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Must read: ‘The Talibanization of Minds’

May 10, 2009

Pakistani writer Kamila Hyat has written a melancholy article about how fear of the Taliban (and from what is described as  the religious “lunatic fringe”) is infecting the whole of Pakistani society:

There is, however, another aspect to battling the Taliban. That is the question of control over minds. The Zia years taught us how difficult it can be to fight off notions of morality used to brainwash and blind people. The dance with orthodoxy that began during the 1980s – when TV actresses rose from their beds with dupattas miraculously intact – lingers on. It has taken nearly two decades to reclaim some of the space Zia stole away from us, and re-discover music, classical dance and the simple liberty to dress as we choose.

Now the Taliban have launched a new threat to these basic freedoms. In Lahore’s Liberty Market shopping centre – women have been ordered over loudspeakers to cover their heads. The more relaxed dress codes that had become the norm, echoing back to a happier time in the 1960s and the 1970s have begun once more to retreat. Many women admit they are more careful than ever before about how they dress in public. In both Karachi and Lahore stories echo of threats being made to women shoppers in the streets. These may be inaccurate, but they add to the fear we all feel almost constantly.

Just as we fight to regain territory, there is a need to struggle to regain the liberties we are losing. Citizens need to play a part, but they can do so only if they are confident that the government is with them and that it is clear about its priorities. While President Barack Obama’s stinging critique of the Pakistan civilian set-up, just days before a presidential visit by Mr Asif Ali Zardari to Washington, seemed in many ways rather harsh and has obviously created a hurdle for the Pakistan side, some of the points made were valid. For months Pakistan has lingered in a state of apparent limbo with little evidence that a government is present. This sense of drift has added to its problems and to the feeling of people that they are quite on their own, without anchor and without compass, abandoned in a leaky vessel on stormy seas.

There is a need to win back the hearts of people, to address their needs – otherwise there is a danger that the Taliban will succeed in winning over this space too. They have indeed exploited the gap in wealth with immense dexterity in Swat and elsewhere, using desperate, impoverished people against feudal elements and linking this up with their warped religious ideology. By doing so they have exposed the dangers of a situation in which, for year after year and decade after decade, the most basic needs of people are ignored and they are left to grovel amidst the unromantic horrors of abject poverty.

UPDATE: The Washington Post seems to have picked up part of this article as well.

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