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Swat comes to town

Pakistan is no longer two nations. The liberal, urban country is being gobbled up by the Talibanised one. And it’s showing, writes Amit Baruah.

world Updated: Mar 07, 2009 23:32 IST
Islamabad

It’s a little after noon at the Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. A short distance away is the Sufi shrine of Barhi Imam. Inside the university, classes are on. Outside, students are standing about in small clusters. Some have just finished class; others are waiting to attend the next one.

Only one thing stands out in this otherwise ordinary scene: an overwhelming number of the girls are wearing a hijab. Ten years ago, when I was living in Islamabad, this sight would have been an impossibility. Today, it’s the sign of the times. A sign of Pakistan no longer being the proverbial two countries — liberal values and behaviour practised and flaunted among the elite in the cities; conservative and fundamentalism brewing in the small towns and frontiers.

Islamabad today is closer to Swat than ever before. At the supermarket in the F-6 sector, there are advertisements for the hijab. The chadar — a largish dupatta — that women used to cover their heads a decade ago is on its way to extinction.

This transformation has taken time. It all began with the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq in the mid-70s, whose fundamentalist version of Islam was propagated all over Pakistan. Zia jettisoned the liberal legacy and insisted on a strict, Saudi-style Islamic code.

In October 1999, soon after another General took over the country courtesy a coup, banners of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen were seen fluttering outside the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. Jihad had officially come to the capital.

“The Taliban have a single goal in Pakistan. They want to turn the country into an Islamist State run by an Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful),” says Pervez Hoodhbhoy, a professor of physics at the Qaid-e-Azam University. Hoodhbhoy believes that Taliban chief Mullah Omar wants a single Islamist State that would straddle Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed is the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Not too long ago, he thought nothing of sending jihadis to Kashmir. Today, he’s likely to be killed the moment he enters Swat or Fata by the Taliban. The Qazi, whose children live in America, is among the first to rail against American presence in the Afghan-Pakistani border areas. But of late, he’s been making public statements about beheading people being un-Islamic. “Where is it written in the Quran that girls should not be educated? To keep them away from education is un-Islamic,” he tells me.

So does he think that the deal (of imposing Shariat law) between the Taliban and the Pakistan government in the Swat Valley a bad idea? “If there is peace in Swat, the agreement is not a big price to pay. But there can’t be two sets of laws in one country,” he says. In the new – unifying? — Pakistan, the Taliban is making people like the Qazi moderate their earlier radical views.

Twelve years ago, when Pakistan recognised the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the establishment here in Islamabad patted themselves on the back for putting in place a pro-Islamabad regime in Kandahar and Kabul. Today, it’s the creation that is on course to gobbling up its creator. Only some in Islamabad seriously think that they still have control over the Taliban.

The ability, indeed, the will of the Pakistan army and associated institutions, which created this outsourced pool of fighters, to remove this cancer from the vitals of the Land of the Pure, remains under question.

In the meantime, Pakistan’s elite, used to their taken-for-granted liberalism, is scurrying for cover.