Devji's Red Mosque

Posted by sepoy on April 17, 2008 · 9 mins read

The Winter 2008 issue of Public Culture covers "The Public Life of History" and has an intriguing piece by Dipesh Chakrabarty on the practice of history writing and the lessons from India. It is something that I will want to return, in the near future, for a thorough discussion. But, right now, I want to vent a bit about Faisal Devji's Red Mosque, also appearing in the same issue. Faisal Devji has a thought-provoking style of "speculative scholarship" that hints and highlights ways of getting out of the discursive box that hems in every other analyst of our various pre and post postcolonial conundrums. I happen to mostly disagree with what he writes, but I always appreciate his unique sensibilities. One of these days, I will try and underline my entanglements with his Landscapes of Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity. But, for now, let's look at his piece in PC.

There are a string of factual mis-readings, the most egregious one being that the Red Mosque was a "co-ed" compound which "not only included large numbers of women but also put them in close proximity to men," and that in this unique madrassah, there was "the militarization of women...and their deployment shoulder to shoulder with men." Let me answer this, briefly: No, wrong, Nope, and Absolutely off-the-wall. And, I just got off the phone with an erstwhile female student at the seminary, just to make sure I wasn't all confused and wrong. Jami'a Hafsa, the female seminary, was completely separate from Jam'ia Faridia, the male seminary. They had separate buildings. They were never in contact with each other; no combined rallies; no annual picnic; no campus sports day. Do you remember seeing the pictures of the ninja-warriors-for-islam? Um, did you see any men next to them? Check out this GIS and let me know when you find them fighting shoulder to shoulder. In addition, Devji argues, based on a few last interviews of Abdul Rashid, that the madrassah was not 'conservative', nor explicitly anti-Shi'a. Again, if one has any, even remote, understanding of the history of Jami'a Hafsa/Faridia and the connection with Darul Ifta Jamia Benori, Karachi, or if one visits the forums of the Jamia with threads such as Shia Exposed, one wouldn't make such claims. These are not simple errors since the "mixing of gender and geneologies," is more or less the fulcrum on which Devji's entire argument rests. Hence, the classic blunder of "speculative scholarship" - facts are constructed after the "theory" has been solidly established - facts be damned, in fact. I will focus, some other day, in some other venue, on an examination of the "expert on jihad" phenomenon which is currently sweeping the field of South Asian history and political theory. For now, let us disentagle Devji's convoluted logic a bit more.

Based on his spurious reading, Devji makes two theoretical points, one about Lal Masjid itself and the other about Islamic militancy:
1. Red Mosque folks were motivated by the desire to "occupy the arena of antigovernment struggle in Pakistan's civil society" and that the "Red Mosque was linked more to the everyday and even secular practices of modern life in the region than to any religious or cult behavior."
2. Red Mosque, particularly the case of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, is "an example of the gradual transformation or at least flattening out of Islamic militancy, which has in many parts of the world been weaned off its dependence on highly organized or institutional forms to become yet another kind of voluntary association that individuals join for their own reasons, often as part-time members rather than full time radicals".

Devji misreads a lot of things - most importantly, he misreads the fact that the Red Mosque contingent knew P.R. and media relations; that they realized the power of spectacle. The somber force of rows upon rows of burqa-clad seminarians as an image of considerable impact does, in fact, mean that they were keyed-in to the global arena of anti-state, anti-secular, fundamentalist propaganda. But, it is a mistake to read their awareness of message politics with their fundamental cry: "Shariah or Shahadat" (Rule of Islamic Law or Martyrdom). The Message is the Message.

Red Mosque is, of course, a part of Pakistani civil society. To argue that they have "evolved" into a civil social organization is again a misreading. The operational context of any of the religious groups that have cropped up since Jamaluddin Afghani traveled down these roads is always social and civil. They don't form a civil society organization, they are conceived in civil social terms - hence, the schooling component. Devji's assertion that Red Mosque is a "mutation of Sunni militancy into the kind of mobilization that is neither nationalist nor in fact militant in any professional way but perhaps nongovernmental" is patently absurd. I don't even know what and where to begin disputing that because the statement rests on his already factually inaccurate reading of Red Mosque's history, ideology and operational structures.

