“Taliban [are] basically – predominantly – a Pashtun movement,” Prime Minister Imran Khan said while delivering the keynote address at the 17th extraordinary session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers to discuss the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan.
It seems that the premier has got it terribly wrong while distinguishing between ethnic movements and religious movements. Although the Afghan Taliban are ethnically Pashtuns, their movement is purely religiously oriented.
This is not the first time that the PM has expressed his unenlightened and even ill-informed remarks on Pashtun ethnicity. He has been articulating ‘derogatory’ statements about Pashtun nationalism repeatedly on different platforms.
Two months back, PM Imran Khan called the Pashtuns the ‘most xenophobic people on earth’. In a wide-ranging talk with foreign journalists at his residence on August 11, he said, "We have a larger Pakhtun population here in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and they're probably the most xenophobic people on earth. They fight each other normally but when it's an outside [force], they all get together."
Similarly, speaking at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, PM Imran Khan said, “Then all along the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan – the Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt – where no Pakistan army had been there since our independence, they [the Pashtuns] had strong sympathies with the Afghan Taliban, not because of their religious ideology but because of Pashtun nationalism, which is very strong.”
More recently, in an interview with the ‘Middle East Eye’ on October 11, PM Imran Khan said that the Pashtuns on Pakistan's side of the border had started attacking the state when it allied itself with the US invasion of Afghanistan. "They called us collaborators, started attacking us and calling themselves the Pakistani Taliban which we didn't have before joining the alliance," the primer added.
Notwithstanding what Pashtun nationalists have been claiming, the Taliban themselves, on various occasions, have countered the claims of being a trans-border Pashtun nationalist movement. They consider their movement a purely religiopolitical one.
It may be mentioned here that the Pakistani Taliban do not comprise only Pashtuns, but they have many non-Pashtuns as active members and even leaders of their movement. For instance, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Punjab based militant outfit, has close nexus with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and many of their leaders have been switching their positions.
Pashtuns are not terrorists but the victims of terrorism. PM Imran Khan’s consistent dubbing of the Pashtuns with an outlawed terrorist organisation has not only received anger from Pashtun nationalists across the country but also triggered disintegration.
Pashtun nationalism is championed by the Awami National Party (ANP), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and the recently emerged Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). All of them have categorically criticised the Taliban’s terrorism and persistently segregated themselves from such ‘Pashtuns’. As the saying goes, terrorism has no religion; similarly, it has no ethnicity either.
It is quite ironic that the PM has been condemning Islamophobia in the West while also ‘glorifying’ the Pashtun’s image as that of a violent, terrorist, and xenophobic ethnic group.
Post 9/11, the Pakistani media has been portraying the Pashtun’s image as that of terrorist through various dramas and commercials. In the last few years, such policies of the state provoked Pashtuns, especially the youth, and led to the emergence of the non-violent PTM.
Pashtuns are the ones who have faced the brunt of terrorism and they have suffered a lot. In the last twenty years, at least 70,000 Pashtuns have been killed, tens of thousands of Pashtuns have been injured, around 35,000 have been disappeared, and nearly 3.5 million have been internally displaced in various counterterror operations on the one side, and terrorist attacks on the other side.
Criticising the premier’s remarks on girls’ education in Pashtuns, Nobel Laureate Malala Yousufzai rightly pointed out, “I nearly lost my life fighting against [the] Taliban’s ban on girls’ education. Thousands of Pashtun activists and notables lost their lives when they raised their voices against [the] horrors and millions became refugees. We represent Pashtuns – not the Taliban.” Malala has accurately and aptly highlighted the culture of Pashtuns – which is poles apart from the Taliban’s ideology.
So, baseless and blatant racist generalisations – and that too by the head of government – can lead to serious consequences. Rather than resolving their issues and bringing them closer, the PM is continuously putting salt on the wounds of the aggrieved Pashtuns.
Pakistan cannot afford the cost of another ‘alienation’, and inclusiveness is the only way forward. PM Imran Khan should choose his words really carefully while speaking at public fora because every single word he says not only matters but is counted too.
The writer is a political analyst with special focus on Pashtun nationalism and the Afghan conflict. He tweets @khanzqasim
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