Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s meditations on the problem of Islamophobia during his widely hailed recent speech at the 2019 UNGA, centered otherwise on the Kashmir crisis and tragedy, have generated varied and competing reactions. For instance, in their analysis of the speech, international journalists Aya Batrawy and Ted Anthony highlighted and praised Imran’s ability to “bridge the East and the West” by explaining the menace of Islamophobia through references to recognizable fragments of Western popular culture like the films by the Monty Python group and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. In Pakistan, most editorials and opinion essays in major English newspapers downplayed or even critiqued the Islamophobia segment of his speech as an unnecessarily volatile distraction [from the main issue of Kashmir] that might rub Western audiences the wrong way, ironically confirming in the process Imran’s own critique of the cultural and religious insecurities of a certain segment of the Pakistani liberal secular elite. On the other hand, and in stark contrast, conservative and many wannabe pietistic commentators have heralded Imran’s attention to Islamophobia on the global stage as a valiant defense of prophetic honor on hostile Western turf. However, these conflicting responses miss some of the most important and politically productive implications and outcomes of the way the Prime Minister presented and engaged the topic of Islamophobia at UNGA. In this brief essay, I wish to highlight a few such implications and outcomes.
First, at the heart of Imran’s critique of the categories of “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamic radicalism” is the way such categories de-legitimize legitimate political struggles in theaters like Palestine and Kashmir. And simultaneously, they authorize and offer a free pass to much deadlier and far more violent forms of state terrorism deployed to counter and suppress such struggles for self-determination. Thus, implicit in Imran’s critique of these categories is a much broader critique of the modern state as the most prolific and ugly producer of violence in human history whose sins remain cloaked in the liberal shroud of immunity stitched through the assumption that “illiberal religiously motivated violence” constitutes the opposite of “liberal politics.” This is also why his discussion of Islamophobia was so crucial as a contextual backdrop to the situation in Kashmir where the Indian state has sought to authorize and justify its horrific violence against Kashmiris precisely by framing that violence as a necessary counterpoint to “Islamic terrorism.” That Imran is unable and unwilling to extend this powerful critique of the modern state to other Islamophobic states like China is an unfortunate and indeed deplorable limitation, but highlighting and exploring this critique is important precisely so that such limits and tensions are brought into sharper relief.
Implicit in Imran’s critique of these categories is a much broader critique of the modern state as the most prolific and ugly producer of violence in human history
Second, perhaps the most critical and productive aspect of Imran’s comments on Islamophobia was his discussion on suicide bombing. In a remarkably bold move, he argued that the phenomenon of suicide bombing cannot be reduced to “religious motivations.” Instead, one must attend to the political work performed through and the political aspirations embodied in acts of violence like suicide bombing. Note, this does not represent a justification for violence. Rather, it constitutes a plea to nuance and complicate the often-assumed reduction of violence to religion whenever that violence involves Muslim actors. Just like suicide attacks of Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka cannot be reduced to Hinduism, suicide attacks by actors marked as “Muslim” cannot be reduced to Islam. The larger implication of this argument is this: religion as a category of life is not so easily separable and distinguishable from that of politics. The reduction of violence to religion participates in an insidious liberal secular project of positing the fantasy of a clearly demarcated boundary between the “rational” sphere of liberal politics and the “irrational” passional domain of “religious violence.” And this secular fantasy has justified and instigated colossal death and destruction in the name of saving the ever-fragile sovereignty of the modern state, especially in settler colonial contexts like Israel and Indian occupied Kashmir. As the preeminent anthropologist Talal Asad in his 2007 classic On Suicide Bombing, a book every English literate human being should read, powerfully and poignantly put it, “although liberal thought separates the idea of violence from the idea of politics, mortal violence is integral to liberalism as a political formation. Violence is usually a founding principle of the liberal state (p.3).”
