A Tour-de-Force interview with one of the most influential Muslim decolonial scholars today. Please do take the time to listen to this fantastic and highly significant and timely podcast, which includes some of the razor sharp and scathing excerpts below.
In Conversation: Khan, Pakistan, the Idea of Pakistan and Kemalism/Coloniality
Host: Ayesha Khan
Guest: Prof. Salman Sayyid
AK: This question is related to many progressive Pakistani academics who have decried fact that Western Muslim academics impose their own (Western) frameworks of islamophobia onto ostensibly religious and perhaps even fundamentalist (to some) societies like Pakistan where Islamophobia is not really an issue, and they also claim that the class of mullahs or the clerics, as well as significant fundamentalist and conservative sections of this general population, are much greater issues for Pakistanis than islamophobia. On the other hand, the scholar Professor Sher Ali Tareen and has coined the term ‘Imranophobia’ and he closely ties it to Islamophobia, which he sees as well and alive in the discourses of Pakistani progressives. Could you share your thoughts on this subject?
SS: Sure, I think that firstly the so-called progressives in Pakistan really belong to the category of Kemalists and they’re not just found in Pakistan. They’re found in many, many parts of Muslim communities throughout the world. The so-called progressives were the ones who cheered Sisi when he overthrew the only democratically elected government in Egypt. They are the ones who supported the attempted coup in Turkey. So the record of the progressives, however they may position themselves, is problematic. The idea that Western academics are imposing Islamophobia on them, I don’t quite understand because everything that these progressives do is basically an internalization of Western colonial impositions anyway. I think Sher Ali Tareen is quite right: really what is behind this is the progressives’ own hostility towards Islam – in other words, their own islamophobia, and that is the real problem. And while this is not to argue that there are not issues or practices which one can contest, it does seem to me that to argue that the problem here is to do with the imposition of islamophobia from Western academics is completely misunderstanding the point, and also it doesn’t take into account they have no answer to this. They call themselves progressive but they haven’t really progressed since the 1950s or the 1960s in their thinking, so either they’re outdated to a sort of version of Marxism in which religion is the opium of the people and they start to look for this very kind of economically reductive argument, or they even follow kind of 19thcentury racist arguments and redeploy them in Pakistan. I suppose they may have objected to be called brown sahibs by Imran Khan as well, but they are part of that formation. They may consider themselves to be incredibly critical. Yes, but it’s interesting to see on what issues they’re active and what other issues they’re not active. The problem here is this that they often confuse their own kind of lifestyles and the way that they present themselves, and are able to present themselves to some extent to a global audience, as being somehow people of the enlightenment. This is done without recognizing that the enlightenment itself was an excuse for racism, an excuse for colonialism, and so on. So I think they are actually out of time in relation to, for example, the emergent phenomenon of a deepening of decolonization, and these progressives, many of them who have gained from the kind of colonial inheritances and colonial continuities, however they may present themselves, are really unable to deal with these kinds of critiques. Basically, theirs is a project of westernization, the colonial authorities had a project of westernization, and the Kemalists have taken up a project of westernization. An Iranian journalist in the 1960s and before him a number of Iranian philosophers talked about west-toxification, and there’s an element of west-toxification in which they only can imagine a future as being inspired by the West, and it understands civilization as being Western, it understands progress as being Western, it understands betterment of the human condition as being Western. So, the progressives’ only idea, however they want to put it together, is simply to be Western, and that in a sense doesn’t take into account the shift towards a post-Western conjuncture and the hollowing out of Western claims for universalism. So I think this is the real challenge for progressives, that they demonstrate so clearly Islamophobia. And rather than dealing with real Islamophobia, they want to say, oh the framework of Islamophobia is being imposed upon them and this Islamophobia doesn’t apply, when everything they do or say demonstrates Islamophobia. So, for example, in Kemalist circles there were people, certain kinds of lifestyle meant that you could not get fairness, you could not make progress in your career, you can’t have certain kinds of agencies. So, I think these progressives are an example of islamophobia, and I would rather that they tended to their own Islamophobia and reflect upon that and have engagement on that rather than complaining that people from outside don’t see their lived realities, etc.
