On Minority Rights in Pakistan

It is astonishing to see that the so-called Ulama offer historical truths to their audiences without ever mentioning that history is not really transparent and unmotivated and often presents the views and perceptions of the dominant groups. The treatment of religious minorities is also based in this flawed retrieval of historical truth and this atavistic perception of a modern Islamic state.


Image, Courtesy Viewpoint Online.



After the brutal murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, Ms. Asiya Nasir, a Christian member of Pakistani National Assembly, made a courageous and passionate speech in the national assembly. [The speech can be viewed here]. I have watched this speech numerous times, for in its tragic appeal also lies an incipient hope for a better Pakistan.

In the wake of Shahbaz Bahtti’s murder, Ms. Nasir puts the very question of what constitutes a Pakistani under a serious challenge. This question about the nature of a Pakistani identity is crucial, for it can decide the fate and future of Pakistani nation-state.

Ms. Nasir, one could say, in her historical retrieval of the contributions and sacrifices of Pakistani Christians inserts this marginalized community into the very heart of the nation, for after all, in her words, the Christian community was given a choice to move to India but they, as future citizens of what was to be a composite, cosmopolitan nation, chose to stay. They should, therefore, be included within the national promise as equals.

We cannot have it both ways: either we become a democracy in which all citizens—regardless of their religion, gender or other identities—are treated as equal right holders, or we stay the mockery of a nation that we have become: defined by a religious constituting power as opposed to the constituted power that at least, in theory, promises all citizens of Pakistan an equal humanity in the eyes of the law.

In her speech, the honorable member starts with a reference to the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti but soon moves on to challenge the very idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state. She points to the official portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and then asks him a direct question: “Is this the kind of Pakistan that you had promised us?” Her criticism of the current imaginary of Pakistan is, therefore, offered in comparison to the kind of Pakistan that Jinnah had envisioned and promised, a Pakistan in which the minorities would have had equal rights. The devolution of Pakistan into an Islamic republic, in this argument, is a failure of the Quaid’s dream and also a failure of the promises made to the minorities.

Ms. Nasir reminds her audience that when Pakistan needed the Christian votes to ask for a separate nation-state, the Christians had voted for Pakistan: their presence in the Pakistani public sphere, thus, was not an accident of history but a matter of choice. Now, however, the same Christians whose votes were coveted at the time of partition are treated as second-class citizens. The arguments, thus, rests on the kind of nation that was promised to the minorities and that the current definition of the nation as a purely Islamic state is nothing but a broken promise.

Ms. Nasir also has some pointed questions for the government: “Why did you not provide sufficient security for Shahbaz Bhatti?” and “Why there has been no clear declaration by the Prime minister and the President to hold the murderers accountable?” The obvious reason for the indifference of the leaders of Pakistan Peoples Party, the party that had benefited from Shahbaz Bhatti’s loyalties, is because he is a Christian and thus, it seems, his life was not as valuable as that of a Muslim.

Ms. Nasir also points out that the minorities have reached a point in their history in Pakistan that they are seriously questioning whether or not to remain in Pakistan. If the current treatment of the minorities continues, she states, then the minorities will have to choose to leave Pakistan.

Ms. Nasir’s speech is also made in the spirit of patriotism as a true Pakistani claiming equal rights in the national public sphere just like the Muslim citizens of Pakistan. This claim to equal treatment is also bolstered by the examples of Christian sacrifices for the cause of Pakistan, the sacrifices that have been elided from Pakistani history due to the “distorted history” being taught in schools. “We have not been given equal rights in sixty-five years” declares Ms. Nasir, and it is time now for the government and the people of Pakistan to recognize the Christians as equal citizens of the state.

The question of rights is, therefore, crucial to creating a more tolerant and humane nation and Islam, I am sad to say, will not solve this problem for us, especially the kind of historical retrieval attempted by our Ulama.

There is a perception amongst the devout Muslims that if we revert to a purely Islamic articulation of the nation, all our problems would be solved. This, of course, is a grand illusion created by the rhetoric of the mullahs and their followers and this rhetoric is made acceptable by cherry-picking Islamic history and by completely foreclosing any new and liberating interpretations of the Islamic sacred.

