Are the Taliban Coming to Town?

Published in “The Friday Times” (ed. Najam Sethi)

Lahore, Pakistan, 9 March 2001


The printed version of this article as it appeared in the newspaper The Friday Times, was several pages long with numerous photos (see captions below). 9/11 came six months after this article warned about blowback from US policies…. ushering in what some have called, the Fourth World War: Radical Islam VS the Rest of the World.  I am still in touch with numerous friends in Pakistan who are spiritual but not religious… Sufistic Agnostics, nominally Muslim, but free thinkers. Needless to say, they keep their philosophical views to themselves in a country where being ‘caught’ thinking freely could cause a case against you for blaspheming the Prophet (PBUH) and then you are fair game for public execution by mob, or your children could be shot in the head on the school bus. Much has changed in Pakistan since 2001.  Now in 2016, it may be even scarier to think freely than when I wrote this article.


Are the Taliban Coming to Town?

March 9, 2001

Yvette Claire Rosser


The Human Rights Commission Pakistan issued a report in October 2000 that accused the military regime of committing “widespread abuses in the name of political reform”. They called on General Musharraf to “immediately return the country to constitutional rule,” saying the “government had detained former officials without charge, removed independent judges, banned public rallies, and rendered political parties all but powerless.” The HRCP made a particularly critical point, that since the coup, “curbs on political activity” have opened up space for “religious parties, whose authorities and institutions Musharraf has thus far largely refrained from challenging.” In 2001, not only is Musharraf powerless to challenge the mullahs, he knows that they could bring his government down.


The American television news programme, 60 Minutes, ran a segment about Pakistan in the autumn of 2000, titled, “America’s Worst Nightmare”. Samiul Haq and other clerics interviewed for the programme scoffed at the thought that the government could control their militant activities. The men behind the radical madrassas could shut Islamabad down. And Musharraf knows it. Unfortunately, this 60 Minutes news feature employed the same stereotypical use of film footage predictably fed to Western audiences, showing men at prayer, while a journalist narrates the perils of terrorism-thereby implicating all believing Muslims.  In reality, most young men in Pakistan would rather marry an educated woman and work in the Info-Tech industry than fight the infidels. They would rather play cricket on the weekend in an empty lot than plot suicide missions into Kashmir. The average Pakistani is not a fundamentalist.


Most Pakistanis fear jihadis and their debilitating impact on society. Mullah jokes abound, but bitter laughter offers small reprieve. The vast majority of educated Pakistanis dream of a prosperous economy, democratic institutions, and a safe future for their children-both boys and girls. They want peace with India, peace with the world. They are secular and sophisticated. And they are sick of giving up everything-economic development, education, civic society-for Kashmir. “More than five decades is long enough. Let’s get on with the business of nation-building,” is the prevalent attitude. Frustrated as they may be by the lack of infrastructure, the growing political clout of the militant fundamentalists is far more frightening. The gender-biased dogmatic rhetoric that revels in a culture of fatwas, hudood and blasphemy laws, the self-appointed sectarian clerics who depreciate diplomacy, the unemployed, well armed young men pouring out of the Deeni Madaris, hunting heretics in the neighborhood… scary indeed.


Though, as of yet, the religious parties have never been supported by the electorate, they exercise a coercive psychological influence on society. For years, narratives and symbols of the nation have been pushed along this path. Textbooks in particular have been used to manufacture a siege mentality -a culture of mistrust and fear to counter the threat from Dar-al-Harb India and decadent Western values, all the while containing fissiparous provincial ethnicities. Non-Muslim and anti-national cultural influences are blamed for regional ethnic allegiances, as written in Mohammed Sarwar’s ‘Pakistan Studies’ textbook, in wide use across Pakistan: “At present a particular segment, in the guise of modernisation and progressive activity, has taken the unholy task of damaging our cultural heritage. Certain elements aim at the promotion of cultures with the intention to enhance regionalism and provincialism and thereby damage national integration.”


