Ethics & Public Policy Center

Tribes of Terror

Published in Claremont Review of Books Volume VII, Number 5, Winter 2007 on November 13, 2007



Lord Curzon, Britain’s viceroy of India and foreign secretary during the initial decades of the 20th century, once declared:

No patchwork scheme– and all our present recent schemes…are mere patchwork– will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine.

Nowadays, this region of what is today northwest Pakistan is variously called “Al Qaedastan,” “Talibanistan,” or more properly, the “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan.” Pakistan gave up South Waziristan to the Taliban in Spring 2006, after taking heavy casualties in a failed four-year campaign to consolidate control of this fierce tribal region. By the fall, Pakistan had effectively abandoned North Waziristan. The nominal truce– actually closer to a surrender– was signed in a soccer stadium, beneath al-Qaeda’s black flag.

Having recovered the safe haven once denied them by America’s invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have gathered the diaspora of the worldwide Islamist revolution into Waziristan. Slipping to safety from Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden himself almost certainly escaped across its border. Now Muslim punjabis who fight the Indian army in Kashmir, Chechen opponents of Russia, and many more Islamist terror groups congregate, recuperate, train, and confer in Waziristan. This past fall’s terror plotters in Germany and Denmark allegedly trained in Waziristan, as did those who hoped to highjack transatlantic planes leaving from Britain’s Heathrow Airport in 2006. The crimson currents flowing across what Samuel Huntington once famously dubbed “Islam’s bloody borders” now seem to emanate from Waziristan.

Slowly but surely, the Islamic Emirate’s writ is pushing beyond Waziristan itself, to encompass other sections of Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions– thereby fueling the ongoing insurgency across the border in Afghanistan. With a third of Pakistanis in a recent poll expressing favorable views of al-Qaeda, and 49% registering favorable opinions of local jihadi terror groups, the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan may yet conquer Pakistan. Fear of a widening Islamist rebellion in this nuclear-armed state was General Musharraf’s stated reason for the recent imposition of a state of emergency. And in fact Osama bin Laden publicly called for the overthrow of Musharraf’s government this past September. It is for fear of provoking such a disastrous revolt that we have so far dared not loose the American military steamroller in Waziristan. When Lord Curzon hesitated to start up the British military machine, he was revolving in his mind the costs and consequences of the great 1857 Indian “Mutiny” and of an 1894 jihadist revolt in South Waziristan. Surely, Curzon would have appreciated our dilemma today.

An Indispensable Guide

Foreign journalists are now banned in Waziristan and most local reporters have fled in fear for their lives. Because scholars have long neglected this famously inhospitable region, Waziristan remains a dark spot, and America remains proportionately ignorant of the forces we confront in the terror war. Yet an extraordinary if neglected window onto the inner workings of life in Waziristan does exist– a modern book, with deep roots in the area’s colonial past.

The British solution in Waziristan was to rule indirectly, through sympathetic tribal maliks (elders), who received preferred treatment and financial support. By treaty and tradition, the laws of what was then British India governed only 100 yards on either side of Waziristan’s main roads. Beyond that, the maliks and tribal custom ruled. Yet Britain did post a representative in Waziristan, a “political agent” or “P.A.,” whose headquarters was protected by an elite military force, and who enjoyed extraordinary powers to reward cooperative maliks and to punish offenders. The political agent was authorized to arrest and jail the male kin of miscreants on the run (particularly important given the organization of Waziristan’s tribes around male descent groups). And in special cases, the political agent could blockade and even destroy entire settlements. After achieving independence in 1947, Pakistan followed this British scheme, indirectly governing its many tribal “agencies” and posting P.A.s who enjoyed the same extraordinary powers as under the British.

