Saadia Toor and “The State of Islam”

by Omar Ali

The-State-of-Islam-Toor-Sadia-9780745329918Saadia Toor is an assistant professor of sociology and social work at the City University of New York and recently published a book about Pakistan titled The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War politics in Pakistan. She states that the book grew out of her PhD thesis (a doctoral thesis in developmental sociology titled “”The Politics of Culture and the Poetics of Protest: Pakistani Women and Islamisation, 1977-1988.”). The book’s official blurb states:

The State of Islam tells the story of the Pakistani nation-state through the lens of the Cold War, and more recently the War on Terror, in order to shed light on the domestic and international processes behind the rise of militant Islam across the world. Unlike existing scholarship on nationalism, Islam, and the state in Pakistan, which tends to privilege events in a narrowly-defined political realm, The State of Islam is a Gramscian analysis of cultural politics in Pakistan from its origins to the contemporary period. The author uses the tools of cultural studies and postcolonial theory to understand what is at stake in discourses of Islam, socialism, and the nation in Pakistan…

She also states that:

I wanted to subvert this discourse by highlighting the complexity of Pakistan’s history and the primacy of people’s struggles within it, as well as the role of the US-aligned establishment (and, at key junctures, liberals) in quashing these struggles and the alternate political and cultural visions they embodied.

It is indeed possible to write a good work of history that is also a subtle work of socialist (or other) propaganda and that appeals to the author’s in-group while reaching a larger audience. But this takes a lot of skill and experience and Ms Toor, unfortunately, is unable to manage this feat. In her youthful enthusiasm for her version of the socialist cause (a cause she formally joined by becoming a member of the Pakistan workers and peasants party or Mazdoor Kissan Party, while back in Pakistan researching her PhD thesis) leads her to shoehorn every event into an academic-Marxist narrative that owes more to to Tariq Ali and fashionable Wesern academic prejudices than to the actual history of Pakistan. Of course, it is possible for youthful enthusiasm to produce a great book (John Reed’s “Ten days that shook the world” comes to mind) but unfortunately, this is not that book.

This is not to say the book has nothing of value. Far from it. While the viewpoint of the author is not as rare in the West as she implies (analysis similar to the author’s is regularly published in the London Review of Books (Tariq Ali), the New York Times (Pankaj Mishra), the New York Review of Books (Mishra and others) and constitutes dominant/mainstream opinion in the fields of culture studies, critical theory, postcolonialism and even South Asian history) there is a tendency in the mass media to reduce Pakistan (and not just Pakistan..they are not only shooting at Yossarian) to a few soundbites. And these days the favored soundbites are indeed about Islamic fanatics and terrorism. In this always simplified world, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Pakistan is a country of 200 million people and they do have a history (and not just as Pakistan, some of them being older than Pakistan). One part of that history is cultural history and and it is this history that forms the core of Saadia Toor’s book. She has done real research in this area and anyone reading the book will find out many new details about the language movement in Bengal and the progressive writer’s association and its suppression by the state. The role of the cold war in these culture wars and how communism and anti-communism were deployed to resist US influence or to beg for more of it are also front and center in the book. There are quotes from the protagonists and detailed references to half-forgotten episodes. Anyone interested in Urdu literature in particular will find the book and its anecdotes fascinating and enlightening. Though the author is sympathetic to other languages and their struggles within Pakistan in principle, the focus is almost entirely on Urdu literature.

The book also highlights the role played by the left-wing in Pakistani politics and the Left’s harsh suppression by the military-bureaucratic elite. The scale of left wing organization may never have been as great as its fans (or the state) imagined, but there is a story there and Ms Toor tells it in greater detail than most. In all this, it’s a very interesting book and one that Pakistanis of a particular class and age will want to have in their library. Unfortunately for the author’s political beliefs, that class is not the proletariat but the super-elite, but if that's how it is with cultural history so be it.

But while the book contains a wealth of anecdotes about the cultural and political history of Pakistan, it is damaged by her determination to not only impose a generally left wing lens on her story, but to impose a particular Western left wing lens in which no one except the West and their organized left wing opponents have any agency. She is unwilling to accept that events like partition, military takeovers and the rise of Islamist forces in Pakistan may have aspects that do not neatly fit into a dichotomy of evil Western imperialism and heroic left wing resistance to the same.

