It would not be wrong to claim that the people inhabiting both sides of the Durand Line are peace-loving people who entertain a secular worldview and who hold in high esteem aesthetic practices. This is evident from centuries old Pashto language, literature, music, arts, architecture, crafts and customs and traditions. The rich and enviable cultural heritage of Pakhtuns is still surviving in an extremely antagonistic environment of conflicts, religious fanaticism, political and cultural dominations and corporate regional and global interests.
The Pakhtuns as social group remained resilient in Great Games and have so far survived British colonialism and post-colonial Cold War. One could directly observe this resilience in the current wave of Terrorism in which Pakhtuns are at the front-foot for fighting global terrorism along with the international community. The good thing about Pakhtuns is that they have mostly remained non-violent and they retaliate only when there is aggression done to them.
The negative stereotyping of Pakhtuns begins with the British colonial period when the British India failed to subdue Afghans—a name alternatively used for Pakhtuns. During the Three Anglo-Afghan Wars and scores of skirmishes with the tribal Afghans, the British received heavy losses and failed to establish their complete writ in Afghanistan and among the Pakhtun tribes. Consequently they portrayed Pakhtuns as “barbarians” to provide a cover for their shameful defeats in the most ruthless colonial expeditions they had ever undertaken.
The negative stereotypes were further exaggerated in the Cold War period when the US with all its might of capitalism and with the support of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan designed a Jihad in Afghanistan to defeat communism and the Soviet Union. It was a billion dollars project to make a force of Islamic militants who would fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. This was an imposed power game on the Afghan soil and Pakhtuns had very little power to resist it. Thus Pakhtuns were stereotyped as “Mujahideen” or holy warriors. This label remained dear to all the capitalists as well as dictators in the Muslim countries who predicted disintegration of the Soviet Union and finally a defeat for communism.
The third phase of this stereotyping is the Taliban—a Pakhtun dominated puppet regime installed in Afghanistan. The Taliban upheld predominantly Wahib/Deobandi interpretation of Islam and they marginalized other sects. Their propaganda machine widely portrayed them as Pakhtuns in order to give the so-called movement a semblance of Pakhtun nationalism and to brush aside any impression that the Taliban came to power with some foreign support. The Taliban close association with Al-Qaeda made them enemy of the US and consequently it was deduced that Pakhtuns shared all the traits of the Taliban.
In the course of history foreign aggression, imposed radicalization of the society and political disempowerment made the Pakhtuns vulnerable to negative stereotyping and even Pakhtuns were made to believe in the partial truth these stereotypes might carry. Those in the power circles or media who looked at the resilience of Pakhtuns with awe found an opportunity to malign them. The excessive stereotyping of Pakhtuns in the Pakistani media as “Chowkidars” speaking Urdu in Pashto accent and using masculine for the feminine and feminine for the masculine is one example how brilliance can be converted into shame through unbridled power. Similarly, thousands of SMS’s are circulated on daily basis in which the traditional stereotype of stupid Sardar is deliberately replaced with Pathan. This mockery is racism in other words; which could greatly damage inter-culture harmony and could possibly depredate the productive potential of Pakhtuns and Pashto culture for transmuting other cultures positively.
Together, these stereotypes have developed a negative image of Pakhtuns across the world and a discourse has been evolved through the years which have forced the world to believe that Pakhtuns are terrorists and that they support Taliban and other militant groups such as Al-Qaeda. Such thinking is not only cataclysmic for the collective survival of a historically tolerant people (Pakhtuns) but it has also been posing grave threats to the ongoing war against terror in the region.