Friday, November 9, 2012

Malala in Context: Mullah Fazlullah and the Taliban in Swat - Part I

Below, I share an English version of Nazrana's series on Swat, the history of the Taliban in Swat, and Malala's rise in the region. It is an effort to situate Malala in a certain historical, political, and social context that appears to be ignored in much of the discourse surrounding Malala currently. Pashtuns, particularly those who were in Swat between 2005-2009, are encouraged to read and follow the series critically and offer any insight that may be useful in our ensuring that the history is as (close to) correct as possible.

This is Part I.

2005: The Rise of Mullah Fazlullah

Mullah Fazlullah
In October 2005, Swat started to experience a sensation that gradually became known as "Mullah Radio"--Mullah Fazlullah, also known as Maulana Fazlullah. The popular belief among the locals was that Mullah Fazlullah was a great man, a devoted Muslim who was sent by God to renew the faith of the spiritually-lost people of Swat, giving sermons daily after Maghrib prayers. He followed these sermons by a beautiful recitation of the Qur'an and then a sermon on the importance of modesty for women in Islam. In evenings and nights, Swatis would gather around as a family and listen to his sermons on the radio, an activity that became a household obligation, an act few people missed and that many seem to have added as a 6th pillar to their religion. Men and women--but especially women--started to view him as a the perfect guide for Muslims. As in other parts of the Muslim world, it is not uncommon in Swat for Muslims to discuss the lack of "Islam-ness" in their societies, the horrifying consequences of this reality, and what must be done to rectify it so as for all to avoid being doomed for disregarding their religious teachings. The people of Swat thus listened to him attentively as he expressed his complaints about what he perceived as immorality and decadence in Swat, which he later taught was an inexorable consequence of women's education.

Men and women passionately listening to Mullah Fazlullah would discuss the preacher's mesmerizing voice and his enthralling recitation of the Holy Book. Approximately a month passed when Mullah Fazlullah announced that we must renew our Islamic faith and fight to make Shari'a the law of our land, claiming each individual responsible for ensuring the success of Sharia in said region. He taught his adoring listeners that if they agreed with him in ending the immodesty of the women of the area, which they must, then they would understand that the only way to ove towards the elimination of said immodesty is for females to be barred from leaving their homes and especially going to school. He promised that the problem of the lack of Islamicness in the Swati society would then be solved instantly.

The Mullah's claim was far from unrealistic, perhaps because many social and other problems have historically been attributed to women; this is particularly the case when women's education is in question and is connected to a society's (perceived). Thus, in response to the Mullah's teachings, some-- although not yet most--Swatis withdew their daughters from schools and required them to stay inside their homes. Families who did this often informed Mullah Fazlullah of their "positive" influence on them, and the Mullah would announce their names on his show, applauding them and guaranteeing them heaven for following their religion correctly. His announcements would read as: "Excellent! Let's give an applause for so-and-so of the village Lower Baandai who withrew his daughter from her school."

Such public recognition appears to have inspired others as well, particularly those who may have agreed with the Mullah but hesitated in doing as the preacher had advised (later, this advice would become a requirement).

Once Fazlullah was certain that he was on his way to successfully forbidding women's education in Swat, he began to highlight other matters as a gravely un-Islamic, such as watching televisions. This idea must be understood in a wider context: Muslims in Pakistan commonly believe that Islam prohibits watching television and that any household with a TV in it is repels angels, who do not visit the home because of the presence of the television there. Didactic literature that provides instructions for how to live Islam correctly, for example, tend to include stories about what happens to people who watch television. One such story centers on a young female who refused to take her eyes off the television screen--on a Friday. When she died, people were unable to bury her until they remembered that she loved TV and decided to bring it along with her to the grave. Only then could the girl's corpse be buried in peace. Although such a story may not make sense to the rational mind and leaves a number of questions unanswered, the issue at hand is that of the repulsive attitude towards television and its link to Islam and the dead Muslims' soul. These stories are told in a way that instills deep fear in the reader's mind, coupled with the need to repent immediately and desist what she/he has been doing incorrectly, whether deliberately or in ignorance of the religion's stance on the issue.

As such, Mullah Fazlullah's ruling on Televisions was not necessarily outlandish; it was not the first time that the people of Swat were told about the prohibition of televisions in Islam.

Importantly, however, Mullah Fazlullah managed to make a connection between televisions and women: now that women are to be at home all day long, everyone must burn their televisions or dispose of them otherwise because the women were prone to become even more corrupt if they watched television all day long. Claiming to know how women naturally felt about televisions, he taught that a feeling of happiness, of pleasure, of relief comes to a woman's heart when she comes across a television; women loved televisions, they loved watching the many indecent shows that came on television, and the television was the woman's eyes' delight. Moreover, because women would now have more free time to dedicate to their televisions for not having school anymore, the TV would become their main hobby. It, he announced, is therefore forbidden for women to watch television, and it is  therefore necessary for everyone to get rid of their televisions.

