Pakistan And Taliban: Cultural Difference Is Deeply Rooted
In the initial decades of independence, Pakistan’s elite and state machinery was oriented towards Islamic modernity. There was a parallel trend of Islamic revivalist movements, which continuously attempted to capture the state or to influence its policies. But these trends remained in a relation defined by friction as well as cooperation to strengthen the centralized state structure that the elite constructed in opposition to the centrifugal forces of ethnic-nationalist elites marked by their marriage to popular religions of Sufi and shrine traditions.
Islamic modernist and Islamic revivalists, meanwhile, cooperated on establishing and strengthening centralized state, making Islam a dominating presence in public life and in shunning the popular religion of Sufi and Shrine tradition that was considered impure. To this day, Pakistani elite and state machinery appears inclined towards Islamic modernist traditions that took birth in British India—this Islamic modernism helped the elite setup developmental goals for the state under tutelage of western powers in the Cold War era. This Islamic modernism, which remained in an uneasy alliance with Islamic revivalists, helped define the culture acceptance and to some extent cosmopolitanism in Islamabad and its officialdom, where the state officials, bureaucrats, generals and political leaders don’t feel any inhibition in pursuing an alliance with “Western infidels” from America and “Islam conservatives” from Saudi Arabia and Iran at the same time.
This Islamic modernism and Islamic revivalist trends, which Pakistani state and society inherited at the time of independence, took birth in British India, after an encounter between conservative and traditional Muslim elites and western education. But modernists and revivalists reinterpreted Islamic precepts under the influence of western education and western philosophies—Modernists started to argue that Muslims would have to reinterpret Islamic teaching in the light of new discoveries and inventions in Western societies, whereas Islamic revivalists advocated that the reasons for the downfall of Muslims and their remedy has to be found within the teaching of Quran and Sunnah and not from any outside source.
In other words, they advocated revival through reconnection with the religious texts and scriptures. However, there is one thing common between modernists and revivalists in Pakistan society: they are product of Muslim elites’ encounter with Western education that British colonists brought to India.
The question is whether this Pakistani state machinery, imbibed in modernist culture, is compatible with the village Mullah led movement like Afghan Taliban? Afghan Taliban, according to popular perception, is a product of Darul Uloom Deoband—another revivalist movement of British India, but that hardly changes the fact that Afghan Taliban’s never had any systematic exposure to western education and their contact with cosmopolitan culture is restricted to diplomatic encounters with westerns diplomats and diplomats of neighbouring countries. They belong to lower strata of traditional Afghan society, which is in struggle with the modernist and revivalists that Afghan society produced. Afghan society produced its own modernists and revivalists after state modernisation and expansion programs under King Amanullah Khan in the 1930s.
Afghan society’s modernists and revivalists stories are a replica of British Indian Muslim elites, except that Afghan state went into Soviet Orbit in 1950s and hence produced communist or Marxists elites as modernists under the educational program sponsored by Moscow’s communist government.
The village Mullah that is leading the Taliban movement didn’t undergo training in west funded educational institutions in Kabul in 1950 and 1960s. Islamic revivalists, who in fact underwent training in these modern educational institutions, led the Afghan struggle against Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s. These revivalists like Hikmatyar, Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masood did cooperate with Pakistani military generals who were partly influenced by revivalist and partly by modernist thoughts during the times of “Afghan Jihad”. Even in those days there were powerful voices from Pakistani civil society that advocated against imposition of revivalist Islam on Pakistani society.
Taliban lifestyle is completely incompatible with the culture of Pakistani officialdom, despite the fact that the latter have absorbed revivalist traditions more deeply in the last few decades. The present culture of officialdom in Islamabad is an incomplete and pragmatic (read opportunistic) synthesis of revivalist and modernist traditions. But it could be described as cosmopolitan culture—diametrically opposed to Taliban lifestyle and our worthy foreign minister could not change this reality just by describing Taliban as world-savvy. This cultural difference is not an easy thing to forget in the strategic and military relations that some in our state machinery want to build with Taliban led Afghanistan.
Even the revival of the old dream of attaining strategic depth cannot remove the horrors of Taliban lifestyle from Pakistan’s collective memory. The two army chiefs that defined this concept in their own terms were putting forward distinctly different ideas—the military and physical strategic depth, as propounded by General Aslam Beg, and political and diplomatic nature of the strategic depth, as propounded by General Kiyani, was amply noted by observers in the region. General Aslam Beg was more interested in physical and military strategic depth that supposed Afghanistan to be Pakistan’s fifth province, whereas General Kiyani talked about extending Pakistan’s political and diplomatic influence in Afghan society.
The physical/military version of the strategic depth may be an outdated concept even within the power corridors of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but the political and diplomatic version of strategic depth may see a revival of kind in Islamabad as the Taliban’s position in the security architecture of the region becomes well entrenched. But the cultural difference will continue to haunt the relations between Taliban in Afghanistan and the military led by Pakistan.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.