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“Liking” the Taliban

December 14, 2012

-Illustration by Mahjabeen Mankani/

Last week the Pakistani Taliban posted their first recruiting call on Facebook. It was a soft moment, one that in its banal ordinariness aimed to make the band of black masked school girl shooters look just like the gel haired, button down men who try to convince eager college students to work for say, a bank or a new internet start-up. Here was the newly hip and  seemingly suave Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, comfortable with social media and looking for recruits for their new magazine “Ahyah-e-Khilafat”. They needed interns, those unpaid staples of the working world, dictated not by ideology but the ache for “experience”.

Admittedly, this would be of a different sort, video editors and translators and writers for a magazine documenting killing rampages, the valor of suicide bombings and perhaps, the occasional invite to a distribution of spoils from a marauded truck convoy. Someone at the Tehreek-e-Taliban office decided that they needed people and where better to cull from the hordes of Pakistani youth, the Taliban may have concluded in their most recent cave summit in Bara, than Facebook, where the would-be militant and the would-be banker rub shoulders in virtual fellowship.

But Facebook is not Freebook and while the postings went up on Friday, meetings in faraway Los Angeles, perhaps in Mark Zuckerberg’s better equipped cave deemed the issue unsavory for the social networking website that is normally quite reticent to pull content. The 281 “likes” that the Taliban had already got, seemed not to be convincing enough to make a case for retention. It was the end, at least for the present of the Taliban’s efforts at being Facebook friendly recruiters of would-be bombers or editors or writers or video producers.

The Taliban’s failures with Facebook are, however, just a singular episode in what seem to be a series of overtures, however bumbling and misguided, that suggest that some of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan are feeling a bit uncomfortable with their image as brute, dirty, medieval killers of little children. One more shred pointing in the direction of this new self-consciousness came with the reports that Hakimullah Mehsud, the current leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was losing support among the group because (gasp) he was considered “too violent”. The Taliban know that they are fighting a public relations war, the report said, and under Hakimullah Mehsud they are only likely to lose.

Before you swallow this morsel, consider again where it comes from; these are the Taliban who stood before mini hills of burned up CDs in Lahore’s Moon Market and piles of corpses killed in prayer at Data Darbar, who staged one mass execution in Gilgit Baltistan and then barely breathed as they moved on to another, of a 14 year old school girl in Swat. Violence indeed, large, staggering, bloody avalanches of it seems had been both the Taliban trademark and their hallmark; what they produced and forced down the throats and eyes and minds of everyone watching. Digesting this news of the Taliban’s latest worries about being too violent, is for violence-bloated Pakistanis, like imagining free electricity and clean water … both a mockery of the present and a fantasy in the future.

There is also some philosophical significance to this turn of the Taliban and our collective challenge of imagining them as newly cuddly and suddenly peace-loving. The step between the Taliban of now and before can be situated on two seminal philosophical concepts: the “positive” and “negative” conception of rights, ideas and prescriptions. Positive and negative here does not mean as in ordinary parlance simply “good” and “bad” but rather, positive in prescribing something that must be done, versus the negative which simply critiques what exists. Under this philosophical lens, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have in their two decade plus existence, developed an almost exclusively negative project. The vast portions of their actions and prescriptions are hence, based on what they don’t like/want/forbid such as music and schools and NGOs and women.

And while it may be true that the Taliban avow the future establishment of an Islamic state, they show little evidence of having any present knowledge or expertise regarding its provenance; they chop off hands without a Qazi and sell drugs where necessary to pay for “Holy” war. It’s a whole philosophy of being against, of destruction, of critique of what exists with only the vaguest premonitions of what an alternate order would look like instead. Would bank transactions be any different under a Taliban regime, would an economy with no women at all function? We don’t know and its likely that the Taliban don’t either.

Going mainstream on social media or anywhere else is a “positive” project. Much like the angst ridden teenager who must now look for a job, it involves facing some grim realities that may have been happily hidden by the undifferentiated rage of rebellion. The signals we see from the Taliban now, the internal spats about too much violence, the quibbles about leadership judged on the scales of trust and likeability, even the Eid card that the newly earnest Hakimullah Mehsud sent out to Pakistani journalists show the awkwardness of this very turn.

Ultimately, the Taliban  themselves do not know what they are for and shorn of the ghastliness of shock and fear and debilitation; they represent only rage which can take down, but not build up, frighten but never comfort, subjugate but never persuade. As they turn to Twitter and Facebook, they may discover that for all its fickleness, social media with its 140 characters and click-easy “likes” is more of a test than the burning down of a helpless, fearful and easily silenced village.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.