Book Review: Pakistan, A Kaleidoscope of Islam by Mariam Abou Zahab

At the outset, I must confess that I have always enjoyed reading Mariam Abou Zahab’s writings, though I might not agree with everything she writes. Here was a scholar who was not only an armchair theorist but also an activist. The book begins with an interesting anecdote with Mariam conversing with Abdullah Anas (of the book ‘To the Mountains: My life in Jihad from Algeria to Afghanistan’ fame) wherein Mariam tells him that she was in Afghanistan in the 1980s. When Anas asks her if she was working there as a journalist or an aid worker, she laughed. On further probing, he was quite surprised when she said, “Jihad”.

Born Marrie-Piere Walquemanne in France, she converted to Shia Islam and became Mariam Abou Zahab. She first took up arms in 1983, in support of Yaseer Arafat’s PLO, and then moved to Afghanistan where she was affectionately called Mariam Jan by Afghans. In one of her articles I had read, she narrates the number of marriage proposals she received from the Afghan commanders during her days in Afghanistan. 🙂 Despite her Jihadi background, it cannot be denied that she was a scholar and her scholarly writings on sectarianism, tribalism and Islamism in Pakistan have greatly enriched my understanding of these phenomenon in Pakistan. She died recently and am happy that a collection of some of her writings have now been compiled into a book.

My main takeaways from the book in brief;

1. Sectarianism: Mariam analyses the phenomenon of sectarianism in Pakistan from a sociological perspective (She enumerated this her in ‘Jhang paradigm – Jhang district can be classified as the home of radical Sunni organisations’). While many hold Zia’s Islamization policy and international factors like the Iranian revolution responsible for the rise of sectarianism in Pakistan (which is also true to a great extent), but as Mariam argues, we also need to look at the socio economic factors underlying this phenomenon. For her the roots of sectarianism lie in the social relations of domination and exclusion in South Punjab. While it is true that the State did support radical Sunni radical groups like SSP to further their domestic and foreign policy agenda, these groups could not have sustained themselves for as long as they did (do) without commanding the general support of the society in Jhang. The the support base to these radical organizations was (is) provided by the Madrasas in the area (which proliferated because the landlords of the area did not allow schools to be opened there, thereby making these Madrasas the only source of education for the poor), the fault line between the politically dominant Shia landlords and the Sunni urban middle class which mostly comprises of East Punjab refugees who resent the domination of the former (interestingly, it was only after reading Mariam’s writing did I realize that this dominant narrative, of only the Urdu speaking Karachi Muhajirs still maintaining their distinct identity from the Sindhis, while the East Pakistani refugees having fully integrated with Pakistani Punjabis, was not fully true), as well as the help provided to the sectarian groups by political parties and dominant groups in the area.

2. Islamism and Jihadism: While acknowledging the role that Pakistan Army and international actors like Saudi Arabia played in furthering Islamisation and Jihadism in Pakistan, she analyses Islamism as a social issue attempting to understand the motivations of the Jihadists. She adopts a biographical approach touching upon the life and itinerary of several Jihadis to answer this question. She has an interesting take on the rise of Taliban in FATA. She argues that Talibanization in FATA is a product of local dynamics, a fight between the ‘kashars’ – the young, poor and powerless of the tribes and ‘mashars’ – the dominant tribal elders. To challenge the latter, the former have adopted an alternative ideology, the ideology of Islamism. Having participated in the anti Soviet Jihad, many of these ‘kashars’ have now become fighters and heroes, wanting power for themselves for which they need to remove the dominant ruling group from power. Islamism then becomes the instrument through which the dominant tribal codes (which sustained the power of the ‘mashars’) is sought to be challenged.

The book also provides important insights into the recruitment drives of the LeT, which was of great interest to me as an Indian. Of course if you want to know more, then Dr. Christine Fair’s seminal book on LeT is the book you should read.

3. Merging of Jihadi and Sunni groups: The last part of the book deals with the convergence between the Sunni militants and the Jihadis, a process which she argues gained momentum after the crackdown on the Lal Masjid in 2007. Growing Talibanization has led to rising sectarianism in the Tribal Agencies and also in the settled areas of Pakistan. Large scale attacks on the Shias and other minorities have now become the norm in these areas, especially in Khurram agency where Shias constitute nearly 40 percent of the population. There is also a socio economic dimension to this conflict as Shias are relatively more prosperous in this area and this is resented by the Sunnis.

A book rich in detail, slightly dense but without doubt an excellent read. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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