Taliban ideology echoes in the valley
The Swat Valley is a three hour drive from Peshawar, the provincial capital of North-West Frontier Province, and four hours from the capital Islamabad. The valley is effectively under the control of the Taliban, as are many urban areas in NWFP. If the Swat Valley can fall into the hands of the Taliban so easily, what guarantee is there that the Taliban won't do the same in other urban centers such as Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi? In the final article in a four-part series exploring Pakistan's tribal areas, Syed Saleem Shahzad speaks to Haji Muslim Khan, one of the Taliban's top leaders in the valley and also their spokesman.
Once Pakistan's premier tourist destination, the picturesque Swat Valley is now essentially off-limits. More than 300 tourist resorts and hotels have been closed over the past year and about 20,000 people associated with the tourism industry are jobless.
Pakistan has used the police, paramilitary forces, politically-backed militias and the army itself in an attempt to tame the Taliban in the Swat Valley, without success. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) projects that the situation in the Swat Valley and the tribal areas will deteriorate this year, causing a fresh displacement of up to 625,000 people.
"An analysis indicates that there is a significant likelihood of large-scale clashes and intensified military offensives throughout 2009, and possibly into 2010," the study said. According to the OCHA's "humanitarian response plan", the displacement will exacerbate an "already complex humanitarian situation".
The Swat Valley's transformation from probably the most peaceful place in Pakistan to one of its most militant has been startling, as has the popularity of the Taliban's ideology, which is widely seen as extremist.
In an attempt to get some understanding on these issues, I spoke to Haji Muslim Khan. He speaks many languages, including English and Arabic, as he has spent many years abroad, mostly in Kuwait and the United States. His house was demolished by the Pakistan army and his family is displaced; he now lives in Taliban bunkers in the mountains and traveled specially to a population center to give this interview.
Asia Times Online: You are the official chief spokesman of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Swat. Could you tell us about yourself, your childhood, education, and your intellectual journey through various political and religious movements. And what inspired you to align with Mullah Fazlullah and his movement? [Mullah Fazlullah, nicknamed "Radio Mullah", is the leader of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi - Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, TNSM - and controls the insurgency in the Swat area.]
Muslim Khan: First, I thank you for coming here and meeting with us, without any fear and greed. I thank you for you and your organization allowing us the opportunity to air our view. Regarding your question about my childhood, I belong to a poor family of Swat. My father was a tehsildar [revenue administrative officer] during the time of the Swat [princely] state. I matriculated from Dahrai High School [Swat]. For intermediate [arts], I went to Jahanzeb College, Swat. I could not pass my intermediate from college as I joined the Pakistan People's Party [PPP] and I was sent to jail, where I spent 25 days, and I was expelled from the college.
My father was annoyed at the discontinuation of my education, so later on I passed my intermediate as an external student. By that time, I felt my responsibilities towards my home and family and to acquire further studies I went to Karachi [Pakistani southern port city]. However, God had something else planned for me over there. [Instead of work and studies in Karachi] I went into the sea service.
Meanwhile, from when I was in the eighth grade, I was inspired by the Palestinian al-Fatah movement and was in regular correspondence with their Islamabad office. Then I made contact with Dr Israr Ahmad [a famous orator at state-run Pakistan Television during the late General Zia ul-Haq period, who was also the founder of the Tanzeem-e-Islami organization, which works for the revival of the Islamic caliphate].
However, when the Pakistan People's Party came into power [early 1970s], those were my college days ... and their rhetoric of Islamic socialism in their manifesto ... inspired me as from the beginning only Islam had been my inspiration.
I joined the Pakistan People's Party because Maulana Kausar Niazi [former minister of information in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's cabinet, religious scholar and former leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami] raised the slogan of Islamic socialism.
However, I observed that after the election victory, the leaders of the Pakistan People's Party exploited their power. That was the first election in Pakistan [on the basis of adult franchise], so we could measure what election politics were all about. We found it to be dirty politics. Even today it is like that. Therefore, I gave up the Pakistan People's Party.