NGOs, HRCP, progressive social organisations, and provincial ethnic

groups are, according to this analysis, deemed anti-Pakistani and inherently anti-Islamic. “It is in the interest of national solidarity that such aspects of culture should be promoted as reflecting affinity among the people of the provinces,” Sarwar writes. Instead of being valued as parts of a whole, cultural expressions of Sindhis, Pathans, and Balochis are seen as a threat. Islam is employed to erase these dangerous cultural differences.


In the official ‘Pakistan Studies’ version of history, General Zia “took concrete steps in the direction of Islamisation.” In this eulogy, perhaps the pious General is stitching caps alongside Aurangzeb, the hero who supposedly rescued South Asian Islam from Akbar’s “misguided secular” policies. Though Z. A. Bhutto is inevitably lambasted in Pak Studies textbooks, Zia escapes criticism despite the fact that he was the most cruel of the military rulers who have usurped the political process in

Pakistan-just ask the Sindhis, who suffered heavily. Nonetheless, in Pakistan Studies textbooks, Zia is a savior fostering “complete Islamisation.”


Each time the constitution was aborted, placed in abeyance, or otherwise raped, textbooks describe it as a necessary response, a repercussion stimulated by un-Islamic forces. Dr. Sarwar writes, “The political leadership did not live up to expectations and lacked commitment to Islamic objectives. Moreover, the civil service had not undergone a socialisation process commensurate with Islamic teachings. The bureaucratic elite had a Western orientation with a secular approach to all national issues the result was political instability and chaos paving the way for the intervention of the military and the imposition of Martial Law.”


No wonder Musharraf’s October 1999 coup met with little resistance. Ideology has superseded accuracy in the restructuring of Pakistani identity since the days of partition. But it is during the days of Gen. Zia that the Curriculum Wing bowed to the religious lobby and completely lost its moorings in objective historiography. The subsequent post-martial law decades of democratic and or military dispensations never attempted to put science back into the social sciences, whereas Zia’s warped version of the Ideology of Pakistan still directs the discourse. In Pak Studies textbooks, General Ayub Khan is accused of imposing un-Islamic laws, particularly family laws to protect women; his “secular outlook brought about his decline.” On the other hand, “During the period under Zia’s regime, social life developed a leaning towards simplicity. Due respect and reverence to religious people was accorded. The government patronised religious institutions and liberally donated funds.”


Textbooks cite a “network of conspiracies and intrigues” that is threatening the “Muslim world in the guise of elimination of militancy and fundamentalism.” Here Pakistan single-handedly takes credit for the fall of the Soviet Union and lays claim to creating a situation in the modern world where Islamic revolutions can flourish and “the vacuum left by the fall of the USSR will be filled by the world of Islam.” Warning that “the Western world has fully perceived this phenomena, which accounts for the development of reactionary trends in that civilization.” The Pak Studies curriculum prepares students for Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’, for instance, quote/Unquote from the textbook: “The Muslim world is fully capable of facing Western challenges, provided that Muslims are equipped with self-awareness and channel their collective efforts for the well being of the Muslim Ummah.[…] All evidence substantiates Muslim optimism, indicating that the next century will glorify an Islamic revolution with Pakistan playing a pivotal role.” [!]


Pakistan Studies textbooks are full of contradictions. One page brags about the modern banking system, yet the next page complains that interest (riba) is un-Islamic. Self-loathing is written into the text: politicians are inherently corrupt, industrialists inevitably pursue “personal benefit at the cost of national interest.” The historical narrative bounces between poles of conspiracy theory and threats from within. Generating fear of India’s perpetual Machiavellian intentions and the West’s ideological hegemony, this discourse magnifies insecurities and deprecates sub-national identities. According to Pak Studies rhetoric, all these problems could be solved by implementing stricter Islamic codes and practices.


Most of the people I have met in Pakistan long for a just and democratic system. Yet the very people whose voices should be heeded are the ones harassed by the authorities or Mullahs.  In the past, even democratic governments made it difficult for intellectuals with alternative viewpoints to do research, not to mention what happened to certain journalists. Surrounded by corruption and confronted by an ever-narrowing definition of the nation, yet endowed with moral conscientiousness, many Pakistani scholars, educators, and professionals lament privately, despairing the condition of their country.