One thing we could do is abandon the category of fundamentalism because most of the fundamentalists I ever meet are really enlightenment fundamentalists. If fundamentalism is just a word for dogmatism then the most dogmatic people in Pakistani society are the ones who are actually liberals and progressives who have no understanding of the complexities or the sophistication of thinking and interpretations based around Islam. They are dismissive and they look down upon these people and they think they’re ‘Un Parh’ when they have hardly read anything more than Reader’s Digest themselves.
So I think what I would say to you is this entire argument that Imran Khan has brought upon all of these ills, shows a degree of the superficiality of the analysis, and the outdated way that progressives think, and the complete delusional character and the failure to recognize and reflect upon their own positionalities on this. I think that’s one of the challenges that many of them face because in the end there is a criticism here that, progressives often want to speak on behalf of the people, but they don’t really like the people and it seems to me that is a fundamental challenge here. The problem with that is if you look at for example the history of the Left in the Islamic age for very large reasons, including its orientalism and its racism, and its Islamophobia, has prevented it playing an actually constructive part in the body politic, because they have found it too difficult to get over the Eurocentrism of much Marxist thought. As a consequence, progressives basically remove themselves from that conversation, and go around complaining about this or that, and this is why they never become meaningful because they cannot connect with the population since they don’t understand the way that Islam or Muslimness is expressed is actually central, and it cannot be simply read by 19thcentury orientalism and 20th century Islamophobia.
AK: Professor, my next question is related to your upcoming book, “The Promise of Pakistan.” There are some, like the author Faisal Devji, who claimed that Pakistan was a ‘Muslim Zion,’ and…
SS: Have you noticed how odd that is? He’s talking about Pakistan being a Muslim Zion, when you have the BJP and Modi linked in so many different levels with the Israeli project, both in terms of alliances and practices and conventions but also the template for what will happen in Kashmir. So I find it very, very odd, the idea that you talk about Pakistan as a Muslim Zion.
AK: Professor Sayyid, Khan frequently talks about this concept of a new Medina that Pakistan was meant to be. What do you think a new Medina meant in the in the struggle for a Muslim homeland, leading up to the establishment of Pakistan in 1947? What was that vision? Was it about creating just another nation-state or something symbolically and meaningfully larger?
SS: The idea of Pakistan was not a nation-state, nor was it an attempt to recover a lost political society. Pakistan wasn’t about recovering the models or the Dehli sultanate. It was about building something new and the traces of that still remain. For example, in Pakistan’s citizenship participation, however disfigured it’s been, the idea of who could become Pakistani, at least from 1947 to the mid 50’s when the citizenship law was changed, what you were required to become a Pakistani citizen was away from these kind of xenophobic markers of citizenship like having to be born there, or having a particular kind of ethnicity, I am sure many of your listeners will know who the first Pakistani citizen was, who got the first passport, number one, and this was actually Talal Asad’s father who was a Muslim scholar who was born in Austria. So in a sense you have a state being built which is not nationalistic, which is actually saying that it is for something grander than that, and therefore any Muslim in South Asia, whether you were from Kerala or from wherever could in theory be a part of Pakistan. Now what has happened is this that while the inspiration and mobilization for Pakistan was on the basis of Muslimness, its governance as I mentioned before has been for a large part under these Kemalists. Basically, these have been the Kemalist successors to the colonial order, which have tried to create these highly nationalist, xenophobic, semi-racial categories. So I think the idea of a Medina is a metaphor for building a better society which is actually inclusive and future-orientated.
I think one of the challenges is that there’s a failure to recognize that to deliver that vision means that you have to engage in a very predatory, international environment. This is one thing that the successful communists in Russia and China understood. They had no illusions about the West. They did not think that what they were doing would be aided and abetted by the West there; they were prepared for that. I think many, many islamists have become rather inoculated with the idea of being benign and thinking that they can somehow use reason, and don’t need to think of this as a predatory system.
AK: Professor Sayyid, related to this previous question, according to a certain orientalist point of view, Khan’s invocation of this terminology like new Medina actually represents a backward Muslim mentality of some mythical and romanticized past, and that this hinders a forward look again progressive vision. In fact, some in the so-called the decolonial school of thought have called the movement around Khan as a form of decolonial fascism. The claim that is being made is that this ideological orientation is actually regressive, it is authoritarian, and the tropes frequently associated with Islam. Progressives claim that Khan ‘brown shirts’ (fascist goons) invoke the positive connotation with this terminology in order to justify the ostensibly totalitarian and misogynist social order that Khan and his followers want to establish. How would you respond to some of these claims?
