A few weeks ago a young lady wrote a moving blog for dawn.com called ‘Confessions of a hijabi,’ she predictably rambled on about how painful it has been for her to hold on to her hijab in the face of taunts by the people around her.
The event that inspired her to write this piece is rather telling. She says she watched My name is Khan and was extremely moved by a scene in which the hijab-wearing heroin is physically assaulted by an American man. This was enough for her to scribble her own story. But the problem is that her story takes place in Pakistan. One was thus left wondering how can a fictionalised account taking place in a distant western country be so conveniently associated with the status of hijabis in Pakistan.
Do correct me when I say that never has there been a (reported) case in Pakistan in which a woman was physically assaulted or humiliated just because she wore a hijab. It’s quite the opposite, really. The blogger belongs to that class of young, educated, urban dwellers who have enthusiastically embraced the many symbolic identity-forming symbols offered to them by a string of Islamic evangelists.
So how did we come to this?
In the wake of the collapse of the secular-nationalist narratives in the Muslim world (propagated by ideologies such as the Baath, Arab Socialism, Islamic Socialism (and what is called liberal Islam), a new narrative emerged. This narrative (first advocated by the likes of Ali Shariati and Syed Qutb and Maududi before him) generated what is now called ‘Islamism’.
This narrative was highly political and advocated aggressive participation in the political process so that the state and society could be ‘Islamised’ from above. However, by the end of the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan jihad’ and more so, after the spectacular failure of political Islam to radically transform Muslim countries into Islamic states (either through revolution or democracy), there resulted two distinct outcomes.
First was the mutation of various Islamist movements into desperate and violent pockets of neo-fundamentalist terror groups. The carefully structured political and revolutionary narratives of the early Islamists that began making their way into various vital political discourses in the Muslim world from 1973 onwards became somewhat nihilistic after facing repetitive failures at the hands of the state and government.
The failure of the more gradualist strain of Islamism also lay in its total rejection of social, sectarian and ethnic diversity in a Muslim country. It saw the Muslim community (ummah) as a homogenous whole, thus losing out to secular and quasi-secular political parties that not only accept this diversity but actually encourage it.
Secondly, beginning in the mid-1970s, the state in Muslim countries began to co-opt the Islamic symbolism and gestures being propagated by the Islamists thus rendering void their criticism of the state as being ‘un-Islamic’. The emergence of Quranic verses on public and government buildings, the airing of azaan on radio and television, everyday sentences prominently punctuated with Islamic lingo (Jazzakallah, Insha Allah, Masha Allah, Allah hafiz, etc.), are the cases in point. In other words, the state in most Muslim countries that once paid homage to secular nationalism changed its façade at the rise of the Islamist narrative in society.
The second outcome of the political failure of Islamism was that many Islamists began retreating from the political arena. They now decided to Islamise society from below. This trend witnessed the sudden growth of social preachers in drawing rooms and TV studios. But the successes of social Islamists has hardly ventured beyond making middleclass urbanites punctuate their language with frequent ‘Islamic’ words (mostly Arabic) or adorn what passes as being Islamic dressing.
Just like political Islamists, these social Islamists too are a product of modernity (as opposed to the fundamentalists who were/are a reaction to it). They do not reject education, science or the idea of women working. To them dressing up in an Islamic manner, regularly following Islamic rituals and replacing Urdu/Persian words with Arabic ones are a good enough start to the process of social Islamisation.
As an added feature they glorify their preaching and insist that their followers’ behaviour in this respect is noble and meaningful, as is obvious in our blogger’s narrative in which she imagines herself to be a non-conformist in a country where hijab is anything but uncommon, and when, in her equally imagined war against discrimination, she conveniently forgets that more harassment is faced by women without a hijab in this country than those adorning one.
Is this sheer hypocrisy, self-centred delusion, or a simple case of Islamism now losing its bearings on a social level just like its political version did in the political arena? Should we celebrate this disaster, or fear that Islamism’s social mutation and lost bearings will go on to generate something that is far more dangerous than the quirky act of a young man and or a woman wanting to have one foot in the holy sands of Arabia and the other on the streets of LA?