Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Taliban's Tactics Toward Imposing And Maintaining Control

A reader named Wasay sent me an email yesterday. I want to post it here and respond publicly. Here's the email:
Hi Ahsan,

After monstrous beheadings and digging up of graves by the Pakistan Taliban I am starting to wonder if these acts are really religiously motivated?

These acts are no different to acts by other messed up leaders such as Saddam, Hitler, Kim Jong etc. I dont think such acts are even promoted by Wahabism or Saudis (havent heard of saudis digging up graves etc). Unlike Jihad which can be interpreted in different ways and of which there are many examples in Islamic history, I dont think these acts can be justified even by Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist outfit. There is no example of such acts in Islamic history, Quran or Sunnah even remotely.

Is it possible that these acts are politically motivated to have power, influence, take over area etc? Everyone thinks that they are just fighting for Sharia. Hypothetically speaking if Pakistani government were to implement sharia do you think these people will sit at home?

I just dont see how them beheading local population and Saddam gassing kurds is much different in terms of motivation? Taliban are terming everyone who do not agree with them as unislamic while Saddam termed shias and kurds as traitors.

Sorry for the long rambling email.

Just wanted to know what you thought of it.

Ask and ye shall receive! Here's what I think of the issues raised:

1. The Taliban are fighting for political control, not for religious purity per se

I want to be very clear here, because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Taliban are fighting for religious purity. But as Wasay points out, there is very little categorical religious justification for the Taliban are doing. Though the Quran does countenance violence explicitly, nowhere does it say you should murder someone for not pulling their shalwar above their ankle, and then murder their father for good measure. Nowhere does it say you should be digging up bodies and hanging them in public. Nowhere does it say you should destroy and bomb girls' schools. So the idea that they are fighting as religious vanguards is wrongheaded. They are not. They are, to the contrary, fighting strategically for a political goal.

2. The methods of imposing and maintaing political control involve clearing away extant political orders...

When the Taliban move into an area, they seek to do away with the traditionally tribal layers of authority that exist (the Taliban is a decidedly non-tribal movement). They begin collecting taxes, often at the barrel of a gun, to set up alternate structures of governance. They kill tribal leaders and political representatives that have traditionally enjoyed prominence in the area in question (about 400 tribal maliks have been killed since 2004 by the Taliban). They set up Sharia courts that dispense justice differently than tribal jirgas do so. And they organize administrative issues on non-tribal lines. All this is done to make the Taliban the new bosses in town.

3. well as sticks...

For the Taliban, digging up bodies and burning down CD shops and threatening barbers and blowing up girls schools is all about intimidation. Political authority rests on explicit and implicit notions of coercion. You do not cross a red traffic light because you are threatened by the law of the land if you are caught doing so. Similarly, you do not mess with the Taliban's aims because you and your family will be beheaded if you try. The argument is the same. Authority rests on the ability to coerce, which in turn rests on punishing disobedience, and what the Taliban are doing in order to impose their authority is demonstrate their ability to punish. This is not complicated - it is terrorism in the strictest sense of the word.

4. well as carrots

Do not underestimate the power of a three day trial. Please read this:
At the Mingora district court Ali Shah has been fighting a land dispute for two years, trying to wrest back several acres he says were seized by relatives. He misses work three or four times a month to attend hearings, and he's fed up.
"If Islamic law is enforced here our cases will be solved in two or three weeks," he tells me. "Plus in the courts right now there's no difference between the oppressed and the oppressor. If Islamic law is imposed we'll be able to distinguish between the two and get justice."
Many others agree. The government system is painfully slow and seen to favor the powerful. For ordinary people Islamic law means swift justice.

Along with promises of swift justice, the Taliban also hold out guarntees for dealing with petty crime.

So, to recap: they want political control, and they try to establish it through (a) wrecking old systems of order, (b) intimidating the crap out of people, and (c) promising justice. And if you ask me, it seems to be working pretty well - particularly (a) and (b). Which means that the 91% of Swat residents who deem the Taliban way the "wrong way" (via Rabia) are in for a rough time.


