Foucault’s Political Spirituality, Punjab And TLP

Foucault’s Political Spirituality, Punjab And TLP
Just before the 1946 general elections in ‘British India,’ Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s All India Muslim League (AIML) was poised to become the largest party of Muslims in the region. In 1940, the AIML had declared its intention of forming a separate Muslim-majority enclave as a way to counter the political and economic dominance of ‘Hindu majoritarianism.’

AIML was formed in 1906 to “safeguard Muslim economic and political interests in India.” It was founded by groups of Muslim economic elites as a counterweight to the Indian National Congress (INC). The INC was founded in 1885. It had positioned itself as a secular nationalist outfit, but its core leadership and following were largely Hindu. And it had in its ranks some pockets of radical Hindu nationalists as well.

The AIML emerged as a Muslim interest group that had evolved from the ideas and activism of the 19th-century Muslim reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He had worked towards building an empowered Muslim class of intellectuals, civil servants, white-collar workers and businessmen in India. His modus operandi in this respect included reformist campaigns and the establishment of educational institutions to impart modern (European) knowledge to the Muslims. He also formulated a more ‘rational’ and disenchanted reading and interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts.

The size and scope of the AIML remained minor compared to that of the INC, or for that matter, in relation to the Deobandi Islamist party Jamiat Ulema Islam-Hind (JUI-H) formed in 1919, and the radical Majlis-e Ahrar (formed in 1929). However, from the late 1930s onwards, the League lurched forward in an attempt to become the largest Muslim party in India, especially when the liberal barrister Muhammad Ali Jinnah became its foremost leader.

The All India Muslim League is formed in 1906

According to the economist Shahid Javed Burki (in State and Society in Pakistan), the influence of AIML members from the urban Muslim middle-classes grew from the late 1930s. Burki is of the view that this undermined the influence that the landed elites had enjoyed in the League. In this context, the view of the late sociologist Hamza Alavi is slightly more nuanced. In an essay for the November 2000 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly, Alavi wrote that until the start of the Khilafat Movement in 1919, the AIML was a secular party willing to work with the INC to oust the British from the Subcontinent.

Alavi wrote that the Khilafat Movement that emerged in 1919 to protest the ouster of the last Ottoman caliph in Istanbul was quickly joined by INC’s ‘spiritual leader’ Mahatma Gandhi. The Khilafat Movement was spearheaded by Islamist outfits and Muslim nationalists in concert with the INC. Gradually, the movement became more about the ouster of the British from India. According to Alavi, during this period, the AIML was “stormed by Islamists” who dislodged the party’s secular leadership. Jinnah walked out in disgust, warning that the emotions driving the Khilafat Movement would mutate and turn inwards, spelling disaster for India’s Hindu and Muslim communities. This is exactly what happened. After failing to dislodge the British, the movement turned on itself when violence erupted between its erstwhile allies.

After the movement exhausted itself, the League’s secular leadership rebounded and returned to a position of influence in the party. Burki attributes this to the rise of urban middle-class groups in the League. But here again Alavi takes a more nuanced view. He agrees that the party’s secular leadership made a comeback after the collapse of the Khilafat Movement. However, he insists that this leadership, now headed by Jinnah, was not quite interested in carving out a Muslim-majority country. The pressure to do so came from landed elites who feared that an INC government would confiscate their lands. The pressure also came from Muslim salary-dependent classes who were facing increasing competition from the Hindu salaried classes. The latter had an advantage because they were in a majority and more qualified.
Hamza Alavi wrote that until the start of the Khilafat Movement in 1919, the AIML was a secular party willing to work with the INC to oust the British from the Subcontinent

Alavi and Burki agree that when time came to put the idea of a separate Muslim country as a promise in front of the electorate during the 1946 elections, the reasons behind this were almost entirely economic. Alavi wrote that the new country was not offered as a theocracy but as a Muslim-majority region where the economic and political interests of the Muslims would thrive in the absence of hegemonic Hindu majoritarianism. In a way, the Muslim nationalism which led to the creation of Pakistan treated the Muslims and Hindus as separate economic and ethnic groups. Religious differences between the two were not overtly highlighted.

