In April, the announcement that Islamic law would be implemented in Pakistan’s Swat Valley made international headlines. The threat to Islamabad, which is less than six hours away, resulted in a quick assault by the Pakistani military which restored control. Since then, there has been little discussion about the state of the people there and the long term strategy to combat the forces of religious extremism in the belt.
For the majority of the people in the valley, normal life is yet to start. More than 10,000 families had houses damaged in the military offensive. The provincial authorities have stated that the losses to the public and private property have been worked out to around $860 million. The government has agreed to pay $5000 for completely damaged homes and $1850 for partially damaged homes.
Further, tourism and horticulture, the two major sources of income in the region, were impacted by the crisis. The entire tourist season was lost and the orchards destroyed. It will take years before orchards are replenished and the people of the area return to their traditional occupation.
For the peace to be long-term and sustainable, systematic political and societal interventionsare required in various aspects of the Pashtun life in the remote areas. A socio-political environment that has enabled religious extremist outfits to recruit young boys can never be altered through military means. At best, military assault can provide room for political intervention.
Afsar Ali, a Pashtun social activist, argues for changes in the curriculum of the Deobandi religious seminaries, which foment a narrow interpretation of Islam and discourage critical thinking.
For over a century, Deobandi scholars have played an instrumental role in shaping the political, social and religious lives of Southasian Muslims. The Deobandi school of Islam started during 1866, as part of the revivalist movement that was sweeping British India at the time. Outside of India, the Deobandi school is particularly popular among Pashtun living along the Durand line, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in Bangladesh.
Pakistan-based scholars such as Akbar Zaidi have argued that Deoband Islam in Pakistan has over the years become different from its roots in India. This is due to many factors, but including the influence of the strict Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. Enrollment in Deobandi seminaries increased after 1979, coinciding with the start of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. State patronage for the Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan did not begin until the late 1970s, however, when the Pashtun population became involved in the Cold War rivalry. Like much of the rest of the population of the Pashtun belt, most of the prominent Taliban commanders have studied in Deobandi institutions – a fact that has been seen with increasing worry in Islamabad.
Due to their immense historic importance for the Pashtuns, Deobandi scholars known for their progressive thinking can play an important role to debate the political, religious, economic and social challenges confronting Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the first feminist interpretations of Koran was made by a Deobandi scholar, Maulvi Mumtaz Ali, in the 19th century. Facts like these need to be presented to the current generation of Pashtuns studying in these Deobandi seminaries so that they become sensitive to women’s rights and become aware of the progressive interpretations of Islam on other critical issues.
Only by changing the culture will long-term peace and reform be possible.
Luv Puri is a Fulbright fellow at New York University. He previously reported for The Hindu in Jammu and Kashmir. A much longer version of this essay was published in this month’s Himal Southasian.