As the political, military, economic and climate chaos of Pakistan continues to worsen, so does the need to understand what is happening. This book covers many of the political and cultural battles since Britain’s “divide and rule” led to the partition of India and creation of Pakistan in 1947.
From the refusal of members of the Progressive Writers Association to give a “patriotic” version when writing about the violence caused by partition, to today’s efforts to defend women’s rights and freedom of expression, this is a well researched book with only an occasional lapse into academic language.
It’s often a tale of great courage challenging military dictatorships alternating with “civilian” governments that have never challenged the dominance of the army. All Pakistan’s governments have played the Islamic card to divide opposition. Saadia Toor gives us a good description of Islamist politics. She explains how the Jamaat-e-Islami party and its founder Maududi always defended private property as Islamic but switched from opposing the creation of Pakistan as divisive and therefore un-Islamic to supporting it in order to become a serious political force within it.
She portrays the battles through which the left, especially the women, took on the army, the bureaucrats, the judges, the Islamists and the liberal anti-communist intelligentsia while newspapers were shut down, activists were imprisoned and killed and with some erstwhile comrades changing sides. She gives us some wonderful extracts from the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, often the finest expression of resistance.
The brutal industrialisation in the 1960s which created a powerful industrial working class gave the left its greatest opportunity. The movement in the 1960s that overthrew Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first dictator, was defeated. Saadia Toor tells the story of this failure, but gives us little by way of an explanation of the left’s illusions in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, with his nationalisation and talk of “Islamic socialism”.
The “neoliberal security state” that is today’s Pakistan, backed by the US, ever more hated as its drones continue to kill hundreds of innocent civilians, still faces an organised resistance. Saadia Toor depicts the heroism in recent years of thousands of Okara peasants defending their land rights against the army.
The recent battle of the Karachi electricity workers against mass job losses led to a huge strike, but workers didn’t use the power they have to shut down the supply of electricity to an 18 million strong city. It led to a totally avoidable defeat, but also shows the potential for workers’ power. But without acknowledgement of the often disastrous mistakes of the left and the need to build a fighting organisation that can act as the memory of the class, the defeats of the movement in the 1970s and thereafter will be repeated. This book concludes it is in working class struggle that the real Pakistan exists. As such, it is to be welcomed, but Saadia Toor hasn’t given us the history of this class, the only class that can tackle the growing chaos and defeat imperialism and its agents. This history is still to be written.
The State of Islam is published by Pluto, £17.99
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