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The Failed Rationalist

The growing religious-ideological discord and presence of an assortment of religiously inspired extremist movements and groups in Pakistan have complex socio-political implications. Where these processes of negative social change will lead Pakistan is a worrying prognosis.

The religious discourse in the country, though diverse in sectarian terms, is largely monolithic intellectually. Even ideological diversity is rare; historically two trends have remained dominant, ie a traditional religious-political discourse, and Islamisation.

Although the two trends have some common violent and non-violent expressions, Islamist movements have also nurtured certain rational tendencies. These rational tendencies acted as a catalyst for overall religious trends in the country. On the one hand, rationalists shaped their own movements and established their institutions and on the other, under their influence — or in reaction — the traditionalists and Islamists tried to amend their strategies. However, the rationalists have failed to completely transform the religious discourse in the country. Their desire to become distinguished among the religious discourse would be a reason for this failure. This is strange, that in South Asian intellectual discourse leading Muslim scholars, rather than contributing, established their own movements while being part of the mainstream tradition.

An examination of why post-Islamist movements are unable to transform into populist social movements

Scholar, researcher and professor Dr Husnul Amin argues in his doctoral thesis about why the rationalists could not develop a populist approach. He counts many reasons, including the country’s peculiar societal structures, rationalists’ comfortable relationship with the power elites and — most importantly — the rationalists’ larger focus on the middle classes and special interest in academic issues. These findings give an impression that the rationalists failed on a strategic level, but one can argue about their whole intellectual paradigm, which may be borrowed from the West and influenced by contemporary socio-political environments rather than be linked with philosophical tradition or evolution of Islamic thought.

In pursuit of alternative modernity, the rationalists are developing compatibility with Islamic text and democratisation. Amin has tried to understand the dynamics of this process in his book Post-Islamism: Pakistan in the Era of Neoliberal Globalisation. This is indeed an important contribution to understanding the construct of Muslim intellectual movements in contemporary societies. He takes Javed Ahmed Ghamidi’s blueprint as a case study to comprehend the phenomenon, but uses the term post-Islamism for Muslim rationalism.

Post-Islamism is not a new term. French scholar Olivier Roy, as well as Iranian Asef Bayat, have mainly constructed the framework of post-Islamism, which is taken as a transformative form of Islamist movements of post-world wars that emerged in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Bayat contributed more in shaping the conceptual framework of Amin’s thesis, as he has acknowledged, but Amin applied this framework in a different context and with some variation. Amin believes post-Islamism is not the dead end of Islamism. It may not be dubbed anti-Islamic or secular, but secularisation of state/society. Post-Islamism proffers a framework where political reform is linked to religious reform. The Islamist parties have shifted their focus to minorities, youth and gender concerns and adopted a rights-based approach — this is a practical manifestation of post-Islamism.

As far as Islamism is concerned, Amin considers it a revivalist movement and lists three factors that contributed to the conceptualisation of Islamism: 1. Political interpretation of religious text and thus blurring of categories of collective obligation and personal obligation. 2. Socio-political struggle to enforce Sharia, pursuance of an Islamisation programme through the institutional arrangement of the state and re-affirmation of Islam as a ‘blueprint’ of socio-economic order. 3. Islamists’ openness to adopt and deploy all modern means of propaganda machinery, technology, print, electronic and social media.

In that context, he distinguishes post-Islamism as a social movement with a retreat from the idea of creating an Islamic state and an outcome of neo-liberal globalisation inspirations on modern Muslim minds. The Ghamidi movement is a perfect manifestation of this phenomenon as it has succeeded in creating an interpretive community in Pakistan that engages with liberalism and democracy.

It is interesting that Ghamidi thought was promoted by military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf as his top-down project of ‘enlightened moderation.’ It could be conceived as an enforced moderation project, that was part of a political tool and foreign policy agenda of the military government. Amin rightly argues, “Ghamidi and his close associates received disproportionate media coverage on newly liberated private television channels. He became a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology in 2006 and remained in this position for two consecutive years. Despite an overwhelming emphasis on the status of democracy in their [Ghamidi movement’s] religious discourse, Ghamidi has hardly directly questioned the legitimacy of the system in place in which he gained the opportunity to flourish.”

It is also interesting that Ghamidi does not subscribe to major Islamic schools of thought in the Indian subcontinent and places himself in a self-constructed category, Dabistan-i-Shibli. Amin believes that this imaginary school of thought has served the Ghamidi movement in multiple ways. “It enables them to place themselves in the middle of two popularly known opposite poles, namely Deoband’s conservatism and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s rationalism.” As a post-Islamist, Ghamidi has challenged the notion of the Islamic state projected by the Islamists including Maulana Maududi, who believes in the supremacy of Sharia over all aspects of social, political and religious life.

Amin also examines existing religious political movements in the country in the third chapter ‘Islamism Without Fear.’ He argues that though the Jamaat-i-Islami is a well-structured and organised party in Pakistan and played a leading role in shaping the Islamism discourse in the country, compared to the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F), which is a loosely connected party, the latter remains more accommodative to religious minorities and in its political approaches. It can be assumed that despite its conventional credentials, the JUI-F has more flexibility to accommodate post-Islamism concepts of a social life.

Despite making some visible intellectual contribution, post-Islamist movements have failed to transform their ideas into a popular social movement. Amin is not hopeless and he agrees with Bayat that post-Islamism is an evolving concept and a conscious attempt to conceptualise and strategise the rationale and modalities of transcending Islamism in social, political and intellectual domains. Most importantly it provides an inward-looking approach, which may have a slow impact.

Amin is a fine scholar with exposure to the best international academic forums and his attempt will provoke healthy academic debate in Pakistan.

Muhammad Amir Rana, The reviewer is a security analyst and director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Islamabad
Post-Islamism: Pakistan in the Era of Neoliberal Globalisation, By Husnul Amin
International Islamic University, Islamabad.  ISBN: 978-9697576050  , 198pp.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 23rd, 2017
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