Developments in Swat (NWFP)

Waiting for the critical level in Swat
By Shehar Bano Khan: Dawn, October 19, 2007

IT is term time at the Sangota Public High School, but life is not as usual for its 950 female students. Set in the idyllic surroundings of district Swat in the Malakand Agency, the girls’ school run by a Christian mission is desperately fighting for sustenance against the constant threat of being closed down by a pro-Taliban group, operating with complete impunity, demanding the imposition of Sharia in the area.

The innocuous routine of going to school is no longer a safe assumption as it was in the past. Taking diffident steps beneath the heavy folds of a burqa on their way to Sangota High School, the young girls have been given a foretaste of the religious bigotry that is forcing them to follow the dictates of a monolithic radical group, the Janisaran-i-Islam (devotees of Islam).

Functioning as vigilantes of Islam, the organisation is part of the banned pro-Taliban Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TSNM — movement for the enforcement of Islamic law), headed by the 28-year-old Maulana Fazlullah, who openly acknowledges Mulla Omar, the Taliban leader, as his ‘amir’.

It is not surprising then that the followers of Mulla Omar, whose Taliban government ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until the US-led invasion in 2001, would want to replicate the same style of tribal governance mistakenly describing it as Islam. From the persecution of 1,000 Christians, a part of the 1.5 million population of the Swat Valley, forcing them to proselytise or face death, to the blasting of ancient historical rocks with Buddha’s image in Buthgarh Jehanabad, the process of reincarnating Mulla Omar’s mores follows a similar pattern.

The sight of girls clad in burqas filing past their school is a constant reminder of the latter’s existing on borrowed time before it finally succumbs to Maulana Fazlullah’s religious injunction, conforming to his amir’s belief that bans education for women.

Following the same syllabus as his amir, Maulana Fazalullah obviously skipped that part of Islamic history that accepts religious diversity. Instead, he is zeroing in on a missionary school for girls, accusing its administration of encouraging un-Islamic behaviour.

On Sept 8, a two-page Urdu circular was issued to the school by the Janisaran-i-Islam, accusing the officials of involving students in adultery, forcibly converting students — 99 per cent of the 950 students are Muslims — to Christianity, and warning it to replace the Christian staff with Muslims within seven days, or else face suicide attacks.

The school was shut down the next day to be reopened on Sept 17 after the executive district officer issued a notice to the school authorities urging them to comply with official orders for ‘directing female staff and students to wear burqas’ to deter the ‘continuous threatening letters from the Taliban’. Less than half the total number of students showed up with many preferring to stay home for an indefinite period. Others were too terrified of the TSNM to continue school.

A rough estimate by Khwendo Kor, a non-government organisation working towards setting up schools in the NWFP, confirms that at least 1,000 girls have been pulled out of schools by their families over the past year as a consequence of threatening letters circulated by pro-Taliban organisations.

If the closure of girls’ schools indicates the level of pro-Taliban control in the Malakand Agency, the local government’s incomprehensible display of latitude towards Maulana Fazlullah is far more disturbing. He has established a Sharia court in his native village of Imam Dehri, the headquarters of the TSNM, and has raised enough funds to build a seminary.

Every Friday, the local mosque at Imam Dehri is teeming with people who listen to Maulana Fazlullah’s hair-raising sermons condemning the Pakistan army and appealing for donations so that the under-construction Imam Dehri seminary can be quickly completed.

A huge volunteer force called the Shaheen Commandos, the local version of Mulla Omar’s control in the tehsils of Matta, Kabal, Charbagh and Khawazkhel, outmatches that of the local administration. Each night, after 8 pm, the Shaheen Commandos patrol the four tehsils where checkpoints are installed to curb timber and drug smuggling.

‘Since Maulana Fazlullah’s commandos took over, the law and order situation has improved, smuggling is controlled, something which the government failed to do. The people of Malakand Agency feel deprived of their basic rights and the government has failed to pay attention to development,’ says a local resident of Swat.

All efforts to get Maulana Fazlullah to explain his defiance towards the government failed because the voice on the other side of the telephone said he did not talk to women!

Clearly not communicating with women is not one of the primary problems facing the government in dealing with Maulana Fazlullah. The danger lies in sitting back, waiting for the situation to touch critical levels as witnessed during the Lal Masjid debacle.

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