Debating religiosity

Religiosity is more visible in the conduct of middle and upper classes than in the lower sections of society, writes Abdul Sattar

Debating religiosity
The possible triumph of the Afghan Taliban has created a ripple of excitement among right-wing circles in Pakistan. Euphoric activists of jihadi and sectarian outfits are taking out rallies to celebrate this victory as the administration turns a blind eye towards these bands of radical elements. Pakistani media, religious leaders and politicians have started heaping eulogies on the cloistered group of the retrogressive elements that according to them has defeated the mighty forces of the West. They assert that a strong belief in religion and an armed struggle is the only way forward for the glory of the faithful.

The apparent victory of the Afghan Taliban has also triggered a debate about the roots of religiosity among the various sections of society with many believing that it is the people from the bottom layer of social stratification who are more inclined towards this fanatical ideology than other section of any society. Since the rag tag army of the Afghan militants is composed of semi-literate students of religious seminaries or the youth from extremely poor and rural areas of Afghanistan, many assert that the roots of the religiosity are stronger among the impoverished lots than the well-to-do families or middle and upper middle classes. They point out that most of the suicide bombers happened to be from the bottom layer of social stratification, not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan during the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency that played havoc with the lives of millions of people in the Islamic Republic decimating more than 30,000 people besides destroying the infrastructure worth billions of dollars.

It is true that a large number of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are from the marginalised sections of society or underprivileged parts of the two countries. But to say that religious extremism or ultra-religiosity is stronger in lower strata of society flies in the face of reality. Many academics believe that religiosity is an essentially middle class or upper middle class phenomenon. Most of the religious extremist groups are led by the middle class or upper middle classes. Though the majority in such groups may be from the bottom layer of stratification, their ideologues are from middle and upper middle classes. Some of these mentors physically took part in the so-called holy wars.
The extreme conservative interpretation of religion is not applicable to women working in the cotton fields of Punjab and Sindh under the sweltering heat

In Pakistan, it was the Jamaat-e-Islami that introduced an ultra and conservative interpretation of the religion bringing in the veil, covering women from head to toe into public life. Such a rigid interpretation was unknown in the lands of Sufis and saints who advocated religious tolerance and moderation. It was the student wing of JI that started beating up girls and boys in colleges and on university campuses besides banning music and other so-called irreligious activities. The extremist group of Afghan Taliban only adopted these tactics from JI student wing in the decade of 1990s while the Islami Jamiat Taliba had been practicing it for decades. Even today they are strutting around campuses thrashing men and women sitting together or disrupting any event involving music or cultural songs. The middle class JI was also the one that popularized the jihadi culture in Pakistan; much before the semiliterate Taliban of North and South Waziristan.

If you look at the leadership of Jamaat e Islami, most of them are from the middle classes. From Maulana Maududi to Syed Munawar Hassan, most of their leaders were from this section of society. Even the groups that broke up with JI, coming up with an extremely narrow and conservative interpretation of the religion, are also from the middle strata. Such groups are also from the middle strata of society. For instance, Dr Israr Ahmed of Tanzeem e Islami, who idealized Afghan Taliban and various extremist groups, was also from this section of society. If one listens to his lectures, one would be forced to conclude that there is no ideological difference between him and the Afghan Taliban.

Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan ul Muslamimeen in Egypt is also composed of people from the middle strata of society and their influence was not confined to the Arab country but their ideology has influenced Islamists across the world. Hamas, whose leadership is also from this section of society, was greatly influenced by the doctrine of the Brotherhood. The leadership of Hizb ut Tahrir in the UK and other parts of the world is also from the middle classes. Most of its British leaders were doctors, engineers, charter accountants and lawyers. Masjumi in Indonesia, Dr Zakir Naik’s group in India, Dr Ahmed Deedat’s preaching group in South Africa, Ayat Ullah Kashani and several comrades of Imam Khomeni in Iran were also from this section of society. In Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged in the 1990s but extremist ideas here were propagated by Engineer Gulbadin Hikmatyar, a middle class leader, much before the birth of the Taliban. A number of RSS leaders are also from middle strata of society. Those religious groups that propagate extremist ideologies in a peaceful way like the Tableeghi Jamaat of Raiwand and Dawat e Islami of Karachi are also from mainly middle classes. A number of their Shura members are either retired government servants or middle sections of Pakistan.

Many social scientists believe that middle classes have both tendencies: they could declass themselves joining the ranks of the lower classes to wage a joint struggle against the status quo but at the same time they are gifted with opportunistic inclinations that prompt them to side with the elite. Pakistan witnessed a number of middle class intellectuals joining hands with peasants and workers and fighting the powerful but we have also instances where poets, men of letters and thinkers from middle classes betrayed the people from lower strata allying with the elite to foil the struggle of masses.

The extreme conservative interpretation of religion is not applicable to women working in the cotton fields of Punjab and Sindh under the sweltering heat and sizzling temperatures. They cannot put on shuttlecocks while toiling in those places. It is their material conditions that dictate their attitude. It is no wonder that one can find more fully covered veils in the universities of Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar than in the remote and rural areas of the country.

If we analyze the attitude of various classes of society, we will notice that religiosity is more visible in the conduct of middle and upper classes than in the lower sections of society in urban centers of the country. Take the example of side saddling and notice it is more common in the middle classes than the toiling masses living in the slums of the large cities.

Some sociologists believe that one reason for religiosity among the middle classes lies in their desire to climb the social ladder and join the elite but since they cannot do so owing to their limited income, they use religious ideology to denigrate and ridicule the elite. The religious ideology gives them a sense of pride. For instance, look at the leaders of JI or their cadre, they openly declare the educated elite as western agents and propagandists of western culture. They have a strange sense of piousness, which gives them the solace of being superior to the residents of posh areas, who, in their view, are misguided and sinful. But if they are given a chance, they lose no time in availing the opportunity of joining the elite. The history of some religious leaders is a testament to this attitude.