Iqbal’s Pakistan! – The Country Ahead?


The term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ is frequently used in the Pakistani media – both electronic media such as television and radio, and Pakistani daily newspapers. If you search on the internet, you will come across several results under the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ in online papers, articles published in local journals or magazines and on sites reviewing seminars and conferences held in the country. You will find the term on YouTube and other similar websites where video recordings of talk shows, sitcoms, and Urdu plays are posted with the theme – Iqbal ka Pakistan – the Urdu term for Iqbal’s Pakistan.

What does the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ mean? And what is the relationship between Iqbal and Pakistan? Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, popularly known as ‘the spiritual father of Pakistan’[1] and leading Persian and Urdu poet of undivided India, presented the idea of “the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single State” in his presidential address to the 25th session of the All-India Muslim League held in Allahabad on 29 December, 1930.[2] He also stated that: “Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India”. This idea presented by Muhammad Iqbal was later adopted by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan as a proposal for the establishment of a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent. Mohommad Iqbal has ever since been revered in Pakistan as a national hero just like his political counterpart Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher, was born in Sialkot (now in central Punjab, Pakistan) on 9 November 1877. Iqbal was engaged in the study of Arabic and Persian in his early years but later on the advice of Sir Thomas Arnold, his teacher of philosophy at the Government College of Lahore, he travelled to Cambridge in 1905 to continue his studies. He also studied at Heidelberg and Munich universities in Germany. Upon his return to India, he both taught at the Government College and worked as a lawyer in Lahore. In 1922, Iqbal received the knighthood from the British Crown. In 1928, he delivered a series of lectures in various universities in India which was later published under the title The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, a work that provides significant context and guidelines for his ideas expressed in his poetry. Written in both Urdu and Persian, Iqbal’s poetry continues to inspire Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent and beyond. Iqbal died on April 21, 1938 in Lahore and his mausoleum beside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore is visited by many today[3].

Iqbal’s poetry has been used in several national contexts. Muhammad Iqbal claims admiration among intellectual Pakistanis, both intelligentsia and young students. To this day, in Pakistani schools, each morning students, teachers and other staff assemble and sing one of Iqbal’s famous poems written for children ‘Lab pay aati hai du’a ban ke tamanna meri’ (My longing comes to my lips as supplication of mine-O God! May like the candle be the life of mine). Similarly, speech contests related to Muhammad Iqbal and his vision of the Indian Muslim state are held in Pakistani schools and colleges while his poetry is frequently quoted in public talks. Pakistani politicians, leaders and other professionals often quote Iqbal’s poetry to support their own progressive ideas. Iqbal’s poetry has also been frequently used by religious scholars and Islamic hardliners to articulate their own religious views. His works have been translated in several regional languages of South Asia as well as several European languages, among others English, German, and Spanish.

Annemarie Schimmel, a famous scholar, pointed out that Muhammad Iqbal “… has been regarded as the unsurpassable master of every virtue and art; he has been made a forerunner of socialism or an advocate of Marxism; he was anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist; he was the poet of the elite and of the masses, the true interpreter of orthodox Islam and the advocate of a dynamic and free interpretation of Islam, the enemy of Sufism and a Sufi himself; he was indebted to Western thought and criticized everything Western mercilessly. One can call him a political poet, because his aim was to awaken the self-consciousness of Muslims, primarily in the Indian Subcontinent but also in general, and his poetry was indeed instrumental in bringing forth decisive changes in the history of the Subcontinent. One can also style him a religious poet, because the firm belief in the unending possibilities of the Koran and the deep and sincere love of the Prophet (in both his quality as nation-builder and as eternal model for man) are the bases of his poetry and philosophy”.

The question is – why do the Pakistanis use the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’? What would be Iqbal’s Pakistan like?

A large part of Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry is dedicated to the youth. He wished to see the Muslim youth vibrant in its ideals, determined in its actions and high-aiming in its approach to life. He said,

“I have love for those youngsters who pull the stars down.”[4]

Using the analogy of ‘Shaheen’ (the Urdu/Persian terminology used for an eagle) in his poetry, Muhammad Iqbal draws his readers’ attention to the qualities of an eagle ‘the king of birds’. An eagle, Iqbal says, has a sharp vision, it does not live on the prey that has been hunted down by other birds or animals, it lives on the peaks of high mountains and finally, it does not build a nest. These qualities of an eagle that Iqbal describes in his poetry symbolize a life of independence, dignity, freedom, and self-reliance. By using the symbol of a ‘Shaheen’ in his poetry, Iqbal attempts to inculcate in the Muslim youth an approach towards life that contains high ideals followed by action. In addressing the youth he wrote,

“You can only claim a universe to be yours that is created by you

Do not consider this world made of stone and wood that is in sight, your universe!”[5]

Muhammad Iqbal attempted to create self-consciousness among the Muslims of India so that they might free themselves from the British control on the one hand and the domination of Hindus on the other.  In his poem, ‘Shaheen’, Iqbal expresses his ideas using the example of an eagle:

East and West these belong to the world of the pheasant,
The blue sky—vast, boundless—is mine![6]

This symbolism in Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry is not merely an expression of his mystical thoughts but, he invokes the Muslim youth, these ideals can be and must be achieved through a transformed knowledge about the Self. Many of Iqbal’s poems talk about the Self: “…the system of the universe originates in the Self, and that the continuation of the life of all individuals depends on strengthening the Self”[7]. The human identity, according to Iqbal, is boundless, if realized to its true worth. Iqbal challenges the youth to realize their real worth by tapping into the qualities that belong to al-insaan (the perfect human) present in each human being. Iqbal’s concept of mard-e-mo’min (a man of conviction, belief) which he uses a number of times in his poetry seems to have become an ideal for the Pakistani youth.

“He (mo’min) is mild in speech and wild in action.
Be it battlefield or the assembly of friends, he is pure of heart and action.”[8]


There are examples of constructive criticism in Iqbal’s poetry as a means of creating a feeling of restlessness amidst the youth so that they may become actively engaged in productive contemplation that ultimately leads to action. In several examples of his poetry, Muhammad Iqbal addresses his own son, Javaid (then a young boy below the age of 10) but indirectly he is addressed to the youth in general, an example of which are the following verses,

“Create a place for thyself in the realm of Love

Create a new age, new days, new nights

If God grant thee an eye for nature’s beauty

Create poetry from the silence of tulips and roses (Converse with the silence of flowers, respond to their love)

My way of life is poverty, not the pursuit of wealth

Barter not thy Selfhood, win a name in adversity”[9]

Iqbal’s Muslim hero “…is a man of action and a man of the world, but his approach to the world is non-materialistic. According to Iqbal, it is through love and through a focus on one’s inner self that man can achieve the absolute form of freedom”.[10]

“Unflinching conviction, eternal action, and the love that conquers the world

These are the swords (weapons) of the brave ones that fight the war of life.”[11]

Iqbal considers the knowledge of the Quran, the best knowledge for his youth. This idea is more clearly expressed in the following verses taken from his collection Armughan-i-Hijaz (1938):
Keep the Qur’an as a mirror before you.
You have completely changed, run away from yourself.
Fix a balance for your deeds [so that you may be able to],
Stir a commotion which your forbears stirred in the past.[12]

Iqbal challenges the youth to rise above the national, ethnic and factional groupings and invites them to break loose of these limited references of identity. Whereas Iqbal professed the idea of unity among Muslims in his poetry, he also criticized a series of vices among Muslims. He attacked hypocrisy, sectarian and ethnic divisions. Iqbal’s Mard-e-Mo’min can claim his rule over the universe rather than be overpowered by meager emotions of nationalism or religious fanaticism. Iqbal’s inculcates important values of life through his messages to the youth,

“Here are Indians, there people of Khurasan, here Afghans, there Turanians—
You, who despise the shore, rise up and make yourself boundless.[13]

Muhammad Iqbal considered Turkey a good example for modern Muslim states. In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam[14], he writes:

“The truth is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained to self-consciousness. She alone has claimed her right of intellectual freedom; she alone has passed from the ideal to the real – a transition which entails keen intellectual and moral struggle”.

Iqbal also laments about the situation of Muslim countries,

 “Such is the lot of most Muslim countries today. They are mechanically repeating old values, whereas the Turk is on the way to creating new values. He has passed through great experiences which have revealed his deeper self to him. In him life has begun to move, change, and amplify, giving birth to new desires, bringing new difficulties and suggesting new interpretations”.[15]

In his writings, Iqbal attempted to instill amidst the Muslims a need for change in the ways that reflected a backward approach to life and to end all kinds of subjugation for progress. He aspired to see Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent and beyond regain success and revive their glorious past.

Iqbal had widely read and frequently made references to European philosophers, intellectuals and poets such as Hegel, Kant, Goethe, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and others in his poetry. He wrote his famous Persian poem Payam-e-Mashriq (‘Message of the East’) to Goethe’s West-Ostlicher which contains many fascinating remarks about European philosophers and politicians.

Iqbal’s poetry is considered to provide a ‘synthesis of both eastern and western thought and art’. He makes comparisons between Muslim and Western scholars in the fields of philosophy, science, and religious studies. Comparisons have been made between Iqbal’s message and Goethe’s ideas as well as interesting parallels are drawn between Iqbal’s and Kirkegaard (the Danish philosopher). Iqbal also compared Nietzsche’s Superman with his own Mard-e-Mo’min (Man of unflinching faith and belief) exemplified by Prophet Muhammad who “in the most exalted state of his ascension, was called ‘abduhu’” [16] His (i.e. God’s) servant’ (Quran 17:1). Similarly, parallels between Muhammad Iqbal and Søren Kierkegaard mainly focus on the idea of ‘the Self’ that both philosophers had presented as their philosophic vision.[17]

In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal makes a detailed analysis of the history of Islam and its past glory and compares it with the recurring supremacy of the Western thought in the fields of education, technology and science during the past 500 years. At times, one finds a dispassionate analysis in the writings of Muhammad Iqbal of the downfall of the Muslim empires and the rise of the European empires and Western supremacy.

Iqbal was also subjected to fierce criticism from different sides within the Indian Subcontinent. He has been criticized by Hindu authors who consider him “neither a philosopher, nor a poet nor a politician but only a fanatical Muslim nationalist who has sympathy only with his own nation and his coreligionists”.[18] Iqbal also received strong criticism from the Muslim hardliners for writing poems such as “Shikwa” (A Complaint). However, he countered this criticism by writing a response to his own poem titled “Jawab-e-Shikwa” (Response to the Complaint) from God.

Through talk shows and other media representations under the term Iqbal’s Pakistan, the Pakistani youth look for answers to a variety of questions regarding Pakistan’s future. One finds a diversity of points of view on these online blogs, discussion forums, talk shows and online publications that use Muhammad Iqbal’s ideas for awakening both feelings of national pride in the youth and Islamic values. One can find an element of revolutionary zeal in their ideas and a dissatisfaction with the Pakistani leaders and politicians – in the way that Muhammad Iqbal himself who challenged the oppressive British colonial regime. These young Pakistanis refuse to look up to the west. Instead, they talk about building a Pakistan that has dignity in the community of nations, a Pakistan that moves ahead side by side with the developed nations of the world, not depending on the developed nations for economic aid alone. Voicing Iqbal’s vision of a nation, the Pakistani youth aspire to see a Pakistan where Islam and modern advancement go hand in hand and aspire for democracy not only as a political system but as a social system. They seem to encourage positive ideas and attitudes among the Pakistani youth.

Maybe the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ does not represent the original idea of Muhammad Iqbal about a separate state combining the Muslim-majority areas within India. However, the youth in the 21st century Pakistan seems to associate the future of Pakistan with Muhammad Iqbal and his vision about a land that provides opportunities for a life with freedom and dignity. In this way the youth in contemporary Pakistan seem to find guidelines in Iqbal’s writings for such a life and aspiration for a bright future of Pakistan,

“Come, so that we may strew roses and pour a measure of wine in the cup!
Let us split open the roof of the heavens and think upon new ways”[19].

Uzma Rehman
NIAS Associate and PhD History of Religion, Copenhagen University

[1] Annemarie Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing: A Study Into The Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1963, p.377.

[2] Muhammad Iqbal’s presidential address of 29 December, 1930 available online on

[3] This description about the life of Muhammad Iqbal is taken in a summarized form from Annemarie Schimmel, “Iqbal, Muhammad”, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2004, available on

[4] Translation taken from

[5] Translation taken from

[6] Translation taken from

[7] R.A.Nicholson, (translation) Iqbal’s poem,  Asrar-e-Khudi  ‘The Secrets of the Self’, 1950, p.9.

[8] Translation taken from

[9] Translation taken from

[10] M.A.Raja, “Muhammad Iqbal: Islam, the West, and the Quest for a Modern Muslim Identity”, The International Journal of the Asian Philosophical Association, 1:1, 2008, p.41.

[11] Translation taken from

[12] Translation taken from

[13] Translation taken from

[14] Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 1996, p. 142.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Annemarie Schimmel, 2004 available on

[17] Ghulam Sabir, Kirkegaard and Iqbal: Startling Resemblances in Life and Thought, 1999, available online on

[18] Annemarie Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing, p.378.

[19]Translation taken from

Pakistan: a consolidated democracy?

Intervention at a conference arranged by South Asia Democratic Forum on the occasion of the UN Human Rights Council’s periodic review of  “Pakistan”, Palais des Nations, Geneva, October 30, 2012.


Stig Toft Madsen
Senior Research Fellow
NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

This intervention will cover the period from the return of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 till now. I am speaking as a person who has worked as a sociologist and anthropologist mainly with India, but who has kept an interest in Pakistan as well. For lack of time I have not been able to study the UN reports (e.g. A/HRC/WG.6/14/PAK/1) presented elsewhere today.

Pakistani politics has always had periods of military rule and democratic rule alternating in rather long cycles. Therefore, the return to democracy in 2008 would not necessarily mean the institutionalization of democracy in Pakistan once and for all. But at that time there was a hope that this time around Pakistanis had finally realized the benefits that democracy could bring, that they had learnt to recognize the problems of military rule, that they had become better informed by the electronic media, that they had come to desire the rule of law as, indeed, it appeared at the time from the wide support given to the dismissed Chief Justice Iftikar Mhd. Chaudhary and the Supreme Court Bar Association President Aitzaz Ahsan and, if nothing else, that middle class Pakistanis had amassed sufficient property that they would support democracy to secure political stability.

In fact, the elections held in 2008 were technically fair confirming that the Election Commission is one functioning institution in Pakistan. After the elections, President Musharraf made a rather dignified exit. For a time, the two main political parties stood together in their common opposition to military rule. I remember TV-footage of political leaders joking among themselves and with assembled journalists, and exchanging Urdu couplets in those golden days. But as Shaheryar Azhar reminded his readers, “great beginnings are not as important as the way one finishes”.

What does a democratic transition entail? When does a transition get consolidated? When is it completed? According to an article by Schedler

“The consolidation of democracy concludes when democratic actors manage to establish reasonable certainty about the continuity of the new democratic regime.… While the task of transition is to push open the window of uncertainty and create opportunities for democratic change, the challenge of consolidation is to close the window of uncertainty and preclude possibilities of authoritarian regression. Transitions create hopes of democratic change, processes of consolidation confidence into democratic stability” (Schedler 2001).