After many friends and colleagues in Pakistan told me that they were despondent about the future, depressed when they assessed the potential of their nation-state, I questioned a psychiatrist about these shared expressions of depression. For Dr. Inayat, from the Civil Hospital Karachi, the nation-wide depression is tangible and quantifiable. He told me that “20 to 30 suicides occur daily, primarily among those between fifteen and thirty, mostly upper class urbanised females and newly educated rural or urbanised lower middle class males.” During the summer of 1999, Dr. Inayat explained that the rise in clinical depression, even among citizens with ample economic opportunities can be partly attributed to the death of collective vision. Though democracy had been practiced for over ten years, civil society had declined and there was “a loss of enthusiasm to change the system from within, a certain resignation.”


The October coup both amplified and reflected this situation. When I interviewed Dr. Inayat again in February 2000, he told horror stories about boys brought from madaris to the Psychiatric Ward in a state of shock, psychologically and physically abused. The news media tends to blame the rash of suicides on fears of economic failure. However, fear of fundamentalists and their medieval legal system, ushering in an era of social oppression-makes the horror of financial insecurity pale in comparison. Most of the people I have met in Pakistan are alarmed about the “Talibanisation of the nation.” I was told time and again, “the CIA created the Taliban Frankenstein in Pakistan’s backyard and then walked away, leaving the monster behind.”


An American arsenal, commandeered by General Zia faced north in 1980, ten years later, with the Russian retreat, Pakistanis cautioned, now “the weapons were facing south”. Then Warlords turned their weapons against one another, ultimately setting their sights in an easterly direction, on Kashmir once again.  By 1993, from the madrassas of Rawalpindi, the Taliban emerged to ‘save’ Afghanistan and create a medieval Caliphate. Some Pakistanis, inspired by politicised sermons from the Mullah elites, vociferously call for a “Taliban-type system” and are willing to die to re-Islamize the nation. This may be especially true among the poor, whose only access to education is in a crowded madrassa where they learn that Sunni Islam is poised to take over the world of kafirs and apostates. These economically and culturally deprived young men have been taught that a Taliban-like system could overcome their poverty, their powerlessness, and their despair. Caught between conspiracies, corruption and the Qu’ran*, they see no alternatives.


Sindhis in Larkana District are afraid to go to the mosque; they may be killed, shot in the back while praying. They are concurrently afraid NOT to go to the mosque; they may be killed for not being outwardly sufficiently orthodox. In 2000, a farmer in rural Sindh told me, “ten years ago, people went to the mosque when they wanted to– Eid, Ramzan, Jumaah. No one forced you. Now, Taliban-trained Mullahs from Punjab have come to our village and built a madrassa. Three boys have gone to fight in Kashmir and Chechnya. When the boys leave the madrassa, they are quite religiously intolerant. Sindhis have never been intolerant.” He lamented, “We never had this situation before, we have always been Sindhi Muslims, but now we have to fake our religiosity to protect our lives.  At home, we sing Shah Latif.  We are Sufis.” This gentleman-farmer, who lives with his four brothers, their wives and children, said to me, “our names are Muslim, but our chromosomes are Buddhist.”  From a mud serai in rural Sindh to a well-furnished flat in urban Lahore, there is a fear that the Taliban and their Pakistani bosses and wannabes are coming to town.


Qazi Hussain Ahmad of Jamaat-i-Islami issued a call to his ideological base among the Zia-trained corps commanders of the Pakistan Army to stage a coup d’etat to bring about an Islamic Revolution. Musharraf, perceived as a social liberal, is an obstacle to complete Islamisation. Maulana Akram Awan of the Tanzimul Ikhwan party vowed that 300,000 of his disciples are armed and ready to march on Islamabad, demanding the “enforcement of Islam”. In response to the threats, Musharraf sent General Moinuddin Haider to visit the maulanas and plead for their cooperation. In the bargain, Haider agreed to crack down on NGOs (involved in such “un-Islamic activities” as educating girls) and promised more government financial support to Deeni Madaris in exchange for their promise to hold back the army of fundamentalists and placate the crores of their angry followers.


