Humanitarian jihad and the problem with essentializing Islam

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Kashmiri militants tell UW anthropologist Cabeiri Robinson why they put down weapons and picked up shovels after a devastating earthquake.

(Simpson Center for the Humanities homepage, September 2015)

When UW anthropologist Cabeiri Robinson returned to Kashmiri Pakistan one month after the horrific 2005 earthquake, it was more than a professional visit. She had conducted years of ethnography in the Azad Kashmir region to produce her first book, Body of Victim, Body of Warrior: Refugee Families and the Making of Kashmiri Jihadists. Along the way she developed close personal relationships within the communities she studied.

After the earthquake that devastated cities and rural areas, killing more than 50,000 people, Robinson found a transformed region. She focused her study on three groups. First were international aid organizations that had previously avoided Kashmir because of its disputed nature between Pakistan and India. After the disaster, those groups brought an influx of aid workers, along with a faith that humanitarian aid can be politically neutral. But relief efforts, like disasters, always have a political dimension.

“Just because disasters have something to do with the natural world doesn’t mean there’s anything natural about the way they play out,” said Robinson, Associate Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. “They play out along pre-existing structures of inequality, social relationships, and hierarchies. You have to be willing to examine that to understand reconstruction.”

She also observed a wave of young Kashmiri people making new discoveries about their homeland. As they worked as translators for aid groups, traveling near the disputed border with India, they saw how the long-term threat of artillery fire crippled the ability of families to farm or send their children to school.

“These young people encountered real, serious poverty just a few hundred kilometers from where they had always lived,” said Robinson. “For many of them, it led to a commitment to addressing development issues broader than the earthquake. It got a lot of them acting very differently about their society and politics.”

Third, and perhaps most remarkably, Robinson saw jihadist fighters set up the first field hospital in Muzaffarabad city in the weeks after the earthquake. They dug people out of rubble and delivered food and water. They buried the dead according to local burial customs. They gave her a name for what they were doing: “They said, ‘Hum humanitarian jihad kar rahe haiñ’ — ‘We are doing humanitarian jihad,’” Robinson said.

These militant groups were not permanently renouncing violence in their fight for control of Kashmir. But they told Robinson it was the appropriate act for the moment.

“Their notion of jihad, which is very controversial, is that they were actively fighting to defend the rights of their family members or people in Indian Jammu and Kashmir,” she said. “After the earthquake, they said the service required by Kashmiris was of a different kind. It was no longer the right moment to be carrying weapons. It was the moment to be carrying a shovel.”

Robinson studied these transformations as a 2014-15 fellow of the Society of Scholars, a program at the Simpson Center for the Humanities that brings UW scholars together across disciplines to discuss and sharpen their work. Each year the program typically supports eight faculty and three doctoral students who meet biweekly to present on their books or projects in progress.

Robinson’s working book title is Fault Lines: Humanitarian Jihad, Humanitarian Business, and the Making of a Post-Conflict Tourist Industry in Northern Pakistan.

Humanitarian jihadists taught her about their sense of accountability to their communities. That underscored a broader problem with the Western tendency to “essentialize” Islam, believing that Muslims in Kashmir, or Syria, or Indonesia, or California share the same concerns and values. They share a religion, but they also have distinct histories and cultures unique to their homes, said Robinson.

The decision of Kashmiri militants to help rebuild their society, she said, is “very difficult to explain if your understanding of why people fight in Muslim societies is reduced to a narrow religious textual understanding of the concept of Jihad.”

“People living in particular Muslim societies are very much living with the same kinds of questions about their place in the world as people in non-Muslim societies,” she said.

Learn more about the Society of Scholars.

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