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Kalash — A ‘Pagan’ Tribe and a Pop-star Preacher

Claiming descent from the armies of Alexander the Great, the Kalash once ruled Kafiristan ‘land of the infidels’, an area which stretched across the north of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Usman Mahar

Usman Mahar

The unfortunate crash that killed the pop-musician-turned-preacher Junaid Jamshed amongst many others, seems to have created a media frenzy. While the Pakistani media landscape is preoccupied with his pop music legacy and the fate of his fashion empire, his preaching tour in Chitral vis-á-vis the struggle for survival by the last ‘pagan’ tribe in Pakistan should have raised some eyebrows. Precariously distressing, yet conceivably not so unprecedented is the fact that it did not. The perils of a dying culture are not perils but pearls for the fans of pop-star preachers and their religious ‘enlightenment’ projects.

Kalash, the ‘wearers of black’ practice a mixture of animism and polytheism and are arguably a singularity for hundreds of kilometres in any direction. Their presence and enduring existence in the subcontinent has fascinated anthropologists around the world. Claiming descent from the armies of Alexander the Great, the Kalash once ruled Kafiristan ‘land of the infidels’, an area which stretched across the north of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Conquests and plunders by Muslim conquerors over the centuries resulted in the loss of most of their territory — Nooristan province in Afghanistan perhaps characterises the irony of the how the ‘land of the infidels’ was turned into the ‘land of the enlightened’.

Today, the Kalash remain a small hill-tribe of fewer than three thousand people — occupying the three valleys of Rukmu, Mumret and Biriu near Chitral in the North Western province of Pakistan — and people like Junaid Jamshed have taken it upon themselves to bring ‘enlightenment’ to the last of the ‘dammed’ infidels in an otherwise ‘enlightened’ nation-state. Unfortunately, the death of this one saboteur will bring no relief to the Kalash nor many of the other non-Muslim minorities that go through forced conversions in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Titus Maccius Plautus, a playwright of the old Latin period once penned “man is no man, but a wolf, to a stranger” and many centuries later the philosopher Thomas Hobbes engaged with similar ideas in the Leviathan. In his lesser known work — On the Citizen — Hobbes expressed the tendency of people to act in a munificent and benevolent way towards the in-group and the tendency of people to act violently towards the out-group; the ‘other’. If that is true, the stranger ‘other’ in the case of the humans then, is no different from the manner in which chimpanzees perceive and handle otherness. I for one do not agree with this idea of uncontrollable primate urges, nor am I a strong proponent of Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’. Man’s characterization as a wolf towards the ‘other’ is essentially a failure of the state and judiciary in the twenty-first century; especially when it is so deeply entangled with religion.

Nooristan province in Afghanistan perhaps characterises the irony of how the ‘land of the infidels’ was turned into the ‘land of the enlightened’.

The fact that the Kalash were able to keep up their centuries-old ways of life, rituals, customs and culture is intriguing, to say the least. Their geographical location; nestled in-between the soaring peaks of the Hindukush range has played an important role in this regard. They had to retreat to this barely accessible area in order to avoid invasions and Muslim conquests and thus succeeded in keeping to their age-old traditions and values. That, however, is not the case today. Their forced conversions — which are at best coerced — go on without much notice. The State, nor the political left appear to care about the slow death of the Kalash — as well as — the Hindus, Christians and Sikhs of Pakistan. The loss of cultural and religious diversity in the name of bigoted ‘enlightenment’ seems to take precedence in the eyes of your average Pakistani. Perhaps it is naive to expect something else when the raison d’être of our beloved state is Islam and not humanity. Indeed it is surprising how the Kalash have been able to survive as a distinct ethnic and religious group in an extremely conservative political and cultural landscape.

The real question at hand is whether the ‘Muslims’ of Pakistan will start valuing the cultural and religious diversity that still remains in our country — instead of painting everything with a coat of ‘universal’ green — any time soon. As Arjun Appadurai put it, this “fear of small numbers” — fear of the ones who threaten the prospective homogeneous identity of an imagined in-group — is not only misguided but also detrimental to human freedom and liberty. Apart from the aesthetic value of the Kalash customs, practices, mythology and folklore, encoded within this rich cultural tradition is valuable knowledge. For starters we could learn a thing or two about the position of women in society from the Kalash, that is if the male religious authorities — the likes of Junaid Jamshed and Tariq Jameel — allowed us to do so. Sine qua non to the whole debate is also the issue of human rights.

Writer: Usman Mahar

The writer is an editor with THE PASHTUN TIMES. He is a [medical] anthropologist at the Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg. He studies the place healthcare and wellbeing within and across different socioeconomic structures and cultural settings. Of particular interest to him is the issue of ageing. His alma maters include Aitchison College, University of Toronto and Utrecht University. His other interests include; issues of identity in a globalised world, a moral-philosophical approach towards politics and human rights and issues of gender and sexuality. He tweets @usmanmahar


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