By I.A. Rehman
THE militants’ tactical retreat from Buner, an armed operation against them in Dir and some formal assurances by the army top brass have given most Pakistanis a sense of respite. It should now be possible to comprehend the neo-Taliban phenomenon without which they cannot be overcome.
The armed bands engaged in terrorist activities in the northern parts of Pakistan are called neo-Taliban because it is necessary to distinguish them from the Taliban that overran Afghanistan in the 1990s and about whom conservative Pakistanis entertain some wholesome notions. They condone the Afghan Taliban’s excesses against women and their animalistic hostility to arts and culture, because they want to see the same done in Pakistan. At the same time these elements still praise the Afghan Taliban for unifying their country, for checking violent disorder and for disarming non-state militias. And, latterly, they are hailed for resisting foreign intrusion.
While the neo-Taliban operating against Pakistan can outdo the Afghan Taliban in their animus towards women and democratic institutions, they display none of the characteristics attributed to the latter by their Pakistani supporters. Unlike the Afghan Taliban they are dividing Pakistan and not consolidating its unity; they are increasing violent disorder and not suppressing it; and they are raising non-state militias, not disarming the existing ones.
Finally, the Afghan Taliban could claim to be fighting for their motherland and resisting ‘imperialism’; the neo-Taliban have invaded their patrons’ motherland and are fighting for a brand of imperialism Allama Iqbal had denounced in his 1930 address. Thus, the neo-Taliban cannot be favourably compared with their Afghan predecessors.
A large number of Pakistanis have been confused by the neo-Taliban’s rhetoric that they want to enforce the Islamic Sharia. Nothing can be further from the truth. The neo-Taliban’s precursors in Afghanistan too were not driven by their love of the Sharia. For all one knows, Hikmatyar, Rabbani and Masud, targets of the Taliban offensive, also swore by the Sharia. The Afghan Taliban had a definite political objective — to capture Afghanistan for themselves. The neo-Taliban too have a purely political objective — to establish their rule in a part of Pakistan and if possible over the whole of it.
True, there are many people in Fata and Malakand Division, as there are in Islamabad and Lahore and Karachi, who sincerely believe an Islamic polity is feasible. The neo-Taliban are exploiting the religious sentiment of these people just as it was exploited by quite a few of Pakistan’s rulers, Gen Ziaul Haq in particular. Gen Zia told the people, ‘If you believe in Islam, this means you accept me as your sovereign.’ The neo-Taliban’s logic is indistinguishable from Gen Zia’s. The qualifications and the credibility of neither are open to scrutiny.
Indeed, the neo-Taliban’s religious mask is more transparent than even Zia’s. The latter had some use for Pakistan’s constitution, its elected representatives and its judiciary; the neo-Taliban want to scrap all of them. Zia accepted the Shias’ right to exist; in their campaign to exterminate the Shias (for instance in Kurram Agency and D.I. Khan) the neo-Taliban have added a hideous concept to the vocabulary of criminology — sectarian cleansing.
Further, the neo-Taliban can easily be indicted for degrading the Sharia on three main counts. First, they cannot convince even their apologists in Pakistan that suicide bombings, the killing of innocent people, beheading their victims without due sanction, extortion and looting of the homes of the internally displaced, seizure of orchards and burning down of schools are in accordance with any version of the Sharia. Secondly, by denying the evolutionary process in the Sharia and closing the door to ijtihad in what is essentially a man-made code, the neo-Taliban are trying to bind the Muslim people within the clerical thought frozen six centuries ago, a view that has prevented Muslims the world over from keeping abreast of the times and humankind’s social growth.
Thirdly, more often than not, the standard of the Sharia is raised by tribal elites that are afraid of losing their privileges if their communities progress towards a higher social formation. Nobody should thus be led by the neo-Taliban’s invoking the Sharia for their hearts and minds are as unclean as their hands.
Another myth about the militants operating in Fata and Malakand Division is that they are the latest avatars of the Pakhtun identity. They are not. Of course, some Pakistani Pakhtuns (as well as some non-Pakhtuns from Punjab and Karachi) have joined the neo-Taliban but there is no evidence that the Pakhtuns are prepared to abandon their Pakhtunwali. Besides, the neo-Taliban’s aversion to the Pakhtuns’ language, poetry, music, arts, cultural diversions and even their dress code is known. If the neo-Taliban had their way the Pakhtuns’ ethno-cultural identity could be as much under threat of extinction as the other ethno-cultural identities within the Pakistan family (Punjabi, Baloch, Sindhi, et al)
If despite all that can be argued against the neo-Taliban they are able to challenge the state of Pakistan the reason lies not in their strength but in the faults and failings of the latter. Pakistan has become vulnerable because its democratic institutions are not worthy of being so described, because its rapacious elite offers no quarter to the poor, because its justice system does not enjoy the people’s confidence, because it does not offer a fair return to the peasant and the worker, because it guarantees neither dignity to women nor gainful education and employment to the youth. It is these weaknesses of the state that has made the neo-Taliban look more menacing than they are.
To say at this point that the government should concentrate only on administrative and judicial reform is like telling West Pakistanis in the summer of 1971 that they could keep Pakistan intact by learning Bengali. The quest for democracy, justice and social rights must of course continue but this will be a long-drawn-out struggle while the threat to the state’s integrity demands an immediate response. A proper understanding of the neo-Taliban threat should lead to two steps.
First, the government should reduce its trust deficit with the people. Its claims of fulfilling its obligations to the nation must be backed by something more than the hollow perorations and meaningless gyrations of ministers.
Secondly, the people must receive evidence that those maintained for and charged with defending the lives, properties and entitlements of the people, which is what national integrity really means, are able and willing to earn their keep. The neo-Taliban have lost all claim to leniency; they must be made to face the full might of the state, except for those who can be trusted with mending their ways.