Since the start of this year a range of pro-Taliban militant groups in Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province have been calling themselves Tehreek-e-Taliban. The party claims to represent the Taliban "brand" in Pakistan. According to the literature pumped out of their Peshawar media offices they are fighting to protect Islam and spread their strict Deobandi interpretation over all of Pakistan.
But if Tehreek-e-Taliban is judged by actions and not words it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are at war with ordinary Muslims.
Consider the Taliban’s string of victims this year alone. Only two weeks ago a suicide attack on the Pakistan Army’s main munitions facility near the ancient Buddhist ruins of Taxila killed 70 and injured more than one hundred. All of those killed were common, working Muslims. So too were the people killed by another Taliban suicide bomber when he blew himself up at the casualty ward of a hospital in Dera Ismail Khan in the NWFP.
The hospital was targeted because it was offering immunisation to children, something the movement believes is prohibited under Islam. It gives the same reasoning for destroying at least one, but usually several, girls’ schools every week. This in a country with a female literacy rate as low as 36 per cent.
Such acts do not impair US or NATO policies in Pakistan. Rather, the Taliban’s fellow Muslims suffer from crimes considered unconscionable even among mainstream orthodox Muslims.
Pakistan’s slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto implied as much after she survived the first attempt on her life in October last year. "The people who planned the assassination attack on me are not Muslim," decried Bhutto. "No Muslim can attack a woman. No Muslim can attack innocent people."
Yet such statements stand in glaring opposition to most of Pakistan’s political and religious leadership which, while routinely condemning its violence, has generally avoided challenging the Taliban’s credentials as a Muslim movement. Many leaders, like Jamiat-Ulema-Islami‘s Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, prefer to focus on deaths caused by Western forces in the NWFP and Afghanistan. Their message is a popular one in Pakistan: the Taliban may not be loved, but the real criminals are foreign interlopers.
Many different factors shape this noticeable double standard. It is partially explained by popular resentment towards the presence of Western armies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States and NATO follow in a long line of foreign powers that claimed to be bringing order to the region but have instead killed many civilians while serving their own interests and failing to respect local mores.
Some Pakistanis believe the Taliban insurgency is the latest in an old heritage of anti-colonial militancy stretching back to the mid-19th century uprisings against British rule. In contrast, the Pakistan Army is seen as an agent of the US. That perception was exacerbated by former President Musharraf when he offered unflinching support for US intervention in the region. Under Musharraf, the US established a massive air base near Quetta, just south of the NWFP, from which it launches airstrikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan with impunity. It is arguable that Musharraf was left with little choice after September 11, but that, understandably, counts for little among Pakistanis.
People also remember Pakistan’s role as conduit for America’s proxy war with the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. That war developed the infrastructure that the Taliban now uses to prosecute its campaign. This feeds the belief that the present conflict is America’s doing, not Pakistan’s responsibility.
Moreover, Pakistan’s war with the Taliban has displaced up to 300,000 in the NWFP alone. So too have US and NATO missile strikes, although to a much lesser extent. This has nurtured sympathy for the Taliban at a time when many Pakistanis feel besieged by the US and India, which continues to grow economically and in regional clout.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the conflict is not merely a battle between the Taliban, with Pakistani support, and the armies of Afghanistan, the US and NATO. That conflict is but one strand of a complex conflagration that includes militant groups either supported or opposed by Pakistan’s military establishment and rival tribes involved in regional disputes that have been co-opted into the wider conflict (such as in the NWFP’s Kurram Agency).
The lack of clearly distinguishable friends and foes has made it difficult for both Pakistan’s politicians and the general population to single out the Taliban for the atrocities it has committed. As a result, many in Pakistan live in denial as to the existence and motives of Tehreek-e-Taliban. "There is no Tehreek-e-Taliban," says Asif, a musician from Lahore, "this is a civil war [but]they don’t want to tell people that."
Others, like Mahmoud, a Karachi rickshaw driver, openly support the Taliban. "They are holy warriors, true Muslims." People like Mahmoud believe the Wah suicide attacks were justified. "[The people killed or injured] deserved their fate for serving the interests of America and the Jews. The [Pakistan] Army has killed so many in [the NWFP]and in the Red Mosque … according to our faith those who do not obey Islam are no longer Muslim and it is lawful to kill them."
But such sympathies are starting to be challenged. A large demonstration was held in Wah after the suicide attacks and shops were closed in the town immediately afterward in protest. In several parts of the NWFP people are forming armed squads to take on the Taliban. Like the popular backlash against Islamic militancy in Algeria during the 1990s, the tide may be starting to turn against the Taliban.
Many see the Taliban for what it is: a violent, extremist organisation whose targeting of girls’ schools and civilians has no place in the subcontinent’s traditionally moderate Muslim traditions. "Islamic faith spread [in the subcontinent]through the Sufi tradition [of]inclusiveness, embracing local traditions and religious concepts," notes Ayesha Jalal.
Pakistan’s Islam – with its numerous sects, interpretations and saints – cannot coexist with the Taliban’s creed.
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