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Deconstructing the Taliban

“Although she believes her days are numbered, Joya is not fearful for the future. “I am not frightened because we will all die one day,” she says. “What matters is that we fight despite the risk and we sacrifice despite the cost. Only then can we succeed.”

From “A Voice of Hope for Afghanistan’s Women,” by Frud Bezhan, April 15, 2009, The Age (Australia).

Malalai Joya, one of a handful of Afghan female parliamentarians who hasn’t yet been gunned down by Taliban extremists, has it exactly right in the above-cited quote. The courage to stand up and fight, with words more powerful than any AK-47s, against the power-hungry crazies whether they are warlords, former Mujahideen, current corrupt government officials, the Taliban or Al-Qaeda operatives or western imperialists—in most cases, all of the above. Yes, to stand firm against all those who are fighting to preserve or gain access to power and in the process, hunting down and squashing any voices of resistance to them, including, and especially, the voices of women—that is the need of the day.

Pakistan now desperately needs voices like those of Malalai Joya to speak out, loudly and unequivocally, against the Islamist groups who represent the most obviously clear and present danger to the state and the people of the country. While I am no fan of Hillary Clinton’s, I agree with her sense of urgency that “the Pakistani people and the Pakistani diaspora … need to speak out forcefully against a policy that is ceding more and more territory to the insurgents,” and that “Pakistanis, living both in and outside the country, must realize how terrorism threaten[s] the very existence of their state.”

Clinton goes on to state that the Pakistani government needs to address the very real grievances of the average Pakistani citizen in terms of economic inequalities and lack of provision of basic services as well as a dysfunctional court and justice system for the poor and underprivileged which have all led to the rise of the various jihadist groups such as the TNSM and Tehrik-i-Taliban who have filled a power vacuum in areas like Swat with their own illegitimate brand of rough-and-ready justice.

I agree with this class-based analysis, and indeed, in several articles I have published in Counterpunch over the past couple of years, have said pretty much the same thing, as have many other analysts of Pakistan. I still recall cringing when, conducting an interview a few days prior to the storming of the Red Mosque, with Umm Hassan (wife of the recently-released Islamist cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz of Red Mosque fame, and herself the founder and principal of the women’s madrassah there)– she said to me in a biting tone: “You people [I believe she meant my class of the urban educated elite as well as the government power structure]—you people have treated us like lizards on the walls, like cockroaches on the ground.” She continued to look me up and down, her glance scornful, withering. Several of her students and teachers who were part of the group I interviewed that blisteringly hot summer day added that they would pray for what they could see was my unrepentant westernized soul, and that the ultimate victory would be theirs.

I walked out that day from the premises of the Red Mosque thinking that these “Muslimahs” had a point, at least regarding the deep class inequalities and injustices that marred the psychic, economic and political landscape of the country of my birth. Their anger against the “comprador elite” was justified—and hence also against Western, specifically US imperialist interests being shored up by this ruling class. Indeed, of late, the US itself has helped the case of the various Taliban groups by continuing to bomb the hideouts of these and Al-Qaeda outfits in the Northern Areas with their remotely-piloted Drone and Reaper predator missiles. But I no longer think of the Pakistani Taliban and their female counterparts as deserving of any empathy whatsoever. In fact, I am prepared to go as far as calling them non-Muslims.

What sort of Muslims—nay, human beings—can justify the public whipping of that poor 17-year-old Swati girl, Chand Bibi, which the world was shocked to see circulating on the net? What sort of Muslims—nay, human beings—kill and maim MUSLIM worshippers at mosques such as the one in Jamrud, a town in the tribal Khyber region, where a suicide bomber struck during Friday prayers, leaving more than 50 dead and over a 100 wounded, most critically, in one of the bloodiest recent attacks in the nation. And the 22 Shi’ites dead in another recent suicide bombing at a Shi’ite mosque in northern Pakistan? And the remote-controlled bombing of CD shops in Peshawer? And the attack on the Frontier Corps post in Islamabad leaving eight of them—all working class– dead? And the attack on the police cadets in training on the outskirts of Lahore—all of them of poor backgrounds? What ire against them??

