Convincing the Taliban

September 19, 2012

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THE vaccination campaign in Pakistan should receive a boost with a $200m Saudi grant meant to help this country reinforce its fight against childhood illnesses. This bit of positive news, communicated by former Saudi health minister and senior WHO official Dr Hussain A. Gezairy to Dawn on Monday, will be especially welcomed by those spearheading the anti-polio campaign at a time when the Taliban have banned polio drops in parts of the tribal areas. But, while the money will help in the fight against polio, the Saudis can make a real difference by allowing their ulema to reach out to militants in Pakistan. Reportedly, efforts have been initiated by the state to involve senior Saudi clerics to convince the Taliban to let children be vaccinated. The logic behind this seems to be that since the militants have used religious edicts to prevent immunisations, bringing in religious authorities with stronger credentials may convince them to change their stance. The government apparently wants the imam of the Grand Mosque in Makkah to come to Pakistan and administer polio drops to children. This may send a strong message to militants, even if the Taliban follow their own perverse logic. What is more, scholars from across the Muslim world have issued decrees supporting anti-polio vaccinations; the state should publicise this fact.

It is unfortunate that appeals have to be made to militants. But as Dr Gezairy pointed out, the Afghan Taliban declared a ceasefire to allow vaccinations. If the choice is between reaching out to the militants to ensure vaccinations and not immunising children at all, efforts should be made to engage the militants through all available channels. If bringing Saudi religious leaders on board for outreach can result in more children being immunised, it would be worth a try. The Saudis are taking their time to respond. They should expedite the process that would allow the imam of the Grand Mosque to come to Pakistan in order to boost the anti-polio campaign. At the end of the day, the goal is to protect vulnerable children from polio and other debilitating illnesses.