Islamophobia and Pakistan

March 1, 2020

The first coherent account of the response to 9/11 portraying Pakistan, its literature and its art forms

The book under review is a collection of ten chapters excluding the introduction, the conclusion and the foreword by one of Pakistan’s foremost liberal-humanist intellectuals and peace activists, Professor Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy. The editor, Dr Nukbah Taj Langah, made her mark in the academic world through her doctoral dissertation, later a published book, entitled Poetry as Resistance: Islam and Ethnicity in Postcolonial Pakistan (2011). The contributors are also distinguished writers in their own right which makes the book a milestone in the literary responses to a world-shaking event like 9/11.

Pervez Hoodbhoy gets to the gist of the matter when he says that ‘there’s the wider issue of Islam’s attitude towards modernity, important because cultural resistance widens differences and thus feeds into terrorism’ (p. xix). He rightly points out that, literal readings of texts notwithstanding, there may be other ways of thinking and moving on permitting diversity and tolerance. It is in this spirit of moving on that Nukbah has collected these articles in her timely book. The aim of the contributors, as she points out, is ‘to present a multilayered analysis of responses towards 9/ 11’ (p. 1). This involves filling existing gaps in what has been produced earlier on this subject – and a lot has; not only in the West but also in the rest of the world – but also questioning definitions (terrorism, Muslim identity, Pakistani identity etc). This is a very complex exercise from all points of view and no answer will satisfy everybody.

The debate on cultural relativism and ethnocentrism (Kamal-ud-Din) and orientalism (Charles Ramsay) is not new but it is argued with a new-found passion and sometimes with new arguments. The former points out that cultures are dynamic while clash theories essentialise them as monolithic and unchanging entities. The latter moves beyond the Saidian implications of Orientalist and goes on to suggest that the tradition of studying Islam or the Middle East, as an academic discipline, is also a dynamic discipline and maybe anti-colonial in opposition to what it was in the nineteenth century.

After these critical debates, we come to 9/ 11 itself and its relationship with literature, art and other aspects of life. Mobeena Shafqat, for instance, examines the critiques of policies which were adopted by the United States in the wake of 9/11 as reflected in English literature. In this HM Naqvi’s Homeboy has pride of place because it is a case of the US authorities condemning an innocent man. In the same way, in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist the protagonist, Changez, is made to conform to the stereotype of a terrorist. The same issues are taken up by Debamitra Kar in her examination of John Updike’s novel Terrorist (2007).

The point she makes is that Islamophobia, akin to anti-semitism and other forms of racism, now attracts a wide audience because of ‘immense technological progress and global connections between nation-states’ (p. 76). One notable point is that Bin Laden’s edict against Christians, the Americans specifically, is also an example of the xenophobia and racism in question. However, the author then makes a point which will be contentious i.e ‘the conflict we see is, therefore, a fake one; it is a mere hegemonic device to consolidate the control of the centre over the periphery’ (p. 76). The author means as the next few lines make clear, that such conflicts are for power. This, of course, is true but they are in so sense ‘fake’. Nor, is it meant to consolidate the power of the centre over the periphery. For this to be true, the centre would be controlling such apparent challenges to itself. It is a very real challenge to the centre but through unconventional, guerrilla tactics and the centre is not controlling it.

The chapter on Hunza, ostensibly on developments there, is actually about statelessness. The people of Hunza feel disconnected from Pakistanis because, for legal and other reasons, that is how they have been made to feel.

In this context, Nukbah’s own chapter: Islamization and Post-9/11 Islamophobia, takes the argument further and focuses on Pakistani literature in English in detail. She traces out the roots of Islamisation in Pakistan from the time of General Zia ul Haq (1977-88). Her argument helps us understand how ‘Islamization policies not only imposed the label of religious fervour on their Pakistani-Muslim identity but also made their lives hell when they tried to survive in the West as a diasporic community’ (p. 91).

This is in a sense, an important part of the Pakistani identity as it is expressed nowadays. It is confused, torn between liberal-humanist values and traditional cultural moorings. Moreover, it is also responsive to the anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani prejudice which is prevalent in Western societies nowadays. So, a liberal Pakistani young person ends up attacking the very values which he or she may be passionately defending within the country.

One positive aspect of this book is that it has chapters on art forms: Waqar Azeem’s on drones and truck art and Halimah Mohamed Ali’s on cinematic responses. These are important responses and ones which reach a wide range of viewers. Two chapters which do not apparently connect with the dominant themes mentioned so far are Madeline Clement’s Christian community and the development of Hunza.

The first is important to remind Pakistanis that, while they complain of being discriminated against in the West, their treatment of Christians has terrorised the community. The misuse of the blasphemy law is such that Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and other religious minorities can never feel safe. The author has used literary and other sources to present the plight of the Christian community which, without explicitly saying so, is an indictment of the Muslim community for its lack of empathy and understanding towards minorities.

The chapter on Hunza, ostensibly on developments there, is actually about statelessness. The people of Hunza feel disconnected from Pakistanis because, for legal and other reasons, that is how they have been made to feel. In a sense then, the perceived alienation of the Muslim diaspora in the wake of 9/11 from their host communities in the West, has resonance here.

Mashal Saif’s article on Pakistan’s traditional Islamic scholars and the West touches upon a debate which has been raging in Pakistan for a long time. The point is whether the state can arrogate to itself the right to change the curricula of the religious seminaries on the assumption that those who study it will be prone to Islamist radicalism. In principle, the state should have no such right. After all religious seminaries of Christians, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs function as seminaries without teaching other subjects in any detail. It is also true that people who become Islamists and indulge in militancy are not necessarily from seminaries. Indeed, most of them tend to be students of technical and science subjects, especially engineering. However, it is also true that the very nature of the curricula in seminaries does predispose the learner to look at the world through religious spectacles. This may lead to piety and self-restraint but it may also result in exclusivism, lack of sympathy for the ‘other’ and a tendency to sit on judgement of other ways of living.

This is a very useful book but there is a glaring fact about it – and other writings from the non-Western world – which I must point out. It is that, while placing due and needed emphasis on the faults of the ‘West’, there is a tendency to gloss over the reality of anti-Western sentiment among Muslim and non-Western societies. Moreover, radical Islamists have a worldview based on their own interpretations of the texts of Islam. These have not been touched upon though they have been written about at length by academics since even before 9/11.

This book was the ideal place to refer to them since they provide rationales for violence which, as we have seen, are used by the challengers of the West like Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri etc. Barring these minor points, and they are more omissions than mistakes, this is an excellent book. Indeed, it is the first coherent account of the responses to 9/11 which takes into account Pakistan, its literature and its art forms. I recommend the book to all those who are interested in world politics, Pakistani and world literature and the general reader.

Literary and Non-Literary Responses towards 9/ 11

South Asia and Beyond

Author: Nukbah Taj Langah (ed.)

Publisher: Oxford: Routledge. South Asian Edition India, 2019

Pages: 194

Price: N/M

The author is a linguistic historian

Islamophobia and Pakistan: Pervez Hoodbhoy's first coherent account of the response to 9/11 portraying Pakistan