Religion and Politics

Limits of Islamism in Contemporary India and Bangladesh

Maidul Islam*

Kolkata, April 19, 2015, (Alochonaa)  Today, neoliberal capitalism is passing through a global crisis. In this context, my book  tries to answer the core question – can Islamism articulate a politics of alternative in a world marked by capitalist globalization and neoliberal consensus? Further questions related to the major theme are also addressed as follows – after the failure of the twentieth-century socialism, what happens to the promise and goal of Islamism in providing an alternative to capitalism? Can Islamism represent a politics of social transformation or is it only limited to a peculiar politics of resistance and critique to neoliberal capitalism? In this regard, my book focuses on Islamism as a political ideology by taking the case of Jamaat-e-Islami in contemporary India and Bangladesh.



The cover of Maidul’s book- Google Image

In the ‘Introduction’ of the book, namely, ‘Islamism(s) of Academics and Islamists’, I have clarified the terminologies that have been used in the study. Then, I have discussed the genealogical debate on the rise of Islamism in the Muslim world followed by the existing categories of analysis for research on Islamism. The chapter then moved on to assess the academic debates on Islamism apart from outlining a brief chapter plan. In Chapter 1, I have critically examined the limitations of relevant literature on Islamism of the Jamaat-e-Islami variety in India and Bangladesh and identify my point of departure from the extant academic literature. I have classified the existing literature on Jamaati Islamism as ontic studies, largely concerned with empirico-factual analysis rather than engaging with broader ontological issues regarding the very existence of the political ideology of Islamism. Also, the chapter critically examined the existing theoretical and methodological frameworks followed by the methodological overview of my book. Finally, I briefly put forward my thoughts on the overlapping boundaries of religion and politics. I have argued how political fronts embedded within organized religion in general and Islam in particular create conditions for generating a political ideology called Islamism. I further invoked the questions related to the emergence/existence of Islamism as a political ideology in contemporary Muslim societies and the possible explanations regarding the growth of Islamism as a politico-ideological movement in our times. In discussing the academic literature on Islamism, I further deployed three existing analytical frameworks: (a) understanding the emergence of Islamism in the Muslim world as opposed to secular-nationalism via the psychoanalytical category of ‘return of the repressed’ (b) Islamism as a ‘protest ideology’ after the collapse of anti-capitalist discourse of twentieth century socialism and (c) Islamist negotiation with the new hegemonic politics of neoliberalism. In Chapters 2 and 3, I focus on the specific case study of Jamaat-e-Islami in India.


Chapter 2, ‘Islamism in Neoliberal India’ discusses the contemporary phase of neoliberal India, where Islamism operates in a minority context and the major politico-ideological debates within which Islamism is situated. First, the chapter briefly analyzes the socio-economic conditions of Muslims – the core constituency of Islamism, which forms a religious minority in India. It briefly discusses the peculiarities and specificities of the Muslim question by pointing towards the socio-economic and political marginalization of Muslims in contemporary neoliberal India. The chapter then proceeds towards narrating three distinct Politico-Ideological Articulations among Indian Muslims, representing three varied groups of political leadership. This section argues that in India, historically the leftwing progressive discourses were never a dominant political discourse among Indian Muslims and the majority of Indian Muslims form a ‘moderate’ group supporting secular political parties than any Islamist or Muslim communal groups. The chapter disclosed three strands of Muslim political leadership corroborated with three distinct politico-ideological articulations within the community in a neoliberal policy regime. The first group is the token representation of Muslim leadership in mainstream political parties like Congress, BJP and those regional parties which run political affairs with an agenda of neoliberal consensus. The political leadership emerging out of this kind of collaborationist group with neoliberalism is the representative of power bloc and I have described this political articulation as power bloc articulation serving the interests of the neoliberal status quo.

This power bloc political articulation is a dominant political discourse among Indian Muslims. The second group has an agenda of ‘Muslim particularism’ with only community-specific demands. This group comprises some small Muslim political parties and pressure groups with conservative religious agenda. This politics of Islamism in India, which I termed as politics of particularism has specific narrow political interests for its constituency. Since the politics of Islamism cum Muslim particularism is entangled with theological discourses, I have described it as theo-political articulations among Indian Muslims. Islamism as such is a less popular political discourse among Muslim minorities in India.

