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Monday, July 19, 2010

In defence of Pakhtun nationalism

In defence of Pakhtun nationalism
Jan Assakzai

Some pro-Taliban writers have said on the Internet media that Pakhtun nationalism as a political movement is against Islam that nationalist leadership both in Pakistan and Afghanistan do not enjoy the backing of the people and that they are a small clique who are western stooges whereas Pakhtuns are following political Islamists. But this discourse refutes that Pakhtun nationalism is anti-Islam and argues that Pakhtun nationalism is not only alive in Pakistan but also thriving in Afghanistan and is the only guarantee in the long run that can help prevent mayhem in both countries and the repeat of Sept 11.
Pakhtun nationalism as political ideology despite its shortcomings has always been there on both sides of the Durand Line. However, there might be some differences in emphasis and scope. Another distinction is that one may be a political Islamist, not a nationalist or communist but may take nationalist stance on some issues. So the definition may not be as absolute as one may understand by the word “nationalist”.
 Pakhtun nationalism as a political phenomenon has its roots in Pakhtun history. The various uprising of Pakhtuns/Afghans against different invaders had nationalist connotations: be that the struggle of Khushal Khan Khattak against the Moguls, the three Anglo-Afghan wars in the nineteenth century, the uprising of Faqir of Ipi in North Waziristan, Bacha Khan and Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai’s non-violent movements against British Raj so on and so forth. Majority of Pakhtuns: around 40 million, live in Pakistan and roughly 15 to 17 million constitute Afghanistan’s Pakhtun population out of 30 million if the current census estimates are to be believed. Political nationalist currents and their underlying dynamics amongst the Pakhtuns on both side of the Durand Line have both similarities and dissimilarities. (For me Pakhtun, Afghan and Pathan are interchangeable that define the same ethnic group, so just for clarity I will often use the word Pakhtun). Nationalism is sometimes reactionary, calling for a return to national past, and sometimes for the expulsion of foreigners. Other forms of nationalism are revolutionary, calling for the establishment of an independent state as a homeland for an ethnic underclass. But after the end of British Empire and emergence of Pakistan as a nation state, Pakhtun nationalism has been progressive and within the confines of Pakistan’s boundaries and has also by and large not sought pan-Pakhtun nationalism despite the stereotyped views of many non-Pakhtun and oriental writers. It has also not been based on ethno-nationalism: a belief in the superiority of one ethnicity over others, and never supported ethnocentric protectionism or ethnocentric supremacy of Pakhtuns over other ethnic groups. Whereas Islam as religion is concerned, I think almost 99 per cent Pakhtuns would believe in some sort of interpretation of Islam at philosophical/metaphysical, societal or functional levels. Yes, if one has more divisive or sectarian interpretation of religion, may term fellow Muslims as non Muslims, Shias, Kafirs, Murtads etc.
But vast majority of Pakhtuns do not subscribe to these divisions except a fringe group that may have got influence from Wahhabism or Pakistan’s mainstream sectarian extremist outfits. As there is no religious authority/body in the Islamic world who for example could issue certificates for who being a bonafide Muslim. However, there had been a tiny number of Pakhtuns who happened to be adherents of left political ideology of communism and did also adopt different metaphysical beliefs about God, and views on religion propagated by the founders of the ideology.
 But with the collapse of communism as political system, and the collapse of its philosophic/metaphorical leftist political liberalism all over the world, their numbers have come to a negligible figures. Majority of Pakhtuns, including nationalists practise Islam as religion and have a Islamic religious outlook for all metaphysical questions, some how. But historically, Pakhtun traditions have been so strong that they have always kept religion subservient to traditions. In other words, Pakhtun traditions and religion is blended, to the consternation of Wahabbis. Some may disagree as to what constitute Muslim, depends on his/her degree of observance of religious rituals in its totality. But it is again a matter of interpretation and one cannot deprive one of his/her use of religion to fill in one’s spiritual, philosophical voids.
