Blurring the Line: Islam and Politics in South Asia

By Nasr, Vali | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Blurring the Line: Islam and Politics in South Asia


Nasr, Vali, Harvard International Review


ISLAMISM, THE MOVEMENT based on the belief that the Islamic religion should systematically determine and guide the political system and decisions of a nation, emerged as a force in South Asia in the 1930s, the same decade that it surfaced in other Muslim countries like Egypt. Since then the region has produced some of the world's most influential Islamist thinkers, whose ideas have been central to discussions about the role of Islam in politics from Mindanao to Morocco. Moreover, Islamism has grown in importance in South Asia, and today has an established presence in political discourse in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

In Pakistan, the state established in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims, Islamism has grown strongest and has had its most profound political impact. The architects of Pakistan argued that the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent formed a distinct nation which deserved its own state, yet they envisioned Pakistan as a secular polity rather than one based on Islamic scripture and law. The inherent tensions of a nationalism based on both Islam and secularism have proved increasingly difficult to resolve, and since its creation Pakistan has succumbed more and more to the pressures of Islamization. In a state established in the name of Islam, groping for a defining national culture and a united political community in the face of serious domestic and international crises has led to the assertion and use of Islam in national politics.

But the introduction of Islam into political life in Pakistan is not a result of changes in the ideological foundations of the state; at a more fundamental level, Islamization has resulted from a confluence of state policy and oppositional politics. The state deliberately used Islamic symbols and policies to establish its authority and exercise social control. Bolstered by such state encouragement, Islamist forces grew in stature and achieved a new level of political power. Thus, while trying to use Islam for its own interests, the state strengthened oppositional forces that ultimately challenged its own secular authority.

Soon after Pakistan was formed, the political elite who in principle advocated secular Muslim nationalism began to use selectively Islamic symbols and institutions to increase the legitimacy of the government. The introduction of Islam into politics opened the door to Islamists advocating a state based on religious doctrine and law. The most important of the Islamist organizations that entered the political arena was the Jama'at-i Islami. The Jama'at opposed the notion of secular Muslim nationalism and believed that Pakistanis expected more than nominal adherence to Islam from their government. Organizing a grand Islamic alliance with other Islamic groups, the Jama'at used sit-ins, processions, and nationwide lecture tours to pressure the government to adopt Islamic policies. The government of Pakistan, still a precarious new state, gradually but surely opened national politics to Islam. In a first major step, the Objectives Resolution, passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1949, committed the future constitution to the establishment of an at least nominally Islamic state.

Meanwhile, members of the political elite attempted to outmaneuver their rivals through ad hoc alliances with Islamist forces. In the first elections in Pakistan, the provincial elections of 1950, factions of the secular Muslim League sought to cultivate Islamist support in the Punjab elections. This encouraged an array of Islamist groups to mobilize. One immediate result of this mobilization was the Islamist campaign against the Ahmediyya, a religious sect deemed heretical by many mainstream Muslims. The widespread violence and lawlessness which accompanied the campaign led to military rule in Karachi in 1954 and the imposition of martial law in Pakistan for the first time.

The pressure for Islamization continued to grow through the 1950s. Despite resistance from the political elite, the Constitution of 1956 incorporated Islamist views through such symbolic provisions as the stipulation that the head-of-state would always be Muslim. …

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