This was because the League had put the nationalist impulse of Muslims in the public space but relegated Islam’s theological aspects to the private sphere. This is a major reason why Islamist outfits such as JUI-H, the Ahrar and Jamat Islami (JI) were critical of the League’s programme. They warned that Pakistan would be a secular Muslim nationalist realm and its politics divorced from the faith’s theological doctrines.

1946 poster from the Muslim League

However, whereas the League’s programme managed to get traction from Muslims residing in Hindu-majority regions of India, the party had to adopt a more populist line of action in Muslim-majority areas such as East Bengal, Sindh and Punjab. The Muslim populations and their political representatives in these regions were deeply rooted in colonial politics of patronage that had benefitted the Muslim landed elites. One of the largest political parties in the Punjab was the secular but conservative Unionist Party (UP). This party was the political vessel of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh landed elites and a prosperous bourgeoise. Politics in Sindh, too, was dominated by landed elites, whereas in East Bengal, the Muslims were embroiled in a tussle with Hindu moneylenders.

Therefore, in East Bengal, the League formulated a strategy in which Pakistan was explained as country whose creation would eliminate the influence of the ‘exploitative’ Hindus. Land reforms, too, were promised. Since East Bengal also had a large Hindu community within which there were tensions between upper-caste Hindus and so-called ‘Dalits,’ the League encouraged the Dalits to opt for Pakistan and/or a country that would treat them as equal citizens. A prominent leader of Bengal’s Dalits, Jogendra Nath Mandal, joined the League with his followers. The League’s election campaign in East Bengal, therefore, mostly revolved around local economic issues and tensions. Islam here was simply articulated as a religion of economic equality.

Unlike Punjab and East Bengal, where Muslims had razor-thin majorities, the Muslim majority was significant in Sindh — even though the province did have a large Hindu minority (25 percent). Most of these were residing in Karachi, which was declared Sindh’s provincial capital in 1936. The problem that the League faced here was that a faction of the Muslim nationalism that the party was advocating had broken away and mutated into becoming Sindhi nationalism. The League overcame this by co-opting various dimensions of Sindhi culture and placing them in the context of Muslim nationalism.

Secondly, even though there were historic tensions between Muslims and Hindu moneylenders, Muslim Sindhi politicians did not want to trigger Sindhi Hindus because the latter were vital components of Sindh’s economy. However, when Sindh was declared a province in 1936 by the British, Sindhi Hindus had opposed the move. Sindh had been part of the ‘Bombay Presidency’ since the mid-19th century. Opposition by the Hindus against Sindh becoming a province did create resentment amongst the Muslims of the province, but no communal violence took place. Sindh overwhelming voted for the League. Its voting pattern was also influenced by Sindh’s landed elites. The League’s programme was designed to appeal to the culture of religious syncretism in Sindh and to the desired unity of Sindhi Muslims.
During the campaigning phase of the 1946 polls, the Muslim League’s politics in Punjab mutated into becoming what, decades later, the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault would call ‘political spirituality’

Punjab, where the Muslims had a slight majority, was a region where tensions between the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were high. Major radical Hindu and Muslim religious groups were also headquartered here. The Unionist Party (UP) tried to keep things in check by distributing influential positions to prominent leaders from Punjab’s main religious communities. The League was weak in Punjab. Nevertheless, due to the efforts of the party’s student and youth wings, the League’s programme did manage to attract certain Muslim middle-class sections in urban Punjab, a majority of Muslims resided in the province’s rural and peri-urban areas. Most of them were under the sway of large land-owning Barelvi pirs and radical Islamist groups.

During the campaigning phase of the 1946 polls, the Muslim League’s politics in Punjab mutated into becoming what, decades later, the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault would call ‘political spirituality.’ Before we investigate exactly what he had meant by this, we must first explore what happened in Punjab.

