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Historical Context

Conceived as a Muslim homeland in South Asia, Pakistan has been ruled by military regimes for most of its history. The entry of the English into India, as discussed in Chapter 3, was primarily an economic one, headed by the East India Company in the 1600s. The Indian Revolt of 1857, however, effected a critical shift in colonial policy from the indirect imperialism of the Company to the overt political rule of the Crown, lasting until independence in 1947. Over the course of the Indian liberation struggle, Muslim leaders such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah (d. 1948) and Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) became increasingly anxious about the future of the Muslim community in what would inevitably become a Hindu-dominated state.[1] This concern led them to call for the creation of a Muslim homeland. As a result, when the British were forced to pull out in 1947, two sibling states came into existence: India and Pakistan.[2] While a Muslim homeland had successfully been established, however, Pakistan did not last long as a functioning democratic society. Politically fragmented, the country was swept up in 1958 by a military coup headed by General Ayub Khan (r. 1958-69). The army has dominated the political scene ever since. Though civilian rule was restored for a brief spell under the socialist prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (r. 1973-7), another coup took place in 1977, bringing General Zia ul-Haq (r. 1977-88) to power. In addition to denationalizing and deregulating the economy, Zia called for the Islamization of the Pakistani state. Indeed, he revamped the national myth of Pakistan’s creation from being a ‘Muslim homeland’ to an ‘Islamic state’,3 reflecting his conservative religious sensibilities. The authoritarian process of state-sponsored Islamization, which adopted a Wahhabi and thus literalist approach to Islam, had a deeply divisive impact on Pakistan’s heterogeneous religious landscape,4 exacerbating sectarian tensions not only between Sunnis and Shi‘as but also amongst Sunnis of different shades, especially between Sufi-oriented Barelvis and puritanical Deobandis.5 Zia’s policy of Islamization manifested itself not only in domestic politics but also on the international level, most notably in his support for the Afghan Mujahidin—a militant resistance movement that emerged in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Zia’s backing of the Mujahidin, moreover, reflects a close nexus between Pakistan and the USA, which bankrolled the Afghan struggle against Soviet communism. It is important to note, however, that the alliance between Pakistan and the USA is (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

  • 3 Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 5.
  • 4 This process of homogenization is one that continues today, particularly in the Talibanization of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). For a rich ethnographic study of the great diversity of Muslim practices in NWFP, specifically in the city of Chitral, and the rising religious tensions between them, see Magnus Marsden, Living Islam: Muslim Religious Experience in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  • 5 Talbot, 251. The Barelvis and Deobandis represent two opposite poles of the vast interpretive spectrum of Sunni Islam in South Asia. Taking their name from Sheikh Ahmed Barelvi (d. 1921)—an Islamic scholar who was a Sufi and an ardent critic of Wahhabism—the Barelvis adhere to a mystical practice of Islam. In contrast to the Barelvis, the Deobandis reflect a much more literalist approach. Taking their name from a madrasa founded in 1866, Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband (based, as its name suggests, in a town called Deoband), they condemn Sufi and Shi‘a practices as being un-Islamic, calling for a return to the Qur’an and sunna.

hardly distinct to Zia’s regime and can, in fact, be traced all the way back to the first coup in 1958. Following the takeover, Khan gave the USA, in particular Harvard University and the Ford Foundation, control over Pakistan’s economic policies—a disastrous move that has effectively ‘concentrated 80% of the national wealth in the hands of a mere twenty-two families.’[3] In Pakistan’s history, therefore, there has been an enduring relationship between domestic dictatorship and the USA, and one that has continued through the 2000s, as evidenced by American support for General Pervez Musharraf (r. 2001-8).

Raised in Pakistan, Barlas was forced to flee the country during Zia’s rule and has made the USA her home ever since, thus suggesting the important (and rather paradoxical) role that the USA has played both as a major force in domestic Pakistani politics and as a principal point of emigration for the Pakistani diaspora. Barlas was born on 10 March 1950 in Lahore. Her early childhood coincided with the transformation of Pakistan from a civilian government to a military state: she was eight years old when Khan seized control.[4] Barlas’ parents were socially privileged, coming from military households and studying in elite Western institutions. Her father attended Forman Christian College (est. 1864) and her mother Kinnaird College for Women (est. 1913), thereby becoming one of the first Pakistani women to earn a graduate degree.[5] Barlas would follow in the footsteps of her mother by enrolling in Kinnaird, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English literature and philosophy and later a master’s degree in journalism.9 Upon completing her studies, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat. By this time, Zia had taken power and was aggressively implementing his Islamization programmes. Barlas became a staunch critic of the regime, openly voicing her grievances with its authoritarian policies. This led to Zia terminating her career in the foreign service and persecuting her family.10 After a brief stint as an assistant editor of The Muslim—an oppositional newspaper—she was eventually forced to leave Pakistan in 1983, seeking political asylum in the USA. Although Barlas arrived in America as an exile, and thus not in search of upward social mobility, her example is representative of a wider migration of

Muslims from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to the USA in the second half of the twentieth century—a mass movement made possible by the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act (1965), which lifted the racist quotas of earlier American legislation restricting immigration to predominantly White countries.[6] Barlas continued her graduate studies in the USA, receiving an M.A. and Ph.D. in International Studies at the University of Denver in Colorado. Clearly conditioned by her experiences in Pakistan, her doctoral dissertation was a Marxist analysis of Muslim and Hindu politics in late British India, seeking to understand why Pakistan and India had taken such different paths— the former becoming a military dictatorship, the latter a functioning democracy—despite their shared colonial past.[7] Upon completing her Ph.D., Barlas joined the Department of Politics at Ithaca College in New York State. She is currently a professor at Ithaca College, as well as the director of the college’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. Her educational and professional trajectory is significant for two reasons. Firstly, like Wadud and unlike Esack and Engineer, Barlas has no traditional background in Islamic studies. Paralleling the educational paths of numerous Muslim intellectuals in the contemporary period, particularly women, she has been schooled solely within the so-called secular university. However, unlike Wadud, who as described earlier received a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Michigan, Barlas never studied religion academically. Rather, her training lies in politics and postcolonial theory, journalism and English literature. She is thus representative of an entirely different wave of Muslim thinkers, trained in diverse fields like education, engineering, and medicine, who are shaping Islamic discourse and, in so doing, challenging the authority of the ‘ulama.13

  • [1] John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.
  • [2] There is a vast literature on the origins of communal politics, the Pakistanmovement, and Partition. See, among others: Akbar Ahmed, Jinnah, Pakistan andIslamic Identity: The Search for Saladin (London: Routledge, 1997); Ayesha Jalal, TheSole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan
  • [3] Asma Barlas, Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism: The Colonial Legacyin South Asia (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995), 13.
  • [4] Barlas Interview, 2009. 3 Ibid.
  • [5] 9 Ibid. 10 Ibid.
  • [6] Curtis, 72. 2 Barlas, Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, 1.
  • [7] 13 Eickelman and Piscatori, 131.
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