Then, to earn my bread, I joined the sea service for three or four years. Then I went to Kuwait, where I spent 14 years. In this period, I continued my association with various religious parties, including the Jamaat-i-Islami and Dr Israr Ahmed [Tanzeem-e-Islami]. At last, while in Kuwait, I was connected with Maulana Sufi Mohammad [the founder of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi and the father-in-law of Mullah Fazlullah].
I found his claims for Islam true. From his first speech I heard, I could measure that this is the right man for the enforcement of Islamic laws and therefore I supported his cause and movement. Everybody knows of this movement and how it passed through different phases in Malakand division [in Pakistan] in the last 17 years.
Then came the last phase when Mullah Fazlullah, who spent 18 months in jail in Dera Ismail Khan [in the NWFP], as he was arrested while coming back from jihad in Afghanistan [after the US invasion in 2001], he launched a movement and we supported it as much as we could.
This was not for his personality but for a cause, that we are Muslims but live under a heretic system ... no Islamic jurists or Islamic scholar can dish out an argument that while living in this system. God would forgive us. This is the sole mission. On this land, that belongs to God, only his laws should be implemented.
ATol: What is your understanding of Islam in the perspective of Pakistan. It is said that Pakistan came into being in the name of Islam. The Objective Resolution [which declares that no law can be formulated against Islamic laws] is part of our constitution, under which several Islamic and political parties claim Pakistan as an Islamic state. Why then is there a need for this movement for the implementation of Islamic laws?
MK: As far as the name Pakistan [Land of the Pure] is concerned, it is good to have this name, but as far as practice is concerned, it is not even 1% [true]. Before us, there were several academics, political parties and intellectuals who strived [for the implementation of sharia law], but as far as governance is concerned, we are responsible, we betrayed God and his religion, and in my opinion we should be tried, as nation, for committing this crime. We established this state of Pakistan under Islamic ideology and under the banner "There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his Messenger," but we did not move an inch forward for this cause. Instead, we retreated from this cause by several miles. The reason is that we are still slaves - our intelligentsia, the rulers and segments of life, politics, education, are slaves. The economy is driven by usury.
ATol: What do you mean by slaves?
MK: It means we are not free in anything. We cannot formulate laws independently ... We cannot make laws by our choice.
ATol: Then by whose choice do we make laws?
MK: From the choice of those from whose rule we got independence [Britain], symbolically, their virus still infests our rulers. Whatever they [rulers] do, first they seek permission from there [the West]. For politics, they go to Dubai [in the United Arab Emirates] to hold meetings. Politics concern this country, but their meetings are held in Dubai and London. Therefore we are not free.
However, there are a few things in which we are free - the nation has freedom in extravaganza, obscenity and spreading nudity. From the ideology for which this country came into being, we have not inched forward. This is the reason the Tehrik-i-Taliban came into being in Swat. Soon, our intelligentsia will realize our cause, that our struggle is not for any rule, but to implement this ideology.
ATol: There are areas in Swat where the Khans were very powerful. Can you shed some light on their role, their character and influence?
MK: There were 360 idols in holy Kaba [in Mecca. These were the icons through which Mecca was ruled by powerful families before Islam]. If I tell you the truth, here in every village there were 360 idols. For the upholding of this system [prevailing in Pakistan], even a cop and SHO [Station House Officer of the police] became god, but the Khan saheb [rich and powerful Pashtun feudals] became the biggest god. They never regarded people as human beings. The poor and the downtrodden had no position as human beings.
In all government departments, God forbid me, officials became god. They never regarded religion nor human values. For Europeans and Westerners, humanity lives in the West, but they never care about the human rights of the people living in Pakistan. In Pakistan, tyranny has crossed all limits, at the hands of the Khans or at the hands of the wadera [feudals from southern Sindh province] and from the police.
However, tyranny emerged in its extremes in Swat when our people, women and children, were targeted with bombs of 30 kilograms and above; shells and mortars. Our Khans were the ones who invited them [the army] to bomb us, provided space to them and approved their attacks. Now, these Khans are now sitting in their bungalows in Islamabad or in Peshawar and the oppressed people are running for their lives to take refuge here and there. Human-rights organizations do not look after those oppressed people, nor do those Khans who once ruled those people.
ATol: Do you have rich people in your movement, or is it only a movement of poor people? Your leader Mullah Fazlullah sailed boats for his earnings by transporting people on the Swat River.