Akbar Ahmed, a British-trained social anthropologist, served as Pakistan’s P.A. in South Waziristan from 1978 through 1980. Drawing on his academic background and political experience, he has written a fascinating book about his days as “king” (as the tribesmen used to call the political agent). First published in 1983 under the title Religion and Politics in Muslim Society, the book was reissued in 1991, and revised and released again in 2004, each time under the title Resistance and Control in Pakistan. Its obscure title and conventional academic introductory chapters explain why it has been neglected. Yet that neglect is a serious mistake. Given Waziristan’s new-found status as the haven and headquarters of America’s global enemies, Ahmed’s book is an indispensable guide to thinking through the past and anticipating the future of the war on terror. In addition to shedding new and unexpected light on the origins of the Taliban, Resistance and Control in Pakistan offers what is, in effect, a philosophy of rule in Muslim tribal societies-a conception of government that has direct relevance to our struggle to stabilize Iraq.

Since completing the book, Ahmed, a devout Muslim who holds a chair in Islamic Studies and is a professor of International Relations at American University, has gone on to write several works analyzing the dilemmas of the Islamic world and explaining Muslim perspectives to Westerners. These include Islam Under Siege (2003), and his recently published Journey Into Islam. For a time, he served as the High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain, and in a note at the end of Journey Into Islam, he says that he coined the term “Islamophobia” shortly after taking that post.

Having once been tasked with governing the most notoriously unruly tribes in the Muslim world, Ahmed never entirely embraces the politically fashionable line. More than his academic colleagues in Middle East studies, he acknowledges the contribution of tribalism’s violence and traditionalism to the Middle East’s contemporary dilemmas. In fact, the story of the “king” of Waziristan’s transformation into the man who coined the term “Islamophobia” reveals some extraordinary tensions and tragedies lurking beneath our polarized political debates.

Under Seige

The first thing that strikes the reader of Resistance and Control in Pakistan is the pervasive nature of political violence in South Waziristan. And here, in contrast to his later work, Ahmed himself is at pains to emphasize the point. A popular novelist of the British Raj called Waziristan tribesmen “physically the hardest people on earth.” British officers considered them among the finest fighters in the world. During the 1930′s Waziristan’s troublesome tribesmen forced the British to station more troops in that agency than in the remainder of the Indian subcontinent. In more settled agricultural areas of Pakistan’s tribal Northwest Frontier Province, Ahmed says, adults, children, and soldiers mill about comfortably in the open, while women help their men in the fields. No guns are visible. But arid Waziristan is a collection of silent, fortress-like settlements. Women are invisible, men carry guns, and desolation rules the countryside.

Even in ordinary times, from the British era through the present, the political agent’s headquarters at Wana in South Waziristan wears the air of a fortress under perpetual siege. Five British political agents
died in Waziristan. Ahmed reports that during a visit to Wana by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1976, the entourage of Pakistan’s Prime Minister was kept nervously awake most of the night by machine gun and rifle fire from the surrounding hills. In short, the Wana encampment in South Waziristan seems like nothing so much as a century-old version of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Politics in Waziristan is inseparable from violence. A British official once called firing on government officers the local “equivalent for presenting a petition.” Sniping, explosions on government property, and kidnappings are common enough to necessitate continuous military protection for political officials. And the forms of routinized political violence extend well beyond direct attacks on government personnel.

Because government allowances are directed to tribal elders who control violent trouble-makers in their own ranks, ambitious maliks have reason to insure that such outlaws do in fact emerge. Waziristan’s many “Robin Hoods,” who make careers out of kidnapping even non-government officials and holding them for ransom, are simultaneously encouraged and controlled by local maliks. This double game allows the clans to profit from their own capacity for causing trouble, while also establishing a violence valve, so to speak, through which they can periodically convey displeasure with the administration. “To create a problem, control it, and terminate it is an acknowledged and highly regarded yardstick of political skill,” writes Ahmed. For the most part, income in Waziristan is derived from “political activity such as raiding settled districts” and “allowances from the administration for good behavior.” Unfortunately, a people who petitions by sniper fire seems poorly suited to democratic citizenship.

