I traveled through the Swat Valley with my family in the summer of 1996. Mingora,
the largest city in the valley, was nearly a hundred miles north of Islamabad across the Indus. It was one of the most idyllic mountain valleys of Pakistan’s north, which is abundant with many of the world’s highest mountain peaks. Up here, the vistas were endless and the snow-capped mountains awesome. It was the farthest north I had ever been in Pakistan at that time, and I was amazed to see how magnificently large the terrain was only a few hours north of the capital. It was also here in the Swat Valley that, for the first time in my life, I cast an eye on the Indus from its western banks.
Up in the Hindu Kush mountains peering down from a switchback on the steep mountainside, the river looked nothing like the languid run that I was used to seeing in the low-lying agricultural plains of Punjab. In the mountains, the river charged down narrow ravines and spewed froth and foam. The Indus was so raucous that my brother had to shout over its roaring waves to have the five of us huddle together to fit in the camera frame.
I have a photograph from this trip in which I’m wearing and ill-fitting T-shirt over my lanky teenage frame. My brother wore a “CCCP baseball cap that my father had bought for him at a Moscow airport, during a work-related trip. My sister had started covering her head with a hijab. My mother was now a trainer of schoolteachers, and she still looked young, but my father’s mustache was turning gray. It was only a few years before he retired as head of the country’s National Science Foundation. That trip is forever etched in my memory. It was the last trip we took together as a family, before we all went off on our own paths. This is how I remember Pakistan best, before the violence.
In 1893, after two testing wars with the local Pashtun on Afghan frontier, the British agreed to draw a western border for their Indian colony with the king of the Afghans, who ruled over the largely Pashto-speaking population that lived in the lands between the Hindu Kush and the Persian Empire. The border, called the Durand Line, split some Pashto-speaking tribes, and put the Sway Valley, along with the present-day tribal areas of Pakistan, on the British side of the border.
signed a similar pact with the Swat valley and many tribal borderlands, continuing this state of semi-autonomous rule. While most tribal areas continued to exist autonomously, the Swat region was special, as it finally fully joined the Pakistani federation after the civil war in 1971. The absorption of Swat into the federation could have been a great first step in luring all the tribal areas to join the federation, but instead Swat became a tragic example of how poorly the Pakistani state was being run, and especially how badly it served its people’s basic need for law, order and justice.
While colonialism had come and gone, and while an Islamic republic was created, in the agricultural lands of the south ( Punjab) the antiquated system of patronage had survived and mutated. In some ways the land system had become even more viciously extractive, more corrupt as it passed from colonial masters to modern rulers who were required to keep up the pretense of being democracies in service to their own people. When I visited our family lands- first given as recompense for service in the British Army- a stream of village folk- peasants and farmers, men with their wives and children – began arriving at the farm house to pay their respects to the matriarch Tasneem. She was an absentee landlord and passed through the village only every few months, so this was a rare opportunity for all the villagers to come and plead with her for help. They were all dependent on her revenues from the land, which were dwindling. Each family brought astonishing tales of their hopelessly poor lives.
Everyone came begging for money and help, and Tasneem could only mumble vague encouragement and empty promises. The system of land was built to extract wealth towards the top. The welfare of these folks at the bottom was never really a concern that was built into the system of the colonists, or of the state that inherited it all. Tasneem recognized the rotten system she was part of. “I feel helpless when I come to Qaziabad”, she told me in between the depressing meetings with the peasants. “But how much can one woman do?” It wasn’t her fault. The agricultural system, she said, was specifically designed to keep the system of hierarchy intact. The people at the bottom had no chance.
Since its creation six decades ago, Pakistan has tried to reform its land ownership laws. Each time the big landowners used chicanery, deceit, and imaginary paper trails to evade giving up any land or the power and wealth that come with it. The extractive system is simply too intoxicating for the powerful, and the system of patronage through which “democratic” parties get their votes during elections.
In theory, however, the tools of the modern Islamic nation-state were suited to the Swat Valley. The region’s own set of autonomous laws had been known as the shariat. It was a mix of ancient tribal Pashtun tribal traditions and Islamic law as it had been practiced in these lands for centuries. While Pakistan’s state laws also claimed to be Islamic, the Pakistani courts and police were largely run according to the laws of the nineteenth century, left on the books by the British. When Pakistan’s laws came to Swat, it was not only inefficient but also appallingly corrupt. Court cases began piling up, and judges demanded bribes. The police forces were fickle and negligent. As the bureaucracy in Swat quickly decayed, the people grew more frustrated. They rebelled for the first time in 1993, when Benizer Bhutto served as prime minister in Islamabad. A group called the Movement for the Implementation of Muhammad’s law seized control of state buildings in Swat and demanded a return to the old shariat of old. The government responded by sending in military forces to quash the movement, but it eventually negotiated a compromise.
More than a decade later, Fazlullah, the mullah with the illegal FM radio station, was claiming to lead a new band of armed followers demanding the return of the shariat. They called themselves the Pakistani Taliban Movement. It was an unmistakable reference to the Taliban, an armed political movement in neighboring Afghanistan, which ruled that country in the nineties and which now battled American forces. The Pakistani Taliban, Fazlullah said, would wage a similar jihad on the Pakistani state. In 2007, months before the Ghazi brothers took over the Red Mosque and established qazi courts in Islamabad, Fazlullah began setting up an independent administration and bureaucracy in dozens of villages and towns in the Swat valley. The Pakistani Taliban introduced qazi courts. They too appointed qazis and muftis and charged them with providing justice to the people of the valley. These qazis and muftis, the Pakistani Taliban said, were filling in, to provide law and order and justice in Swat, where the state had failed. But who were these modern-day qazis and muftis? And how did they qualify to occupy these offices? It was difficult to tell. Fazlullah himself was believed to be illiterate and had presumably never studied a book of religion or history.