It is astonishing to see that the so-called Ulama offer historical truths to their audiences without ever mentioning that history is not really transparent and unmotivated and often presents the views and perceptions of the dominant groups. The treatment of religious minorities is also based in this flawed retrieval of historical truth and this atavistic perception of a modern Islamic state. This, in a way, foregrounds the role of constituting power over constituted power. [I am using Roberto Esposito’s discussion of these two facets of power to make my point. For details, see Esposito. Bios]. In such a project, the worth of the individual and the larger political entities is determined through recourse to a transcendental constituting power. But while in most of the cases the constituting power ceases to exert itself and creates a space for the constituted power to function independently, in case of our Ulama the constituted power of the Pakistani constitution is always under constant pressure from the metaphysical constituting power of the Muslim sacred. It is this reversal to a purist past that allows them to create unequal subjects within the Pakistani political space. Thus, even though they live in a modern nation, the individuals in Pakistan, based on their gender and religious identity, get divided into active and passive right holders. As a consequence, Only Muslim males seem to enjoy the full rights and humanity of real citizens, while women and minorities are reduced to a passive political identity, alive but not really fully realized political beings.

It is this nexus of power and religion that Ms. Nasir’s speech challenges, for if Pakistan really wants to be a democratic and humane polity, it must accord equal rights to all its citizens and no amount of purist religious retrieval should be able to trump that.

The saddest thing about our Ulama is that they have chosen to elide all views contrary to what they deem a proper interpretation of the sacred. Thus, while our mullahs can quote their respective scholars, none of them seems to acknowledge the existence of scholars such as Mumtaz Ali and Fazlur Rahman who, at least, attempted to force a more nuanced and enlightened interpretation of the sacred. These are the silenced histories of Muslim past that must be retrieved and foregrounded if Islam is to play any positive role within the Pakistani public sphere.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any such movement in Pakistan, I would declare my own personal stance: I stand with my brother Shahbaz Bhatti for his humanity, his wisdom, and his sacrifice and with my sister Asiya Nasir for her courage to ask some apt and hard questions.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

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Commentaries Editorials

Hate Speech, Mullahs and the Pakistani Public

While we all have responded in different ways to the recent murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, we also need to push for the regulation, definition, and prosecution of hate-speech so freely aired by the mullahs.

In a recent set of Friday sermons recorded by activists associated with Mashal Books, one aspect of this hate-speech becomes very clear: almost all the mullahs from different sects of Islam are more concerned with demonizing and castigating their sectarian others, instead of focusing on the socio-political issues that affect lives of common Pakistanis.

(Those interested in listening to a sample of these sermons can find them on our blog:

The impact of this unbridled hate-speech is further accentuated by the free expression of such hate through the regular Pakistani media channels. Thus, in case of Pakistan, while the secular public sphere has seriously diminished, the avenues for hate-mongers have increased both in terms of physical spaces and digital and news media.

We saw that in the wake of Salman Taseer’s murder, not many so-called Ulama were willing to speak up against this act of murder and the same happens to be the case with the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti.

The media, in fact, were overeager to show the accolades being offered to the murderer by the people. Some critics have also suggested that Salman Taseer’s murder was probably caused by the false image of Taseer created by the media.

There is, therefore, a need for Pakistani government to legislate against hate-speech and then implement the law against those who still incite hate about other groups, especially minorities.

There is a difference between expressing one’s opinion and making one’s opinion so absolute that only the annihilation of our opponents seems to be the correct option.

We need to force our government to take note of the actions and words of these hate-mongers, for only then we would be able to transform our public sphere into a place for civilized conversations instead of what we have now: a one way street of death.

(Published by Pakistani Bloggers)

Commentaries Religion

Pakistani Ulama and Their Rhetoric (8): Maulana Muhammad Mukhtar

(From Mashal Books)

Speaker: Maulana Muhammad Mukhtar
Location: Jamia Masjid Anwar Madina, Narang Mandi, Sheikhupura
Sect: Barelvi
Language: Urdu
Time: June 2010


Partial Clip: [audio:|titles=Maulana Muhammad Mukhtar]

Full Audio Clip: (Follow this link)


Says Abu Bakr Farsi Shafei: the punishment for the insulter of the Prophet PBUH is death. There is no other punishment for such a man than death. The Prophet PBUH himself made the insulter of the Prophet stand between the fountain of Zamzam and Muqam-e-Ibrahim and had him killed. Hazrat Anas Bin Malik narrates than a man used to curse the Prophet PBUH. After Makka was won and the man realised that he would now be called to account for his insults and that Muslims will kill him he ran and took refuge in Kaaba and clung to the cloth that covered the Kaaba. The Prophet PBUH was informed that his insulter was standing clinging to the Kaaba. The Prophet said go and bring him to me and then sever his head in front of me. The Prophet, after the victory of Makka, forgave all but did not forgive the man who had apostatised himself by turning away from Islam and the man who had insulted him including the one who used to pay the prostitutes to sing songs against the Prophet PBUH. Now you know what the punishment for the insulter is. The punishment for blasphemy is death.

