Pakistan: No music, no shaving, no polio vaccinations - the increasing Talibanization of Pakistan
On March 4, there were explosions inside two saloons, a music shop and four other shops in the adjoining Bajaur Agency, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies along the restive Afghan border. The Taliban have banned music in the tribal areas, and have started fining taxi drivers found listening to music.
According to news reports, a video shop in front of a police station in Bannu, the home town of NWFP Chief Minister Akram Durrani, was attacked by armed men suspected to be Taliban on February 27, who destroyed compact-disc players and CDs of Urdu, English and Indian films.
The district of Tank, on the border with South Waziristan, has slipped into the control of the Taliban. There is a total collapse of civil administration. Police stations remain closed after sundown and Taliban fighters patrol the streets and the bazaars riding on their favorite Datsun pickups.
Most Taliban groups and their al-Qaeda friends crossed over to Pakistan's tribal region after US-led forces toppled their government in Afghanistan in late 2001. Since then, thousands of people, including Taliban fighters and locals, have died in military attacks conducted by either the US or the Pakistan Army.
"The spillover of militancy from tribal areas to settled parts of the NWFP is understandable, because the establishment is supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda," asserted Peshawar-based Afrasiab Khattak, a lawyer and human-rights activist who is an expert on Afghanistan.
According to Khattak, missile and air attacks by the US on alleged "terrorist" targets inside Pakistan's tribal areas have worked to the advantage of the Taliban, who have increased their support base in these border regions. There are persistent reports that sympathetic tribesmen are providing shelter and support to Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda fugitives.
Last September, President General Pervez Musharraf signed a controversial peace deal with the Pakistan-based Taliban groups, which has resulted in a new assertiveness displayed by the Islamic radicals in these Pashtun-dominated, semi-autonomous border areas.
"Both the Pakistan and Afghanistan governments are accusing one another of supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but practically both have failed to stem the tide of militancy," commented Ashraf Ali, a scholar at Peshawar University who is researching the Taliban.
Administrative control in North and South Waziristan and Swat district has slowly slipped into the hands of radicals. A demoralized police force, which has been the target of suicide attacks - most recently in January - is unable to provide protection to businesses banned by the Taliban. Some music-shop owners have moved to Peshawar.
"The Taliban frequently visited our shop and asked us to close down. One day, they delivered an ultimatum: either you close it or we will do it for you," said Hamza Khan, whose family owned a chain of music shops in Tank for 20 years, and has now relocated to Peshawar.
The local Taliban burned TV sets even in Charsadda district, which is adjacent to Peshawar. "The government has lost its writ due to which the Taliban are thriving," observed Ali, who is doing his doctorate.
Even girls' schools in upscale Peshawar are receiving anonymous threats of suicide bombing. Several schools were recently forced to close after the administration received threatening letters. The Taliban are against providing education for girls and letting women work.
Last month, two government-run girls' schools in Mardan, the second-biggest district in NWFP, were shut down as a precaution after warnings from Taliban groups. Another letter warned that female students must be veiled from head to toe or the schools would be blown up.
Religious extremists in the district of Swat have derailed the government's anti-polio campaign. At the forefront is a charismatic local cleric, Maulana Fazlullah. "Anyone getting crippled by polio or killed by an epidemic is a martyr," he announced at a sermon during Friday prayers.
The cleric, who likes to ride on a horse followed by his supporters in the bazaars, said: "Vaccination of children against polio is a conspiracy by the US to make the coming generation sterile."
In February 2006, in neighboring Darra Adamkhel, religious extremists killed a senior doctor and health workers involved in the polio campaign.
Anti-US sentiments are growing even in Peshawar city, rued researcher Ali. "Some barbers are refusing to shave off beards - a sign of their hatred for the US," he said.
14 March 2007
"The government can no longer afford to ignore the threats being posed to society by Islamic militants, the latest being the Taliban ordering the shutting down of music shops by July 1 in Darra Adam Khel. By ignoring the question of Islamists trying to impose their version of religion on the people, the government is only strengthening the militants' hold. They have been emboldened to issue all kinds of decrees in the name of religion - from disallowing girls to go to school to bombing music shops because they consider music un-Islamic - while the authorities look the other way. They are always slow to act and when they do - as in the case of Maulana Fazalullah in Swat by getting him not to oppose administering polio vaccine, among other things - the damage becomes difficult to undo. Had the government acted against the cleric much earlier, the number of children who did not get vaccinated would have been less than the 25,000 that it is today. The same is true about the Taliban in the tribal belt who have banned music cassettes from being played or sold and have gone to the extent of threatening music and even barber shops with bombings. They have stopped bus owners from playing music, at times removing cassette players and destroying them.
These things simply cannot go on. No one has the right to enforce religious prohibitions of his own notions, nor does anyone have the right to commit crimes in the name of religion. The government has negotiated with the Taliban on several occasions. Why can't it on this very serious issue?
Anyone who threatens the peace of the tribal area - and the Taliban are doing precisely that elsewhere too - must be dealt with under the law."
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