By Afiya Shehrbano Zia
10 October 2013
During the initial years of the 'war on terror', most Pakistanis denied that there was such an entity as the Taliban in the tribal belt of Pakistan. This was despite knowledge that the Taliban commander, Mullah Fazlullah (also known as FM Mullah for his illegal public addresses on state radio), was intent on rolling out his plan to take over and implement his Sharia rule in Swat. The militancy in the region dates to the 1990s when Fazlullah’s father-in-law, Sufi Mohammad, founded the movement for the enforcement of Sharia in the Malakand district. Fazlullah continued this project by declaring war against Pakistan in the wake of the occupation of Afghanistan, and engaged in a governance that persecuted resistant local tribesmen, enforced beheadings and conducted public hanging of dancing girls and bombings of girls’ schools, video/music and barber shops.
It was only after an escalated series of suicide bombings in the rest of the country and in particular, the Lal Masjid siege in the capital, Islamabad in 2007, that under Baitullah Mehsud's leadership, the Tehreek e Taliban (TTP) decided to come out of the closet and formally announced its organizational identity. This made denial of identity, affinity and connections with both the Afghan Taliban, as well as Al-Qaeda, no longer possible, since a host of militant leaders have openly claimed such relations. Inevitably, the Pakistan army engaged in a series of operations against this anti-state organization in the tribal areas while the TTP declared the ‘infidel state’ of Pakistani to be a viable target. TTP self-confessedly continues to regularly and successfully strike military installations in the cities, including one at the General Headquarters of the army in Rawalpindi 2009.
The TTP has been calling the shots regarding its identity politics ever since. This banned organization appoints regular spokesmen who are authorized to speak with a supplicant private media at will. The TTP claims responsibility for some bombings and terrorist activities, while denying its involvement in others, and these are meant to be accepted at face value. Most recently, it has acknowledged that there are many splinters and franchises of the main militant organization. Pakistani analysts estimate these to be up to 40 different outfits, which are variably aligned according to size, ethnic allegiance, foreign membership, territorial interest and strain of Wahhabi-ism and funding.
In just a few years, the trajectory of outright denial to acceptance and appeasement of this terrorist outfit seems to have quickly closed the circle. This is reflected in the recent statements of cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. Khan is leader of the debutante political party, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI), which recently formed a government in the besieged province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the national elections earlier this year. After a recent All Parties Conference (APC), where all members of the current government agreed to conduct peace talks with the TTP, Khan created further reaction to this unconditional agreement which some called ‘the treaty of surrender’. Soon after the official agreement, a devastating suicide attack was launched on Sunday mass at a church in Peshawar, killing and injuring hundreds of Christian minority worshippers. Khan called this a conspiracy to derail peace talks (supposedly by foreign enemies) and to provoke military reprisal against the Taliban. Simultaneously, he called on the state for a formal recognition of the banned TTP by demanding that a Taliban office be opened in Pakistan to ease negotiations.
Peace or Appeasement?
This suggestion has opened up a deluge of angry responses from the opposition and independent analysts alike, while it has also drawn a defensive distancing by some prominent members from within Khan’s own party. The objections include the volte-face qualification of the Taliban from anti-state terrorists to ‘stakeholders’ in the APC agreement, signalling a shift in state vocabulary and perspective. The critics also point to the impracticality of negotiating from a position of weakness by not setting pre-conditions such as cessation of attacks or decommissioning of the Taliban militants. Imran Khan’s comparison of TTP to Sinn Fein, his recommendation for a Taliban office, citing the example of that of the Afghan Taliban’s in Qatar, and his taunts that the Pakistan government is willing to conduct peace talks with (enemy state) India but not “our own people”, has drawn severely critical responses. These have accused Khan of being naïve to compare sovereign states to terrorist outfits, and pointed out his inability to distinguish between the status of the Afghan from the Pakistani Taliban, or that peace talks are part of the stalling strategy the TTP employs to buy time to regroup.
Similarly, Khan’s insistence that it is drone attacks that have provoked the terrorism inflicted by the Taliban has been challenged as a denial of the agency and sworn intent of the Taliban to enforce a Sharia government by piecemeal in Pakistan, in refutation of the secular profanity of the country’s current Constitution. Further, many commentators have argued that Pakistan’s military has both condoned and been complicit through acquiescence to US drone warfare in the tribal areas ( at least until the drone attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Salala), and that Khan would be well-advised to challenge the Pakistan army rather than carry on about American immorality and illegality in order to resolve this issue in a meaningful way.
However, drone warfare has become a convenient beating drum. Every time there is a terrorist attack the blame is placed squarely on drone warfare arguing that the Taliban are simply exacting revenge in tribal fashion for such attacks. Ironically, the same excuse was invoked when Taliban gunmen shot the defiant school girl Malala in the head on her way back from school in 2012. The usual excuses based on denials were offered in order to exonerate the Islamic militants as misguided guerrillas who were simply exacting passive revenge for drone attacks. However, the Taliban repeatedly refuted such excuses and clarified in several press releases that the act of vengeance was not for drone warfare but Malala’s more dangerous and objectionable defiance of the Taliban’s edict against pursuit of secular education and for opposing their war and agenda in Swat.
