Book Review: The State of Islam: Culture And Cold War Politics In Pakistan by Saadia Toor


Saadia Toor, The State of Islam (Pluto Press, 2011)

The incipient days of 2013 have already given Western media plenty to dish about Pakistan: murdered minorities, war mongering, massacred civilians, even an ambassador accused of blasphemy. Menacing Muslim puritans and an oppressive state have proved ready culprits. Meanwhile, skirt and jeans clad Pakistanis - recognizably liberal to Western audiences from their attire - parade familiar messianic fantasies across television screens and newspapers.

The new year peddles an old story.

In welcome dissent from such caricatures, Saadia Toor’s State of Islam is a forceful corrective to the dialogue on Pakistan even before one flips the cover. Its front, dominated by a picture of a Pakistani women workers’ protest, an image for which “[t]oday’s Western media has no space” (1), alerts us to the tenacious indigenous progressive movement that finds scant attention in the columns of Thomas Friedman and prescriptions of Fareed Zakaria.

Far from a country bound to a trajectory of increasing religiosity - the consequence of being, according to Salman Rushdie, "insufficiently imagined" - Toor presents a history of Islam and Pakistan characterized by “contingency, contradictions, breaks and spikes” (3). Neither inherently locked into retrograde Islamism, nor awaiting salvation through modernity, Pakistan's rightward drift is a story of successive governments' opportunistic and myopic employment of Islam, often in contradictory ways, to enervate challenges to the ruling elite.

But if the relationship between Pakistan's power-brokers and religion has been dynamic and contextually contingent, its history has also been defined by an enduring conflict. The elite - comprised of the landed gentry, the military and bureaucratic office holders, and the petty bourgeoisie - against the marginalized masses: a fundamental “clash between… two irreconcilable sets of interests” (17). And it started early.

Toor expertly unpacks the class divisions underlying the Bangla language movement launched in the immediate wake of the Partition. East Pakistan's Bengali aristocracy, aligned against its middle-class, sided with the ruling Muslim League's demand for Urdu to be the sole national language of the new country. Its dominant hold on the nation challenged by popular demands for linguistic and cultural recognition by its most populous province, the League was prompt to deploy Islam. Indicting Bangla's Sanskrit lineage as proof of its un-Islamic pedigree, the League deemed the language unsuitable for a Muslim state, and after five years of protest, dispatched military troops to brutally quash the middle-class demand.

Meanwhile, the state project found eager an accomplice in a nationalist literati, who attacked the tarakki-pasand All Pakistan Progressive Writers Association, issuing with alacrity accusations of insufficient patriotism. The progressives met the aspersions by asserting a "distinction between formal versus substantive independence/freedom" (60), and cast themselves as fighting for the latter. Sculpting the contours of the nascent country, this contest was “understood by both to be about the very soul of the new nation-state” (52). Attentive to this importance, in 1954 the League banned the Progressive Writers Association and the Communist Party of Pakistan.

Less than a decade into independence, the elite's exclusion of the masses was in full swing.

The ruling establishment's project of control also had an economic complement, and the 1958 coup by Field Marshal Ayub Khan introduced Pakistan to a decade of infatuation with neo-liberalism. Toor deftly dissects Ayub's era - often called the decade of development - to expose the class inequities invariably ignored in the popular recounts. Under Ayub, The Harvard Advisory Group flew the dictates of its modernization theory into Karachi, and the junta deepened its Cold War alliance with the Unites States. Of course, the pan-Afro-Asian solidarity that was the vestige of post-colonialism proved inconvenient. Again, an invocation of Islam supplied an easy remedy, this time in the form of Mawdudi's staunchly free-market Jama'at-e-Islami. While the Jama'at's formidable propaganda machinery neutralized  Leftist publications, the government took over Progressive Papers Limited, a central refuge for Leftist coverage. The Americans hardly played second fiddle, and the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom found new footing with Ayub's junta. Together, they engineered the rise of pro-government poets and authors: "establishment writers."

But Pakistan's first major flirtation with neo-liberalism was not without its discontents. Poet Habib Jalib penned the frustrations of the Left in biting rhymes - Toor wonderfully intersperses her prose with the beautiful verses of many a progressive poet - while the mass disenfranchisement of modernization theory's explicit disavowal of economic redistribution stirred Pakistani masses.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ayub's former foreign minister and now head of the new Pakistan People's Party, anticipated the sentiment and rode into the highest office of a Pakistan truncated by the 1971 secession of Bangladesh. With red manifestos that commenced and concluded with “all power to the people”, the new Pakistan, seeking fresh direction, was buoyant with hopes of a socialist revolution. Bhutto, unfortunately, soon proved a disappointment. Elected on the vote banks of progressive students, laborers and unions, and peasants, in incumbency Bhutto courted landed interests and the religious right in successive realpolitik maneuvers. Meanwhile, his "[c]ozying up with the Gulf States" sent a growing migrant labor population from Pakistan to the Middle East, who returned with a socially conservative version of Islam that laid the groundwork for the pernicious rule of General Zia-ul-Haq. 

While earlier Pakistani governments had been repressive, none compare in sheer virulence to Zia-ul-Haq's military regime. So deep was the junta's influences that Toor's penultimate chapter, covering the decade of democracy following the death of the dictator, is titled, "The Long Shadow of Zia".

It is hard to isolate, says Toor, the single greatest impact of Zia's tenure, highlighting the multitude of ways in which the nation was altered by the junta, but "the precipitous fall in the status of women...must surely rank among the top" (162). State revival of the most vile patriarchal practices, and the introduction of the now-notorious Hudood Ordinances, lent unprecedented sanction to the ideological agenda of the religious right. Meanwhile, Pakistan's status as a front-line state in the Cold War meant US backing for the junta, and American dollars funded and lent legitimacy to the military's social reengineering project. Toor charts the work of activists such as Asma Jahangir in challenging so repressive a regime with a decidedly misogynist agenda.

Toor's epilogue provides perhaps the most incisive critique in a thoroughly exceptional book. Indicting the continuing culture of neo-liberalism, she deftly demonstrates that the progressivism of the Pakistani elites has been reduced to NGO activity, driven overwhelmingly by donor priorities and not Pakistani realities. The Western fear of the "green scare" has thus had an acute impact on the priorities of the Pakistani elite. Their preoccupation with resisting oppressive Islamism is now such that, Toor notes, many a liberal elite welcomed the military dictatorship of General Musharraf, turning “a blind eye to the terror(s) of his regime” (196).

But Pakistan's liberal elite, so often valorized in Western media, are false messiahs; real hope lies in the vast masses of the country, Toor emphasizes. Recent events herald august change: the 2002 Okara Farm Protests, the 2005 Pakistan Telecommunications Company workers strike ; and the 2010 Pearl Continental Hotel workers’ strike in Karachi evidence "an increase in the intensity and radicalism of working class activism in Pakistan” (201). “Thankfully," says Toor, "the working people of Pakistan are not waiting for these elite progressives to initiate change, but are... taking on the various aspects of the monstrous system which oppresses them” (199). She concludes: “These stories never make it to the headlines... Yet, these are the mobilizations and movements that hold the most promise for Pakistan because, unlike the religious extremists or liberal elite, they represent the hopes and aspirations of the vast majority of Pakistanis” (201).





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