Reading Swat

Increasingly, I am convinced that the discourse on Pakistan within the United States needs some major intervention. My fear, or maybe paranoia, is that Pakistan is en-route to be declared “mentally incapacitated” by United States aka “failed state”. The impact of such a declaration (whether stated or not) would be that US will need to put a “care-taker” in charge of the mess. The rising frequency of the drone attacks, the extension of missile strikes, the troop “surge” in Afghanistan read as concrete steps towards a radically intrusive strategy towards Pakistan. I will have more to say on this. But I wanted, for the moment to simply bring to your attention some recent writings on Swat.

1. Jackie Northam, “Pakistan Deal With Taliban Draws Criticis“, All Things Considered, Feb 17, 2009.
Perhaps the worst of all recent pieces – NPR could only find 1. CIA Station Chief, 1. State Department Official and 1. NSC Official to declare that the Swat deal basically meant that Afghanistani Taliban have basically invaded and taken over Swat and that this means the Pakistani army is ridiculously weak. Between the lines, you should understand that the nukes are about to fall into the Taliban hands. Also al-Qaeda. Thank you, NPR.

2. The New York Times managed to get their reporters to Pakistan. Their write up, Pakistan Makes a Taliban Truce, Creating a Haven at least took the time to point out:

Many of the poor who have stayed in Swat, which until the late 1960s was ruled by a prince, were calling for the Shariah courts as a way of achieving quick justice and dispensing with the long delays and corruption of the civil courts. The authorities in the North-West Frontier Province, which includes Swat, argued that the Shariah courts were not the same as strict Islamic law. The new laws, for instance, would not ban education of females or impose other strict tenets espoused by the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Leaving aside what “strict Islamic law” even means (and how it compares to the California “Three Strikes” law), I was relieved that Jane Perlez sought to give some sense of the history of the region. Though this whole “prince” bit could have been used to provide a quick word on Swat’s constitutional relationship to Pakistan. The nice thing about the piece was that it actually quoted experts in Pakistan (such as Shuja Nawaz) even though the generic spin remained the same (“Theeeeere Here!”)

Moving from US press to Pakistani press, there is actually nuanced content for us to consume.

3. Rafia Zakaria, “Drones vs sharia“, Daily Times, Feb 21, 2009.
This is an interesting read.

The strategy to agree to a peace deal between Sufi Muhammad of the TNSM is a markedly different one from the drone approach, and is based on a calculated gamble which posits that if the Taliban are handed control of the area, the consequent repression they will impose on the people will automatically turn public opinion against them.

I think it is a mistaken notion that these are “outsiders”, but Zakaria focuses on the lives of the ordinary Swatis and that is of enormous consequence to the situation. You will notice that the alarmism of the US pieces is balanced by some knowledge of the locale.

4. Ayesha Jalal, “The Fallacies of Mainstreaming ‘Jihad’“, Dawn News, Feb 14, 2009.

A contrary position to Zakaria is taken by Ayesha Jalal. I think this is an intriguing piece though I am not convinced that a semantic battle over the word jihad serves anyone’s interest. The underlining point, fitna vs jihad, does point towards the possibility of a theological push against the Swati militants.

5. Muhammad Hanif, “Defense main Shari’at“, BBC Urdu, Feb 18, 2009.

This is an “open letter” to the Swati militants. Writing with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Muhammad Hanif seeks to point out the ridiculousness of these entrepreneurs of a strict Islam. I admit that the piece made me laugh. Yet, I was disturbed by the underlining inability to empathize with Swatis. Perhaps continuing the mistake of seeing these as “outsiders”, Hanif can poke fun at them as one in a long line of “mullahs”. Muhammad Hanif is a fine journalist and author, and he deliberately situates himself in this upper-class neighborhood in Karachi, but this piece reads a bit callously, showing a blasé approach to the realities of everyday lives in Swat.

I took the trouble to translate the piece for you (it is rough, has typos – though, the missing 4th point is not my typo):

Shariat in Defense

On behalf of the inhabitants of Defense Housing Authority, I congratulate from the bottom of my heart the esteemed Asif Zardari, the Commander of Pakistan, General Kiyani, The Mujahideen of Islam Maulana Sufi Muhammad and his son-in-law (Broadcaster of the Year and Conqueror of Swat) Maulana Fazalullah, on the establishment of a Justice system in the Valley.

At this historical juncture, I want to bring to your attention the many denials of God in every alley of Defense and I beg we should not denied the benefits of the Shar’ia laws and they should be implemented here, immediately.

For your convenience, I present this 7 point plan. Upon reading this, it will be clear as day that this neighborhood (Defense Housing Authority) is the domain of the devil.

1. In our ‘hood, hundreds of children walk around carrying plastic bags, double their own size. They collect items from garbage thrown from houses and then sell those items.

2. Since a key force in Maulana Fazlullah’s success was his FM radio, lot of people have taken his lead and established their own radio stations. But, god help us, from these radio stations, only the devil speaks in many voices; day and night playing sexually arousing songs. One of these station, even identifies itself as Mast FM which sounds like a Jewish conspiracy. We have heard that for the last two years the Government has been trying to buy a signal jammer to jam Maulana Fazlullah’s FM broadcast. Now after the agreement, there is no need for that equipment. We request that such a jammer be installed in our region instead, so that our ears are protected from these devilish sounds.

3. In our region, small children sell roses in the evening. Whenever they spot a couple, they try to sell them a rose. Just consider – at seeing a rose, no Islamic emotion can possibly arise, only a non-islamic one. We ask that such sexually arousing practice be immediately stopped. In any case, these children should be enrolled in some madrassa where they can learn law and hadith so that they do not embarrass the Muslim community.

4.[sic]

5. Nowadays a number of young men wander our region carrying plastic flowers in one hand, and a camera across their shoulders. Upon investigation it emerges that many domestic servants have their pictures taken with these flowers and mailed to their homes in villages (their income is too low to permit them actually visiting). flowers! cameras! If we connect the dots and keep in our mind point #3, we have an inkling of a devious plan. This needs immediate investigation.

6. The biggest obstacle to implementation of Shari’a in our region is the sea. (Which is missing in Swat – hence this great task by accomplished by simply destroying a few hundred schools and killing a few hundred enemies of Islam). Our eyes are lowered in shame when we see a veiled woman frolic on the beach with some free-loader. From appearances, they look to be acquainted with Islamic values (We have also heard that some ill-reputed women use the veil as a mask). The blame must go to the sea. When that tide rises, people forget their inner Islam and become animals. This has a simple solution. Some Arab brothers are creating luxury flats by pouring cement into the ocean and making mini-islands. This process should be encouraged until all of the sea can be filled by concrete and sand. No sea, no tide, no sexual urges.

7. In our region, the moon is also responsible for some societal ills. At first glance, this seems to beg explanation. But when there is a clear sky, and a full moon, humans, along with animals, feel their sexual urges rise. This, too, has a solution. We can make a request to, the father of the Pakistani bomb, the incomparable poet and columinst, Dr. AQ Khan to create a missile which would blast the moon away. To convince him, we can argue that if there is no moon, no Hindu will ever get there first and look down upon the Muslim ‘ummah (You may have heard that the Hindus, in cahoots with the Americans, have been trying to send their girls to the moon. One of them even died in that shuttle on the way.) If Dr. Khan needs even more convincing, we can offer them land in the Defense Housing Authourity and he will immediately agree.

6. Fiaz Zafar, “Maulana Fazlullah key naam kulha khat“, Daily Swat.

This is a must-read. Now contrast Hanif with this “Open Letter”. This one written by another journalist but one who lives _in_ Swat. Read between his lines, look at the ways in which he approaches the same set of questions as Hanif. Here is a man who knows that the price of this letter may very well be his life. Just recently a well-known journalist, Musa Khan Khel was killed in the region.

However, one can gleam from this open letter that these are not “outsiders” but members of this same community. There is no invasion of Talibans from across the borders but a rapid militarization of internal groups with a long local history. We need to focus on this long history. We need to find a way to deal with it. I have also taken the trouble to translate this second letter for you. (Pardon the spelling mistakes).