In his later work, Ahmed’s insight into the subtle choreography of tribal violence dissolves in a haze of cultural apologetics. In Islam Under Siege, for example, he argues that Americans misunderstand what they see when Afghan tribesmen fire rifles into the sky, or store ammunition and weapons in caves. Although Americans associate these actions with terrorism, Ahmed calmly explains that firing into the sky is simply a mark of celebration at birth and marriage. Weapons storage, he reassures his readers, is merely “insurance against tribal rivalries.” But is there not some connection between the resort to terror tactics, on the one hand, and societies characterized by violent tribal rivalry and demonstrative gunfire, on the other?

Tribal Society

The connection arises from the way that Middle Eastern tribes are organized. These tribes are giant lineages, traced from male ancestors, which sub-divide into tribal segments, which in turn divide into clans, sub-clans, and so on, down to families, in which cousins may be pitted against cousins, or brother against brother. Traditionally existing outside the police powers of the state, Middle Eastern tribes keep order through a complex balance of power between these ever-fusing and -dividing ancestral groups. (Anthropologists call such tribes “segmentary lineages.”)

In such tribes, the central institution is the feud. Absent state policing, security depends on the willingness of every adult male in a given family, clan, tribe, etc., to take up arms in its defense. An attack on a lineage-mate must be avenged by the entire group. Likewise, any lineage member is liable to be killed for an offense committed by a relative, just as all lineage members would collectively share in compensation should peace be made (through, say, a tribal council or the mediation of a holy man). Tribal feuding and segmentation allow society to keep a rough (sometimes very rough) peace in the absence of a state. Conversely, societies with strong tribal components tend to have weak states.

A powerful code of honor ties the system together. Among the Pushtun tribes that populate Waziristan and much of Afghanistan, that code is called “Pushtunwali.” Avenging lineage honor is only one aspect of Pushtunwali. The code also mandates that hospitality and sanctuary be provided to any stranger requesting them. Thus a means is provided whereby, in the absence of a state, zones of security are established for travelers. Yet the system is based on an ever-shifting balance of terror which turns friends into enemies, and back again into friends, in a heartbeat. And this ethos of honor writes violent revenge and collective guilt deep into the cultural psyche. Although the British political agents who learned to live with Pushtunwali generally lionized it, Winston Churchill condemned it as a “system of ethics, which regards treachery and violence as virtues rather than vices.” In any case, the dynamics of the war on terror are easily recognizable as an extension of this tribal system of collective guilt, honor, humiliation, and revenge.

A Symbol of Honor

The years immediately prior to Ahmed’s term as South Waziristan’s P.A. saw the rise and seeming collapse of an Islamist rebellion that, in retrospect, clearly stands as a precursor to the Taliban. Led by a mullah named Noor Muhammad, the movement was crushed by Pakistan’s army in 1976. Armed with documentary resources, including access to the personal diary of Noor Muhammad, Ahmed takes us through the riveting story of this uprising.

On the one hand, the mullah’s rebellion was classically Islamist. He established a traditional madrassah (religious school) in South Waziristan, whose students, or talibs (whence the word “Taliban”), were among the rebellion’s core supporters. He criticized Pakistan’s government for failing to adopt Islamic law, forbade the use of “un-Islamic” innovations, like the radio, and had violators of his various prohibitions beaten. Yet these familiar Islamist features were built upon a tribal foundation. The mullah’s ascent was due, in part, to his ability to mediate tribal feuds.

South Waziristan is populated by two major tribes, the Wazirs and the Mahsuds. (A century ago the Mahsuds were part of the Wazirs, but have since split off and gained their own identity.) The Mahsuds traditionally outnumbered the Wazirs and were at least relatively more integrated into modern society. After Pakistan gained independence in 1947, a few Mahsuds moved to “settled areas” and entered school. Many of these made their way into government service, thus connecting the Mahsuds to influential bureaucratic networks. Others started businesses, which brought a modern source of wealth to the tribe.

