The need to understand and explain the phenomena referred to as ‘radicalization’ or ‘Talibanization’, is becoming increasingly urgent, given the massive humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Pakistan, accompanied by a pervasive sense of fear and foreboding. Though, it is difficult to explore or analyze such transformations while they are still occurring, and the processes appear to be changing by the day, some tentative reflections on the social, economic and political dynamics may be proposed at this stage.
The terms ‘radicalization’ and ‘Talibanization’ are being employed to refer to the increasing tendency to use a peculiar brand of religion, as the justification for conquest and control over territory, populations and resources, and the establishment of specific forms of judicial and social systems by the use of force. Unbridled violence, including gruesome murder, decapitation, lashing and cutting off of limbs and similar tactics, comprise a salient feature of these new phenomena. The creation of intense fear seems to underlie the formation of such social and political systems. Fear is engendered to maintain control and ensure compliance with the dictates of the leaders.
There is a commonly observed tendency to conceive of radicalization in terms solely of ideology. Religious zealotry, extremism and militancy, or whatever one prefers to call them, are often regarded as signs of backwardness, lack of education, absence of a civilized mind-set and a reflection of a barbaric or savage worldview. The recourse to colonial binaries, such as backward versus modern, savage versus civilized, or illiterate versus enlightened, serves to obfuscate the issues rather than clarify them. Categories such as backward, savage, barbaric or pre-modern fail as explanations since they become tautologies: they committed the act because they are barbaric; they are barbaric because they committed the act. The reliance upon psychological and ideological categories, that refer to some kind of assumed inherent proclivity among certain people to commit heinous acts, becomes essentialist. Such explanations become redundant, for they obliterate history, as well as, material reality that form a part of the dynamics of radicalism. The use of overarching ideological categories seems to rely on some form of biological determinism, thereby rendering such categories deeply racist. The importance of locating specific actors, within specific historical contexts and material concerns, is overlooked when there is resort merely to ideology, belief or mind-set as explanations for historical phenomena.
Instead of characterizing the perceived extremism and violence as some kind of inherent flaw within a particular people, religion, culture or belief system, it is more fruitful to explore the political economy of radicalization, in order to lay bare the material basis that may have generated it. It seems to be more useful to examine the conflicts between competing social classes attempting to establish their hegemony and deploying religion, or a specific form of it, to justify their position in the social and economic hierarchies. Islam seems to provide an ideological cover for class-based privilege and exploitation. In many Muslim countries ‘the upper strata increasingly proclaim their attachment to Islam, in a frenzied search for an ideological guarantee for their social and material advantages’. (Rodinson,1966:226). The ruling strata use Islam to give religious endorsement to their conservative attitudes. A historical evaluation of the compacts between specific interpretations of religion and political power may serve to demystify radicalism and locate it back within history and material conflicts. The use of religion to attain, maintain and enhance class power may, in turn, serve to explain the increasing currency of religion and its hegemonic ascendancy within the state and society.
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