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Pashtuns: thrown under the sharia bus?

The narrative that the Pashtuns, especially the tribesmen, crave sharia has been mainstreamed in Pakistan to the extent that even the most knowledgeable and liberal are falling for it

The political shura (council) members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have now met with their intermediaries, the Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI’s) Professor Ibrahim Khan and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) Samiul Haq faction’s Maulana Yusuf Shah. The TTP reportedly gave a laundry list of demands to its intercessors who had been ferried to, no marks for guessing, the North Waziristan Agency (NWA), in a government helicopter. The TTP’s demands, whether interim or final, include the imposition of sharia, reparations for their losses, release of their prisoners and a halt to US drone strikes. No surprises there either. However, what is alarming is the government’s condition that “the scope of the talks should remain confined to areas affected by violence, not the whole country”. 
It is unclear how the government is defining the affected areas when three provinces reel under terror continuously. The government’s functionaries and at least one member of the committee appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) man, Mr Rustam Shah Mohmand, have been zeroing in on FATA only. It looks like the Punjab-based ruling and opposition parties have put only FATA and possibly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on the chopping block. The problems with this malicious move are twofold: a) it implicitly pins the blame for TTP terrorism on the Pashtuns only, and b) it ignores the plight of the common people, especially the Shias and the Hanafi-Barelvi Sunnis, being slaughtered on a daily basis elsewhere in Pakistan by the TTP and its allied thugs. An ominous media campaign that combines an orientalist view of the Pashtuns being ‘noble savages’ and a fanciful reading of the sharia seems to be setting the stage for sacrificing the Pashtun ‘appendage’ areas on the altar of the presumed ‘core’ Pakistani state, i.e. Punjab. 
When this odious mantra is spewed by the usual suspects — rightwing leaders, assorted clerics and media anchors that grew up on a steady diet of Pakistan Studies and Islamiat during General Ziaul Haq’s martial law — one might understand. However, when the voices that have served as Pakistan’s conscience join the chorus, one’s heart really sinks. One felt dejected reading one of Pakistan’s foremost progressives, the writers’ writer and a mentor to my mentors, the venerable Mr I A Rehman this past week. Rehman sahib wrote: “An issue on which complete clarity is required is the territorial limits of the bargain. The Taliban, if they can prove that they enjoy the trust of the population of FATA, may be free to discuss the system of administration appropriate for their special relationship with the state but they have no right to tell Islamabad how the rest of the country is to be governed...The creation of workable political, administrative and judicial institutions in FATA can be discussed but in that area too the government will have to take a stand that the basic rights of the vulnerable sections of society, especially women and minorities, cannot be compromised.” It felt like the distinguished human rights campaigner was not just considering ceding the Pashtun areas to the TTP hordes but was giving up on us as a people. I just hope that I misread the piece or read too much into it. 
The narrative that the Pashtuns, especially the tribesmen, crave sharia has been mainstreamed in Pakistan to the extent that even the most knowledgeable and liberal are falling for it. Never mind that the venues of political and religious decision-making, the hujra and mosque, have traditionally been separate in Pashtun tribal society. The tribal jirga (court), which had lost its usual effectiveness a few decades ago, is being touted as the conflict resolution institution of choice in the second decade of the 21st century without realising that the Talibanisation imposed from above has decimated the societal structures that could support the jirga. More importantly, even at the turn of the 20th century, the jirga was not exactly the jury of peers it used to be in an egalitarian acephalous Pashtun tribal society that conceived it a millennium or so ago. The British, and then Pakistani governments had, as a policy, consistently tempered with the jirga system and handpicked Maliks who were awarded stipends and titles (maajab and lungi) to remain pliant. 
Whether good or bad, those tribal elders were slaughtered wholesale by the Taliban. According to The New York Times reporters Carlotta Gall and Ismail Khan, 200 tribal elders were killed in the NWA in just 2005 to 2006. That violent spree has never ended. How could then one go about determining whether the TTP “enjoys the trust of the people of FATA” to grant them those hapless lands? Indeed, how could the tribal people let out even a whimper, let alone freely express their scorn for the TTP when the state, and sadly the intelligentsia, appear on the verge of abandoning them? The TTP’s relentless assault on the Awami National Party (ANP), killing its leaders and cadres, was a major factor in its electoral rout, as the state stood by idly. The ANP’s replacement by the pro-Taliban PTI has provided the TTP the same ideological, political and operational space as its antecedents enjoyed during the 2002-2007 rule of the religious conglomerate Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. Mr Imran Khan continues to insist that the TTP respects the constitution despite the terrorist spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, consistently deriding it on the record.
The TTP remains an ideologically anchored outfit keen to spread its brand of sharia across not just provincial but state boundaries as well. The tactical restraint the TTP and its allies have shown in Punjab helps it bide time till things become clearer in Afghanistan, ward off a potential military action and perhaps bag sections of FATA in the interim. However, in this sordid saga, the grand prize remains the Pakistani state, which the TTP may never get but, in its mind, deems imperative for helping and waging the global jihad. The Punjab-based rulers can try to encapsulate the TTP within the Pashtun lands but they are sitting on the powder keg of jihadism with assorted ‘jaishes’ and ‘lashkars’ headquartered in their province. The reprieve bought at the expense of the Pashtuns will run out in years, not decades. 
The Pashtun political leadership, as bruised and battered as it is, has to get its act together. The Pashtun leaders, especially those in parliament, have a massive, historic responsibility at a time when those rulers who love highways, underpasses and flyovers in Lahore appear set to throw the Pashtuns under the sharia bus.

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