An Open Letter to Maulana Fazlullah

Respected Maulana Fazlullahh, Supreme COmmander of the Taliban Movement of Swat
Assalam-u Alaikum

I hope that you, Haji Muslim Khan, Maulana Shah Durran, Ibn Yamin, Fatih, are in good health. I am in frequent phone contact with Haji Muslim Khan. I even met you, last year, in Taran but have not been able to contact you directly since them. Sometimes, I get to talk to Maulana Shah Durran on the phone. I met Fatih, Abbas and some of your other commanders the day we went to photograph Pir Samihullah’s body in Piuchar. I had really hoped to meet you, so that I could tell you, in person, the things I am about to write. But, it did not happen. Hence I am writing you a letter about myself and the people of Swat.

The people of Swat are extremely helpless. Thousands have died, thousand homes have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands have migrated, businesses have closed – after all this, to not have mercy on the people of Swat would be a grave injustice indeed. The rich of Swat have all fled to ISlamabad, Karachi, Peshawer, Abbotabad and other cities with their familiyes. Those, like myself, who remain in Swat do not have the capacity to go to these other cities. Those who remain have some demands from you. They have some problems that I am laying before you. I hope that you will provide a solution through Maulana Shah Durran in his FM radio address.

You have placed a ban on female education. After the ban, people stopped their girls from attending schools. And since the holidays, you will not have seen any girl in the schools. There are over 100,000 girls in various schools in Swat and their parents do have the hopes that they become educated. You know very well that the Swati people are highly religious – a clear evidence being your movement. At a single call from you, thousands of people gathered in Imam Dehrai, Kibl and Dehrai grounds. All the girls who attended school here, also went to religious school after they came home to learn Quran. And often one hears one mother ask of another, how many times has your daughter read the whole Quran and she would tell, with pride, of her own daughters many full recitations. You are a member of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan. Neither Baitullah Mehsud, in Waziristan, nor Maulana Faqir Muhammad, in Bajaur, have placed any restriction on female education. Sure, they have instructed that proper veiling be observed. I humbly request that you re-consult your religious advisory council and reconsider your decision. Certainly, we can have separate section for girls, and only women teachers can teach girls, and even the transportation system of girls can be separated, and all girls must observe strict veiling. You can even order that the subjects of Islam and religion be increased three-fold in schools. And that along with earth-sciences, all girls be taught the Quran in translation. If you make this decision, that the girls can have both religious education and secular.

You have forbidden cable and dish antennas. To combat obscenity, this is a welcome step. But obsenity can come from many places. Since you have started your movement in Swat, no one can do any business in Swat that can be considered pornographic. So much so, that people have stopped listening to songs in their cars, instead tuning in to Quranic rectitation or hymns to the Prophet. Lets take the cassette tape. Just as everything has two sides, such is the case with the tape recorder. On this instrument, people, in Swat or elsewhere, can listen to Indian songs but people can also listen to the Quran. Similar example is of the Radio – which has over a hundred station. Some people listen to songs, but people in Swat either listen to your speeches or the speech of Maulana Shah Durran. If we consider tv and satellite, we see the same two sides. Just as people can see Indian songs and movies, they can also watch the transmissions from Saudi Arabia, Quran TV, Peace TV and other channels which broadcast directly from the Holy land. Before the injunction against Cable, I had it in my house. I would watch the news stations since, as a lowly journalist, it is my responsibility. My mother, who is illiterate, would watch the quran transmission every morning, along with the Pushto Khyber TV which had translation of the Quran. Similary, many other women of my household, who cannot read, would get the Pushto translations from the television. Some people would see the direct broadcast of prayers from Mecca – even those who have never been there but have desires. Those that had, would pray that God grant them another trip. What I mean by this discussion of the two sides is simply that if we can try and teach the people than we can make them listen to religious works on the radio or television instead of Indian songs. Hence, I request that you allow cable providers to only allow Islamic channels and news channels. IN this way the people of swat can continue to be informed of global affairs as well as religious news.

The last request, I want to make on behalf of the people of Swat. Many people have written to us, and told us, about this. But we cannot publish all this in the newspaper. Hence, through this letter, I want to get the people’s voice to you. The people of Swat say that if a soldier, or policeman dies while fighting you, or is injured, it is fine. Because in battle these things happen. But those who are off-duty, in plain clothes, please do not kill them. One person wrote in with the argument that in Waziristan, Baitullah Mehsud told the police to keep their employement because it fed their families but not to fight the Taliban. Those who did, would be killed. We request that you order a similar injunction that whoever fights the Taliban will be killed and the plainclothes will not be harmed.

