By Akbar S. Ahmed
31 Jan 2014
The leadership of the Taliban comes from the Shabi Khel clan of the Mahsud tribe, the boldest fighters of the Pashtun tribes. While their last leader, Hakimullah Mahsud was a mass murderer, nonetheless he was a product of Pashtunwali, the code of the Pashtun. His actions emphasized revenge, in accordance with the code, but as a Pashtun he also understood the importance of honor. The new leader, Fazullah, who is also Pashtun, comes from a very different social context. Having lived and worked in Swat as a low level mullah in a society known for its hierarchy, Fazullah brings a hatred of the Swat elite which is not tempered by any kind of code.
The change of Taliban leadership is fundamental to the understanding of the thesis that I am presenting here. Fazullah will look to the entire province and indeed the rest of the country as a target to wreak havoc with maximum cruelty because he believes he is fighting to remove a corrupt elite and impose the Sharia. He also has a personal reason to hate the center. He lost his brother in a drone strike for which he blames both the US and Pakistan. He is thus driven by a desire for revenge on a personal and class basis.
I heard many heartbreaking stories from Pashtun friends and relatives in Swat of members of families being surrounded by their erstwhile tenants and killed. Several of my wife’s relatives in Swat were killed in what appears to be straightforward class warfare. The elite were barely able to put up a fight. Most of them now live in Islamabad and talk of taking revenge. In one particularly gruesome case outside of the Pashtun areas, a domestic servant, known for his long service and supposed loyalty, tended to the aged parents of a friend of mine. The father could not move around due to his illness, and the servant looked after the mother. But when he was alone on one occasion, he suffocated her to death with a pillow.
Criminal gangs that had been active mainly in Karachi have been emboldened by the TTP. Karachi had established the success of criminals kidnapping well-off Pakistanis and ransoming them for large sums of money. Allying with the TTP, criminal elements now operate in the bigger cities of northern Pakistan with impunity. No member of the elite is safe. Anyone, anywhere can be picked up from the home or on the way to the office. Ambassadors, superintendents of police, and even academics – whether vice chancellors or ordinary lecturers – are fair game. Medical doctors are popular because the kidnappers assume they make sufficient money to pay large ransoms. Yet for all the widespread breakdown, it appears that even now there are some elements of the traditional code of honor in operation as I did not see reports of Pakistani woman being kidnapped.
The success of this recent trend may be gauged by the fact that the son of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab assassinated by his own bodyguard, who was kidnapped after his father’s death, has still not been recovered. The whereabouts of the kidnapped son of a former Prime Minister of Pakistan remain unknown. There is little or no sympathy in the general public for these kidnapped young men. The cynical response is that their fathers have made enough money through corruption to pay some of it to the poorer elements in society.
As if this picture was not gloomy enough, there are several other elements which need to be discussed. Pakistanis commonly believe that there is also a clash on three levels in society which is causing violence. The clash between Shias and Sunnis has seen relentless tit for tat killings, especially religious heads, medical doctors, and scholars. Pakistanis believe that Saudi money supports the Sunnis and Iranian money the Shia in their violent confrontation with each other. They also believe there is a confrontation between Indian agents who want to destabilize Pakistan and Pakistani security forces, thus reflecting the historical clash between Hinduism and Islam. Pakistanis will also talk about attempts by Western powers, namely the United States, to break up Pakistan, an endeavor which fits into the Clash of Civilizations theory in which the West is pitted against Islam.
The Failure of the Elite
There is also the failure of the elite to come to grips with the problems of Pakistan. Many of its members, like Pakistani “liberal” commentators, reflect ideas picked up from Washington or London think tanks such as the War on Terror. They simplify what is happening in Pakistan as an Islamic movement. Their analysis is replete with words and concepts like jihadis, Islamists, and Salafis which explain little and add to the confusion. Not fully understanding the problem, like their western colleagues, they are incapable of offering solutions.
The ruling elite of Pakistan appear to be overwhelmed by these problems. It is the traditional rabbit caught in a headlight. Apart from discussing its favorite conspiracy theories—and I heard the range and diversity—it has little idea of how to halt the rapidly deteriorating situation. The elite know something terrible is happening, but it has little idea what to do about it. It is the failure of the modern state and the elite is culpable for allowing the situation to deteriorate to this point. The ruling class has yet to connect the dots for themselves. It does not see its own complicity in the chaos.
The elite—“the chattering classes”—are not the solution, but in fact part of the problem. I found the elite materialistic and obsessed with consumerism. Their lives were disconnected from the suffering and poverty around them. They have become real citizens of the globalized world where the poor are invisible and being made invisible, they are dehumanized.
The elite have an infinite capacity for self-destruction. While the upper class enjoys the perks of globalization—connectedness with the world, financial and business deals with multinationals, bank accounts, property and holidays abroad, children studying in the west, and high standards of living—they are not prepared to share even the crumbs with their impoverished fellow citizens. Their children wear t-shirts and jeans and play guitars and visit their parents for summer and winter breaks from universities in the west. Lavish dinner parties, where the rich and influential meet with the wives decked in sparkling jewelry, are like throwing petrol into a raging fire.
Former Ambassador Tariq Afridi, a good friend from my school days in Abbottabad, educated at Cambridge and a world class polo player, looking at the general decline and collapse around him, believed that “this is who we really are.” He thought that until the 1960s and 1970s, the older generation trained by the British had been able to maintain some standards of morality, behavior, dress, and character but with the passing of that generation, the Pakistan elite today was “reverting to type.”
This elite is tiny and lives in a bubble of affluence. The vast majority of Pakistanis live a very different life. They are mostly jobless, barely literate, hungry, and angry. They use the rhetoric of Islam to express their anger at their plight and are no longer prepared to see the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty and do nothing about it. They expect the government alone to clear up the mess.
But this is a problem not for the Prime Minister of Pakistan alone. It is a problem confronting the nation itself, and every citizen must accept the challenge to take back and reestablish the writ of the state. But time is running out.
There is talk of wanting the Sharia among ordinary Pakistanis by which they mean justice, jobs, and incorrupt and efficient administration. Islam is thus a highly potent symbol for those challenging the current order. Ordinary servants are encouraged to think of the house in which they work as their own, the peasants to take possession of the land that they till, and kidnapping for ransom as a justifiable act against those seen as heartless and corrupt members of the elite. These acts, which are blatantly against Islam, are justified as Islamic ones. The frightening fact is that people have little idea of the theology and history of Islam itself. Leaders of groups involved in these acts target an opposing sectarian or class group and pronounce that they are not real Muslims and therefore deserve to be put to death. Minority groups–like the Hindus and Christians–have been targeted and are terrified.
Pakistan appears to be in the midst of a slow motion revolution. The violence seems to be coming from every direction, and the elite have been unsuccessful in checking it. Something like 50,000-60,000 Pakistanis have died in the years since 9/11. General Hameed Gul, once the all-powerful head of the ISI and supporter of the Taliban, was confident that the Taliban would be in power within two years. He said, “Both dictatorship and democracy have failed.”
But this is not a revolution in the manner of Iran, in which a recognized leader, Imam Khomeini, led an organized clerical structure to take power from a corrupt and effete Shah of Iran. Nor is this a revolution in the classic Marxist mold as in Russia led by Lenin or in China led by Mao. There is no recognized leader, nor a unified organization or even an established command and control structure, or a vision of what would happen if these groups actually succeeded in destroying the fabric of the administration that holds up Pakistan. It is this imprecision of organization and ideology which makes the revolution so dangerous to the stability of Pakistan.
The battle lines for Pakistan have been clearly drawn between a Taliban version of the country with all the chaos and turbulence that it entails and one envisaged by Mr. Jinnah, a modern Muslim state. Whether you admire Mr. Jinnah or are a critic, there is no doubt that in the context of Pakistan, he symbolizes a modern Muslim nation promising full rights to women, minorities, and the poor. He unequivocally supported the rule of law and the constitution. Besides he is perhaps the most powerful unifying factor in a divided nation. Remove Jinnah and no other Pakistani can fill the void.
Yet I found many Pakistanis cynical about Mr. Jinnah and challenged the very idea of Pakistan itself. Recently Jinnah’s last resting place in Ziarat was destroyed. The symbolism of what had happened shocked me both because of my high regard for Mr. Jinnah but also because that beautiful house had been part of my charge when I was Commissioner of the Sibi Division in the mid-1980s.
To be continued…
Akbar S Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and former member of the Civil Service of Pakistan. His latest book is The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013)