Transitions, he also argued, may be gradual and even, or they may contain a few defining moments or focal events, or they may be more erratic and fuzzy with many high and lows.

How does Pakistan look in this perspective? Elections put democracy back on the rails in February 2008. That marks a shift, but not a full shift. There was a controlled or guided democracy even under Musharraf with parties and elections, but without the two main civilian leaders in the country, i.e. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. It was the return of these two persons to take part in the elections that marked the beginning of the transition.

The reinstatement of Iftikar Mhd. Chaudhary as Chief Justice in March 2009 was a further focal point. Another was the transfer of power from the office of the President to the office of the Prime Minister by the 18th Amendment in 2010. As regards the troubled frontier regions, one may note that for the first time ever political parties have been allowed to operate there. Moreover, one should note that the present regime is now completing its 5-year period in office. That is no mean feat considering that no elected government in Pakistan has ever completed its full term![1] Do these events add up to a consolidation of democracy in Pakistan? I would say “no”, they do not create full confidence in democratic stability.

Why not?  For a start, there has been no systematic reform of the military which would include reducing the economic privileges that officers enjoy, reworking its “doctrines” to further de-escalation rather than escalation in Pakistan’s relation with its neighbours, and breaking the close links with the militant organizations that the military has cultivated.

The attack on Mumbai, it should be remembered, took place not under Musharraf, but in November 2008 after the return of democracy. Investigations have testified to the continued links between the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was behind the attack, and the Pakistani military, but the LeT still operates more or less as it has done before.

It is true, on the other hand, that the Pakistani military did stage a major counter-offensive against the Islamic militants in Swat. The operation was relatively successful, but the attack on the pro-schooling activist Malala Yusufzai shows that the same militants are still around.  Indeed, militias of various hues have grown stronger in many parts of the country.

The transition, therefore, involves not only the political parties and the military, but also the militants, whose capacity to intimidate and harm, and to set the agenda, and to rule in many areas and across many institutions precludes the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan and even in parts of Afghanistan.

How much of a threat are the Islamic militants? In early 2009, a leading human rights activist, IA Rehman, known for his long work for human right in Pakistan, was willing to give up FATA and PATA (the federally and provincially administered tribal areas), if not the whole of the NWFP. He wrote:

“The sole option will be to buy a truce by separating the Shariah lobby from the terrorists and creating FATA and PATA as a Shariah zone, which may quickly encompass the Frontier province. The question then will be whether Pakistan can contain the pro-Shariah forces within the Frontier region… In such an eventuality, the hardest task for the government will be to protect the Punjab against inroads by militants”. (Rehman 2009).

Pakistan did not break up, but Rehman’s willingness to consider dividing the country stands as a sad testimony to the despair at that time. Remember also that the Government of Pakistan actually did sign an agreement with the militants to turn Swat into a Sharia zone (Shah 2009).

But it was to get worse. The breaking point to me and, I suspect, to many others, was the murder in January 2011 of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab. It marked a new low even by Pakistani standards because the murder was done by his own bodyguard, because the other bodyguards did nothing effectively to stop him, because the assassin was affiliated to the ostensibly moderate Barelwi-branch of Islam, because the bodyguard was lionized by members of the legal community otherwise supposed to be a relatively enlightened class, and because many clerics boycotted Taseer’s funeral. The bodyguard killed Taseer because of his support to Asia Noreen Bibi, the poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy about whom we will probably hear more today. This was followed in March by the murder of another Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs. These murders did not occur to further the return of military rule. They occurred for religious reasons. They were the harbingers of a possible transition to theocratic rule which already affects not only Christians: Ahmadiyas, Ismailis, Hindus, Shias, and Barelwis as well as Jews, Americans, Danes and many others, including schoolgirls, are among the legitimate targets.[2]

To deal with this threat to democratic consolidation and to human rights requires an efficient state, and here lies another fault-line. The conflict between the legislative and the judiciary has been carried over from Musharraf’s time, most obviously in the conflict between President Zardari and the Chief Justice who wants to re-open old corruption cases with roots in Switzerland against Zardari. These old cases have been zealously pursued by the judiciary in a manner that has made an ex-member of the Supreme Court of India chastise his Pakistani colleagues for not exercising judiciary restraint (Katju 2012).

In Pakistan itself, the unofficial Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted in its 2011 report that

“While this expanded role gained the SC immense popularity, it also raised many questions regarding the impact of frequent and extensive invocation of suo motu powers on the courts’ normal work, the difficulties in avoiding the side effects of selective justice, and the consequences of the executive-judiciary or parliament-judiciary confrontation.” (Taqi 2012)

What emerges is the image of a Chief Justice and a Supreme Court overreaching their allotted space within the division of powers, whether for reasons good or bad.

Let me add to this that the fourth pillar of power has also not been as efficient in furthering democratic consolidation as one could hope for. Reasoned political debate is not absent in the Pakistani press. Since I come from Norden, I will take the opportunity to draw your attention to a book written by a Pakistani living in Sweden, i.e. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed about the period around 1947. This book has been meticulously and reasonably debated in both the Pakistani and Indian press. One may also come across provocative and humorous interventions in the Pakistani press, such as Ziauddin Sardar’s little article “Why Are Muslims So Boring?”, and the daring satire/desperate sarcasm in the online magazine Viewpoint. However,Pakistani political debate is often an exercise in mud-slinging and venom-spitting which belies any hope that the Pakistani obsession of securing a world without defamation of the Prophet will limit other forms defamation.[3]

Similar unprofessional conduct extends into “the fifth pillar” of the state, i.e. academia, where most recently the journal Nature has written about “predatory journals” where publications-hungry academics pay large sums to be published in sham journals emerging from especially Pakistan, India and Nigeria (Beall 2012). To round off this lament let me mention also the rot in Pakistani sports exemplified by the two Pakistanis who were jailed in the UK and banned from cricket for a period for fixing a cricket match at the Lords in London – only to reappear later as TV commentators in Pakistan ( 2012).

I do not think I need to belabour the point any more. What I have been saying is that while a democratic transition from a largely military regime to a largely civilian regime has occurred, there has been little in the way of democratic consolidation. Pervez Musharraf in 2004 said he wanted “enlightened moderation”, but unenlightened extremism is what the Pakistanis still get as the country moves from Crisis to Crisis, in the process earning a bad name for democracy.[4] I have been able to give you only a limited number of examples of this. However, they are no mere incidents. They form a coherent pattern.

(Slightly revised 6 November 2012)



Ahmed, Ishtiaq, 2012, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford University Press.

Azhar, Shaheryar “The Way Forward”, Daily Times, 27 February 2008,

Beall, Jeffrey, “Predatory publishers are corrupting open access” Nature 489: 179, 13 September 2012,, “Butt and Amir on TV as pundits during World T20”, 18 September 2012,

Feldman, Herbert, 1972, From Crisis to Crisis: Pakistan 1962-1969, London.

Katju, Markandey, “Pakistan’s Supreme Court has gone overboard”, The Hindu, opinion, 21 June 2012,

Noorani, AG, “A right to insult”, Frontline, 2 November 2012, pp. 80-86.

Rehman, IA, 2009, “Shariah Zone: One Solution for Pakistan?”, 12 February,

Schedler, A, “Taking Uncertainty Seriously: The Blurred Boundaries of Democratic Transition and Consolidation”, Democratization, 8:4, 1-22, 2001.

