Between Spectacle and Banality: Trajectories of Islamic Radicalism in a Karachi Neighbourhood


This article draws on ethnography and life history interviews conducted in a central Karachi neighbourhood with militants affiliated to Pakistan’s student organization, the Islami Jamiat‐i‐Tuleba. It explores a complex configuration of national and city politics, local processes, family dynamics and individual biography in the trajectories of male youth to some violent jihadist scenes in Pakistan and Afghanistan (c.1986–2006), and raises questions concerning the way violence is collective (political, societal, local) as well as private, idiosyncratic and imagined. Violence in this context is not solely driven by deprivation, exclusion, Karachi’s arms trade (burgeoning since the mid‐1980s) or notions of Islamist ideology. Rather it derives from resourceful ways people use social networks to subvert their everyday difficulties in local communities, and relate to themselves and others in a field of social, psychological and political domains. The article also prioritizes affective and fantasy aspects of wholeness and love. It argues violence is destructive and (re)generative, enfolding militants’ endeavours to impose certainty onto a fractured personal landscape by undermining conventional forms of security, while simultaneously highlighting the insecurity of this undermining. These anthropological readings are prioritized over conventional tropes of religion and ideology deriving from the overarching concepts of Islam, civil society and the state.