SS: I would respond to those things by asking what planet do they live on? If you look at the current dispensation right now, are you going to tell me this current government is full of feminists? It’s full of people who are not authoritarian or gangsters? It is full of people who are known for their saintly behavior and consciousness and concern for the dispossessed and the marginalized? Is that what is being argued here? So, what is their rationale? How do you explain that? If you’re going to call the movement around Khan as decolonial fascism – I mean the point is that anyone who starts using fascism in this kind of political way, really it gets in the way of any serious, critical thinking. These people can’t think if they’re talking about loosely throwing around a serious political category. And by the way, how do they characterize the current dispensation? Who are these people? What would you call this government of Shahbaz Sharif and his acolytes and the PPP or the PDM alliance? Are they the vanguard of a new forward-looking project for Pakistan? What circles do they come from? Are they the ones who are championing against misogyny? I mean when you start acting in such partisan ways that you cut funding from units which voted for PTI, when you’re pretending to be a federal government and you’re so partial, then what is that? So that’s the first kind of point that I mean, I just worry about the world that they live in. But I think the second more important point is this – these people don’t read, and I wish they would read a little more than Reader’s Digest. And the reason is that they don’t really have a sense of what political projects and acts of foundation are.
The basic project is that progressives do not like Khan because of islamophobia, Kemalists do not like anything which has some expressions of Muslimness in it. That’s the bottom line, and how is this different than the colonialists talking about the Muslim regressiveness when they closed down schools, basically introduced illiteracy, not just in Pakistan but similarly in Algeria, because the madrasas were acting as ways of resisting colonialism, and they closed them down on the basis of these being regressive elements. Every single act of colonial control was always done in the name of getting rid of a regressive and problematic element, and what they meant by regressive were those who resisted the imposition of the cruelties of the racial colonial order. When Mustafa Kemal says that he wants to change the holiday in Turkey from Friday to Sunday, what is the point of that? No one can say that this is somehow necessary or significant. It is significant because it’s an attempt at de-Islamicization, to make the country more Western. It doesn’t have any more liberating function, and Mustafa Kemal did this as part of an authoritarian project of transformation, which meant in many cases imprisonment and killing people. So I don’t share the same view or understanding of the world that these progressives have and perhaps that’s why we come to these different conclusions.
AK: Professor Sayyid, a very important issue for us is this constant debate over civil and military relations in Pakistan, and sometimes, Khan himself has been accused either of being in cahoots with the military, or he is just being termed as authoritarian and dictatorial himself. So, the premise of this whole discussion tends to be that democratic rule is good for the country, and that the military has always been responsible for Pakistan’s problems. The military they say has been a great liability to the flourishing and security of the country, and the criticism goes on. So while this is obviously a very complex topic, would you care to share some brief reflections on this debate. And while we are on this topic of democracy versus military rule, could you share your broad reflections on how we should think about the term democracy, when this term remains mired in this lexicon of colonial modernity?
SS: I think this is a really important question. I think there are two issues here. One, I would say that since the last 30, 40 years, or since Musharif’s time, let’s say, you’ve had rule by two political parties who have championed democracy, but I have yet to find any democratic element in those parties. They seem to be like family heirlooms that you pass from father to son, or mother to son, or however it goes, family members, brother to father etc. So, you now have dynastic rulers, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos and the Zadaris, so how is that again democracy? So, the question then becomes slightly different. Do you want to have dynastic politics or do you want to have politics by national institutions or institutions which are capable of representing the people of Pakistan nationally?
So I think the real issue is about what are the mechanisms for accountability, and I would argue that you can’t simply reduce this discussion to the term democracy. That for me becomes very, very problematic because the West would only consider things to be democratic when they are completely pro-Western. That’s ultimately the thing. And if they don’t have pro-Western outcomes, the West doesn’t legitimize their democratic credentials.
The problem isn’t about civil-military relations, the problem is who will speak for the vision of Pakistan as an expression of Muslimness that was actually behind its creation and formation? Now I think there’s an opportunity through the recent mobilizations that have occurred, that the PTI is perhaps the only national party, and is becoming a national organization. If it’s able to sustain and consolidate that then I think it could be transformational.
