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Religion, Politics and Social change in the Tribal Areas of Pashtunkhwa

Naeem Khan DawarThe century old British occupation of the Pashtun region greatly affected the secular national culture and society of the Pashtuns. The British Indian rulers created a space for the loyal maliks and Mullahs in order to perpetuate their own rule. After their departure from the Indian sub continent in 1947, the rulers of the Pakistani state did not try to change the oppressive system of administration in the form of Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) in the tribal areas and kept the area as isolated as it was under the British Raj.

Interestingly, the role of Islam in regulating the tribal socio-political life increased manifold since the creation of Pakistan. Historically, religious tolerance has been among the most important characteristics of the Pashtun tribal society. This fact, beyond doubt, lies at the core of the age long social harmony in the tribal society, despite the fact that they have resisted all foreign interventions.  Furthermore, the socio- political and economic sphere of life had been regulated by Hujra (center for social and political activities) rather than dictated by mosques and mullahs. The main pillars for regulating the tribal society have been the tribal elders and not the mullahs, whose role was confined to mosque for performing religious rituals.

From the time of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s till present, the area has been used as battle field for safeguarding the Pakistani state interests in the name of Islam and supporting militant groups as strategic assets.  After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in early 1990s and the subsequent rise of Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 1996, the Pakistani democratic government of Benazir Bhutto wholeheartedly supported the Taliban and their foreign guests in the form of Al-Qaida jihadi network. The role of the inter services intelligence (ISI) became deeper in manipulating the foreign policy of the country regarding Afghanistan and India. State manipulation of the Islamist groups encouraged the local militants in the tribal society to strengthen themselves by trying to implement Taliban version of Islam in the area. The training of various Kashmiri Islamist groups in the border areas by the State security agencies further aggravated the situation and radicalized the local Pashtun population. The religio-political parties in coordination with Pakistani military and ISI played a leading role in strengthening the Taliban-al Qaida jihadi network. The rationale behind supporting the Islamists forces was that if the jihadi conglomerate could defeat a superpower like Soviet Union, it would work in the future as well, whenever needed. The Pashtun national character and its susceptibility to any dogmatic influence in the name of Islam played instrumental role in making the tribal areas a hub of Talibanisation.

The “war against terrorism” started by the United States in 2001 against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role as frontline state in the war and starting military operations in 2004 in the tribal areas aggravated the situation and led to the creation of Tehrik-i- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007. The ultimate result was the elimination of the tribal social elites, weakening of the political authority, destruction of educational system, undermining of the cultural institutions like jirga, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of families from the area. Apart from attacking NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, TTP spread havoc in the Pashtun areas both of Pakistan and Afghanistan through bomb blasting, attacking government installations and suicide attacks killing thousands of innocent civilians. The major sufferers in the whole drama have been the Pashtuns as “blood is the cheapest commodity” across their homeland. The conflicted views and priorities of the Pakistani state about securing its national interests and influence throughout the region through good Taliban (Haqqani network, Afghan Taliban and Kashmiri militant groups) provided a chance to bad Taliban (TTP) and foreign militants who fully exploited the tribal social structure.

 If the Pakistani political government and military establishment are really interested to save the Pakistani society in general and the Pashtun society in particular from a fundamentalist catastrophe, it must realize the fact that relying on Islamist forces has proved a dangerous experience. The Pashtun society is destined to witness social, political and religious disturbances in the future. The situation will persist unless and until the state policy of good and bad Taliban is abandoned. Instead of half hearted military operations against the patriotic Pashtuns of the country, the state should revisit its policy of good and bad Taliban. The use of Islam as a political tool has far greater and wider scale socio-political impacts on the Pashtun society than the present analysis.

Writer: Naeemullah Khan Dawar

The writer is a PhD student in the Department of History at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He hails from North Waziristan Agency. He can be reached at



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