MK: Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him, was an orphan. Our policy is not against the poor, or against the rich. If Islamic laws are implemented in this region, only then will it be realized whether the Taliban launched their movement and their struggle and waged jihad for opposition to rich people. Only once Islamic laws are implemented will it be realized whether we were against the rich people or whether we were against a system which is a remnant of British rule. We only want to implement the Islamic system. Only the Islamic system can give rights and protection to both the rich and the poor. These are only stunts [the accusation that the movement is against rich people].
ATol: Your movement is branded as anti-education and it is alleged that you destroy schools. Especially, you are allegedly against girls' education. But now it is said that you have destroying male and female schools. Is it correct that you are against both men's and women's education?
MK: This is sad, that we are slaves in all sections of our society, even, please don't mind, the media are slaves. Nobody is ready to sit with the Taliban and ask what they want from all this. The education system and the curriculum are both remnants of the British.
We are Muslims. Had there not been an Islamic system of education and curriculum, then it would have been all right to import a system of education belonging to others. But fortunately, Islam provides its own system of education, politics, economics and justice. We often say in Pakistan, even in the schools, especially the intelligentsia, that Islam is a complete code of life. If Islam is a complete code of life, then what is the need to import education from the United Kingdom?
ATol: This is an ideological and academic debate. You might be right or wrong in your argument. However, the issue is violence. The Taliban are said to have bombed schools and destroyed them. What do you say about that?
MK: Very true. Nobody can prove that we bombed any school building during phase one of the military operations in the Swat Valley. [Sarcastically] Why did the "well-educated" and "very qualified" Pakistan army set up military bunkers in the schools? This is my question.
If the security forces can set up military bunkers in order to fight against us and against the cause of Islamic laws, we also have the right to retaliate and destroy those schools in which they have set up bunkers, or bridges for that matter.
These are the "well educated" and "very qualified" people of our security forces who bombed our villages and destroyed them. We have, therefore, the right to destroy those schools which brought up this generation, sold out to foreigners and sold their own people to foreigners.
On [the basis of] just one phone call, they handed over our air bases to the enemy. We hate this system and this system of education. As far as school buildings are concerned, I can guarantee you that we can rebuild those buildings within a month [once military operations are over] and at the same time I tell you that not a single child was hurt in our attacks. But I ask you, why was the Islamic seminary Jamia Hafsa targeted in Islamabad [in 2007] and to add salt on the wounds, even female students were killed. Why did they do that? That was also conducted by "very well-qualified generals". Why?
ATol: How do people view you? Do you think the Taliban are popular?
MK: People do like the Tehrik-e-Taliban [Taliban movement]. We don't care about individuals. Our people and the Taliban sacrificed a lot for the cause and this should be written in gold in history.
ATol: Are you loyal to the state of Pakistan?
MK: If we are 100% loyal to Pakistan, our leaders and rulers are 200% disloyal to Pakistan and its subjects. They rule us against the ideology and the constitution of the country. When Pakistan came into being in 1947, they did not implement Islamic laws. This was a betrayal against the nation, religion and God. Then in Malakand division, when the government promised us the implementation of Islamic laws - we have the documents to show this - why did they betray us? Why were Islamic laws not implemented? Therefore, our struggle is justified and those who oppose Islamic laws, they are outlaws.
ATol: How can two different systems coexist at the same time? Islamic laws could be enforced in the whole country, and then they would be applied in Malakand. But how can these laws be applied in a particular region when the whole of the country is governed by separate laws?
MK: If the system of panchait [a system of arbitration] can coexist with civil laws in Punjab, if the jirga system [tribal councils]) can coexist in the provincially administered tribal areas [like Malakand] with the civil laws, why can't Islamic laws coexist with civil laws? However, we say that we should not run two system. Being Muslims, we should implement only Islamic laws.
ATol: Your movement is touted as no more than a local movement. Yet it is believed to have connections with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. What is the reality?
MK: Al-Qaeda was the same as the mujahideen and the Taliban only a few years back when they were fighting against the Soviets [1980s] and they were supported by the Americans. Everybody boasted of them as the mujahideen, including the Western media.