Noor Muhammad’s ability to resolve tribal feuds at a time when the Wazirs felt intense humiliation in the face of rising Mahsud power and wealth, turned him into a symbol of Wazir honor. Under the mullah’s leadership, the Wazirs effectively declared a jihad against both the government of Pakistan and the Mahsuds, demanding a separate tribal agency for themselves. Properly speaking, of course, a jihad can only be fought against non-Muslims. The mullah solved this problem by declaring the Mahsuds to be infidels– a tribe of toadies to an un-Islamic Pakistani regime– who had sold out their Wazir cousins for government allowances and debased modern ways. Of course, this accusation of infidelity is exactly how al-Qaeda and the Taliban justify their attacks on fellow Muslims today.

Notice, too, that Noor Muhammad’s movement developed in the early ’70s, well before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The rise of the Taliban is often ascribed to “blowback” from CIA support of Pakistani Islamists who fought the Soviets in the 1980s. Ahmed’s account shows that simplistic “blame America” theories cannot hold. Critics of the blowback argument rightly note that America had no other means of fighting the Soviet invasion than to work through the Pakistani government, which for its own reasons needed to deploy Islamist proxies. (Supporting Pushtun nationalist proxies, the only other option, would have played into the ha
nds of those in Afghanistan and India seeking to dismember Pakistan.) The problem is that this entire debate passes over the deeper social sources of the contemporary Islamist ascendancy.

Ahmed argues that the Mullah’s insurrection was “generated by Muslim actors as a result of internal tensions in society.” And at one level, this proto-Taliban movement was deeply traditional. Mullah-led tribal rebellions have a long history, not only in Waziristan but in Muslim society as a whole. The great 14th-century philosopher-sociologist Ibn Khaldun famously described a cyclical process in which, unified by a righteous mullah, fierce outlying tribes conquer an effete and corrupt state. Over time the new set of ruling tribesmen falls into luxury, disunity, and corruption, and is in turn overthrown by another coalition of the righteous. These rebellions generally fuse an Islamic aspect with some narrower tribal interest, and the Wazirs’ jihad against an allegedly “infidel” rival tribe certainly fits the bill.

There may be at least something new under that harsh Waziristan sun, however. Modernity’s manifold economic opportunities seem to supercharge traditional tribal resentment at substantial disparities of wealth and status. And paradoxically, modern wealth also subverts such shallow internal tribal hierarchies as once existed, with explosive results.

Cultural Self-defense

Following the oil boom of the 1970s, Wazirs and Mahsuds alike migrated to the Persian Gulf to work the oil fields and send their remittances back home. Maliks from the most prestigious tribal lineages initially resisted the call of migration. So the oil boom created an opening that “depressed lineages” happily filled. By the time the maliks began to send their sons to the Gulf, intra-tribal disparities of wealth and influence were disappearing.

So while the Mahsuds had outpaced the Wazirs, the power of maliks was waning among the Wazirs themselves. Now the Wazirs could afford to throw off those pliant elders who had taken and distributed British and later the Pakistan government’s pelf; and by supporting a radical mullah, the restive tribe could feed its resentment of both the government and the Mahsuds.

As Ahmed notes, and in pointed contrast to the “poverty theory” of Islamism, modern education and wealth seem to have sparked this early Islamist rebellion. Instead of spurring further development, economic opportunities have fed the traditionalist reaction. Waziristan’s tribesmen understand full well that their rulers mean to transform their way of life, thereby “taming” them through the seductions of education and modern forms of wealth. While some have accepted the trade, the majority consciously reject it. During the colonial period, education was despised as an infidel plot. In the 1970s conservative tribesmen systematically destroyed electrical poles, which were seen as a threat to Waziristan’s isolation and therefore to the survival of traditional Pushtun culture. Economic development might well “tame” these tribesmen, yet poverty is less the cause of their warlike ways than the result of a deliberate decision to preserve their traditional way of life– their Pushtun honor– even at material cost.