As tensions between Punjab’s three main religious communities continued to increase, the INC began to support Islamist groups that had rejected the League’s Muslim nationalism. These groups declared it to be ‘anti-Islam’ and secular. They attacked the League’s core leadership as being merely nominal Muslims who were ‘Westernised’ and knew nothing about the theology of Islam. They claimed that they were responding to the League’s ‘Islamic propaganda’ against UP.

The League thought otherwise. To counter ‘propaganda’ against Jinnah, the League unleashed clerics and ulema who had broken away from pro-INC Islamist parties such as the JUI-H. Clerics and followers of pirs were also activated once they decided to ditch UP and support the League. According to Ian Talbot (in the journal Modern Asian Studies, 1980), the pro-League ulema presented Jinnah as a saint of sorts, who was battling Muslim heretics and Hindus to create an ‘Islamic state.’

Talbot wrote that a majority of rural Muslims in Punjab hadn’t even seen Jinnah. Yet, they were made to imagine him as a spiritual leader who was a ‘true Muslim’ compared to the ulema who were castigating him as a wine-drinking secularist who had no knowledge of Islam. This was actually true. To Jinnah, a Muslim nationalist state was not a theocracy but a modern nation-state in which India’s Muslim minority would become a majority and pursue its economic interests in a more fluent manner.

It was during this campaign that claims of creating a ‘new Madinah’ and the slogan “Pakistan ka matlab kya: La illaha illAllah” were heard for the very first time. These claims and slogan were products of Islamists who had joined the League’s election campaign in the Punjab. The League managed to win the largest number of seats in the province, followed by INC and UP. The pro-League Islamists were so successful in usurping the rhetoric and doctrines of anti-League Islamists that outfits such as the Ahrar were wiped out in the election.

But this success constituted a problem that still haunts Punjab to this day. The League’s message was ‘moderate’ in Sindh and almost ‘socialist’ in East Bengal. But it became increasingly Islamist in Punjab. When riots broke out between Hindus and Sikhs on the one side, and Muslims on the other in Punjab, most Muslims in the province saw this as a battle between ‘Islam and kufr.’

Religious violence in Punjab, 1947

The League had no plan whatsoever to create a theocracy. Nor a socialist state, for that matter. It was to be a state based on ‘high authoritarian modernism’ i.e. when a state believes that every aspect of society can be improved through robust centralisation and ‘rational and scientific planning.’ The Islamic aspect in the context of Pakistan was to remain limited to Muslim majoritarianism and nationalism. This created confusion in Punjab, that had witnessed an emotional election campaign with Islamist messages galvanising Muslims to vote for a ‘new Madinah’ and violence that was perceived as a cosmic war between good and evil, Islam and infidelity.

During a League convention in Karachi, soon after the creation of Pakistan, a man stood up and asked Jinnah whatever had happened to the slogan ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya: La illaha ill’Allah?’ Jinnah asked the man to sit down, then explained that no such resolution was ever passed by the party (to make Pakistan an Islamic state). Jinnah scoffed that “some people might have used (this slogan) to gain votes (in Punjab).”
This success constituted a problem that still haunts Punjab to this day. The League’s message was ‘moderate’ in Sindh and almost ‘socialist’ in East Bengal. But it became increasingly Islamist in Punjab. When riots broke out between Hindus and Sikhs on the one side, and Muslims on the other in Punjab, most Muslims in the province saw this as a battle between ‘Islam and kufr’

Jinnah had underestimated the impact of the Islamist rhetoric used in Punjab during the election, and the manner in which the mad violence that had erupted was perceived by the Punjabi Muslims. Conditions that had formulated these perceptions were not addressed. They continued to resurface: the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya movement in Punjab; the even more violent anti-Ahmadiyya movement of 1974, centred in Punjab; the emergence of Deobandi sectarian militant outfits and anti-Shia violence, with their core area of action being Punjab; and recently, the rise of the militant Barelvi Sunni party the TLP. What is more, according to data, between 1992 and 2021, over 70 percent of incidents of mob violence and lynchings (against persons accused of committing blasphemy) have occurred in Punjab.


