Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal is director of South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University in the US. Her writings, including the recent book ‘Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia’, have revealed new aspects of the complex history of Muslims in the subcontinent. Jalal speaks to Srinivas Parsa:
Are Muslim women affected more by the rise of religious fundamentalism?
The whole community and society is affected by the rise of fundamentalists. It's, of course, true that women are vulnerable in this process. They are seen as the symbol of the community. It is necessary to distinguish between what is attributed to the Quran, with regard to restrictions imposed in the name of religion, and what is social. Many of the restrictions have more to do with tribal customs, and these should not be imputed to the religion. This is especially so in the case of Pakistan's frontier areas.
Many Muslim women in the UK, the US and elsewhere are opting to wear the veil and scarf on their own. How does one explain this?
It is true that many Muslim women are voluntarily opting to wear the various degrees of the veil — there are so many variants of them from the full 'burqa' to the scarf — in the western countries. They are doing so as an expression of their religious and cultural identity. I find the response of the governments in France and Turkey to Muslim women wearing a scarf to be harsh. The Quran mentions 'haya' (modesty), but there is nothing in it about what to wear and how much. It is more about decency. Secondly, 'haya' does not lie in the dress but in the mental attitude as well. This should be seen in a broader perspective. It is not a clash between a monolithic Islam and a monolithic West. That is a misinterpretation. There is a struggle within the community. This is a struggle for the identity of the community, for the soul of the community.
Are you arguing the point that jihad, as much else about the Muslim profile, is more a regional point in your new work?
On the one hand, it is rooted in the material culture, the political economy of the place. In the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan, the local youths are paid double of what they would get paid in the frontier constabulary. I am not denying the ideology aspect of jihad. But the fact is the Taliban in the area is awash with opium money. For them, jihad is business.
Jihad is a more complex thing than what it is made out to be by the strategy experts in the West. It is not just war against infidels. There has been continuous internal debate among Muslims about the many meanings of jihad. The
ethical and spiritual aspects of the word jihad are just being overlooked
7 months ago