April 28, 2009 1:27:04 am
The day after Pakistans government signed a peace deal with the Taliban allowing them to implement their own version of sharia in the Swat Valley,there was a traffic jam at a square in downtown Mingora,the main town in the region. Mingora is not a backwater,not part of the Wild West that foreign journalists invoke whenever they talk about the Taliban. Its bursting with aspiration; it has law schools,a medical college,a nurses training institute. There is even a heritage museum. Yet when peace arrived on February 16,all the women vanished. They were not in the streets or in the offices,not even in the bazaar,which sells nothing but fabric,bags,shoes and fashion accessories.
The music market vanished,too. All 400 shops. A barber had hung the obligatory No un-Islamic haircuts,no shaves sign. This,I was told,was the price of peace.
As a Taliban insurgency gains strength in Pakistan,my country seems to be preparing to surrender. In areas where the Taliban formally hold sway,such as Swat,people have bowed to their guns. And in the heartland,in Punjab and other regions,there is a disquieting acceptance of the inevitability of the Talibans rise to power.
Over the past two years,Pakistani civil society has driven a military dictator from power and managed to force an elected government to restore our top judges to the bench. But when it comes to the Taliban,it seems incapable of speaking with one voice.
There is little sense of an impending crisis,just the blithe belief that the Taliban are not as bad as they seem,and that in any case,Pakistans fractious government and security services are no match for these men with beards and guns. I hear vague comparisons with the days before the Iranian revolution; the only problem is that we dont seem to have a Khomeini,at least not yet. And we do have nuclear bombs.
I have confronted the same naive assertion on TV talk shows and in Urdu newspapers: The Taliban ideology is sound; its their methods that need to be modified. Somehow people hope that when the Islamists march into Lahore or Islamabad,theyll suddenly realise that Islam is a religion of peace,that music is good and that girls should be allowed to go to school.
People who have experienced Taliban rule have no such illusions. When the Taliban took over Swat,they held a peace march. Thousands of men in black turbans and regulation beards stomped through the city. There wasnt a single local among them, a schoolteacher in Mingora recalled.I sat at home with my family and quivered with fear. Then he hesitated and made sure that my recorder was switched off,afraid that what he was about to say might be seen as blasphemous. I felt like a non-Muslim citizen of Mecca the day it was conquered by prophet Muhammads army. And I am a practicing Muslim. Among the women of Swat,the fear and resignation is even stronger. The Taliban have blown up girls schools and dumped bodies of professional dancers in Bloody Square. Women told me their stories behind closed doors,from under their newly purchased burqas,and always after extracting solemn promises of anonymity. We have become prisoners in our own houses, one told me.
This resignation was on display recently when a video surfaced showing the Taliban flogging a teenage girl for stepping out of her house unaccompanied by a male family member. The gruesome display outraged civil society and portions of the media. But apologists for the Taliban were louder,and the response in Pakistan followed a pattern that has become familiar since 9/11: first denial and then willful ignorance. By the time the debate died down,the Urdu media had concluded that the video was part of a conspiracy to derail the Swat peace deal,but that the punishment was appropriate.
While Taliban cheerleaders monopolise the airwaves,their advance parties are already in the cities. Schools in Lahore and Islamabad are routinely shut down after receiving anonymous threats. The education ministry circulated a notice in Karachi last week warning coed schools to beef up security. The same is true in the industrial hub of Sialkot.
Sure,thousands have turned up at anti-Taliban rallies; there are Facebook groups galore protesting their policies. But people know that raising a banner in a city square or clicking on an e-petition is not going to convince the Taliban to give up their arms and go back to their day jobs (or,in most cases,return to an endless cycle of unemployment). There were hopes that Pakistans security services would fight the Taliban,but the army and the intelligence agencies seem so obsessed with the supposed menace from India that they are ignoring the menace at home. Last week,the Taliban took over Buner,a strategically important district just 70 miles from the capital,Islamabad,and less than 20 miles from the Tarbela hydropower plant,which provides one-third of Pakistans electricity. The militarys response was anaemic it deployed a small,lightly armed constabulary force.
We seem incapable of rising to this challenge. We are confronted by the Americans demanding that we oppose the Taliban even as US drones continue to kill impoverished civilians They have made being pro-American radioactive. And they have also made opposing the Taliban that much more difficult.
What are people to do?
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