Shah, Waseem Ahmad, 2009, Pak govt signs Malakand sharia deal”,, 16 February,

Taseer, Shehrbano, “The Girl Who Changed Pakistan”, Newsweek, October 29, 2012, pp. 30-35.

Sardar, Ziauddin, “Why Are Muslims So Boring?”, Emel, November-December 2004,

Sulehria, Farooq, “Pakistan awaiting the clerical tsunami: Pervez Hoodbhoy”. Viewpoint, online issue 125, November 2, 2012,

Taqi, Mohammad, “Judging the Judges”, View from Pakistan”, Outlook India, 19 April 2012,

[1] Shaukat Aziz did complete his 5-years term as Prime Minister under Musharraf.

[2] On blasphemy, see the article in Newsweek by Shehrbano Taseer, a daughter of Salman Taseer (Taseer 2012), the interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy in Viewpoint on the rising tide of extremism (Sulehria 2012), and AG Noorani in Frontline (2012) for a problematic liberal defense of the Islam that hardly exists, but in whose name others are required to stay silent to avoid holy wrath.

[3] For those conversant with Urdu, and even for those without such knowledge, watch  “MQM & PML-N showing his Ethics & Character (Live on Talk shows)”, where two leaders trade insults, and “Malik Riaz Planted Leaked Interview with Mehar bukhari and Mubashir Lukman on dunya tv Part 1”, where TV anchors at Dunya News engage in a manipulative interview of a businessman who had accused the son of the Chief Justice of corruption.

[4]  From Crisis to Crisis was the title of Feldman’s 1972 book about Pakistan.

The assassination of the Punjab Governor by Ishtiaq Ahmed

January 6, 2011

Pakistan plunged further towards anarchy, violence and terrorism as neo-fascist Islamists in the security services gunned down on January 4, 2011 Salmaan Taseer (66), the Governor of Pakistan’s most populous and dominant Punjab Province. Salmaan Taseer was a senior member of the Pakistan People’s Party whose leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2008. The PPP-led coalition government had already been confronted by a crisis when one of its partners the Muttahidda Quomi Movement (MQM) withdrew support on grounds that the government had increased the price of kerosene oil used by poor households and thus made life unbearable for people.

The main national opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was on the look out for an opportunity to bring the government down and seems determined to create as many problems as possible for the minority regime now in power. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is hoping to remain in office even when it does not enjoy a majority. A minority government is understandably going to be very weak. This would not be the first time that Pakistan would face such uncertain political future only this time the crises is greatly compounded by the challenge posed by the Islamists. It was just announced before publication of this article that the government has backed down from the increase in the price of kerosene. So, the parliamentary crisis may be over for now.

Taseer was killed by one of his bodyguards while others looked on. Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri admitted his guilt on television and then in court saying that Taseer deserved to die because he had described the blasphemy law as draconian. It may be recalled that some time back a poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for allegedly using sacrilegious language against Islam and Prophet Muhammad. Since 1982 a blasphemy law exists which prescribes severe punishment for those who use disparaging language or bodily gestures against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. That law has been made more and more severe through amendments in 1986 and 1991. Currently the death penalty is the automatic punishment for those found guilty of blasphemy.

Hundreds of non-Muslims, mainly Christians, as well as some free-thinking Muslims have been charged for blasphemy. At the lower levels the courts have found them guilty and passed the death sentence but because of the agitation by human rights organizations and pressure of international public opinion no individual has been executed up till now. Rather, at the higher levels the courts have found some technical basis to reduce the sentence or set such individuals free. That has of course not been the end of the matter. Such persons have either been killed by fanatics, or, granted humanitarian asylum in the West. Aasia Bibi is currently in jail.

In some cases fanatics have taken the law into their own hands and brutally killed alleged blasphemers. To this day, no such killer has been punished. Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti of the Lahore High Court had in 1995 found two Christians, Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih, not guilty of blasphemy and set them free. On October 10, 1997 Justice Bhatti was gunned down.

This time, death threats to Taseer had been issued by hundreds of clerics because he had advocated that the blasphemy law should be rescinded or amended drastically to make it safe. In a recent BBC interview the governor admitted the danger he faced but said that he believed in the innocence of Aasia Bibi and in the unjustness of the blasphemy law. He was a marked man since that day.

The fact that the police commando posted as bodyguard to protect the governor killed him has raised many questions about how reliable the security services in Pakistan are. It is widely believed that extremists committed to a violent Islamic revolution are now present at all levels of state machinery including the military, police and security services. When his death was announced the Islamists let loose a massive propaganda in the media but especially on the Internet describing the culprit, Qadri, a warrior of Islam and Taseer a renegade to Islam. Hundreds of leading clerics issued fatwas (religious rulings) that Taseer should not be given an Islamic burial.

The head of the leading fundamentalist party, the Jama’at-e-Islami, Munawwar Hasan blamed Taseer for provoking pious sensibilities by describing the blasphemy law in uncharitable manner. Incidentally, a PhD thesis on the Jama’at-e-Islami describing it as parliamentary, democratic party was approved by Goteborg University not very long ago. This is the level of scholarship in Sweden about Pakistani politics.

Pakistan is a failing state, but has not failed yet. Contrary to the fatwa of some ulema that Salmaan Taseer should be refused an Islamic burial, other clerics were willing to lead his funeral prayers. Thousands of people took part in the ceremony. He was buried with full official protocol, his bier being carried by men in uniform. He was given a state funeral with full honours. It means that not all people have gone mad. Salmaan Taseer was a brave man and one with strong convictions. Such individuals are becoming rare commodity in Pakistan. Unless the blasphemy law is repealed and the culprits punished according to the law, Pakistan’s decline into religio-fascism will be unstoppable.

Ishtiaq Ahmed

The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

Danish media and Pakistani Islam by Uzma Rehman

Which Pakistani Islam do you know about? The answer to this question would most likely depend on the kind of news and information about Pakistan that has reached the majority of people in Denmark through the print and electronic media during the past decade i.e. especially after 11 September 2001. However, this is how it is in most modern societies where information about the world reaches us through the media. Only those few who venture out to distant geographical areas are themselves able to experience the ground reality of these societies.

If we look at the news about Pakistan in the Danish newspapers during the past 9 years, we find that the media in Denmark has been projecting one-sided news about religious politics in Pakistan. Frequent news about terrorist attacks, religious extremism or natural catastrophes have either projected the image of Pakistan as a place where shocking incidents take place at a high rate or a boring land where extremist Muslims or dictatorial governments have control over all public and private life.

Dominant Media Images of Pakistan

A keyword search in the Danish newspaper database Infomedia results in 108 articles on Pakistan-Islam; 342 articles on Pakistan-terrorism; 12 articles on Pakistan-fundamentalism; 564 articles on Pakistan-Taliban; 155 articles on Pakistan-floods, and no articles on Pakistan-Sufism (the inner spiritual dimension of Islam practiced in the form of saint-veneration and master-disciple tradition) or Sufi shrines. Whereas information related to terrorist attacks and violent protests abounds, these newspaper reports may not represent the experiences of millions of Pakistanis who may be totally detached from religious politics due to their struggle through everyday challenges related to earning livelihoods. In the long run this one-sided image projected in the media seems to create a massive impact on the public opinion in Denmark.  

What happens then if you come from a country such as Pakistan to settle in Denmark and meet a public opinion that is purely based on the information that the country’s newspaper and electronic media have generated? As a female Pakistani married to an ethnic Dane, you repeatedly get surprised by the opinions you meet out on the street, from neighbours, work colleagues, friends or your spouse’s family. The first impressions I met in Denmark about Pakistan were of a country that is known for its dictators, coup d’état’s, strict Shariah law injunctions, Taliban style religious extremism, radical Islam, women stripped of their basic rights, and several other strange things.