On Political Spirituality

Political spirituality is a term that was coined by the late French philosopher Michel Foucault in 1978. Foucault was one of the earliest exponents of ‘postmodernism,’ a late 20th century movement that was characterised by an emphasis on relativism and subjectivity as opposed to absolutism and objectivity. It declared the death of modernity and the birth of a postmodern world in which new ideas and realities were emerging outside the absolutist concepts and truths established by ‘rationalist’ post-17th century European philosophers, and even by science.

Postmodernists posited that realities which do not meet the established criteria of objective and scientific truths were not untruths. They insisted that these untruths were truths according to the subjective realities that they existed in. To postmodernists, these subjective realities needed to be studied from outside the economic, social and political frameworks enacted by absolutist/objective ideas.

Postmodernism’s immediate roots lay in the so-called ‘New Left’ movement that had begun to surface when Soviet troops invaded Hungry in 1956 to brutally crush protests against the Soviet-backed regime in Budapest. New Left leaders and scholars began to intensely critique the politics of pro-Soviet communist parties in Europe and of contemporary Marxism.

Their aim was to refurnish Marxism with issues that went beyond class struggle. Therefore, the New Left not only took to task post-World War II capitalism, consumerism and new forms of US and European ‘imperialism,’ but also lambasted ‘Stalinism’ and/or Soviet communism for being imperialist, dictatorial and oppressive.

The ideas of the New Left were largely expressed during the worldwide student uprisings of the late 1960s. One of the most intense was the 1968 student revolt in Paris. For a moment, students pushed the conservative Gaullist regime in France to the brink of collapse. Instead of marching to the tune of the ageing pro-Soviet communist parties, many young men and women were carrying pictures of the Chinese communist ideologue and leader Mao Zedong.

The figure of Mao Zedong fascinated various young ideologues of the New Left. Mao, after leading a communist revolution in China in 1949, had announced a ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966 to “completely weed out counter-revolutionaries,” not only from society, but also from within the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). Mao unleashed mobs of young men and women on the streets of Chinese cities.

Rampaging mobs attacked people accused of being ‘bourgeois.’ Thousands of Chinese were killed or committed suicide after being humiliated for becoming ‘decadent’ and harbouring ‘bourgeois thoughts.’ The economy came to a standstill and millions of students dropped out of educational institutions to take part in the carnage. But since the county’s borders were tightly shut, much of what came out of China as news was designed to present the Cultural Revolution as an event that had galvanised a whole people to oust clandestine agents of capitalist decadence, manipulative bureaucrats and corrupt party officials. What is more, Mao had also cut ties with the Soviet Union.

Young leftist activists and intellectuals outside China romanticised Mao as a man of admirable impulse and revolutionary genius, who was inspiring millions of people to smash the tyranny of ‘rational’ bureaucrats and the scheming bourgeoisie. But as New Left movements began to fail and recede, the horrific truths about the Cultural Revolution began to trickle in. The heroic communist superman was no better than Stalin, Mussolini or Franco. He wanted to hang on to power, even if that meant unleashing mindless mobs on imagined enemies.

A scene from the Cultural Revolution, China

When Mao finally came under increasing criticism in European leftist circles for flouting human rights and instigating violence, Foucault declared that the idea of universal human rights was meaningless because the concept of rights changed from culture to culture. He wrote that ‘specific philosophers’ were needed to explore specific cultures and specific truths. This was, of course, an attack on the whole concept of the universal principles of human rights that were a product of the Enlightenment. A rejection of the concept of universality in any field would become an important plank of postmodernism, replaced by the exploration of specific understanding of specific cultures about their specific ‘truths.’

Fascination with Mao among many European intellectuals eventually fell away. In fact, by 1977, when the last remnants of the 1960s radicalism had called it a day, Foucault suddenly became a champion of universal human rights. Thus began a shift in the new European left that moved from eulogising those who had crossed the Rubicon and inspired millions to partake in acts of collective passion, to becoming relativist cultural beings, detached from realpolitik and divorced from ideologies woven from ‘meta-narratives.’

