Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Islamic Political Fault Line & the Complexity of Pakistan

Daily media reportage of events make it easy to conclude that an Islamic political fault line, implying a socio-political cleavage consistent in its origins and centered around attitudes toward Islam, is emerging across the Islamic world. One alternative view might be that societies with Moslem majorities just happen to have a lot of different political issues to resolve at the moment. In reality, both hypotheses have validity and are interconnected…which means that even if a particular Moslem country has a unique socio-political dispute unrelated to anything in other Moslem countries, it is likely to be misperceived as part of a titanic “clash of civilizations” or to be exploited as such by those who are trying to invent a clash of civilizations. The result of this process is precisely the emergence of an Islamic political fault line.

If an Islamic political fault line is emerging as a single, unified issue the whole world will have to deal with, it is obviously of critical importance to everyone’s future. The exact nature of the dynamics of such an emergent phenomenon and the degree to which it is a function of voluntary behavior that could be altered, rather than a function of contextual conditions that, over the short-term, cannot be altered, are questions that deserve the closest attention.

To the degree that developmental issues, for example, are misinterpreted as examples of civilizational conflict, we will all pay a heavy price unnecessarily. If a dispute over, say, the price of grain (currently a serious issue in some Moslem societies) happens to be seen as the result of exploitation by non-Moslems, it can get mixed up with a debate over the proper nature of Islamic behavior. Once the price of grain is confused with “us vs. them” emotions, resolving the issue becomes much more difficult – actors trying to provoke cultural discord or actors who may be honestly suspicious inhibit simple technical solutions (recall, for example, the resistance in Islamic regions of Nigeria to polio vaccinations).

The fluidity of Pakistani society and the openness in Pakistani media of the political debate resulting, in part from the way the recent election has shaken up everyone’s expectations make Pakistan an excellent case for studying how local issues and global Islamic issues become intertwined.

Although the dynamics are complex, one conclusion comes through quite clearly from a glance at Pakistani conditions: the Pakistani situation is at present by no means a simple black and white case of a fault line with everyone lined up on one bank of the political crevice or the other. Islamic militants use violence but also offer peace. Tribal leaders move back and forth between militants and the government searching for compromise. Secular political parties propose a wide range of alternative approaches. The stance of Islamic political parties varies unpredictably across the political landscape. Among the militants themselves tactical and perhaps strategic distinctions are visible. So in this one society, maybe an Islamic political fault line is emerging, but if so, the process certainly is not steady and while the fault may be widening by some measures, bridges are nevertheless continually being thrown across it. All this suggests that the process is by no means inevitable; on the contrary, it seems very sensitive indeed to everyone’s behavior.

Fault Lines in Complex Adaptive Systems
The above conclusion that the Pakistani political situation is highly fluid, which was based on reading English-language Pakistani newspapers, fits well with the view that the Pakistani political system (like virtually all political systems except when under extreme totalitarian control or in utter chaos) is a complex adaptive system. Complexity theory would lead one to anticipate a constant evolutionary process in which the process of splitting a system by an emerging fault line would be highly nonlinear and ambiguous because dependent upon numerous underlying, interacting, dynamical processes. If the system is dynamical and interactive and adaptive, then co-evolution of the parts can be anticipated. Thus, the two components separated by a fault line will nevertheless still have linkages, still affect each other: rather than immutable forces in contention, they will change each other. Each side will also constitute a subsystem of components that are also coevolving in an almost infinitely complex process, all colored in tones of gray.

You may counter, “But wait! The question is just how complex the system actually is!” This is a valid point. It is easy to observe that the modern, connected world is more complex all the time, but unfortunately we have no scale to measure the degree of social complexity. A forward-looking foundation might consider sponsoring research along these lines.

A forward-looking foundation might consider sponsoring research to develop a
scale for measuring the degree of social complexity in a given society.

Observations from readers about how the processes discussed here actually work in practice will be warmly welcomed.

No comments: