Taliban’s change of heart on polio vaccination

Published January 22, 2014
Talking to Dawn, a senior member and former spokesperson of the TTP, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said that the militant outfit was “in principle” not targeting polio workers.  — File Photo
Talking to Dawn, a senior member and former spokesperson of the TTP, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said that the militant outfit was “in principle” not targeting polio workers. — File Photo

KUNAR: Apparently on feeling growing pressure from the sympathisers of those affected by the crippling polio disease, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has officially distanced itself from some of the recent attacks on polio vaccinators in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi, saying it has nothing to do with these killings.

But at the same time there are some senior members in the organisation who have not ruled out the possibility of involvement of some “hard-liners” or “overzealous” members for such violent actions against the polio workers.

In fact, there are still several hard-liners within the banned militant organisation who openly justify action against polio workers by describing the vaccination campaign as a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ or an ‘espionage campaign’.

Talking to Dawn, a senior member of the TTP, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said that the militant outfit was “in principle” not targeting polio workers. The statement is much in contrast to the situation either some prominent member or one of the affiliated militant outfits had openly claimed responsibility for such attacks or the TTP had decided to remain silent after such killings.

“We have been holding detailed deliberations on the polio issue for some time and have been consulting trustworthy Muslim medical experts. Some of our doubts have been removed,” he said.

For many years, a number of TTP and other clerics had been advocating conspiracy theories, claiming that polio vaccination was a “Jewish conspiracy to suppress Muslim population growth”. Some extremist elements have even justified killing polio workers while accusing them of being “agents of the West”.

According to some TTP insiders, the militant organisation is heading towards an official shift on a number of issues, including polio vaccination.

“The leadership of the TTP has been looking at issues such as disability of children. From an Islamic point of view, you could say that we are no longer opposed to polio vaccinations. Of course we would like children to be protected. But we simply cannot allow vaccinators when we have the case of Shakil Afridi in front of us,” said Maulana Saleh Qassam, editor of TTP’s monthly magazine, who is also regarded within the organisation as a “religious scholar”.

A number of other TTP clerics endorse his views. “We are not considering polio vaccination un-Islamic. We do not consider it right to target polio workers unless we have concrete evidence of their involvement in spying or some other anti-Mujahideen activity,” said Maulvi Khalid Balti, a North Waziristan-based TTP cleric.

However, this school of thought is not going unchallenged within the TTP ranks.

“Unfortunately there are still elements within the TTP who believe in some baseless conspiracy theories. This is particularly true for many foot soldiers,” said Umar Ansari, a university graduate from Islamabad who has moved to the tribal areas and serves as one of the advisers to TTP Mohmand chief Umar Khalid Khorasani.

Lack of knowledge in some cases is not the only challenge.

“It is not always possible to control zealots in cities who are not operating under our direct command,” said Ansari.

According to the World Health Organisation, 80,000 children in Pakistan have not been immunised against polio. About 22,000 of these children hail from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

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