After the conquest of Spain by Muslims, a Christian priest began an organised campaign of abusing the Prophet PBUH. Listen to this carefully because this was the beginning of the plot. The fact was that the Christians of Spain had begun to embrace Islam in large numbers and the Church became worried. On this the priest prepared a team of blasphemers. His philosophy was that Christians will achieve salvation through pain of the body and since blaspheming will lead to Muslims stoning them, the consequent pain will give salvation. Thus will the soul of the blasphemer be purified, according to the Church.

Thus in Spain Christians began to publicly abuse the Prophet PBUH. One Christian woman Flora abused him. Her father was Muslim while her mother was Christian. After the death of her father she and her mother began to live near a Christian priest. Flora went to a Qazi and said she wanted to embrace Islam. The Qazi was pleased and asked her to recite the kalima but she began the kalima by abusing the Prophet PBUH. The Qazi instead of flying into a rage took pity on her and said your age is too young, but when she would not stop abusing, the Qazi hanged her. After that, another Christian named Isaac did the same sort of thing in front of the Qazi. Many others too did this, and the Court hanged them all.

Britannica says the campaign went on for two years and only in two months 57 people were hanged. From this you can realise how Christians hated the Prophet PBUH and campaigned against him. Today also when a case of blasphemy comes before the court in Pakistan there is pain felt in America because America sympathises with the blasphemers. This has always happened. This rubbish was first found in Europe. During the era of Salahuddin Ayubi someone abused the Prophet PBUH. The man lived in 1181 and was known for looting caravans of Muslims and for trying to conquer Makka and Madina. But when this Christian invader came to Makka from the sea the Muslims arose and put his army to the sword. In 1186 he again looted a caravan. And said to the Muslims: if your Muhammad PBUH is so powerful get him to save you. When Salahuddin Ayubi heard this he swore that he would punish the Christian marauder-crusader.

The Crusade was defeated and one of the prisoners of war brought before Saladin was this blaspheming crusader. When he became sure that Saladin will kill him he began to tremble. But Salahuddin killed him with his own hands. So we know that even Salahuddin was sure that the punishment for blasphemy is death. All sects of Islam are agreed on this.

But after the British conquered India they left no law here that would punish the blasphemer. Here too blaspheming books began to be published. One Hindu called Krishan wrote Rangeela Rasul meaning that the Prophet PBUH was given to sensual pleasures, marrying young girls. Publisher Rajpal printed the book after which there was an uproar against it. The book was banned and the publisher was given six months of jail sentence. Hindus went to High Court and chief judge Shadi Lal acquitted the blaspheming publisher. But the Muslims could not bear to see Rajpal walking around In Lahore free after insulting the Prophet PBUH.

An inhabitant of Yakki Gate Lahore named Khuda Baksh Kashmiri went out looking for Rajpal in order to stab him to death. He assaulted him in Anarkali but Rajpal escaped. Khuda Baksh was brought before the Court but he looked to Rajpal and said you have escaped me this time but I swear on God next when I get a chance I will put you to death.


To follow

Commentaries Religion

Pakistani Ulama and Their Rhetoric (7): Maulana Muhammad Yasin

(From Mashal Books)

Speaker: Maulana Muhammad Yasin
Location: Jamia Masjid Ahle Hadith, Chakwal
Sect: Ahle Hadith
Language: Punjabi
Time: June 2010


Partial Clip:[audio:|titles=Maulana M. Yasin]

Full Audio Clip: Click Here.


At the time of the Battle Uhud, Khalid bin Walid was not yet a Muslim. He was a clever military commander. Khalid said to his army, when the battle is over people usually start looting, but you should tell me if the men the Prophet PBUH had stationed on the top of the hill are still there. If the men are gone in order to loot then this is the time to strike and take revenge.

When Khalid learned that the men the Prophet PBUH had stationed on the hill had run away to loot, he attacked the Muslim army and martyred 70 warriors. The dead body of Hazrat Hamza was cut to pieces. The face of the Prophet PBUH was wounded and he lost two teeth. The Muslims became worried. One problem was that the Kafirs began to say that they were finally even with the Muslims because in the earlier Battle of Badr the Muslims had killed 70 of theirs. The Prophet PBUH said it not even at all: the 70 you lost went straight to Hell while the Muslim dead have gone straight to Heaven. But the Kafirs had had their revenge. Why did the Muslims lose at Uhud?

Allah punished the Muslims for not obeying the Prophet PBUH (by looting). If you don’t obey the Prophet PBUH then there is no forgiving but only loss. Some people say there are more than one version or that there is another version parallel to the Prophet PBUH. There is an effort to divide the Muslim community. But let us be sure that four groups will go to Paradise. The first group are the prophets of Allah, the second is that of the Companions (Allah is satisfied with them).

