Ammar Anwer: From Islamist To Dreams of A Pluralist Pakistan

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

Ammar Anwer is an ex-Islamist who writes for the Huffington PostThe Nation andThe Quilliam Foundation

He believes in libertarianism and Democracy. He aspires to see Pakistan becoming a Pluralistic State. 

He tweets @ammaranwer3 and can be found on Facebook.

He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about his journey away from Islamism.


Dawa.jpg” style=”width: 500px; height: 337px; margin: 10px 5px;” title=”Protest by Islamist group Jamat ud Dawa in Pakistan. (Photo: © Reuters)” />


Clarion Project: You used to be an Islamist. What drew you to that ideology?

Ammar Anwer: Growing up in Pakistan, I always heard the argument that the West is responsible for the decline of Muslim World.

Most of the people give the example of the decline of Ottoman Caliphate and relate it to the West’s hatred towards Islam and Muslims. I used to believe that as well so it developed in me a feeling of revenge. I thought that since the West has caused so much damage to the Muslims, be it the Iraq war or the Afghanistan war, therefore it’s payback time for the West.

It never crossed my mind how cruel Saddam or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was. This being said, I am still not in favor of wars, to me war must be the last resort.

Secondly I grew up in a family who had links with the Deoband School of thought (A sub-sect of Sunni Islam in the Sub-continent) and Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist Party in India-Pakistan. I was inspired by the influential Islamist Scholar of 20th century, the founder of Jamaat -e-Islami, Maulana Syed Abul Ala Maududi.

The way Maulana Maududi tried to counter the Western thought inspired me hugely. For instance, while denouncing secularism, Maulana Maududi said the transformation of faith from the affairs of state to individuality would result in the abandonment of Islam by most of the people.

He thought that secularism would give rise to atheism or lack of belief in society. According to him religion is the ultimate source of morality, therefore when more and more would people become un-Islamic, the society would also become unethical.

I liked the way he tried to counter Western thought and presented Islam as an alternative to Western democracy and secularism. This was rare especially since most of the scholars are not aware of Western ideologies. Therefore, he caught my attention.



Clarion: What made you change your mind?

Anwer: After some years I started to get doubtful about religion. It appeared to me that nothing in this world is absolute. Everything has short comings and uncertainties and religions are no exception to this rule. I started to believe that Islam is not absolute as it often claims to be, it should also be scrutinized and dissected. Then some of the laws in Islam really bothered me a lot. For instance, I started to think that leaving a religion or accepting a religion is one’s personal affair and there should not be any punishment for that. Similarly, I thought it’s quite ridiculous to stone people for having sexual affairs and to punish people for committing blasphemy.

It was pretty much the end of religion for me but I never considered myself as a non-believer yet, I still had some spiritual connections with Islam. These thoughts really helped me to get rid of the cancerous ideology of Islamism.

But the main reason why I quit the Islamist approach was that I begin to understand that Islam is not all about politics and the establishment of an Islamic state is not the fundamental teachings of Islam (as often claimed by some of the Islamists).

I started reading the reformist Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmed Ghamidi and I began to realize that Islamists have totally exaggerated the political aspect of Islam. They only understood Islam from one angle i.e politics. I started to believe that Islamism is the totalitarian interpretation of Islam and Islam is much more than merely Politics. I also started to believe that Islam accommodates democracy (From the Quranic verse: “Their system is based on their consultation.’ (42:38) and I began to consider pan-Islamism as one of the most fallacious ideologies.

I read the concept of Modern nation states and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, an influential Political figure and a religious scholar of India) also inspired me in this regard. You can read my article on Maulana Azad here)

Moreover I also differed with the strategy of Islamists. I believed that instead of trying to Islamize the whole world or a whole state, they should Islamize the People. They should deliver the teachings of Islam to the people peacefully rather than being violent. No state can survive for long if it has been established without the consent of the people. Also the state represents the people, if people are secular then the state would be secular and if people are Islamic, then the state would be Islamic.

