I am currently sitting in my very reasonable apartment in the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue guest house, typing at a laptop that is sitting on a dresser and using a wireless connection set up for me by my host, Junaid Ahmad, who borrowed an unused router from an office here at the Islamic University and set it up in the apartment next door. I’m trying to type quickly because the “load-shedding” is going to happen soon and I’ll lose my internet connection in the blackout (there are several of these each day, and it is far better here in Islamabad than most other places). These guest houses are fairly new. Situated next to the “old campus” of the International Islamic University-Islamabad (IIU-I), which is itself attached to the Faisal Mosque, one of the biggest mosques in the country and one of Islamabad’s tourist attractions, the guest houses are equipped with air conditioners, fans, indoor plumbing, a mini-kitchen with a gas stove, and a separate dining room. There are patches of grass in front and behind and gondolas where one could sit and do work if the weather were cool enough. People don’t, because it’s been so hot, which is why people also seem to keep much later hours here than I’m used to, getting up late and going to bed late. Overall the idea of these guest houses is for people to be able to contemplate. There is a gate between these apartments (lined up in a row, like townhouses, and all ground-floor) and the road to the mosque. The gate is always attended by a uniformed security guard, usually the same friendly middle-aged fellow. Most of the staff of the guest house that I’ve seen are men of similar age – they actually bring us guests our meals. I’ve actually spent most of my time here, at the computer, with Ahmed Rashid’s or David Macdonald’s book or local newspapers or magazines. Or, if not here, in the campus buildings.
The IIU-I is a public university and known to be not in the same league as universities like Quaid-e-Azam or LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences). It has an old campus and a new campus. The new campus, which I’ve been to once, is on the other side of town. It is itself divided into men’s and women’s campuses, which as far as I could tell were architecturally identical, mirror images of each other. The old campus is used mainly for administration – the offices of the President, Rector, and institutes (Iqbal Institute, Islamic Research Institute, and others) – are located here. There are a few classrooms and auditoria, and students for our classes take buses from the new campus to this one. The class I’m teaching here, I teach in a small auditorium on this old campus, a 3-minute walk from the guest house.
The teaching is unpaid but the Iqbal Institute is covering part of my travel expenses. My class is called “Critical Thinking” but in retrospect it might have been called “Critical Thinking for the Modern Muslim Woman Psychology Student.” For some reason, even though this university has students in Islamic Studies, Economics, Political Science, International Relations, Environmental Science, Bioinformatics, Media – the vast majority of my 40-some students are psychology students from the women’s campus. I have a smattering of male students form other disciplines (mostly economics and politics). Robert Jensen, who is teaching Media Law and Ethics here, has a slightly bigger group of about 60, all from the Media and Communications program. Males and females are together in our classes, which is not normal practice and which caused a few tensions (see Robert Jensen’s article on an incident that happened the other day). Most of the women in my class wear the hijab, many wear the niqab, and a plurality just wear the traditional shalwar kameez. A couple of the men wear western clothes, most wear the shalwar kameez, and a few alternate on alternating days.
In addition to the class, Jensen and I have been doing some public lectures and interviews. This morning I was on Geo TV’s “Nadia Khan show”, which is usually about entertainment and cultural matters, in which the host, Nadia Khan, takes calls from an adoring audience (like a daily, breakfast version of Oprah, maybe?). I talked about environmental problems and how they impact developing countries, and participated in the ritual of “Happy to You”, in which Nadia exhorted me to dance (seated) while she gave birthday and other greetings to viewers. On perhaps a more serious note, we’ve also done some talks on media and cultural issues, and will be doing a couple more on globalization and democracy in the coming days.
The way that I am teaching “critical thinking” also has some of its own embedded assumptions: my implicit goal is to encourage students to think carefully about their assumptions, question and discard them if necessary, be open to alternative views, and to be able to think free of ideology, or at least to be able to explicitly choose their ideological affiliations from what they know to be a set of alternatives. So I taught some logic and statistics concepts, and then I taught different economic, psychological, and political frameworks (liberalism, conservatism, keynesianism, marxism, freudianism, behaviorism, cognitive). For a writing assignment, I gave them an excellent piece by Chinese Revolutionary Lu Xun on women’s rights, given in 1923. A bonus question was to get them to guess whether the writer was male or female, what country, and what decade – most guessed a Western woman in the 1960s or later.
There is, you may recognize, a certain randomness to my being here, doing this. How would someone who works on environmental problems and tries to write in service of social movements end up teaching at an Islamic University in Pakistan? I obviously seized the opportunity partly for the chance to be close to these events for a journalistic trip, but how did the opportunity come up? The answer is my host, Junaid Ahmad.
