Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2008
Issue No. 903
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Article of faith

Why should Senator Barack Obama's religion matter, asks Ramzy Baroud

It was known as the Switzerland of the East: a Riviera of mountains, ravines and blue, coursing rivers that watered orchards of peach, apple, apricot and strawberry. "We thought it was paradise -- that Pakistan was someplace else," recalls a native, now exiled. For the last year the Swat Valley in North West Pakistan has been hell.

In July 2007 army commandos stormed Islamabad's radical Red Mosque, and a mostly proselytising Islamic movement in the valley erupted into a full-blown insurgency. Girls' schools were torched and men publicly beheaded for "apostasy". Swat's police were targeted, their stations overrun by militants swearing allegiance to the "Pakistan Taliban". In November their emir, Maulana Fazlullah, flew the movement's black-and-white flag over government offices in Swat villages, banishing the writ of an "infidel" state.

It took the Pakistan army three months to regain control, a re-conquest that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. In Pakistan's February parliamentary elections the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular nationalist party, won eight of Swat's nine seats pledging "negotiations not war". On 21 May it signed a peace accord with the Taliban, to the relief of Swat's 1.6 million residents.

"For seven years, since 9/11, this region has been in turmoil," says Bashir Bilour, ANP chief negotiator. "It's time to take another path."

Washington opposes the accord. It fears peace in Pakistan may free men and arms for the Taliban's war against NATO in Afghanistan. But the Taliban in Swat is not interested in Afghanistan, says Bilour. "They want justice, swift justice, or what they call Sharia law."

Parveen Rehman isn't so sure. She's a headmistress of a girls' school in Mingora, Swat's district capital. "If they mean real Islamic Sharia law, then fine, we welcome it. We are Muslims. But if they mean the Taliban's Sharia, then no. We saw what that meant last year."

Parveen's school was spared attack. But threats alone cut the number of girls attending classes from 800 to 200 a day. "Parents were scared to death," she recalls. "'Yes we want our daughters educated,' they told me. 'But we also want them alive'. I received phone calls warning that unless girls observed purdah we would face the consequences."

Parveen doesn't know if the peace will hold, though she's pleased "the bombs have stopped". She doesn't know who the Taliban is or what they want. She doubts they have popular support. But the call for Islamic justice did have resonance.

Mingora district courts are a mess of police, armed sandbagged pickets and human misery. Justice is not so much slow here as non-existent. Ali Shah has been coming to court for two years trying to resolve a land dispute with his uncle. He is a firm believer in the Taliban's Islamic law. "State law doesn't work; it doesn't distinguish between the oppressed and oppressor. Sharia law does. Had we Sharia in Swat my case would have settled in a month."

ANP officials say peace is to buy time. With the guns stilled and the clerics co-opted, the aim is to rebuild a state destroyed by violence. There's a $4 billion "peace plan" to create jobs, re-educate militants and rehabilitate a police force that last year fell apart under Taliban attack.

Police Superintendent Sajad Khan arrived in Swat six weeks ago. He is watching recruits run through their paces in Mingora's fortified police parade ground. He admits 2007 was a "bad year". Thirty-four policemen were killed and nearly 100 deserted for want of protection. The government is trying to woo them back with better pay and the promise of peace. "And they're coming," says Khan.

But he doesn't want the army to leave Swat. Nor does he think the police can stand against the Taliban alone. "We need the people also. I'm not suggesting they take up arms. But they should ostracise the militants. Wherever the Taliban faced popular resistance they faded away."

Zaheer-ul-deen Khan shrugs his shoulders. He is manager of Mingora's Continental Hotel. Seventy-five per cent of all jobs in the valley are related to tourism, he says, "including the boys who sell you watermelon on the roadside". Last year his hotel was 90 per cent full. This year two of the 30 rooms are occupied. Five hundred hotels are closed. Their reopening is the key to peace and the Taliban, he says. " There are two classes here: rich and poor. When troubles come, the rich flee to Islamabad, the poor to God -- and the Taliban".

He doesn't see tourists returning to the valley anytime soon. A trip on the coastal road along the Swat River suggests why. A sudden, hairpin bend confronts you with an army watchtower, a police barricade and two masked men on hand to finger "suspects". It looks and feels like Iraq. "You cannot build normality on fear," says Zaheer-ul-din.

Nor peace, says Sher Mohamed Khan, a human rights lawyer. He sits on the verandah of his white villa overlooking the river. To the left boys frolic in the surf. To the right stands Mamderi, a concrete seminary-cum-fortress that was once Maulana Fazlullah's headquarters. Under the peace accord it will become an Islamic University, with Fazlullah in one of the chairs. It sums up the whole thing, says Sher Mohamed.

"The peace deal has strengthened the Taliban. Maybe not here, in the city, but there", he points to forested mountains across the river, "in the villages. The Taliban have already resurfaced, brandishing their guns, ruling by fear". He dismisses the idea such rule has anything to do with justice, Islamic or otherwise. "The Taliban want power, like they had in Afghanistan. Only now they want it here, in Swat."

Sher Mohamed hasn't walked outside his house in six months. A lawyer and a liberal, he knows he is a prime target "in this no man's land". It's difficult not to note the tranquillity of his surroundings with the terror of his life. It's the difference between peace and a ceasefire, he says.

"If there were peace, I would be able to listen to music, send my daughter to school without fear of attack and live my life according to my wishes. But in Swat you can do none of that without fear that some unseen force may punish you. That's not peace."

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