However, the earlier fascination with Mao could not stop postmodernists from continuing to applaud expressions of impulse and iconoclasm. Of course, it was conveniently overlooked at the time that just before he announced the Cultural Revolution, Mao had begun to be censured by his contemporaries within the CPC for imposing ‘unscientific’ economic policies that had created devastating famines in the countryside and killed millions of people. So what better way to wipe out critics by declaring them as ‘counterrevolutionaries,’ then getting them humiliated, tortured and even killed by mindless mobs?

But men such as Foucault had had their fill of Marxism, in all its forms. To them, it was yet another expression of rebellion that was rooted in the European paradigms of revolution, largely formulated by events such as the 18th century French Revolution. This is why Foucault, who was once so excited by the ‘organic’ nature of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, completely ignored the 1979 socialist ‘Sandinista Revolution’ in Nicaragua. Instead, in search of all things ‘new’ and exotic, he got extremely interested in the events taking place in Iran.

Michel Foucault

The centrality of God and Church had begun to recede during the outbreak of the Enlightenment. Modernity in this respect reached a peak in the mid-20th century. But in the 1970s, religion was making a comeback. Especially in the Muslim world. Foucault and his early postmodernist contemporaries had understood Nietzsche’s Übermensch as a spiritual being, but quite unlike the religious leaders who had begun to water-down their faith so that it could fit the paradigms of modernity.

So, Foucault became smitten by the charismatic Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini.

Foucault travelled to Iran twice in 1978. He closely studied the writings of the Iranian scholar Ali Shariati. Shariati is widely hailed as the father of Iran’s 1979 revolution, even though he died two years earlier. He was suspected to have been poisoned by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s secret police.

Shariati was not a cleric. In fact, just as the New Left had done in the West, Shariati reworked Marxism so it could be liberated from dogma and was able to address a wider range of issues. Shariati did this by expressing reworked Marxist ideas in the language of revolutionary Shi’ism. He projected these ideas as being already present in the events of the Battle of Karbala (680 CE) when Husayn (AS), the grandson of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH), refused to give allegiance to the caliph Yazid because Husayn considered him to be a tyrant and a usurper.
In his writings from Tehran, Foucault claimed to be witnessing the birth of powerful ideas that Western intellectuals had not known about

Khomeini adopted this narrative and worked it to mean a passionate and fearless uprising against the ‘tyrant’ and ‘usurper’ (the Shah) and the establishment of an Islamic theocracy navigated by ‘pious men.’ This meant Shia clerics, of course. This was Khomeini’s interpretation of Shariati. But the fact is, it was a Shia version of what Sunni Islamists such as Pakistan’s Abu’l Ala Maududi (d. 1979) and Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) had already conceptualised as a way to oust the modernist and Marxist ideas that had become prevalent in Muslim societies and were supposedly undermining the supremacy of Islam.

To Foucault, an atheist, Christianity had been overcome by secularism because it became decadent, corrupt and devoid of any spirituality. This, to Foucault, had left the ‘rational West’ spiritually bankrupt. So, here he was now, in a non-Western country, watching a mighty revolution unfold that was being shaped by what Foucault called ‘political spirituality.’

In his writings from Tehran, Foucault claimed to be witnessing the birth of powerful ideas that Western intellectuals had not known about, or thought did not exist. As he saw Khomeini push the limits of rationality and cross the Rubicon in declaring the creation of a theocracy that had shunned secular ideas from both the left and the right, Foucault wrote that this had the potential of creating “new forms of creativity.”

Islamists attack anti-Khomeini students at Tehran University in 1979

He excitedly declared that ‘political spirituality’ had the potential of destroying Western philosophy and even engulf Western politics that had been under the sway of Enlightenment ideas for far too long. Foucault did not hide his enthusiasm of being at the epicentre of a new kind of revolution, which he claimed was unlike any other. To Foucault, the revolution was a passionate onslaught against the idea of modernity that had been imposed on ‘spiritual societies’ such as Iran.

For Foucault, the audacity of challenging military might by anti-Shah protesters demonstrated a sacrificial disposition. The fact that the protesters and their leaders were unconcerned by how they would be judged by the democratic/capitalist West and the communist powers impressed Foucault, who understood the uprising as a completely new phenomenon, because it was taking place outside the context of established political and ideological norms. Foucault felt that it was entirely being driven by a political manifestation of spirituality that was inherent in Islam, or at least in how Shariati had defined Islam.

