Fault lines in the mind

September 29, 2007


‘TALIBANISATION’ is hardly the most elegant word to have entered the dictionary, but it does describe a recent phenomenon rather accurately. It connotes the process whereby large areas of Pakistan are being transformed into the wasteland the Taliban created in Afghanistan before 9/11, and are again replicating in the growing territory they control.

In our context, the term refers to the violent and ruthless manner in which supporters and admirers of the Taliban are forcing Pakistani citizens to accept the stone-age values of their Afghan mentors. While earlier, these forced ‘conversions’ took place in the tribal belt, they have now spread to settled areas like Swat.

Wherever Talibanisation has spread, the first people to be targeted are women, video-shop owners, barbers and tailors. The last-named profession has been warned not to stitch clothes that do not conform to ‘Islamic’ values, while barbers are threatened with fines, and even death, if they trim male beards. And movies and music are, of course, beyond the pale.

But obviously, such a barren, killjoy belief system can scarcely be described as ‘Islamic’, given the many Muslim societies where these values simply do not exist. In fact, they are more reflective of the austere, primitive society of the tribal areas from where they sprang.

So is ‘Talibanisation’ a geographical and cultural phenomenon, rather than a religious one? In the September issue of National Geographic, Don Belt writes in a long piece on Pakistan:

“If there is an address, an exact location for the rift tearing apart Pakistan, and possibly the world, it is a spot 17 miles west of Islamabad called the Margalla Pass. Here … two ancient and very different civilisations collide. To the southeast … lie the fertile lowlands of the Indian subcontinent… To the west and north stretch the harsh, windswept mountains of Central Asia … where man fears one God and takes no prisoners…”

While Belt is certainly allowed a certain amount of journalistic licence, I think his geography is off by about 60 miles. I would personally place the fault line at Attock, where the Indus meets the Kabul River. For centuries, this was the point on the Grand Trunk Road that divided Afghanistan and India. Indeed, the British decision to push this boundary forward to the Khyber Pass that marks the present Durand Line has been the subject of much bitterness in Kabul. To this day, the Afghan government has refused to accept this border.

Much of Pakistan’s woes in the region can be traced back to this re-drawing of frontiers by the British for their own imperial interests. So to some extent, the insurrection in the tribal area on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border can be viewed as a national struggle over lost territory.

But Belt is right in pointing out the geographical and cultural influences that differentiate the two vast regions. The lowlands are home to Sufi saints and gurus, and their shrines that have traditionally provided spiritual solace to the many different peoples inhabiting the subcontinent. Temples, churches and mosques have co-existed peacefully for centuries. But from across Attock have come waves of Muslim warriors who spread death and destruction in the early half of the last millennium. Temples were destroyed by the hundreds, and an incalculable number of Hindus killed and enslaved.

Over time, many of these fierce horsemen settled in India, forming their own fiefdoms and kingdoms. They were tamed and civilised, and gradually adapted to the local way of life. However, their brethren in Afghanistan remained rooted in their primitive tribal ways, with Islam providing a unifying overlay.

These differences in attitude towards Islam are reflected in the Deobandi-Barelvi divide among Muslims across the subcontinent. The former is the school of thought that insists on the literal interpretation of the holy texts, and is close to Saudi Wahabism. The latter reflects the Sufi, spiritual strain of Islam, and is best exemplified by the syncretic faith in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time, when the last Mughal emperor respected all faiths equally, and music and dancing were common in the royal court, as well as in shrines.

Today, the conflict between these opposed visions is reflected in the madressahs that have mushroomed in Pakistan over the last three decades. Many of these informal seminaries are funded by Saudi and Gulf businessmen and charities, and instil the harsh Wahabi-Deobandi doctrine in young minds. This teaching has resulted in a rising army of young men who suspect Barelvis of apostasy. For them, Shias are non-Muslims, and the West is the source of all evil.

So while Attock (or the Margalla Pass) might be the geographical fault line, this battle for hearts and minds is now being fought in all the cities and towns of Pakistan. For instance, Jhang in Punjab is a long way from the Margallas, but was the home of the ferocious Lashkar-i-Jhangvi militia that has close links with both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and has committed countless acts of terror across the country.

But despite this dismal picture of a country at war with itself, switch on any of the dozens of the local private TV channels, and you see a very different Pakistan. Ads show young men and women prancing around in jeans and T-shirts, chanting commercial jingles. Music channels have young couples dancing and singing, much as young couples on TV do around the world. FM radio broadcasts feature inane, flirtatious conversations. On mobile phones, young people send thousands of chatty text messages.

Despite this healthy self-expression, Pakistanis remain deeply religious, a fact that was forcefully brought home to me by a recent poll conducted by the monthly Herald. Despite the fact that 73 per cent of all respondents said they did not want Taliban-type restrictions on women, 89 per cent approved of the hijab. This figure rises slightly to 90 per cent if only women’s views are counted.

Depressingly, only 52 per cent said ‘yes’ when asked if the testimony of women should carry equal weight in a court of law. Even more alarmingly, only 34 per cent felt that women should have the same right of divorce as men. And 54 per cent of the respondents, equally divided among men and women, said they would not allow their daughters or sisters to marry of their own free will.

Ultimately, then, Talibanisation happens in the mind, and not in any particular geographical location.