This is a preprint of a review whose final and definite form has been published in Contemporary South Asia © Taylor & Francis; see publisher's version and entry in my publication list. The book itself is here
Islamism and democracy in India: the transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami, by Irfan Ahmad, Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 2009, xx + 306 pp., ISBN 978-0-691-13920-3
How did the secular and democratic polity in India change the politics and policies of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a party founded to oppose both principles? This question inspired Irfan Ahmad to close the gap between Nasr's 'The vanguard of the Islamic revolution' (on Pakistan; London: IB Tauris, 1994) and Kabir's 'The politics and development of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh' (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 2006) with a comprehensive monograph on 'Islamism and democracy in India'. He detects a 'remarkable transformation of Islamism' and highlights 'the conflicts that accompanied that transformation' (p. xi): while the Jamaat itself turned towards secular democracy, the turmoil of mandir, mandal and market (Hindu nationalism, reservation policies and liberalization) later radicalized its split-off, the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Since he further argues that the former transformation 'is deeply ideological' (p. 2) rather than a tactical guise, his research suggests nothing less than a solid appropriation of secular democracy by India's Islamists (pp. 8-9).
After a concise introduction, chapter two portrays the Jamaat's original 'political theology', which considered any cooperation with a non-Islamic state akin to apostasy. Chapters three to six demonstrate firstly that and secondly how this position fundamentally changed after independence, based on 16 months of fieldwork and seen mainly through the prism of student politics. Chapter seven gets to the point by arguing that the Jamaat's appropriation of secularism and democracy indeed reflects an ideological transformation. Firstly, Ahmad argues, path dependency drew the party into democracy's spell no matter how tactical its initial move. The Jamaat thus began, secondly, to replicate both democracy and secularism in its internal structures, namely by inverting the original top-down relationship between amir (leader) and shura (council) and by respecting a division of labor between the ulema (Islamic scholars) and political activists. Thirdly, SIMI's radicalization does not contradict, but rather constitutes the flip side of this replication; it reflects an emerging space for internal pluralism which attracted youthful radical opposition against party elders: 'SIMI's contesting of the established authorities […] signals the democratization of Islam' (p. 238) and 'can be seen as integral to the democratization process that Islamist organizations initiate and are affected by' (p. 155). The conclusion summarizes the Jamaat's transformation right at its ideological core: while Maududi's 'political theology' built on the dichotomy of friend and foe, of dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam) and dar-ul-Harb (land of unbelief), contemporary Jamaat phraseology breaks this dichotomy up and considers India a gray zone of dar-ul-Dawat (land of invitation to Islam).
Ahmad's book contributes the first comprehensive account of the Jamaat in India, further proves the dynamics of Islamism, emphasizes diversity, and irritates an often too clear-cut divide between politics and policies, a divide which 'is simply false [since] tactics spring from and entail a re-evaluation of ideology' (p. 6). More broadly, and I would make this a far stronger case than Ahmad himself (p. 26), he joins recent efforts to extend social movement research towards seemingly non-liberal-secular-democratic cases. Scholars still tend to focus on the 'good' movements (women, environment and peace) at the expense of alternative projects of modernity; Ahmad helps to bring the notion of 'multiple modernities' down to the level of empirical research. Unconvincing is only his attempt to explain why the internally plural reaction to Hindutva takes the specific form of radicalism in the case of SIMI yet reinforced moderation in the case of the Jamaat – a contradiction he brushes away too quickly (p. 231). But overall, his book is an impressive analytical achievement, a convincing argument for differentiation, and even in its substantive chapters a well-written and accessible read.