By Yasser Latif Hamdani
March 04, 2013
We need not split hairs to recognise that Pakistan’s centre has ill-served its periphery i.e. the Pashtoon and Baloch tribes
The war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan has now entered its 12th year and the objectives are nowhere near achieved. Most people will agree that the world — especially our part of the world — is a much more dangerous place than it was in September 2001. The narrative of the clash of civilisations set at an institutional level in the early days of this war has dominated the effort and it has really not achieved much, at least palpably. Sure the al Qaeda leaders have been killed, including Osama bin Laden, but that has not ended either terrorism or its impact, especially here in Pakistan.
Within Pakistan much of the debate has revolved around the nature of the insurgency in the Pashtoon areas, especially the tribal belt, which has been derisively called the ‘Ilaqa Ghair’ or alien territory. There are some who take umbrage with what they feel is a cultural misappropriation of their ethnic heritage. They are partly right, but only partly. There is a complex dynamic at play that needs to be underscored. We need not split hairs to recognise that Pakistan’s centre has ill-served its periphery i.e. the Pashtoon and Baloch tribes. The war on terrorism — mishandled, mismanaged and consequently turned into war on tribes — has given it a zing in the Pashtoon areas. Islam has always been part of the cultural milieu of the Pashtoon tribal values but that does not mean it is part of the narrative of the global jihad. The fierce allegiance of the Pashtoon tribes to Islam has been exploited — from within the centre and without — leading to violent retribution often couched in religious rhetoric.
Dr Akbar S Ahmed, the renowned anthropologist, has recently come up with a fascinating thesis in his book The Thistle and the Drone on how in the post 9/11 period, the United States has unwittingly exacerbated the problem. The basic idea that Dr Ahmed presents is that centres of Muslim society, coterminous with centres of Muslim majority states, have been allied with the US willingly or unwillingly but the failure of these centres to communicate effectively with the peripheries — in our case the war-torn tribal areas along the Afghan border — has ensured that we get bogged down further. It, therefore, exposes the chinks in the armour of the clash of civilisations theory that Samuel Huntington had coined and which had gained currency in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
By reframing the issue in terms of centre and the periphery, Dr Ahmed, who brings to the table his rich experience in the tribal territories of Pakistan, has shown that far from being a clash of civilisations, the whole issue is a modern problem i.e. of the modern nation state coming to terms with its various kinds of nationals. Pakistan’s problems with the frontier of course predate the formation of the new state in 1947. One example of the cruel and discriminatory treatment meted out to the tribes is the continuing existence of the colonial Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901 in some form and the special status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan under the constitution under which president alone may extend a law or laws to the region. The limited application of constitutional fundamental rights and existence of discriminatory laws such as the FCR has only serve to confound the problems of the ‘other’, in this case, our periphery, the tribes on our northwest.
Dr Ahmed argues that the issue of the centre vs periphery is not necessarily confined to Muslim societies (he gives the example of India vis-à-vis the Nagas) but because a clash of civilisations narrative has been superimposed, the conflict within Muslim societies has been highlighted. US’ involvement in Afghanistan has only served to highlight it further. He goes on to explain that if a Muslim majority treats the Muslim periphery cruelly or unjustly, it is likely to treat non-Muslim groups, or perceived non-Muslim groups, equally cruelly. To this end, he cites the example of Ahmadis in Pakistan who have been a victim of open discrimination sanctioned by the state, with desecration of graves like that of Dr Abdus Salam, who is Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate as well as outright attacks as in May of 2010. The issue of the mistreatment of Ahmadis in Pakistan should serve as a clear indication that the narrative of the clash of civilisations is flawed. This law-abiding and non-violent community considers itself Muslim, and it has been on the forefront of the interaction of civilisations. Yet this community is very much a periphery of the Muslim centre and is treated with a contempt that is reminiscent of the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany. The clash is, therefore, very much intra-Islam.
The centre vs periphery argument can be applied broadly to other conflicts in Muslim societies as well as predominantly non-Muslim societies. Pakistan’s woeful treatment of its citizens of a Baloch cultural heritage is a case in point. So is the increasing social violence against Shias and in particular Hazara Shias. It applies equally to Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, Bangladesh’s treatment of Biharis, Burma’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims or India’s treatment of Kashmir and Nagaland.
There are no easy solutions to the problems that the state faces vis-à-vis its peripheries, but we are beginning to realise that a military solution, which envisages indiscriminate carpet bombing or drone attacks, is not going to work. This, mind you, is what Imran Khan has been saying instinctively for a decade and which has earned him the nickname ‘Taliban Khan’ unjustifiably. Dr Ahmed’s immense intellectual work, meticulously compiled in the rarified atmosphere of Washington DC, now confirms that we have to work towards a solution to problems of the peripheries of our society, Muslim and non-Muslim, which is political and which is cognizant of the highest standards of human conduct in the 21st century.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Jinnah: Myth and Reality.