How can anthropology help us understand Swat and Taliban?
The Swat Pathan have been the subject of classic ethnographies in anthropology for many years. Now they are at the centre of a bigger battle for control between Taliban, Pakistan, the U.S. etc. - a conflict that forced more than one million people to flee their homes.
What, if anything, can anthropologists contribute to understand and ameliorate the conflicts that rage in this region that in December 2008 was captured by the Taliban? In an interview with Gustaaf Houtman in the new issue of Anthropology Today, anthropologist Akbar Ahmed looks at the latest developments among the Swat Pathan.
He says, anthropologists can help in two ways - one of them is visiting Swat:
Anthropology can help on two levels. Anthropologists can use the internet, broadcast media and the press – and conferences – to argue for a strong, clean judicial and administrative structure in Swat. They can use their understanding of Swat social structure and history to explain why it collapsed and what can be done to replace it. They must not underestimate the power of outside comment on the bureaucrats and politicians of Islamabad. To their own home audiences, they can explain the significance of Swat in the larger context of Af-Pak (Afghanistan-Pakistan).
On another level, anthropologists can help by visiting Swat, in the safe areas of course, and arranging for colleagues and students to help in the reconstruction of the educational system. Girls’ schools in particular need to be rebuilt and then organized. A visit to Swat will thus not only provide moral satisfaction but also the promise of advancing anthropological knowledge of a fascinating area.
“Swat was an anthropologist’s paradise waiting to be discovered when Fredrik Barth first went there to conduct fieldwork in the 1950s", he says. “It was a remote, tiny and scenic state up in the foothills of the Himalayas in north Pakistan":
Here, the legendary Wali of Swat ruled over fiercely independent tribesmen who lived according to custom and tradition. Following his fieldwork, Barth wrote Political leadership among Swat Pathans (summary), published in 1959. In it he analysed the political alliances and networks around ‘the Pakhtun chief, with his following, and the Saint with his following’ (ibid.: 4). The book became an instant classic in the discipline and established Barth as a towering figure in it.
When Akbar Ahmed registered for a PhD in anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1973 he read Barth’s work on Swat “with admiration". But Barths “neat theoretical constructions” did not match the Swat society that he knew through his wife Zeenat, who was from Swat, so he went on to research and write Millennium and charisma among Pathans: A critical essay in social anthropology that was published in 1976.
Since then many articles and several books have been written about Swat. One of the two he mentions is written by a native female anthropologist of Swat Amineh Ahmed (his daughter actually). Her book “Sorrow and Joy among Muslim Women The Pukhtun’s of Northern Pakistan” gives us, he says, “fascinating insights normally denied to men".
How has Swat changed from the time of Barth, Gustaaf Houtman asks. Akbar Ahmed answers:
Barth wrote over half a century ago. Swat then had a clear-cut political structure in place: the central authority of the Wali in alliance with the powerful Khans. Religious clerics worked for the Wali in his mosques or were hired locally by the Khans. There was little challenge to the Wali’s rule. He could impose his will on the state. He introduced compulsory education for both boys and girls. He invited Catholic nuns to open a girls’ school and gave them protection. He encouraged archaeologists to come and dig for ancient Greek and Buddhist statues and stupas. The magnificent statue of Buddha at the entrance of Swat came to symbolize the spirit of the state and its ruler.
I was fortunate in having visited Swat during the rule of the Wali, after he was removed and after his death. Over the last few decades I have seen a steady decline. The Wali’s rule was replaced by officials of the government of Pakistan. Pakistani bureaucracy became increasingly known for its incompetence and corruption. A disputed case between two parties which would have normally taken a couple of hours in the Wali’s courts would now drag on for years. The Khans too began to leave Swat for the bigger cities of Pakistan. Absentee landlords soon found their authority challenged. Their relationship with their tenants began to break down.
Why could this happen. Into the vacuum created by the disappearance of the Wali and the fading of the Khans stepped the religious clerics, he explains:
Mullah Fazlullah grew in importance over the years and gained notoriety in Pakistan through his FM radio station: to Swatis he came to be known as ‘Radio Mullah’. He thundered against the corruption and incompetence of the administration. He incited tenants against the Khans and their un-Islamic ways. He said he would bring the Sharia or Islamic law which would ensure justice and law and order for ordinary people. Swatis flocked to the Mullah’s standard. Women gave him their jewellery, with prayers that he succeed in his mission.
The Taliban now saw Swat as a safe haven and flocked to it. They came from the tribal areas in Pakistan and beyond. Soon Swatis were getting a taste of life under the Taliban. Over 200 girls’ schools were closed. The Wali’s special projects, the convent and statue of Buddha at the entrance to the state, became targets for Taliban wrath. The Taliban now felt confident enough to march into neighbouring Buner. They were within striking distance of Islamabad, the capital of a nuclear state.
The Pakistani military was alarmed, as was the US administration. The Pakistani army launched a military operation and Washington promised financial and military aid. As a result almost the entire population of Swat fled to neighbouring districts in the south. Swat was then sealed off from the outside world and an ominous silence descended upon it. Reports suggested that Swat society was being turned upside down.
Swat has seen the dramatic decline and collapse of all the pillars of authority over the last decades. Today’s Swat has neither the authority of the Wali nor that of the central government that replaced it, nor of the Khans. The Taliban, who dominated Swat for a few months, giving a taste of their brutal administration, have also been toppled. The only authority in Swat today is the army. There are already rumours of mass graves and extra-judicial killings in Swat. Some blame the Taliban, others the army. Neither is popular.
This is only an excerpt of the interview.
Unfortunately it is available online for subscribers only. Just found out (via media/anthropology) that it is a free article. Read Swat in the eye of the storm: Interview with Akbar Ahmed here.
Anthropology Today has by the way started up at forum for readers and authors at http://anthropologytoday.ning.com/ And the Swat Pathans have their own Facebook group - a global network “to unite against the stereotypical portrayal of Swatian and to let the world know the true beauty and harmony of the people and area".
Akbar Ahmed is an active blogger. He runs his own blog called Latest News and Commentary by Akbar Ahmed and has also started a (group) blog about his recent project Journey Into America, a new book and film, an anthropological study of American identity as seen through the eyes of Americans – both Muslim and non- Muslim (is also reviewed in Anthropology Today).
In my archive, I found also an interview with anthropologist Saadia Toor about the situation in Swat.