The Akond of Swat

Who or why, or which, or what, is Maulana Fazlullah of Swat? Recent headlines from Pakistan have been grim – pitched battles with many reports of casualties and mass migration of civilians from the conflict region. Yet, the foreign media hasn’t really focused on Maulana Fazlullah – perhaps thinking that the story of “Talibanization” covers this particular mullah just as well as it does any other (Baitullah Mehsud, in Waziristan, is slowly getting some attention, though). At a cursory glance, it all does blend in. The overall deterioration in the NWFP (North Western Frontier Province) and the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) areas in recent years – specifically in Waziristan, the Malakand Agency regions, Dir, Bajaur, Swat and areas around Peshawar – is often called “Talibanization” and is often pegged to the aftermath of the Afghanistan war of 2001. There is, though, a longer history that offers some additional venues of thought. At the very least, it tells us to pay attention to the local even as we highlight transnational movements like the Taliban.

Shah Ismail (1789-1831) and Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi (1786-1831), specifically, are pivotal figures in the memory and history of Swat.1 In the late 1820s, they waged a religious war against Ranjit Singh’s forces for the control of Peshawar. They succeeded briefly, declared themselves an emirate where the creed of Muhammad held sway, and were swept away in 1831 – killed in battle. Shah Ismail and Sayyid Ahmed, though defeated, emerged as an integral part of the narrative of anti-imperialism. But not simply for their militant struggle for the establishment of an Islamic polity, they came to represent a profound connection to the revivalist thought of nineteenth century Muslims in India. Shah Ismail was the grandson of Shah Waliullah – the progenitor of the deobandis, who have continued to enjoy a wide following in NWFP. I know that it is more fashionable nowadays to connect Shah Waliullah to Abdul Wahhab and build an argument about some unitary “fundamentalist” strain of Islamic thought – but, it is a wrong notion. There are crucial difference, not only in history but in the theological arguments underlining deobandi and wahabbi ideologies of revivalist Islam. The deobandi, in particular, combined the idea of a polity based on Islamic Shar’ia and free from foreign influences with a more quixotic attempts to “migrate” or “settle” a Caliphate in Afghanistan. (The migration of thousands of Muslims to Afghanistan in 1920 needs recent historical attention.)

The mountainous regions between Kabul and Peshawar and across Baluchistan and Gilgit remained an odd absence in the centralizing ideology of Pakistan. Partly it was due to the linguistic and ethnic communities that stretched beyond the nation-state. Partly it was a function of the lack of political legitimacy for any federal government in the region. The Pakistani State, created with unequal halves of East and West Pakistan, proved unequal to the task of imagining itself. In 1971, Bangladesh emerged out of the political chaos and opportunism and military destruction wrought by West Pakistani armies. In 1972, Pakistan embarked on a new path to re-affirm itself. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir Bhutto, was the chief architect of a program of Islamization to glue together the rest of Pakistan. He looked towards the Pan-Islamic movement to position Pakistan as an international entity that wasn’t simply a footnote in the red hot Cold War. Bhutto’s Islamization efforts continued under Zia ul Haq, who overthrew Bhutto in 1977. Except, that under Zia ul Haq, they became the Sunnification efforts to counter his (and Saudi) fears of a Shi’a revolution sweeping out of Iran and across the Muslim world. The frontier, as always, of these efforts was the NWFP. It is around this moment that the Soviet-Afghan war overshadows all local narratives but I would like to put in a call to study the movement of Pashtun men out of NWFP territories and into the urban centers of Karachi and Lahore – and further to Riyadh and Doha – for economic reasons. We are sorely lacking scholarship that can trace these movements back to the origins where petro-dollars (from doing labor in the Gulf States) transformed these small communities. (It is one sad casualty of our current myopia that we are interested only in the monolithic account of Soviet-Afghan war and the “Talibanization” and continue to stress “top-down” factors in our analysis.)

In November 1994, the year old government of Benazir Bhutto faced a crisis in NWFP. Some of the Pashtun tribal chiefs, led by a Maulana Sufi Muhammad proclaimed that Shari’a needed to be enforced in NWFP. His movement, the Tehrik Nifaz-i Shariat Muhammadi (Movement for the Establishment of the Path of Muhammad), enjoyed wide-spread support. He was shutting down airports and businesses and making life hard for the PPP. So, she cut a deal. It may be shocking to remember that this same Benazir Bhutto who is now proclaiming herself as the Sole Secular Leader was none too shy about cutting deals where it suited her. The Musharraf regime also turned to TNSM and Maulana Sufi Muhammad to try and operate in the Swat region. But, the Bajaur strike and the Lal Masjid crisis ended their partnership. Maulana Sufi Muhammad is under arrest but Musharraf is actively trying to broker another deal.

The reason is Maulana Fazlullah and his declaration of open hostility against the Pakistan military. Fazlullah is the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Muhammad and has organized his own army called Shaheen Commandos. He is operating in and around Matta and openly calling themselves the Taliban. He is young – 30 or 32 – and comes from Imam Dheri area in Swat. Around a year or so ago, as the Imam of the seminary in Imam Dheri, he established an FM radio channel in the area to deliver sermons and became a local celebrity.2 After the Lal Masjid crisis, he declared jihad on the state of Pakistan. His Shaheen Commandos now control Matta. And the fight is slowly reaching the capital.

This is certainly a complex and deeply troubling development for the state of Pakistan. The rise of local militias and the oppressive reaction by the military was certainly a contributing factor in the secession of East Pakistan. And a similar pattern is clear in Baluchistan. Just two days ago, Mir Balach Khan Marri was killed – something that is sure to have wide repercussions for thatseparatist movement.

