By Farman Kakar
April 01, 2015
If attitudes and behaviours linked with various ethnic groups had anything to do with genealogy then all the members of an ethnic group must act in a strikingly similar way
Every society is known for its own kind of stereotyping. Of the various preconceived notions associated with various sub national groups in Pakistan, one is the intimate association of tribal Pashtuns with religious Zealotry. Stereotypes, sometimes, have germs of truth but only partially. The problem, however, is that the need to account for the existence of a particular trait associated with a community is readily forgotten in favour of folklore ridicule. In fact, I concede to the presence of religious bigotry among the tribal Pashtuns though I challenge that religious zealotry has anything to do with their Pashtun ethnicity. Seen this way, religious militancy stemming from FATA is nurtural rather than natural. Why does Taliban militancy emanate from FATA?
Maybe a Pashtun is born a religious zealot. If attitudes and behaviours linked with various ethnic groups had anything to do with genealogy then all the members of an ethnic group must act in a strikingly similar way. I am not too sceptical about the role of genes in the determination of certain traits in members of a family but their all-encompassing role in the making of the behaviour of a complete community begets more anomalies than it may answer. For instance, if a particular behaviour is linked to an ethnic group then the world would have been at a stage it was at thousands of years ago! Human progress would have stopped if all progenies had acted the way their forbearers did. Changes in human societies speak of the limitations of applying genetics beyond the confines of a family. Similarly, in the context of Pakistan, if religious violence has had anything to do with a particular ethnic group then the allegedly submissive Punjabis, Sufi Islam loving Sindhis and secular Baloch could not have produced violent religious extremists.
The majority of proscribed religious and militant outfits in Pakistan, ranging from Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Fiqah Jafferia and Sipah-e-Mohammad to Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, have all originated from Punjab. Besides, the Taliban is a very diverse group of people of whom Pashtuns are a part of the whole. From within Pakistan, the Taliban are also Punjabi, Seraiki speaking, Kashmiris and others. In the same way, the connection of the otherwise secular Baloch, especially the Brahui speaking, with the banned SSP and LeJ in Balochistan discredits the erroneous notion that a particular behaviour is anything to do with one’s ethnicity. In the case of Sufi Sindhis, sadly, it is only a matter of time before Sindh churns out religious militants on an unprecedented scale. If it is not the ethnicity, then what accounts for religious bigotry among the northwest Pashtun, especially in FATA?
The past is a guide to the present. The Pashtun populated northwest of Pakistan, especially FATA, has been reeling from the overarching influence of sponsoring religiosity all the way from the Mughals and the Afghan rulers to the criminal negligence by the British of Pakistan’s sustaining of the status quo or using the region as a staging ground for influencing events in the court of Kabul. For the Mughals, the pressing need was to preserve peace among the genealogically knit Pashtun dwellers. Since the tribesmen held in high esteem the religious functionaries, the Mughals’ patronage of the sufis (saints) was meant to keep calm in a peripheral region. Taking his cue from the Mughals, whereas Afghan Ahmed Shah Abdali kept patronising the sufis, it was Amir Dost Mohammad Khan who mobilised the tribesmen in the name of jihad through the tribal clergy against the Sikhs in 1835. Although the British tried to limit the power of the clergy by patronising the Maliks and Khans, theirs was only a partial success. For one, the colonial power did not make a strenuous effort in rolling back the rising tide of religiosity among the inhabitants of the tribal areas. The region was never introduced to the kind of legislative, administrative and judicial laws prevalent in the settled areas. Secondly, British efforts in undermining the power of the clergy were always frustrated by Afghan tutelage to tribal mullahs for the emirate’s interests in mobilising them for protecting and defending the throne to pressure the British into ending Afghanistan’s protectorate status under the Treaty of Gandamak, 1879.
Post-independence, Pakistan kept intact colonial arrangements in FATA. Meanwhile, Pashtun nationalism progressed with religious sentiments playing an almost secondary role until the latter overrode the former when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Thanks to US sponsorship of jihad against the Soviet Union whereby Zia played second fiddle, FATA was used as a launching pad in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The militarisation of the tribal areas along religious lines was unprecedented. Of the long-term consequences, the Afghan jihad transformed FATA from backwater to backyard. The succeeding governments would use the tribal belt to significantly influence events in the court of Kabul with religion playing a supportive role. After they were unseated from power in 2001, the Taliban relocated to FATA. Their inward jihad is plaguing not only Pakistan’s northwest but also the country at large. The officialdom’s shelving of its obligations to the tribal population is reminiscent of the lame British excuse of leaving the tribal areas in the arena of “development of underdevelopment” while taking refuge under the pretext of perceived differences between the nature of highland and lowland Pashtuns.
In the preceding paragraphs I have tried to demonstrate that militancy is not characteristic of Pashtun ethnicity much like it is not typical of any other ethnic group. Rather, policies of the past several centuries have had a massive role in nurturing militant tendencies couched in religious imagery among the tribal Pashtuns. According to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” In the case of FATA, politics — defined in terms of government policies towards the people — have wreaked havoc but politics can also roll back religious militancy in the region. Mainstreaming FATA, by bringing it on par with the rest of the four provinces or merging it with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and ending the region’s status as a launching pad will definitely defuse militancy among the tribesmen. Whether our officialdom realises the gravity of the situation is a question that has needed an answer since 9/11.
Farman Kakar is a freelance journalist based in Quetta.