Rabia said...

"1. The Taliban are fighting for political control, not for religious purity per se"

I see your (and your reader's) point, but the thing is that while some of their individual actions might be unislamic, it's quite clear that their general aims are very much in step with the agenda of the religious parties and advocates of political Islam in general. So I think it would be ignoring the problem by calling their aims political rather than religious. People like to conveniently forget that Islam is an extremely political religion. There's no point burying our heads in the sand about this.

Ahsan said...


No one is burying anything anywhere. The "political" bit to "Political Islam" is key in your statement. The point I was trying to make was that this is not a group that is going to be satisfied if their stated RELIGIOUS goals are met i.e. they are not going to go home and sit quietly if you install Sharia and make everyone's shalwar go above their ankles. They will only be satisfied once their POLITICAL goals are met i.e. they are in power in one or possibly two nation states.

Anonymous said...

They might be fighting in the name of religion but their goal at the end of the day is to attain power. They want to build a totalitarian regime where they can have social and political control over the people. Through means of violence and terror they will be able to achieve what they set out to get just like in Nazi Germany.

Jman said...

These taliban are anything but Islamic...sitting comfy only 150 miles away how soon will the government take action. When they come knocking on the door in Blue area?

takhalus said...

the guardian had a great article on the incestous nature of all these groups.

the Islamist philosophy is the consequence of 2 dcades of brain washing by the ziaist state. In a recent issue of the herald..Bilquis Edhi stated that when the edhi foundation tried to take over the care of the orphans from the 2005 earthquake they were stopped by Ejaz ul Haq..he wanted a more Islamic environment under Rashid Ghazi.

Tazeen said...

They may fight in the name of religion, but they are fighting to gain control over the area and its people. Its pretty obvious from the scare tactics they use such as hanging the body of Pir Samiullah.

Hades said...

Re #2:
This is very interesting, if what you say is true.

1) How much of the Taliban's actions are supported by the locale populace?

Regardless of the morality of the act, if the Taliban does manage to displace the tribal order, it will be a monumental achievement.

Re #4

2) This point contradicts point 2. The Taliban can either displace the Jirgas or the courts, not both. And with my limited knowledge, I'd say its replacing the former because there isn't much influence of the Central Govt to displace in the first place.

P.S: murder someone for not pulling their shalwar above their ankle

Damn it! I thought all you had to do was cover your knees! What's this about not covering your ankles?

karachi khatmal said...

i don't think that there is a difference between their religious goals and their political goals. its just how they understand islam,

i think one reason muslims countries and cultures were so taken aback by colonialism/modernism etc was that islam stopped being the basis of the whole universe, and became something that could be analysed and looked at separately.

and in the reality of the modern world, the ideas muslim had about the world were incompatible and unworkable, so religious thought continued to stagnate and fester, and modernity and science took the place of islam as the basis of the universe.

the taliban, who were themselves seemingly out of the midst of modernity, embarked on a campaign that aligned religious and political goals as one.

unfortunately, the taliban are very much a product of post-modernity/post-colonialism. and so, their ideas of islam are subservient to their political goals, which i think are to expand their culture of extreme patriarchy.

islam is just a banner. but before we make that comment, i think it is important to realize that just because they are wrong, it doesn't mean anyone else has the right idea about islam's place in the contemporary world. mainly because people try desperately hard to align islam to modern thought, or copy+paste islamic ideals from times long past.

the important thing for those who say "the taliban don't follow 'real' islam" is that there is no real islam. there is no orthodox islam, as even sunni beliefs are split within their own schools of thought. therefore, islam is only meant to be interpreted. as you can see with the taliban, their interpretations are through the prism of their patriarchal set of views.

the taliban can only be ideologically defeated if there is an islamic reawakening, which robs them off their stranglehold over islamic interpretation. while that may sound stupid, it staggers the mind that in the 30s iqbal was explaining interpreting existentialism through an islamic reasoning. now most muslims can't spell existentialism.