As people started to believe that there was logic in Mullah Fazlullah's rulings, many openly burned their televisions or otherwise made them multifunctional. The preacher would, again, announce of the names of anyone who did this, congratulating them and urging everyone to offer prayers for the individuals because they were headed towards the right--or the "only"--interpretation of Islam.

To be continued. In the meantime, however, please feel free to read Part 2 of this history in Pashto by clicking here.


  1. I think it was normal when someone become popular he start trying to controlling others so that his effectiveness increases as he start thinking that he is a Hero but sometimes it make him villain at the end of day
    Anyway Nice work :)

    1. Thank you, Fahad. :)
      Yes, abusing power ... to be expected sometimes!

  2. I cant help but wonder why our people are always 'pretending' to be so ignorant, foolish. I am at loss for words.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous!

      Yeah, the whole problem is so complicated one wouldn't know how to explain or where to start! In their case, they didn't expect it'd get so violent and disturbing; they meant well--they thought they were working for their religion. But Mullah Radio knew exactly what he was doing, especially knowing the people and their love for Islam and all.

      Thanks for your comments everyone!

  3. well let me add something i factor was the people living in villages near fazlullahs, Nipkikhel... well in 70s and 80s these people shifted to US and Europe, majority of them were in merchant navy then. This was and is the trend of the Nipkikhel, by 2005 these people were well established abroad, like they have alot of money and thats also in dollars and Pounds... the Nipkikhel women were the first to take initiative by donating ornaments and cash and that also in huge amount, Nipkikhel women gave him the snowball effect but let me clear one thing, the Nipkikhel are peace loving people as much as the rest of Khels, they never thought or wanted a bloody islam, they did all this out for the love of the religion (a bit sad that they didnt think what they are doing) or the easiest way of rich people of being religious... its one of the factors but the cruelty is that then DCO (district co ordinating officer formerly known as DEPUTY COMMISSIONER SWAT) syed javed used to go every friday noon to listen to fazlulah sermon and pray in his imamat along with few other govt high ups (syed javed was later promoted as Commissioner and posted to swat as commissioner malakand, he was one of the architects of peace deal between govt and taliban. later he was charged for treason, it is being said that on his tip off taliban captured few army ssg officer and slit their throats. what happened after peace deal, it is history now)

    1. Thank you so much for all that information, Anonymous! Informative and important. Greatly appreciated!

    2. i guess u have translated it, rite? i would like to read the comments of the original writer on my comments. can u do it please?

    3. Hi, Anonnie,

      Well, it's not exactly a translation. This is just an English version of what Nazrana has stared; this version provides a bit more detail, but Nazrana's is, in my opinion, still far better. If you can read Pukhto, I urge you to read that as well.

      I'm the "original writer" of this version, but if you mean you want to hear Nazrana's comments, leave a comment on the link to her page that I provided above. She'll respond there.

      QUOTE: "can u do it please?"
      I'm not sure - what would you like me to do?

      Thanks again for your comments!

    4. like you would be knowing about swat and the whole episode there which u have discussed aboove so i have another question, one thing i want to ask about the taliban and the people of swat, was it like Nazis vs Jews i mean like there was no one who stood to them in the face, no one who came up with weapon and defended him self or did all yousafzais of swat just saved their lives by offering money (khiraj) and agreeing to them what ever they said??????

    5. Thanks for your question, Shpankia! That's an important question!

      Not quite - there were a few people who stood up, who resisted, who fought back, but they were pushed back by the power of the Taliban. BUT I'll talk about this in detail in Part 2. Sorry for the late response!

  4. nobody can fight a war without resources and support. the actual people who support, fund and train them are the real mullah radios but unfortunately nobody is looking into that

    1. Thanks for your insight, Anonnie! I agree!

  5. Very interesting. I'm glad to have a chance to understand a little of Malala's cultural context, since I don't know much about this culture.

    This might be kind of off-topic, but there are some weird parallels between this and the version of fundamentalist Christianity I grew up with in the US. Girls and boys were both educated at home, but many girls were encouraged/required to stay home instead of going to college or getting jobs, while boys were encouraged to work/go to college. There was an almost obsessive focus on girls/women being modesty. And television was strictly limited or entirely absent from many homes. The cultural/religious contexts are obviously very different .... but I find these similarities fascinating.

    Anyway, sorry to go off on a tangent! And I look forward to the next part of the series.

    1. Thank you, Helen! (The Helen I know? :) If not, no worries, of course! She's a classmate of mine and has shared similar thoughts about her religious/Christian upbringing, so I wondered.)

      Thanks for sharing your experiences! You know, religious fundamentalism is the same all over the world; all religions have sects and subsects that prohibit certain things that are permitted in others, including the use of televisions and other forms of media as well as taking pictures, keeping certain animals, denying women certain rights, etc. But I think the denying of women's rights is something that has persisted far more than anything else has! You want to be religious? Simple: limit women all the mobility in the world, and declare that your religion supports you, and you're all set to go to heaven! It's tragic, and it's such a narrow view of any religion, but it's also very convincing to so many people, whether they're Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist or anything else. It's so convincing for reasons I cannot understand.

      The similarities are fascinating indeed :)

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Dare to opine :)

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