IT is a virtual truism these days to assert that Muslim societies are at a crossroads.

For the disciples of Maulana Maudoodi and Syed Qutb — the globally acknowledged fathers of modern Islamist thought — Muslim societies have been struggling against ‘jahiliya’ for decades.

‘Secular’ Muslims, on the other hand, have become conscious much more recently of the decisive battle unfolding in Muslim societies between those like themselves and anti-civilisation ‘extremists’.

On both sides of this impermeable ideological divide is a conviction in the absolute righteousness of the cause. Notwithstanding casual references made to historical events, each antagonist clings to an almost timeless perception both of oneself and the proverbial ‘other’.

In fact, the history of Muslim-majority societies is not all that different from all others; conflicts of various kinds have come to the fore but their nature, the protagonists involved, and their outcomes have all changed with time.

In the current period the range and scope of conflicts within Muslim-majority societies is quite staggering. It is not possible to view all of these myriad conflicts through predisposed lenses. If we do so we risk compromising political principles that we otherwise claim to be immutable. We need look no further than the so-called Arab Spring to recognise the complexity of contemporary political developments.

In Egypt, 30 months after the euphoric scenes that culminated in (secular) Hosni Mubarak abdicating his throne, we have just witnessed the spectacle of popular forces demanding and then celebrating a military coup against an elected government.

That the government overthrown was led by the Muslim Brotherhood presumably lends legitimacy to the generals. But where does that leave us?

In Syria, where the (secular) dictator everyone loves to hate has not even been overthrown yet, the so-called ‘Free Syria’ rebel army has been paraded as a beacon of hope.

In fact it is an unholy concoction of imperialist powers and includes a healthy dose of radical Islamists. It was even reported recently in this country that the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was considering sending some of its men to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad. A simple case of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’?

Libya is not even in the news anymore, despite the fact that a low-intensity civil war continues to rage there. Why did being repulsed by Qadhafi and his antics translate into support for an incredibly short-sighted ‘humanitarian intervention’ led by yet another group of despicable characters fronted by Italy and other Western governments?

In all of these cases, and others, we take political positions on the basis of caricatures of society proffered by the corporate media. While there are exceptions, the press within Muslim and Western countries both tells us nothing about the real social conflicts unfolding in Egypt, Syria or Libya.

Ethnicity, sect, class, gender and caste do not merit even a mention. There is only ‘them’ and ‘us’, defined civilisationally by the respective media outlets according to their political preferences.

Not that there is a great deal more meaningful interrogation taking place in the much more decentralised world of social media. Without exception, on Facebook and Twitter one also observes a ready urge to oversimplify matters; materialist analyses — including Marxian ones — are conspicuous by their absence.

Of course no analysis of contemporary Muslim societies would be complete without mention of the elephant in the room — Pakistan. Here too we insist on making all social conflicts primarily ideological ones at our own peril.

Yes, it is true that — given the genesis of the state and its subsequent evolution, particularly since the Zia period — we have to vociferously challenge the statist version of Islam that threatens to shred us to pieces.

But it is just as true that class, gender, ethnic and other contradictions run as deep as ever in Pakistani society, and that forcing all such fault lines to conform to the ‘secular’ imperative is a self-defeating exercise. Indeed, the Islamists have done a much better job of adapting their politics to the real material demands of ordinary people in society than the ‘secularists’.

Every militant movement of the right that has made inroads into Pakistani society over the past couple of decades has engaged with class, caste and even gender issues. The instrumental and cynical nature of this engagement does eventually become clear for those initially taken in by the rhetoric. But the strategy has nevertheless paid dividends.

It matters not a jot that we are crying bloody murder at the intolerance and violence that are ravaging society. Until we recognise that the rise of Islamist organisations is explained at least in part by the lack of meaningful political alternatives to the status quo, we will continue to simply bark up the wrong tree.

Thirty years ago, while many of today’s most committed ‘secularists’ were sitting in the comfort of their homes thanking their lucky stars that the military had rid Pakistan of left-wing populism, the irreplaceable Eqbal Ahmad noted: “From Morocco through Syria and Iraq to Pakistan and Indonesia, Muslims are ruled by armed minorities. Nearly all Muslim governments are composed of corrupt and callous elites more adept at repressing the populace than protecting natural resources or national sovereignty. They are more closely linked to foreign patrons than to the domestic polity.

“The recent rise of fundamentalist, neototalitarian Muslim movements is an aberration, not a norm in Muslim history. However, it is predicated upon the failure of the current regimes and the absence of visible, viable alternatives.”

In the period since Eqbal Ahmad wrote these words, we seem to have taken further steps backward. Rather than taking on the challenge of building visible, viable alternatives, most ‘enlightened’ Muslims have retreated entirely.

This is evident even in the realm of knowledge production, where once detailed investigations of class, caste and other conflicts that rage in society have given way to the apolitical and ahistorical language of ‘development’. Muslim societies are at a crossroads indeed. Just not the one everyone is talking about.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


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