‘They are not true Muslims’ is what many say when the extremist activities of the Taliban are discussed. This line of argument betrays our lack of comprehension of the role religious faith plays in our social life
In my previous writings, I have often written about the existential threat the state faces from militant extremists. At times though, it is helpful to question one’s own longstanding viewpoint and become the devil’s advocate. The glare of confidence in our truthfulness can blind us to understanding a phenomenon that may not be so simple. We should also consider searching for the motivational drivers behind the rise of the Taliban movement.
From theology to management control, we find that power is the central theme of many disciplines. Our innate survival instinct wants us to be powerful. From family matters to political life, the one who is powerful has it all. General Musharraf is in the news these days so let us begin our analysis by referring to his institution, i.e. the Pakistan army. Sometime back, the corruption scandals of three retired army generals appeared in the media. Not only did the generals scornfully brush aside questions by media investigators but, in a surprise move, their cases were removed from civilian custody. The FIA team investigating Musharraf’s case reported helplessly a few weeks ago that it failed to enter the gates of the GHQ to complete its investigation. Now the retired general, charged with high treason under the highest law of the land, ended up sipping coffee in the comforting environment of an armed forces hospital while the whole country kept waiting with bated breath for his appearance before the court. When an institution is served with 20 percent of our fiscal resources, and has guns, why should it then bow before the ordinary laws of the land?
Sometime back we saw on CCTV footage how the proud killer of Shahzeb was seen off by the state functionaries at Karachi airport and how the unrepentant criminal made victory signs while facing his murder trial. Of what use is the business empire if the loving son has to face the law of the land like an ordinary criminal? Power may not necessarily always come through guns or a bank balance. Organised groups of people also use their collective power to remain above the law. For instance, in the recent past we have seen lawyers attacking policemen and thrashing judges in their courts. However, the matter is always hushed up quickly. Neither members of the judiciary nor lawyers’ leaders are ever heard condemning this brazen criminal behaviour. Instead, they are always seen supporting their power base. Similarly, doctors use hospitals as weapons of offence, and transporters cripple business activity when any tax is imposed on them.
With this backdrop now I come to the case of the Taliban and their creed. Last year, attending the funeral rites of my late father, I participated in Quran reciting by a mosque cleric and his students who were 10 years old on average. Mostly orphans and abandoned by society, those little ones could neither aspire to attend a posh public school nor could they lay their hands upon modern gadgets. The sermon of their madrassa (seminary) teacher, promising them the friendship of God and his Prophet (PBUH), was a source of hope and motivation in their empty lives. While society had written them off, the madrassa gave them a living space and populated their lives with dreams and aspirations. In the recent past, such socially downtrodden classes were organised by Marxist and other anti-status quo revolutionaries. Those revolutionaries used violence as ‘propaganda by deed’ to weaken the state and carve out a space for themselves. Now Marxism may have lost its appeal due to the collapse of the Soviet Union but the socially deprived classes are still out there.
‘They are not true Muslims’ is what many say when the extremist activities of the Taliban are discussed. This line of argument betrays our lack of comprehension of the role religious faith plays in our social life. People use faith in different ways, depending on their psychological needs. To put it simply, I see three distinct uses of faith. One, for anaesthetic and anti-depressant purposes, which Marx called opium for the masses. Religious faith, with the promise of a better tomorrow either in this world or the afterlife, makes painful and miserable lives bearable for a majority of downtrodden people. Two, as an after dinner cocktail, where the powerful sections of society enjoy religion because it legitimises their social position. Third, for ecstatic purposes, where socially discarded sections find motivation to organise themselves and bring about a revolutionary change. Nietzsche and Marx might have blamed Christianity for making Christians timid but we have seen Martin Luther King Jr and Desmond Tutu using religion to energise the struggle for civil rights in the US and South Africa respectively.
The upshot of my previous discussion is that what is true religion depends on who is using it and for what purpose. The have-nots are more interested in the organising and motivational side of communal faith. When reading history we tend to be cherry pickers. The haves enjoy discussing theological and philosophical issues and are very selective in citing incidents from the past. The have-nots, on the other hand, are more interested in the organised struggle aspect of religion. In this way, they not only regain their identity but are also acknowledged as ‘stakeholders’ in a society, which had, by and large, written them off.