There is another political current among Pakhtuns who use religion for political purposes I call them as political Islamists, some dub them as extremists. Political Islamists’ beliefs and actions may not necessarily be in line with the tenets of Islam as a religion. Their second type is the Jihadists who not only believe in political Islam but also believe that in order to impose their interpretation of political Islam, they should use violence and intimidation not only in their own territories but if possible throughout the world - a view which runs against the spirit of Islam (and is not the scope of this discourse for further exploration). Political Islam has largely been represented by the erstwhile Islamist Mujaheddin and the Taliban among Pakhtuns particularly in Afghanistan and to a lesser degree in Pakistan. Back in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan’s then generals worried that Moscow would expand its footprint in the Pakhtun heartland and pose a direct threat to the unity of Pakistan, they began a covert programme of funding, training, and equipping Afghans willing to take on the Soviet Army It is now open secret that how political Islam was cultivated on both sides of the border over past three and half decades and how proxy Mujaheddin were sponsored and imposed on Pakhtuns/ Afghans by the CIA’s trainings, Pakistan’s logistical help, and Saudi petrol money, latter how their political successor, the new proxy, the Taliban were introduced to the scene. US policymakers relied on intelligence agents, diplomats, and experts who in the past had worked closely with the Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.
These individuals bought into Islamabad’s line that Pakhtun/Afghan nationalists needed to be sidelined and the focus needed to be on the political Islamists who were being trained in their thousands in Pakistan. Indeed, these nationalists who were patriotic people, soon found themselves unwelcome in Pakistan, and nearly 1.5 million migrated to Gulf, Europe, North America and India. While the sponsors of the political Islam defeated Afghan nationalism and thought in Pakhtun areas but failed to wipe out in Pakistan. But what is precisely Pakhtun/Afghan nationalism? First, Afghan nationalism is slightly different from Pakhtun’s ethnic nationalism in Pakistan. I call Afghan nationalism as “civic nationalism”. “Civic” nationalism compared to “ethnic” nationalism emphasises on loyalty to a kind of “cosmopolitan” state rather than ethnicity. “Civic” nationalism defines the nation as an association of people with equal and shared political rights, and allegiance to similar political procedures.
Why it is different in emphasis is because in Afghanistan, Pakhtun /Afghan situation is sharply different from their counterparts in Pakistan. Pakhtuns in Afghanistan form the largest ethnic group and for many they are the majority ethnic group as well. Pakhtuns have substantive political representation in the state institutions, they are the major stake holders and hence their pragmatic needs are different form those of their Pakhtun cousins in Pakistan.
There might be issues of neglect of language or culture at the hand of Persian speaking Pakhtun and non- Pakhtun elite in the past or now. However, there has been no second class status reserved for Pakhtuns except at marginal levels. Thus Pakhtun is a kind of big brother in Afghanistan, not a small minority. From Pakhtun perspective, there are other minorities who have to be part of its view of nationalism which implies that the allegiance have to be to state more than to individual ethnic groups. In other words, according to the principles of “civic” nationalism, the nation is not based on common ethnicity or ethnicites , but is a political entity, whose core is not ethnicity.
As a result of “civic” nationalism, Afghan identity though being historically interchangeable with “Pakhtun” and “Pathan” has also evolved to include other ethnic groups who are quite happy to call themselves as Afghans. The integration of Pakhtuns/Afghans with other ethnic groups has been far greater compared to Pakhtuns in Pakistan. As far as “ethnic” nationalism among Pakhtuns in Afghanistan is concerned, there were/are some elements who have been highlighting the “excesses” of non Pakhtuns towards Pakhtuns for exmaple, “Afghan Milatian”. But they did not find much following among the Pakhtuns. Pakhtuns either Islamists or civic nationalists could not afford to be ethnic nationalists due to political cost, yet they remained “civic” nationalists in their political outlook. Thus political (civic) nationalism has always been there in Pakhtuns/Afghans throughout history whether they were communists, Islamist Mujaheddin or political hardline Taliban.