You can imagine how high the Companions stand in the eyes of Allah when he says that he is satisfied with them while they were still on this earth. The third group is that of the angels because the angels are 24 hours in attendance of Allah in complete obedience, so there is no question of their going to Hell. And the babies who die in infancy go to Heaven too. Even the baby born in the home of a Kafir will go to Paradise.

Uhud happened because the Prophet PBUH was not obeyed. He had stated that during namaz the believers should remain behind the Imam and should not bow or bend before the imam had done so. Anyone doing this will have the head of a donkey. When a Syrian read this hadith he was afflicted with doubt whether the hadith was genuine. He thought he should put the hadith to test but how can a saying of any prophet be put to test? This Syrian scholar rejected the hadith and went into the bowing posture before the Imam could do so. The result was that Allah turned his head into the head of a donkey.

Growing beard is also obedience of the Prophet PBUH and shaving means disobeying the Prophet PBUH. Don’t think that your shaving daily has not brought you misfortune and that it will not happen in the future. If Allah wills the razor with which you are shaving will go into your throat and will remain there. You will not be able to eat and drink. This will be the anger of Allah on you. Any deviation from the Sunnat (Way) of the Prophet PBUH will make you deserving of divine wrath.

Once the Prophet PBUH was told that Madina had received a hundred men who wanted to embrace Islam by swearing on his hand (bayat). These men had travelled for two months to reach him. On this the face of the Prophet PBUH lit up and he at once got up from the house of Hazrat Ayesha and came to the mosque of Madina and accepted the faith of the new Muslims.

Once the Prophet PBUH was asked what was the most painful difficulty that you faced in your life? And what was the happiest day of your life? He replied that the toughest day was when I went to Taif; the hardest day was also the day I went to Taif. He said the people of Taif did so much violence to me that my shoes became full of blood. He added that after the torture I was sitting in garden of Taif caring for my wounds while Zaid bin Harith was putting ash on them. Meanwhile the owner of the garden came up and said to me that he had not seen a more beautiful face before. That was my happiest day.


To follow

Commentaries Religion

Pakistani Ulama and Their Rhetoric (1): Maulana Asmatullah

(From Mashal Books)

This is the first recorded sermon that we are posting on our website. As you read the transcript and listen to the audio, it is important to keep the speaker’s sectarian affiliations in mind. This sermon is by a scholar from the Deobandi group of Indian Islam. Trained according to the curriculum and vision of the Darul Uloom, Deoband, the Deobandis are opposed to celebrating the “Milad,” the day of Prophet Muhammed’s birth as a public celebration. A brief commentary is provided at the , but you can follow these link to read up on Deobandi School and the Barelvi School.

Maulana Asmatullah

Speaker: Maulana Asmatullah
Location: Jamia Masjid Faisal Gate, Gujrat
Sect: Deobandi
Language: Urdu
Time: June 2010


[audio:|titles=Molana Asmat Ullah]


Hurling abuse is no great art. We Deobandis never indulge in cursing others. If you have proof, then teach us about Milad (birth anniversary of the Prophet PBUH). But taking out procession of the Birthday of the Prophet PBUH and hurling abuses at others is not a good thing. Playing loud music and using musical instruments may be your (rival’s) way but it is not our way. On the Day of Judgement the Deobandis will enter reciting the Quran.

Today I will confront you (Barelvis) with the truth. If you want to hide your sins by accusing us (Deobandis) of not celebrating the Birthday and by insulting the Prophet PBUH, then listen to what I say now: You are misguided. Ask me how to acknowledge the Prophet PBUH and I will tell you that we acknowledge him as the best of everything in the Universe. He is only less than Allah. The truth is that Barelvis don’t believe this despite the music they play for the Prophet PBUH, something that the Prophet PBUH never taught. We don’t believe in the beliefs and misdeeds of the Barelvis. Why should we believe something about which the Prophet PBUH did not teach?

Once I asked Allah please tell me how to say namaz. And Allah replied it will be tough for Me because in it one has to bow and prostrate oneself. And Allah cannot bow and prostrate Himself in front of anyone. I challenge the Barelvis to prove from Quran and Hadith that 12 Rabiul Awwal Birthday of the Prophet PBUH (Milad) has to be celebrated. Prove it to me from the great collections of hadith and from even the Founder of Barelvism Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi. If you succeed in doing so I will take out a Milad procession from Faisal Fate myself. Instead you have burned our mosques out of enmity which is against the Prophet’s custom of forgiveness. You have no argument and will not bring one to convince me. This is what Syed Inayatullah Shah Bukhari used to say.


