We tend to think of countries such as Pakistan as quintessentially religious states. As Humeira Iqtidar, of Kings College London, writes in her fascinating new book, Secularizing Islamists? (2011), the “increasing prominence of Islamists in Pakistani political space, especially over the last two decades, has crystallized a particular reading of Pakistan past and present . . . . Pakistan, Islam and fundamentalism – the conflation of the three has become an inescapable focus of media portrayals . . . . “
To provide a fuller picture, Professor Iqtidar spent a great deal of time in the relevant communities and had the rare opportunity to interview members of competing activist Islamist groups. Her description of their competition for members, for power, and for the ability to define correct Islamic practices is remarkably interesting.
In the end, Professor Iqtidar argues that “Islamists are facilitating secularization at a social level even as they oppose secularism as an official policy.” This is not, she is quick to note, a “strict demarcation of the public realm from the private . . . .” Rather, the “Islamist insistence on the internal coherence of religious practice, its appropriateness to tackle the challenges of modern life, as well as competition among Islamist groups have led to a broad . . . thinking through of the role of religion in contemporary Muslim life . . . . Religious practice can no longer be a matter of communal following of norms; it has been changed into a largely individualized decision that must be justified internally, that is, within a subject, and externally, to others around the subject.”
Finally, for those of us who periodically chafe at how some social scientists have superimposed Western European philosophical assumptions and religious categories on not necessarily matching American phenomena, I wanted to stand up and cheer while I was reading Professor Iqtidar’s comments about “universalist claims in social scientific analysis.” In particular, she writes, “Within much of academic literature secularism continues to have immensely positive normative associations intertwined with a continued assumption of universal application.” Until quite recently, social science theories “conflated diagnosis with prescription, description with projection. This becomes particularly problematic in studying societies that are markedly different from the contexts in which there concepts took initial shape.” No kidding.