So to wrap it up: separatist religious movement in Swat, separatist nationalist movement in Baluchistan and a separate Musharraf from his dictatorship movement in the rest of the country. Things can only get better, no?

  1. See, for example, []
  2. FM radio channels have proliferated in the past 3 years as the key means of transmission of ideas and information. They are very cheap to set up, mobile and can usually transmit up to 80 miles. No militant is without one. []

Sab Theek Hai

gomusharraf.jpgThe General’s crackdown on media involves the key “code of conduct” which prohibits making fun of His Enlightened Excellency. It is a healthy decree – no society can survive if its Elders are Targeted by Base Humor. Perhaps it was after his trip to the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he was treated with deference and respect, that He Who Is Pakistan decided that the Pakistanis need to grow up.

Sadly, kids at 4 Man Show have not learned their lesson. In the guise of exaggerated humility and compliance, they continue to mock him. Ruthlessly. (“Sab Theek Hai. Everything is fine in Pakistan. I saw with my own eyes, the lion and the lamb drinking water from the pond outside. All is just fine in Pakistan. Diamonds are being sold on the street like peas.”)

It is hilarious. I urge you not to see it. See an earlier post on the show.

[vid via thx to Huma for the image]

Teach In at Chicago

On Friday, we organized a Teach-In on Pakistan at the University of Chicago, The Past and Future Emergencies in the State of Pakistan“. Alongside me were Atiya Khan, Aqil Shah, and Naim Sahib speaking on various historical and political aspects of this here crisis.

We hope to have another event on campus after Thanksgiving. If there are folks in the greater Chicagoland area who are interested in attending or speaking, please contact me. I am also thinking about doing a series of podcasts on the political history of Pakistan. More on that later.

Reprinted below the fold are the remarks by Naim Sahib which I really recommend to all and sundry.

Continue reading “Teach In at Chicago”

Sunday Reading for Resistance

  • Today, November 18th, 2007’s New York Time op-ed page is the absolute worst piece of printed tripe. ever. I know I haven’t read every op-ed page ever printed, but I am sure I can defend my assertion. Exhibit A: Shake, Rattle and Roll by Maureen Dowd. Exhibit B: Channeling Dick Cheney by Thomas Friedman. Exhibit C: Pakistan’s Collapse, Our Problem by Frederick Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon.

    The particular insanities are beyond my capacity to explain without a healthy dosage of curses. On the bright side, next I ever hear any of my liberal colleagues tell me about NYT as the last bastion of hope, I know where to send them. Also, if any of my conservative colleagues needed a fair debunking of NYT’s liberal “bias”, I know where to send them too.

  • Avishai Margalit’s A Moral Witness to the ‘Intricate Machine’, in the NYRB deserves your attention. It is a review of David Shulman’s Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, a thought-provoking and powerful piece of writing that really resonated with me. David Shulman, the scholar, was already an admired figure but David Shulman, the activist, has a humanism and sense of duty that I can only aspire to. I have been meaning to review it since the summer and still have hopes.
  • Also in the NYRB is William Dalrymple’s The Most Magnificent Muslims – a review of three books on Mughals. I don’t share Dalrymple’s enthusiasm for Lal’s Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World but the review is worth a read for all.
  • Zizek’s Resistance is Surrender, in the LRB, is his slow steps towards a Gandhian alternative.

Round Up VII

03_12.gif » Bowing to The General’s pressure, UAE has shut down Geo TV transmissions from Dubai. Even though it was shut from cable, Pakistanis could catch Geo over satellite or the internet. Not any more. Prior to November 3rd, the people in Pakistan could enjoy news and analysis from Dawn News, Aaj, Geo, Ary One World, as well as BBC World, CNN and Al-Jazeera. They now have PTV – the state channel. The White House says they are “bothered.”

It is shameful that such a “progressive” and “capitalist-friendly” nation such as the United Arab Emirates has succumbed to the pressure from the Pakistan State. I can wager, though, that they didn’t need too much convincing. The role of media (TV and the internets) in the upheaval against the dictatorial regime in Pakistan cannot be stressed highly enough. It is not simply the fact that these channels have carried live footage of riots and police brutality since February 2007 into the living rooms of millions of Pakistanis. More pointedly, it is the sharply delineated public space that has emerged in news-analysis and commentary pieces since 2004. Al-Jazeera deserves tremendous credit for changing the face of media, and one of the seismic changes was in Pakistan. Sitting in the United States, with a TV media that is as fiercely scripted by market and ideological forces as anything the politburo could have imagined, it is hard to conceive of government officials, opposition folks, intellectuals and live call-ins mingling on the same stage. Often vehemently. UAE is protecting its own royal future.

Watch this broadcast on the attack on the Geo office in Islamabad on March 16th, 2007. The anchor Kamran Khan is speaking on the phone with the Minister (at 2:12): What are you doing? What are you doing, Mr. Minister? What is your goverment doing? These scenes are not just being seen in Pakistan but across the world, Mr. Muhammad Ali Durrani. You have spent your life in this country, have you ever seen such a spectacle? You are the minister of information and broadcasting, what will you do? Stay there and protect our workers.

Or just watch this, broadcast on AAJ tv on the program Bolta Pakistan (Pakistan Speaking):

I could never imagine even a portion of such critiques leveled at the politicians of this country on our TV channels.

» Nawaz Sharif has an op-ed in WaPo, Pakistan’s One-Man Calamity. Very Hemingwayesque. I would like to see Mian ji back in Pakistan and contesting with Bibi. Bhutto’s niece, Fatima Bhutto, had a piece in the LAT, Aunt Benazir’s false promises which is more Dorothy Parker than Hemingway. (Fatima Bhutto sadly failed to introduce “Auntie” to the American audience. Auntie Benazir. Not Aunt Benazir).

» No word yet on what Negroponte really said to The General.