Code Pink, the Taliban and Malala Yousafzai

The US antiwar movement is failing to develop a politics that is critical of both US imperialism and fundamentalist movements like the Taliban.

The US antiwar group Code Pink, which describes itself as “a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end US funded wars and occupations,” recently sent a delegation to Pakistan to campaign against drones with Imran Khan. On October 9th, a dozen of them held a symbolic twelve hour fast outside the Islamabad Press Club, holding “pictures of the more than 160 Pakistani children who have been killed by American drones.”

The same day, in nearby Swat, another Pakistani child, 14 year old Malala Yousafzai, was gunned down by the Pakistani Taliban because she was an advocate of education for girls. They stopped her school bus, asked for her by name, and shot her twice in the head, wounding two other students in the process 

No turn of events could more forcefully illustrate the idiocy of the US peace movement’s one-sided approach to solidarity.

In an email from Karachi the same day, Pakistani feminist Afiya Zia reported that Malala Yousafzai was attacked because she “had launched a resistance movement against the Taliban's anti-girls' education campaign and bombings of schools. She had set up a school herself and maintained an anonymous Anne Frank type diary on the BBC website. The shooting has literally galvanized the country. Hundreds of people are at the hospital offering blood donations.”

Malala Yousafzai grew up in the Swat valley in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, where her father ran a girls’ school. When she was little, the Pakistani Taliban made the valley their base area, and as they became more powerful, they forbade female education and imposed their version of sharia law. In 2009, the Pakistani military attacked and drove 1.2 million people, including Malala, from their homes to live as internal refugees; during this period, she became a spokesperson for the children of the region via her blog on BBC-Urdu.

The Taliban leaders fled into Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including Waziristan, where they are currently being attacked by US drones with the off-and-on consent of the Pakistani government. (In 2008, Pakistan’s top general privately requested more drones while publicly denouncing them.)

Things are getting worse for FATA women and girls. This July, Farida Afreedi, a 25-year old women’s human rights defender in the Khyber region, on her way home from visiting women in the tribal areas, was gunned down by two Taliban motorcylists. No one has been arrested for this crime. The Women’s Action Forum in Lahore issued a statement after her death: “It is a matter of grave concern that retrogressive forces of extremism are allowed to perpetuate a reign of terror over the tribal population, especially women in public service. Despite these elements being identifiable, the state authorities have completely failed to enforce the rule of law.”

In August, Shirkat Gah, a Karachi feminist organization, sent a bulletin to the list of Women Living Under Muslim Laws describing further “repressive and regressive developments” in the region: at the request of “local elders”, police in the Karak district had banned women from public markets unless they were accompanied by male family members; in Kotal, the Taliban had ordered all proprietors of cell phone shops to go into another business as they were committing “un-Islamic” acts by providing the means by which music and videos could be uploaded. They also ordered all NGOs to close down within a week or they would “face the consequences.” This is all part of a pattern familiar from the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. 

You’d think that a US-UK peace delegation (Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, Reprieve) planning to go to the tribal areas might have asked for briefings from the Women’s Action Forum, Shirkat Gah, or any number of other Pakistani movement organizations. Instead their guide was Imran Khan, a cricket hero turned politician who organized a much-publicized motor procession to Waziristan to protest drone attacks. The members of the peace delegation do not seem to have been troubled by Khan’s views or his dubious associations.  

As Jason Burke recently wrote in The Observer, among Khan’s allies are the Pakistan Defense Council, “a coalition of extremist groups which wants to end any Pakistani alliance with the USA and includes people who not only explicitly support the Afghan Taliban but who are associated with terrorist and sectarian violence.” Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, is part of this coalition. Khan’s position on the Pakistani Taliban - the ones who shot Malala Yousafzai - is unequivocal, says The Observer: “The militants themselves, who behead supposed spies and drive out development workers or teachers, are increasingly unpopular. Yet Khan calls the violence a ‘fight for Pashtun solidarity against a foreign invader.’ He insists ‘there is not a threat to Pakistan from Taliban ideology.’”

If the peace delegation is using a Taliban ally as their guide to Pakistan, it is not for lack of an alternative. The region has a thriving peace movement. According to Gita Sahgal of the Centre for Secular Space:

“There are peace activists all over South Asia but I doubt that they would recognise Imran Khan as one of them. They include scientists, journalists, academics, trade unionists, and feminists. They are universally horrified by the ‘war on terror’ and the massive fire power of the American military machine but, along with warning against military intervention from abroad, they analyse the influence of the military at home and the threat it constitutes to democracy, particularly in Pakistan. Not a single democratic government of Pakistan has served its term and transferred power to another democratically elected government, so peace activists in Pakistan are active to maintain democracy. They are also anti-fundamentalist and clearly recognise that the military promote fundamentalism, not only in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan.”

So why would Code Pink ally with Imran Khan rather than Pakistani liberals? Just to get press? Because a nuanced analysis would complicate their message? 