AK: Professor Sayyid I want to end by asking you two very important questions from an incredibly important piece that you had written at the time of Imran khan’s election, and you wrote and I quote “while the leadership of the crescent of hope maybe instinctively Ummatically conscious, with ordinary people in these countries sharing a commitment to Islam that no amount of snaring by those who deem themselves to be their betters can weaken. There remains an influential segment of in-between people that thwarts the possibility of decolonization. This mixed stratum is made of Westoxicated wastrels, muddled-headed cynics, and even well-meaning technocrats who have been schooled and socialized through orientalism. They have neither the inclination nor the imagination to seize the opportunities for a fundamental decolonial realignment in a world that is institutionally Islamophobic…the site of a crescent of hope can herald the dawn of a better future.” Professors Sayyid, those who are familiar with your work may categorize many of these elements you describe as the Kemalists in our societies. Could you briefly speak to the role these forces play in contemporary Pakistan and perhaps specifically in relation to the movement around Imran Khan, including during his ouster and the popular outpouring that has ensued?
SS: At the end of the day, if you don’t have some kind of imagination for a better world, you will simply end up parroting what is available and unfortunately a lot of our technocrats just express their orientalist education. Among the Muslim ummah itself, in many countries like Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere, you have this middle strata of people who have been schooled in orientalism and who have not been able to decolonize themselves or their educational system. So they don’t understand the possibilities in and the dangers of simply replicating what they’re taught, what is considered to be the proper way of thinking of the world in those kind of horizons. So they simply reproduce the repertoire of policy prescriptions that are given rather than imagining something new and different.
These sort of Western-style liberals are situated differently in Pakistan than they are in say Egypt or Turkey. Because of the large Pakistani diaspora, the ability of these liberals and progressives to try to outflank by moving into sort of metropolitan circles and making the argument against a kind of decolonization of Pakistan is limited. It’s far more limited because there’s a large Pakistani diaspora which has experienced the kind of racial colonial logics every day and understand what the European powers are and what America is about. And this is one of the reasons why this new government is basically trying to disenfranchise overseas Pakistanis in one of its first acts. It’s not the number of votes but it’s also the fact that Pakistani liberals and progressives find it more difficult to penetrate metropolitan liberal circles because there are diasporic Pakistanis who are able to challenge the former’s kind of views. The liberals and progressives find themselves in a very, very uncomfortable space – hence, they foolishly speak of Khan’s ‘brown shirts,’ (fascist goons) etc, and I think that is something which is quite important.
AK: So finally, here is another important quote from that same piece, “Khan has the potential to be the final piece in the jigsaw that can establish an arc of autonomy, a crescent of hope, connecting governments and peoples in the enterprise of building an alternative to the Islamophobic world order.” Professor, do you think that Khan wasted this opportunity, and do you think that the fact that he remained mired in orientalist logics contributed to it? You have been quoted as saying that the great tragedy of Pakistan is that those who believed least in it ruled over the country, while those who believed most in it never got to rule. So what do you mean by that? And on a more positive note, do you think the last three years in particular have generated new Islamicate and decolonial possibilities in contemporary Pakistan?
SS: I think about what I’ve written there, about the tragedy of Pakistan being ruled by people who don’t believe in it. I stand by it. I mean I think, with a few exceptions, there has always been this situation. And I don’t mean ruled by just the kind of the head of the government at any time. I’m talking about the kind of the actual middle strata, the people whose children are the so-called liberals with their liberal interactions. It is actually the enormity of Pakistan’s formation that is very, very difficult to imagine and think through, because Pakistan comes from nothing, and this is why when people talk about it being a retrograde step looking back – no, it’s actually one of the few countries on the planet which basically starts with nothing. It starts off with almost absolute zero. That is the kind of greatness of its foundation and the challenge of its foundation in a way. It’s not an attempt to recover a past, a realizable past. It is actually an attempt to build something new. I mean the crescent of hope existed but I think what’s happened since the Arab spring has been a focus by Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi and others to try and do everything to roll back the potential of that opening. I would argue right now that the positions in the world around the question of Muslimness are divided between the forces of absolutism, whether they are wearing crowns or whether they are military dictators or Baathist hangovers like in Syria on the one hand, and the forces of accountability on the other.