However, one also comes across sunshine news in the Danish newspapers related to public concern and fundraising for the people hit by the catastrophic events in Pakistan that have taken place twice during the past 5 years: first in October 2005 as a result of the earthquake in Kashmir and other northern areas of Pakistan and later as recently as August 2010 in the form of floods in lower Punjab and Sindh resulting from the monsoon rains. After all, Pakistanis are not totally foreign to Danes. Since 1960s a large number of Pakistanis have migrated to Denmark as ‘guest workers’ and have settled here with their families ever since. Currently, there are reported to be 26,000 inhabitants in Denmark with the Pakistani origin.

During the last few years’ stay in Denmark I have met public impressions about Pakistanis based on stereotypes, negative, positive and neutral, such as ‘Pakistani food is so delicious with spices and taste’, ‘why do Pakistani Muslim women wear headscarves or why do they wear high heal sandals in winter?’ Whenever I am on my way to or return from Pakistan, I frequently meet with concerns and worries. ‘Is it safe to travel to Pakistan at all?’ ‘But there are bomb blasts everywhere in Pakistan’. Some of course show concern and ask whether the family and friends in Pakistan are safe under such conditions. At one point, when my husband and I were in Pakistan, we received a panicked email message from a family member in Denmark who wanted us to immediately contact the Danish embassy in Islamabad because the Danish foreign ministry had issued a warning against travelling to Pakistan. However, we did not comply with this instruction because we already felt safe in the protective fold of our family and friends in Pakistan. Any invitations that we may pass on to friends or families in Denmark to visit us in Pakistan are met with polite or straightaway ‘No’ or basically avoiding the subject. But these impressions are quite harmless. There is a better cause of concern when the print and electronic media bring negative news on a daily basis and bombard the public consciousness until a wholesome image is created about a society. This is a cause of concern for a society such as Denmark where the majority of people have active political consciousness, high literacy rate and where public and private institutions claim progressiveness and tolerance towards racial, ethnic and religious diversity.

It is not certain that stereotypes about a foreign culture or religious community can be avoided by increased interaction between the host society and people belonging to an immigrant community or an ethnic minority. The reason being that communities immigrating to a European country may not represent the diversity of their countries of origin in terms of social, cultural or religious backgrounds. The majority of Pakistanis living in Denmark come from one particular area of central Punjab i.e. Kharian or Wazirabad in Gujrat district. They speak the same Punjabi dialect and though Muslims who follow the basic Shariah injunctions (praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadhan, and so on), their overall idea of being Muslim may differ from each other. This is just a very limited example of the diversity in the ways Islam is practiced in Pakistan.

The overall image created by the Danish media about Muslims in general has a strong impact on how the ethnic Danes perceive the religious sentiments of Muslims living in Denmark. For example, the reactions from the Danish public to the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper can be divided into categories such as those who advocated the freedom of expression and thus did not see anything wrong in the caricatures; those who considered it an unnecessary and rather unwise move especially due to the sensitivity of the situation related to Muslim immigrants in Denmark and; those who were neutral on the issue. If those belonging to the first category were more acquainted with the religious beliefs of the Muslim community living in Denmark, their responses would have been more sensitized.

Even the so-called academics in their discussions on the subject used expressions such as ‘Muhammad crisis’ rather than expressions such as ‘cartoon outrage’ or ‘protests over Muhammad caricatures’ etc. Now, what is wrong with the first term? First of all, it is an incorrect term with no meaning. Muhammad is a Prophet of God who lived in the 6th Century and who, based on Divine revelations, established a code of life and religion called Islam. He has nothing to do with the caricatures or the outrage that followed. Secondly, associating the name of their Prophet with a political issue is an unwise provocation of the religious sentiments of the country’s largest religious minority.

Whereas ordinary Danes are aware of the violent protests over the caricature issue, they remain uninformed about the variety of responses incurred at various levels in Pakistan. I was in Pakistan at the time conducting my Ph.D. fieldwork around two Sufi shrines. Protests against the publication of caricatures were held in a Punjab village where one of the two shrines is located. Inside the shrine I asked a group of devotees of the saint buried in the shrine, who were singing and reciting parts of his poetry, why they did not join the demonstrations in the village. Thei
r response was that they did not consider it an appropriate way to follow Prophet Muhammad. According to them, Prophet Muhammad demonstrated compassion and forgiveness towards those who subjected him to persecution and ridicule for conveying the Divine message based on justice, equality, freedom and love.

Whereas radicalism is projected in the Danish media as a representative feature of Pakistani Islam, the more rampant folk Islam practised by millions of Pakistani people is completely missing from the media scene.

Devotional Muslim Practices in Pakistan

While the issue of defining Muslim identity continues occupying much of the public debate in Pakistan, it is important to keep in mind that there is diversity within and among Muslim traditions practised in Pakistan. The general image of Pakistan harbouring religious extremists and dictators fails to represent a country of over 170 million inhabitants with diversity in all aspects of life, ethnicity, languages, biradaries or tribes, economic classes, and not to forget religion. Islam is professed by 97% of the country’s population and although the Shariah remains a unified code of law as for the universality of faith and basic rituals, the diversity reflects denominational, ethnic and class-based variations. Looking closely, one finds devotional expressions as the most prominent feature of the everyday religiosity of people in the Pakistani society.    

As opposed to a more Shariah-based orthodox Islam, the devotional practices followed by a large number of Pakistani Muslims are embedded in the South Asian devotional culture shared across religious traditions. In Pakistan, Sufis’ Islam is centred around the tombs of deceased saints where ‘Muslims gathered to worship God, praise His Prophet, and ask the saint, living or deceased, for intercession on their behalf’ (Schimmel 1982). Devotional beliefs practised in the shrines of South Asia today have a basis in the history of Islam going back to the veneration of Prophet Muhammad as an intercessor between God and his community and the Prophet according to the Muslim faith has been sent by God as a ‘Mercy for the Worlds’. Today, the tangible form of Sufi tradition is found in thousands of shrines (mazars) visited and venerated by millions of people living in South Asia.

Most Danes do not know that millions of Muslims in Pakistan follow Sufis and visit shrines of Sufi saints and listen to Sufi music called qawwali. Not only do Sufi shrines provide Muslims a chance to express their religious sentiments, these also provide a space to a considerable number of Hindu, Sikh and Christian minorities to express their reverence for the saints and seek redress for their emotional problems and material needs. These shrines also serve as centres of social and cultural exchange. This happens both in villages and in large cities of Pakistan.

Devotees of Sufi shrines with a myriad of social and ethnic identities are less concerned with the institutionalized form of Islam. However, what seems more important to these devotees is that they have direct contact with their spiritual guide (Pir) who intervenes on their behalf in social and spiritual spheres. A Sufi saint who has long departed also continues to play the role of the mediator between God and people through his spiritual discipline and Baraka (spiritual blessing associated with Sufi saints).

Upon visiting Sufi shrines in either India or Pakistan, one may observe non-Muslim pilgrims regularly visiting to pay tribute to the Sufi saints. The Sufi shrine culture not only accommodates diverse religious identities, it also provides an open space that is shared by men and women. Women are known to have most actively participated in popular Sufi traditions of South Asia. Most female devotees visit in order to pay respects to the saints but some also visit in search of livelihoods. An important feature of the life in these shrines is the annual celebrations related to the death anniversary of the Sufi saints buried there. During these annual celebrations, pilgrims and devotees take part in activities related to art and music, rituals, entertainment, economic opportunities, charity, spiritual and moral training, among others. These annual celebrations are attended by a large number of female pilgrims and devotees. Women are empowered through rituals and literary traditions practised in these shrines. Otherwise performing restricted roles in religious affairs, some women find catharsis in the shrine rituals that may allow them to express their emotional, material and spiritual needs and to seek their redresses.

