Between nation-state and ummah’s appeal: the contradictions of Islamism in contemporary India and Bangladesh

  • Maidul Islam
Posted:
21 April, 2015

Generally, Islamists believe in the Universalist concept of Ummah (Islamic community of believers), a supranational or transnational union. The Islamists’ call for unity of the Ummah is based on the belief that Muslims throughout the world should have a sense of solidarity that cuts across the borders of the nation-state.

In this respect, Islamism has justifications to oppose the concept of the nation-state. The Islamist ideologue Maududi (1993) was opposed to the idea of the nation-state, and citizenship based on nationality, considering nationalism to be divisive and as such incompatible with Islam (Maududi 1992).

Conceptually, ‘Ummah’ incorporates the Muslim community in the world as a whole. Therefore, Islamism always tries to claim itself as a ‘mass ideology’ instead of a ‘class one’. For a mass ideology, it asserts the unity of ‘Ummah’, of which persons across class, national, linguistic and gender divides can become a part. As an effective tool of political mobilization, the universal concept of Ummah is absolutely crucial in Islamist political ideology. In Laclau’s (1996) terms, one can argue that in Islamist politics, Ummah acts as an ‘empty signifier’ around which different particularities are organized to claim a common universal identity. The idea of Ummah provides the ground for Islamists to take the challenge of rallying the entire Muslim community under a single political project, a project I call Islamist populism.

Since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, there has been hardly any global theo-political authority among Muslims. Therefore, in a post-colonial and post-Khilafat world, the Universalist idea of the Muslim Ummah encounters the particularist entity of new and emerging nation-states. What should an Islamist party do when it has to operate within the geographical confines of the nation-state? Should it discard the Universalist concept of Ummah from its ideological vocabulary altogether or should it just appeal rhetorically to the Ummah to stand up against what they call the ‘evil’ politico-ideological influences of the ‘West’, despite the fact that it has to operate within the particular territory of a given nation-state? In my book, Limits of Islamism: Jamaat-e-Islami in Contemporary India and Bangladesh, I have shown how Islamism of the Jamaat-e-Islami variety has to take into account the specific political context of the nation-state in India and Bangladesh.

In contemporary India and Bangladesh, where neoliberal globalization has facilitated the increasing role of multinational actors in the realm of both political economy and culture, the Jamaat has given an almost nationalist response to this globalization of economy and culture by opposing the ventures of multinational corporations and what they call ‘Western cultural globalization’. Since the Jamaat operates within the distinct political contexts of the nation-states in India and Bangladesh, it makes tactical adjustments with the nation-state. For example, it includes the distinct Indian and Bangladeshi identity in its name (Jamaat-e-Islami Hind [JIH] in India and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami). Secondly, it accepts the idea of Indian secularism and, of late, recognizes the glory of the Bangladesh Liberation Movement despite its staunch opposition to the separation of an independent Bangladesh from Pakistan.

Indeed, myriad Islamist movements have accepted the nation-state ‘as an organizational principle of the international system which re-inscribes the authority of national governments into the global order’ (Adib-Moghaddam 2011: 166). However, Talal Asad has offered the caveat that although Islamism has always ‘addressed itself directly to the nation-state, it should not be regarded as a form of nationalism’ (Asad 2003: 1999). This is precisely because ‘Islamic umma’ is not ‘an imagined community’ equivalent to any nation-state; it ‘is ideologically not “a society” onto which state, economy and religion can be mapped’ as it is ‘neither limited nor sovereign’, and ‘can eventually embrace all of humanity’ (Asad 2003: 197–198). Nevertheless, as Adib-Moghaddam suggests, in the presence of nation-states, Islamism can certainly be ‘not an emblem of the political uniformity of the umma’ (Adib-Moghaddam 2011: 167). In this respect, I have discussed how the Jamaat faces an ideological contradiction while choosing the Universalist concept of Ummah as a collective political actor within the specific political context of the nation-state that, in effect, limits the appeal of the Ummah.

Theoretically, the Indian Jamaat is struggling with its own ideological contradictions between choosing the Ummah as the universal emancipatory actor, or the ‘people’ as a universal political actor. The former excludes non-Muslims, whereas the latter ideally includes all of what Laclau (2005: 81) would call ‘plebian’ constituencies, or ‘plebs’, referring to the underprivileged, and distinguished from the ‘populus’, or the ‘body of all citizens’. The Jamaat is thus conflicted on the issue of who would lead the politics of emancipation for an ‘Islamic alternative’ for these marginalized constituencies. In this context, Jamaat’s ideological contradiction stands exposed, between temptations to choose between the nation-state by championing certain national legacies and the internationalist emotional appeal of the Ummah.

Jamaat’s contradiction also lies in the non-identification and misconstruction of the universal political actor, namely the ‘people’. In an era of particularist struggles, it is difficult for the ‘Muslim Ummah’ alone to become the universal political actor, who can represent and articulate the voice of other marginalized and oppressed groups. In the Indian context, the Muslim Ummah becomes a particularist entity alongside other marginalized socio-political actors, namely the peasants, Dalits, Adivasis, the working class, women, sexual minorities etc. Without shedding its mission of an ‘Islamic alternative’, the Jamaat therefore struggles to become the representative of the ‘people’ against what it calls the ‘onslaught of neoliberalism’. In India, I have argued how the Islamic notion of Ummah, a central concept in Jamaat’s politico-ideological discourses, is a hindrance to the construction of a successful project of Islamist populism because the ‘plebs’ among the non-Muslims are unable to identify with the promise of an Islamic alternative.

By contrast, in Bangladesh, the concept of Ummah being central to Jamaati Islamism reaped comparatively better results in terms of political mobilization. However, the Islamist project based on the resistance of Ummah against the antagonistic frontiers of nationalism, secularism and neoliberalism is currently in crisis in Bangladesh. This is because unlike in India, the Muslim community in Bangladesh is relatively heterogeneous by socio-economic and political parameter. There, the Islamic concept of Ummah neutralizes the antagonistic frontiers between the people and the power bloc within the Muslim community in the name of Islamic religion that justifies the existence of rich and poor and the existence of socio-economic and political hierarchies as ‘natural’. In such a situation, the Islamist search for equality and social justice is conceptually contradictory to the concept of Ummah because the Muslim community of believers is itself split into privileged and underprivileged sections.

In my book, I have shown that the project of Islamist populism is facing a crisis of political mobilization in contemporary India and Bangladesh due to the challenges of mobilizing across a heterogeneous Muslim community, and the tensions between nationalist and internationalist appeals facing Islamism.

References

Adib-Moghaddam, Arshin. 2011. A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them Beyond Orientalism. London: Hurst.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto. 1996. ‘Why do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?’ in Emancipation(s). London: Verso.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Maududi, Sayyid AbulA’la. 1993. Nationalism and India. Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami.

Mawdudi, AbulA’la. 1992. Unity of the Muslim World. Fifth ed. Lahore: Islamic Publications.

This post is part of our Sociology of Citizenship series, hosted in partnership with Politics in Spires

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About the author(s)
Maidul Islam