However, leaving aside Red Mosque, I want to see if Devji does highlight a new development when he speaks about the "flattening out of Islamic militancy". Devji, uses as evidence the failed suicide attacks in Glasgow and London in 2007. He believes that since these professional doctors ((Devji writes, "Naturally some kind of relationship must have existed between the public and private lives of these doctors, perhaps based on the notions of altruism and self-sacrifice that are meant to inform medical as much as terrorist practices, but my point is that the latter remained distinctly amateurish in character". I respond, "Huh??")) concocted this scheme during their private time, hence, it must mean that they are absolutely amateurs engaging in "extracurricular" activity. This "amateurism" speaks to Devji of Islamic militancy entering a "pluralistic kind of civil society activism." Well, now. The scholarship that I have read on Al Qaeda (admittedly not much, not my cup of tea) has always highlighted the fact that it operates on the distributed computing model with a host of quasi-independent functionaries operating in rigid, hierarchical organizations. Which is why, unlike other historical examples of anarchists and terrorists, AQ relies so heavily on coded but publicly accessible rhetoric. Their aims and ideologies aren't "secret" but are disseminated as far as possible. Hence, the teams of experts on our end, trying to find the hidden messages in this or that released video from these terrorists. These videos get abundant airplay, easily discoverable on youtube; forums proliferate wherein folks can divine secret strengths from their sheikh. What I see is, then, the easy availability of mediating messages that functional, yet disturbed, individuals can glom onto and attempt their own interventions into global injustices against their perceived community. This points out only that there exist structural inequalities in societies that permit individuals to "disappear" and "re-emerge" in a new form. Or it may point towards major psychological damage. I don't know. Was Seung-Hui Cho a case in Devji's point?

The AQ remains just as much, or as little, professional as it ever was. The recent spate of suicide bombings in Lahore and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, in fact, point to the very meticulous and professional nature of such militancy. These were sophisticated operations. Not civil society activism. Which, by the way, is a particularly offensive way of categorizing terrorism that has claimed thousands of innocents lives across the world.

I know that there should be a space for such "academic" and "psycho-theoretical" discussions. But do we really need to muddy these waters, even more?


lapata | April 17, 2008

Sud | April 17, 2008

Great post, in his book he goes even further, equating militant Islam to the environmentalist movement, and even Osama bin Laden with Mahatma Gandhi. Devji can speculate all he wants, but it will not make his speculation any more true if they are not based on some understanding of the complex historical, theological, and political situation on the ground. Its weak scholarship, plain and simple, and if the author is the first person to admit that then we should listen.

maujkar | April 18, 2008

I guess Devji is not familiar with Wikipedia ?? My wife studied there couple of years ago and it was a totally different/isolated compound from the male madrasa, which was attached to the Grand Mosque. But still how hard is to find such info? Forget Lal Masjid, WHICH MADRASA is actually ''co-ed'' in Pakistan?????? Google Jamia Hafsa or Jamia Faridia and you will find pictures of the two compounds - separated ! They even had a separate female faculty for Jamia Hafsa !! Check the distances from these images :

faisal devji | April 23, 2008

Dear Sepoy, I was recently directed to your blog by a friend who said that I was frequently criticized in it. Flattered though I am at this attention, I'm also a bit puzzled at why my few writings, miserable as they appear to be, should deserve such repeated notice. I am nevertheless grateful to be mentioned in this important forum for debate and discussion now and then, and only hope that you will allow me to add to all this weighty debate by making a few observations on your treatment of my Public Culture piece, "Red Mosque". My short essay made three baisc points, all of which you unaccountably left out of your review. The first was that the presence and participation of women in large numbers in the Red Mosque controversy was highly unusual for any group of Sunni "fundamentalists" (as you call them) in Pakistan, such behaviour being more familiar from Shia revolutionaries in Iran. It was in this sense that the Red Mosque events can be described as "co-ed", and not because I was so foolish as to think that the male and female students within its complex of buildings studied or moved around together. On the other hand one of the mosque's leaders did, after all, emerge from the complex together with its women students and even dressed like them. My second very basic point was that the language deployed by the mosque's teachers and students during the controversy was strongly marked by the vocabulary of development, transparency and accountability that is the stock in trade of NGOs and such civil society organizations. Whether or not these men and women were anti-Shia (as you quite correctly suggest) I found it interesting that they made use of this common and also "secular" language during the controversy rather than the usual sectarian tirades. This language, I tried to suggest, was matched in its "secularity" by the fact that the female students in the complex were taught English and science, thus departing from the usual stereotype of a radical madrassa--English and science being the very subjects that "secularists" insist upon when talking about madrassa reformation. My third point was that we might be able to account for these phenomena by seeing the Red Mosque crisis as a crisis of traditionally organized "fundamentalism" of the militant kind, by its gradual opening up to the forms and vocabulary of civil society actors like NGOs, especially in the kind of part-time and extra-curricular activism that differs so radically from the closed and cult-like character that is so often said to mark radical groups. I don't see why you think this is a particularly offensive thing to say, unless, like the Takfiris, you're interested in drawing clear lines between "good" and "bad" Muslims--or rather between Muslims and apostates. Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that you're interested primarily in Muslim movements and Pakistani politics, while I'm interested in globalization more generally, and therefore want to look at such movements in a larger theoretical context. Even so, I can't imagine why you think that the efficiency of Miss Bhutto's assassination should invalidate my claim that militancy is increasingly the work of "amateurs", or that it is pointless stressing the civil society aspect of the Red Mosque because it was after all an educational institution. For one thing we don't know who was responsible for the assassination, while efficiency does not determine professionalism. And for another your acknowledgement of a militant civil society seems to contradict the offense you felt when I described it as such, while my own description was of course deployed against the image of "fundamentalists" living in some closed world of their own. What I find most revealing about your review, though, is the fact that it insists so strongly on the unchanging and already known character of "fundamentalism", itself surely a "fundamentalist" mode of reasoning that allows you to dismiss my own writing as "speculative" in the sense of being without fundament or foundation. Naturally this means that you do not account for the novelties I point to, including the mobilization and non-religious education of women as well as the use of NGO language among the Red Mosque's residents, though you will I am sure acknowledge the "Westernized" rhetoric of militants more generally. And this is to say nothing of the radical change in political allegiance of the mosque's authorities themselves. So much for your claim to pay attention to history--which you seem to define as changelesness rather than change. But then this is the usual attitude of Pakistani liberals playing at being Leftists. More sinister than the liberal attitude on display here, however, is the disturbing emergence of a particularly Sunni-sectarian form of reasoning. For IN THE PAKISTANI CONTEXT to argue that the Red Mosque's inhabitants were simply displaying some kind of facade masking their true intentions is to make use of a common and indeed the pre-eminent form of anti-Shia stereotype, whatever the sectarian identity of the person so arguing. Here then is yet another example of the Takfiri orientation that so marks your reasoning, which in this way is so much in tune with the kind of argumentation to be found among your professed enemies and countrymen. Faisal Devji