The cruel irony of US involvement through the decades is not lost in this telling. Zia reaped the rewards of his despotism in billions of dollars channeled through him to fund freedom-fighting mujahideen while he dumped arms by the truckload in the arms of madrassah students trained to cry “Allah-o-Akbar!” as they waged Ronald Reagan’s war against the Evil Empire’s incursion in Afghanistan, all the while mindlessly cooking a recipe for a blow-black.  General Zia, who executed his democratically elected predecessor, implemented draconian, oppressive Hudood Ordinances and Blasphemy Laws at home. He oppressed the polity and the people by enacting the Eighth Amendment and an Islamisation campaign that, among other restrictions, declared it a capital offense to “criticise the Ideology of Pakistan”-all financed by American money.


In contrast, General Musharraf, who sent his democratically elected predecessor off to live in luxury in Saudi Arabia, has to deal with the twisted militarised legacy left by the shadow of American entanglements and intrigues. But those problems are now Pakistan’s. Musharraf is isolated internationally, criticised for harbouring those freedom-fighters turned terrorists, and condemned as a military usurper, and blamed for Kargil. When Musharraf suggested that blasphemy laws were often used unfairly against members of minority communities, he found that he could not undo even a fraction of the damage done by last military regime. Zia’s cohorts left a cadre of well-armed murids manning the forts.


Since I first visited Pakistan in 1997, and then several more times between 1999 and 2001, I’ve spoken to Sindhis, Pathans, Balochis, and Punjabis and all are scared of the creeping Talibanisation of their nation, frightened by the possibility of a violent uprising of the half million strong, gun-toting, madrassa-trained, conservative Deobandi, militant jihadis. Scared to death. In the first year of the second millennium, this is a threat more frightening and imminent than an American or European can fathom. No one who really values democracy, human rights and a robust economy actually believes that the Taliban could possibly provide such a model.


However, I did meet one highly educated professional who said he would welcome a Taliban-type system, regardless of the fact that his wife runs a well-known NGO and would be one of the first targeted under a Talibanised agenda. This esteemed professor, a top-rank government servant, was hedging his bets, sporting a flowing beard, hoping that the Taliban would usher in a “truly Islamic system-Pakistan’s birth right.” When I challenged his claims about the benign, beneficent corruption-free Taliban, he said the negative images of militant mullahs and news reports of female doctors and teachers forced from their jobs in Kabul were BBC and CNN propaganda designed to blacken the face of fundamentalists. His was definitely not the prevailing opinion. But is this strange displacement of confused identities and convoluted politics an indication of things to come?


Without a doubt, Professor Sahib is an oddity in his middle class milieu. There is a much stronger element in the Pakistani academia, in the press, in hospitals, in the general population, which sees the looming Talibanization as ominous and intolerable. They fear that extremist religious leaders, with the help of some Zia trained junior Army officers, will stage a violent uprising, a counter-counter-coup to take over the government and bring in a radical Shariat system. My friends and colleagues in Lahore, Quetta, Hyderabad, Karachi, Islamabad, Larkana, and even far flung towns like Shahdadkot, go to work everyday, raise their children, celebrate festivals, and bury their dead; they live their lives as well as anyone in the world tries to do. But underneath the intellectual activities, professional duties and family life, underneath they are scared. Scared that on the dark, lonely road to the future, the Taliban will go bump in the night.


* When I originally submitted the article this sentence read: “Caught between conspiracies, corruption and the Qu’ran…” But the editor thought that the language was too harsh and perhaps dangerous, so he changed it to “mullahs”, though “conspiracies, corruption and Qu’ran” does have a ring.



Photo or Taliban officials at a news conference

Photo of Reagan, with caption: The cruel irony of US involvement through the decades is not lost. Zia reaped the rewards of his despotism in billions of dollars channeled through him to fund freedom-fighting mujahideen, while he dumped arms by the truckload in the arms of madrassah students trained to cry

“Allah-o-Akbar!” as they waged Ronald Reagan’s war against the Evil Empire’s incursion in Afghanistan.

Photo of Zia, with caption: General Zia executed his democratically elected predecessor,  implemented draconian, oppressive Hudood Ordinances and Blasphemy Laws at home, by enacted the Eighth Amendment and an Islamisation campaign that, among other restrictions, declared it a capital offense to “criticize the Ideology of Pakistan”-all financed by American money.



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