A journalist’s notebook
By Beena Sarwar
In November 1999, like many others, I thought that the Taliban were the ‘last gasp of a dying order’. They were isolated in Afghanistan. The world largely turned a blind eye to their oppressive system imposed in the name of religion — public floggings, limb amputations and executions – for alleged moral transgressions that the Taliban saw as crimes, like adultery. Such punishments were not entirely an aberration in the last decade of the 20th century: USA’s most allied ally, oil-rich Saudi Arabia, routinely meted out similar punishments (and continues to do so). The Taliban in Afghanistan controlled an area across which America wanted to build an oil pipeline. Until they refused to allow this, their ‘barbarism’ received little notice in the West, particularly America.
The Taliban’s attitude towards women was an extreme version of attitudes generally prevalent in the context of this region. Women across South Asia are verbally and physically abused every minute of the day, every day of the year. ‘Honour killings’ in one form or other are common all over the Middle East as well as South Asia, in addition to the ‘dowry deaths’ and female foeticide prevalent in India. At least 1,210 women were killed in Pakistan during 2008, including at least 612 in so-called ‘honour killings’ and at least 185 over domestic issues, according to the recent annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
“The malaise is more widespread than we care to acknowledge,” wrote Jawed Naqvi in his column My fanatic versus your fanatic (Dawn, reproduced in www.hardnewsmedia.com), after the ‘Swat flogging video’ came to public notice. Highlighting gender violence in various societies including India, he comments, “What goes for religious fanaticism elsewhere can easily mutate into caste bigotry in a country like India. Although caste-based zealotry goes largely unnoticed because of its prevalence in under-televised rural areas, it works with the brutality associated elsewhere with honour killings and violence against women generally.”
In Pakistan, as well as in India and other societies where there is gender violence on the pretext of ‘honour’, the perpetrators tend to be family members. People often overlook or condone such violence as an internal, domestic matter. The culprits are rarely punished, particularly if they have acted against a daughter who eloped against their wishes with someone and that too from a different or ‘lesser’ community.
The difference is that the Taliban in Pakistan, in their role of extra-judicial vigilantes, punish women they are not related to, assuming the role of the State. Their Hindu counterparts may aspire to similar levels of vigilantism, judging by the Rightwing threats and attacks on women who transgress conservative norms in India – “Indian Taliban” as one Indian minister termed Hindu vigilantes who beat up women in a pub in Mangalore.
The comparison is not too far-fetched. Five years ago, I remember the US-based Indian filmmaker, Lalit Vachani, saying that many leaders of the Hindu Right “want a mirror image of Islam” – they want to manufacture, “a religion where a (spiritual) leader will give fatwas that the faithful will follow blindly.” He was speaking at a discussion after the screening of his documentary about the RSS, The Men in the Tree (2002) in Delhi.
Writing about the event that I happened to have attended, his words reminded me of an Australian PhD candidate working on a comparison of Hindu and Muslim Rightwing organisations some years ago, mainly in Mumbai and Lahore. She found that the Hindu organisation actually studied the tactics of the Islamic organisation, including pamphlets, literature, and video recordings of their rallies. (Having received various threats from their representatives in Australia when she returned, she preferred to remain anonymous).
In the same article, I quoted TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who, during a live talk show on Geo TV during the Saarc summit in Islamabad in January 2004, had told the Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed during a heated debate on Kashmir and religious extremism, “Qazi sahib, mujhe lagta hai ke aap aur Bal Thackeray ek hi sikkey ki do sides hain” (it seems to me that you and Bal Thackeray are just two sides of the same coin). Qazi had no answer. (The commonality of ‘fundamentalisms, October 10, 2004). More from that article:
“Sardesai’s brief remark pinpoints a fundamental and universal truth: the commonality of ‘fundamentalisms’, no matter how much at odds they appear to be. Unfortunately, they tend not to stick to the actual ‘fundamentals’ that are common to all religions – truth, justice, and compassion. As a result, another commonality is how their respective ideologies contribute towards a culture that condones and engages in violence – a point underscored decisively in Vachani’s film…
“In general though, there is little acceptance in India for such homogenisation, that many oppose, because it leads to violence that, in turn, will isolate the country. Vachani’s The Men in the Tree, in fact, makes the case that this homogenisation also prepares the ground for incidents like the Babri Masjid demolition, and beyond, to the horrors of Gujarat (2002). This brings up another commonality between extremist groups: their attempts to construct and strengthen their own identity by demonising ‘the other’ even if this means distorting history.”
In Pakistan, the growth of the Religious Right and subsequently the Taliban’s revival has much to do with the military’s continuous meddling in politics. Impatient with bungling and corrupt politics, sections of the population welcome or at least wearily accept military takeovers instead of pushing for the political process to continue.
