NEW YORK TIMES
THE turmoil in the Swat Valley has raised a chilling prospect for Pakistan — that the Taliban’s Islamic takeover in the once-peaceful area was turning into a social revolution, with mullahs leading peasants in the seizure of property from rich landlords who had fled in fear of their lives.
The most worrisome question has been whether the revolution would spread from Swat to the much more populous and strategic province next door, Punjab.
In the logic of revolutions, one might expect it to. This is, after all, a country where more than half the population lives in desperate poverty in the countryside, and the rich live in walled estates, blissfully untouched by ordinary peoples’ problems.
But Pakistan is more complicated than that. Its politics and economics are far more local than national; regional, ethnic and cultural differences are very deep. The mullahs of Swat may be calling for the downtrodden masses to unite, but here in Punjab, religious leaders are still firmly tied to the upper crust.
Pakistan encompasses four provinces — Baluchistan, Sindh, Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (which includes the Swat Valley) — each with its own languages and culture. The western mountains are tribal and so remote that in some areas, Pakistan’s Constitution does not even apply. It is from those badlands that the Taliban swept outward to neighboring Swat, itself a multi-ethnic patchwork. Baluchistan, another border area, has its own struggle for national autonomy. Sindh is mostly agrarian, with Karachi, an economic hub, at its southern tip.
Punjab, the fourth and most strategic province, is the country’s heart — home to the powerful military as well as much of Pakistan’s governing class; social upheaval here would drag the whole country with it. In my travels in this province, none of the mullahs were talking about revolution. In fact, the social justice discussions that have driven political movements in the wider Islamic world — Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Sadr Army of Iraq’s Moktada al-Sadr, for example — were notably absent.
Instead, I have found a surprisingly comfortable coexistence between the mullahs, the landlords and the political elite (the latter two are often one and the same). Even the harder-line preachers, among the sternly traditional Muslims known as Deobandis, have stuck to a bland, nonconfrontational line.
One leader of a Deobandi seminary in Kabirwala, a town in southern Punjab, told me that the land was distributed as God had intended, and that the only problem with the landlords was that some were insufficiently Islamic, though now that was improving.
History explains much of the feudal outlook of the clerics in Punjab. They tend not to oppose the establishment in part because the state itself made them powerful. In the 1980s, the military dictator Zia ul-Haq gave land and money to Deobandis, a policy the United States supported because it needed both Mr. Zia and fervent jihadists in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Mr. Zia also crushed social ferment throughout Pakistan, and the debate on class and social justice that went with it, stifling political growth. To this day, Pakistan retains a colonial-style system of patronage: I-will-vote-for you-because-you-are-important-and-I-think-you-might-be-able-to-help-me-in-my-time-of-need.
At the same time, the Zia government elevated the mullahs, once unimportant men seen mostly at weddings and funerals. They became powerful players with their own political space — a kind of middleman between state and populace, not breaking their ties to the elite that had empowered them.
“The mullahs were one of the state’s major allies,” said Aasim Sajjad, a political economy professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences who is part of a small leftist political movement in Pakistan. He argues that in Punjab, the conditions for a revolution simply are not present, in part because the mullahs are still comfortable in their ties with the state.
“I don’t see them being interested in radical social change that really attacks the existing structures of power in the society,” he said.
This is not to say that all are nonviolent, just that their violence does not challenge the state or the social order. The leader of Sipah-e-Sohaba, an ultra-orthodox Sunni political party, whose military wing believes Shiites to be apostates and has been killing them since the 1990s, was allowed to contest an election from a prison cell in 2002. (He won.) Another militant group, Jesh Muhammed, which supports Pakistani claims to Kashmir, operates unhindered in the city of Bahawalpur. And Hafez Saeed, a cleric whose associates are believed to have carried out the attack on Mumbai, India, last year, gives weekly sermons here in Lahore.
There have been acts of terrorism in Punjab, particularly after the government attacked a mosque tied to jihadists in Islamabad in July 2007. Militants here began to attack the state and the police. And though they have joined forces with the Taliban, they remain the minority and have so far not enlisted the same amount of popular support as the Taliban has in the western tribal areas.
Even in Swat, the Taliban’s takeover didn’t happen overnight. At first, some landlords lent tacit (if worried) support, donating food and money to the seminary where Fazlullah, the main Taliban leader, began his political movement. The government itself made peace deals with the Taliban. Only later did conditions worsen, with militants seizing ever more power, and eventually overrunning the landlords. The military has since fought to eject them, but it is not clear how effectively.
Mr. Sajjad, the Lahore University professor, argues, as well, that the Swat takeover was more a spontaneous eruption than a product of organized strategy, certainly different from the way Lenin led the Bolsheviks in 1917. “This was not a well-thought-out clear visionary movement,” he said. “It’s a situation that spiraled out of control in part because the state let it.”
And in any case, it was the small Swat Valley, not the strategic heartland of Pakistan. Few people here believe that the military, which calls Punjab its home, would let the province succumb to a militant takeover.
Still, this is Pakistan, whose society is in flux, and whose government often seems mostly absent.
“This place is ripe for extraordinary situations,” Mr. Sajjad said.
NEW YORK TIMES