The politics of anti-secular scholarship

August 31st, 2011

Published on, by Afiya Shehrbano, August 30, 2011.

The lack of academic debate over the role and place of religion, Islamist politics and secularism in our society, has created an intellectual vacuum in Pakistan. This has recently been filled in by a spate of post-9/11 scholarship by Muslim diasporics working on such themes.

Much of this post-modern Islamic revivalist literature is engaged in exploring, redesigning, redefining and reinventing Islamists through anthropological lenses but they refuse to take account of their materialist, sociological or political positionality vis-a-vis the Islamist cause. 

This reinvention of Islamism as described by such scholars is attractive to Western academia. The academic manipulation, of the mundane but escalating political violence that Islamist parties and militant organisations have routinely demonstrated in Pakistan over the last 60 years has allowed for a “repackaging” through such scholarship. Such scholarship now offers reconstructed readings that regard (1) Islamist militancy as potentially liberatory and/or, (2) Islamists as free agents, and (3) even a proposal that Islamists are, in fact, propagating secularisation in Pakistan … //

… If this is the kind of merger of piety and the secular that Iqtidar seems to be offering as the recipe for a “Pakistani”, culturally appropriate secularisation, then it is a seriously dangerous political project rather than a simple academic exercise. Her rider in the introduction to the book warns towards this in a sort of copout when she suggests that, “Islamist secularisation is likely to be extremely different from the products of secularisation in other contexts.” No kidding.

The abandonment and license with which diasporic academics flirt with such theories allows them to either ignore or elide over the rightwing and pietist subject’s politics, or indeed romanticise and indulge in cultural revisionism with no anxiety at all about the overlap of their project with the conservative agendas within natal contexts.

Academic license aside, I don’t think we can ignore how this bolsters local conservatism. If, indeed, scholarship is now in the business of rescuing rightwing agency, it should be honest enough to simultaneously break its silence on their political agendas/performance too. Especially the ones that actively reverse, viciously attack and consciously refute secular possibilities, resistance or even the questioning of Islamic interpretation, laws, modes or norms as the Islamists define them. Anti-secularism is the one thing that all competing strains of Islamists agree upon and concertedly act against, repeatedly.

Is it an honest academic proposal, then, to suggest that their “inner agency” will accidentally contribute to the political project of the secularisation of Pakistan? (full text).

(The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Contact him here).

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