This post, a contribution to the “Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations” symposium, is a shortened version of an essay that will appear in Political Theology.
In our respective books—Cultivating the Past, Living the Modern and Sovereign Attachments—Amal Sachedina and I uncover non-juridical dimensions of sovereignty by examining statist cultural productions. In my book, I examine how mediatized productions (speeches, musicals, magazines, art, advertisements, television dramas, and memoirs) of the Pakistani state and Pakistani Taliban travel across different citizen-publics. In Sachedina’s book, she explores the Omani state’s heritage regime as it controls curatorial and exhibition activities in museums and shapes restoration practices and national material forms that define urban landscapes. Through the creation of affective atmospheres, emotional attachments, and a sense of the historical, these cultural practices frame not only how individuals relate to the state, but also how they understand their own pasts and imagine their futures. For me, such an analysis is crucial as it not only reveals the concrete ways in which relations of sovereignty are negotiated, but also helps us to understand how politics shape assumptions of gender, family relations, and kinship. For Sachedina, this is how public history is made, and how certain pasts, including the histories of minoritized groups, are rendered invisible. We are both then ultimately concerned with examining cultural modes of governance and their implications for those who are on the periphery of society.
The books pay particular attention to historical moments when statist claims to sovereignty seem to be in doubt. In the case of Pakistan, statist sovereignty is contested by the Taliban militants who, since their formation in 2007, have evinced a will to sovereignty through occupation of territory as well as through violence. In the case of Oman, the state-making project emerged with the establishment of the polity in 1970 and has since been linked to the Sultanate’s need to establish control over the interior after ousting the tribally organized community led by Ibadi Imams. The books show, in different ways, how each state curates its national history to legitimize its right to govern. But this project of legitimating sovereignty remains incomplete. Whereas I note in particular how the state’s right to violence is interrogated by proto-statist formations as well as citizen-subjects, Sachedina focuses on alternate political rationalities grounded in divine law that exist alongside the secular political rationality of the nation-state. By delineating the formation of counter- and ambivalent publics, the books outline how sovereignty remains unfinished. By furnishing us with analyses of protests, citizen-generated media, and everyday conversations through which relations of sovereignty are rerouted, the books extend our understanding of the cultural dimensions of sovereignty.
The Cases of Pakistan and Oman
Since its inception in 1970, the Sultanate of Oman has sought to incorporate its coastal and interior regions under one political dispensation. Historically, and especially during the Ibadi sharia Imamate (1913 to 1958), the elected Ibadi Imams had exercised sovereignty in the interior; the hereditary line of Sultans meanwhile controlled the coastline and shared sovereignty with the British empire. The coastal regions, since the seventeenth century, have also been home to non-Arab Shia Muslims from the Sindh-Gujarat region, who acted as trading intermediaries between the Sultans and the British. Marked by these different forms of de facto and de jure sovereignties, the post-1970 Omani state has sought to craft a homogenous nation out of these heterogenous populations. In the process, the state has had to reckon with the material, symbolic, and epistemic remnants of the Ibadi sharia Imamate as well as the histories of the non-Arab people who have lived in the region for centuries.
Conceptually, the political rationality of the Omani nation-state and its embrace of values rooted in liberal humanism must confront the idea of sovereignty advanced by the Ibadi Imams that vested sovereignty in the Divine and supported values that emerge from Divine texts and exemplary figures from Islamic history. These are different modes of conceptualizing the relationship between religion and politics that the Omani nation-state has tried to reconcile. It has done so by redefining and reworking the sites and objects of the Ibadi Imamate to conjure a unified national history. But the in the process, as Sachedina argues, the Omani state delinks material forms (sites and objects) from the web of social exchanges in which they were grounded and obscures the presence of diasporic populations in the region. The modern Omani state’s history-making project erases these alternate epistemologies and ways of organizing life.
Specifically, the Omani heritage project distills the past into a series of ethical principles and practices that citizens are invited to enact, extolling the virtues of innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity. This project is undertaken in part to modernize the nation and participate in global capitalist production. Under the Ibadi Imamate’s sovereign dispensation, these would not have been celebrated virtues; instead, what was most crucial was to seek Divine salvation and implement the will of God. Daily life and conduct were assessed in relation to past authoritative and exemplary forms of justice and morality as embodied by the Imams, the Prophet Muhammad, and his companions. Sachedina describes a further erasure in the Omani heritage project: the region’s legacy of participation in the slave trade. National accounts of the past carefully elide the Sultanate’s role in the slave trade and the legacy of slavery in present-day social stratifications. As Sachedina explains, restaging Omani history in this way produces an image of a united Sultanate and a nation-state where people of otherwise two separate polities now appear to share a united past. But these “exercise(s) in selectivity,”[i] as can be expected, are colonizing—in the sense of erasure of alternate onto-epistemologies—and homogenizing. They outline a generic Islam, erase the multiple routes that people have taken into the region, and shift the locus of authoritative time from the past to an uncertain future.
In my own work, I also show elisions and erasures, considering how the Pakistani state and the Taliban advance competing notions of sovereignty in Pakistani public culture. I am particularly interested in how each entity mobilizes Islam, gender, and emotion in its contest over the right to rule and to engage in legitimate violence. While the productions of the militants are often viewed solely as instruments for propaganda or recruitment and those of the states are considered strategic interventions in the service of national security, I view these cultural texts as objects whose circulation engenders and produces relations of sovereignty. In other words, such cultural productions form the discursive and affective repertoire through which claimants to sovereignty interpolate multiple publics, binding them to their respective political projects. Studying them can therefore give us a glimpse into the aesthetic and affective dimensions of sovereign power.
My examination of the Pakistani case shows that Taliban and state texts are replete with gendered figurations, which I analyze to understand the constellations of ideas, affects, and histories through which relationships of sovereignty are established between claimants and their publics. These figurations include the paternal father, innocent child, mourning mother, brave soldier, resolute believer, perverse terrorist, and the dutiful or undutiful daughter. All are stylized as forms of political attachments. The figurations are both historical and generative. Each is tied to a particular temporality of emergence and carries the residue of the past. Each becomes a means through which the present and future is felt. Statist performances of sovereignty, then, not only produce attachments between individuals and the state, but also create sites where ideas about gender, sexuality, kinship, and understandings of Islam are negotiated.
Beneath the sanitized and depoliticized historical arcs produced by the state (in the case of Oman) or stylized political attachments (in the case of Pakistan), gaps and tensions remain and reveal themselves through a close study of everyday life.
[i] Sachedina, Cultivating the Past, 140.