Raza Habib Raja: I have had the opportunity to read your four recent books. While each is distinct, two common themes of religion and nationalism link them together. So why such heavy emphasis on these two?
Nadeem Farooq Paracha: There’s a common thread running across all four books. The matter of identity. How we, as a modern nation state, have struggled to come to terms with such a matter.
All the books explore why this is so. Maybe as a country with diverse ethnic groups and Islamic sects, it was not such a good idea to insist on constructing a concentrated, monolithic idea of nationalism. Whatever the case may be, the fact is: Islam was central to this idea. It still is. But even then, as I have explored in a lot more detail in my fourth book, Muslim Modernism: A Case for Naya Pakistan, there was never a single version of Islam dominating the society and polity of Pakistan.
Then there’s this other curious fact: Even 73 years after Pakistan’s creation, most Pakistanis still call themselves Muslims first and then Pakistani. So something went terribly wrong when the state and its ideologues set out to formulate an all-encompassing strand of nationhood.
This exercise went through various stages and mutations, with some actually contradicting what came before in the name of Pakistani nationalism. So all four books explore what went wrong and how some of the better things coming from this exercise can be salvaged.
This has to be resolved, but it can’t be done without first studying the role of Islam in the context of Pakistani nationalism.
RHR: In your fourth book, Muslim Modernism, you have created some interesting qualitative distinctions. For example, you have contrasted Muslim rule and Islamic rule and persuasively argued that movement towards the latter was one of the reasons for the weakening of Indian Muslim polity. Another extremely interesting distinction is between secularism and Muslim Modernism. For the benefit of the readers, can you elaborate how the latter is different from the former?
NFP: 19th- and early 20th-century Muslim Modernism, whether in South Asia, Egypt, Iran or Turkey, was a rather unique attempt to politicize Islam, because it did this by almost completely undermining the faith’s ritualistic and more theological aspects.
Indeed, certain Islamic groups, too, were politicizing the faith, but the ritualistic and theological dimensions were important to them. For example, whereas say, Abul Aala Maududi or Hassan al-Banna were claiming that their respective groups’ manifesto was the Quran; or whereas the Deobandi ulema were insisting that the fall of Muslim empires had something to with the supposedly heretical or incorrect ways and rituals that the Muslims had adopted; the Muslim modernists were not at all interested in such talk.
Hence, Islamic vs. Muslim. Muslim rule in India was just that: Muslim. Not Islamic. Being politically Muslim – and not Islamic – gave the rulers the space to remain pragmatic and be able to rule over a non-Muslim majority for hundreds of years.
Modernists such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Amir Ali, Chiragh Ali and Muhammad Iqbal focused more on building Islam as an ethnic, cultural and political mark of distinction in opposition to Hinduism. But this Islam was not informed by how one practiced the faith. Instead, it was driven by a shared history of conquest and scientific and cultural achievements of past Muslim empires and civilizations.
These thinkers understood Islamic texts as being inherently modern. To them these texts were mutable and could, through the application of reason and debate, be adjusted according to modern conditions.
None of the Muslim modernists and their main political organ – the All India Muslim League (AIML) – were bothered about the ritualistic and the more theological sides of Islam. Muslim Modernism was about a Muslim polity pragmatically adopting social, political and economic modernity but without losing its overarching Muslim identity. It was a way to carve a path between overt secularism and so-called Islamic fundamentalism.
“The Muslim modernists believed that since there was no concept of a grand priest mediating between humans and God in Islam, there was thus an inherent separation of ‘Church and State’. This was also the great Sibte Hassan’s contention. So there was no need for them to explain themselves as secularists. Mr. Jinnah, too, came to believe the same”
For example, when Iqbal or even Jinnah mentioned terms such as “Islamic democracy” or even the Shariah, they were not envisioning a theocracy but a contemporary rendition of what they believed was a timeless modernity inherent in Islam. This Muslim modernity, to them, was pragmatic as well as progressive, and, for Iqbal, even iconoclastic, but one that would first shatter the ambitions of those aspiring to enact a theocracy.
The scholar Khalifa Abdul Hakim has explained this rather forcefully in his 1953 booklet, Iqbal aur Mullah. This booklet was actually used by the state to build a case against the religious parties after the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya movement was crushed.
