Jamaat-e-Islami between democracy and fundamentalism
Nina zu Fürstenberg 11 May 2010

Irfan Ahmad: Islam and Democracy in India. The transformation of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Princeton University Press. Princeton and Oxford, 2009

“The storm from the West made Muslims, Muslim,” wrote Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Iqbal. Syed Abul Maududi, political activist, shaped by Marxism and Western philosophy, as well as by a violent reaction to the “Western storm.” He is considered the father of Islamic fundamentalism par excellence. He theorized an anti-western, anti-democratic Shari’ a based political ideology of a modern and “pure” Islam, and implemented it in his Jamaat-e-Islami party. Maududi had left India, but wished to trigger an Islamic revolution in his home country by establishing an Indian branch of the Jamaat Party in 1941.

How the Jamaat-e-Islami developed and transformed itself within the boundaries of a modern pluralistic democracy, the Indian democracy, is the subject Irfan Ahmed has devoted his research to. “However, I was surprised,” concludes the author, “instead of Islamizing politics, a process of democratisation within Islamism has taken place and transformed the Jamaat. What had been declared as undesirable and “haram”(forbidden) has gradually become desirable. This includes democratic voting (in the interests of the community and the individual), having access to modern education and job opportunities within the system. This experience of inclusiveness and political responsibility led to the gradual appreciation of and support for a democratic and pluralist system. Modern education plays a key role in Maududi’s thinking: Islamic ideologization needed to experience modern education, not the religious education of the Madrasas, the Koranic schools, but modern, academic education in the spirit of Islam. Jamaat schools and universities were founded in India. Ahmad claims that, “although the Jamaat Party wanted to produce activists for its organization, the Muslim public wanted their children to become government servants, economically successful and skilled. And it is precisely there that the transformation occurred and still takes place.

To write this book, Irfan Ahmad conducted extensive fieldwork in several small Muslim towns near Delhi, and he describes the gradual process of change and openness, following in particular the development within Jamaat’s universities and their student organisations SIMI and SIO. “Violating rules and national laws could have led to disorder and violence and Islam prohibits this”, the student activists explain today, “persuasion, exemplification and the democratic vote are the correct answer for defending our minority values.” Opportunity and participation led to the general process of moderation, while the violent and deadly Hindu attack of 2002 led to a harsh re-radicalisation within the SIMI student organization and an ideological division into a more radical and moderate section. The author concludes that the process of democratisation at work within Islamism also made manifest the conflict-solving mechanism and process.

“These Muslims realised that handling conflicts through democracy was a positive experience, understanding the Indian democracy as Dar-al da’vat (house of testimony and persuasion). Is this form of moderation just tactical behaviour or real? Do Islamists simply wish to get closer to power by declaring their moderation within democratic states? Or are they really learning by experiencing the advantages of democratic systems? Only time will tell. Critics, in any case believe these are tactics, while the author argues instead “when secular democracy is responsive to the traditions and aspirations of its Muslim citizens, Muslims will in turn embrace pluralism and democracy. When democracy favours the majority and becomes exclusionary, Muslims turn radical.” As a European, what struck me was that one of the SIO presidents interviewed by the author, who stood out for his rigid, exclusivist leadership, had eventually chosen to live and teach in Holland. Jalal had been noticed for his seclusion and his extremist ideas as well as his attire: a long beard, a cap and the traditional garment. This outsider had led the student organization, opting against a distinction between religious and secular education, promoting the caliphate, he stood against voting and in favour of rigid rules for women. After being removed from the presidency, he chose the West. Welcome to Europe! Is all I can ironically add.

It is understandable that this important book has earned much interest not only in India, as it somehow puts an end to the frequently asked question: Can Islam and democracy co-exist and more specifically can fundamentalist Muslims cope with democracy? Those who address such issues should read this book.



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