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The Talibanisation of minds

Thursday, May 07, 2009

By Kamila Hyat

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor


There are two dimensions to the challenge of defeating the Taliban. One of course is the issue of re-gaining control over the territories they have wrested away from the state. The military successes in Dir and Buner, as the army moves into a new phase of aggression, are of course encouraging. The mysteries of how tactics in this respect are decided remain rather obscure though. In the past the civilian governments have implied that the military is unwilling to take on the Taliban. In an unusually strong set of comments the US has meanwhile slammed the government while praising the military.


What wheels are moving behind the scenes we don't quite know but we have learnt from the past to be wary in such situations. And meanwhile, despite the increasingly nonsensical statements of Sufi Mohammad, who now says democracy is un-Islamic and Sharia must extend across Pakistan, the ANP government seems determined to cling to its myth of a peace accord that seems increasingly fragile by the day, if not the hour.


There is, however, another aspect to battling the Taliban. That is the question of control over minds. The Zia years taught us how difficult it can be to fight off notions of morality used to brainwash and blind people. The dance with orthodoxy that began during the 1980s when TV actresses rose from their beds with dupattas miraculously intact lingers on. It has taken nearly two decades to reclaim some of the space Zia stole away from us, and re-discover music, classical dance and the simple liberty to dress as we choose.


Now the Taliban have launched a new threat to these basic freedoms. In Lahore's Liberty Market shopping centre women have been ordered over loudspeakers to cover their heads. The more relaxed dress codes that had become the norm, echoing back to a happier time in the 1960s and the 1970s have begun once more to retreat. Many women admit they are more careful than ever before about how they dress in public. In both Karachi and Lahore stories echo of threats being made to women shoppers in the streets. These may be inaccurate, but they add to the fear we all feel almost constantly.


The threat to schools especially those that are co-educational or which take in just girls is also terrifying. No one could perhaps have imagined a situation where security cameras appear at school gates, visitors face elaborate searches and pupils live in fear of bomb attacks. This could be the work of the handful of elements on the lunatic fringe who have in the past placed explosives at juice shops frequented by young couples and attacked the venue of a performing arts festival. It could also be the doing of individual 'pranksters'. But the effect it has had is very real altering the city scene forever.


Absurdly, even an up-market 'Islamic' school, where girls and boys are taught to memorise the Holy Quran alongside other lessons, and whose tiny pupils, some little more than toddlers, step out of their cars wearing headscarves and caps, has been threatened. But then again the fact that such schools have mushroomed in all our cities educating the children of the elite in air-conditioned classrooms reflects a change in mindset.


Just as we fight to regain territory, there is a need to struggle to regain the liberties we are losing. Citizens need to play a part, but they can do so only if they are confident that the government is with them and that it is clear about its priorities. While President Barack Obama's stinging critique of the Pakistan civilian set-up, just days before a presidential visit by Mr Asif Ali Zardari to Washington, seemed in many ways rather harsh and has obviously created a hurdle for the Pakistan side, some of the points made were valid. For months Pakistan has lingered in a state of apparent limbo with little evidence that a government is present. This sense of drift has added to its problems and to the feeling of people that they are quite on their own, without anchor and without compass, abandoned in a leaky vessel on stormy seas.


There is a need to win back the hearts of people, to address their needs otherwise there is a danger that the Taliban will succeed in winning over this space too. They have indeed exploited the gap in wealth with immense dexterity in Swat and elsewhere, using desperate, impoverished people against feudal elements and linking this up with their warped religious ideology. By doing so they have exposed the dangers of a situation in which, for year after year and decade after decade, the most basic needs of people are ignored and they are left to grovel amidst the unromantic horrors of abject poverty.


So far, the protests against the Taliban that we have seen in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi have been staged essentially by the 'elite' that familiar set of activists and students and professionals who regularly turn out on such occasions. The fact that their numbers have grown is of course a positive sign, but other categories of people too need to be included. Most fiercely oppose the Taliban, seeing clearly through their deceit and un-fooled by their claims to speak with the voice of religious righteousness. Indeed many leading clerics too share the people's distrust for the Taliban. But fear is a powerful force. In 2007, Maulana Hassan Jan, a respected clergyman with considerable political clout as a member of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) was assassinated. His attacks on the Taliban were seen as the factor behind this. Other scholars have been threatened or driven out of Swat and other places and with each passing month a deeper silence prevails. Even in parliament or on TV talk shows, the threat of the Taliban influences what is said. Hosts have invited in strongly anti-Taliban figures, only to be confronted when the cameras roll with a hesitance that has rarely been seen before. And of course the media's own defence of the Taliban, coupled with threats to those within it who dare to differ, adds to the eerie quiet we hear everywhere.


This must be broken. The government needs to play a part. It can do so by encouraging more cultural events, more music concerts and other festivities that challenge the dour hold of the Taliban. But most crucially of all it can do so by drawing people back into the mainstream of decision-making, by addressing their most basic needs and by doing so using them as a force against evil elements who threaten our way of life and our most basic liberties.








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