Haider Ali Agha: Mass psychology of religious extremism

Talibanism has arisen out of the ashes left left in Afghanistan by the fire of war between the two world’s modern ideological systems—Capitalism and Communism.Talibans came into international prominence when Buddhist statues in Bamiyan were blown up to the condemnations of world community. 11th September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington brought them into long-awaited conflict with the West and US as they harbored the prime Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect in those attacks.

Surprisingly enough, Taliban’s religious reaction, reminiscent of medieval interpretation of Islam, was supported by the vast Muslim masses across the world in the modern age of science and technology. This medieval version of Islam corresponded more to the semi-tribal and feudal state of things aggravated by destruction of material and civic structure in Afghanistan than to the needs of modern time and circumstances. When the US-led coalition started its air strikes on Taliban-held areas, the Newsweek gallop poll showed that 83% of those questioned in Pakistan regarded Bin Laden as holy warrior and supported Taliban fighting a Jihad against Christians. Many a good writer of liberal tendencies look on this war as clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity.

The ideology that the Talibans were practicing can not become practicable in the Pakistani society. In Taliban’s Afghanistan women are banned from working and girls from acquiring education. Kite flying or entertainments like music and watching TV are forbidden; men without beards are whipped or imprisoned. Voicing any other opinion than that of Taliban’s in religious matters is a crime punishable by death and this intolerance led to massacre of thousands of innocent people in Bamiyan and Mazar-e-Sharif.

This kind of religious reactionary extremism seems rationally justifiable when seen in the background of Afghan tribal set-up and ruined material civic structure in the midst of battling factions with no hope of recovery. But the question remains: why did such reactionary outlook find favour with vast sections of Pakistani people who are living in relatively more advanced conditions? Disillusionment with mainstream political parties and distrust of unjust US policies towards Muslims in Kashmir and Palestine may be some of the causes of this sudden swing in the people’s opinions in favour of Taliban’s extremism. These factors have due weight in their place. However, political analysis usually overlooks complex emotional motivations in the individuals for the way they act. It is assumed that causes of political events must be sought in preceding political events and not in the states of individual consciousness.

Mass psychology studies the phenomena of psychic nature common to a group or class of people excluding the individual differences among the members of that group. Hence, understanding of relationship between psychological structure of the masses and ideological structure of society can be of tremendous service in answering the questions we posed. The erroneous idea that Pakistan was created to see Islamic system implemented is responsible for many intellectual as well as emotional antagonisms in society.

Man, in every human society, is essentially subject to material conditions of his living and work and ideological structure of society (theocratic or secular). The ruling ideology is reflection of the political and economic interests of ruling class. In the history of Pakistan, the feudal-bureaucracy-military nexus has set the implementation of Islamic system as the goal of their rule at the very outset (Objective Resolution 1949 and Islamic provisions in constitutions). All educational texts were designed to implant in children’s minds a sense of unquestioned allegiance to country’s political and ideological authoritarianism. Such educational measures aimed at teaching the children to only see vices in the leaders of other nations (Hindus and non-Muslims) and virtues in their own, hence indoctrinating a sense of intolerance. There was a blatant contradiction between the ruling class’s ideal Islamic principles and practices. This naturally gave birth to corresponding contradiction between thinking and acting on the part of the masses. As the time wore on, the dream of implementation of ruling class’s ideal Islamic system grew more and more distant and the gap between its practices and principles continued to widen (corruption and injustice and abuse of power on the part of the ruling classes). So did the gap between the thinking and acting of the masses. The modernization of science, technology and material conditions of living has aggravated the state of affairs and sharpened the antagonisms already existing between thinking and acting of the people.

Old ideological principles tend to retard people’s thinking while the advancement of material conditions make people more amenable to progressive changes in material life than ever. The masses become neither clear-cut progressive nor clear-cut reactionary. They stand divided between forces of regression on the one hand and progressive forces on the other. They rather loathe themselves for their sins than put up resistance against the exploiting conditions they live in. This conflict has kept on deepening with no signs of resolution as the religious extremists have taken advantage of the emotional confusion by distorting the revolutionary impulse into hatred against their opponents whoever they are. They promise other-worldly rewards of paradise for martyrdom giving mental comfort to the dispossessed in this world and sermonize about the struggle for defense of Islam in their fiery orations.

The growth of religious extremism in Pakistan owes as much to the work done with fanatical zeal by religious extremists in madrassahs and ruling class in the pursuit of interest as to lack of zeal and passion in the progressive intellectual class for enlightening the masses.

The subjective factor in history, as Marx called it, in the form of efforts made by the sincere progressive class for raising consciousness plays a determining role in shaping a society. Its absence may cause masses to suffer from illusions of even more dangerous kind than the ones we have recently seen.

Haider Ali Agha Lahore Pakistan