Who are the "Taliban" in Swat?

Humeira Iqtidar
30 April 2009

Who are the " Taliban" in Pakistan? Islamist militants in the country have won significant international attention after wrestling control over the Swat Valley, the restive region in northern Pakistan where elements of sharia law are now in place. Yet these militants do not self-identify as "Taliban", unlike the Afghan Taliban who chose the name for themselves, and preferred it to the then generic term "mujahideen". The term "Taliban" means students; the original Taliban were educated in madrassas, religious schools. Groups and individuals that are being labelled the "Taliban in Pakistan" (TIP) are very different from their Afghan counterparts in important respects. It is pertinent not just to think through the implications of these differences but also to raise questions about why distinguishing details are being lost in the media frenzy of recent months.  

In Swat, the group that has gained the most notoriety in recent months calls itself Tehreek Nifaz e Sharia Mohammadi (TNSM). This can be roughly translated as the "Movement for the Implementation of Mohammaden Law". However, such a rough translation is inevitably problematic because substituting "Law" for "Sharia" here conveys the sense of a rigid set of rules. The "sharia" is, instead, a fairly broad set of guidelines allowing greater subjectivity and contextualisation to the individual judge than "law" does. (See for instance, Mohammed Qasim Zaman, Ulema in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change, 2007; Wael Hallaq, Authority, Continuity and Change in Islamic Law, 2001)

Humeira Iqtidar is a research fellow at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.

Her research focuses on theories of secularism and secularisation through an ethnographic focus on Islamist groups in Pakistan.

Unlike the core of the Afghan Taliban, the so-called TIP are not madrassa educated; most of them are semi-literate or illiterate. Those who have received some educational training have generally attended local schools but not madrassas. Based on what little information there is about the militants, it seems that the leadership of the TIP consists in large part of men who have worked or continue to work in shops, as day labourers, as hawkers and peddlers, or in the case of the current leader, Maulana Fazlullah, as a chair-lift operator.

The TNSM was started by Sufi Mohammed, a local religious leader, in 1992. Since the beginning there have been suspicions regarding his relationship with the ISI - Pakistan's now infamous intelligence agency. The speculation is that ISI support for his movement for the imposition of sharia in Swat in 1992 created instability that put tremendous pressure on the government of then prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Those were the days when the ISI was very suspicious of Benazir Bhutto's support for its activities; later, perhaps, such conflicts of interest no longer existed.

Here at least the TNSM shares a history with other Islamic militant groups; the progeny outstrip the desires and commands of their parent. After his largely unsuccessful attempt to force his way into public view in the 1990s, Sufi Mohammed came to wider attention when he issued a call for the support of Afghan Taliban after the US invasion Afghanistan in 2001. Tellingly, his call for support received a lukewarm response from the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Arrested by the Pakistani government for inciting violence, he was released from prison in 2008.  

During this period his son-in-law Fazlullah headed his movement. Fazlullah's claim to fame, initially, was his FM radio channel and, in particular, his own program which established a significant following among the women of Swat. This is paradoxical given his emphasis on public piety, the burden of which often falls on women. Nevertheless, it appears from local reports that the FM radio channel had some variety in its offerings - from recipes to discussions on local politics - and was popular enough to be noteworthy. 

How and why Fazlullah decided the time was ripe for his call to arms, and precisely what was the extent and nature of his activities up till that point remain uncertain due to the little information available. What is quite certain is that the Pakistani army's decision to blockade the region - at times stopping the movement of food and medical supplies - and to attack some villages swelled the ranks of the TNSM. After an uncertain and largely ill-planned foray into the valley, the army retreated leaving the TNSM with a moral victory and control over some regions.

A recent report in the New York Times claims that the Swat Taliban have exploited class rifts within Swat to deepen their hold. They first targeted the two dozen or so local landlords. Each time a landlord fled in response to TNSM threats, local peasants were allowed greater access to the vacated land. The new arrangements also allowed for a share of revenue for TNSM. Other reports in Pakistani newspapers suggest that emerald mines from the area have been reopened under a profit sharing scheme with the local miners.

While critics have slammed the government for making concessions that allow sharia law in the region, the motivation behind imposing sharia may stem from more than just religious zeal. The much discussed Nizam-e-Adl (Mechanisms for Justice) regulation that was passed as part of the ceasefire agreement between the Taliban and the government of Pakistan and ratified by President Asif Ali Zardari on 14 April, makes perfunctory mention of the desire to adhere to Quranic injunctions, but rather is concerned primarily with providing quick and effective justice. The mechanisms may be misguided, open to abuse and problematic, but it is easy to see how the fundamental thrust of the regulation has found resonance locally. It is ultimately an endeavour to bypass Pakistan's judicial system that is heavily biased against the powerless, and to facilitate quick decision-making.  