Going back to the “theological push” angle, notice how brilliantly Zafar highlights the differences between Mehsud and Fazlullah.

I hope all this reading gives you a sense of the diversity with which the Swat issue is being talked about. I only hope that people with their fingers on the triggers can read.

11 Replies to “Reading Swat”

  1. The problem is US and now with Richard Holbrooke down in South Asia for restoring peace, the signs are ominous as he is a man who personally oversaw the disintegration of the Balkan states, especially Yugoslavia.

    As an Indian, who believes that all organised religions are criminal gangs, i am quite concerned about this development in Pakistan, even though i am shunned from the ground realities.

    The last piece refereed in this write up by Fiaz Zafar is born clearly out of helplessness than it being a proposition for the Taliban.
    How come showing Islamic Channels will increase awareness in world affairs?

    So what will India do now? Will they guard their territory with a Israeli type of wall to protect them from these elements?

  2. oh Faiz Zafar’s letter was such a poignant reminder of his helplessness and his attempt at appealing to Fazlullah, better judgment. the government has abandoned its own people, people like Zafar who are just bewildered and trying to make sense of their awful situation.

  3. The Zafar piece is tremendously moving, especially in contrast to Hanif’s urbane snarkiness; part of the reason for its impact is that one is not able to decide whether Zafar is saying all that he can say for fear of going too far; or if Zafar himself subscribes to a rooted and conservative ethos that (all over the world) frets about being swept away in a tide of popular culture, TV, etc., and hearkens to “revivalists” as a consequence…Of course, one need not be able to “decide” anything in order to affirm the value of this piece…

    Aside: the Bollywood fan/student in me cannot but remark upon the subversive potential of the Hindi film song; no other aspect of India, Indianness, etc., merits any mention in Zafar’s piece, not even the Kashmir issue (and, I submit, the Pakistani government’s decision to allow screening of Bollywood movies in theaters in Pakistan did more than many other measures to “normalize” relations; I fear that measure too has fallen casualty to the post-Mumbai attack sabre-rattling).

  4. Re: rafia zakaria piece: “In other words, if the anti-state force, one that has ruthlessly been destroying schools, ravaging the economy and attacking state installations, is itself made the state, then its power to subvert the state is automatically neutralised.”

    Recognizing the danger in twinning different situations, nevertheless other examples from the region might offer useful examples:

    1. Most accounts focus on the military counter-insurgency operations in Punjab in defeating the pro-Khalistan forces, but one should also spare a thought to good ol’ co-optation. i.e. once the Akali Dal was itself normalized as a regional party analogous to other regional parties in India, to an extent the Khalistan movement always risked being coopted by the Indian state.

    2. In retrospect, the death of Tamil separatism in India was the victory of the Dravidian parties in the 1967 state elections (and the permanent eclipse of the Congress in that state after those elections). From the Dravidian movement’s perspective, the state was in fact different under the DMK than it had been under the Congress; that difference is undeniable, but equally, the “insurgent” parties themselves acquired an undeniable stake in the system — making them necessarily less insurgent.

    I stress that these are just provisional thoughts that don’t have anything to say about Swat — but they might offer scope for thinking about the nature of cooptation (as Zakaria seems to have).

    Overall, while I found this a useful piece, I was a bit disturbed by Zakaria’s suggestion that Taliban control of Swat is actually a strategy to make the population anti-Taliban in response to the oppression everyone knows will follow. This seems cold (i.e. that someone might make this calculation doesn’t surprise me; but why isn’t Zakaria outraged by this cynicism?)

  5. I think Hanif is a bit of an ass. This cutesy-cutesy commentary will be popular in DHA, but it’s the problem, isn’t it, not the solution.

  6. Religious lunacy seems to be order of the day here. Do they publicly stone people to death for listening to the radio ?? All these people is need is an A bomb to further their cause.
    I find it a paradox that these primitive ideologies are willing to deny modernity, yet they are ready to take full advantage of what it has to offer. They think we are evil, I think they are just plain nuts. Unfortunately, someone around here has “kicked the Hornet’s nest” and now we must deal with all the raging bees.

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