Islamist politics in the form of Muslim particularism in India tries to celebrate its own marginality and seeks to be a part of the power bloc by replacing a hierarchical society with another form of hierarchical society. It generally tries to negotiate with the politics of the power bloc. This politics of Muslim particularism often celebrates the excluded condition of its Muslim constituents while being located on the margins and then attack the power bloc from ‘outside’ but without having a radical agenda for social transformation. I have described this politico-ideological position as politics of altered status quo (representing a mirror image of neoliberal status quo) that vacillates between collaboration and opposition to the dominant neoliberal power bloc.

The politico-ideological articulations of Jamaati Islamism represent a politics of Muslim particularism and politics of altered status quo with theo-political articulations. Finally, there can be a possibility of constructing progressive political articulations among Indian Muslims with the joint initiatives of liberal, secular and progressive sections of the Muslim community and the concrete initiatives of Leftwing politics that are currently marginalized both in the dominant political discourses of the country as well as among Muslims and, thus, can be regarded as a ‘marginal political discourse’ among Indian Muslims. In the final subsection of Chapter 2, I have engaged with the specific rhetoric of Jamaat-e-Islami against ‘neoliberal capitalism’, ‘American imperialism’, ‘Indian state’ and Indian ‘ruling classes’.


Chapter 3, ‘Islamic Universalism and Muslim Particularism: Ideological Articulations of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind’ narrated diverse forms of politico-ideological articulations of Jamaat. This chapter described how the Jamaat reacts to contemporary issues in India by mobilizing its varied mass organizations among students, youth and women by articulating a politics of resistance in many localized anti-capitalist and anti-state struggles while using the rhetoric of ‘Islamic alternative’.

I have shown how the Jamaat is critical of the politics of neoliberal economic reforms and foreign policy shifts of the Indian state and ideologically articulates a politics of anti-Hindutva, anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism. The chapter narrated how the Jamaat is more sympathetic to the Left and other secular democratic forces to forge broader anti-imperialist and anti- Hindutva alliances. This chapter also showed how the Jamaat is relatively soft on Indian nationalism and secularism and how it identifies Hindu majoritarianism as a prime antagonistic frontier to fight.


Thus, in moments of elections, the Jamaat often supports secular-democratic political formations even if it carries forward a neoliberal agenda since Jamaat prioritizes Hindutva as a greater antagonistic frontier/political enemy than ‘American imperialism’ and neoliberalism. In this chapter, I also discussed how the Jamaat is critical of any form of terrorism, whether perpetrated by an individual, group or a state, as ‘un-Islamic’ and how it is concerned with the issues of security for Muslim minority citizens. This chapter also discussed how Jamaat is critical about ‘Western cultural globalization’ in the form of its professed anti-consumerism. However, I also pointed out the staunch oppositions of Jamaat on the issues of live-in relationships, religious blasphemy, atheism and gay rights.


The Jamaat’s rhetoric on various issues that were discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 are, then, posited within the theoretical and ideological contradictions of Jamaat between what I have termed as ‘Islamic universalism’ and ‘Muslim particularism’. The former is an attempt to pose Islam as an ideological guide for everybody – both Muslims and non-Muslims alike – and, thus, claims to be an emancipatory political discourse for entire humanity, while the latter is a narrow sectarian vision for placing particularist demands for only Muslims.


In India, the Jamaat lacks the universalist agenda of an Islamic state precisely because of the minority character of its constituency of Indian Muslims unlike Bangladesh, and the different plebian constituencies of India could not identify with the political project of the Jamaat at the same time. As a result, the Jamaat is unable to construct a populist politics of underdogs against a common antagonistic frontier of the neoliberal power bloc. Neither could it become the ‘vanguard’ of Indian Muslims by achieving a hegemonic position among the Muslim leadership in India nor could it rally other non-Muslim marginalized sections of Indian population. Thus, even if the Jamaat has an aspiration to represent a hegemonic politics of Islamic universalism, it is unable to do so and rather being relegated to a marginalized Muslim pressure group. This is what I have called the limits of Islamist populism, where its crisis of political mobilization in India encounters another strategic cum ideological crisis of unresolved tussle between Islamic universalism and Muslim particularism.