This sermon relies on a binary structure, hyperbole, and alliteration to enhance its affective value. The cumulative effect of the sermon, as the tone and passionate delivery suggest, is to present the opponents (Barelvis) as not only absolutely wrong in their practice but also as people who rely on unjust and uncivilized language in their criticism of the Deobandis. The sermon stats with one single assertion “To curse is no skill” and immediately follows it with a competing assertion: “We are not those who rely on such language.” To the Deobandi audience of the scholar, this reinforces the binaries by positing Barelvies as deviant and uncouth, and, in contrast, the Deobandis as civilized as well as those whose practices are somehow more Islamic.

The basic difference between the two schools is about the celebration of Milad, the day of Prophet Muhammed’s birth. While the Barelvis insist on public celebration of the day and also seek solace by visiting the shrines of various Muslim saints, the Deobandis see this as an un-Islamic practice and a corruption of true religion. of course, the audience is aware of this doctrinal difference, for that is why they are at a Deobandi mosque. So, if the scholar is already preaching to the “choir” then what is the purpose of this speech?

We must also note that the scholar does not address an individual Barelvi maulvi but rather collapses them all in a single pronoun: Tum, You. The tone of the sermon, a fluid diatribe against this supposed Tum, then shapes and aligns the sympathies of the audience, their feelings, against this generalized foe. The binaristic argument of the speech leaves no middle ground and declares the followers of Deobandi school as the only one on the true path and thus deserving of just deserts.

Important also is to note that the scholar imagines a life in the hereafter where God will ultimately sanctify their practice by choosing them as the holders of truth. As a result of this passionate sermon (you can feel the passion even if you do not know Urdu) the audience is likely to leave the mosque deeply affected by the speech: aware of their own righteousness and also highly sensitive to the wrongness of their opponents practices.

Now the question that we must ask is simply this: how does this help create a more accepting and civilized public sphere in Pakistan?

Commentaries Culture Politics

Auctoritas, Potestas, and the Talibanistic Imaginary (Part 1-6)*

(This is a provisional summary of what I have written on this topic so far)

In discussing the complex concept of the “State of Exception” Georgio Agamben traces the origin of current normative and central role of the State of Exception through a discussion of the two competing Roman concepts of Auctoritas and Potestas.

Auctoritas, in the sphere of private law, Agamben explains, “is the property of the auctor, that is, the person sui iuris (the pater familias) who intervenes . . . in order to confer legal validity on the act of a subject who cannot independently bring a legally valid act into being” (76).  The term, Agamben further suggests, “derives from the verb augeo: the auctor is is qui auget, the person who augments, increases, or perfects the act–or legal situation–of someone else” (76).

Having discussed the term itself, Agamben asks the following important questions: “But where does the ‘force’ of the auctor come from? And what is this power to augere? His answer provides the most important explanation of auctocritas as a signifier of a specific juridical power. He suggests that auctocritas has “nothing to do with representation” (77) nor is the “auctor’s act” “founded upon some sort of legal power vested in him to act as a representative” (77). This power to augere, Agamben suggests, “springs directly from his condition as pater” (77). Important also to note is that Agamben argues that “auctoritas is not sufficient in itself” (76), its very existence also depends on an “extraneous activity that it validates” (76). Thus the act of the auctor reaches fruition only when it, in concert with an other, completes a perfect act by validating the act itself. That is why Agamben goes on to define the perfect act as follows:

It is, then, as if for something to exist in law there must be a relationship between two elements (or two subjects): one endowed with auctoritas and one that takes the initiative in the act in the strict sense. If the two elements or two subjects coincide, then the act is perfect. However, if there is a gap or incongruity between them, the act must be completed with auctoritas in order to be valid. (76)

Thus the role of the auctor is to fill the gap between the two parties, or elements, by adding his legal weight in order to erase the inequality that might make the transaction imperfect.  The auctor, whose power is inherent to his person, thus erases the deficit in a contractual act simply by inserting his will into the act itself: like the father giving consent to marry or the teacher providing an answer. This discussion is still only pertinent to the function of auctoritas in the sphere of private law. The next part of Agamben’s discussion touches upon the role of auctoritas in public law. But before I discuss that it is important to dwell on potestas. Generally speaking, while auctocritas deals with the anomic aspects of the law, potestas deals with the laws normative functions and in Roman law both are supposed to function in a sort of dialogic embrace.

Generally speaking, while auctocritas deals with the anomic aspects of the law, potestas deals with the law’s normative functions and in Roman law both are supposed to function in a sort of dialogic embrace. Traditionally in the Roman sphere of public law, potestas was the legal power vested in the magistrates who exercised it within  the law. Imperium, military power, was the highest form of potestas. Thus, while auctoritas (the anomic aspect of the law) performed the private function of the law and was associated with all those who could claim the status of pater, potestas (the normative aspect of the law) was always related to the magistracy and could not be claimed by virtue of one’s social status. A healthy and dialogic tension between the two was necessary to maintain the social order.