Perhaps the US antiwar movement is so small because of its failure to develop a politics that is critical of both US imperialism and fundamentalist movements like the Taliban. 

To me it seems clear that we are living in a period comparable to the nineteen thirties - a time of economic crisis, increasing polarization, and the growth of rightwing movements. We face two great adversaries of peace: neoliberalist states, led by the US, that want to rule the world via the free market, and global movements of religious fundamentalists - Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh. Sometimes these fundamentalists collude and sometimes they collide. Sometimes they fight the US and sometimes ally with it. The international situation is complex, shifting, and not easily reduced to either leftwing or rightwing formulae.

But some on the left are wedded to simple slogans. Code Pink’s current one is End Drone Warfare. Drones are suddenly the greatest source of evil in the world, and Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin has not only written a book about them but also mustered a delegation to boldly go where no American has gone before, or at least not lately. Unfortunately the Pakistani government refused at the last minute to let Imran Khan’s procession plus foreigners into Waziristan, so they had to rally in a border town called Tank.

One of the peace delegates went walking in Tank yesterday, wrapped in a white dupatta, and was soon surrounded by a crowd. That would be Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth, who recently converted to Islam and apparently thinks this makes her an appropriate spokesperson for Muslims all over the world. “We oppose oppression because we are Muslims,” she told them. 

A Pakistani reporter had the nerve to ask her about “the genuine terrorists that might be in these areas.”  

“‘I can’t believe that when thousands of people are dying, you are taking the American line,’ she snapped. ‘It’s offensive. I’m here for the people who are Muslim. We don’t want anyone to die, but we are here to protest drone attacks, not Pakistanis,’ she said, storming off.”

In their post-Tank press release of October 10th, Medea Benjamin and Robert Naiman say the peace delegation showed Pakistan that not all Americans are bad guys:

“To the cheers of a teeming group of Pakistanis, we walked on stage holding anti-drone signs and pictures of children who have been killed in drone attacks, and delivered an apology for the death of innocent people. ‘We want you to know that these Americans you see here have been fighting for years against this drone policy, and will continue to do so until we put an end into to these barbaric attacks. We want to live in peace and harmony with our brothers and sisters in this region,’ we told the crowd. Their response brought tears to our eyes. ‘You are welcome! We want peace!,’ they chanted over and over, smiling, waving and cheering.”

Is this solidarity or imperial narcissim? 

Most Pakistanis are so outraged by the attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai that even Imran Khan had to condemn it, though it took him ten hours to do so and he didn’t mention the Taliban. Code Pink’s Washington office also did a hasty press release October 10th saying they prayed for Malala’s recovery and offering $1000 to her school, while making “a connection between drone attacks and growing extremism in Pakistan” - as if there were no Taliban before there were drones.

Another delegation member, Joe Bello, co-chair of the United National Antiwar Coalition, went further, telling The Express Tribune in Islamabad that the US government knows its use of drones will only create more terrorists and that is fine with them. “In order to justify something called war on terror they need terrorists. It allows the US to keep the war long.”  

Surely solidarity entails listening to people’s movements in the region, not just parachuting in with sound bites for consumption back home. Here is the analysis of the Women’s Action Forum, a national network of Pakistani feminist activists formed in 1981 to protest the military dictatorship:

“Women’s Action Forum considers the cowardly attempt to assassinate Malala Yousufzai as the ultimate symbol of the male militants’ pogrom to murder any and all women’s and girls’ basic rights in the country. It is significant that the female victims of such designs range from that of (the late) Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to the working women of Swat. The myth of ‘honourable’ tribal codes that supposedly ‘protect’ women and follow the religious belief of peaceful co-existence, has been convincingly shattered time and again. Yet, sympathisers and patrons of anti-women, anti-minority policies continue to direct their anger at foreign sources and abstractions, rather than local actors and actual brutalities.”

In other words, US drones are not Pakistan’s only problem. As Afiya Zia says, “Many Pakistanis oppose drones as a mechanism of warfare and in fact, oppose all wars and are anti-military rule. But it is ridiculous to think we can return to some golden era of ‘peace’ and non-competitive Islamism just by ending the alliance with the US. While most feminists in Pakistan would continue to object to US involvement and intervention in the region, they would simultaneously oppose the masculinist misogyny and non-democratic rule and violence employed by local authoritarian forces including the army, tribal rulers, landed political rulers, the ulama/clergy or indeed, any patriarchal forces.”

A more complicated message than “End Drone Warfare” - but real solidarity means taking it on.

About the author

Meredith Tax has been a writer and political activist since the late 1960s, and is a Commissioning Editor at openDemocracy 50.50. She was a member of Bread and Roses, and founding chair of International PEN’s Women Writers’ Committee. She was founding President of Women’s WORLD, a global free speech network that fought gender-based censorship. Meredith is currently the US Director of the Centre for Secular Space.