Chapters 4 and 5 discussed the case of Jamaat-e-Islami in India’s Muslim majority neighbouring country, Bangladesh.

Chapter 4 and 5 deals with Jamaat in Bangladesh. The photo shows 13 Jamaat e Islami Bangladesh women member were being held in Dhaka recently-Google Image

Chapter 4 and 5 deals with Jamaat in Bangladesh. The photo shows 13 Jamaat e Islami Bangladesh women member were being held in Dhaka recently-Google Image


Chapter 4, ‘Islamism in Muslim Majority Context: The Case of Bangladesh’ has focused on the context of the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh. After engaging with the existing literature on the rise of Islamism in contemporary Bangladesh, I tried to add a political theory perspective in explaining the prominence of Islamism in contemporary Bangladesh. Afterwards, I proceeded towards pointing out the broad contours of Mujibism to which the Islamist discourse of Bangladesh Jamaat was responding. In particular, I have highlighted the limits and problems of ‘Kemalist’ politics of Sheikh Mujib and subsequent military dictatorships with their inability to satisfy the democratic demands of the Bangladeshi people, which created conditions for Islamism to emerge as a prominent political player in Bangladesh. In this regard, I have argued how Mujibism turns out to be mimicry of the Kemalist project in Turkey. Then, I pointed out the key politico-ideological discourses in contemporary Bangladesh within which Islamism tries to find its own niche audience. Finally, the chapter outlined the ideological interventions of Jamaat in terms of constructing antagonistic frontiers in Bangladeshi politics and briefly touched upon the specific rhetoric of ‘Islamic alternative’ in asserting Islamic universalism.


Chapter 5, ‘Islamist Politics of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami: The Crisis of Islamist Populism’ first outlined the neoliberal setting in Bangladesh and the nature of response by the Jamaat to such neoliberalism. It also discussed the Jamaat’s assertive oppositions to the issues of atheism, blasphemy, live-in relationships, homosexuality via its call for censorship and moral policing against ‘Western cultural globalization’. The chapter also analyzed the success and failures of Jamaat’s electoral politics by assessing its rise in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while noticing the crisis of its electoral mobilization that actually started from the mid-1990s until the present, with each elections right from 1996, marking receding vote share for Jamaat in real terms. Subsequently, the chapter accounted for Jamaat’s ideological crisis in the present conjuncture. In this context, I analyzed the structural constraints of political mobilization behind the Islamist project of Bangladeshi Jamaat and, thus, suggested possible reasons for the crisis of ‘Islamist populism’ in Bangladesh.


Chapter 6, ‘Islamism in Contemporary India and Bangladesh: Comparative Overview of the Politics of Alternative’, compared the similarities and differences of politico-ideological articulations of Jamaati Islamism with regard to its rhetoric about ‘Islamic alternative’ in contemporary India and Bangladesh. I compared the politics of Jamaati Islamism vis-à-vis neoliberalism in both the contexts of India and Bangladesh, which has been discussed in the previous chapters. I have argued how the position of Bangladesh Jamaat is fundamentally different from the Indian Jamaat’s ‘anti-neoliberalism’. Then, I have demonstrated the limits and vacillations of Islamism in challenging neoliberalism in India and Bangladesh despite its political rhetoric of providing an (Islamic) ‘alternative’ to any ‘man-made system’. Even if Jamaati Islamism promises an ‘Islamic alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism, it cannot substantially give an alternative to capitalism in general. This is because it profoundly defends private property rights along with its inability to invent alternative Islamic modes of production and exchange other than the existing modes of production and exchange that humanity has already witnessed under tribal agrarian communities, feudalism and capitalism.

