For its part, al Qaeda was an avowedly global movement, which found a temporary safe haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and ended up destroying its host in the end. With al Qaeda on a downward trajectory, ISIS has taken shape in the Middle East.
Indeed the existence of its safe haven is still dependent on the varying aims of countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the US against Syria or Iran—the latter supported by Russia and China. Unlike al Qaeda, which existed as a globally diffused network and refused to declare either a state of its own or claim the caliphate, ISIS has staked its struggle on a particular piece of territory which it sees as the core of a future caliphate. Both movements are global, but in different ways, and I would venture to say that the latter has globalised a version of the “Islamic state” that had been the aim of Islamists in the past, of which the Taliban is an example.
If I am right, the defeat of ISIS will result in the destruction both of the Caliphate and the Islamic state as ideals, for unlike al Qaeda, it has colonised these concepts and deployed them in a kind of last stand. One reason why this last stand has become possible is due to the failure of Islamism and its categories worldwide. For with the exception of Iran, a Shia country that managed to transform Islamist categories in significant ways, they have only managed to survive among Sunnis in uneasy alliances with despotic monarchies or military dictatorships.
Indeed Islamism and its ideals, primarily that of an ideological state, are largely products of the Cold War period, from which they derived meaning. But with the end of the Cold War, Islamism lost its meaning and was unable to reinvent itself. In countries like Turkey, Indonesia or Malaysia, to say nothing of some of the Gulf sheikhdoms, Islamism has managed to survive as window-dressing for neoliberalism, but it has suffered a massive collapse elsewhere, of which the violent removal of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government serves as a telling illustration.
The interesting aspect about the popular demonstrations that led to the removal of the Morsi government was the fact that they were made up not of the “secular” or “liberal” elite routinely blamed for being anti-Islamic, so much as by pious Muslims, whether ordinary believers or Salafi fundamentalists. The Muslim Brotherhood, in other words, had already lost control of Islamic piety as much as politics by the time it was expelled from office.
What do you make of Indo-Pak politics after Partition? Don’t you think hangover of Partition is still playing out in one form or the other every day in our lives, with maybe, Kashmir at the centre of it?
I don’t think Partition plays an important role in Indo-Pak politics any longer. If anything it is the colonial inheritance that India, in particular, is trying both to claim and to shake off. On the one hand, the British refusal to transfer “paramountcy” over the princely states to India and Pakistan, is what made states like Kashmir, Hyderabad and, for a brief period, Travancore into cockpits of strife. And on the other, geopolitics in the region has been shaped by the equally disastrous unwillingness of the imperial state to define its borders with Afghanistan (and so Russia) in the northwest, and with China in the north and northeast.
While the colonial state might have seen such undecided borders as an advantage for any forward policy, they created huge problems for India and Pakistan in a new world of nation states, and these larger problems have defined the conflict between the subcontinent’s successor states, quite apart from Partition or communalism.
But India’s recent economic growth and post-Cold War political stature has also permitted her to reclaim some aspects of her imperial past. After independence, India had abandoned her colonial role of providing a military base and security for the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, or drawing upon her large diaspora not only for funds and influence but political activism as well. Today both these factors are back in play, even if only potentially, while India’s regional policy has certainly returned to its colonial model. For having built significant influence in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as trying to do so in China, India has now in effect attained the boundaries of her imperial predecessor.
Pakistan, in other words, has been made into an internal problem for India, even playing the role that the latter’s tribal areas do for it. Indeed Pakistan has encouraged this stance by deliberately becoming a domestic opponent for its larger neighbour, not least by sponsoring terrorism and creating civil and communal strife there. Kashmir plays a shifting role in this context, and unusually was not even an issue during the last Pakistan elections. As early as the 1990s, after all, Pakistan’s failure to provoke a full-scale insurgency in Kashmir led it to promote terrorism in other parts of India. Since then the various demonstrations and uprisings in the Valley have arguably had to work out new political possibilities, no longer entirely determined by the choice between India and Pakistan.