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Aijaz Ahmad - Islam, Islamisms and the West

Aijaz Ahmad - Islam, Islamisms and the West

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Published by: bolshevism on May 24, 2010
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dentity politics in the widest sense is now quite the norm, and it comes tous in many guises, in the actual conduct of politics as well as in politicaltheories and analyses, from the right, the left, the liberal centre. Culturalism,or the view that culture is the primary and determining instance of socialexistence, is a by-product of this identitarianism, and wherever politics andreligion come to inflame each other, religion itself becomes synonymouswith culture, and culture with religion, so that, for example, a constitutivedifference between Islam and Christianity, as regards the scope for egalitar-ian politics in their respective zones, can be posited from the left, while themost hard-nosed geopolitical prescriptions can come to us from the right, inthe guise of a discourse on religion, culture and civilization.Countries where Muslims were the majority and which were thereforedesignated as ‘Muslim countries’ until just a decade or so ago, in a sortof shorthand, are now called ‘Islamic countries’, shifting the nomenclaturefrom the softer matter of plain demography to the harder, narrower matter of religious belief. Among Muslims themselves, the two terms are held tobe distinct. For most, being a Muslim mainly signifies the fact of birth in aMuslim family, at best a Muslim sub-culture within a wider national cul-ture (Egyptian, Nigerian, Lebanese or whatever); while religion, even whenobserved, is lived as one of the many ingredients in one’s complex socialidentity, which is always specific, and hence deeply tied to language, region,custom, class, and so on; religious observance, if any, remains largely localand personal. This subcultural Muslimness itself is contextual, deeply shapedby history, geography, politics, the larger multi-religious milieu, myriadrhythms of material life. To be a Bengali-speaking Muslim in the Indian stateof West Bengal is not the same thing as being a Bengali-speaking Muslim inneighbouring Bangladesh; the immediate surroundings impinge decisively.The religious dimension of this Muslim subcultural existence may itself berefracted through sectarian and ideological particularity: Shia and Sunni, for instance, or various sub-sects among the Shia, the more puritanical sub-sects
among the Sunnis such as the Wahhabi or the Ahl-e-Hadith, those otherswho may be inclined toward some transgressive tendency Sufic tradition,or still others who are inclined toward secular nationalism, communism,agnosticism, atheism, etc., and yet feel, existentially, part of a Muslim (butnot Islamic) subculture.Indonesia is the largest Muslim country, and for the vast majority theculture of daily life bears notable imprints of Hinduism, in particular, and,in some places, even Buddhism. India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world, and the extensive research volumes published by theAnthropological Survey of India demonstrate that Muslims living in anyparticular region of the country (e.g. Kerala in the South, West Bengal in theEast, Uttar Pradesh in the North) share well over 80 per cent of their dailycultural practices with their Hindu neighbours in the same region, and verylittle with Muslims of distant regions within the country; with their distantco-religionists they share some protocols of prayer and a common fear of the Hindu majoritarian communalism which has engulfed the country in thepolitical domain.Bangladesh, the third largest Muslim country, was
, less than forty years ago, out of a secular nationalism which rejected the idea that a com-mon religion was sufficient basis for the making of a nation-state (the ‘idea’of Pakistan). The creation of Bangladesh was
by the Islamicists, aswas the creation of Pakistan by the majority of the clergy, for a variety of reasons, in 1947. The emergence of a terrifying Bangladeshi Islamicist move-ment there is a recent phenomenon, and in considerable degree a part of theglobalization of the armed Islamicist militancy which was first spawned bythe Carter administration for the anti-communist jihad in Afghanistan. Thisexample illustrates how politically motivated, historically contingent andideologically fictive the making and unmaking of such religious and culturalidentities can be.The ecumenical popular Islam of Indonesia; the varieties of the lived Mus-lim subcultures in secular, multi-religious India; the vagaries of the ‘Muslimnationalism’ which provided the ideological justification for the creation of Pakistan; the incoherence of the linguistic nationalism of the East Pakistanis,which led to the creation of Bangladesh as a secular nation – all these indicatehow misleading it is to ascribe to some inherent Islamic-ness of the polityor the culture as such. To refer to all these people as ‘Islamic’ is to occludethe specificity and novelty of Islamism in general, to posit hyper-Islamicityof Muslim peoples, and to succumb to the idea, propagated by the religiousright as well as the Orientalists, that religion is the constitutive element of aculture, and hence also of its social existence and political destiny.
MAKING SOCIETIES ISLAMIC:FROM AFGHANISTAN TO IRAQThe charge of Islamic fundamentalists is, precisely, that these countries are
Islamic because their legal structures, social norms, the predominant edu-cational systems, popular cultures, etc., are manifestly un-Islamic. Hence theprojects of 
; they are Muslim but they are to be
Islamic.For the Sunni fundamentalist, Iran is un-Islamic for the simple reason thatit is predominantly Shia. For the neo-Wahhabi opposition, out of whichso many Saudi members of al-Qaeda have arisen, neither the ruling Houseof Saud nor the clerical establishment which legitimates it, can be calledIslamic; Saudi Arabia itself has to be recaptured for 
Islam. I shall returnto the historical origins of these phenomena. Suffice it to say here that thedistinguishing feature of the various Islamicist groupings which started be-coming so prominent in diverse countries from mid-1970s onwards wasthat virtually every one of them, unconnected with others, grew within itsnational milieu and sought to transform their own nation-state. (The major exception here would be the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, the Muslim Brother-hood, which started in the 1920s as a specifically Egyptian phenomenonbut was then patronized by some Gulf regimes after it was suppressed under Nasser during the 1950s and gradually became a pan-Arab phenomenon,with branches in various countries.) This was equally true of the neo-Wah-habi group in Saudi Arabia which created a world-wide media sensationwhen it captured the Mecca mosque in November 1979; of the severalIslamicist groups in Egypt which came collectively to be known as Jamaa’atel-Islamiyya and whose most spectacular act in that period was the assassina-tion of Sadat; and of General Zia ul Haq, the military dictator who initiatedthe state-led process of Islamization in Pakistan. The United States had of course been a staunch supporter of the Saudi regime despite its Wahhabiautocracy but it had also been systematically supporting the Islamicists, in avariety of countries, in opposition to communism and radical secular nation-alism since the very inception of the Truman doctrine.The singular achievement of the Carter administration was to bring to-gether personnel from many of these groups – from countries as diverse asIndonesia and Algeria, the Philippines and the Sudan, not to speak of Egyptand Saudi Arabia itself – and organize them into a single, well-trained, well-financed, well-equipped force to fight communism in Afghanistan, well be-fore any direct Soviet intervention and indeed – we have it directly fromBrzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor – to
the Soviet Unioninto the conflict.
Most of what is now called ‘Islamic terrorism’ and even

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