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Pakhtunwali and the Taliban

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Taliban Punishing a local in Swat. Image Credit: EPA

This is in response to Mr. Naveed Hussain’s articles “Militancy or Tribal Backlash I & II” and “Why equate suicide attacks with Islam?” published in this paper on the 15th and 16th of August and the 8th of September, 2010 respectively. In his articles Mr. Hussain declares the Taliban insurgency to be a “Pakhtun Tribal Backlash” which he states is according to the norms of Pakhtunwali. If one is to believe this conclusion, then the on ground reality would seem rather paradoxical, because an overwhelming majority of the victims of this “Pakthun Tribal Backlash” are actually Pakhtuns.

Mr. Hussain backs his conclusion by highlighting the code of Pakhtunwali and by defining the Taliban resistance as according to that code. But, I believe that Pakhtunwali is actually a threat to Taliban Shariah rather than being compatible with it, and that it is the Taliban interpretation of Islam that is driving this backlash in the form of suicide bombings.

In the tribal belt of FATA, decisions at the tribal level are taken by Pakhtun Jirgas. These Jirgas are councils that comprise of tribal elders; the make up of a Jirga has the representation of the various families that constitute the tribe. Through negotiations and debate, decisions are taken after mutual consensus between these elders. For any FATA wide “Pakhtun Tribal Backlash” to be initiated, the consensus of these Jirgas would be a necessary pre-condition.

But, the fact of the matter is that more than 1500 tribal elders have been massacred across FATA by the Taliban, an action that has dealt a severe blow to the centuries old Jirga System. This massacre highlights the inability of the Taliban to leverage this democratic option for gaining a Pakhtun tribal consensus. Furthermore, the Jirga’s weakening in dispute resolution was fully capitalized by the Taliban through the introduction of their own system of justice, i.e. Qazi Courts. Thus, it is a no-brainer that the Jirga system, which in essence defines, interprets and evolves the code of Pakhtunwali, stands in direct confrontation with the Taliban ideology.

Panah Warkawal” or giving shelter is a clause of Pakhtunwali that is very relevant to this discussion. A Pakhtun is obligated to give protection to anyone who seeks it. But contrary to popular opinion, this protection is not the hospitality that one would bestow upon a casual guest. This difference makes common sense; if Pakhtuns were obligated to look after anyone seeking protection, then the incentive to work would be very low amongst people who could benefit from this custom. Any “guest” under “Panah Warkawal” is given protection but on the conditions of the host; these conditions could even be to work in the fields of the host as a laborer. It should also be mentioned here that these long term guests have no say in tribal decision making, they are usually not allowed to carry guns, and as outsiders, have a second grade status in tribal affairs.

The recent murder of Khalid Khawaja in Waziristan shows the status of these apparent guests under “Panah Warkawal”. While most would have heard the story of this murder, let me rephrase it in terms of ethnicities and Pakhtunwali. So a group of Punjabi “guests” take Mr. Khawaja to Karam Kot, near Mir Ali in Waziristan. They kill him and dump his body on the side of a stream, with a note saying that the body should not be touched. When the locals gather around the dead body, no one dares to touch it because the note says so. The local administration then steps in and asks local clerics and other notables for help in the mere recovery of the body. This happened in Mir Ali, a stronghold of the Wazirs, the helplessness of these Wazirs on their own land could most certainly not be described as a mere show of hospitality under “Panah Warkawal”.

Nang au Ghairat” (Honor and Chivalry), defines the norms of conduct in matters related to transgression, those who don’t react according to these norms are made to do so by sheer peer pressure and the threat of social castigation.  Similar to other patriarchal societies, this definition of “Ghairat” (honor) puts a specific emphasis on issues surrounding women. So let’s then revisit that grainy footage of a 17 year old girl, from Matta Swat, who was lashed publically in front of the men of her family and village. Her screams and pleas for help should have been enough to invoke the demands of “Nang au ghairat” from her male kin, but they couldn’t. As in the case of Waziristan, the demands of Pakhtunwali took a backseat to Taliban justice.