The qazis and muftis of Swat, whoever they were, had their own vision of God’s will, or sharia, and it was perverted. They handed out brutal sentences for the most minor crimes.
As a journalist, I began traveling through the northwest of the country again after many years. The Pashtun people told me stories of obscene violence, and I felt jolted every time I heard the words ‘qazi” and “mufti.” The muftis and qazis of the past had worked through many epochs. Their roles developed in the early and medieval periods of Islam, when Muslim mathematicians were developing Arabic numerals and the science of algebra. They were there in Spain when Muslim architects designed and constructed memorable structures like the Alhambra, and where Jews, Muslims, and Christians all lived remarkably peaceful and productive lives. They were there when the Mughals built the Taj Mahal and when Muslim astronomers were calculating the angle of the earth’s tilt in Lahore, and medics were translating Greek medical manuals and inventing instruments for modern surgery.
Through all these periods, the muftis and qazis had passed on a system of law to their societies. They conducted philosophical acrobatics and lay the path, a sharia, to an imagined utopian society and the ultimate triumph of justice and unity over social, economic and racial oppression. But what was this sharia in Swat? Was this a system of law and justice that had developed in the Islamic civilizations that spanned three continents and fourteen centuries? Was this the legacy of my family names? I could not believe that my forefathers, who had once worked as muftis and qazis along the lands of the Indus, were in the same tradition as Fazlullah of Swat . This was something new. This was a resurrection of the past, perhaps, but it was mutated beyond recognition by violence and war.
Two years after they had taken control, the men with the black Turbans, the Pakistani Taliban still ruled Swat, more brazenly then ever before. For all the brutality of the Taliban regime in the valley, the system had been accepted. The people had no choice but to start using the new qazi courts and move on with life. They approached the courts cautiously, hoping for justice, but were often disappointed. Still the courts were actually functioning, or at least getting through cases. In that sense it was a vast improvement on the nonfunctioning Pakistani courts they had replaced.
In 2009, the new Pakistani government abdicated judicial authority in the Swat valley. They began hammering out a deal with the Taliban that would allow them to legally run their independent qazi court to implement their so-called shariat. Nearly all the political parties in Islamabad voted for the System of Justice bill which officially ceded the authority of the Islamic Republic in Swat to the Taliban’s qazi courts.
In Cairo President Obama sought “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” concluding that, despite all differences, “the people of the world can live together in peace.” But when it came to Pakistan, Obama wanted to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al-Qaeda. This, he believed, would make America safer. He revved the engines of war more than those whom he replaced and sent tens of thousands of additional American troops into Afghanistan. In Pakistan, he ordered an unprecedented wave of attacks by drones, robotic warplanes, which began to kill countless people in the northwest, leaving piles of dead bodies, hundreds and thousands of them. Once in a while, Pakistan would respond by secretly hitting American targets inside Afghanistan, or by choking off America’s main military supply route.
The American government was livid about Pakistan’s deal with the local Taliban in Swat. “I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and other extremists,” said the new American secretary of state. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke said that the “people who are running Swat now are murderers, thugs, and militants, and they pose a danger not only to Pakistan but to the U.S. as well. And the Americans had enough leverage to change the course of events. The government began dragging its heals on implementing the deal, the Taliban called off the cease-fire, and the System of Justice law officially broke down.
The Pakistani army now launched a full-scale military assault on the Sway valley, it became a war zone. Nearly two million Pakistani were driven out of their homes and became refugees in their own country. The Americans now breathed easier.
I spoke to refugees from Swat. The black turbans were thugs, they said. They promised sharia but they were ignorant and barbaric. They had never seen the inside of a school in their lives. They’d never so much as worked through a math problem or read and understood a chapter of the Quran. They knew nothing but violence and revenge. They were zalimeen. They went after the soft targets first: musicians, artists and video stores. They chased them out of town. Then they focused on politicians who dared to organize any opposition. The qazi courts turned into witch hunts. They accused their opponents of petty crimes and started hacking bodies into pieces and stringing up carcasses from lampposts in the middle of the night. You’d wake up to a stinking corpse hanging outside your window, waiting for the sanitation workers to get it. But there were no sanitation workers left.
I met Ahmed. All he had ever wanted to do was to save up enough money to get out of his town. He could go to Karachi, Islamabad, Dubai, anywhere. They needed electricians in those big cities. Big appliances, big jobs. But now he was here, in a refugee camp. Why? Because Pakistan had gone to war with itself. Why doesn’t the government just set up qazi courts all over the country, become a country of Islamic law? And if the qazi courts don’t work, if this Islamic law is just a mirage, then why not let this whole Islamic system go? Why can’t we just have one system in which everyone has faith? Why can’t we have one law? Abruptly, Ahmed walked back into the mass of people scurrying around the refugee camp, looking for food, water, medical help, without homes and without hope.
The Faithful Scribe; A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family and War; Other Press, N.Y. 2013