The Islamist revolution is a conscious choice– an act of cultural self-defense against the intrusions and seductions of an alien world. Although the social foundations of the traditional Muslim way of life have been shaken, they are far from broken. So long as these social foundations cohere, advancing globalization will provoke more rebellion, not less– whatever America decides to do in Iraq and beyond. The root of the problem is neither domestic poverty nor American foreign policy, but the tension between Muslim social life and globalizing modernity itself.

Islam or Tribalism?

In a sense, we are the Mahsuds. The Wazirs ached with humiliation at the loss of their dominance. Their grudge against the Mahsuds stemmed far more from Waziri decline than from any specific complaint. Even as the Mahsuds were scapegoated for the Wazirs’ diminishment, America and the West have been scapegoated for worldwide Muslim decline. Addressing Muslim “grievances” won’t solve this problem, because the professed grievances didn’t start the jihad to begin with.

Ahmed is clearly embarrassed by the Wazirs’ intra-Muslim jihad against the Mahsuds. Foreshadowing his later apologetics, he is at pains to distinguish between “authentic” Islam and Noor Muhammad’s seemingly bogus claim of Mahsud infidelity– a claim obviously rooted in narrow tribal rivalry and interest. In his recent work, Ahmed puts much of what seems warlike or problematic in traditional Muslim society into the “tribal” basket, segregating out a supposedly pure and peaceful Islam. There is some justification for this procedure. Middle Eastern conceptions of honor, marriage practices, female seclusion, revenge, and much else can fairly be understood as practices with tribal roots, rather than formal Islamic commandments. Reformist Muslims therefore make a point of separating the tribal dross from authentic Islamic teachings.

Yet there is clearly some sort of “elective affinity” between Islam, in the strict sense, and tribal social life. The two levels interact and interpenetrate, leaving the boundaries undefined. Pushtuns who set out to avenge purely personal offences will dress and scent themselves as if embarking on jihad. So a given theologian’s “true” Islam is one thing;”actual existing” Islam on the ground is another. Noor Muhammad’s jihad against Muslims he judged to be infidels turns out to be representative of the new religious wave, and reflects a complex and long-standing Muslim synthesis between theology and tribalism. Nor was the mullah’s accusation of Mahsud infidelity without resonance. He accurately identified the modernist thread that united his immediate tribal enemies, the developing state of Pakistan, and ultimately the West itself.

Rediscovering Classic Strategies

If Islamist rebellion and narrow tribal interest are difficult to disentangle, the opportunity to separate them is the key to America’s sophisticated new counterinsurgency strategy (actually a rediscovery of classic British and Pakistani strategies for dealing with Muslim tribes). Inveterate Wazir/Mahsud rivalry was the single greatest weakness of the tribes throughout the British era in Waziristan. The British ignored tribal feuding when the stakes were small. Yet if one tribe seemed at risk of gaining a permanent upper hand, the Brits intervened to keep opponents more-or-less equally at each other’s throats. And since nearly every clan trouble-maker has rival kin, the PA cultivated multiple factions, so as to play one off against the other. Under Pakistan, the tribes have sometimes turned this game against the government, playing a sympathetic official (often a fellow Pushtun) against a rival administrator.

America’s new counter-insurgency strategy seeks to appeal to tribal interests, as a way of breaking the link between al-Qaeda’s global jihad and its erstwhile Sunni allies in Iraq. So far the new strategy has helped to stabilize Anbar and other rebellious tribal regions in Iraq. The danger is that the tribal winds will shift, and our military will likely come under constant pressure to favor one tribal faction or another. If mishandled, this could drive less favored clans back into enemy hands. Tribal politics can be mastered, yet it requires a constant presence. And learning to play the tribal game is very different from establishing a genuine democracy, which would mean transcending the game itself.

Can America or Pakistan adopt this new strategy in Waziristan itself– breaking the link between al-Qaeda and the tribal coalition now united against us in jihad? Theoretically this is possible, yet the outlook is far from ideal. