development: Wealth and extremism —Saleem H Ali
While wealth may not be a sufficient condition for the reduction of extremism — we have seen the radicalisation of billionaires like bin Laden — there is little doubt that economic development reduces the incentives for radicalisation at the grassroots
President Musharraf’s recent tour of Europe was peppered with references to his multipronged strategy towards tackling extremism, including economic development of neglected areas such as Waziristan and southern Punjab.
The continuing prevalence of feudal elites and economic inequality have no doubt given Islamic extremists a greater sense of legitimacy as a social movement in this region, just as they have given Hamas popularity in Palestine. Some empirical research that I conducted in Ahmedpur, Southern Punjab, a few years ago, highlighted that areas of higher madrassa prevalence had lower development indicators, such as electricity or roads or access to natural resources such as water for irrigation.
Development of these areas may thus also reduce radicalisation and open other career opportunities for madrassa graduates. However, vocational training programmes for youth following their seminary education and clear ways for them to be channelled into such programmes should be funded independently of the madrassas themselves. In addition the economic disparities that are perpetuated by the feudal elite need to be addressed through the establishment of trust funds for each village serviced from property tax revenues that the landlords must be obliged to pay in order to retain title to their land. While major land redistribution is unlikely to occur in Punjab, there can be better management of existing land-use patterns to ensure more equitable distribution of resources and local involvement in economic decision-making.
It is also important to appreciate that much of the Al Qaeda movement is not concerned with development per se. Rather the movement is interested in theological supremacy. This makes the movement somewhat unique in comparison to other extremist movements, such as the Maoists of Nepal or the Sendero Luminoso of Peru, which have emerged from deprivation.
In his introduction to the first English translation of Osama Bin Laden’s speeches, Duke University Professor Bruce Lawrence has highlighted that “the absence of any social programme separates Al Qaeda not just from the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades, with which it has sometimes mistakenly been compared, but — more significantly — from the earlier wave of radical Islamism in the mid-20th century. Both Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Abu’l Ala Mawdudi in Pakistan tried to transform their societies into a just Islamic order (Nizam-e Mustafa, the model order of the Prophet PBUH, in Maulana Mawdudi’s elegant phrase). In place of social objectives, bin Laden accentuates the need for personal sacrifice. He is far more concerned with the glories of martyrdom than with the spoils of victory. Rewards belong essentially to the hereafter.”
Another notable analyst Francis Fukuyama of the Johns Hopkins University argues that, “radical Islamism is as much a product of modernisation and globalisation as it is a religious phenomenon; it would not be nearly as intense if Muslims could not travel, surf the Web, or become otherwise disconnected from their culture. This means that “fixing” the Middle East by bringing modernisation and democracy to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not solve the terrorism problem, but may in the short run make the problem worse.”
The question of whether democracy will be a cause or a consequence for reform is very salient in Islamic educational policy. There has been complacence among leadership in some Muslim countries that Islamists would not have the clout or the resources to win elections. This has been proven false in Algeria, Palestine and to some degree in Turkey and in the Frontier province of Pakistan. The reaction to this reality has often been the unquestioning support of authoritarian leaders by western powers.
Secular and religious authoritarianism must both be given the same treatment across the world. Preventing democratically elected Islamists from subverting basic human rights is essential but the way to do so is not to exclude them from the process but rather to ensure that structural changes in governance institutions such as constitutions, regional trade organisations and civil society oversight prevent such domination. Once such efforts have been exhausted and as many of the militants are brought from the periphery to within the mainstream, the residual hardliners might ultimately need to be fought. However, if a due process is followed, such a fight will be deemed more legitimate by the public and will also be easier operationally.
As democratic institutions and channels for political conflict resolution start to gain acceptance, grassroots change is possible even among the most radical elements. An interesting example of this has been the recent rise of dissent within militant organisations in Indonesia. Al-Jama’a Al Islamiya, the largest jihadist group in Southeast Asia, has been engaged in considerable introspection. Since 2002, imprisoned leaders of the organisation have published eight books with titles like The Correction of Concepts. In his detailed ethnographic study of such manuscripts, Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College notes that the organisations are now advancing “a new paradigm based on peaceful engagement with state and society. The ideological revision represents a revolutionary rupture with and departure from doctrinaire jihadist theory and practice.”
So how are we to reconcile these contending narratives? What role if any can wealth creation and development play in the reduction of extremism?
While wealth may not be a sufficient condition for the reduction of extremism — we have seen the radicalisation of billionaires like bin Laden — there is little doubt that economic development reduces the incentives for radicalisation at the grassroots. Nevertheless, we may still have intolerant and undemocratic societies that are wealthy, such as those in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia.
The take-home lesson then is that Islamists can indeed reform towards moderation but that economic development can only play a catalysing role. Institutional and theological change has to be galvanised through scholars like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi who provide clear theological arguments, and marginalise the extremists with the power of their words. Since extreme elements are armed to the teeth and the government’s lack of legitimacy makes any support that they offer to the moderates more damaging, the task is going to be far more challenging. Our educated middle-class has to promote such scholars and not be apathetic to the matter, nor indulge in our favourite national pastime of spinning conspiracy theories.
Apart from the radical modernist scholars like Ghamidi, more traditional institutions are also embracing the development paradigm. In my last visit to Lahore, I had an opportunity to visit some of the more “mainstream” institutions of Islamic learning such as Jamia Ashrafia, and could see the process of positive change and reconciliation with modernity beginning to occur as these institutions are now also focusing on training productive professionals. The process may be generational but it is inexorable. Let’s just hope we can achieve it with minimal attrition of life and labour.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: email@example.com