Who Qualifies As Victim?
The defence of the Taliban as products of imperialism emanates from a confused theory that sees them as post 9/11 products and victims of imperialism but also as agents of anti-imperialism. The argument that they must not be judged as agents out of context empties them of purpose. Instead, they become flattened non-actors who are exacting passive revenge for drones and US imperialism. This avoids any discussion of their agency as exercised through the nature of atrocities committed - specifically against women actors - and towards a cause beyond revenge for drones or the occupation of Afghanistan. Further, it does not explain why these so-called anti-imperialists exact revenge on women with such enthusiastic vengeance. Malala Yousafzai's own explanation is “They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them…That is why they are blasting schools every day. Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.”
However, there has been a constant refrain of equivocation between the attack on Malala and those faceless, nameless children who have been victims of drone attacks. Such moral equivalence between state violence and the targeting of representatives of the state and individual citizens (tribesmen, army officials, school principals, university professors, journalists, women health workers, policemen and women and their children) who resist the agendas of militants creates an unhelpful hiatus. This distracts attention from, and refuses to accredit, the range of resistance against patriarchal violence in all its forms, including through faith-based politics and religious actors. There is no imaginable space for women and girls to be appreciated independently for their resistance to such patriarchal or religious politics in the country. Accordingly, women can only be passive victims worthy of temporary sympathy, or, if they resist local patriarchy, then foreign agents.
Women Will Fight Back
The argument about why Malala was singled out for co-option by the UN and west-based campaigns is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, when Pakistani women make professional contributions or achieve mainstream success, it is considered a conspiracy that their agency is not recognized and they are side-lined precisely because they are Muslim, veiled or brown. But when they are recognized for their courage and resilience, then they are accused of having sold-out, or of being foreign agents. Clearly, the appropriate ‘cause’ for Muslim women is only important if it is directed towards those collective goals as defined by Muslim men and for religious ends.
Underlying the question of why the survivor, Malala, has been singled out for global attention is a denial of the record by women’s rights activists who have been regularly protesting the cases of women victims, and survivors who have been consciously targeted by militants. Rather than the rejoinder, why not drone victims, it is perhaps more important to name and accredit other courageous survivors, particularly women who are targeted specifically for their struggle to save their communities from the brutalities of the militants, and their attempts to subvert people’s constitutional rights. Malala is a symbol of that larger resistance.
Research studies have repeatedly observed that the people of Swat, particularly women, did not passively capitulate to the enforcement of the Taliban agenda. This resistance is acknowledged by Pakistani novelist and journalist, M. Hanif, in a mock reply to an earlier public letter addressed to Malala by escaped convict and renegade former servicemen of the Pakistan Air force, Adnan Rasheed (now a Taliban commander). In July 2013, Rasheed attempted a longwinded and unrepentant explanation for the murder attempt in the form of a letter released to the media.
In response, Hanif advises Rasheed on the futility of suppressing Pakistani women;
“…you might wage a glorious jihad against brutal imperial forces.. [B]ut you can't pick a fight with the working women in your neighbourhood and hope to win. Those women may never get an audience at the UN but everyone – from cotton picker to bank teller – cannot be asked to shut up and stay home, for the simple reason that they won't.”
Men like Hanif understand the resilience of women against the systematic violence perpetrated by the religious militants. They also are well-aware of the implications of the Taliban version of Sharia rule for girls and minorities. However, the fret, anxiety and conspiratorial rumours churned out by Pakistani conservatives and Islamists over Malala’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize is part of a larger and familiar, religio-nationalist angst.
The only Pakistani recipient for the Nobel Prize has been the brilliant physicist, Abdus Salam, who left the country in 1974 when the state declared his denomination, the Ahmadias, to be “non-Muslims”. Salam was awarded a joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 in recognition of his contribution to theoretical physics. After his death in 1996, the word “Muslim” was removed from the original epitaph, which had read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate”, across his tombstone at the Ahmediya graveyard in Rabwa. This was done on the orders of the local magistrate and in accordance with Ordinance XX (1984) invoked by Gen Zia ul Haq which restricts the use of Islamic terms and titles and disallows Ahmadias from propagating their faith.
Ironically, international recognition seems to bring suspicion and dishonour rather than respect and pride for Pakistani achievers, regardless of their contribution to the fields of scientific progress or peaceful resistance. Meanwhile, the only ones seemingly commanding sympathy, recognition and respect for their cause and who are considered worthy of trust, are the ones who are anti-science and armed militants.
This schism between international admiration and nationalist disapproval will unfortunately colour the outcome of the decision if indeed Malala Yousafzai is the recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. But win or lose, she has challenged the global perspective of the passive Muslim woman, as well as male nationalist expectations that define and limit what young Pakistani women can aspire to. In that respect, Malala's a winner any which way.