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My Country, Caving to the Taliban

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By Mohammed Hanif
Sunday, April 26, 2009

KARACHI The day after Pakistan's government signed a peace deal with the Taliban allowing them to implement their own version of sharia in the Swat Valley, there was a traffic jam at a square in downtown Mingora, the main town in the region. The square, Green Chowk, has acquired the nickname Khooni Chowk, or Bloody Square, because the Taliban used to string up their victims there. "Look at this." A shopkeeper pointed to the hubbub. "This is what people wanted, to get out and do business. Take the security forces away, take the Taliban away, and we can get on with our lives." He, like many Pakistanis, believed that the deal with the Taliban was the only way to stop bullet-riddled bodies from turning up at Khooni Chowk.

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Mingora is not a backwater, not part of the Wild West that foreign journalists invoke whenever they talk about the Taliban. It's bursting with aspiration; it has law schools, a medical college, a nurses' training institute. There is even a heritage museum. Yet when peace arrived on Feb. 16, all the women vanished. They were not in the streets or in the offices, not even in the bazaar, which sells nothing but fabric, bags, shoes and fashion accessories.

The music market vanished, too. All 400 shops. The owner of one had converted it into a kebab joint. "This is sharia," he spat at his grill, which hissed with more smoke than fire. Across from his stand, a barber had hung the obligatory "No un-Islamic haircuts, no shaves" sign and was taking an early morning nap, his face covered with a newspaper.

This, I was told, was the price of peace.

As a Taliban insurgency gains strength in Pakistan, my country seems to be preparing to surrender. In areas where the Taliban formally hold sway, such as Swat, people have bowed to their guns. And in the heartland, in Punjab and other regions, there is a disquieting acceptance of the inevitability of the Taliban's rise to power.

Over the past two years, Pakistani civil society has driven a military dictator from power and managed to force an elected government to restore our top judges to the bench. But when it comes to the Taliban, it seems incapable of speaking with one voice.

There is little sense of an impending crisis, just the blithe belief that the Taliban are not as bad as they seem, and that in any case, Pakistan's fractious government and security services are no match for these men with beards and guns. I hear vague comparisons with the days before the Iranian revolution; the only problem is that we don't seem to have a Khomeini, at least not yet. And we do have nuclear bombs.

In my hometown in Punjab, a businessman friend was inspired by the news from Swat. "If two hundred Taliban take over our town, then we can all start making our own decisions. Who needs this corrupt system anyway?" My friend is a typical middle-class conservative Pakistani, and people in cities across the country share his excitement. I tried to reason with him: "You drop your daughters off at school every morning, you always have music on in your car. That would be unthinkable if they take over." He hesitated and then rolled out the explanation that most urban Pakistanis offer.

"What they are doing in Swat is their Pashtun culture," he said, speaking of the ethnic group that dominates western Pakistan. "Islam says education is compulsory for every man and woman. And we Punjabis don't have their culture."

I have confronted the same naive assertion on TV talk shows and in Urdu newspapers: The Taliban ideology is sound; it's their methods that need to be modified. Somehow people hope that when the Islamists march into Lahore or Islamabad, they'll suddenly realize that Islam is a religion of peace, that music is good and that girls should be allowed to go to school.

People who have experienced Taliban rule have no such illusions. When the Taliban took over Swat, they held a "peace" march. Thousands of men in black turbans and regulation beards stomped through the city. "There wasn't a single local among them," a schoolteacher in Mingora recalled. "I sat at home with my family and quivered with fear." Then he hesitated and made sure that my recorder was switched off, afraid that what he was about to say might be seen as blasphemous. "I felt like a non-Muslim citizen of Mecca the day it was conquered by prophet Muhammad's army. And I am a practicing Muslim."

Among the women of Swat, the fear and resignation is even stronger. The Taliban have blown up girls' schools and dumped bodies of professional dancers in Bloody Square. Women told me their stories behind closed doors, from under their newly purchased burqas, and always after extracting solemn promises of anonymity. "We have become prisoners in our own houses. We can't even go out to buy groceries. It's all over for us," one told me.


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