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Neoliberalism and the Taliban

Published Jul 24, 2013 06:48am


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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.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (8) Closed

Farah Jul 24, 2013 08:12am

Quite an insightful read. However dont understand why in pakistan does privatization have to mean a complete disregard for govt. Government and taxation systems exist quite well in western economies such as us. I believe feudalism and elitism also have their respective roles to play in forming pakistans state structure.

vikash sharma Jul 24, 2013 08:22am

Thank god Pakistan has intellectuals like you

Nasir Umar Jul 24, 2013 10:44am

The definition of liberal behaviour is exact opposite of what this writer tries to promote, in furthering his theory.

"Liberal" and "Conservative" divide, the one between the left and the right, is between a big govt (left) and a small one (right), is between equality (left) and discrimination (right).

So, in the example of the Pakistani society, the real struggle is between the right (PMLn et al) and the ultra-right (taliban) where they want to promote discrimination against minorities, and suppress equality of gender, privatise government responsibilities.

Yet, the irony is, that Taliban, and most 'normal' folks who dream of a Caliphate, are also imperialists and colonists, only if it is their voice that gets to silence all others.

Taliban are just extreme, aggressive, imposing, far-right face of Pakistani nation, staring back through a blood-stained mirror.

The blood is that of our children. Sacrificed at the altar of self-righteousness of our superstitious, misguided, self-defeating assurances of being right about all the wrong things.

Feroz Jul 24, 2013 01:10pm

Many apologists like Masud Raja has tried to bring history and context to justify religious fundamentalism manifesting itself through barbaric violence. When the foundation of any nation state is anchored in religion the consequences were not thought through in terms of blow back. Pakistan has made its choices which involved uncorking the genie, against the best of advise given by friends and well wishers. Now there is no escape and all resources of the State will have to be squandered in slaying what the State itself has created. When the intellectually challenged formulate expedient policies, suffering will have to be endured by all citizens.

Tas Jul 24, 2013 01:59pm

Although in Pakistan,fundamentalism may be one of the direct consequences of neo-liberalism,it still remains a limited analysis. It is, to a large extent, also related to the importance given to religiosity and fake piety in the Pakistani society for a number of reasons that can be inferred from your excellent analysis. The fact remains that the Talibans & associates who are illiterate have a much clearer vision and strategy of what they want compared to the 'vision' of the so-called elite of our nation at the helm of power.

pathanoo Jul 24, 2013 06:35pm

It is hard to connect the dots....neoliberalism as the cause of creation of Taliban. While the article makes sense in spots and depicts the heinous nature of Taliban and the religious fanatics correctly; the author shies away from talking about the intolerant strain in Islam which gives rise to the Mullahs who can preach abohrent ideologies, madrassas which can preach hatred, seclusion and sectarianism and Talibans who find defenders and all of these can act with little to no fear of law since they can site that "intolerant strain" of Islam that gives sanctions to their heinous acts. I know it is hard even for an enlightened writer like Rafia Zakaria to take it on. But, till this is addressed and refuted; all discussions are ineffective.

BRR Jul 24, 2013 10:36pm

The relative ease with which Islam, or more specifically, parts of the Quran and Sunnah, can be used to back up intolerance, to support misogyny, to support mistreatment of minorities, and to support a grab for power, has to be acknowledged. Islam as a system allows easy hijacking - fatwas are issued with abandon, and are a means to grab power. Thus, isn't the system propagated by Islam responsible for the chaos encountered? Who will spell this out? Who will bell the cat? No one, not even this writer.

umer Jul 25, 2013 07:59am

Not again! same old mantra... its the US, the IMF and the W.B that are in the wrong.The fact is that Pakistani state itself has been actively encouraging a particular brand of Islam for the consumption of the masses.We have been advised to offer 'sacrifices' and 'eat grass' for the citadel of Islam while the ruling class continues to monopolise their hold on the government and its scant resources.