A World of Questions
Tufts historian Ayesha Jalal explores the notion of identity in the context of South Asian political history.
"People are generally comfortable wearing multiple identities," says Ayesha Jalal. "I'm quite comfortable being a woman, a Muslim, a Pakistani, an American."
Another identity she wields is that of historian. Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts, is a renowned scholar of South Asian politics and history. Much of her research deals with this notion of identity, including her most recent book "Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia," which explores perceptions of personal and political identity as they relate to the events that have shaped South Asia over the past half-century.
"I think the nation-states of the world, especially post-colonial nation-states like Pakistan, have more of an identity crisis than the people do," she says. "That's what generates the crisis of identity, when people feel that they have to emphasize one identity over the other in order to be recognized and be accommodated within a context." One example of this that Jalal raises is if religious or national identity is prioritized over regional identity, as has happened in Pakistan's history.
Indeed, the evolution of her scholarship begins with an event that prompted her to revisit her own identity. As a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York City in 1971, she found herself drawn to the sciences. But she was also captivated by the headlines about the violence taking place in her native Pakistan.
Jalal speaks at the Dean's Faculty Forum event on Oct. 29, 2008 as The Fletcher School's Vali Nasr (center) and School of Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Sternberg (rear left) listen.
The conflict between India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan, which killed thousands, resulted in East Pakistan becoming the independent state of Bangladesh. She says it was a "mental trauma" to witness the violence and atrocities that took place then.
"It really made me question some of my received perceptions of myself as a Pakistani," recalls Jalal, who cites the discomfort of coming from a patriotic family—her father was a Pakistani civil servant—and being raised with certain understandings of her country only to bear witness to great violence and division. "It was a very awkward time."
In 1972, when her family returned to Pakistan, she enrolled in an American-run school there. The science program, however, was not the same caliber as Stuyvesant, so she gravitated toward the humanities and social sciences. Jalal never looked back. When she went to Wellesley for college, Jalal pursued a dual major in political science and history.
Jalal says she did not intend to become a historian; rather, she was "propelled to do so."
"I felt that the methods of history really allowed me to question the things I was interested in," she says. "1971 was a very difficult time. The Pakistan army in the name of preserving national integrity massacred people in the eastern wing. That kind of discomfort can spark off anger and a quest to understand."
In 1977, Pakistan endured a military coup led by a general wedded to 'Islamizing' the country because it was created in the name of Islam. This led Jalal to question the very process by which the modern nation was formed. Around this same time, just as Jalal began pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, the transfer of power papers from the 1947 partition of India that resulted in the formation of Pakistan were released.
Her examination of these papers formed the basis of her first book, "The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan," published in 1985 about the man who helped bring about Pakistani independence, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Subsequent works continued to explore the evolution and intersection of politics and culture in the subcontinent.
Her latest book, "Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia," explores a term—jihad—that has become almost inextricably associated with a violent, extremist perception of Islam. This corresponds to what Jalal calls a "hardening of identities" by observers of the Muslim world in response to global events. But she also believes there are opportunities to see the bigger picture of what it means to be Muslim, and that some people are taking advantage of those opportunities.
"I think there are many Americans who are beginning to realize there are many different narratives of being Muslim," says Jalal. "While ostensibly there has been a hardening of identities, there is also a very vibrant discourse not just among Muslims in the U.S. but between Muslims and members of other religious communities."
Jalal has also found a lively discourse at Tufts since returning in 1999, noticing marked changes since her first stint here in 1991.
"The ethos of the undergraduate student body has been altering. They question much more," she says. "South Asia itself has become much bigger [as a field of study] since certainly 1998, so that in itself generates a much more effective interaction with the students."
In the classroom, Jalal sees herself as a facilitator to help students find their own answers, much as she sought to do at their age.
"I cannot tell people what to think. I myself wrote against the grain of everything I was supposed to believe in," says Jalal. "I believe in helping people question, to think and really create a sense of awkwardness with some received wisdoms. That's where my own personal intellectual journey began."
Profile by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications
Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography. Video by Educational Media Services.
This story originally ran on Nov. 3, 2008.