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Neoliberalism and the Taliban

July 24, 2013

ON the face of things, there could not be a starker, more complete contrast between the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the pro-market, deregulation-heavy politics of the neoliberal state.

In world politics, the Taliban seek and perform a tableau inspired by anti-modernity and obscurantism.

In the details of their bearded, veiled and amputation-friendly public performance of politics there appears a strident disavowal of the transnational interconnectedness assumed by bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

It is a neat duality, hence an inherently attractive one, not least because it sells the particular brand of Taliban fundamentalism as an authentic response to the domineering policies of rich imperialist nations.

It is precisely this perception — the opposition between neoliberal policies of rich nations and the institutions they control, and the Taliban’s obscurantism — that post-colonial scholar Masud Raja is able to disentangle.

In his paper, Neoliberal Dispositif and the Rise of Fundamentalism, Raja points our attention to the interconnections between neoliberalism and the rise of fundamentalism inside Pakistan.

His thesis is based on the following premises: first, he argues against what he calls the Western notion that paints the fundamentalist “as a fully realised subject of its own will”, without historical context and untouched by the particularities of politics.

This in turn allows Western theorists studying Islamic fundamentalism to trace the distortions of faith not to the historical and political contexts in which they arise but to problems within the religion itself.

Second, globalisation — even while pretending to achieve the equality of opportunity between rich and poor nations — has nevertheless allowed global hierarchies to be dominated by former colonial nations.

In turn, the neoliberal state is one that promotes privatisation and supports deregulation, such that private entities take over many functions of the state.

In terms of Pakistan, the interplay of these three factors since the 1970s and the first wave of Islamisation under Gen Ziaul Haq proceeded thus: the Soviet-Afghan war ended just as world economies were being restructured.

Under the auspices of the new neoliberal mantras, the function of a state was not necessarily redemptive or distributive but rather to create market efficiencies that stabilise a consumption-based economy. In most developing countries, including Pakistan, this created a crisis of legitimacy.

In simple terms, a state no longer performing welfare functions — such as care of the poor, elderly, weak and orphaned, or creating programmes that would ensure the well-being of the citizen against the vagaries of the future — needed a new way to justify its existence. Most developing countries redefined the state essentially to become a security state.

In the Pakistani case, this crisis also produced a vacuum that was in turn filled by fundamentalism, particularly the public performances of piety enabled and supported by the state.

Following privatisation in the Pakistani context, space was created for the burgeoning of a vast, motley group of religion-based charitable entitites that could now take over what used to be functions of the state.

Education was provided by madressahs, crisis relief by private Islamic waqfs and similar organisations. It was this change in the role of the state that created the impetus to find new things that the state could do to show its power and justify its functions.

In Pakistan’s context, this became the enforcement of public piety. The enforcement of Sharia became a pet pastime and in successive governments the pastime became an obsession.

None of the welfare provisions of Islamic law were given much attention, since that area of state action had already been given up. Instead, emphasis was put on visible acts of impiety, from eating in Ramazan to ‘blasphemy’.

Unsurprisingly, since citizenship began to be defined in religious terms, minorities and women bore the brunt of the transformation. In being the ‘other’ to the good Pakistani, they were the bad against which the good was defined.

One of the most crucial insights to emerge from Raja’s thesis pertains to the rise of fundamentalism within a particular historical and global epoch.

With the state retreating from welfare provision and redistribution and resting its legitimacy on the basis of public piety, a set of perfect circumstances was created for those seeking to attack the state or use the same recipe for establishing their own legitimacy. Indeed, the TTP has done precisely that.

Today, it competes with the state in enforcing increasingly crude rituals that have been constructed in the Islamised public sphere as indicators of piety.

If the state has laws that prohibit the public consumption of food during Ramazan, the Taliban can go further and kill someone for it.

If the state prevents non-Muslims from running for certain offices, then the TTP can ban them altogether.

In this sordid competition, religious ritual is shorn of its spiritual significance and reduced to an act of public performance that indicates belonging or citizenship; both the state and those challenging the state push the envelope further and further.

In the past, post-colonial theorists have proffered the idea that Islamic fundamentalism is an oppositional discourse to imperialism and hence neo-imperialism. That is a limited thesis; a historical analysis that connects global pressures to reconstitute the state and to cut back on its welfare functions (as the IMF and the World Bank have often demanded of poor countries) goes further.

It reveals fundamentalism and, in Pakistan’s particular case, the rise of fundamentalisms, as inextricably connected to the pressures faced internationally.

Islamic fundamentalism is thus exposed not as a discourse created in opposition to imperialism but rather by the vacuums created by global inequalities and the international mechanisms that maintain them.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.