The fact is, my last question is a stupid one. Nothing justifies this insane killing spree of the self-styled “Muslim” terrorists, so why bother looking for an explanation? This is what we liberals and progressives on the Left do: look for reasons that could help us “understand” why power-hungry, deranged fanatics do what they do. In this search for some sort of “rationale” for unjustified, unjustifiable barbarism, we err in ways not so dissimilar to those of “conspiracy theorists” who abound in Pakistan and in many liberal-left circles in the US, who want to lay the “blame” for all this terror on “foreign influences” (read: CIA, Mossad, MI-5 , RAW and so on)—as well as those of liberal or “moderate” Muslims who are anxiously and eagerly trying to reclaim their faith from the extremists.

So, for example, we have the case of a well-heeled Islamic scholar from Canada who writes up a letter on behalf of a prominent US-based organization of “progressive” Muslim women, which is meant to serve as a collective rebuke from this group to the Pakistani Taliban for their public flogging of the 17-year-old Chand Bibi. In the letter, this moderate female Islamic scholar states that while the group she represents is appalled at the punishment being meted out to this poor woman in the name of Islam, and sees such action as inconsistent with the message of Islamic justice, fairness and human decency, nevertheless Islam does condone such punishment for acts like adultery and fornication provided stringent conditions of proof are met. And since these were not met, therefore the punishment in this particular case was unjustified! Wow!

If so-called progressive Muslim scholars, and female scholars at that, are going to undertake this manner of exegesis which tries to adhere to the letter of the law (however “progressively”), then we are all in deep, deep trouble. While I respect the genuine intentions of the women in this group, I have serious reservations about this manner of debate—the “hunt” for a “true,” a “good” Islamic interpretive paradigm, as opposed to the “bad,” or “regressive” kind of the Taliban variety. Such a battle of interpretive supremacy ultimately remains within the confines of literalism, a fight over the “Word” and its original meaning—which cannot really be won by self-styled moderates because they are by the very nature of such a binaristic enterprise doomed to playing the role of apologists—forever on the defensive against the “true” believers, the fundamentalists who “know” that everyone else except them is out of touch with the “real” Islam—as indeed, several of the leaders of the TNSM in Pakistan have just said of the rest of Pakistan and Pakistanis, hence demanding their version of Shar’ia law be instituted in the entire country.

Perhaps it is time to bring the theoretical insights of Derridean deconstruction to bear upon the reading of the Quranic text and declare a search for “true meaning” impossible—and turn our attention instead to the much more interesting and fruitful study of systems of signification and how we derive meaning rather than what meaning is, since, given the slipperiness of language systems, meaning is ultimately undecided-able, endlessly “deferred.” Maybe, with Barthes, we Muslims too need to accept the notion that the Author is dead, and turn our attention instead to the Reader(s)—and thence to Cixous’s notion of the jouissance or pleasure of multiple readings of the Quran and hadith literature which reveal more about the interpretive communities of readers than they do about any “original” text.

I believe it is high time—and possibly already too late, though I hope not with all my heart and soul—that all of us who wish Pakistan well and want to see it stable and prosperous instead of “the most dangerous place on earth”—declare to each other and to the world, as well as to the fanatical non-state actors within, that Islam “signifies” never having to make public what is private. Islam signifies never having to justify your Muslim-ness to anyone who isn’t God. Islam signifies never having to cheat, lie, amass millions and build a palatial home to live in while your neighbor goes hungry and can’t afford to send her kids to school, living in a “jhugi” without access to water, gas, electricity. Islam signifies never having to kill innocents or getting them to adhere to your intolerant beliefs at gunpoint or by exploiting their grievances as a path to securing your own power. Islam signifies learning to live in peace and dignity with others different from yourself, while giving them what is their just due. Above all, Islam signifies never having to say you are sorry for signing as a Muslim while condoning savagery in the name of religion. Maybe Derridean derision does need to be qualified: not all positions or “signifiers” are ambiguous. Or maybe in the face of ambiguity, and the murkiness of life, we still need to take unambiguous stands.

FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN is a Professor in the Department of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She can be reached at: khanf@mail.montclair.edu

More articles by:

Fawzia Afzal-Khan holds a Phd in English from Tufts University, is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ, and currently a Visiting Professor of the Arts at New York University in Abu Dhabi. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com

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