Swat's sorry tale

Editorial The News International
10/ 4/ 2007

The cancerous spread of government-militant clashes to the remote areas of the country is becoming increasingly perturbing because it is consuming the usually peaceful and scenic areas of Pakistan, such as the famed Swat valley. The region once used to be called Pakistan's answer to Switzerland and would draw a large number of tourists, especially from within the country, but that has all changed. It has fallen to the extremists and large swathes of it seem as if they are in the control of Taliban sympathisers. The imposition of a rigid literalist version of Islam which has taken place in the tribal areas has found its way into Swat as well. Barbers have been ordered not to shave beards, shops selling CDs and music cassettes have been ordered closed and bombed and the valley has its own maverick mullah -- Fazlullah is his name and he happens to be Maulana Sofi Mohammad's (of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi fame) Son-in-law who apparently rides a black horse and has thousands of followers willing to attack security forces on his command. He has also been labeled the FM maulana because his popularity has apparently come in large part because of the FM radio channel he operates -- without permission, of course -- in the area. In recent months, he was in the news after he told his followers not to let their children be administered polio drops because that was an American-Zionist plan to make them sterile.

Then, girls' schools and colleges in the area were warned that unless their students observed a complete purdah, they could face violent action. It should be remembered that purdah is anyway the norm in this region and the militants didn't really have to impose this by force since it is part of the local culture -- however, the need to issue a warning may have to do with them wanting to stamp their authority over the local population. Earlier this week, two girls' schools were partially damaged by bombs, another reminder of the area's Talibanisation and of how some elements want to intimidate the locals into conforming to their obscurantist worldview in which women are best if they don't venture out of the home. As if a mirror to what happened in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Swat has also now been plagued by attacks on some of its pre-Islamic cultural treasures. In Janabad, the extremists attempted to blow up statues of Buddha that date back to the 7th century and this was followed by another attack at a Buddhist site at the beginning of the valley.

The provincial government has sadly been a silent spectator as the region's tourism industry -- the main driver of the local economy -- has been all but ruined. No foreign, or even domestic, tourist would now want to venture there because of security considerations. It's a pity that a once peaceful and calm valley has been bitten by the extremist bug because in the long run the main sufferers of this will be the local people, for whom opportunities to earn a livelihood will sharply dwindle -- especially with the demise of tourism. The advance of Talibanisation has to be strongly resisted by the local population as well and in this civil society groups can play a role, but only if the federal and provincial governments take the lead in tackling the militancy.