Anthropology and Sociology
11 September 2020

Deciphering Humanitarian Affect in Northern Pakistan

Till Mostowlansky, Research Fellow in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute, has published an article in History and Anthropology on the historical process of drawing humanitarian institutions to northern Pakistan through Muslim networks. As he explains in this interview, looking at religious institutions is important, but we have to go beyond the idea that they are restricted to abstract ethical frameworks and religious practice as the people who eventually make up such institutions come with a multitude of aspirations. 

What led you to write this article on Muslim humanitarians in northern Pakistan?

For the past eight years I have been researching Muslim institutions that navigate the interrelated fields of humanitarianism, development and charity across vast geographical distances, and in very different historical and political settings. I have largely focused on Pakistan and Tajikistan, but also conducted research in diasporic contexts in Asia and Europe. These diverse research encounters made me realise that specific historical processes and moments matter a lot for the ways in which institutions grow local roots. I conducted quite extensive research in established historical archives, such as the British Library, but it soon became clear that the intricacies of these historical developments are part of a much more localised historical memory. A decisive moment for me was the discovery of a local history of Muslim institutions in northern Pakistan that is quite well-known amongst people from the area, but has not been widely explored by scholars. This history, self-published in Urdu by a man from the region in the 1960s, stands at the core of my article. It is a beautifully written text, describing the period between the 1930s and 1950s, and points to the interplay between the aspiration to care for others, local politics, colonial power, personal ambition, religious reform and ideas of progress. The fact that this interplay continues to reverberate in the region today motivated me to try to connect some of the dots between historical and ethnographic material.   

What distinctive contribution does your article make to the literature on humanitarianism?

There is a lot of fantastic research on humanitarianism specifically and also on the larger project of “doing good” in which boundaries between humanitarianism, development, philanthropy and charity are inherently blurry. There are in-depth, critical studies on “suffering” and its medical, legal and moral dimensions. There are critiques of humanitarian interventions as violent and driving inequality, and studies on the Christian origins of the “humanitarian sentiment”. There is also a sophisticated literature on everyday forms of humanitarianism that has thus far escaped the scope of mainstream research. At the same time, surprisingly little attention has been paid to how religious actors at the fringes of international humanitarianism navigate different, sometimes contradictory, demands, ethical frameworks, ideological motivations and flows of finance. My article focuses on this field of investigation. I argue that looking at religious institutions – in my case Muslim ones – is important, but that we have go beyond the idea that they are restricted to abstract ethical frameworks and religious practice. I argue that the people who eventually make up such institutions – often in interactions across continents – come with a multitude of aspirations, from care to politics to theological and ethical frameworks to very personal ambitions and legacy building. 

Based on your conclusions in the article, what are some of the future avenues of anthropological research on humanitarianism?

That is a great but also daunting question. If solely based on my article, which per definition has to be focused and limited in scope, I would say there is still vast potential in studying the role of religious actors in the larger project of “doing good” by integrating ethnography, local history and global connections. I have done this for a relatively small case, but there are myriad examples around the globe that can point us to moral genealogies that do not align with the well-researched “Western Protestant” variant.

Going beyond my article, a field of investigation that I could imagine becoming much more prominent is – well, what to call it – a “more-than-human” or “multispecies” humanitarianism. If much contemporary and future suffering is expected to derive from the climate crisis, environmental destruction and the extinction of species, how can we re-think the role of “humanitarian sentiment” under such altered conditions? “Saving lives” by saving ecosystems and carbon abstinence? Development through de-growth and limited mobility? Charity not for the poor but for the land that feeds them? We can observe such processes in global protest movements and also in indigenous politics, for instance in Russia, but quality research on these issues has only just begun.   

Lastly, as an anthropologist, how did your experience with interlocutors in Pakistan inform the production of the article? 

I think for any anthropologist this is not only a central question, but also one that is tough to respond to in just a few sentences. First and foremost, it has perhaps been an exercise in humility. Even though I am the one responsible for writing the article and thereby compressing years-long conversation into a few pages, the actual research process was also shaped by the humanitarians I describe. Their busy schedules, personal preferences, and occasional disinterest kept me on a slow marathon for a number of years. It also took me the better part of a year to read and grasp the local history that stands at the heart of the article. It is a wonderful but complex and draining read. So, even in historical terms, my interlocutors were not like “yes, please come in and study this”. It was a process of getting acquainted and developing and maintaining relationships. Saying this, I am enormously grateful for my interlocutors’ time and hope I could live up to their expectations even if some of our opinions and readings might differ.    

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Full citation of the article:
Mostowlansky, Till. “Humanitarian Affect: Islam, Aid and Emotional Impulse in Northern Pakistan.” History and Anthropology 31, no. 2 (2020): 236–56.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download Dr Mostowlansky’s article via this page of the Institute’s repository.

Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by thomas koch/