Although rituals performed in majority of these shrines such as devotional prayer, devotional dance, ritual vows and healing, often mediated by a ritual expert, go against the religious consciousness of Muslim clerics (ulama) and reformist Muslims such as those following the Deobandi or Wahabi schools of thought, the above roles of shrines form an important part of the lives of millions of people in their everyday religiosity.

Final Reflections

Islam allows a diversity of interpretations and practices that are in keeping with each social and cultural context. The Holy Quran confirms this on various occasions such as: “O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (49:13). Ideally, diversity may be considered a celebrated feature of a Muslim society disregarding possible resistance among certain groups. Pakistan is no exception to this. Interestingly, Muslim groups that promote religious extremism also claim a place among many voices of Muslim identity. Thus, if we highlight one particular group as representative of the entire Muslim community in Pakistan we run the risk of ignoring many other voices. It is easier to notice those who present politicized versions of Islam since their aim is to attract public attention.

It is generally not a good idea to formulate one’s opinions about a society based on what one reads in newspapers or watches on TV. The reason is simple. The print and electronic media tend to focus on the more troubled and sensational issues in any society. Incidents of violence and injustice occur in all societies. Would it be fair to judge the whole society based on these happenings? Sometimes it is just better to admit that we do not know a culture and dig deeper for knowledge that is closer to reality.



Uzma Rehman has a Ph.D. from the Department of History of Religions, Institute for Regional and Crosscultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.





Rohingyas – the forgotten people of Burma turning up on Thailand´s paradise beaches

Martin Gemzell, Asia Program Manager Olof Palme International Center

During the last couple of weeks the international press saw a new name being added to its vocabulary – “Rohingya”. After 60 years of severe discrimination from Burmese authorities, the fate of this Burmese minority group finally draws international attention. Photos of odd scenes from the beaches of a Thai tourist resort were covering the front pages of papers never before having mentioned the word “Rohingya”. The pictures showed people lying on the beach in the hot sun. However, it was not the sunbathing western tourist we are used to, but instead dehydrated boat migrants, trying to escape economic and political hardship in Burma. The pictures from the tourist paradise showed Burmese migrants being forced to spend hours, arms tied together, lying on the beach in the burning hot sun. On the surrounding beach tourists were watching the brutal spectacle offered by the Thai navy. Later reports spoke about the navy confiscating motors from approaching dilapidated ships carrying Rohingyas, to prevent them from landing in Thailand, instead leaving them to dehydrate and starve on the sea.

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } Burmese refugees being led ashore by Thai navy soldiers. Photo by Urban Svensson

Sixty years of civil war, 45 years of dictatorship and the continuing mismanagement of the Burmese economy have brought millions of Burmese refugees to Thailand. A recent WFP report speaks about as many as one third of all Burmese children being malnourished. At least two million but perhaps as many as five million Burmese are living as illegal migrants in Thailand. Burmese are having dirty, dangerous and low paid jobs in textile, fishery, sex and construction industries. Burmese workers are denied the rights to unionize and frequent reports show evidence of nearly systematic abuse by Thai employers and authorities.  In some provinces draconian laws have prohibited Burmese from owning a mobile phone, driving a motorbike, attending meetings – including religious ceremonies – wearing Burmese clothes and decrees also force them to stay indoors between certain hours.  Extorting bribes from Burmese has become an industry in itself and the town of Mae Sot, the nexus of Burmese migration on the border between Thailand and Burma, is said to be a very attractive posting for Thai police looking for lucrative opportunities to get their share of the pie. Employers in the local garment industry often have close ties with authorities, and sometimes they have themselves been high ranking police and border control officials.[i]

A great number of Burmese are also working as low paid – if paid at all – illegal workers in the tourist industry.  No more invisible, the corpses of thousands of unidentified persons that were found dead after the Tsunami were thought to be illegal Burmese workers. One of many signs of the size of Burmese migrant labour in the Thai tourist industry.[ii]

Brutal treatment of Burmese migrants is nothing extraordinary in Thailand.  Burma has always been seen as the arch rival and historic enemy of Thailand and sentiments towards Burmese are often very negative.  However, Rohingyas are denied respect of basic human rights not only for being Burmese but they also suffer from islamophobia. Following the insurgency in Muslim, southern Thailand Rohingyas are sometimes claimed to be a security threat.

Rohingyas also suffer multifold discrimination in Burma. Rohingyas are residing in the Arakan state, in western Burma, bordering to Bangladesh. Since centuries the Burman kingdom based in the mainland of what is today’s Burma, and later the military junta, oppressed Arakanese aspirations for autonomy. However, within the Arakan state itself there are also tensions between the Buddhist Arakanese majority and the Muslim minority.

The Rohingya community in Burma is estimated to constitute about 725 000 persons. Muslims have been living in the Arakan state for at least a thousand years – old grand monuments like mosques bear evidence of this and the area used to be multi ethnic and multi religious. Still it is claimed that Rohingyas are not true Arakanese, and even less, Burmese. Instead Arakanese and Burmese chauvinists claim they are of Bangladeshi origin and do not have a long enough history in the Arakan state.

Language-wise they are very close to Bengali, and Rohingyas do occupy both sides of the border drawn by the British between Burma and what later became Bangladesh. The colonial era brought with it a great influx of Indian migrants and resulted in an ethnic division of labour which worsened ethnic tensions. Today it is claimed by the military junta, that Rohingyas were part of this colonial time labour migration.[iii]

The British tactics of divide and rule resulted in ethnic minorities siding with the British and the Burman majority with the Japanese during World War II. In the Arakan state, Rohingyas supported the British while the Buddhist majority sided with the Japanese. After the war ended the stage was set for ethnic tensions and a number of massacres on Rohingyas followed. Anti Muslim sentiments were given full state legitimacy after the military coup in 1962. General Ne Win launched two campaigns against Rohingyas in 1978 and 1991-92, including the tactics of mass rapes. At least 250 000 fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh. In 1982 their right to hold Burmese citizenship were withdrawn and Rohingyas were required to show evidence of roots in Burma dating from before colonization and the first Anglo-Burman war in 1824 – which of course is near impossible.

Today, even after the international outcry against the treatment of Rohingyas in Thailand, Burmese authorities show no embarrassment for openly showing the true nature of their attitudes towards Rohingyas. Recently the Burmese junta’s consul in Hong Kong, General Ye Myint Aung, called them “ugly as ogres”.[iv]

However, looking for explanations for the sudden attention given to the fate of Rohingyas it has probably more to do with the spectacular pictures from the tourist beach, than Rohingyas suddenly starting an exodus from Burma. This exodus has been going on for several years. 2007 it was estimated that between five and six thousand Rohingyas undertook the risky journey on unseaworthy vessels taking them either to Thailand or to Malaysia. At least two boats sank with hundreds drowning.  21 boats were detained in Thailand. One boat was detained as far away as Sri Lanka but 20 out of 91 passengers had by then died of starvation.[v]

The end destination of the boat refugees is normally not Thailand but Malaysia. Here Rohingyas are spared from Islamophobia, but never the less they have to endure severe discrimination and exploitation. There are convincing reports of networks of traffickers operating in collusion with law enforcement personal in Malaysia, Thail
and, Burma and Bangladesh. Thai immigration authorities are for example handing over Rohingyas to traffickers who detain them close to the Thai-Malaysian border in camps where they are routinely beaten and pressured into arranging costly payment to traffickers – usually by borrowing huge sums from relatives or friends. If they fail to pay they are sold to plantation owners or to fishing boats as bonded labour. Those who reach Malaysia have to live with fear of the armed volunteer militia, RELA, which rounds up migrant workers and frequently robs them of their savings before deportation.[vi]

The number of Rohingyas leaving misery in Burma is increasing and so is the number of families desperately seeking for news about missing, but not forgotten relatives.

