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QK Archives: Stereotypes, essentialism and the Pakhtun

Stereotypes, essentialism and the Pakhtun

Published by THE NEWS

Tuesday, December 16, 2008
by Farhat Taj

Stereotype, a politicised myth serving to maintain conventional power relations. becomes dangerous when it is essentialised to a group of people.

Essentialism means that people have an intrinsic “essence-- that is unchangeable--like the “Black soul-- and “Jewish character-- stereotypes in the Western countries in the past. Cunningness and opportunistic handling of money were some of the essentialised aspects of the “Jewish character.-- Blissfully, the West has moved away from the age of those essentiliased stereotypes. No demeaning stereotypes are essentially attributed to the Jews in the West and situation of the Black people in racial terms, though still in need of improvement, is much better than what was a hundred years ago. Recently the US made a giant symbolic step towards racial equality by electing a black man, Barak Obama, as president. Human relations and activities that come under the socio-cultural realm are open to changes in accordance with the changing requirements of time.

In Pakistan the Pakhtun people are the target of essentialised stereotypes at the time when they are also besieged by Al Qaeda. This complicates the problems of militancy.

One of such stereotypes is religious extremism and the robot-like following of the code of Pakhutnwali--i.e., Pakhtun are essentially religious extremists tied up to an inflexible interpretation of the code. There are many people, in Pakistan and abroad, who hold such ideas.

For example, in his article in The News on Nov 25, Khalid Aziz says: “The problem is that the Pakhtun is prone to religious extremism and readily accepts membership into millenarian movements to resist reform of a centralising state which externalises Pakhtun governance and politics; he cannot live with the transfer of his management to a larger entity like a modernising state. This is because he fears that his social conduct, 'Pakhtunwali,' will be endangered and he will lose his identity. For a Pakhtun, whether he is supporting Mullah Omar in Afghanistan, Fazalullah in Swat, Maulvi Faqir in Bajaur or Baitullah in Waziristan --he is fighting a war to preserve his identity.--

This statement is not true in terms of history and the current realities of the Pakhtun and is problematic in terms of some of the established notions of social science.

The Pakhtun who have had exposure to education and modernity have been integrating themselves in the structure of the modernising state. For example, the Pakhtun are the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistani army. The Pakhtun soldiers' and officers' adherence to the professional discipline of Pakistan army is at par with their Punjabi colleagues. I never heard of Pakhtun of the army abandoning its standard for the sake of Pakhtunwali.

In this regard the case of FC soldiers, who are drawn from the Pakhtun tribes, is especially remarkable and commendable. Today they have been ordered by their commanders to fight within their own areas with their fellow tribesmen. Except for isolated cases of desertions, which may occur even in a professional army, the FC soldiers are up holding the standard of the army.

The most famous resistance movement among the Pakhtun is the non-violent and secular nationalist movement of Khan Ghaffar Khan against British colonialism. Ghaffar Khan was not a religious leader, but take the clock back to any day before the Afghan jihad and you will see that Ghaffar Khan was the only resistance leader known to all Pakhtun, whether in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan or Afghanistan.

Fazalullah in Swat, Maulvi Faqir in Bajaur or Baitullah in Waziristan may justify their militancy in whatever terms they like, be it Islam or Pakhtun identity, the fact remains they do not represent Pakhtuns even in their own areas, which they rule like mafia groups. They are leaders of murderous gangs, which are composed of not just Pakhtuns but like-minded Punjabis, Arabs, Uzbeks, Tajik and others. They are the product of the jihad and of the wilful underdevelopment that have been imposed on FATA for decades. As for Mullah Omar, all the Pakhtun Afghans I know personally see him as no more than an ISI puppet.

Neither religious militancy nor the code of Pakhtunwali is genetic construction. They exist in the socio-cultural realm. Social scientists all over the world have established that socio-cultural realms are flexible and adoptable and change with the march of time. Thus the Pakhtun who have integrated themselves in the state structure of Pakistan do not claim to have given up the code of Pakhtunwali. They just interpret it in such a way that it becomes compatible with their integration. Unlike the British Empire most tribal people had never been hostile towards Pakistan. They happily availed whatever little opportunities were offered to them in the state structure, like the armed forces and civil services.

Why, then, does the socio-cultural realm of the tribal areas seem so frozen in the? The key reason is that Pakistan never sincerely tried to integrate the tribal people in full citizenship, and during the Afghan jihad the area, its culture and people were “gifted-- on a silver plate to the jihadis from all over the world, who stifled most of the process of a natural socio-cultural change in the tribal area.

Minus the tribal vested interests, who feed on the system of the political agent and the FCR, most tribal people, especially the poor, will be happy if integrated in full citizenship of Pakistan. I know this because of my many discussions with the tribal people, especially the poor and illiterate, and women. Each one of them asked for structures of modern economy and modern educational institutions for girls and boys. I asked each of them if you want modern education for both girls and boys a social change will definitely come. Everyone explained in detail how they would welcome the change. I can put their arguments in one sentence: that they are open to any social changes that may be needed for a dignified living in the globalised world of today. A young mother of four little orphaned children, including three girls, has this message for the American: “Please do not bomb us. Come and build hospitals and educational intuitions of all kinds for our daughters and sons.-- Her husband was killed by the Taliban.

The tribesmen and -women of Waziristan told me how happy they were when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as prime minister of Pakistan, reached out to them and promised development of Waziristan. They said that even to this date they thankfully remember him in their prayers for establishing the cadet college at Miranshah in North Waziristan.

I argue that the Pakhtun are no more prone to religious extremism than people in any other Muslim society. I have the pleasure of looking at the Muslim majority of Bosnia in Europe. Bosnian society is secular by practice, and Muslim only by tradition. There are extremist Muslims in Bosnia as well, although they seem to be a tiny minority in this beautiful country. They are called “Wahhabis-- in Bosnia. The origin of the “Wahhabis-- lies with the arrival of alien jIhadis in Boasina in the 1990s when there was a war in the country. I also met a Pakistani jihadi in Bosnia--he was from Punjab. Thus, even a thoroughly secular Muslim society like Bosnia can also produce religious extremists if conditions conducive for the growth of the extremism are provided. The same is the story of our tribal belt. Remove the jihadi milieu and infrastructure from the tribal area, and the society will become a normal Pakhtun society, open to gradual social changes in accordance with established notions of social science.

What we see in the tribal areas is a dynamic product of many variables, like the international jihadi infrastructure, underdevelopment, unemployment, criminal gangs joining the Taliban, sectarian groups from across Pakistan joining the Taliban, intervention of the foreign secret agencies. In such a dynamic situation if we essentialise anything, including the Pakhtunwali code essentially tied up to the religious extremists, I am afraid we will misunderstand the anatomy of the dynamics. This will stop us from reaching the right solutions to the problem of the tribal area.

I have deep respect for Kahlid Aziz. He is an intelligent person of high repute. I always learn something new in his research reports on the tribal area. I will, however, request him to be a more critical in dealing with the essentialised stereotypes about the Pakhtun.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Research, University of Oslo. Email:

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