At the heart of Imran’s critique of the categories of “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamic radicalism” is the way such categories de-legitimize legitimate political struggles in theaters like Palestine and Kashmir
Thirdly, it was heartening and again remarkable to see Imran’s critique of the category of “moderate Islam,” and especially that of Pervez Musharraf’s nauseatingly irritating idea of “enlightened moderation” that is essentially a code word for embracing the identity of a “good liberal Muslim” palatable to dominant Western sensibilities regarding the proper place and role of religion in the modern world. The underlying conundrum hovering over the category of “moderate Muslim” is this: who gets to decide what counts as moderate? And through whose logics and worldview should one distinguish the moderate from the radical? As Religion scholar Ananda Abeysekara has most forcefully shown, integral to the idea and etymology of moderation [derived from the Latin moderare meaning to control and restrain] is the imperative of controlling, taming, domesticating, or in other words moderating life in a manner that renders that life most amenable to the protocols and priorities of liberal secular politics (Ananda Abeysekara, The Im-possibility of Secular Critique, 2010). The moderate Muslim in this scheme is the Muslim who is adequately and appropriately domesticated so as to pose no threat to normative notions of how a properly disciplined liberal subject must approach and understand religion. In the context of liberal Islamophobia that refuses to recognize or understand the logic and depth of moral injury that accompanies attempts to mock the Prophet (peace be upon him), moderation thus emerges as another name for acquiescence to liberal power. By pointing to the ambiguity surrounding the definition of a “moderate Muslim,” Imran thus highlighted the noisome power imbalance that governs the normative expectation to “moderate” one’s religious identity whereby it is only the dominant logic of life that shall determine what counts as pain or moral injury and how one must define the limits of satire and hate speech, leaving unheard and untranslatable alternate logics of life, pain, and moral injury.
Pervez Musharraf’s nauseatingly irritating idea of “enlightened moderation” is essentially a code word for embracing the identity of a “good liberal Muslim” palatable to dominant Western sensibilities
Now one may object to all this by pointing out that the idea of moderation is not a Western concept and that it is also found in Islam. Yes, certainly, categories in Muslim intellectual thought like wasatiyya, muʿtadil, mayana rawi etc. roughly correspond to the idea of moderate or moderation. But there is one crucial difference. Key to the conceptual register of these categories in the Muslim tradition is the ethical commitment to balance and justice that might aid in cultivating virtuous subjects and communities. These concepts are not tethered to the liberal project of moderating religion as a way of establishing and maintaining modern state sovereignty. Indeed, one must question Imran’s presentation of the problem of the inability to comprehend Muslim logics of pain and injury as the case of an East-West divide. As widespread liberal mockery of disciplined religious lives in many Muslim majority countries makes clear, the point of division concerns less the geographic divide of East and West and more the divide in worldviews that results from an uncritical embrace of powerful yet pernicious operations of secularity extending the global North and South.
Just like suicide attacks of Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka cannot be reduced to Hinduism, suicide attacks by actors marked as “Muslim” cannot be reduced to Islam
Fourth and finally, it is appreciable as well as wise that Imran framed the vicious cycle of suspicion and mistrust galvanized by liberal Islamophobia as a phenomenon that threatens and fractures the integrity of human relations in multi-religious communities. This threat to communal integrity cannot be pacified or overcome through recourse to law and legislation. The law, with its foremost concern for maintaining public order, will always privilege the normative sensibilities and attitudes of the majority population. Thus, the law can hardly address or heal the damage done by the predictable yet corrosive pattern of events unleashed by an act of distasteful Western liberal mockery of the Prophet (peace be upon him): such mockery invariably follows a reaction of discontent from Muslim communities that is then packaged as evidence of their inability to tolerate satire or free speech. Such a reactionary cycle of resentment tears apart the integrity of human relations that suture a community’s everyday life. Seen this way, the inability to listen sympathetically to the ‘other’ ultimately also hurts and damages the dominant majority population as it of course does the minority community.
One can reasonably raise a number of ambiguities regarding Imran’s discourse on Islamophobia, chief among them of course the absence of an equally powerful or nuanced view on the majoritarian oppression of religious minorities through the exploitation of blasphemy laws within Pakistan. And yes, his idea of collaborating with Turkey and Malaysia to establish an English TV channel for combating Islamophobia is well-intentioned yet clumsy. State engineered projects of intellectual exploration and inquiry usually do not work and carry the inevitable risk of running into irresolvable contradictions. However, admitting these ambiguities, one must also admit that Imran’s engagement with the issue of Islamophobia, at UNGA and also earlier this year at the OIC, evinces an uncanny knack for unlettered conceptual sophistication that is both refreshing and politically productive.
SherAli Tareen is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College USA, and author of Defending Muhammad in Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019).