Martin Gemzell

[i] See for example ALTSEAN Burma, Burma Bulletin November 2007[ii] Tetz Hakoda.  Invisible Victims of the Tsunami – Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand[iii] Martin Smith (2006). The Muslim “Rohingya” of Burma.[iv] South China Morning Post, 11 February 2009[v] ALTSEAN Burma, Issues & Concerns Vol. 5, 2008.[vi] Cris Lewa (2008). Asia´s new boat people. In Burma´s displaced people. Forced Migration Review 30, 2008

Towards a better understanding

Timo Kivimäki, Senior Researcher, NIAS and Gerald Jackson, Editor in Chief, NIAS Press

In the West, Islam is often presented in a very simplified manner (much as the West is interpreted in simplified terms in many parts of the Islamic world). This is no surprise but in fact is typical in situations where there is tension between two parties.However, in this case, for the sake of truth and the need for a de-escalation of these tensions, it is crucial that both sides perceive each other with greater subtlety and insight. Not least, it demands that we see each other’s world for what it is, as diverse and humane.From our Western (Copenhagen) perspective, therefore, it is important that the Islamic world is presented to Western audiences as something other than an alien landscape of beards, burkas and bombs – an image that is far too common. First and foremost, we recognize that it is a human world populated by people with needs and desires much like our own. In cultural terms, the Islamic world is also incredibly rich and diverse.Arguably, one of the essential aims of scholarship is to uncover and present our common humanity to the widest possible audience. Certainly, this is a thread in the endeavours of academic publishers generally, also of our own NIAS Press. For this reason, we welcome this special issue of NIASnytt, which showcases the work (published by NIAS Press) of six scholars writing on quite different aspects of Islam and/or Muslim peoples. Together these offer an alternative vision of the Islamic world to what is all too frequently presented in the West. They give a glimpse into the humanity and diversity of this world.

NIASnytt 3/2008Theme: The many faces of Islam

A cosmopolitan peripheryby Philip Taylor, Australian National University

In this extract from the preface to his study of the Cham Muslims of the Mekong delta, Philip Taylor describes how the Cham protect their cultural distinctiveness at home by being markedly cosmopolitan outside.

Putrajaya as Islamic assertionby Ross King, University of Melbourne

Arguably Southeast Asia’s most spectacular and architecturally distinguished city, Kuala Lumpur (KL to its denizens) in 2007 celebrated the 150th anniversary of its foundation and its 50th as capital of an independent Malay(si)a. The celebrations were fragmented, however, as KL now has a very different twin in the new administrative capital of Putrajaya some 30 kilometres to its south, a putative high-tech focus or ‘technopole’ for a wider Southeast Asian region – even more, for an emerging pan-Islamic world to stand against a reviled, railed-against West. Where KL is a diverse, cosmopolitan, multiracial metropolis, Putrajaya fulfils an elitist vision of a Malay-Muslim utopia. KL’s multi-cultural richness is reflected in the diversity of its architecture and the complexity of its urban spaces. Putrajaya, by contrast, is an architectural homage to an imagined Middle East.

Between and beyond mosques and malls in Malaysiaby Johan Fischerr, Roskilde University

Exploring consumption practices in urban Malaysia, Proper Islamic Consumption (NIAS Press, 2008) shows how diverse forms of Malay middle-class consumption (of food, clothing and cars, for example) are understood, practised and contested as a particular mode of modern Islamic practice. The book illustrates ways in which the issue of ‘proper Islamic consumption’ for consumers, the marketplace and the state in contemporary Malaysia evokes a whole range of contradictory Islamic visions, lifestyles and debates articulating what Islam is or ought to be. The empirical material on everyday consumption in a local context reinvigorates theoretical discussions about the nature of religion, ritual, the sacred and capitalism in the new millennium.

Women and Islam in urban Malaysiaby Sylva Frisk, Gothenburg University

Throughout Malaysia, religious educative activities have flourished and grown in popularity since the 1980s, developing out of the broad current of Islamization of Malaysian society. Women’s roles in the Islamization movement have generally been described in terms of followers and supporters of the movement, whereas men, in their capacity as leaders of political parties or as religious ideologues, are presented as initiators. Relatively little has been said about women’s participation in the process of Islamization from the perspective of women themselves. In her book Submitting to God. Women and Islam in Urban Malaysia, Sylva Frisk provides an ethographic account of Malay women’s everyday religious activities Kuala Lumpur, which balances this image. The focus is on religion as lived practice with an emphasis on the perfomance of religious duties, the acquiring of religious knowledge and the organisation of collective religious rituals, performed independently from men, in their homes and in the mosque. With its emphasis on women’s active participation in Islamization and the leading role that women are increasingly taking within Islam, the book aims to work against common representations of Muslim women as either passive, sometimes unconscious victims of a male dominated religious tradition, or as victims who try to openly resist that very tradition.

Muslims in Singapore: A secular state recruiting slam to its nation-building projectby Michael D. Barr, Flinders University

Since the foundation of Singapore as an independent state in 1965, the People’s Action Party government has not trusted the 15 per cent of its population who are Muslims. Until the mid-1980s they were routinely excluded from National Service for fear of which way they might point their guns in the event of a confrontation with Singapore’s larger Muslim-majority neighbours, and even today they are still subjected to open and public discrimination in the armed forces. These claims are not contentious in themselves since they are matters of public knowledge and are defended by the government at the highest levels. Less public but even more damaging to the welfare of the Muslim community has been discrimination against Muslims in education, employment and in the workplace – and in particular against the Malay-Muslim community, which makes up more than 90 per cent of Singapore’s Muslim population.

Islam in local contexts: Localised Islam in Northern Pakistanby Are Knudsen, Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI)

As Clifford Geertz remarked in his Islam Observed (1968), the idea of a ‘changing’ religion is a contradiction in terms, as religion is fundamentally concerned with what is permanent and eternal. Still, one way to come to terms with religious change is to consider the many ways that religion is interpreted, by laymen and scholars alike. Social anthropologists like myself have naturally found a niche for themselves in local studies of religion, especially in what is often referred to as ‘local Islam’. This article, based on my book Violence and Belonging. Land, Love and Lethal Conflict in the North-West Province of Pakistan, discusses the role of ‘local Islam’ among the tribesmen living in the Palas valley, a remote and inaccessible mountain valley located in the Kohistan District of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Northern Pakistan.

Uyghurs in Xinjiang: Causes of resistance and perspectives for future unrest (updated version)

Henriette Kristensen MA Student, Institute of Political Science, Aarhus university and NIAS research assistant (

. .


September 19, 2000


Since the beginning of the 1990s riots and unrest staged by Uyghurs, the largest Muslim minority in China’s far northwestern province, Xinjiang, to protest against Chinese rule have gained increased attention. In 1997 the unrest even spread to the capital Beijing, where a bus explosion staged by Uyghurs killed two and injured at least a handful people, andless than a week before the Olympics the police in Kashgar, a historical centre of Uyghur resistance in Xinjiang, was attacked. Following 9/11 China started to refer to the Uyghurs as “terrorists”, and when preparing for the Olympics Beijing identified “separatists” pushing for independence of Xinjiang as the main threat to the Games. The question is however why Uyghurs in Xinjiang oppose Chinese rule, and what their capacity for taking actions against the Chinese authorities in the future is?

