The genesis of militancy and extremism in Swat

By: Khadim Hussain

"My dear unnamed crusaders of Islam, I received your warning letter that instigated me to ask a few questions humbly. First, you begin your warning letter with 'Salam', which literally means 'peace', but isn't it that such kind of letters end up terrorizing the common Muslims…" This is the first paragraph of an open letter by a socio-political activist of district Swat, Ziaddin Yusufzai, published in a local daily Azadi on Sep 12 2007, in response to an anonymous warning letter by the so-called militants who have succeeded to hold the whole valley Swat hostage in the recent times.

The franchise owners of Cable TV in Swat thought it safe to close their business as soon as they received an anonymous warning letter. They knew that a few days earlier the whole market of CD shops in Meena bazaar in the main town of Mingora was turned into ashes and rubble. The owners brought the anonymous warning letters they had received in to the notice of District Coordination Officer, District Police Officer and even Maulana Fazlulah, the vocal FM radio speaker, while visiting them in their offices. They also spoke to a press conference at Swat press club. The owners were of the view that they would close the business if the Maulana or govt could provide jobs or alternative earning source. They also mentioned their educational qualifications in case the government wanted to consider them for jobs. One can see banners, inscribed with a refusal of shaving beards, hung in front of the barbershops in almost all large and small markets across the valley. Warnings to prevent women from coming to the market without a head-to-toe veil have been hung in front of the main cloth and cosmetics market. The women of locality usually visit the market for shopping different items. Private English medium schools of the valley have been receiving warnings to stop the students wearing paints and shirts, considered to be western dress, from attending the schools. The local district administration has asked the administration of Sangota Public School to close down after the school received one such anonymous warning letter. Sangota Public School is a missionary school, which was established in 1965 on the request of the Wali of Swat, and continues to function according to the local norms and traditions. The school can boast of a substantial contribution to the education of the once peaceful and tolerant valley Swat.

The situation has now reached a point that the District Coordination Officer has to ask the people to abide by the edicts of the anonymous letters. State institutions seem to be run by the anonymous letters, and not by the functionaries of the state. The secular and liberal political parties like Awami National Party, Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan People's Party have remained silent over the rulings of the anonymous letters. Civil society—lawyers, students, teachers, doctors and middle class businessmen—remains confused, and is probably waiting for a messiah to come from heaven to help them out of the present precarious situation in the valley. Till last week, the District Inspector General of Police and District and Session Judge were on leave. The district Nazim (the highest elected official of a district in Pakistan) has taken refuge in Islamabad, lest he and his family are harmed by the militants. The traditional elders of the valley, who usually play a pivotal role in a crisis situation of the kind that is witnessed these days in the valley, have also remained silent for reasons best known to them.

In the absence of information through Cable TV, local print media remains to be the only source of information. The local media publishes the anonymous letters in full headlines while the rare response from the common people to the edicts of the anonymous letters is not even given any space in the local media. Through a news statement, the so-called local Taliban have recently appreciated the role of the local media for joining hands with the Taliban to spread the ‘mercy’ of ‘Islamic Sharia’a’ in the valley.

The Private Schools Management Association of Swat emerges to be the only organization that took a bold decision in these circumstances by refusing to toe the line given by the anonymous warning letters. The anonymous letters had asked different private schools to do away with the 'western dress of the boys students' and 'make girls students put on head-to-toe veil'.

There are a few very important questions that need to be raised in the wake of a fast deteriorating situation in the valley Swat. Who is a beneficiary of the currently prevailing situation in the valley, and who is losing a lot in the process? Is the present wave a continuation of the situation witnessed in the 1990's in the valley? Is the present situation the ultimate consequence of a tribal interpretation of Islam? Is it the consequence of state security paradigm? Is it the consequence of Afghan war? What could be the probable internal and external factors involved in the radicalization of a once liberal people of the valley?

The mesmerizing music of waterfalls, the green and flowery landscape dotted with sprouting fountains, the snow-capped mountains, and the fast-flowing River Swat of valley Swat, situated to the north of Pakistan, have witnessed numerous epochs for the last several thousand years. Since the Aryans, who migrated to the valley in 14 th century B.C, till the merger of the valley with Pakistan in 1969, the valley has experienced diverse lifestyles, different worldviews, numerous cultural traditions, and distinct state institutions (for historical details see Valley Swat History).

Everything seemed fine with the 5337 square kilometers area of the valley and the 1257.60 thousand people, according to 1998 census with a growth rate of 3.37, of the valley, despite upheavals in the rest of the Pushto speaking areas of the North West Frontier province of Pakistan, till the early nineties. Culturally, the people of Swat valley had been more accommodative, more generous and more open than the rest of the Pushto speaking areas of the N.W.F.P and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The religious class of the area before the establishment of Swat state, during Swat state and long after Swat state, had always been broad minded and culturally absorbed in the society. They had never been rigid in accepting music, games, western dress, TV, internet and the rest of modern technology. The valley had one of the highest women literacy rate as compared to the rest of N.W.F.P and several other parts of Pakistan. Till early nineties, no body among the common folks or the clergy had ever raised any objection to women education in the valley. The religio-political parties like Jamati Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulamai Islam would cast a few thousand votes in different constituencies of the valley before 1990s, but they had never been able to win any assembly seats on their own.

Since the mid-eighties through the early nineties, the clergy, consisting mostly of those migrated from Afghanistan during Afghan war and after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, got an opportunity to introduce an interpretation of the Islamic Sharia’a, in the madrassas established with the help of petro-dollars, which could be considered a new version of Wahabism. The local Ulema resisted the phenomenon severely, but probably the rigid interpretation had already won political power due to several reasons. The people of the valley had been experiencing frustration, helplessness and powerlessness in the wake of a corrupt judicial system, broken health and security systems and an unviable education system. They saw their forest cut down, their roads devastated and their culture maligned after the Swat state was merged with Pakistan in 1969. Some observers also think that the present situation in Swat is all due to the external factors. The external factors, they observe, might want to play a terrible game with the people of valley Swat to achieve their murky trade objectives. Some scholars also observe that the situation might be an ultimate consequence of the state security paradigm put in place right from the inception of Pakistan.

Whatever the reason may be, the valley and its people are in the grip of terror due mainly to the mystery surrounding the situation. According to Chomsky, “The resort to fear by systems of power to discipline the domestic population has left a long and terrible trail of bloodshed and suffering, which we ignore at our peril”.

(The writer is an Islamabad based socio-political analyst.