My question is how yesterday's mujahideen can became the terrorists of today? Today, they are declared as terrorists only because the way they threw the Russians across the Amu Darya [Oxus River], they are aiming to throw the Americans across the Atlantic Ocean.
Therefore, the jihad is against their interests, and that's why they are against us. They are here to grab the resources of Muslim countries and therefore whether it is the Taliban or al-Qaeda or Muslims, they are against their [the US's] cause. Since they have great influence on our rulers, their cause is justified. Their rulings are ratified by our rulers. Having said all these things, I tell you that our fight is for a change of the system in Malakand. We are branded as Indian RAW [Research and Analysis Wing] proxies. Let me tell you that once Islamic laws are implemented, then you will see our real face. Let us tackle the issues of Palestine, Afghanistan and Kashmir, and then it will be shown whether we are Indian proxies or not.
ATol: The Pakistani establishment has consistently accused your movement of being an Indian proxy. They claim to have arrested men who were Hindus and cannot even speak the local dialects and languages. In some cases, the government claimed to have found men who had not been circumcised, which proved they were non-Muslim.
MK: This just shows the government's weaknesses as well as propaganda. It is baseless. Just present five examples and we will leave the movement.
ATol: You movement is connected with [Pakistani Taliban leader] Baitullah Mehsud, and his command stretches all over. It is said that the movement aims to separate the North-West Frontier Province from Pakistan.
MK: This is an international conspiracy against the Pashtun territories. Pashtuns are very much attached to the religion, whether they live in Pakistan or in Afghanistan or elsewhere. They are always ready to sacrifice their lives for Islam. Some are bad people, but as a whole they serve the religion.
This is just propaganda against us by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and this is also their mental weakness. They are the people who have not been able to liberate Kashmir from India in the past 60 years. They propagate us and mint money from the Americans and the European.
Propaganda against the mujahideen is their source of income. Now, to justify a war against their own people, they propagate such things that we want separation and that we are Indian proxies. Killing the mujahideen and selling them out is a means of earning for our generals. This is also the way to avoid confrontation with American troops. If our forces cannot fight against cowardly Hindus, how come they can face American troops? Whether it is Kargil [the war with India in 1999] or Afghanistan, the mujahideen were used. Is there any Muslim country which can claim to liberate Palestine? No. Maybe God does not want to use these people for his cause because every officer is a pharaoh in his character.
ATol: You mentioned the Pashtuns. The Awami National Party [ANP] in North-West Frontier Province represents Pashtuns. However, the Taliban have killed some ANP members and the noose is tightening around them.
MK: Indeed. I said that the majority of Pashtuns are loyal to the religion. The others are Pashtun by name, but practically they are traitors. They deserve such treatment. They were given government after 40 years, but they did not thank God. If they have said it once, the Taliban have said it 10 times, that killings in this region should be stopped.
We sat with them and held talks. They made many commitments, but they could not fulfill them. Real Pashtuns always fulfill their commitments, but these are Pashtuns who were sitting in the Soviet Union's lap for money and now they are in the American lap. They are the Pashtuns who sell their beliefs and the nation. They are a stain on the name of Pashtuns. They are traitors of the nation and to religion.
ATol: That gun of your's, it's not locally made, and it is not the kind used by the Pakistan army. Where did you get it?
MK: These are the fruits of jihad, which are in the hands of the mujahideen today. This is manufactured in Austria. Those infidels gave them to our army to use against our mujahideen. There is a police station called Dewale in Swat. We snatch them from there from the Pakistani security forces. I am surprised when people ask us from where we get modern weaponry. These are the fruits of jihad. Whoever manufactured this and for whatever cause, now it is in our hands and for our cause.
Apart from this, our army used a spiritual guide [pir], a religious leader, to fight against us. We not only killed that pir, but recovered 20 best-quality light machine guns, besides 20 other guns that had been supplied to that pir by the Pakistan army. Now these guns are in our possession.
ATol: How many Taliban are there?
MK: The more we are oppressed, the more we spread. Yesterday, if they were 10, now there are several times more.
ATol: I thank you Muslim Khan for your time and your efforts to leave your place in the mountains and come to meet me.
MK: It is a pleasure, and thank you for coming all the way to Swat.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]