Modernist discourse is generally understood as constructing simplified binaries and mapping them onto the world; the “modern” is counter opposed to “tradition,” “secular” to “religious,” “good” to “evil,” “the west” to “the rest.” While extensive critiques of such either/or constructs exist, particularly as imposed upon Muslims, they continue to dominate popular, societal representations.
This panel shifts focus away from the representations to the everyday struggles of Muslims in South Asia and various attempts to make modern Muslims. Through various institutions, e.g., education, political elite formations, and the military, diverse claims to Muslimness have been asserted, debated, and fought over. Each of the papers in this panel address fundamental questions of how Muslims, in a multiplicity of ways, grapple with their religious identity, offering nuanced histories of the modernist struggle between the sacred and the profane, and the claim to power to define self and other.
This panel explores the debates on making and disciplining the South Asian Muslim subject from the late-nineteenth to the end of the twentieth century. The three papers in the panel raise fundamental questions: How do Muslims see themselves and what shapes do they give to their Muslim identity? Who claims power to showcase the Muslim identities in the public sphere and what are their objectives?
Mannan Ahmed’s paper explores the exchanges and interactions between Muslim elite with transnational Muslims in the Arab world of the late nineteenth century as a new Muslim subject that developed in colonial India in the site of educational curriculum combining the cultural with religious, historical with contemporary needs. Ahmed asks: what was this new educated Muslim self? What was its linkage with nation/anti-nation, local and collective identity that was emerging in colonial India? The incompleteness of the Muslim project at the end of colonialism raised new issues of its form and frame in postcolonial Pakistan. The governing elites’ efforts to give shape and control Muslim identity in Pakistan opened new questions of connections between the Muslim past in India with Pakistan’s need to assert a separate identity. Ilhan Niaz explores how the Muslim past of India continued to haunt and interrupt the Pakistan project soon after its formation. Probing this question of what is Muslim in Pakistan Yasmin Saikia probes the role of the Pakistan military and its claim to be the messianic actors and definers of Muslim identity, which it forcibly inscribed on the Bengali population in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Muslim debate clearly moved beyond the realm of textbooks and elite governance and devolved into violence.
The debates and visions of Muslims about being Muslim serve as a site to understand the continuous projects that are not finished or complete and are definitely not singular and monolith, easily reducible to simplified binaries of “secular” or “religious,” “good” or “evil.”