(finally, before the secular types get offended, i mean islam and muslim in the same sense as the term islamic art. that is to say islam in not just a religious sense, but cultural, hereditary sense. so my conceptualization is meant to include oxymorons like secular muslims.) said...

Agreed, the Taliban uses religious means in order to gain political control, much like many other groups who use "religion" as their legitimizing rhetoric.

I read this article today at the LA Times, about the "Hindu Taliban" - i.e. radical members of the BJP who are using "traditional Hinduism" as a banner to legitimize violence and "moral policing" - it's pretty interesting:,0,1076314.story

takhalus said...

Ray Lightning said...

karachi khatmal
There is nothing inherently different in the political capability of Islam from that of any other religion such as Christianity or Judaism.

All religions have been used as political tools. This period ends when the society gets transformed via an industrial revolution.

It is just that Islamic countries are experiencing the industrial revolution much later than their European counterparts. Christian countries have seen their versions of dicks like Taliban in the middle ages.

And as changing-up-pakistan has said, these dicks can be clothed in saffron clothes as well. We should take care these sort of people don't get hold of weaponry, or otherwise all hell breaks lose.

Hades said...

@Ray Lightning:

I think when focussing on solely the economic aspect we lose out on a lot of data and perspective.

Yes, only an idiot would blame Islam solely for the problems of the Muslim world but to absolve it of all guilt wouldn't be too wise either. There are many, many nations (including Christian ones) on this planet which haven't seen an industrial revolution, consisting of all shades of religious thought. Not all of them take up violence as a means, though. At least empirically, focussing on only economic factors doesn’t make sense.

Coming to the Hindu Right--to equate, say, the RSS and the Taliban defies logic due to the huge difference in the scale of what either has been able to do.

The 'Hindu Taliban' went into a pub and slapped a few girls around. The real Taliban, as you must know, did a lot more than that.

That said, it would be the wet dream of the 'Hindu Taliban' to become like the real Taliban, but, in all probability, the society it operates in won't let it. Or so I hope.

lalapathan said...

I am surprised at all of u one thinks that the government is actually involved and this whole thing is a big game so that they can suck as much money as they can out of UNCLE long as the taliban are there the government has an excuse to blackmail UNCLE SAM...think about it...pakistani army is not week .ISI is a very well functioning agency....there is only two entrances into SWAT and the taliban get the latest weaponry....i believe if pakistani army wantes they can get rid of these guys in a matter of days...i just hav no clue what the government is up to by this game....

Rabia said...

it's just not something discussed in polite society. army is our saviour :)

Jman said...

good topic! said...


I wasn't "comparing" the Hindu Taliban (I think that coined term is dumb btw) with the actual Taliban by showing that link - merely to point out how religion/tradition in general can act as legitimacy for violence (to whatever degree) in general - even with the women of Lal Masjid last year, they were burning dvds and beating people with sticks in a similar sense of "moral policing." It's an interesting phenomenon, and that's all I was pointing out.

Hades said... religion/tradition in general can act as legitimacy for violence...

A truism, if there ever was one, irrespective of the religion/tradition being spoken of.

Ray Lightning said...


I was not focussing on economic reasons behind violence. I was mentioning the economic reasons behind moral policing and social backwardness.

Actual violence is not directly related to economics, though poverty remains a tiny part of the problem. The major reason is a black-and-white thinking : that there is a group of people pristine, pure and all virtuous (the white part of the thinking) and that this group of people is violently under attack by impure outsiders (the black part of the thinking).

When mixed up like this, the cocktail can be very vitriolic. A huge majority of Muslims subscribe to this kind of simplistic thinking, so there is an inherent violence in the society. But this kind of thinking is also not unique to Islamic societies. I wrote more on this in my blog. Your comments there are welcome.

Abdul said...

Thought provoking post. Rabia, "Islam is extremely political." We need to deconstruct this claim. Here is another perspective (by Wahiduddin Khan):