sepoy | April 24, 2008

Thanks for stopping by, Faisal. I am afraid that re-stating your points do not make them any more factual. If the Red Mosque was the very first female madrasa in Sunni Pakistan (it wasn't) or if it was the only one to teach science and technology (it wasn't) or if no other organization in Sunni political history had spoken in the language of civil society and ngo (it isn't; one can begin with the ikhwan and continue with the jama'at) than I would surely be more responsive to the rest of the edifice you build. Having said that, I confess that my interests, historical and otherwise, are provincial, local and rather quaint. I am not an "expert" on Islamic militancy such as yourself. Also, I do not presume to quantify you in any number of determined categories such as you ably demonstrate above - the "speculative scholarship" is a direct quote from you - so, I will let my thoughts on your piece stand on its own. And if you are really curious about your centrality to this forum, remember - the database never lies.

Prativindhya | April 24, 2008

While my considerable talents are needed elsewhere, (particularly in service of finishing a talk/paper) I feel compelled to congratulate Sepoy on his ascension to being a scholar interested in 'Muslim movements and Pakistani politics'. You see, I always thought Sepoy does something uninteresting and inconsequential about Sindh. So I am glad to hear that he has moved on to bigger and better things in life. This shows progress and one of these days, Sepoy might actually consider the phenomena of globalization. also, I am furthermore impressed at his capacity to hold on to both a 'liberal attitude' (albeit a Pakistani one) and a particularly 'Sunni-sectarian form of reasoning'. More impressive for a historian though is his inability to discern historical change, which leads him to hold on to an 'unchanging and already known character of “fundamentalism”, itself surely a “fundamentalist” mode of reasoning.' Now that my snarky side is out in the open, let me ask two quick questions on Faisal's main points: first, generally, co-ed means boys and girls studying in the same institution. Why use it as a vernacular shorthand for something else and give rise to misunderstanding? second, on a more substantive issue, what is new and novel about the use of the language of development and NGO 'speak' by fundamentalists? Isn't this seen throughout the twentieth century, on all (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian) sides of the aisle?

toorie | April 25, 2008

all i can say is, faisal, thank you for unmasking the dastardly (oh wait, your word is so much better - let's go with 'sinister') politics of this blogger. have you noticed that he doesn't even use his real name? that's a dead give-away. anyway, we all know what those pakistani liberals are like. i guess even a decent education in venerable institutions like the university of chicago - isn't it your alma mater, by the way? - can't take the fundamentalist out of the pakistani. ignore the noise - keep on exposing those 'Pakistani liberals playing at being Leftists' - and don't tease us so - let us know who they are so that we don't have to find out the hard way!

lapata | April 25, 2008

Thankfully, Professor Devji need not identify with any particular nation state or culture himself; as a scholar of globalization, he occupies the transnational, transcultural, liminal spaces of the airport lounge and the consular vestibule.

toorie | April 25, 2008

lapata, is that classic ressentiment, i hear? it's too sad. just because dr devji is a successful cosmopolitan intellectual and you are (no doubt) a parochial and provincial liberal nothing. since you, too, insist on hiding behind a nom-de-something, i'm not sure whether it would be accurate to call you out on your anti-shia sunni takfeerism (such as is typical of your countrymen), or your wanna-be leftism (also characteristic of your country's liberals). but real intellectuals don't let a lack of accurate information stand in their way, so i'm going to call you out on all this anyway...

farangi | April 26, 2008

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.' `The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.' `The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'