During the worldwide depression of the mid-1930s, the poet and Islamic modernist Muhammad Iqbal, often called Pakistan’s spiritual founder, wrote a poem dramatizing the inadequacies of Western political and economic systems.
Democracy and capitalism had empowered a privileged elite in the name of the people, Iqbal felt. But he was not much fonder of Marxism, which was then coming into vogue among anti-colonial activists across South Asia and the Middle East:
But what’s the answer to the mischief of that wise Jew That Moses without light, that cross-less Jesus Not a prophet, but with a book under his arm For what could be more dangerous than this That the serfs uproot the tents of their masters
Confronted with extreme inequality and corrupt Westernized elites, many Muslim thinkers had already begun to present Islam as a guarantee of social justice. Setting up the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, Hassan al-Banna advocated the redistribution of wealth, and a crackdown on venal politicians and businessmen.
Like al-Banna, Iqbal believed that the Prophet had transmitted the blueprint for a just society centuries before Marx ― “the wise Jew” ― worked it out in the British Museum. And he remained confident that after the ruling elites of capitalism and socialism had lost credibility, “the message of the Prophet might appear again.”
Iqbal considered the idea of a classless society, in which the rich were custodians rather than owners of property, to be morally superior to socialism as well as capitalism:
Protector of women’s honor, tester of men A message of death for all sorts of slavery Undivided amongst kings and beggars Cleans the wealth of all its filth Makes the rich the custodians of riches What could be greater than this revolution? Not to kings but to God belongs the land.
I have been thinking of Iqbal’s lines in recent weeks as the Islamist democrats of Rashid Ghannouchi’s Ennahdha party triumphed in Tunisia’s first free elections in years, and the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan ― declared by Pew Research Center to be the most popular political figure in Pakistan ― staged a huge rally in Lahore, staking his first serious claim to power.
On the face of it, the Tunisian and the Pakistani events have little in common. Ghannouchi, born in 1941 to a rural family, has long been considered a significant intellectual contributor to debates about secularism, modernity and Islam. The cosmopolitan, glamorous Khan has only begun, with the help of Iqbal works, to outline his political philosophy ― what he calls in his new book “Pakistan: A Personal History” a “comprehensive blueprint for how Muslims should live in accordance with the highest ideals and best practices of Islam.”
Furthermore, Ghannouchi is Tunisia’s unrivalled leader. Though popular among urban youth, Khan has yet to test his popularity in rural areas where most of Pakistan’s voters reside. The road to political power in a diverse society like Pakistan’s is long and hard, and may involve Khan in many compromises.
That said, the personal and political trajectories of the two figures are not dissimilar. Like many leaders and thinkers in Islamic countries, both travelled through secular ideologies and lifestyles ― Ghannouchi as a Nasserite socialist, Khan as a denizen of London’s social scene ― before arriving at a worldview grounded in Islam.
More importantly, their respective countries have stumbled through many failed postcolonial experiments with Western political and economic systems, resulting in wayward elected governments and uneven economic development, before arriving at their current rendezvous with political Islam.
It may seem more understandable that a majority of Tunisians, who have suffered from a secular and kleptocratic despotism, want to experiment with a more Islamic polity. But why would Pakistanis, who felt the coercive power of an Islamic state for almost a decade under the military dictatorship of Mohammad Zia Ul-Haq, want to do the same?
Perhaps because ― and this is not sufficiently recognized ― every generation brings to political life its own ideas, hopes and illusions. Too young to remember Zia’s regime, many Pakistanis invest their faith in the born-again Khan out of disgust with the modernizing military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who was president from 2001 to 2008, and interchangeable civilian politicians Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, who all share an appalling record of corruption and ineptitude. (Pakistanis are also thrilled by Khan’s unambiguous denunciations of the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone attacks in their country.)
In any case, Tunisians voting for Ghannouchi and Pakistanis flocking to Khan’s rallies are not the radical revolutionaries or closet theocrats they are often made out to be by a paranoid local elite and a global liberal intelligentsia. Rather, these are people who have simply failed to develop the habit of seeing Islam as a purely religious phenomenon, separate from economics, politics, law and other aspects of collective life.
Whether liberal and secular elites like it or not, there are a large number of socially conservative Muslims who wish to see the ethical principles of Islam play a more active role in public life. The mind-numbing division between “moderates” and “extremists” that often passes for profound understanding of Islamic societies in the West simply fails to account for this invisible majority of Muslims, who are unlikely to plump for secular liberalism either now or in the near future.
For many nationalist and reflexively conservative Pakistanis, Imran Khan’s belief that “if we follow Iqbal’s teaching, we can reverse the growing gap between Westernized rich and traditional poor that helps fuel fundamentalism” is not the empty rhetoric it may sound to a Westernized Pakistani.
Indeed, the history of South Asia and the Middle East has repeatedly shown that the failure of modernizing endeavors, and the widespread suffering it unleashes, has always enhanced the moral prestige of Islam. In the eyes of its victims, the debacle of modernization and secularization has also diminished the credibility and authority of local elites as well as their Western sponsors.
The classic example, of course, was Iran. Visiting the Islamic Revolution after the fall of the secularizing Shah, the French philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that “Islam ― which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization ― has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men.”
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that Foucault rashly cheered on has, in another generational shift, run its course. And revolution per se may be far from the minds of young Pakistanis and Tunisians trying to regain control of their national destiny. But the powder keg of political Islam that Foucault spoke of remains dry elsewhere in the Muslim world; and its potency is only likely to increase as Western political and economic systems and ideologies seem, to many Muslims, feeble, and yet so malign.
By Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.