AIML’s Muslim opponents continued to label men like Jinnah as nominal Muslims and secularists. But fact is, at least in the political sense, they were not secular. They did not have to be. Muslim Modernism, as it stood in the 1940s, gave them the space and rationale to envision a separate Muslim-majority state without installing a theocracy. They did not have to bother to demonstrate how good they were as Muslims who prayed five times a day, or didn’t drink or smoke. This was all irrelevant to them compared to the larger goal of forming a Muslim-majority country where the Muslims would be able to enjoy more economic fluency and social mobility in the absence of a Hindu majority.
RHR: Do you think that secularists are qualitatively distinct from Muslim modernists? In other words, do you think Muslim Modernism, while different from secularism, was a project by secularists to present something which was more acceptable for the general public? Or are Muslim modernists a different class of individuals?
NFP: Muslim Modernism was largely inspired by the 18th century Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Now, even though the Enlightenment consolidated what was emerging in that continent as science, democracy, secularism, nationalism, capitalism and even early socialism, it was really the product of reformed Christianity, especially Protestantism.
19th-century Muslim modernists were fascinated by how this reformed Christianity, driven by the influence of the growing European middle and mercantile classes, had managed to work the power of a reformed faith and its core values into becoming a drive towards economic, scientific, intellectual and political dominance.
For example, the South Asian pioneer of Muslim Modernism, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, spent over a year traveling across the UK and France and wrote a long travelogue, Encounters with Europe. It’s an interesting read. Khan fancied the idea of using a reformed and modernized Islam to reinvigorate the status of India’s Muslims just as the intellectuals of the Enlightenment had utilized the ethics and values of a reformed Christianity to pull Europe out of the so-called Dark Ages and put it at the forefront of civilizational progress and ascendancy.
Khan and his modernist contemporaries aspired to do the same through a reformed and modernized Islam. Not only did they believe that Islam was inherently progressive, but also that it had a rich history of economic, cultural and political progress which could be worked to inspire the creation of a new and enterprising Muslim polity.
Secularism to the Muslim modernists was simply a non-theological expression of a reformed Christianity’s core ethics. Muslim modernists — from Khan to Iqbal, Jinnah and all the way till Ayub Khan — did not find the need to explain reformed Islam as secular. They didn’t need to because according to them, Muslims were living the values of the Enlightenment when medieval Europeans were suffering under the yoke of the Church.
Now, one may agree or disagree with this, but this is how it was, according to them. The Muslim modernists believed that since there was no concept of a grand priest mediating between humans and God in Islam, there was thus an inherent separation of “Church and State” in Islam. This was also the great Sibte Hassan’s contention. So there was no need for them to explain themselves as secularists. Mr. Jinnah, too, came to believe the same.
RHR: In your book, you have written that pan-Islamism, when it emerged in the Indian Subcontinent, had a strong modernist streak and the only major way it differed from Muslim Modernism was that the latter was India-centric, while the former stressed a larger Muslim identity. Then how come pan-Islamism subsequently morphed into a reactionary force by the time of the Khilafat Movement? Is pan-Islamism more susceptible to reactionary forces?
NFP: Indeed it is. To begin with, pan-Islamism was too vague an idea. Its early essence was modernist and progressive. It was anti-clerical and advocated the acquisition of modern education. But whereas Muslim Modernism wanted to do the same to build an enlightened and modern Muslim polity in India, which could successfully compete and exist in the economic, political and social paradigms introduced by European colonialism, pan-Islamism wanted to acquire Western knowledge but only to dismantle colonialism.
So far so good, but according to the pan-Islamists, the end result was to be a new universal caliphate. This was its Achilles’ heel. Or the crack which inspired the more reactionary forces to enter from and take over its agenda. This is exactly what happened during the Khilafat Movement.
Aspiring for a caliphate was like going against the tide of history. So, one had to acquire the ways of the modern West to dismantle it but only to install the withering institution of the caliphate in hopes of creating an Islamic Utopia.
Pan-Islamism was thus contradictory: because it was espousing intellectually sound ideas and actions but with a promise of an entirely romanticized and even reactionary fantasy. That was the fantasy of a modern-day caliphate.
One interesting observation you have made in your book is that Pakistan is a moderate society. You have gone to the extent of calling cynics as “intellectually lazy”. How would you defend this claim, in the light of the fact that an overwhelming percentage of Pakistanis, according to many surveys, display support of extremely harsh Shariah laws? Moreover, some of the existing laws in Pakistan, particularly relating to blasphemy, are among the harshest in the Muslim world?
First of all, I don’t think that, in Pakistan, any surveys that include questions about Islam, could be gauged as an accurate reflection of how Pakistanis think, at least in the context of Islam. Such is the case in many other Muslim-majority societies as well.
