Toor, Saadia ‘State Of Islam: Culture And Cold War Politics In Pakistan’

Our despair is a result of our lack of a sense of history. You have to understand that we have arrived where we are as a nation as a result of specific historical choices, and understanding the reasons for those choices can help us make the future. It is absolutely crucial to retain this sense of history, and to see Pakistan and Pakistanis as agents of their own history.

Ayesha Jalal speaking at the Lahore Literary Festival, Lahore 2013

Pakistan is pulsating with social and political movements that have no direct electoral vehicle – farmers, factory workers and fisherfolk do not sit idle, waiting to be recruited into the Taliban or into the military. Activists such as Baba Jan Hunzai from Gilgit sit in jail because they threaten the consensus, while the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (led by Mohammad Ali Shah) continues its protests over access to the Puran Dhoro waterway in southern Sindh. Akbar Ali Kamboh, Babar Shafiq Randhawa, Fazal Elahi, Rana Riaz Ahmed Muhammad Aslam Malik and Asghar Ali Ansari languish in jail for their roles in the Faisalabad power-loom workers strike of 2010, while women in Larkana went after officials at the Benazir Income Support Program for their condescension and corruption. None of these people venture into Rashid’s book. This is why the book is suffocating, why Pakistan seems in a hopeless situation. Rashid seems to have lost his faith in the capacity of the Pakistani people to effect change through their struggles.

Vijay Prashad, from a review of Ahmed Rashid’s Pakistan On The Brink

The way in which…the liberal obsession with the ‘Taliban’ feeds into the military’s project of a neoliberal security state is reflected in the proliferation of ‘security talk’, that is, the tendency to couch the very real grievances and issues of the Pakistani people in the language of security, and specifically in terms of combating ‘Islamist militancy’…Needless to say, this equation between deprivation and religious extremism/militancy dehumanizes the poorest and the most vulnerable….

What the liberal discourse reveals is a profound dissociation from – and even a distaste for – ordinary Pakistanis and their lives, hopes, dreams and struggles, reflecting in the abandonment of mass political work…

Saadia Toor , The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics In Pakistan Pluto Press, 2011

Saadia Toor’s powerful and insightful work The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan has proven to be an inspiration, and a welcome relief from the tiresome books that are constantly proclaiming Pakistan to be on the brink of something or the other. Her calm, measured prose, and her incisive analysis of left, popular movements in Pakistan, and their systemic repression and erasure in the service of the Cold War, bring a healthy corrective to those screaming Islamic hysteria.


Toor’s book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand Pakistan as a contested space, and where millions are fighting against forces – bureaucratic and military, that have for too long undermined the need for meaningful democracy, investment in human and social welfare, and devolution of powers to those who must deal with its consequences. Away from the now tiresome hysteria of the Ahmed Rashid’s and others like him who find financial and political clout in mouthing predictions of the demise and destruction of the Pakistani state, the arrival of the Taliban at the ‘gates’ of Islamabad and other such nonsense, are the other stories that most people seem not to hear or know about. These stories ‘speak upwards’ i.e they are trenchant critiques of Pakistani structures and institutions of power, and they challenge these for their venal exploitation, indifference and oppression.  These are the ordinary stories, of ordinary people, who show a deep commitment to a secular, worldly idea of life and living. And who are engaged in their daily lives for their rights, and their dignity as citizens of this country. These are the small stories which may lack the glamour and populism of ‘radical Islam’, or ‘nuclear threat’, but are actually what the bureaucracy and military elite of this country really fear – social justice, social equality, and full judicial and political rights. The bogeyman of ‘Islamic radicalism’ or ‘Taliban’ continues to muffle the voices of the ordinary Pakistani man and woman who has repeatedly only ever raised their voices demanding economic and social equality.