Working backwards from a particular leftist critique of the “war on terror” (one which insists on seeing all Western actions as conspiracies against the working class and all resistance to such actions as the fight-back of the proletariat) Ms Toor is quick to attack any narrative that distracts from this schema. Partition and the religious terms in which the demand for Pakistan were couched are an inconvenience in this regard and she is determined to pre-empt any such distraction. So she insists that “the ideology of Muslim nationalism that underpinned the demand for Pakistan embodied an ethnic and not a religious nationalism”. What does that even mean? Were the Muslims of India a separate ethnicity from their neighboring Hindus and Sikhs? It seems that the main motivation for this strange assertion is the urge to shoot down any notion that religion (and particularly Islam) may have had something to do with partition.

Continuing with this theme, she also condemns Rushdie for calling Pakistan “a place insufficiently imagined” and she does so on the basis that ALL nationalisms are “a discourse of power and as such always deeply contested”. But while that is true enough as far as it goes, it is not hard to imagine that there CAN be nationalisms that are “insufficiently imagined”. Nationalism is elastic, but it is not infinitely elastic. The distance from imagination to actual state may be greater or smaller and in some cases the problems to be solved may be overwhelming. Pakistan, in this sense, was insufficiently imagined. Muslims in India lived all over India (though with some concentrations in the East and West) and spoke dozens of languages and followed multiple sects and so on…to take some of them (and not even the ones most threatened by any Hindu majoritarianism) and unite them into a unified state whose halves were separated by a thousand miles and a large gulf of culture and language did prove to be “insufficiently imagined”. Whether the remaining Pakistan can sufficiently imagine a Pakistani nationalism that does not involve suppressing smaller nationalities and imposing a fascist version of Islam as a unifying force remains to be seen, but is hardly beyond question. But Ms Toor is extremely sensitive to the possibility that such questions are being raised on behalf of “Western imperialism and the war on terror” and will have none of it. She goes so far as to suggest that “the contentious debates among Pakistani intellectuals over what constituted Pakistani nationalism should be seen as reflecting the vibrant and dynamic nature of the politico-ideological field in Pakistan” , which sound suspiciously like too much pleading.

But let us leave partition and the ideology of Pakistan aside. These are contentious issues and ones that Westernized Pakistani intellectuals find especially difficult to deal with because “the academy” does not provide a good ready-made analysis that can “save the appearances”. The task is not beyond the resources of a good dialectician, but has not been satisfactorily performed yet, so let us not fault this book for failing to provide a satisfactory solution. What is problematic is that this ideological bias continues to undermine the book's later portions as well.

After tackling parition, Ms Toor also insists on fitting every twist and turn of subsequent Pakistani politics into a simplified version of cold war politics. This is not to say that cold war politics had no impact on Pakistani politics. In fact, people like Wali Khan have implied that the very creation of Pakistan was a part of imperial and cold war politics (this is the thesis that the Pakistan movement was mainly a British plot to protect their empire and that eventually Pakistan was created as a way to weaken potentially socialist India and to create an Islamic buffer state against Soviet expansion towards the “warm waters” may regard this as the anti-paknationalist version of partition). There is also ample evidence that the United States spent money to support Islamist politics as a way to counter communism (there is also evidence that the Soviet Union spent money to support communists); and the effort to find and exterminate communists under every bed was indeed a daily priority of the US embassy and its agents.

This cold war lens also caused the US to look kindly upon the military-bureaucratic elite in Pakistan and to encourage it to suppress every mass movement that arose in the country. These cold war priorities also caused the US to look the other way during massacres in Bangladesh in 1971 and to contemplate intervening on Pakistan’s side in its war with India. But Ms Toor presents this history with the emphasis entirely on US machinations, as if its collaborators in Pakistan had no ambitions, needs or plans of their own. In actual fact, the military bureaucratic elite in Pakistan figured out very early that US assistance could be arranged if they were seen to be fighting the demon of communism and they made sure the US embassy was always aware of the communist threat and their heroic (and expensive) efforts to combat this threat.

Jinnah himself was not blind to the possibilities and dangled the anti-communist bait in front of every interested Western visitor. The following account is from a book by Margaret Bourke-White and I am quoting at some length because I think it is remarkably prescient about many things:

..(Jinnah said) “Of course it will be a democratic constitution; Islam is a democratic religion.”

I ventured to suggest that the term “democracy” was often loosely used these days. Could he define what he had in mind?

“Democracy is not just a new thing we are learning,” said Jinnah. “It is in our blood. We have always had our system of zakat — our obligation to the poor.”

This confusion of democracy with charity troubled me. I begged him to be more specific.

“Our Islamic ideas have been based on democracy and social justice since the thirteenth century.”