Part 2

Pakhtunwali is an ancient code of conduct and in its essence is nothing more than a set of norms that a society wants to abide by. In the absence of a written constitution, this code has served Pakhtun tribes with a set of parameters within which conflicts are resolved in Jirgas, its role in conflict resolution is similar to that of Taliban’s Sharia in a Taliban court.

Therefore, the conflict between Taliban Sharia and Pakhtunwali is natural as they are both differing sets of laws. It is because of this conflict that for a Pakhtun Talib, Pakhtunwali holds very little value. The Pakhtun Taliban are part of a global movement that subscribes to a puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam. It is only for this reason that the Taliban are able to bolster their ranks with volunteers from Punjab, as well as Uzbekistan, and get financial support from the Middle East. It is ridiculous to assume that while adhering to Pakhtunwali and a strictly Pakhtun identity, the Taliban would have been able to join this global jihadi fraternity. The underlying force that is unifying this geographically and ethnically diverse group is nothing but a common interpretation of Islam. Resultantly, Taliban Nasheeds don’t focus on the tenants of Pakhtunwali, but glorify Jihadis from across the world and the final videos of Taliban suicide bombers show them wearing head bands with Quranic verses on them rather than Pashto slogans.

While it is true that most Taliban are Pakhtuns, it is also a fact that most Pakhtuns are not Taliban.  Taliban form a fringe element in Pakhtun society and do not have much widespread acceptance. The electoral sweep of ANP in 2008 was in essence an overwhelmingly anti Taliban vote. The ANP benefited from this wave because of its open anti-Taliban rhetoric and the pre election violence carried out against it by the Taliban. More recently, the results of a survey conducted by PEW Research (July 2010), show that in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa only 7% of the respondents approved of the Taliban, while in Punjab that approval was at 22%. The obvious question to ask is that, why would this so called “Pakhtun” backlash have more approval in Punjab than in the Pakhtun heartland itself?

There are other indicators as well, take for instance the armed tribal response against the Taliban through the formation of Pakhtun Lashkars, or armies of volunteers. If one is to look for an example of the modern day implementation of Pakhtunwali, then this is it. These lashkars are formed in the spirit of “badal” (revenge), the call to arms is done by invoking the clause of “azizwale” (clanship), and the process is ordained and overseen by a “jirga” (tribal council). It is these anti Taliban lashkars who deserve the title of being declared a Pakhtun Tribal Backlash, rather than their ethnically diversified and religiously motivated opposition.

But, I agree with Mr. Hussain that the practice of suicide attacks is definitely not limited to Muslims, and that it has been a form of resistance adopted by people from other religions as well. But the Tamil Suicide Bombers are not called Tamil, because dead Tamils form the biggest percentage of their victims. Similarly, the Japanese Kamakazis are not called Japanese because they crashed their planes into Japanese ships. They are given their identities i.e. Tamil and Japanese because these people fought in the name of these identities. Resultantly, there are not that many Tamil victims of Tamil suicide bombings or for that matter destroyed Japanese aircraft carriers that were sunk by Kamakazis, these notions would be too ridiculous to even consider. Similarly, to declare the Taliban movement as “Pakhtun Resistance” is equally ridiculous, considering the fact that dead Pakhtuns constitute an overwhelming majority (69% in 2009) of the victims of Taliban suicide bombings.

Through the bullet as well as the ballot, Pakhtuns have spoken overwhelmingly against the Taliban. The specific targeting of ANP leaders and Tribal elders shows that the Taliban are threatened by any symbol of Pakhtun majority consensus. If this “Pakhtun Tribal Backlash” had the support and sympathy of the majority of Pakhtuns, then the ANP leadership and the tribal elders would have been the main perpetrators of this backlash not its main victims.

An abridged version appeared in The Express Tribune on 20th September 2010


Written by Imran Khan

November 11, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Pakhtuns, Taliban

Tagged with , , ,

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