Violent Environments: Ideology and the Politics of Ecology in Pakistan’s Peripheries
Ali Nobil Ahmad
The representation of ideological conflict and political violence in Muslim societies as processes of cultural clash between different strands of religious belief and political conviction underplays the importance of material resources and, more specifically, struggles over their meaning and distribution. Within media discourse and academic research, wars and revolutions in societies as diverse as Pakistan, Iran and Libya are portrayed as battles over ideas such as religion, secularism, and democracy, in which a familiar cast of protagonists including ‘Islamists’, ‘liberals’ and ‘the military’ are pitted against one another to decide the fate of women’s education, human rights and the treatment of minorities. But even where mobilization and political violence is outwardly religious, it is invariably the case that resource-struggles underpin, mediate and structure the way political processes in Pakistan and other Muslim societies are generated and played out.
Embedded within every political ideology and its accompanying cultural discourses is an implicit philosophy of nature, in which resource-distribution and usage is an important component. In other words, the subjective dimensions of resource-politics – the way political actors perceive the comodification and appropriation of land, water or oil - has profound ideological implications. Broadcasts by Commander Maulana Fazlullah (a.k.a Maulana Radio), an Islamic extremist who set up an FM radio station in SWAT 2004 were designed to appeal to the disenfranchised in language they understood; he often invoked images of nature and animals (‘goats’, ‘cows’, ‘milk’ and ‘grass’) to make his arguments about inequality and resource distribution in Swat. Fazlullah’s discourse was rich in metaphors that suggested a relation to the environment distinct from that of the state, with its modernizing discourse of economic development. The latter, which has historically embraced the language of technocratic engineering and mastery of nature through policy-prescriptions and official records stood for an altogether different sort of ethical approach to natural resources and the physical environmental more generally; its references to infrastructure, roads, intensive agriculture and dams that generate wealth, surplus and a certain kind of ‘good’ associated with progress are the dominant norms of liberalism in post-colonial Pakistan, as they are elsewhere. The neo-Maoist style of land seizures during the Taliban’s Swat takeover, with low caste peasants recruited and organized by militants into armed ‘shock troops’ rewarded with spoils each time a landlord fled, suggests an underlying layer of class conflict rooted in decades (arguably centuries) of bitterness.
The question of violence and conflict in Swat and indeed elsewhere in the Muslim world, in other words, is not so much of cultural clash between religious and secular notions of modernity, but rather of objective and subjective tensions and contradictions between distinct philosophies of nature, each with their own claims about the appropriate division and usage of material resources. In this vein, this project seeks to develop a critical research agenda that foregrounds the realities of natural resources and their usage in Pakistan, where contemporary media narratives, Islamic and Area studies have failed to highlight the actually existing concerns of flesh and blood populations whose everyday priorities and political sentiments are shaped as much by access to clean drinking water, electricity and land as they are by any religious or political cause invoked in their name.
My object of study is the ecological dimension of political violence and conflict in Pakistan – in practice the interface between struggles over natural-resources on the one hand and on the other, political, religious and ideological events, histories and discourses. The question of how the two inter-relate to produce violence caused by ostensibly religious and political differences in Pakistan will be explored through the study of class struggles over resources that are played out in close relation to local arrangements of land ownership, themselves historically a product of the colonial past and uneven development since 1947. Local peripheries cannot, however, be studied in isolation: global, regional and national-level processes will be sketched in and related to micro developments. Through published academic research, it is hoped that the project will contribute development of a multi-layered political ecology of Pakistan.