Junaid is a mid-twenties recent graduate of law school in the United States, an American of Pakistani origin who seems, from what I can tell, almost as fluent in Urdu (especially the English-loaded Urdu you hear here) as he is in his first language English. He has a booming voice, a sense of humor, and a complete earnestness about leftist politics. I met him at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre five years ago, where I found him to be a very sincere and knowledgeable activist. Over the years since then, I’ve known him mainly through his writing, some of which we published at ZNet and which provided an excellent and nuanced view of politics in Muslim societies, which is his main interest. At times very polemical, Junaid’s writing style sometimes hides the fact that he is humble, open to new thoughts and ideas, deeply committed to social justice. Here in Islamabad, he is the ‘fixer’: the behind-the-scenes person who organized our classes, our public talks, and our meetings with activist and other groups. He’s been an excellent host, and I am here to try to help him with his agenda.
What is that agenda, exactly? You may have noticed that many Muslim countries are currently under the boot of the empire, or under a lot of pressure from it. I don’t dislike the empire because it’s the US, but because it deprives people of their rights and their lives. It also provokes reactions, some of which are healthy and others of which are unhealthy, and conflicts that cause a lot of suffering and have the potential to cause more. Among these is a certain reading of religion and a certain kind of nationalism, which can be sexist, homophobic, authoritarian, hierarchical, anti-democratic. To Junaid, these are not the only readings for either the religion or the community – they are incorrect readings that become hegemonic in society when they serve the interests of the powerful.
On the contrary, social justice and gender equality are all fully compatible with Islam, in his view. If I say that the religious doctrines are a big part of the problem, Junaid argues that my view lacks nuance. But above all his argument seems to me to be strategic, which he himself is reluctant to concede since, according to him, “it makes one’s engagement with his/her faith rather utilitarian”. His question: “Are you interested in criticizing the entire society, or are you trying to transform it?” Because if it’s the latter, you have to meet people where they are. Rather than maligning their faith, Junaid wants to contest those who would use it to argue for hierarchical interpretations, or even those who would use religion for a resistance bereft of social justice content, what Tariq Ali called “the anti-imperialism of fools” in his “Letter to a Young Muslim”.
It has led him into controversy with other activists he respects, but who he feels are too dismissive of religion and unwilling to try to understand why people might be driven to problematic interpretations of Islam. Last year he suggested that the militants at the Lal Mosque were drawn to that ideology because, in addition to being used by the state, they had been abandoned by it, and by those who could have led young people in more constructive directions.
Junaid is working through IIU-I, then, partly because of family connections that go a long way here (his father is the respected political scientist Mumtaz Ahmad, who taught at Hampton University in the US and is now running the Iqbal Institute here at IIU-I), and partly because it is where he thinks his efforts to introduce different readings and interpretations of Islam and politics can make a difference. He brings activists from outside to try to spark a broader intellectual culture on these problems, and he’s brought Farid Esack, As’ad Abukhalil, Shabana Mir, and Robert Jensen through so far. Some of the university’s officials are backing the effort and one was so optimistic that he said that “hopefully, probably, in a few years, it might have a marginal effect,” which of course fit well with my own tendencies toward self-deprecation.
What Junaid is trying to do in Islam is similar (though not exactly the same) to what Robert Jensen is trying to do with Christianity. Some of Jensen’s talks here have touched on these themes and I have had a preview of his upcoming book on it, a book which will expand on his essay “Why I am a Christian (Sort Of)”. Jensen sees religion as spiritual and ethical striving, not as supernatural claims and moralistic rules. Jensen’s argument is clearly also strategic: The US is a deeply religious society, and it makes more sense to try to understand why, to recognize that most or all of what is bad are cultural and political practices that are associated with religion rather than religion itself, and deal with it, rather than to spit on it.
There is a certain kind of liberation theologist (and I know a few of these), regardless of religion, that is at once fun and incredibly frustrating to argue with. They reject all the same ugly practices and the religious justifications for them. They just argue that they are perversions of the religion and not consequences of it, and that religion like any system of thought or ideology is contested terrain. They argue that if one can’t reject socialism and its values of equality and solidarity on the basis of the lack of democracy in the USSR or Cuba, then one also can’t reject Islam because of the practices of the Saudi regime or the Taliban. Junaid can nuance you to death, but in the end he is trying to take an original approach to do something very important. I continue to think I’d rather have the liberation without the theology, but the times are a little too desperate to dismiss projects and ideas that are a little different from my own. And that, I suppose, is why I came here.
Justin Podur was in Islamabad from June 24-July 17. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.