When the citizenry is allowed to have a voice, it blunts the edges of extremisms, as we have seen in America and India. Elected leaders can sometimes be disastrous, but being in the political mainstream forces them to compromise, dialogue, negotiate, and step down from hardline positions – except when they sound the drums of war, a situation that allows for the revival of extreme positions based in manufactured notions of nationalism. Even so, when the political process is allowed to continue, every few years the people have the power to vote out an elected representative who has exploited nationalist or religious sentiments. A military man who takes over is accountable to no one. He cannot be dislodged by elections and stays on until he is forced out – in Pakistan, after an average of ten years. The presence of a military strong man at the helm of affairs keeps the lid on simmering discontents, allowing extremism to grow.
If the law and order situation is simultaneously allowed to grow out of control, criminalisation feeds into this extremism. Citizens feel emasculated and powerless; aggression and violence is one way of self-assertion. In Pakistan, since September 2001, the focus on the ‘law on terror’ at the expense of the police force and the criminal justice system, has allowed ‘religious militancy’ and extremism, already strengthened in the name of ‘jihad’ since the Afghan war against the Soviets, to dig deeper into society. These trends were reinforced and institutionalised by discriminatory laws enacted in the name of religion by the previous military ruler, Gen Zia-ul-Haq, propped up by America for his role in that war.
“This has led not just to greater discrimination against religious minorities, it has caused sectarian confrontation within the Muslim population, conflict between the orthodoxy and liberals over observance of social mores, and a running polarisation between the political Right and Left. Today, we are faced with two stark choices: modernisation and development, or regression into tribalism,” this reporter wrote in a comment on November 1999 (The Democracy Debate). Here’s more from that article:
“The country Gen. Pervez Musharraf has taken upon himself to lead, faces a conflict between these two trends that is intensified by increasing exposure to the outside world, access to the satellite dish and the internet, and education, particularly of girls and women even in remote villages and rural areas. On the other hand is ‘Talibanisation’ – fed by thousands of religious seminaries across the country, functioning with government sanction and even money, besides covert funds from other Islamic countries. The last gasp of a dying order?
“… ‘Talibanisation’ is still a serious threat, but it needs to be addressed beyond the surface – deprivation and the denial of basics like health, education and employment opportunities are among the factors behind the increasing number of boys being sent into madrasas where they are at least guaranteed food, shelter, education and even employment later as fighters. “The sectarian nature of most of these madrasas has contributed to the increasing sectarian violence in the country. The only thing that they agree upon is that the others are infidels, along with Ahmedis and pro-democracy, pro-human rights workers; many consider it legitimate to wipe out these ‘ideological enemies of the State’. “…Lack of participatory decision-making, the lack of freedom of information and expression, combined with the State’s own tendency to use violent methods to crush dissent, has contributed to a culture of fear and aggression.
“It is a combination of all these factors that endangers democracy in Pakistan. Short-sighted policies implemented for political expediency will lead to the strengthening of a Taliban-like order, with long-term negative impacts not just for Pakistan but for the entire region and beyond. For Pakistan, it will spell economic disaster and isolate it as a pariah in the world community. A nuclear pariah, which the world cannot afford to ignore. “This is why the world must link demands for guarantees of democracy in Pakistan with economic cooperation, and this is why the people of Pakistan must demand a return to the democratic process.”
Last year, Pakistan again took a step towards the democratic process. But the forces that now hold the country hostage had gained in strength over the previous three decades of military rule (Gen Zia), followed by a decade of musical chairs in which four elected governments were dismissed, followed by yet another decade under military rule (Gen Musharraf). During this time, these forces have consolidated their hold on areas of Pakistan and extracted a heavy price for political short-sightedness and insistence on ‘strategic depth’: the life of Benazir Bhutto. Had it not been for her insistence on electoral politics, Musharraf was unlikely to have shed his uniform and eventually stepped aside – the first military ruler of Pakistan to ‘voluntarily’ relinquish his position.
Still, the results of the February 2008 elections gave room for optimism as, despite threats of violence, the electorate categorically voted against those playing the religious card and those propped up by the military. The events of the past year are eroding that optimism, now overshadowed by the all-too familiar impatience and frustration with the political process. But the last thing we now need is another military takeover or a change of government. Whoever is at the helm of affairs will face the same challenges as the present regime. The fanaticism in the name of religion, developed and cultivated for decades by the powers that be, will not disappear overnight with the restoration of democratic politics.
Whatever its weaknesses and faults, the present government is the first in Pakistan that is really committed to combating this menace, recognising that it will consume us if we do not end it. For the first time, the army chief has spoken out about the Swat deal, terming it an “operational pause”. The Taliban’s continuous reneging from agreements made with the government may yet turn the tide against them and enable the military to move decisively against them, which it has so far been unable, or unwilling, to do.
Meanwhile, for the bulk of the population, the primary concerns remain how to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families, educate their children, get clean drinking water and adequate medical help. This is unlikely to change for the better anytime soon, no matter which way the political winds blow. But a sustained political process, at least, offers a chance for positive change – eventually. The alternative is too grim to contemplate.