COMMENT: Frontier of fear -Saleem H Ali
The Frontier is where our efforts at embracing a more inclusive vision of Islam must focus, but it is only possible if the intelligentsia there are willing to galvanise change. In this regard they will certainly need help from law enforcement to ensure their lives are protected
As battle lines get drawn in Waziristan and the conflict in Afghanistan once again spills over across the border, we wonder what lies ahead for Pakistan’s economy and society. The fabled “land of the pure”, as our country’s name suggests, has become a puritanical mess, most potently in the Frontier.
Violent absolutist ideologies have sadly seduced far too many of our dear pathan brethren, who were once known for non-violent revolutionary leaders such as Badshah Khan. There was a time when even a seditious call for secession was preached through peaceful means by such leaders, bringing them wide acclaim, despite their controversial message. Yet now, the only attribute of pathans that commentators can remember is that they are “fierce warriors” who challenged even the most resolute colonials. It is high time that the valiant pathans reclaim their identity from the frightful dogma of cultural superiority and fanaticism to which they seem to have fallen prey.
Peshawar University at one time was among the most prestigious in South Asia and produced some of the leading scientists and engineers of the region. The Frontier Post was considered a journalistic gem by readers across the nation. Yet all such venerable institutions are now being tested beyond their capacity. A few years ago, I had an opportunity to attend a meeting at Peshawar University to help revise the environmental curriculum for the higher education commission. I fondly remember the faculty who attended the meeting and was so impressed with the quality of their work.
The late Professor Hamidullah, who directed the Centre for Excellence in Geology in Peshawar at the time, was among the attendees, and he woefully commented that the Frontier was intellectually losing its assets. Students were afraid to attend the university for fear of being harassed by fanatics and the faculty had to be on guard constantly for fear of offending these guardians of virtue. What was even more astonishing to the good professor was that many of the educated pathan families were acquiescing in this fanaticism, under the guise of defiant “tribal pride,” against the West. A strong patriot till his tragic death in a helicopter crash in 2005, Dr Hamidullah, remained in the Frontier despite these terrible odds.
Yet, how many of those who can build the economy of this wonderful region will face the constant fear of being blown up, and remain in physical and intellectual squalor? The story does not end in Peshawar. There was a time when the entire Frontier and the tribal areas was a welcoming place for visitors from all over the world, but they have now become a xenophobic phantom zone.
Consider the Swat valley — ah, where do I begin the swan song of this splendid place. Once upon a time, city families could enjoy friendly vacations with local villagers and patronise the exquisite artwork of wood carvers, or visit ancient archaeological sites in this idyllic land. Now the valley has been allowed to drift into an insular and arcane theology that scoffs at any mention of art and worldly enjoyment.
Even further north, there was a time when foreign writers such as Dervla Murphy could hitchhike and bike their way along the Indus with a four year-old child without fear of being harassed. In her book Where the Indus is Young Murphy comments that the people of the Frontier were among the most welcoming and hospitable she had ever encountered. The director of the South Asia program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Teresita Schaeffer, told me that there was a time when Islamabad was the most favoured destination for diplomats living in South Asia. Her own son was so attached to the people, particularly his ayah, who cared for him when they were stationed here that he returned a few years ago to visit her. Alas now, no US diplomats are even allowed to bring their families with them for security reasons.
So what happened to the magnanimity, tolerance and willingness to embrace differences that the Frontier, in particular, was once so well-known for? The fault clearly lies in our willingness to succumb to the politics of fear and the distortion of theology. Furthermore, during the Afghan war, we were so busy blaming people in the West for this radicalisation that we neglected to address the matter directly. Regardless of who created the problem, we still needed to address these issues as a society. Instead, we allowed a marginal brand of fanatics to bully us into believing that only their interpretation of Islam was acceptable.
Armed with weapons and a suicidal “freedom from fear,” they successfully struck servile fear in the rest of society, particularly in the borderlands. Like the famous Stockholm prisoner, many in the Frontier became so entranced with these intellectual incarcerators that they actually began to like them. The educated class began to believe that somehow the fanatics must be correct for they had a contorted courage of conviction that made them appear like mythical super-heroes. We were all beguiled to some extent by their sincerity towards a greater purpose that we did not dare to understand. We must strive to understand the true message of Islam where the Prophet blessed even his enemies in Mecca and engaged in peace treaties with people of all faiths.
Yet sincerity is in itself not a quality for one can often be sincerely wrong. We should remember Martin Luther King’s warning that “there is nothing more dangerous than sincere ignorance!” Fortunately, there are enough examples of other models of functional polities that can practise Islam, retain their identity and yet be friends with the world. They are willing to express disdain with the foreign policies of the US and other countries through economic and political means, rather than through the delusion of masochistic self-annihilation.
The Frontier is where our efforts at embracing a more inclusive vision of Islam must focus, but it is only possible if the intelligentsia there are willing to galvanise change. In this regard they will certainly need help from law enforcement to ensure their lives are protected. There will undoubtedly be attrition on the way for many years to come, but we should not despair. As the example of countries like Lebanon show us, strong societies can endure spates of external and internal bombings, fanaticism and turmoil to rise again from the ashes. Insh’Allah we too will be led out of this fear, especially by those at the Frontier.
Dr. Saleem H. Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org