Now picture this: In 1984, the dictator Zia-ul-Haq, held a referendum so that he could elect himself as the country’s president. Cleverly, the question that the voters were asked was — something to the effect of — if you love Islam, then vote for Zia. If not, then you can vote against him.
And even though not more than 20% of the electorate actually bothered to go out to vote, I personally know of people who wanted to vote against him, but they returned without voting at all because they didn’t want to say that they didn’t love Islam.
Last year, during a fellowship in Washington DC, I had access to hundreds of historical documents on South Asia stored at the Library of Congress. And while researching for this book (Muslim Modernism) I came across a questioner that was used to conduct a survey in, I think, 2008. The survey showed that an overwhelming number of Pakistanis were in favour of certain harsh punishments proscribed by Islam. But I think the questions were formulated in the most tactless manner. “Do you love Islam?” “Do you think a thief’s hands should be chopped?” “Do you believe blasphemy is a punishable crime?” So on and so forth.
A common, everyday Muslim Pakistani, who is anything but an extremist, will never say that a thief’s hands should not be chopped or blasphemy should not be punished. He would think that by saying this, he is saying something against his faith, despite the fact that some punishments might actually repulse him. Ask him or her a rhetorical question and he will give you a rhetorical answer. Draw him into a longer discourse and see how his answers will dramatically evolve. Such black a white surveys are thus flimsy.
But the real question is, why and how did laws that discriminate on religious grounds manage to make their way into the constitution? This is like asking, “How did a large segment of an enlightened society like Germany end up supporting a racist, genocidal regime? A society which, today, frowns upon capital punishment for convicted murderers.”
We need to consider so many factors. For example, would Nazism have risen the way it did in Germany had that country not lost the First World War and felt humiliated? I don’t think so. The Jews were their scapegoats, a minority of successful people, upon which thousands of Germans vented out their frustrations and their feelings of being humiliated as a nation.
Same way, what if we had not lost East Pakistan in 1971 and suffered the humiliation of losing a war against India? Such scenarios create certain conditions which make nations, governments and states respond in a reactionary manner. The Ahmadis became our Jews. Our scapegoats.
This may sound controversial, especially coming from a committed democrat like myself, but in countries like Pakistan, during testing times, civilian leaders have behaved in the most careless manner, especially in the context of what we are discussing here.
How many know that Article 295C was not really what the Zia dictatorship had planned to introduce? The published debates of the sessions of the parliament — that was formed in 1985 by the dictatorship and which elected Muhammad Khan Junejo as PM — suggest that it was a handful of MNAs who purposed introducing the death sentence for blasphemy. Zia deterred, just as Z.A. Bhutto had in 1974. But whereas a violent movement by opposition parties had forced the Bhutto regime to capitulate and introduce the 2nd Amendment, emotional pleas by some MNAs from Punjab made Zia allow the parliament to introduce 295C.
So why did they do this? The Junejo regime was trying to assert its authority. It didn’t want to be seen as Zia’s puppet. But guess how it did this? One of its first exhibitions of autonomy was forcing Mr. President to agree on the introduction of such an article in our legal books.
RHR: Can Muslim Modernism have a genuinely popular appeal, or do you think it will remain an elitist project? In your book, you have written how the Muslim modernists changed course as soon as they faced a political crisis. For example, Ayub Khan, who according to your book, was perhaps the epitome of Muslim Modernism, quickly changed course, when confronted by Fatima Jinnah. Likewise, Bhutto was also willing to compromise when confronted with problems. In fact, in Bhutto’s case, he glorified his change of course. It seems that Muslim Modernism is extremely vulnerable to any sort of pressure.
NFP: Firstly, Muslim Modernism was not entirely elitist, as such. At least by the time Bhutto came to power, he had turned it into a populist expression through his idea of Islamic Socialism. But those who originally formulated Muslim Modernism as an idea or a set of ideas, saw it as being worked by a single, central authority. What I’m trying to suggest is that the moment it was placed in a parliamentary setting, it could not compete with the theocratic emotionalism of the religious parties. This is what happened during the Bhutto regime.
In Ayub’s case, this idea remained strong until Ms. Jinnah began to demand parliamentary democracy. Muslim Modernism didn’t have an answer and that’s why Ayub’s ministers began to treat Ms. Jinnah in a rather reactionary manner. Muslim Modernism still needed a decade or so to fully evolve and become comfortable with democracy. But this evolution was retarded from the mid-1970s onwards and then totally demolished in the 1980s.
