Updated 01 Sep 2019


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

I often understand apologists as defeatist-optimists. In the 1990s, when I worked as a reporter/feature-writer at an English daily, one of my assistant editors explained the 1996 take-over of Afghanistan by the Taliban in the following manner: “They may be extreme in the way they view and practice Islam, but at least they will get rid of the warlords and the loot, plunder and chaos that these warlords are causing.”

In Pakistan, between 2007 and 2015, when suicide bombings by extremists were killing civilians, cops, soldiers and politicians with reckless abandon, one often saw men (and some women) on TV talk shows, condemning the killings. But, at the same time, they were also admonishing the so-called economic and political reasons which were supposedly making young men blow themselves up amidst crowds of innocent men, women and children. They were urging the state and government to “hold negotiations” and “talks” with the extremists because, according to them, the extremists’ grudges against the state and society were legitimate. Those urging this became known as apologists.

The apologists didn’t necessarily hold the same degree of views held by the extremists. Helpless to regulate the extremist narrative according to their own ‘traditionalist’ ideas of faith and morality, they began to look for ways to rationalise the violence and, sometimes, even see a rainbow at the culmination of a terrorist attack. Therefore, defeatist-optimists.

Apologists often have a strange combination of helplessness against ideas they may not subscribe to and an optimism that somehow their end result will be for the better

This was like rationalising nihilism in an acceptable TV-friendly manner and then — perverted as this may seem — seeing an imaginary silver lining. Most apologists looked quite like the ones they were apologising for. But not always. There were also those who could speak fluent English, were educated in Western universities, and proudly identified themselves with the left or ‘real liberalism.’ Scholar and author Afia S. Zia writes in her 2019 essay “Class is Dead, But Faith Never Dies” that a flurry of scholarship from Pakistani “activist-academics” (largely based in the West) emerged from “a post-9/11 Empire anxiety.”

Those who attacked the World Trade Center with the two hijacked planes and killed over three thousand people, described the act as an attack on US arrogance, imperialism, decadence and enforced modernity. A week after the attacks, an acquaintance of mine, who was with me in a left-wing student organisation at college in the 1980s and till a few years ago taught sociology at a college in Berlin, said: “Even though I disagree with the ideology of those who carried out the attack, this was the only way left to rebuff American arrogance and make them think twice before attacking other countries.” So, this gentleman, who had felt helpless at the fall of communism in 1990s, saw a rainbow at the end of the 9/11 attacks.

But, of course, the attacks caused at least two more full-fledged US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a truly testing period for Muslims across the globe. In her essay, Zia writes that post-9/11 scholarship on Muslim identity became a cash cow. Post-modernism, post-structuralism, anthropology, Edward Said’s Orientalism, et al, were still popular on American and European campuses when 9/11 shook the world in 2001. In the wake of reactions against Muslims after the attack, these academic disciplines that had largely been formulated by the Western academia from the 1970s onwards and had put to the sword ideas of economic, social and political modernity, were refigured to fit the idea of the evil West and remnants of modernity in the context of the post-9/11 world.

For example, Islamophobia was a distasteful and discriminatory reaction by some segments in Europe and the US. But in an attempt to censure it, the post-9/11 scholarship by various West-based Muslim scholars ended up providing apologias for those who refused to see anything problematic in the thinking which led to 9/11, and instead continued to put all blame on the West. Islamophobia was thus trivialised and shrunk into becoming an intransigent post-modernist idiom.

Zia critiques this tendency by evaluating the manner in which modern Pakistani women academics operating from Western universities treated the subject of women’s rights in Pakistan. She writes that these scholars and authors identify with the left and/or left-liberal tendencies, but their thinking is at best reactionary.

Zia is of the view that they are quicker to attack Pakistani liberals than they are ‘Islamists,’ believing that the liberals are elitist. Zia demonstrates that the ‘elite’ alone were not involved in the battle for women’s rights in Pakistan. A lot of work done to improve the economic, social and political condition of women in the country was also undertaken by common everyday groups of women. According to Zia, the scholars she critiques have casually ignored such groups, many of whom were also confronting the Islamists head-on. Instead, since scholarship based on an anthropological understanding of Muslim identity became an academic trend, the mentioned scholars began to romanticise and search for rainbows in the condition of those ‘non-elite’ women who are forced to operate in ‘masculine’ concepts of piety.

Book after book appeared explaining that such ‘common’ (non-elite) women were taking ‘rational’ steps to use concepts of piety such as the hijab/niqab to become active in the public sphere. But Zia questions this assumption. She asks how could a woman who accepts a masculine idea of piety and morality, be seen as a challenge to a worldview which refuses to accept her as anyone capable of operating outside her kitchen? And what about the ‘elite’ who are equally involved in this pursuit (e.g. the upper-crust Farhat Hashmi phenomenon, brilliantly examined by Sadaf Ahmad in Transforming Faith)? What are they using ‘piety’ for? Zia sees the critiqued scholarship as an inadvertent apologia for forces that are an impediment to reform regarding women’s rights in Pakistan.

In her book Modernism, Islam & Secularism in Turkey, Turkish sociologist Alev Cinar writes that, in the 1990s when some women in Turkey defied a ban on the headscarf, they claimed that wearing the hijab liberates women ‘from the male gaze’ in public. Cinar writes that by doing this they acknowledged that the public sphere was dominated by the male gaze and will remain so. This actually defeated the purpose of women’s rights, which should be to neutralise the public sphere and make it gender-equal. Therefore, this is a defeatist approach which still looks for male validation for women’s participation in the public sphere.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 1st, 2019