Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami
By Irfan Ahmad
Princeton University Press, 2009, 328 pp.
Islamism in Indonesia: Politics in the Emerging Democracy
By Bernhard Platzdasch
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009, 412 pp.
The fountainhead of political Islam in South Asia was Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79), whose writings inspired disciples in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka and eventually influenced al Qaeda. In Islamism and Democracy in India, an exploration of the Jamaat-e-Islami (Party of Islam) movement in India and its student movement offshoot, the anthropologist Ahmad shows how political Islam adapts its tactics (and even its ideology) to political circumstances. Because the religious neutrality of the Indian political system served its constituents' interests, the movement became a supporter of secular democracy. The student offshoot, however, responded to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism by going radical, through a process of internal struggle that Ahmad describes.
Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, is another case study of how Islamism can move toward the center in response to political opportunities. Since the democratic period began in Indonesia in 1998, the major parties with sharia agendas have remained loyal to the constitutional process -- a paradox explained by their need to move toward the center if they are to survive. Dwelling in sometimes excessive detail on the three main Islamist parties in the first five years of the new democracy, Platzdasch uses party records and his conversations with party activists to show how these parties downplayed their Islamist goals. The fact that some adaptations were only tactical implies that political Islam in Indonesia could change direction in response to global or domestic trends. Together, the two books suggest that political Islam is like any other ideology in its propensity to develop in different ways depending on the circumstances. The reminder is timely, as the West puzzles over how to coexist with Islamist movements around the world.