Book Review; The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan

By Najeeb Kakar

Book cover.
Book cover.


Saadia Toor is an Associate Professor of Sociology at City University of New York, College of Staten Island. Her latest book The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan, is a fascinating piece of literature on the modern learnings of Pakistani state – post partition immediate politics and the role of the military establishment. Toor explains the significance of cultural elements as part of the political evolution of Pakistan. From the beginning of the book, Toor underlines problems with the Salman Rushdie’s statement that Pakistan is “a place insufficiently imagined,” saying instead; “The problem was not ideological confusion, but the active attempts by the Pakistani establishment and its organic intellectuals to ostracize secular and democratic models of the nation-state which they saw as threatening to their interests” and that the Pakistani establishment was understood as pro-radical Islam and anti-communism. Therefore, The State of Islam is thus accentuating the rise of Muslim nationalism up to the traumatic partition of India, and stresses over the role of the progressive voices while opposing insolent polices of the state.

Saadia Toor: Associate Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY) and author of The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. Image:
Saadia Toor: Associate Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY) and author of The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. Image:

In the National Cultures Toor argues that it comes to the front instantly after the partition. First of all, not all of Indian Muslims have left for Pakistan, and secondly, the demands from East Pakistan to uplift Bengali language to equal status as Urdu – proved that both these factors were devastated the philosophy of national integration. Toor quotes Aziz Ahmed saying that, “cultural nationalism is difficult to attain than political nationalism”. Indeed, the cultural divisions between East and West Pakistan could eventually lead to the break-up of East Pakistan. Toor retells us of detrimental undemocratic deportments by the Muslim League itself, and have just widen the gulf immediately after Quaid’s death. The One Unit scheme was projected, paradoxically, to make both wings equal in terms of population and varnish the cultural differences. Therefore, underlining the role of culture is a dominant political force in fledgling Pakistan, hence Islam was backed to hold the two wings together.

Chapter three is a delight for literary politics, specifically the progressive versus the nationalist camps. Toor argues that the anti-communist writers and intellectuals confronted the Progressive Writers Association, while blaming each other of treachery. The manifesto of APPWA was called “the new chapter of the ‘war of independence’”, as the progressives wanted to bring into the fore a pure political literature that underscores the predicaments of the people. While the nationalist camp has showed anxiousness towards the political and intellectual attempts of the progressives, Toor insists that many progressive writers and intellectuals including the most prominent among them Faiz Ahmed Faiz was accused of conspiring the Rawalpindi plot of the 1950s, which was at the climax of the Cold War literati politics.

The following chapter deals with the Ayub khan’s “decade of development” (1958 – 1968) and political integration of the leftist under the patronages of National Awami Party (NAP). Toor insists that Ayub was an anti-communist and had systematically opposed the leftist camaraderie predominantly, an account of its wider dimension – across the world’s troubled countries. The leftist cohesion recalling the status quo in countries, such as, Vietnam, Algeria, Palestine, Iran and Africa. So that “internationalism” was (quite rightly) unfavourable to the interest of the establishment. The military had almost relatively dominated the economic control of the society and the cultural institutions vs the press for its never-ending quest of power. However, Toor contends that the formation of the establishment writers had never attempted to suggest “at removing Islam from politics”. Thus, opposition to the Ayub’s draconian regime came in the immediate aftermath of the 1965 election and the loss of Indo-Pakistan war. It was the climax of anti Ayub riots and demonstration, when a massive accusation of election rigging came to the fore against him, had steadily provided an opportunity for Bhutto to interject into the realpolitik through a political force, which ultimately lead to creation of Pakistan People’s Party. Bhutto a staunch advocate of “Islamic Socialism” was widely appreciated and became popular. Which was the ultimate failure of the Ayub’s anti-communist stand and “his attempted marginalization of Islam.” Toor contends that it was the “leftist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz who stirred the cultural paradigm – Islamic, but uniquely Pakistan – later adopted by Bhutto”. Perhaps more importantly Toor argues that, it was a commendable idea in theory, but actually it was deteriorated after the Military crackdown in East Pakistan in the year 1971.

Chapter five traces the Zia’s brutal military dictatorship, as Toor does not vacillate while allocating blame for Pakistan; “Every aspect of the Pakistani state, society, politics and culture worth noting today bears the scars of the 11 years of martial law under General Zia ul Haq from 1977 to 1988, Pakistan’s longest and most brutal military dictatorship”. Zia rise to power in the aftermath of Bhutto’s disastrous promises and the “mishandling of the establishment”. His links to the “Gulf States” particularly Saudi Arabia, had wired the radicals within Pakistani state as it did not confront the Zia’s Islamization programmes. However, it befriended hardliners which effected the society relentlessly in publicly and privately. State and society were being Islamized, human rights were being violated, minorities were subjected and radicalism was reinforced and allowed to spread throughout the country. These are the scratches Toor argues in the above excerpts. Unfortunately “Benazir Bhutto could not dare to challenge” the typical Mullah Type demagogues and “draconian Hudood Ordinances and blasphemy laws.” For instance, which are still in place in this so-called religious society, because confrontation to Zia regime was precarious in that alarming period of the military’s reign of terror. Toor correctly, “underlines the Women’s Action Forum” was largely an association which gained widespread support in the public arena. And most importantly, it raised not only as a political organization but also a cultural production, “when culture was forcibly aligned with Maududi’s agenda”. Meanwhile, Zia’s brutal stint was largely withstand as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and with a handsome amount of American dollars. Once the Soviet defeated: the attentions of Americans had changed and abruptly took away their selves from anti-communism, and as a consequence, Pakistan was left isolated along with its Battalions Mujahideen Warriors. But similarly, a hazardous thing was left behind was the “gun and drug culture” as a knick-knack of the war.

The final chapter emphases on the situation of women and minorities in the 1990s.  Zia’s malicious policies had besieged the society in its circuit and it could not be easily obliterated. In the above citation; the Kalashnikov Culture has brought a swelling level of extremism, intolerance and sectarian violence within state and society. It had similarly, “targeted those who were nothing other than Sunni Muslims”. Toor intrepidly appreciates the wholehearted efforts of legal activist Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani fighting for women and minorities rights and their powerful endeavor to repeal the blasphemy laws. Legal activist Asma Jahangir had striven on the behalf of women who were being tortured or killed in the name of honour killing. Which then made her vulnerable to various attacks from the victim’s families and religious hardliners in the society.

An epilogue draws the reader’s attention to the current “garrison state” of Pakistan, “dealing primarily with the military’s “parasitic” relation to the Pakistani people in terms of land ownership and other corporate ventures”. Toor is pessimistic about the future panorama of democratic culture of Pakistani state. As she rightly argues that, 18 villages were attacked by Pakistani Army and Rangers in the Okara district and its supply line was blocked because for the demand of extra land from the people between 2001 and 2003. However, the economic growth was not much better, as “conditionality imposed by IMP which led to the deterioration and slashing of the already modest social sector”.

The state of Islam is a wonderful and intriguing book among the contemporary scholarship on the socio-cultural politics of Pakistani state. It will help the readers to understand Pakistan through the lanes of leftist perspective. Meanwhile, it accentuate the undemocratic politics of Pakistani establishment in the immediate partition of India and the Cold War dirty politics in Pakistan.

Najeeb Kakar is a freelance writer and researcher interested in Politics, society, history and terrorism. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@najeebkakar19 and Facebook.