Friday, 3 May 2013

Living in post-Islamist times

by Dr Husnul Amin


The specter of post-Islamism, both as intellectual narrative and emergent social trend, has asserted itself to the authenticity, applicability and long-term sustainability of the Islamists' narratives, regimes and avenues of social control. This trend initially observed in Iran, Egypt and Turkey has now spread out across the Muslim Middle East. The change waves set in motion by the academic strength, and social momentum of this trend, may no longer be captivated in the frontiers of the Middle East. Thanks to the rapid flow of information, through the medium of newly liberated electronic and social media, Pakistan could no longer be kept in isolation and distant from this rapidly growing trend.
The Islamist social forces in the realm of education, social welfare, politics, commerce and business have few options but to either surrender, admit and accommodate these trends; or at the minimum, negotiate and compromise on their inflexible positions related to gender concerns, cultural practices, minorities and youth's concerns. Else, the unsparing march of these new voices and forces has the simmering potential to push them to the periphery of a broader audience. The narrative could be local and contextual; the trajectory of change could be the product of our own historical experience; and the new voices in Pakistan are on their way to haunting forces of the status quo.

One can safely argue that we have entered into the post-Islamist phase of our recent history. Post-Islamism is a new intellectual, social and political response to the failed experimentations of Islamist projects, both at the levels of state and society, carried out at various geographical locations of the Muslim world. Pakistan, since its inception, has been witnessing top-down processes of hegemony and social control, mostly in the name of religion, which equally falls into the category of such societies. The unrelenting march of new voices, in the political and social sphere, is the counterweight of these struggles and forces of the status-quo.

Further, Muslim societies and the process of change were informed by history, socio-economic conditions, new ideas and worldviews, and experiences of Islamic revivalist forces at different geographical locations of the Muslim world. The 1990s, thus, marked the beginning of a new awakening. In many respects, the resurgent voices were championed by intellectuals and the learned elite, which closely resembled modernist responses of the late 19th century aptly labelled by Professor Fazlur Rahman as “classical modernism.” Scholars on Islamic revivalist forces have indicated these dispersed and multifaceted voices and avenues of reform—competing understandings of the sacred text; new interpreters vis-à-vis traditional authorities; the new media; fresh ideas; mutations and transformations within movements; and the emerging new societal forces vigilant to youth, gender and non-Muslims’ concerns.

In some places, however, these voices are enmeshed within the society, enjoying institutional support and popular sentiments. Elsewhere, they exist only in intellectual discourses making them potent for a silent revolution. The argument threading through these scholarly studies is the identification of a new trend that has emerged in Muslim societies. This trend is characterized mainly by an informed consciousness to accommodate rights of the neglected sections of a society, forging aspects of pluralism, democratization and civil society as well as fostering socio-economic development anda an improved standard of living.

Presently, a number of Middle Eastern societies are witnessing this trend. In Iran, a “silent revolution” has brought about secular reformist and Islamic reformist discourses pioneered by activist intellectuals. In Saudi Arabia, a slow and steady reform process has set in. In Turkey, numerous societal forces in politics, civil society and Sufi brotherhoods have risen and proliferated. In India, the political and conceptual-ideological transformation of the Jama’at-e-Islami is taking place. In Pakistan, a new thought-movement has emerged, brought about by a number of intellectuals that seceded from the Jama’at-e-Islami. In his recent seminal study based on ethnographic fieldwork, Indian scholar Irfan Ahmad explained that the Jama’at-e-Islami in the North of India has undergone a substantial change against its own ideology. These specific examples indicate a brewing revolution visible in intellectual articulations and civil society mutations more than states’ policies and institutions. An emergent framework of post-Islamism explains the element of change in ideas, ideals, targets, strategies and focus both inside and outside Islamic movements.

Moreover, the main proponents of the post-Islamist framework of analysis are Professors Asef Bayat and Olivier Roy. In their seminal works on post-Islamism, they argue that the Islamists’ failure to establish an Islamic state has given birth to an emergent intellectual and social trend, which translates into post-Islamism. Depending on the context, the post-Islamist movement can be either a category of analysis – as a substitute/stand-in project for Modernism in Muslim societies – or a historical category announcing the dead-end of political and militant Islam; and/or the revival of methods of interpretation of the religious texts that can open up new spaces for discussion on jihad, gender equality, rights of non-Muslims and, to an extent, the liberal notion of human rights discourse.

The main proponents of this category of analysis refers to a broad spectrum of intellectual and socio-political trends and activisms in Muslim societies, which have come about due to the diminishing/exhausting energies of the Islamist project. The project is spearheaded, for example, by youth and women activists in Iran; a moderate band of ex-Islamists—Hizb-al-Wasat—in Egypt; and a giant political force, AKP, in Turkey. The Turkish scholar Ihsan Yilmaz applied a post-Islamist framework to Islamist movements in Turkey. He argues that the Turkish Islamists’ ability to transform themselves into post-Islamism was shaped by the “opportunities provided by the pluralist tradition in Turkey” and the historical democratic experience. Post-Islamism in Islamist politics in Turkey was a result of not only their coming into power, but also a physical and discursive interaction with diverse communities, thinkers, business elites and intellectuals. According to Yilmaz, ‘multiple post-Islamisms’ like ‘multiple Islamisms’ are possible.

Even so, the case of post-Islamism in Pakistan can be a small subset of the broader post-Islamist project in other Muslim societies like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey; being aware of the fact that any attempt to suggest a crude generalization of post-Islamism in Pakistan would be misleading. However, a rough parallel can be drawn between these overall narratives and trends found in the Middle East. The emergent debate on a set of contested issues, across a variety of social forces in Pakistan, point to the fact that we are bound to enter into an intellectual space wherein we have largely retreated from the idea and project of creating an Islamic state. We feel and observe though a more symptomatically shifting emphasis on creating an Islamic state to focusing on issues such as welfare, freedom, justice and individual liberties. Though, there is no doubt in saying that this changing narrative is mostly articulated in the language and institutional arrangement of a neo-liberal discourse on human rights.

In his article, Post-Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, Stephane Lacroix argues that a “heterogeneous group of prominent liberal and Islamist intellectuals” in Saudi Arabia has gained unprecedented momentum. These “Islamo-liberal” intellectuals criticize some rigid doctrines of Wahhabism. However, considering the limited scope of these intellectuals and the approval by a part of the reformist ruling elite, Lacroix quickly asks the following question: “But is Saudi Arabia yet ready to enter the era of Post-Wahhabism?” Some count this as an “Islamo-liberal” trend in Saudi Arabia, which is becoming one of the many growing post-Islamist trends in the Muslim world. What can be safely concluded from a variety of post-Islamist movements across the Muslim world is that they are not anti-Islamic, anti-religious nor "secular.” Yet, they emphasize human rights and individual liberties in the grand framework of a secular human rights debate.

In the wake of globalization, marketization and the neoliberal era, Pakistani society is also receiving creative energies from other Muslim countries. I am not concluding this discussion, but am pointing to an emergent trend in Pakistani politics and the media that may be better analyzed through the lens of post-Islamism. And one should not pay an uncritical submission to this process as well.


The author is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies in Berlin, Germany. He can be be emailed at husnulamin@yahoo.com.

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