Utopian Illusions-II

The Pakistani society in the 1990s witnessed hardening of attitude among this fringe element as the events and happenings during this era proved the utter failure and implausibility of Islamists’ program. The Islamisation project of Zia period failed to solve the economic problems in Pakistani society and the prominent position which Pakistan had attained at the world stage during Afghan Jihad ceased to exist once the American withdrew their support.

This led to a process of depoliticisation of ideology among the Islamists. The political means adopted by the classical Islamists had failed to achieve the desired results. Unlike the classical Islamists, this fringe element was not talking about taking part in political and constitutional processes of the state. They started to think that they can have their way through the use of force and by resorting to violence. At the ideological level, classical Islamists had already set the stage for them: After all they were the ones who spread the idea that the world could be conquered by adopting principles of violence as they thought was enshrined in the basic tenets of Islam.
Initial encounters between Western Imperialism and Muslim societies led to emergence of two intellectual trends among Muslims. First trend advocated that the response to western military and political dominance and improving the conditions of Muslim societies has to come from within the tenets of Islam. This trend was represented by traditional Ulemas. The second trend advocated that Muslims will have to learn from the west in order to improve their conditions and in order to turn the tide of western dominance of Muslim societies. This trend was represented by modernists such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and others. Explicitly or implicitly, however, both the trends based their programs on images of idealised past of Muslim history.
There was a time when Muslim empires dominated the world militarily and politically. Muslims scientists and philosophers helped spread knowledge and their discoveries and inventions helped developed modern science and philosophy. This has also become the most common refrain within the Pakistani society that the West has learnt lessons from glorious Muslim past, which helped them progress, whereas Muslims kept sitting on their laurels.
In a such a society where victimhood and envy towards west held such strong roots, it resulted in a convenient recruiting ground for extremists groups who were preaching complete depoliticisation of their program, after witnessing the failure of Islamist project under Zia. The depoliticisation program took two forms in the society. The first, and the most dangerous, form is represented by the militant groups, who advocated usage of force to achieve their objectives. Second trend is represented by the idle middle class-housewives who in increasing numbers were attracted to female preachers in urban areas and adhered to the message of complete separation from the “dirty world of politics”.
Seen from this perspective, what was happening in Pakistani society was a reaction to failure of Islamists’ “utopian illusion”, if I may be allowed to use a Marxist term to define a purely political phenomenon that is local to Pakistani society. At one level, Islamists spread the idea of an idealised golden age to which the Muslim societies must return. At another level the failure of Islamists project to achieve goals through political means in Pakistan pushed the fringe element to use more extreme methods to achieve their objectives. Post 9/11 situation resulted in re-orientation of Pakistani state machinery and its priorities which led to a crackdown against these extreme militant groups. The omnipresent and all-intrusive Pakistani state machinery succeeded in co-opting part of these militant groups and used them for its own end, at least in domestic political situation. The rest of the militant groups just went out of control.
One of the major differences between the two groups primarily emanates from their different social bases. While the classical Islamists such as Jamaat-e-Islami drew their cadre from the urban and professional middle classes, the lower classes provide the main social base for the militant groups. The economic deprivation these dispossessed social classes faced in the society is a strong catalyst for their radical inclinations. To say that the militant groups are the offshoots that grew out of the ideological and political failure of Islamists’ utopian project would not be an exaggeration.
In fact we are living in an era of failure of Islamists’ utopian project. And terrorism, militancy and extremisms are all aftershocks of this failure. Perhaps the Pakistani society provides the western radicals answer to their question as to what happens when utopian illusions proved to be a failure.

Published in Herald