By Farooq Sulehria
In the wake of September 11, Chalmers Johnson's book Blowback became a US bestseller. The title referred to a CIA neologism describing the unintended consequences of American activity. Blowback, according to Johnson, is a term invented by the CIA to describe the likelihood of covert operations carried out by the US in other countries resulting in retaliations against Americans--civilian and military alike--at home and abroad.
Since the khakis in Pakistan have not yet coined any term for the whirlwind they sowed in Afghanistan and Kashmir, we contend ourselves with the CIA's expression. After all, the bearded Frankenstein--the Taliban, that is--was a result of the symbiosis of the CIA and the ISI. While many in Pakistan had seen sectarian clashes and suicide bombings coming, blowback against schools in Swat and FATA took others by surprise. In November last year, Interior Minister Rehman Malik informed us of something that we, albeit vaguely, already knew.
In the Malakand Division and FATA, according to Rehman Malik, the Taliban had dynamited 473 schools. Earlier this year, a newspaper, editorialising the state of literacy in the country, sombrely pointed out that, only in Swat, the Taliban had destroyed more than 100 girls' schools between 2007 and 2009. In 2008, they imposed a ban on girls' education which led to the closure of nearly 1,000 schools. Many schools refused admission to girls while 120,000 female students dropped out of schools out of fear. Conflicting media reports put the figure of schools that had been destroyed by the Taliban as high as 1,000 which affected around 1.5 million students.
Not long ago, Algeria was struggling to cope with a violent, extremist faction of society. Veterans of the Afghan Jihad, or Arab-Afghans, were pivotal in spearheading the Algerian militancy that rocked this North African Muslim-majority country in the early 1990s. Besides secular intellectuals and feminists, schools constituted an important target for the militants' puritan wrath. Benjamin Stora in his book, Algeria 1830-2000, quotes the Algerian minister of education as saying that, between February 1992 and December 1994, 600 schools had been burned down or destroyed by the militants, while 50 teachers had been put to death.
The trend of targeting schools and teachers started with the Afghan war. Steve Coll writes in his book Ghost Wars that during the Afghan war a Brigadier Yusuf and the squads trained by him regarded the professors at Kabul University as fair game. Michael Griffin explains in his book Reaping the Whirlwind why teachers in Afghanistan had been one of the soft targets of the Jihad, with some 2,000 assassinated and 15,000 forced to abandon the profession out of fear of their lives. In Nangarhar, one commander admitted to burning down the local primary school and slaughtering its nine teachers, because that was where the communists were believed to be being trained.
Unlike the Afghan schools which were bombed due to their alleged links with communists, the schools dynamited in FATA and Swat valley would hardly have qualified as breeding ground for communism. The same can be said for the Algerian schools that were bombed. The intolerance shown by militants for schools is telling.
This bigoted attitude towards secular education is inbuilt in the Taliban ideology. The Taliban project is about tyranny: implementing "Islam" at gunpoint. They don't believe in convincing people. They want to coerce people into leading a life according to Taliban rules. Secular education, they fear, leads towards enlightenment and liberation, and both enlightenment and liberation are antithetical to the Taliban's ideology. After all, as a leader of the French Revolution points out, "the secret of liberty is to enlighten men, as that of tyranny is to maintain their ignorance."
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Stockholm. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org