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Do the Taliban represent the Pashtuns?

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington, and joining us now from London is Muhammad Junaid. He’s a researcher, a PhD student, and he is studying the identity of the Pashtun nation. Thanks for joining us, Muhammad.

MUHAMMAD JUNAID: Thank you very much.

JAY: When I was in Kandahar in the spring of 2002, we talked to a lot of people about the Taliban and what had just happened in the war, and I heard from quite a few people a sort of—I would say a very antagonistic feeling towards the Taliban. And, again, this is Kandahar, one of the real cities of the Pashtun nation in Afghanistan. And many people thought of the Taliban as sort of an extension of the Pakistani intelligence. People were quite derogative. But now it seems the Taliban are making quite a comeback. So can you start by talking about does the Taliban represent the Pashtun nation?

JUNAID: I think, you know, we need to go a little bit in the background and the history and, you know, compare now where does religious fundamentalism, or extremism, to some extent, comes into Pashtuns and were they like that before. Have they lived as one nation since the last two or three centuries? When we compare these two streams, we come to find out that in ["A-vran"] or Pashtun nation, the most important value they hold is their culture, which is normally represented by their code of honor, which is called Pashtunwali. Now, Pashtunwali is normally preferred over the religious values, although the Afghans and the Pashtuns keep Islam very near to them, but Pashtunwali takes precedence in most of the cases when they decide. When you look at Taliban, the case is turned over its head. Islam is the most important value for them, and Pashtunwali comes second. I can give you a small example. Every tribe has their dance, which they call Athan, and in Athan most of the males get round in a circle, and they have a special dance, which is not a Western dance, but it is a kind of a dance. If you look at Taliban, they would never allow that kind of gathering with drums and all that. So in Taliban the Islamic side takes precedence.

JAY: And just something I learnt when I was there is that there’s very, very few, if any, Korans actually in Pashtun. Most of the Korans are in Arabic, which means most of the Pashtuns can’t really read the Koran themselves.

JUNAID: Yes, because religion is more embedded inside the culture of Pashtunwali. It is famous that when the Pashtun tribes became Muslims, it was told to them that their values are very near to Islam. For example, you know, I can tell you one of the most important commandments of God in Koran is to give a due share to your daughter—in a father’s will, there has to be some share for a daughter. But in Pashtunwali, that is not allowed, and it doesn’t happen in religious fundamentalism even then they’re Pashtuns. How did it happen? Do they represent Pashtuns? Well, what happened was when the Russian and the communists came into Afghanistan, Pashtuns and the rest of Afghans, most of them, went to Pakistan. In Pakistan, they were educated; they were bred and many Pashtuns were bred in madrasahs. And those madrasahs, the curriculum and their training was directly funded from America.

JAY: And from Saudi Arabia.

JUNAID: And from Saudi Arabia. There was a lot of money flowing in, and surely that was [inaudible] to Pakistan and for the military dictator, then Zia-ul-Haq, who was known for his religious overzealousness, actually. Many of the Pashtuns became more Muslims than more Pashtuns. This is what happened.

JAY: This is under the influence of the madrasahs, mostly in Pakistan.

JUNAID: Yes. It also has many reasons, and one of the reasons is that non-Pashtuns speak Farsi or Persian. Persian language is more near to them when Pashtuns speak Pashto. When they came to Pakistan, most of the schools and most of the modern education was in Persian. In fact, in Afghanistan it is like that—Persian is the foremost language. And then again, you know, those who had to fight wars were more Pashtuns. So most of the Pashtuns were there fighting, and that actually changed the colors of this tribe a little.

JAY: One of the things I learnt when I was there—you confirm if this is true—that under Pashtunwali, the real center of religious observance was the shrine, not the mosque, and the mosque becomes predominant under the influences of madrasahs and the Saudis.

JUNAID: Yes, the concept of "shrine" is very much there in Pashtunwali. And the reason for that is that it is not considered a ban in Islam which is like that in Saudi Arabia. If you go to Saudi version of Islam, as they say, a shrine is really a no-go area, while in Pashtun culture it has nothing wrong. I mean, one of the main poet of Pashto, Rahman Baba, whose shrine is in Peshawar, he is one of the greatest saint work of the Pashto language. His shrine was bombed by Pakistani Taliban. So that thing that comes in, and it was never destroyed or it was never touched in the last hundred years.

JAY: So how much is this is a debate or a conflict within the Pashtun culture now, between the Taliban influence, the Wahhab influence from the Saudis and Pakistan, versus the traditional Pashtun culture? And how much of this centers around the shrine versus the mosque?

JUNAID: The whole history will tell you that the Pashtun ethnicity, which is divided in many tribes, now has lived like this, but they have not fought when there is an external power there. There is a lesson to be learned in history. For example, when Khushal Khan Khattak was fighting the Mughals, the Khattak tribe was fighting Mughals, the Afridi tribe was fighting the Mughals, and the ["SA-fyoo"] tribe was fighting the Mughal. These are all tribes of Pashtuns. But the Yusufzai tribe, which is mainly located in Swat area, was not fighting. These differences have remained there. You cannot say that, you know, they will be pitted against each other when an external power is there. When the external power goes away, if the NATO and armies go away from Afghanistan, there is a very good chance that they will be pitted against each other. There is a chance.

JAY: Now, to what extent does this Pashtun nationalism want a Pashtun country, which I assume would mean parts of Afghanistan, but also parts of Pakistan? How real is that?

JUNAID: The reality is like this, that the Pashtun tribes have not obeyed any central law. And if you look at NWFP and Balochistan, the border is practically nonexistent. You can freely come and go across very easily. That’s not a problem. So if Pashtuns are allowed to, you know, cross this border easily, they will consider it—it is Pashtunistan for them. And I don’t think, you know, they, the Pashtuns, would like to have, you know, separate country [inaudible] they will not like that.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s deal with two questions: is Talibanism merging with Pashtunism (if that can be said that way)? And, also, just what is the relationship of the Pashtuns to al-Qaeda? Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Muhammad Junaid.

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