RHR: What’s your true opinion about Iqbal? Iqbal has been a clear favourite of the religious and orthodox lobby in contemporary times. He has also been on the receiving end of liberal intelligentsia including yourself. However, in your book, apparently you have revised your opinion and you argue that Iqbal was the brain behind another strand of Muslim Modernism. Why this revision?
NFP: Truth is: among the first people after Partition to eulogize Iqbal were the progressives and the leftist intelligentsia. Faiz Sahib was a huge admirer of his. The progressive Islamic scholar Khalifa Abdul Hakim was, too. Many progressive ideologues in the original PPP adored Iqbal. It may come as a surprise to you, but Iqbal was embraced by the Right much later.
But that’s the fascinating bit about Iqbal’s work. The more I read it, the more I understand that he was simply trying to bridge the gap between the modernists and Islamicists. And this complex bridge was to be created over the heads of the orthodox clergy and the pirs. Secondly, he saw the Muslims as being without an anchor and facing an existential crisis ever since the 1857 Mutiny. He admired Sir Syed’s efforts to reform Islam, but thought that wasn’t enough. So he began to add a more philosophical and political dimension to Syed’s modernism and anchored it in a rather dynamic interpretation of Islamic history and texts. He believed that by doing this he was giving the Muslims a larger purpose and meaning to strive and survive.
It is due to this bridge that we see Iqbal going back and forth, from left to right and then back again. I’m fine with that as long as this is done through intellectual engagement and debate between the two poles. And as a former Marxist, I expect such engagements to produce a synthesis. They still can.
RHR: In your book, you have written how the Pakistani military has evolved and changed course in recent times by targeting militants despite strategically being softer on some outfits. Moreover, you have also praised the ideological transformation during Gen. Raheel Sharif’s tenure. It seems you are somewhat over-optimistic here – especially considering what happened with the TLP in 2018? Also, there are those who argue that conservatism is increasing in the rank-and-file of security institutions because the officer cadre are increasingly recruited from lower-middle-class segments of society, which happen to be more religious and orthodox. This, we are told, contrasts with past practices of recruitment from different economic and social strata which were relatively secular. Do you think people should be worried?
NFP: In no way was the TLP as militant as, say, the TTP. I have explored this in much more detail in my forthcoming book, Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan. And the reason why Gen Raheel Sharif set about reforming the ideological complexion was precisely because today the military is largely made up of lower-middle-class segments. If you read the work of experts in this field such as Muhammad Amir Rana, you will see that the tendency to promote reactionary forces to meet certain political needs is increasingly diminishing. And the institution knows this.
How can the institution continue like this when it has lost many of its own men to the brute force of extremist groups? It can’t. And, also, did the fact that in the past the military personnel came from more secularized backgrounds in any way affect Zia’s programme of Islamizing the military? No.
RHR: You seem to hold the view that Imran Khan espouses “classic” Muslim Modernism and is “navigating a path between secularism and Islamic conservatism” (page 153). How would you defend this claim in the light of his election rhetoric citing religious legislation, his constant references to Madinah ki Riyasat and religious symbolism, his criticism on British education system (of which he is himself is a product), the presence of extremely reactionary ministers in his cabinet (such as Ali Muhammad Khan), and regressive steps taken by PTI’s provincial government in KP province? Once again, aren’t you being overoptimistic?
NFP: Firstly, I think you should read that passage on page 153 again. I am simply commenting on his first address to the nation which was clearly heavily influenced by his main backers in the Establishment. They knew Mr. Khan’s tendency to branch off and start to sound like an embarrassing apologist. Secondly, why do you think there was a portrait of Mr. Jinnah in a three-piece suit behind him? Mr. Jinnah there looked more like Ataturk than the Jinnah which Zia had created. These are all hints of how the Establishment wants Khan to sound. Do you think they appreciate his narrative that says that the military’s battles with extremist outfits was not “our war”? They don’t.
But they believe they can reform him. I believe that this will become an impossibility as his regime continues to come under pressure and it reacts by trying to deflect attention in this regard through silly moralistic sermons and maybe even ordinances. Remember Bhutto’s ban on alcohol and clubs and what not when he was facing a crisis? Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that and the PM – if he is to be replaced – is replaced before he goes overboard with ordinances that are entirely aimed as moralistic stunts.
RHR: Thank you, Nadeem, it was a pleasure talking to you.