Although there is no evidence that Foucault ever studied the violence in Punjab during Partition, or commented on it, one can suggest that too was an expression of political spirituality. During the violence, Muslims in Punjab demonstrated a ‘sacrificial disposition’ and thus the constant reminder by many in Pakistan of how “our elders sacrificed their lives to make Pakistan.” Secondly, the mob violence and lynchings in Punjab (by Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs) during Partition suggests that those involved thought little or nothing about how they will be judged by those pleading for a “return to sanity.” The British were clearly shaken. As Foucault might have put it, they were trying to understand the audacious nature of communal violence through European historiographies.

Indeed, in India, communal violence had become endemic ever since the late 1920s, but the violence that took place during Partition was unprecedented. Had Foucault studied it, he could have been a bit more measured in his understanding of the Iranian Revolution. But whereas the sacrificial acts of revolution driven by the emotionalism of religion did manage to give the Muslim League an important win in Punjab, in Pakistan it was quickly suppressed by the state.

What if it had been allowed to roll on? The result might have been a theocratic state such as one enacted in Iran. But the aftermath, too, would have have been similar. Iran became an ‘Islamic Leviathan’ – a totalitarian theocracy headed by clerics who, to eliminate all opposition, had to unleash a reign of terror through mass executions. By rejecting the “two devils,” the US/West and Soviet Union, and then getting embroiled in a war with Iraq and proxy wars with Saudi Arabia in Lebanon and Pakistan, Iran was left internationally isolated. And the internal carnage continued. In the late 1980s, Iran carried another round of mass executions and then instigated violence in other Muslim countries by accusing the West of promoting blasphemy against Islam’s holy personages (the Satanic Verses affair).

Khmer Rouge soldiers in Phnom Penh during the 1970s

As reports of summary executions, political repression and the degradation of the status of women started pouring out after the revolution’s victory, Foucault gradually stopped discussing Iran. After glorying it as a product of political spirituality that the West could not comprehend, he remained quiet about the atrocities that this kind of politics often triggers. He even remained quiet when homosexual people began being rounded up and executed. Foucault was homosexual himself, but one who was now back in Paris. He was vehemently criticised for remaining silent and even for being ‘naive.’

Political spirituality, therefore, was no different than the anti-religious impulse of the murderous Jacobins in revolutionary France or the atheistic disposition of the Khmer Rouge who killed millions of people in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. There was nothing unique about political spirituality, because it took the same trajectory that all violent upheavals often do.


A source of everyday power

Postmodernism had developed such a reactionary attitude towards how history was studied (especially of dialectical materialism) that Foucault completely undermined how most violent uprisings – emerging from whatever ideology – turn out. Violence becomes part of the polity. It becomes a source of everyday power.

This became a norm of sorts in Pakistan, mostly in Punjab. Islamist groups were suppressed during the first two-and-a-half decades of the country. They developed a seething hatred of the ‘modernist’ elites who had tried to quash the religious sentiments unleashed during the 1946 election campaign in Punjab and by the communal violence that followed. The eruption of the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya movement and then the more successful 1974 anti-Ahmadiyya movements in Punjab is when the suppressed sentiments once again came to the surface. In 1974, they were appeased by the state and government in the hope that they would weaken when given space in mainstream scheme of things. The opposite happened. The mainstream got radicalised.

This process accelerated when the state too began indulging in ‘political spirituality.’ A paradox emerged. The more the state attempted to co-opt and monopolise the impulse and emotion of radical Islamism, the more radical society became because it saw the state’s acknowledgment and practice in this context as the disposition to adopt, mostly for the sake and attainment of everyday power.