1) Causes of resistance: Culture, economy and politics

The Uyghurs today account for almost half of Xinjiang’s population. Despite of this, Han Chinese or Uyghurs loyal to Beijing largely control Xinjiang, and Uyghurs perceive themselves as culturally, economically and politically marginalized. This seems to be the primary sources of the Uyghur’s dissatisfaction with Chinese rule.

The Chinese authorities have taken measures to assimilate Uyghur culture in Xinjiang, most notably Uyghur religious traditions and language. Uyghurs are Sunni Muslims and they have strong traditions for the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Generally, the Uyghurs do not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, but since the 1980s Xinjang has experienced an Islamic revival. This revival has collided with an intensified crackdown from the Chinese authorities on Muslims in Xinjiang, as they have strengthened official control over the Islamic clergy (for example through training and reeducation campaigns), enforced registration of religious institutions, closed down mosques, banned certain religious practices and arrested religious leaders accused of being “unpatriotic” and “subversive”. A vital part of this crackdown has been the “Strike Hard” campaign (yanda) launched nation-wide from 1996, and in Xinjiang directed against “the three forces” (separatists, terrorists, and religious extremists). To counter the influence of Uyghur cultural traditions in Xinjiang, Beijing has among others promoted a state-controlled version of Islam in the province, e.g. by requiring that the Islamic clergy in major mosques are state-employees and controlling Islamic education. Linguistically the Uyghurs also differ significantly from the Han Chinese, as the Uyghur language belongs to the Turkic family and is closely related to Uzbek. At first glance Beijing takes a conciliatory stance towards the Uyghur language – for example it is adopted as an official language in Xinjiang, and publication of nationality books, nationality broadcasting etc. is supported by law. In reality however, the Chinese authorities have strived to promote Mandarin (Putonghua). An example of this is the education system, where universities in Xinjiang since 2002 have been required to teach all courses except language and culture classes exclusively in Putonghua. In 2004 measures were taken to introduce similar polices in elementary and middle schools. Beijing has also through frequent language reforms impacted sentiments of a common Turkic identity among the Uyghurs. On the one hand, the revival of an Arabic-based script in Xinjiang in the 1980s strengthened feelings of a common Uyghur identity. On the other hand, the frequent language reforms have introduced divisions between different generations of Uyghurs, and linguistically alienated the Uyghurs from the Central Asian states, where a Latin-based script has generally replaced the modified Cyrillic alphabet after independence.

Uyghurs in Xinjiang are also generally less well-off than Han in the province. Traditionally, Xinjiang has been one of the least developed regions in China, but since the 1990s massive investments have been channeled into the province – a trend that accelerated in 2000 when the campaign to “Open Up the West” (xibu da kaifa) was launched. The investments have however, mainly benefited the Han population in Xinjiang, not the Uyghurs, as the investment strategy has focused on extracting Xinjiang’s large reserves of natural- and mineral resources, promoting Xinjiang as a key producer of cotton and improving the region’s poor transportation network. This economic strategy has not only resulted in an influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang (in 1949 approximately 6% of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese, today the number is around 40%), but has also proved disadvantageous for the Uyghurs. Firstly, economic disparities between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in Xinjiang are significant, as Han Chinese populate the urbanized relatively well-off northern Xinjiang, whereas the rural southern Xinjiang where most of the Uyghurs live is less well-off. One explanation for this is that investments are primarily allocated to e.g. the oil and gas industry owned by Han Chinese and mainly employing Han Chinese. Secondly, the Uyghurs feel “exploited” by Beijing, as the state gets most of the revenues from Xinjiang’s vast energy reserves, and its oil and gas is consumed by China’s coastal cities. Thirdly, Beijing has a tight control of Xinjiang’s economy through e.g. the energy sector and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – a Han structure formally established in 1954 to absorb demobilized members of Guomindang and People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Today many Han Chinese in the province are members of XPCC, and the institution – which is directly under control of the State Council – has substantial influence over Xinjiang’s economy.

Finally, Uyghurs perceive themselves as being politically marginalized. Beijing has given preferences to minorities when filling state leadership positions in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs in these positions (for example the current Xinjiang chairman Nur Bekri and his predecessor Ismail Tiliwaldi) are however often trained in Han Chinese institutions, and their success depends on support from prominent Han leaders. In addition, the power center in Chinese politics – the Chinese Communist Party – has not introduced preferential policies for minorities, and even though the situation has improved, Uyghurs are underrepresented in the Communist Party. This is illustrated by the fact that the de facto leader of Xinjiang, the 1st Secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party, has since the end of the 1970s continuously been a Han.


2) The potential for future Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang?

Turning to the question of perspectives for future unrest staged by Uyghurs, it is clear that tensions in Xinjiang are deep-rooted. The Chinese leadership has taken steps to address grievances experienced by Uyghurs by introducing economic reforms, affirmative action programs etc., but the results have been mixed – and in some respect polices such as the Campaign to Open Up the West and the Strike Hard Ca
mpaign have actually exacerbated – not alleviated – the Uyghur’s grievances. Another factor encouraging protests among Uyghurs is that they have a historical tradition for resisting Chinese rule – China did not get genuine control over Xinjiang until the 18th century, and the Uyghurs established short-lived independent rules in the 1860s and again twice in the 1930s and 1940s. A third factor facilitating collective action by Uyghurs is Islam. Even though the Uyghurs do not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, Islam plays a unifying role for the Uyghurs, and Sufism which has strong roots in Xinjiang seems to be particularly well-suited for underground Islam. Finally, external events have inspired the Uyghurs to resist Chinese rule. Especially the break-up of the USSR was important, as the Uyghurs were suddenly the only major Turkic nationality without its own state with the new-found independence of the Turkic states in Central Asia. Also, Islamic movements with whom the Uyghurs have close historical, cultural and linguistic ties have emerged in Central Asia (for example Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), serving as a source of inspiration for the Uyghurs and (at least according to the Chinese authorities) providing support to them.

At the same time however, a number of factors significantly impede the Uyghur’s capacity to oppose Chinese rule. First and foremost, the Uyghurs have historically never been united – instead of identifying as Uyghurs, they have traditionally identified with the oasis town from which their family traces its origin. In addition, Islam’s role as a unifying vehicle for Uyghur resistance is hampered by the fact that the Uyghurs traditionally adhered to a relative moderate version of Islam. This also puts into question the extent to which the Uyghurs identify with other Islamic movements in the region. Finally, even though China’s policy in Xinjiang has produced mixed results, it has in some respects reduced the capacity for Uyghur resistance – for example, the economic policy has eroded social ties among the Uyghurs, and pan-Turkism has been reduced by language reforms.

Assessing the likelihood of Uyghur resistance against the Chinese authorities in the future is thus complex. Tensions in Xinjiang are indeed deep-rooted, and actions by Uyghurs directed against Chinese rule can be expected to continue in the years to come. However, disunity is a historical problem among the Uyghurs, and even though their protests pose challenges to the Chinese leadership it does not put the future rule of the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang into question.

Recommended reading:

Bovingdon, Gardner (2002), Strangers in Their Own Land: The Politics of Uyghur Identity in

            Chinese Central Asia, Ph.d. dissertation Cornell University

Dillon, Michael (2004), Xinjiang – China’s Muslim Far Northwest, Routhledge

Rudelson, Justin Jon (1997), Oasis Identities – Uyghur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road,

Columbia University Press

Starr, S. Frederick (2004), Xinjiang – China’s Muslim Borderland, M.E. Sharpe