Jamaati Islamism, at best, is articulating an agenda of Islamic welfare state and can be perfectly accommodated within the logic of capitalism with a system of wage labour and private ownership of major means of production. Thus, its cherished alternative of ‘Islamic state’ is not actually an ‘alternative’ to capitalism but rather has an agenda to reform capitalism with a projected human face of welfarism. At present, this welfarist model of Jamaati Islamism is conflicting with neoliberalism that tries to provide an alternative to welfare capitalism by reducing state subsidy in education, health and other social sector benefits. Thus, Jamaati Islamism can promise an alternative to neoliberalism than an alternative to capitalism in general.


Further in the sixth chapter, while discussing the Islamist rhetoric against ‘Western cultural globalization’, I noticed similarities in ideological articulations between Indian and Bangladeshi Jamaat on the questions of blasphemy, atheism, homosexuality and freedom of expression like in the cases of Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin controversies. In this respect, I also explain why on the question of neoliberalism, sometimes the positions of Jamaat are very different in India and Bangladesh, but why on the question of ‘Western cultural globalization’, the positions of Jamaat across the two countries are similar. Moreover, I try to assess the extent of crisis of Islamism in India and Bangladesh by analyzing the dynamics of Islamist opposition to ‘Western cultural globalization’ by tracing out the precise stakes that Islamism has in accepting such ‘cultural globalization’. Jamaat’s opposition to ‘capitalism’, ‘neoliberalism’, ‘American imperialism’ and ‘Western cultural globalization’ brings out the ‘West’ as an antagonistic frontier in the ideological articulations of (Jamaati) Islamism. Thus, Jamaat’s anti-Western critique is more a culturalist and politico-ideological one as it never denies the acceptance of Western science and technology for the material benefits of the Muslim population, but it negates the cultural and political baggage of Western modernity like secularism, nationalism, liberal capitalism and socialism. Thus, it differentiates between ‘modernization’ and ‘Westernization’. Jamaat accepts the concept of modernization that entails technological, scientific and socio-economic development but rejects ‘Westernization’, signifying un-Islamic systems that are based on secularism and sexual freedom.

The binary opposition between ‘Islamism’ and the ‘West’ is not simply a construction of Orientalists, but it also emanates from the logical corollary of arguments of both Islamists and a section of postmodern celebration of Islamism, which seems to have uncritically accepted the project of Islamism.

The portrayal of Islamism as a ‘protest discourse’ against the ‘Western hegemony’ only creates an image that both the Western power bloc and Islamism take each other seriously by giving due importance without being able to relegate each other into redundancy by constructing a no-enemy world. This kind of discourse with its emphasis on an essential conflict between ‘Islamism’ and ‘West’, in fact, produces an all encompassing discourse, reflecting a mirror image of orientalism, where the debates are polarized on the lines of a fundamental contestation between two actors. It is no less than a politics of mutual Othering between orientalism and Islamist Occidentalism. Effectively, this eliminates, erodes and obliterates any other critical political discourse that might not take a position either in favour of Western power bloc or Islamism and rather choose to be in opposition to both.

Indeed, when there are attempts to construct such a binary logic of a tussle between Islam and the West, we must resist such a temptation to choose a camp between Orientalism and Islamist occidentalism. Rather one must think beyond such fault-lines and struggle to create a critical political, ideological and intellectual discourse that should contest the hegemony of orientalism, neoliberalism and the exclusive project of Islamism, which in the name of an emancipatory Universalism, reproduces a political project that sustains much of the exploitation and oppression under conditions of contemporary capitalism. I have tried to precisely do such an exercise in dealing with the academic discourse that centres around the debates between the West and the Islam by identifying the problems of Euro–American neoliberalism that is being mimicked in India and Bangladesh on the one hand and the limits and inability of Islamism in providing an ‘alternative’ to neoliberalism on the other.



*Maidul Islam PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata, India. As a Clarendon-Hector Pilling-Senior Hulme Scholar at Brasenose College, he studied political theory for his doctoral studies in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. The Cambridge University Press has recently published his doctoral dissertation, Limits of Islamism: Jamaat-e-Islami in Contemporary India and Bangladesh. He was also a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His research interests include Political Theory, Political Philosophy, Identity Politics, Contemporary South Asian Politics, Indian Muslims and Cinema.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on Bengal history. Please send us your submission at

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