Commentators have noted an element of emotional fulfillment in being part of religious mob lynchings and other such violence

Religious, sectarian and sub-sectarian violence increased manifold. But there was only so much that the state and non-Islamist politicians could appease, monopolise or usurp. If a space to express political spirituality was lost to the increasingly Islamising state, Islamist groups formulated newer and even more militant and violent expressions and spaces to push the boundaries of rationality to which the state was still bound.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) did this by exhibiting audacious levels of militancy, sending suicide bombers to explode in marketplaces, mosques and schools, and playing football with the heads of soldiers belonging to the Pakistani military that they had captured and then executed. In a 2018 essay for the Journal of Strategic Studies, the forensic psychologist Karl Umbrasas writes that terror outfits who kill indiscriminately can be categorised as ‘apocalyptic groups.’ According to Umbrasas, such groups operate like ‘apocalyptic cults’ and are not limited by socio-political and moral restraints.

Such groups are thus completely unrepentant about targeting even children. To them, the children, too, are part of the problem – which these groups believe they are going to resolve through a ‘cosmic war.’ The idea of a cosmic war constitutes an imagined battle between metaphysical forces: good and evil, God and Satan, Islam and kufr. Suicide bombers, imagining themselves as soldiers in this cosmic war, exhibit the sacrificial disposition of political spirituality that Foucault was so smitten with.

On the other hand, the TLP’s audacity in this context can be found in the crass tone that their leaders unapologetically use in their speeches, and more disconcertingly, in the emotional fulfillment that its followers seem to get from brutalising alleged blasphemers.

A majority of mob lynchings and assassinations of those alleged to have committed blasphemy have taken place in Punjab. One won’t be wrong to assume that Islamist violence here is the echo of the 1946-47 communal violence. It is an echo that has only gotten louder. The state’s response, ever since the late 1970s, lies in the mistaken belief that it can lessen the impact of this echo by monopolising it through certain appeasing policies, laws and rhetoric. This has only emboldened those the state wants to keep in check.

On the other hand, the continuing phenomenon of Islamist violence, especially mob lynchings in Pakistan (particularly in Punjab) hasn’t been studied as deeply as it should. Such studies can be problematic if conducted by institutions of higher education in Pakistan. But many Pakistani academics operating in universities in Europe, and especially in the US, haven’t done a stellar job either.
If a space to express political spirituality was lost to the increasingly Islamising state, various Islamist groups simply formulated newer and even more militant and violent expressions and spaces to push the boundaries of rationality to which the state was still bound

The audacious and sacrificial 9/11 attacks in the US and the manner in which they impacted the Muslim diaspora in the West saw many Muslim academics in the US adopt ‘postmodernist’ and ‘post-secular’ ideas. This was in response to the criticism that Muslims began to attract after the attacks.

A most surreal scenario appeared in some of the top Anglo-US universities and think-tanks. As US troops invaded Afghanistan, and Pakistan became a frontline state aiding the US against militant Islamists, and as Westerners grappled to understand as to why a group of ‘pious Muslims’ would ram planes into buildings full of ordinary people, a plethora of young Muslim academics were given space on campuses and in think-tanks to explain to the Americans what had transpired.

The surreal bit was that this space was provided despite the fact that the academics were wagging their fingers at secularism, liberalism and what they saw as ‘enforced modernity.’ These were not Islamic modernists of yore who would try to demonstrate that things such as democracy and secularism were inherent in Islam. Nor were they insisting that radical Muslim states needed to be secularised. Instead, they were postmodernist caricatures, drenched in lifestyle liberalism and operating in Western institutions, but looking for a third way to define Muslims outside the ‘Western secular’ contexts.

They claimed that contemporary cultural traditions and exhibitions of piety in Islamic societies had a rational base, but that this rationalism was according to a societal ethos that was different from the secular ethos of Western modernity. This fascinated their Western patrons but, at the same time, Islamists gleefully adopted such narratives as well.

For example, many US-based Pakistani ‘feminist-academics’ criticised their Pakistan-based contemporaries for facilitating attacks on ‘Muslim culture’ by insisting on promoting secular and modernist feminist narratives. Ironically, this is exactly what conservatives and Islamists in Pakistan accuse the ‘liberals’ of doing. It can also lead to rationalising the ways in which Islamist violence is used, not only by apocalyptic groups, but also by common Muslims – to exercise everyday power.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.