Agamben further complicates the discussion of these two concepts by re-reading the interpretations of yet another Roman practice: Iustitium. Agamben explains: “The term iustitium. . . literally means ‘standstill’ or ‘suspension of the law’.” (41). In most modern assessments of the term, the term is interpreted as an act of public mourning, but Agamben explains the term against this much traversed terrain of explication. First, he explains the material circumstances within the Roman history when an iustitium was proclaimed:

Upon learning of a situation that endangered the Republic, the Senate would issue a senatus consultum ultimatum [final decree of the Senate] by which it called upon the counsels . . . and even, in extreme cases, all citizens, to take whatever measures they considered necessary for the salvation of the state. (41)

Agamben also suggests that such a decree was contingent upon a real situation that could qualify as tumultus: like an invasion or internal resurrection. So how does this practice, Agamben asks, come to be understood as public mourning? Here is what he writes about the usual readings of the term:

Indeed, with the end of the Republic, iustitium ceased to mean the suspension of law in order to cope with a tumult and the new meaning replaced the old one so perfectly that even the memory of this austere institution seems to have entirely vanished.  . . . But how did this term that was used in public law to designate the suspension of law in situations of the most extreme political necessity come to assume the more anodyne meaning of a funeral for a death in the family? (65)

While discussing several misreading and explanations of the concept as mourning, Agamben finally suggests a particular explanation of this transformation of meaning of the term from a concept related to tumult to a concept signifying a public mourning. Agamben explains this subtle meaning by discussing Augustus’s conflation of auctoritas and potestas into one person, the figure of Caesar Augustus.  By having combined the private function of auctoritas and by absorbing the public aspects of potestas unto himself, Augustus had become the very body of the law. As Augustus had made auctoritas public by ascribing to himself the role of the pater of the nation and had arrogated to himself the powers of the magistracy, in him then, the anomic and normative functions of the law are made to reside in one person and the state of exception becomes the law. His, death, therefore, is also the death of law, the death of the state of exception, as the law resides in him. Agamben describes this, while discussing Agustus’s death, as follows:

The correspondence between anomie and mourning becomes comprehensible only in the light of the correspondence between the death of the sovereign and the state of exception. The original nexus between tumultus and iustitium is still present, but the tumult now coincides with the death of the sovereign, while the suspension of the law is integrated into the funeral ceremony. (68)

In a way, then, Agamben explains, by appropriating all powers and by making exception the norm the sovereign becomes “living law”, “nomos empushkos” (69) and thus can assert himself to be above law (69). Thus, the reason isutitium is read as public mourning is because literally the death of the sovereign itself becomes a tumult as law has died.

For Agamben this conflation of the normative and anomic aspects of the law and the creation of a permanent state of exception is a dangerous combination, and he asserts:

But when they [auctoritas and potestas] tend to reside in a single person, when the state of exception, in which they are bound and blurred together, becomes the rule, then the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine. (86)

With this discussion of the state of exception, auctoritas, and potestas, I will now move on to discuss the sort of juridico-political world created by what I call the Talibanistic imaginary.

First, a brief explanation of what I mean by Talibanistic imaginary. Talibanistic imaginary is a worldview constructed within modernity, is shaped by the material, cultural, and political conditions, and relies on a literalist, reductive, and exclusionary definition of tradition. A Talib, the subject of this particular imaginary, views modernity itself as a threat to the body and soul and attempts to alter modernity by attempting to overwrite it with a premodern explanation of the real.

Though I use the term Talib and Taliban, I do not use it in its reductive usage from the US media as a signifier specific for the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban movement. In my theorization, the term signifies the Talibanistic trends on both sides of the global division of labor. With this brief explanation of the term, I will now discuss the Talibanistic imaginary as it develops on two opposite ends of the global division of labor: Afghanistan/Pakistan and the United States.

The term Taliban entered the metropolitan vocabulary in the mid nineteen-eighties, and it is only apt to first dwell on this term itself with a reference to its place of origin, Afghanistan. Taliban as a linguistic unit is plural of “Talib,” which literally means a seeker or a student in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. The pluralization, Taliban, however, is in Pashto. Thus as a signifier, the term Taliban is overloaded with its semantic origins but also with the traces of the Pashtun culture and politics. The term Taliban used in the popular vocabulary specifically tends to signify the kind of politics and worldview practiced by the followers of the Taliban movement, but I intend to stretch its usage to cover a particular countermodern imaginary and praxis that defies any regional locus and explanation.