Therefore we should develop the interest of Islam amongst the people and if they don’t agree with us, then we don’t have any right to control them or sabotage their freedom.



Clarion: What do you think is the biggest reason why Islamist groups flourish in Pakistan?

Anwer: I think the main reason is the same I have mentioned above. It’s always the feelings of revenge and the superiority complex which tells people Islam is the best. Most of the people believe that Islam is the complete code of life and that we must impose Islam on every corner of the world, hence the slogan “Islam Must Dominate the World”. Also our seminaries are a big reason why most of the people think like that.

In almost every Islamic seminary, the students are generally taught that:

  1. Anywhere in the world, if someone commits idolatry (polytheism) or apostasy, it is punishable by death and it is our prime responsibility to implement this punishment.
  2. In this world, the non-Muslims cannot live freely and must be oppressed. No one except the Muslims has the right to live with complete sovereignty. No one else can govern a state.
  3. All non-Muslims states are illicit and it is our responsibility to eliminate them whenever we have the power to do so.
  4. The concept of modern state formation is totally against the teachings of Islam. All Muslims are like a single nation and they must have one single state and government (caliphate)

These teachings are the main reason for the existence of extremist groups like ISIS.



Clarion: You talk about the need for a counter-narrative beyond secularism. What does that counter-narrative look like to you?

Anwer: Secularism cannot change a man’s perception about religion. A lot of my liberal friends believe that secularism would be enough to counter Islamic extremism.

But while secularism is indeed the only way we can have a tolerant and a pluralistic society, I also believe the issue of Islamic extremism cannot be solved without a counter narrative against Islamism. Islamism is the political interpretation of Islam. Islamists have interpreted Islam in a way that makes it seem as if every aspect of Islam is incomplete without politics.

The fountainhead of Islamism, according to most historians, is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization founded by the Islamic scholar Hasan Al Banna in Egypt.

Just like Karl Marx interpreted life in terms of economic factors and declared economy the vortex and crux of all the struggles and conflicts, Islamists have interpreted the whole Islam in terms of politics, where every aspect of Islam asks for a political answer.



To understand Islamism, it is very important to study the works of Maulana Syed Abul Ala Maududi.

Maulana Maududi presents God’s sending of the prophets to the world in a particular political light. Thus, discussing the nature of the mission of the prophets in his book Tajdeed-o-Ihya-e Deen (‘The Renewal and Revival of the Deen’) Maulana Maududi wrote:-

“The highest goal of the mission of the prophets (peace be upon them) in this world has been to establish the Divine Government and enforce the system of life that they had brought from God.

They were willing to give the people who followed Ignorance (ahl-e jahiliyat) the right to remain established in their ignorant (jahili) beliefs and to allow them to continue to follow their ignorant ways to the extent that the impact of their actions remained restricted to them alone.

But they were not willing to give them the right and, quite naturally, they could not give them this right that the reign of power could be in their hands and that they could run human affairs according to the laws of Ignorance (jahiliyat). This is why all the prophets made efforts to set off a political revolution.

In the case of some, their efforts were only to the extent of preparing the ground for instance, the Prophet Abraham.

Some of them launched revolutionary movements in actual practice, but their work ended before establishing Divine Government for instance, the Messiah [Jesus]. And some took this movement to the stage of success for instance, the Prophet Moses and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).”

Rejecting this Islamist concept of prophethood as put forward by Maulana Maududi, the noted Islamic scholar, peace activist and former member of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, writes in his book “Ta’abir ki Ghalati” (‘Error of Interpretation’):-

“This opinion about the prophets is not proper. Assuming that their concern was to acquire power and that had they acquired it, they would have permitted people to continue in their wrong ways, is absolutely wrong, for the very mission of the prophets was to guide people to goodness and what is right.”

As we can see, this issue is related with the political interpretation of Islam and hence it can only be confronted by providing a strong counter narrative against it.


Subscribe to our newsletter

By entering your email, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

Be ahead of the curve and get Clarion Project's news and opinion straight to your inbox