Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-E-Islami
Reviewer: Scott Nicholas Romaniuk (University of St. Andrews)
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Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US, academics and policy-makers alike have been pre-occupied with the Islamist trajectory in an ever-changing and increasingly-tense international security arrangement. Jamaat-e-Islami, the most influential Islamist organisation in contemporary India, is a heavily-litigious ideological element garnering attention by Indian security services as well as agencies and security watchdogs in the US. As a recent outgrowth of Jamaat-e-Islami, the Student Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, has also been criticised for its involvement in terrorism across the Indian sub-continent. With its stated mission, the ‘liberation of India’ from Western materialistic cultural influence and the conversion of India’s Muslim society to live in accordance with Muslim code, SIMI is assuming a course of intensive radicalisation while denouncing pluralism and calling for Jihad.
Through his incisive and critical exploration that draws on a capacious scope of ethnographic fieldwork in India’s northern region, Ahmad makes the most important contribution to Muslim and Islamic studies in India since the 1970s. With incredible clarity and precision, and by combining political, sociological, anthropological, and religious perspectives, Ahmad maps the shift of Jamaat-e-Islami zealots’ ideological transformation to eventual democratic participation. Through this investigation, new light is shed on India’s Islamism and democracy that should otherwise be considered as a previously-neglected corridor of Indian society.
To address the theme of transformation of Indian Islamists, Ahmad presents his work in three distinct parts. Section one of this volume addresses the intricacies of performing fieldwork in the midst of social and cultural conflict, or what the author refers to as ‘times of war’ (p. 30). The preliminary section also contextualises the formation of the Islamic dogma by exploring the Jamaat’s ideology and practices as they underwent a period of modernisation and gentrification within India’s pre-partition period. Focusing on the life of Maududi, as founder of the movement, Ahmad subsequently presents a discussion of how Western philosophy, Marxism, and a modern Islam were central pillars in Maududi’s points of view. The author extends the arguments of other leading-scholars who have demonstrated the novelty of Maududi’s ideological foundations, by emphasising his reading of history as a ‘binary battle between Islam and jāhiliyat (the “other” of Islam) and the conceptualisation of the Jamaat-e-Islami as the sole bearer of Truth, Islam’ (p. 50).
Defining Islam along a conflict-democracy axis in the second section of his book, Ahmad accentuates the role of education and children, in addition to how Islam prefigures in the mobilisation of India’s younger demographic. A study is presented of the manner in which the Jamaat conducts operations within its school, and how it imparts its ideology to the students learning within the institution. Thus, Ahmad examines the objectives and practices of the school through its own ‘foundational vision,’ ‘criteria and practices,’ and ‘ideological managements.’ Section two makes a vital contribution, not least for its combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses. Given the detail-oriented investigation that is made into the ideological underpinnings and motivations behind the SIMI movement, as well as the concept of Islam in the context of India’s pluralistic and democratic society, this section is a highly exemplary cut of scholarly inquiry.
Providing a sharply-descriptive, but penetrating exposé of SIMI radicalisation and incantation for Jihad in an attempt to preserve the Muslim principles of India, Section three maps the transformation of the Jamaat’s ideology through to India’s contemporary period. Ahmad illustrates how the Jamaat modernised from advocating the establishment of Allah’s Kingdom to pushing for the reception of non-Muslim parties. Contending that Islamism is not frozen in discourse but is dynamic, it is shown that Islam is everywhere-open to democracy and secularism. Dispelling previously-established misreading about the relationship between Islamism and secularism in India, Ahmad also raises stimulating queries within these fields. He considers what the Jamaat’s protracted process of negotiations with Indian secularism and democracy theoretically entails, in addition to compelling his readers to consider the various push- and pull-factors that resulted in the transformation or “modernisation” of the Islamist discourse in India. These and other questions vital to our understanding of Islamism and democracy in India are addressed further in this literary piece.
The perspectives and arguments presented in this book surpass those previously published on the traditions and modernity of Islamism. Ahmad’s examination demonstrates one of the most fundamentally important aspects of Islamic dynamism. In Ahmad’s words:
Far from being “pure” and “sovereign,” I argue, Maududi’s construction of Islam – conceived here as Islamism – departs from traditions. His ideology is a manifestation of what Therborn (1980:vii-viii) calls “the cacophony of sounds and sins of a big city street” rather than the symphony of a narrow lane dotted only with signs of an un-ruptured Islam. (p. 49)
Evidence that there is growth, development, and ‘movement’ within the Indian Islamist movement is systemically revealed in every chapter. Indeed, the very modernity of this movement is manifest in the new value and meaning that were imparted in the old perspectives and practices of Allah. Maududi’s unique conception of Islamic history, referred to by the author as ‘Islamist Dialectic,’ was profoundly informed by Hegelian and Marxist expressions. An equally striking characteristic of this book is evidenced through the comparative aspect and nature of the questions posited and analyses employed to answer them. In asking why Islamists become radical, Ahmad’s riposte is made through an intricate and qualitative connection with the causes of radicalism in Muslim-majority societies, including the less-inclusionary states of Algeria, Egypt, and Iran.
The sources drawn-upon for this book breed a considerable degree of analytical acuity into the exploration and analyses found throughout. Its primary accounts span a corpus of India-based journals and newspapers, as well as government documents and non-governmental reports. Among the wide-scope of articles, books, and pamphlets collected and referred to for this volume are works from revered scholars in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and religious studies. A commendable range of sources in both English and Urdu have been brought into play to form the foundation of Ahmad’s markedly insightful and spirited journey down a path highly-crucial for scholars and practitioners alike in understanding the modernising nature of Islamist and Indian culture and politics.
While a constellation of volumes exist on the nature of Islamism and the contemporary world, Irfan Ahmad’s examination is a successful addition by way of its intellectual precision, innovative analysis, and diplomatic disposition. The book, by its very nature exemplifies the danger in accepting singular and narrow points of view in socio-political contexts as regularity amid a sea of often over-sighted or patently-ignored alternative interpretation and understanding.