A history of inequity and resistance may feed into contemporary events. The Malakand area of Swat was an important hub of peasant mobilisation during the 1970s, agitations that were suppressed only with a certain amount of brutality and with the connivance of local landlords and the state machinery. Not surprisingly, the landlords are often the region's political leaders and administrative officials. Though it would be quite a stretch to see the TSNM in Swat as the heirs of these older peasant movements, their legacy no doubt lingers in the restive region. 

Much media attention has focused on the worsening plight of women in Swat, particularly after the video-taped public flogging of a 17 year-old girl. Unfortunately, the kinds of atrocities perpetrated by the TNSM against women also occur in the feudal holdings of many of the "secular" political elite of Pakistan. Yet these incidents do not make headlines in the same way. Few Pakistanis can ignore the fact that restricting women's mobility and reducing their educational opportunities (as the TNSM intend to do) along with gang rape, abduction, and honour killing have a long history in southern Punjab and Sind, areas where both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani have vast landholdings.  

The alleged video recording the public flogging of a woman by Taliban in Swat has not been conclusively proven as authentic. A woman named Chand Bibi was initially identified as the one being flogged. However, she was reported to have sworn before a judge that the video was not hers (Jang newspaper, 11 April, 2009, front page). It is entirely feasible that she did so under duress. Quite rightly, the video generated debate and outrage within Pakistani print and television media.

Along with the very legitimate concern for women's rights, sectors of the Urdu language press as well as various local TV channels expressed disquiet that the video and its reception have echoes of the campaigns carried out just before the US attack of Afghanistan. "White men liberating brown women from brown men" (to use Gayatri Spivak's terminology) has a long history in justifying wars and occupations. The brutal treatment of women by the Afghan Taliban became the subject of email petitions, news reports and first person accounts in magazines like Elle, Ms. and Cosmopolitan.

Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood point out the usefulness of this campaign in justifying the attack on Afghanistan and the callousness that was allowed within this framework:

"In the context of this intense concern for Afghan women, it is striking how silent the vast majority of Americans have been about civilian casualties that resulted from the US bombing campaign. In December 2001 - two months after the start of the US military offensive - the Feminist Majority website remained stubbornly focused on the ills of Taliban rule, with no mention of the hundreds of thousands of victims of three years of drought who were put at greater risk of starvation because US bombing severely restricted the delivery of food aid. The Feminist Majority made no attempts to join the calls issued by a number of humanitarian organizations - including the Afghan Women's Mission - to halt the bombing so that food could be transported to these 2.2 million Afghans before winter set in." (Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency, Anthropological Quarterly, 2002)

Hirschkind and Mahmood wrote this in 2002. It is arguable whether women in Afghanistan have benefited at all from the invasion since then. Even with the best of intentions the actual reach of the NATO forces remains severely limited within Afghanistan, and the writ of the Karzai government hardly extends beyond Kabul.  

This is not to say that the developments in Swat should not cause concern, or that TNSM deserve our support, but rather that we need to look deeper to see where their strength stems from. Only then can we come up with an effective counter-strategy. The way the crisis is being constructed in mainstream media - highlighting the group's affinity with the Afghan Taliban - seems likely to generate only one kind of response- a military one. US and UK governments have been openly pressurising Zardari to take the military option. Since Sunday, Pakistani troops have already started another "operation" in Buner. 

However, the attention that the Swat TNSM have received from the US administration, including most recently Hilary Clinton, in recent weeks belies more than benign concern for the fate of the Swatis. The threat of these "Taliban" justifies the blatant disregard for civilian lives evidenced by the US army's drone attacks inside Pakistan and creates the ground for an overt extension of the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan. This extension of the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan has resonances with earlier tried and tested strategies of the Pentagon. Using a template from the Vietnam war, Washington's "AfPak" strategy follows a familiar logic: "The US has pretty much won the war in Vietnam/Afghanistan. This is the last little bit that needs sorting now, because Cambodia/Laos/Pakistan are harbouring Communists/Taliban. Once they are cleared up we can declare complete victory."

Pakistan face many real problems, stemming in large part from the stifling inequity that pervades its political structures. The task of tackling these challenges is not abetted by intensifying militancy in the country, which has increased dramatically since the US invasion of Afghanistan, a spillover effect that Pakistan can ill afford.

However, it is still not beyond the capacity of Pakistani society to contain these militants. I am reminded here of what Shirin Ebadi, Iranian Nobel Laureate and Human Rights Activists said in response to a question from an audience at Cambridge University some years ago. She was asked about what feminists in the west could do to help women in Iran. "Nothing," she said, "We are capable of fighting our own battles and will manage, as long as you can stop your governments from invading us."

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