist Eqbal Ahmad noted: “From Morocco through Syria and Iraq to Pakistan and Indonesia, Muslims are ruled by armed minorities.
Nearly all Muslim governments are composed of corrupt elites more adept at repressing the people than protecting sovereignty. They are more closely linked to foreign patrons than to the domestic polity.
The recent rise of fundamentalist Muslim movements is an aberration, not the norm. However, it is due to the failure of current regimes and the absence of alternatives.”
In the period since Eqbal Ahmad wrote these words, we seem to have taken further steps backward. Rather than taking on the challenge of building alternatives, most “enlightened” Muslims have retreated entirely.
This is evident even in the realm of knowledge production, where once detailed investigations of class, caste and other conflicts that rage in society have given way to the apolitical language of “development”. Muslim societies are at a crossroads indeed. Just not the one everyone is talking about.
(The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad)
- By arrangement with Dawn