Islamic practice as resistance across settler territories


By Subhajit Pal

Colonialism as a phenomenon has shaped global history perhaps like none other. With its advent in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, western European powers changed the course of the modern world. As Ania Loomba (2015) writes, “colonialism was the midwife that assisted at the birth of European capitalism…without colonial expansion the transition to capitalism could not have taken place in Europe.” The process later affected both the cultural and religious geography of the colonized world. Practice of slave trade and indentured labour facilitated transnational movement of human beings to alien places in the world, and this movement, along with the arrival of ambitious Europeans, led to the entry of foreigners into the colonized heartland from the earlier metropoles (Veracini 2004; Wolfe 2006). This shift transformed the territories of the colonized world into territories of desire for the newly arrived settlers, even as the native population and their indigenous spaces presented themselves as hurdles in the path of settlement and permanent change of the colonized territory.

The enforced settlement of labour, wilful settlement of European traders and people with various other purposes foregrounded the territory of the colonised more than the lives of the natives. Assertion of the pre-colonial native identity became a threat to the settlement that extracted commercial benefit from the territory. Adding on to this, as Wolfe opines, the settlers’ claim on the territory as their natural home became directly antithetical to the native’s claim of the territory with changing times. The settlers’ relation to the land also changed. In order to satisfy the labour-hungry capitalists in the ‘New Worlds’ the European prison inmates were sent to the Americas who later became the first settlers there (Harnett, 1997). For this influx of people, who were earlier deemed as unfit for their homeland, the colonised territory became the new place for contestation. The hungry capitalists along with their labour forces, opened up another dynamic of colonialism that Denoon (1979) would call ‘settler colonialism’. In this case the indigenous/native labour became dispensable leaving ‘land’ as the only resource. This articulation made the indigenous people unwanted, thereby calling for their elimination. In settler colonial projects, Wolfe argues, the ‘invasion is a structure not an event’, where the colonists came to stay. In addition, they occupy the position of power and control in the colonies’ social and cultural discourses. This was in contrast to other forms of colonialism where colonisers rarely involved directly in the social and cultural life of the indigenous people. While moving away from metropoles was one criteria for the settlers, there were two more contested aspects, according to Wolfe: one was the positionality and claim to the indigenous discourses for selective appropriation; the second was resistance towards it, which is the basis of this paper and central to my argument.

Bringing Islam to the fore

As the native bodies and labour become an insignificant part in settler colonial territories, the only “sanctions practically available to the natives are ideological ones.” At an ideological level the conflict keeps the indigenousness alive in the discourse, thereby keeping assimilating appropriation at bay (Wolfe 1999, 2006). The native resistance in modern-day settler colonies such as Palestine or Kashmir might open up further debates on the role played by Islam in the global discourse of resistance.

In two of the most hotly contested settler colonial territories – Palestine and Kashmir – Islam and the practice of Islam have a very crucial role to play. The reason for my claim is that both the regimes that occupy these territories have Islamophobia in common. Israel has been inspired by right-wing Zionism and anti-Arab Islamophobic political practice. On the other hand, India has always been divided between the Hindu liberals and right-wing Hindutva ideology. Under these circumstances I would like to argue that the mere practice of Islam and its influence on the native cultural geographies of the colonised territories make it a frontal face of resistance.

To dig deeper, the cityscape of Srinagar in Kashmir is filled with mosques and bazaars and the placement of mosques in every neighbourhood testifies to its Islamic roots and belonging. While looked at from outside, the continuous struggle against occupation and Kashmiri nonchalance seem to present a heightened crisis. However, the Kashmiri population, a majority of whom are Muslims, draw heavily from the Quranic lessons of not fearing anyone else other than ‘Allah’ (Surah 2:40 and other references too).

My claim does not intend to reiterate the older debates of framing a Hindu-Muslim divide on the Kashmiri resistance (Zutshi, 2003). Rather I would argue that this narrative is a product of the occupying forces countering the ideological resistance that Islam and Islamic practice have permeated the Kashmiri imagination with. In fact, the Indian forces have perpetuated the anxiety of this divide. During my visit to the valley, I spoke to an armed forces personnel, who said, “Muslims making Kashmir a trash.” In fact, the resistance that I am trying to depict here is the result of a fear of assimilation and ‘elimination’ that forces the native population to resort to it. Kashmiri Islam is distinct from the Indian/ South Asian version of Islam, as the Hazratbal Shrine plays a unique role in uniting the Kashmiri populace (Kanth, 2018).

Countering the myths associated with Islam as resistance

However, post-Babri demolition in India and post-9/11 in a global context, these incidents are analysed through a homogenous lens. The Kashmiri struggle after the outbreak of the insurgency (or intifada as Kak refers to) has been termed in mainland narrative as an Islamic war perpetrated by Pakistan. And after three decades, I argue, the narrative has had a reverse impact on Kashmir.  Although Kashmiri armed factions have shown a tendency to use such language, I would like to draw on Akbar Ahmed’s argument in Thistle and Drone (2013). Ahmed argues that the occupying military forces in a predominantly Muslim society never respects the indigenous culture or caters to the idea of ‘tehzib or adab’ in behaviour. The rampant sexism, torture and mockery of traditions force the natives to fall into the trap of the mainstream narrative already framed for them. Sadiki’s (2010) argument in the context of Palestinian occupation that ‘modernity’ never arrived without bloodshed becomes important. He claims that Hamas’s armed struggle against Israel is premised on the principle that Islamic societies would not accept oppression without resistance, that too in the name of God. Keeping the fundamental characteristics of an Islamic society in mind, I argue that even the mundane and ordinary tasks of natives embody resistance.


In Islamic societies, not only armed struggles or the act of a militant writing the Kalma on the wall before breathing his last but also daily activities such as praying in a congregation or using the name of the occupier state as ‘baatil’ are seen as an act of resistance. Even a common students’ reference to the occupier nation as the other represents resistance. And the role of Islam in this is manifold. One, it gives moral legitimacy to the struggle. Two, it helps carrying the resistance on the sleeves as the occupier state is Islamophobic. Finally, it reinstates the solidarity networks uniting Uhygurs and Chechens, Kashmiris and Palestinians.


Ahmed, A. (2013). The thistle and the drone: how America’s war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam. Brookings Institution Press.

Denoon, D. (1979). Understanding settler societies. Australian Historical Studies, 18(73), 511-527.

Hartnett, S. (1997). Prison labor, slavery & capitalism in historical perspective. <>

Kanth, I. (2018). The Social and Political Life of a Relic: The Episode of the Moi-e-Muqaddas Theft in Kashmir, 1963-1964. HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, 38(2).

Sadiki, L. (2010). Reframing resistance and democracy: narratives from Hamas and Hizbullah. Democratization, 17(2), 350-376.

Veracini, L. (2011). Introducing. Settler Colonial Studies, 1 (1), 1–12.

Wolfe, P. (1999). Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology. London: Cassell.

Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of genocide research, 8(4), 387-409.

Zutshi, C. (2003). Languages of belonging: Islam, regional identity, and the making of Kashmir. Orient Blackswan.

Subhajit Pal studies Global Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, New Delhi.


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