The Afghan Taliban movement, I suggest, is an apt example of the conflation of auctoritas and potestas under a perpetual iustitium, and I will now elaborate on this claim by dwelling a little on the rise of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in the mid nineteen-eighties. There is an important passage in Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban where the author touches upon the popular myths about the rise of Taliban, and that particular passage is the starting point of my argument. Rashid writes:

There is now an entire factory of myths and stories to explain how Omar mobilized a small group of Taliban against the rapacious Kandhar warlords. The most credible story, told repeatedly, is that in the spring of 1994 Singesar neighbours came to tell him that a commander had abducted two teenage girls, their heads had been shaved and they had been taken to a military camp and repeatedly raped. Omar enlisted some thirty Talibs . . . and attacked the base, freeing the girls and hanging the commander from the barrel of a tank. (Rashid 25)

This is the moment when Mullah Omar, a teacher and a pater to his students, is approached by the community simply because he possesses a form of auctoritas in the private sphere. His help is sought in the face of a permanent state of iustititum caused by the post-Soviet-Afghan war internal strife. His act to enter the political arena can also be read as his assumption of the regulatory responsibilities by instituting a state of exception in which auctoritas and potestas are conflated in one person, and, by extension in his followers. The purpose of their actions: to seek justice at a time when law is at a “stand still.”

The rise of the Taliban cannot just be attributed to the Qur’an and the Islamic texts, for after all these texts had been there for centuries without spawning something such as the Taliban. The rise of the Taliban is inherently connected to the material conditions and the perpetual state of tumult that existed in Afghanistan in the mid-eighties.

When the Taliban finally oust their opponents and capture Kabul, the final phase of the conflation of auctoritas and potestas is completed. The way in which Mullah Omar defines his official position is analogous to that of  Octavian declaring himself “Augustus.” Mullah Omar takes on the title of Ameer-ul-Mominin, the leader of the faithful. Traditionally, this title was designated for the early caliphs of Islam. By declaring himself the leader of the faithful, Mullah Omar can conflate his private role as an auctor with that of the “law-giver”, thus creating a perfect and perpetual state of exception in which his person becomes the law. This title also makes him into a supranational figure, for by declaring himself the leader of the faithful he becomes the leader of all those Muslims willing to join his cause regardless of their national or cultural origin.

But the situation is further aggravated also by a perpetual state of tumult in which each of his followers is given imperium to regulate life. This imperium is granted to them under the rules of behavior governed by the tradition of “Am’r bil ma’roof wa nahi anil munkar–to encourage the correct actions and to stop the wrong actions.” In the streets of Kabul, this guiding formula gives the Taliban foot soldiers the power to regulate and punish all actions that may not fit their particular definition of “right” and “wrong.” Thus, just when the law is at a stand still, a permanent state of exception is established in the shape of a power to regulate life through a popular imperium granted by the authority of the “Ameer” in whom the law has become embodied in one person. The result of this conflation of auctoritas and potestas, amidst a perpetual tumult, of course, is the creation of a “death world.”

It is no wonder, then, that the Taliban rule in Afghanistan is inextricably linked with a permanent state of iustitium as the country, for so many reasons, was and is in a perpetual tumult. Furthermore, since the Taliban had mobilized a purist past in order to cope with the present, their entire political philosophy is linked with this perpetual tumult of modernity that, in their view, threatens their world view. The result:  a system of law in which the state of exception is the norm. Thus, the anomic aspects of law are conflated with the normative functions of the law to create a stable but anomic legal order, an order in which even the foot-soldiers have, in some ways, an absolute imperium over their fellow citizens.

Furthermore, since the Talibanistic imaginay is connected to this permanent tumult, even in absence of a material danger to their rule, an ideological tumult–modernity, corrupting influences, deviations, must be constantly invoked to create a state of ideological siege in which the state of exception can no longer  be erased but becomes a permanent system of law. In fact, under such a scenario, maintaining a permanent state of tumult is a perfect strategy to continue the Taliban rule. The actions of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan these days are a perfect example of this strategy: they do not have a viable long-term plan but their immediate goal is to alter the ground realities in a way that both Pakistan and Afghanistan  either stay in or transition into a permanent tumult. And it is here that the policies grounded in the American Talibanistic imaginary come to play the most crucial role in, probably unintentionally, maintaining the material conditions ideally suited for the Taliban movement. [More later]

* (All citations are from Georgio Agamben’s State of Exception. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2005).


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The scapegoating of Muslims

Published in Viewpoint, October 22, 2010

It is no secret that the right wing pundits and politicians in the United States have always used simplistic and reductive framing of issues to appeal to the emotions and fears of the American public. In his book Moral Politics (U of Chicago P, 2002), George Lakoff explains how this kind of public framing relies on mobilization of certain specific stereotypes. One strategy, often used by the right wing politicians and pundits in the United States, involves the use of a social stereotype “for making snap judgments—judgments without reflective thought—about an entire category, by virtue of suggesting that the stereotype is the typical case” (Lakoff 10). This is precisely what is being done to the American Muslims by some stalwarts of the Republican Party: labeling and judgments about Muslims without reflection being offered as simple statements of truth.

