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Combating Extremism With Anthropology | Hamza Siddiq

Pakistan is no exception to the cancer of fractious and fanatical extremism. From unabated sectarian violence and the persecution of minorities to blasphemy being an unpardonable offence, extremism and intolerance are deeply entrenched in Pakistani society

We live in an increasingly paranoid and insecure world beset with exceedingly complex and threatening challenges. Terrorism, climate change and cultural racism are amongst the most pressing. Terror attacks, whether in Paris or Peshawar, are manifestations of rising extremism and intolerance stretching across the west and the Muslim world. Unfortunately, a common response to such events is bigotry and xenophobia, which exacerbate the problem. There has been an alarming upsurge in Islamophobia in the west in response to terror attacks. Hate crimes against Muslims have skyrocketed. Against this backdrop, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has called for a sweeping ban on Muslims entering the US, sparking outrage across the world.

What has the world come to? How do we come to grips with the unprecedented menace of extremism and intolerance? In today’s increasingly exclusionary and insecure world, anthropology can guide us in the right direction. It is a unique opportunity for anthropology in any walk of life to stand up, hold its heads high and say it has something very valuable to offer.

In order to understand anthropology’s potential contribution, we must first understand what anthropology is and why it is so important. Anthropology is a study of human societies and cultures in a comparative perspective. Most anthropological studies involve making comparisons. Only through comparisons can anthropologists learn about the uniqueness of particular cultures as well as gain insight into their own belief systems. Even though nearly all humans need the same things to survive (food and water), the ways in which people meet these needs can be very different. For example, everyone needs food, but people eat different foods and acquire food in different ways. So, anthropologists look at how people in different societies get food, prepare it and share it. Anthropology is about understanding the perspective of the ‘other’ as an anthropologist tries to understand other cultures from the vantage point of an insider. Death, for instance, is a universal phenomenon yet we treat our dead in diverse ways. Some bury them while others cremate. In some primitive cultures, cannibalism was the preferred treatment of dealing with the dead. In this case, do we view cannibalism with disgust or, using the anthropological lens, from the perspective of those who participated in it? Unfortunately, the former seems to be more likely.

The importance of anthropology in today’s world lies truly in its core values: tolerance, diversity and humility. An anthropology major learns about other cultures and the ways they may differ from his or her own background and expectations. These differences are not viewed as a problem to be overcome but as a resource for understanding ourselves and the world we inhabit. Becoming familiar with a wide range of behaviours, beliefs and values, the student is likely to be more culturally sensitive and flexible in dealings with the wider community. These skills enable him or her to live and work in a world that is increasingly multicultural and global.

A cross-cultural perspective opens our mind to new possibilities and alternative ideologies, crucial for prospering in a diverse world. Sadly, there is little room for pluralism and diversity as intolerance dominates everyday aspects of our lives. In most parts of the Muslim world, an extremely conservative interpretation of religion has created a narrow and intolerant worldview amongst Muslims. This worldview perceives the ‘other’ as the enemy and dismisses their way of life as ‘unIslamic’ and hence incompatible. A significant majority of the Muslim population in the Middle East and South Asia is a victim of this worldview. They reject demands associated with modernity and secularism as they perceive it as a threat to their religious values.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has symbolised an intolerant and extremist version of Islam under Wahhabism. Ethnic and sectarian violence is rife in several other Arab countries. The civil war in Syria has taken on an increasingly sectarian character, pitting Sunni rebels against the Shia-led government. Pakistan is no exception to the cancer of fractious and fanatical extremism. From unabated sectarian violence and the persecution of minorities to blasphemy being an unpardonable offence, extremism and intolerance are deeply entrenched in Pakistani society. Lack of tolerance and hatred for certain sects has flourished through the ever-growing network of madrassas. These madrassas (seminaries) have been instrumental in propagating extremist ideologies as they indoctrinate a narrow and self-righteous worldview, which is irreconcilable with the demands of a globalised world. In most parts of the Muslim world, we see little scope for flexibility, pluralism and tolerance — the defining traits of anthropology.

This picture is equally bleak in the west where xenophobia and bigotry have infected European and US political discourse. In the xenophobic environment fuelled by the recent terrorist events, Republican presidential candidates have called for increasing surveillance of mosques and Muslim neighbourhoods, and recently for a complete ban on Muslims entering the US. Anti-immigrant attitudes have gained traction in Europe and the US, driven in part by an economic slowdown and radicalisation risk, as well as increasing immigration. The anti-immigration rhetoric is far more pronounced in the UK as debates surrounding immigration lie at the heart of political manoeuvring.

The political significance of the issue is evident from the fact that the build up to the UK 2015 general elections focused on immigration rather than more resounding issues such as inequality.

The anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric contribute to an increasingly fearful and insecure environment. In such a climate of fear, many westerners may be willing to give up on the basic principles of liberal society such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. On the other hand, the majority of Muslims who adhere to a deeply conservative interpretation of Islam maintain an ideology that conflicts with secularism, progress and religious diversity. Issues such as terrorism and sectarian violence feed on this ideology. In order to tackle the menace of terrorism, the culture of extremist ideologies and intolerance must be defeated. This can be achieved through teaching our students critical thinking, flexibility and respect for human difference. We must learn to become more open, flexible and tolerant to diverse ideas and ideologies. In the globalised world that we live in, we must abandon the path of xenophobia and bigotry. Diversity and difference are, indeed, the future of us all. Anthropology may not offer magical bullets but it will surely guide us in the right direction for it celebrates diversity and promotes tolerance. Incorporation of anthropology and comparative religion studies in the national curriculum will help.

The writer is a freelance columnist


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