Saturday, April 4, 2009

Thoughts on Flogging

Welcome to my new blog!  For those of you who don’t already know, this is a more focused continuation of the arkworld blog which has unfortunately been defunct for the past few months.  Instead of reviving it, I’ve opted to start up this new forum dedicated to discussing issues affecting Pakistan and the consequences to the world.  Naturally, I’m in Pakistan and will be here for the foreseeable future.  So, let’s get to it.

I’ve been back in Pakistan now for two months, splitting my time between Peshawar, Islamabad and the Swat valley.  Admittedly, it’s been a surreal experience so far, not because it’s in any way different from my past experiences covering this country but because I know this time around, I’m here for the long haul.  It’s an entirely different mindset.  One side of it is a creeping sense of fear of not knowing the details of the life and culture here as well as I should.  I have a lot to learn.  Then there’s the challenge of translation – how to render what’s happening here for what is primarily a western audience. 

It’s no easy task, considering the width and breadth of the divide between western culture and the Pashtun culture of the Taliban which I’m primarily dealing with.  I’ll try my best to explain the Pashtuns honestly and clearly in subsequent posts.  To start with though, I think it’s necessary to talk a bit about this video that surfaced yesterday of a teenage girl being flogged by the Taliban (see the featured video).  There’s been some controversy today over its validity.  Muslim Khan, the spokesman for the Swat branch of the Taliban, denies that it depicts his group and vows to hunt down and punish the man who filmed it (I shudder to think what he's in for).  He doesn't deny the validity of the punishment under Taliban law, just that it wasn't his group caught in the act.  "The punishment awarded to the woman was just," Khan told reporters today.  "the woman was of loose character." 

Frankly, I don’t think it matters where the video was recorded.  More importantly, what the footage reveals is the culture of crime and punishment that guides Taliban justice.  I wrote an article in Maclean’s magazine a couple of weeks ago covering what exactly Sharia, or Islamic Law, in Swat means, politically, legally, socially.  After spending a month researching the story, I came to the conclusion that the Taliban of today are not the same Taliban of say ten years ago, using the word Talqaeda to describe the nexus that has been formed between the Taliban and al Qaeda.  The two are virtually indistinguishable now, most disturbingly in the adoption of global jihad by the Taliban.  Taliban leaders in Swat are quite frank about their agenda: spread Sharia around the world, starting in Pakistan.

I’ve had some reader comments accusing me of fear mongering.  Maybe I am: having visited Talibtown, Pakistan I’m scared shitless of these people and their brand of justice.  Granted, the Taliban aren’t alone in meting out corporal punishment for even minor crimes (Singapore is infamous for it) but the legal methodology they use is quite honestly ridiculous.  To see a Taliban Sharia Court in action is a little like watching a gang of hairy thugs fulminate over legal issues they know nothing about.

Hairy Thug #1:  Duhh, the cousin of my uncle’s sister says he saw her touch his arm once.  That’s bad. BAD!

Hairy Thug #2: Doesn’t the Quran say arm touching is punishable by 100 lashes?

Hairy Thug #3: Yeah, the mullah at my mosque says so.  He has to be right - he’s a mullah.

Head Hairy Thug:  Who else witnessed the arm touching?

Hairy Thug #1: Errrummm…my sister.  She says she didn’t see nothin’.  But, you know, she’s a woman.  What’s a woman know anyway?

Head Hairy Thug: Man witnessed arm touching.  Woman witnessed no arm touching.  A woman’s testimony is worth half the man’s.  Therefore, by the logic of mathematics, we have full-guilt versus half-innocence.  The punishment for arm touching is 100 lashes.  Ergo, 50 lashes!  QED.

Okay, it’s not quite so farcical, but you’ve got the gist.  Now let me ask this question:  Would it be different if the accused received due legal process and, having verified her guilt, was then sentenced to 50 lashes?  Or death by stoning?  Is it the process, left in the hands of violent militiamen, that’s so fundamentally wrong or the entire Sharia system itself?  That’s a much tougher question to answer. 

In that last Maclean’s article, I ask the question: Will the people of Swat get the kind of justice they’ve been demanding for decades?  Here’s the interesting thing about Swat: until 1969, it was not fully a part of Pakistan.  It was an autonomous princely state legally subject to a combination of Sharia courts and a local system of council arbitration (the jirga).  The people loved it.  Many still think back fondly to those days when you could have a dispute resolved within weeks or months rather than the costly years it takes under the current secular system.  In demanding the return to Sharia, the people of Swat are basically demanding justice.  Their voting patterns in the last two general elections are telling in this respect: in 2002, they voted for a coalition of religious parties who promised Sharia.  Those parties broke their promise, joining a Musharraf-led coalition that joined the U.S.-led war on terror.  Corruption, already a bloated beast in Pakistan, fattened up on dictatorship.  Things changed after the 2008 elections.  The dominant party in Swat, and the rest of the NWFP, is now the ANP, a secular, Pashtun nationalist movement.

I went up to Swat in 2008 during the January election campaign.  The war was on at that time meaning all hotels were closed (journalists were banned from going into the area but I managed to get through the military checkpoints posing as a tea merchant).  A local journalist whose father owned a hotel in Madyan agreed to let me stay there but warned me that there was no heating and no running water.   It was a dingy old place that my team and I turned into a self-contained apartment.  We bought a portable gas stove from the market and my local contact donated a gas heater from his house.  My driver served as cook and we bathed in ice-cold water brought into the room in buckets.  Even with the heater, nights were frigid and the constant threat of the Taliban finding out about us meant many sleepless nights taking turns standing guard at the door. 

It was a tense time in Madyan.  Only a week earlier, the Taliban had swept into town, ordered the police out (they obediently complied) and continued on south toward Mingora, Swat’s main city.  Taliban sympathizers and criminal opportunists ruled the town while the army sat tentatively in their barracks, uncertain of who was the enemy and hogtied with fear of pissing off the locals if they tried any offensive.  Election campaigning was done kamikaze style: quick, sudden bursts of postering and mingling with the public.  But here was the clincher: every party, from the Islamist-based JUI to the fiercely secular PPP, promised Sharia.  Hey, this is election time and as we all know, to win an election, you play up to people’s demands.

The ANP won the election on a strong Sharia platform (ironic for a secular party), which tells me that it’s not Sharia in and of itself that Swatis want but rather justice.  In their collective memory, the last legal system that worked for them was a Sharia system so they want it back.  The only problem is that the people who ran the old Sharia courts were part of the royal administration.  They were moderate Muslims.  Now, it’s the Taliban.  

The ANP have kept their promise.  Sharia is back in Swat but I doubt the people will get what they were expecting.  I was up in Kanju a little over a week ago, on the road to Matta where Taliban presence is strongest.  It is a frightening place.  Bands of Taliban roam the streets wielding sticks and Kalashnikovs.  I tried photographing but within 15 minutes was pounced upon by a group of Taliban who ended up breaking my camera.  They let me go, but only after I threw down the names of some powerful contacts I have in the TNSM.  Welcome to justice, Taliban style.

Photo Credits: Adnan R. Khan


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