Swat — towards a Wahhabi state?

Monday, January 19, 2009
by Khurshid Khan

In his article, “Behind the crises in Swat” (Nov 27, 2008), Sartaj Khan described the conflict in Swat as a class struggle. Farhat Taj (Dec 18) responded with “No class war in Swat.” Sartaj’s contentions are believed by many as the real depiction of the current turbulence, but that is not the case. Before coming to any conclusions about the current turbulence in the valley we have to keep in view the weaknesses of the state institutions, people’s grievances and the impacts of international politics on the valley.

Fredrik Barth, a Norwegian social anthropologist author of Political Leadership among Swat Pathans, carried out considerable research in Swat in the 1950s and wrote numerous papers. His work is of great importance but the situation has immensely changed since then.

Since the early 1970s people travel to the Arab states in search of lucrative employment opportunities. The inflow of foreign remittances transformed the socio-economic structure of Swat’s society. Education increased and people acquired employment in various fields across the country. Emigration to America, Canada and Europe and the Far East in the 1980s increased overseas remittances creating a new prosperous society in Swat.

During this period Swat witnessed numerous changes, both positive and negative. Fertile soil and abundance of irrigation water paved the way for innovations in farming. New varieties of fruits and crops were introduced and farming became more profitable. Being a tax-free zone trade, Swat saw commerce flourishing. The scenic beauty and rich heritage made Swat a favourite spot for national and international tourists. The hotel industry became a big contributor to the economy of Swat.

The tenants/peasants, on the whole, became comparatively prosperous in Swat. A section of them have purchased cultivated land from the previous owners and manage it properly with latest technology. A study has revealed in Upper Swat that in one village a Khan has 20 jaraib of cultivated land (one jaraib is equal to approximately 1,100 square feet) while a Gujjar has 150 jaraib. The Gujjar community has earned billion of rupees in the Arab states. Another community, the ”Shapankyan” or “Shpoon” (shepherd) are the wealthiest community today in Swat. Most of them they have now settled permanently and abandoned nomadic life. They have given up rearing herds and are employed. Many of them run businesses in Arab states. Both communities enjoy a relatively high standard of living and have western-style houses. The shepherd community belongs to the Wahhabi sect and is better organised than the other groups.

In the 1970s the regulations of PATA (Provincially Administered Tribal Areas) were promulgated in the whole of Malakand division which gave enormous powers to the civil bureaucracy and paved ways for corruption. The people of Swat were unfamiliar to the new setup. The new judicial apparatus did not appeal to the masses, as they were conversant with the judicial system of the former state of Swat. This state of affairs created a gap between the state and the people. The state-sponsored peasant movement in 1974 created hatred and tension between tenants and landowners, and bloody clashes took place in some areas in Swat. The landowners and a number of the other side went for justice to the civil courts but the complex judicial system disappointed them, persuading them to seek other solutions to their disputes. Many landowners sold their land to peasant occupants in various areas of Swat.

The Afghan war also affected the valley like other Pashto-speaking areas. Religious seminaries mushroomed and jihadi organisations established their offices in Swat. Those subscribing to the Wahhabi school of thought tried to establish their seminaries but were opposed by the local traditional clerics belonging to the Deobandi school of thought. This coincided with the emergence in the 1980s in Swat of the staunch Wahhabi Sufi Muhammad, who set up a seminary in Sangota, which was razed to the ground by those loyal to the dominant religious figures of the time.

The TNSM was founded in 1989 in Dir and penetrated into Swat. It was tacitly supported in Swat by the then commissioner of Malakand Division through a so-called loya jirga. The jirga demanded the implementation of Sharia in Swat and joined hands with Sufi Muhammad, a close friend of Major Amir, the then director of the Intelligence Bureau. This support encouraged him and he freely started visiting Swat. The people, who were disappointed by the judicial system, the police and the revenue department, supported the demand for the enforcement of the Sharia. In 1994 bloody clashes occurred between local people and the security forces. In 2001, Sufi Muhammad declared jihad against the US in Afghanistan and went there along with thousand of followers. Hundred of people lost their lives and hundreds are still missing. On his return the political agent of Kurram Agency imprisoned him under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) without trial.

During the TNSM movement in Swat the Wahhabi school of thought spread its roots and established its religious seminaries. In the absence of Sufi Muhammad, his son-in-law, Fazlullah, filled this gap and became popular in the area. The Wahhabis joined his group and seized all the important areas. Besides other, Maulana Shah Dawran and Maulana Muhammad Alam are key clerics who keep important portfolios in the Taliban movement in Swat. They are known for their hard and harsh beliefs, and hence it could be said that the Swat Taliban are completely under the influence of violent jihad doctrines.

They loathe the Barelvi school of thought and have assassinated many renowned religious scholars in Swat during the ongoing turbulence and unrest. They consider them mushrik (one who ascribes partners to Allah). The assassination of Pir Samiullah and the hanging of his mutilated body in a square for public display show their attitude towards their opponents. The militants said that they have buried Pir Sami at an unidentified place ostensibly to stop his followers from building a shrine at his grave. Besides, Buner police arrested a suspected bomber last Ramazan. During interrogations he revealed that his target was the tomb of Pir Baba. He insisted that the shrine is the principal centre of shirk.

They consider amulets, visits to shrines and offerings on on shrines on specific days to be shirk. Someone who used to write amulets (good luck charms) was killed in Khwazakhela. The valley is witnessing a surge and dominance of the Wahhabi doctrine which was until recently alien to the local culture.

The Wahhabis are making a state within a state in Swat. Fazlullah has established his own administration on the pattern of the Saudi monarchs. He has created his own trained army equipped with the latest weapons and controlled by his loyal commanders. A well functioning judiciary is established across the valley dealing with cases of various natures and the verdict is always enforced. People are inclined towards these Islamic courts. He has established a baitul maal (treasury) and has a mechanism for revenue generation and collection. His commanders collected ushr (one tenth of agriculture produce) in some areas of the valley during the 2008 winter harvest. (The rulers of Swat used to collect ushr which was a major source of their revenue.) Taliban also collected skins of the sacrificial animals on Eidul Azha this year worth billion of rupees. Donations and war booty are also the major sources of their revenue.

The information and broadcasting wing of the Taliban is working effectively. A spokesperson and FM channels broadcast important announcements, decrees and counter-propaganda against them. A strong communication network or secret services is the main characteristics of this new monarchy in Swat.

The present upsurge, therefore, is an attempt to create a sort of a state within a state and is not a manifestation of a class war in Swat.

The writer is a social activist living in Swat. Email: udyana64@yahoo.com


Also read:

How do ISI officials view the Shariat peace deal in Swat and other aspects of the Talibanisation….

Swat and the Mullah Military Alliance: Two pictures and a column – Abbas Ather

Swat: the other view; a tale of how ‘those in power’ facilitated Taliban in spreading their tentacles in the peacefull valley of Swat….