This mention of the thirteenth century troubled me still more. Pakistan has other relics of the Middle Ages besides “social justice” — the remnants of a feudal land system, for one. What would the new constitution do about that? .. “The land belongs to the God,” says the Koran. This would need clarification in the constitution. Presumably Jinnah, the lawyer, would be just the person to correlate the “true Islamic principles” one heard so much about in Pakistan with the new nation's laws. But all he would tell me was that the constitution would be democratic because “the soil is perfectly fertile for democracy.”

What plans did he have for the industrial development of the country? Did he hope to enlist technical or financial assistance from America?

“America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America,” was Jinnah's reply. “Pakistan is the pivot of the world, as we are placed” — he revolved his long forefinger in bony circles — “the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves.” He leaned toward me, dropping his voice to a confidential note. “Russia,” confided Mr. Jinnah, “is not so very far away.”

This had a familiar ring. In Jinnah's mind this brave new nation had no other claim on American friendship than this – that across a wild tumble of roadless mountain ranges lay the land of the BoIsheviks. I wondered whether the Quaid-i-Azam considered his new state only as an armored buffer between opposing major powers. He was stressing America's military interest in other parts of the world. “America is now awakened,” he said with a satisfied smile. Since the United States was now bolstering up Greece and Turkey, she should be much more interested in pouring money and arms into Pakistan. “If Russia walks in here,” he concluded, “the whole world is menaced.”

This trend to ask for American money in the name of fighting communism continued and intensified as time went on. The US was happy to oblige and used its resources to promote such thinking, but the attraction was mutual and highly profitable for the Pakistani elite. Ms Toor presents one side of this equation well (i.e. the American interest in “anti-communist” Pakistan) but has little grasp of the Pakistani elite’s own vigorous interest in this matter. An interest that can be seen, for example, in multiple documents where Pakistani generals and administrators stress the “communist threat” in East Pakistan, especially to Western audiences.

Finally, her insistence that “progressive politics” and the attempt to counter such politics is the central defining feature of Pakistani history and remains so to this day is also taken further than events can justify. While it is true that the influence of the left in the intelligentsia was out of all proportion to their organizational or political strength, this situation was not unique to Pakistan. It is easy to forget that for most third world countries, the left was the default intellectual position in the era of decolonization. Socialism’s attraction as an ideal was powerful in the West and it was augmented in the colonies by its association with anti-colonial struggles. But once they became independent, it did not take long for the ruling elites to move to a very different position in practice if not in theory (in theory, elements of left wing thought would crop up in the personal conversations of feudal lords and bureaucratic elites in our own social circle in surprising places). The influence of left wing politics in Pakistan in short was not negligible, but hardcore communist organizations were a small presence to begin with and were suppressed early and never really recovered. The fact that left wing slogans continued to be used with good effect until Bhutto’s time does not mean that Pakistan was ever at the door of socialism of the Soviet or Chinese variety. At the same time, the growth of Islamist politics (encouraged in some forms, but not all by the US) also had its own internal dynamics and was not just a cold war plot against socialism. A truly insightful history of Pakistani politics can be written from a left wing point of view, but Ms Toor’s understanding of Pakistani politics is almost entirely of the type promoted in the trendier Western universities and lacks a necessary sense of proportion. Very minor events (a strike in Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi, for example) are given significance well beyond their actual impact. Some idea of this lack of balance from can be gleaned from Ms Toor’s “notes from the field”, written while doing some of this research and published in the Cornel University South Asian newsletter, where she states

..up until the counterrevolution/coup of General Zia ul Haq in 1977, documented to have been orchestrated largely by the American Foreign office and particularly the CIA in response to the growing strength of the working class movement in Pakistan…”

Tariq Ali can probably come up with such a howler with a straight face, but even he would be hard pressed. The one things that was completely missing from the scene when Zia overthrew Bhutto was any sign of “the growing strength of the working class movement in Pakistan”. This fact is easily confirmed by reading any other account of Zia’s overthrow of Bhutto but the desire to find hardcore left wing politics at the heart of Pakistani politics is so strong that it overwhelms any other information Ms Toor may have on this subject. Left wing politics in Pakistan has had a large (but declining) cultural impact and has had wider political impact because their ideas have penetrated mainstream parties and the public imagination, but the organized Leninist side of the left has never been very big and does not threaten to become so today. To add their story to the story of Pakistan is a necessary service, but this book blows the struggle and the influence of the hardcore left out of all proportion to reality and is frequently in the category of “not even wrong”. I have no doubt that it will be favorably received in the Western academy, where demand for such writing seems infinite, but to use this book as a guide to Pakistani politics would be almost as useful as using Bill Ayer’s writings as a guide to American politics. A lot of interesting research has gone into this book and it does have value, but in the end it is spoiled by its “Tariq Ali worldview” and that is a tragedy.