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Radicalisation and its context – I

The conceptual evolution of radicalisation

Radicalisation and its context – I

We were all humans until race disconnected us, religion separated us, politics divided us and wealth classified us. Thus categories and then sub-categories were conjured up and the humans found it onerous to be human.

In the onward march to find its own identity and then to foster it and to sustain it, humans incessantly strived against humanity itself. Maybe a colossal category like ‘humanity’ frightens humans. Thus they feel such divisions imperative so that dialectical relationship within humans continues.

The seal of approval on that theoretical formulation came from people of the stature of Democritus, Hegel and Karl Marx. Marx in fact defined human history as a story of conflict, whereby one class remained locked into a power struggle against the other. Simply put, the fight between humans is the most conspicuous of all constituents of history.

In order to sacralise the dialectical struggle between binary opposites, which I reiterate were humans, ideologies were framed and fostered. An absolute and uncritical adherence to ideology, whether religious or otherwise, engenders radicalisation.

Apparently all that has been said so far may smack of a sort of contradiction in terms, but what if I assert that contradiction is the essence of human life particularly in the era of modernity. Humans cannot escape contradiction; the space for radicalisation is carved out in the situations arising out of contradictions. Such contradictions intersecting socio-political and economic realms form cultural subsets in which different groups of people tend to circumscribe themselves. Such circumscribed state helps to produce factions, ethnicities and religious groups and radicalisation is where they draw their legitimacy from.

However, before shedding light on radicalisation with particular reference to Pakistan, it will be pertinent to furnish the most plausible connotation of radicalisation.

What is actually meant by radicalisation? There is no universally accepted definition in academia or government. Canadian senator from British Colombia, Mobina Jaffer, quotes A 2009 Report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) which defines radicalisation as “the process by which individuals — usually young people — are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.”

Here it is important to mention Majid Nawaz’s insightful inference. He says, “The first point of contact for radicalisation is always a personal one. Prisons and universities for example, tend to be easily and regularly affiliated by radical groups, who use them as forums to propagate their ideas.”

The Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation established by the European Commission in 2006, tasked to analyse the state of academic research on radicalisation to violence, in particular terrorism, noted in 2008 that “(r)adicalisation is a context-bound phenomenon par excellence. Global, sociological and political drivers matter as much as ideological and psychological ones.” This expert group went on to utilise a concise working definition of violent radicalisation that concerns us in the particular context of Pakistan — “socialisation to extremism which manifests itself in terrorism”.

It will be instructive to unravel layers of history to make some sense of radicalism as a concept and the way it, after passing through the vicissitudes of temporality, reached its current ‘imaginary’. The term ‘radical’, while already in use in the 18th century and often linked to the Enlightenment and the French and American revolutions of that period, became widespread in the 19th century, only when it often referred to a political agenda advocating thorough social and political reform.

In the course of history, ‘radicalism’ as a concept has gone through a change in its meaning. Many political parties and groups in the 19th century called themselves ‘radical’, because they espoused unequivocally such issues like republicanism rather than royalism. Some people of the same ilk pleaded for introduction of a system of democracy in which the right to vote was not linked to the possession of property or to gender. Most of them were reformists and not revolutionary. ‘Radical’ in the 19th century England was as respectable as ‘liberal’. But over a period of little more than a century, the content of the concept ‘radical’ has assumed an entirely different connotation.

While in the 19th century, ‘radical’ referred primarily to liberal, anti-clerical, pro-democratic, progressive political positions, the contemporary use — as in ‘radical Islamism’ — tends to point in the opposite direction: embracing an anti-liberal, fundamentalist, anti-democratic and regressive agenda. The radical Islamism also refers to extremism which is usually attributed to it as it’s if not defining at least the most salient feature.

The general belief which is adumbrated ad nauseam with reference to Islam as anti-liberal and radical (which largely denotes rigid) has been interrogated by several scholars like Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood (late) and in a slightly different sense, Jamal Malik. If a close and careful inference is drawn from the works of these scholars, one can conclude that the radicalisation was essentially an attribute that Islam in the South Asian context imbibed from modern rationality. The emphasis on literal (scriptural) source like ‘the text’, which I will argue here, de-historicised the religion. Ironically, the interpretation of text became a moot point and it helped crystallise the sectarian reading of the text which subsequently permeated to the very core of Muslim socio-religion self.

Thus, a conducive environment for radicalisation to strike roots and flourish had been created. It also means that religion (particularly Islam) was torn away from its socio-cultural context. The synthesis of Indian, Persian and Turkish cultural strands, manifesting in Sufi traditions which were the essential constituents of South Asian Islam, were jettisoned. The figure of a Sufi was substituted by the Alim to galvanise the religious discourse. Dargah was replaced with Masjid as a site of religious devotion.

In the changed context of the 19th century, Indian ulema drew very close to Arabian religio-cultural tradition. The most glaring ramification of that multi-faceted volt face was the tendency of exclusion on the basis of religious difference. The eclectic Sufi Orders gave way to well-defined and immutable sectarian identiti(es). That exclusionism bred radicalisation among Muslims.

Read also: Radicalisation and its context — II

Thus, any religious tradition when severed from the historical and cultural context tends to acquire radicalisation as its modus vivendi. Radicalisation, therefore, is not the inherent trait of South Asian Islam, it was acquired much later. The political decay of the Muslims in general pushed them inexorably to radicalisation. Not only Mughals but Safavids/Qajars and eventually Ottomans were banished from their respective existence as political realities. That decline exacerbated the onslaught of puritanical tendencies. Hence, the stage was set for radicalisation to strike roots.

To be concluded

This is a summary of a lecture delivered under the auspices of Psychology Department, GC University, Lahore


Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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