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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Compatibility: The Pakhtun Culture, Talibanization and Obscenity

Taliban burnt more than 150 girls schools in Swat valley.
By Farhad Taj
One of the good things that have happened to Pakistan is the free media. The media’s educative and informative role in the society is commendable. The media, however, disappoint when it exhibits biases most probably unintentionally or when it promotes a particular view without even cross checking the facts on the ground.

Such views constitute constructed realities in the public eye that are based on ideological fantasies or vested interest or ignorance of some people whose voices are reflected in the media. Solutions are then recommended based on the constructed realities to critical problems of national level.

The solutions, disconnected from t facts on the ground, can affect no change.

In their zeal to be seen as ‘expert’ or at least ‘informed commentators’ on the Pakhtun culture, scores of discussants in media depict that Talibanization is somehow compatible with the Pakhtun culture. That confinement of women to homes, compulsory wearing of burqa, ban on female mobility in public sphere, minus those accompanied by related men, ban on girls’ education, ban on music, compulsory beards, killing people by slitting their throats, preference of madrassa over school education , compulsory punishments for not saying the daily five time obligatory Islamic prayers, and above all, going mad in revenge spree and eliminating innocent and perceived enemies without discrimination, all is Pakhtun culture.

They argue the Taliban’s Islam is not Islam, it is Pakhtun culture. The key premise seems to that a religion, especially a text based religion like Islam, is interpretation and interpretation is affected by culture. So, Islam, when seen through the lenses of Pakhtunwali turns out to be Talibanization.

One of those who project this view of Pakhtun culture is the ex-ISI chief General (Retd) Hamid Gul. His credential as pro-Taliban, pro-religious extremists in general and his role in Afghan Jihad that brought destruction of Afghanistan and the rise of radical Islam in Pakistan is beyond doubt. Still, surprisingly, the media anchors do not put him questions to investigate his view of the Pakhtun culture.

A journalist, Orea Maqbol Jan, in a TV talk show, Kalam Kar, claimed that even a Hindu woman in Pakhtun culture will have to wear shuttlecock burqa. To my utter disappointment, even Salman Ahmed of Junoon, one of my favorite musicians, displayed a similar distorted view of the Pakhtun culture. Addressing a gathering in Denmark he referred to his talk with the mullah ‘electricity’ in NWFP. Salman Ahmed said that ‘this (rejection of music) is his(mullah’s) culture’.

The mullah ‘electricity’ is presumably mullah Bijli ghar. A laughing stock among Pakhtuns, one wonders since when mullah Biji Ghar became a symbol of the entire Pakhtun culture.
Equally disappointing is the self-proclaimed voice of the Pakhtuns, Imara Khan of Tehrik Insaf Party. He argues that the Taliban’s spree of death and destruction is caused by the revengeful Pakhtuns, whose family members were supposedly killed in the on going military operation in FATA and other areas of NWFP. He rejects that religious extremism, systematically spread in FATA by the state agencies, may have anything to do with the atrocities committed by the Taliban in Pakistan (and Afghanistan) .

Imran Khan’s argument portrays the Pakhtuns as savage and uncivilized people who can be so blinded by revenge that they become stripped of any capacity to differentiate between the innocent and the ‘guilty’. It implies that Paktuns can be driven so mad in revenge that they would bomb their own educational and health institutions, destroy the livelihoods of the fellow Pakhtuns and murder innocent people, both Pakhtun and non-Pakhtun, across Pakistan. Although, I have yet to see a Pakhtun so maddened by revenge, I still suppose there may be some people of this kind. I argue this is the personal decision of those people and has no justification in the code of Pakhtunwali for the purpose. Moreover, people so maddened by revenge may exist in any culture of the world.

These are but a few names who present such a false view of the Pukhtun culture on media. There are scores of other. These people show disrespect to the Pakhtun culture, some out of ignorance (like Sulman Ahmed, I guess), some for ideological reasons (Gul Hamid), some for professional reasons (just to be seen as expert on the something, like the journalist) and some for petty political reasons (like Imaran Khan) . In addition to the disrespect to the Pakhtun cultures, these people display utter disregard to some of the established notions of the social science.