Meanwhile, another dynamic related to political Islam is a legitimacy question that hang over them not only in Afghanistan but world over. They have always been wary of elections and in seeking votes from people in order to get their support. This is why most of the countries in the Islamic world who practise political Islam as political ideology abhor free elections and getting mandate of the people to rule them.
This has also been the case with Mujaheddin in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban of today as well. Thus assuming that they automatically enjoy the support of Pakhtuns/ Afghans for having fought against the Soviets now fighting the US and NATO forces is simply not true as there is no statistical basis in terms of ascertaining the people’s opinion regarding their past/present role or regarding the question whether they should rule Afghanistan. In other words, there has never been vote to prove that Pakhtuns want political Islam of either Mujaheddin or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Out of nearly 12 million registered votes, overwhelming majority supported moderate civil Pakhtun/Afghan (civic) nationalist leadership of Hamid Karzai in the past three successive presidential elections. Whereas in Pakhtuns of Pakistan, “ethnic” nationalism is the by product of a geo-political state’s policy of promoting a different kind of thinly-veiled ethnic nationalism by design under the name of Islam. The sole aim of this project in practice means keeping the dominance of Punjab as an ethnic group in all the state institutions including bureaucracy, Army, Parliament and others, while being less than majority before 1971 and dubious and controversial majority of around 50 per cent of the total population after the fall of East Pakistan. Though officially the state policies deny that it is preserving Punjabi dominance in every walk of life and claims instead it is promoting a kind of Pakistanisation which I call “cosmopolitan nationalism”: all citizens are Muslims and Pakistanis; we are all Pakistanis; and no one is Pakhtun, Baloch, Punjabi, Sindhi etc. But in reality some are more equal than others.
 They have also promoted Urdu language which is the language of nearly six per cent of the population, at the cost of neglecting other languages, including Pakhtu, which is being spoken by between 35 to 40 per cent of Pakistan’s population if fair census of Pakhtuns is held. And Pakhtuns consider their language and culture as heritage. In Pakistan, Pakhtun nationalism have been wary of Pakistan’s “cosmopolitan nationalism” which they equate with eradication of diverse national cultures, and languages while ending up promoting a single largest ethnic group and it rejects such important nationalist values as ethnic identity and loyalty, language, culture etc.
This is why nationalists are deeply suspicious of “state’s cosmopolitan attitudes”. Why the type of nationalism in Pakistan has been more of “ethnic” nature is because they are five distinct ethnic groups with different languages, different geographically, linguistically based provinces and areas, with minor exceptions though. So those who do not agree with state’s policy and have less stakes in the polity are nationalists by design or default. Whatever term you may coin, their opposition can only be categorised as political nationalism.
 Thus Pakhtun nationalist forces in Pakistan have been demanding an end to exclusion of other minority population including Pakhtuns, Baloch, Sindhis and Siraikis in the state institutions. As far as the masses are concerned, if we were to know the level of their support, one has to count the votes as it is the only relatively fairer method to gauge one’s popularity among the people. But in Pakistan out of nearly 62 years there have been direct army rule and all elections were oftenly rigged. While due to mullah-military historical alliance, Islamist parties won the elections of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which were accepted as rigged elections even by Gen Pervez Musharaf’s own admission. In the last elections of 2008, Pakhtun nationalists got move that 50 per cent of the vote polled. In Balochistan Pakhtun areas, though Pakhtun nationalists boycotted, historically they have garnered majority share of the votes polled despite rigged elections. They have also made electoral gains in Karachi showing Pakhtun nationalists have the mandate of the majority Pakhtun people.
 As far as religion is concerned, it has never been a hurdle in the political evolution of Pakhtun nationalism. However, political Islam’s role has been controversial. During the foreign invasions of Pakhtun territories throughout history, it has often been used as supporting tool by Pakhtun nationalists to fight against the invaders. But in twentieth century it has been promoted by foreign sponsors as part of their geo-political rivalry played out on Pakhtun territories in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The West including the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and China used political Islam as a tool to defeat Soviet Union and contain “ethnic” nationalism in Pakistan and “civic” nationalism and progressive thoughts in Afghanistan. Following the abandonment of the US from the Afghan scene regional actors particularly Pakistan again cultivated a new proxy the Taliban while using political Islam as ideological underpinning. Yes, in the process political Islam also got some adherence in Afghanistan.
 Even today particularly Pakhtuns in Afghanistan were not offered alternative socio-economic and socio-political alternative by the West thus they are being forced to accept the proxy Islamist Taliban as the only alternative. Though it is not yet proved how many Afghans support political Islam which is only possible to know if the practitioners of political Islam participate in elections, until then all claims of Pakhtuns supporting the Islamist Taliban have no credibility. But to say that Pakhtun “ethnic” nationalism in Pakistan or Pakhtun/Afghan “civic” nationalism in Afghanistan have no followings among the Pakhtuns is far from reality. Pakhtun nationalism is alive and kicking despite being on the wrong side of the establishment of Pakistan, and of the west during the cold war era.
However, the West particularly the US paid heavy price for its mistake of backing Islamabad to cultivate political Islam at the cost of Pakhtun nationalism on either side of the Durand Line: the most vicious expression of the price was September 11, 2001 and as of today, the resolve of the West in Afghanistan is faltering, only a fool will be satisfied that there will be no repeat of Sept. 11 attacks. But for the world peace, and the people of both countries, the only insurance policy in the log term will be the passing over of carefully nurtured political Islam in favour of Pakhtun nationalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan with iron clad guarantees for the territorial integrity of both the nation states, and the strategic involvement of the international guarantors particularly, the United States, to check bilateral infighting of the regional states played out on Pakhtun territories, particularly the policy expressed in Road-to-Kabul-goes-through-Srinagar Mantra.

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