Another important aspect of the immediate history of the right wing American politics is that their policies and pronouncements are often made against the most powerless and weak social groups: gays and lesbians, minorities, single mothers, the homeless, and the immigrants. As the mid-term elections approach, it seems as if the Republicans have decided to frame the American Muslims—immigrants and citizens—as the ultimate threat to the interests of the United States. The statements being made about the Muslims and Islam in the recent few weeks should not be seen as random thoughts of a few whacko politicians: as political research shows, there is never anything random about the talking points of the American right. Listed below is a sample of what has been said and declared by various prominent figures from the American right:

Sharon Angle (Nevada Republican senatorial candidate)

We’re talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn’t a widespread thing. But it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it. My thoughts are these. First of all, Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not sharia law. And I don’t know how that happened in the United States. (Cited from

Rex Duncan (Oklahoma State Senator)

In order to protect America from international law or the Sharia law, Rex Duncan. Another republican, wants to introduce a “Save our State” a ballot measure that is, in his words “is a pre-emptive strike to make sure that liberal judges don’t take to the bench in an effort to use their position to undermine” undermine the US laws by admitting interntional or sharia law. (Cited from The Reaction

Newt Gingrich, Republican Presidential hopeful in 2012

We should have a federal law that says Sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States,” Gingrich told an audience at the Values Voter Summit in D.C. last month. He wants the law to stipulate that, “no judge will remain in office [who] tried to use Sharia law. (Cited from The Daily Beast)

These are not just isolated statements by desperate politicians: this is, rather, a sophisticated framing of American Muslims—immigrant and citizen alike—as an internal threat offered in various guises at numerous right wing venues. While president Bush had at least made it a point to isolate the September eleven terrorists as individuals who had perpetuated a wrong against Americans, the current drive of the conservative media (Fox news, for example) and the extreme right wing of the Republican party have no problem in conflating the terrorists and the common Muslims. As a powerless group, forming only one percent of the US population, Muslims are probably the only demographic that can be easily demonized without much public resentment or political cost, especially if all Muslims are presented as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

This anti-Muslim turn in the US conservative circles should not be seen as an end in itself. We should read it through the insights provided by Lakoff about framing, for the purpose of these statements is to suggest that the Muslim stereotype is the real identity of Muslims in America as well as in the rest of the world. Framing, Lakoff also suggests, is not a random act. In fact, representatives of right wing pressure groups meet once a month to haggle and decide the issues of the month that need to be talked about. After certain issues are chosen, then all branches of the US conservative movement, Fox News being their main media outlet, start repeating the selected issues in a wider frame. The purpose, of course, is to create an issue out of a non-issue (like the Shriah law in the US) and to posit their opponents as weak on the chosen issue. The Muslims-as-a-threat frame is not just about the Muslims; in fact it is an isntrumentalization of Muslims for the short-term gains in the mid-term elections.

By presenting all Muslims as a problem, the Republicans hope to “create” an issue and then blame their opponents for not being strident, sanguine, or tough against the “Muslim threat.” Thus, even when the Democrats or other liberal groups attempt to separate the Muslim terrorist groups from common Muslims, they tend to sound weak and unclear, for a complex view of any situation tends to come across as wobbly in a climate of reductive opinions informed by media bite statements.

The American Muslims cannot respond to this conservative onslaught by pointing out the absurdity of these claims: those making these claims know that what they are saying is a lie. What the American Muslims need to do is to build a long-term political strategy that makes it impossible for anyone to issue blanket racist and bigoted statements about them. This strategy must involve an informed response in the semiotic arena by the Muslim scholars, critics, and journalists and mobilization of larger political solidarity amongst American Muslims. The devout Muslims in the US tend to vote Republican because of their conservative leanings; but this is a vote against their own interests. The American Muslims should build a strong coalition of voters who are well informed about the American party politics and then attempt to create lateral alliances with other disenfranchised groups so as to become a viable political block. In a time when Muslims are constantly put on the defensive by the vitriolic and bigoted claims of the conservative media and conservative politicians, the need to be politically active is far greater and silence is not an option.

The American Muslims cannot also just leave their own representation in the hands of a few misinformed Mullahs who neither have the training nor the cross-cultural expertise to really represent the diverse nature of Islam in America. Just as the attack on Muslims is orchestrated by the right and is continuous and persistent, the Muslim voice in the American public sphere must also be continuous and consistent and all acts of semiotic or political aggression against the Muslims must be countered with a balanced but persistent counter discourse.