Most social scientists all over the world agree that human cultures are internally diverse, flexible and adaptable. There are dominant norms in a culture and also less dominant norms. They coexist side by side. Even the expression of the dominant norms can be diverse. Cultures are not written in stone. They are flexible: members of the culture may mange to push the limits of the culture within the framework of that culture. In line with the changing requirements of the time cultures may adapt new ideas and norms from other cultures and societies. All this holds true for the Pukhtun culture. I will try to explain with some examples.

Shuttlecock burqa that many identify with Pakhtun culture is diminishing norm in some Pakhtun communities or localities. It is not a universal norm all over the Pakhtun land. A nearly universal norm is chader. But length of chader varies from area to area, family to family and even woman to woman. The way it is worn by women also varies: some may cover their faces with chader, some may not.

Most Pakhtun communities stand for girls’ education: this is precisely the reason why the Taliban, whose worldview has not room for girls’ education, are destroying girls’ schools and colleges. One can name tens of girls’ schools and colleges in the Pakhtun area that government of Pakistan would have simply ignored to build. But thanks to the Pakhtun elders of the areas, mostly fathers and grandfathers, who pleaded with the government to build those girls educational institutions in their area and their requests finally moved the government in building those institutions.

The Taliban have now destroyed or destroying those institutions. In almost very city and town of the Pakhtuns there have been growing number of communities and individual families, who have had exposure to education and modernity. Women in such communities and families have taken up non traditional roles in the public sphare. Before the rise of the Taliban no one had ever heard of any Pakhtun community or individuals violently reacting the women who have broken the confinements of the traditional gender roles.

Taliban bans music, which is an integral part of the Pakhtun traditions. Before the rise of the Taliban no one ever heard of attacks on musicians and music shops. There have always been men with and without beard among the Pakhtuns. Those with beard never forced the others to grow beard. There have always been Pakhtun who were regular in saying daily prayers and those were not so regular and even those who hardly say any prayers for years and years. Before the Taliban, it was unheard of that those who are regular in saying daily prayers would force the other to be regular.

Imran Khan’s assertion that the Taliban unleashing the reign of terror on Pakistan are Pakhtuns driven by revenge essentionilizes the notion of revenge to the Pakhtun culture. Essentionalism has been greatly challenged by social scientists all over the world. Essentionlaism is the belief that people have an unchanging 'essence' that wipes off the possibility of changeable human behaviour. Most social scientists will disagree that each and very Pakhtun would take to violent means in the name of revenge. Agreed that revenge is an important notion of the code of Pakhtunwali, but, nevertheless, this a notion. When put in practice it may take different forms, not necessarrly the violent forms.

There is nothing in the code of Pakhtunwali that sanctions or even justifies indiscriminate use of violence in revenge. Revenge is a qualified notion in the code. There are clear limits to who can be targeted for revenge. Such limits are not respected by the Taliban. Innocent people, women and children (even from the enemy’s family) are never the targets of revenge killing according to the code of Pakhtunwali.

The Taliban’s world view is rooted in the narrow interpretation of Islam that has international connections with religious extremists across the globe. This worldview is unified, inflexible and violently resistant to adaptability. This is the exact opposite of the Pakhtun culture. Unlike Talibanization, the Pakhtun culture is rooted in the centuries old human history and traditions that evolved in a geographical location.

During an interview with Fredrik Baarth, a famous Norwegian scholar of the Pakhtun culture, this writer asked him whether he sees any compatibility between the Pakhtun culture and Talibanization. His answer was: ‘in terms of Pakhtun culture, Talibanization is obscenity’. So, there you have it! Anyone who knows the Pakhtun culture and is not motivated by a vested interest would reject any notion of compatibility between Talibanization and the Pakhtun culture.
(To be continued)

Farhat Taj is a PhD research fellow at the Centre for Women and Gender Studies, University of Oslo.

2 comments:

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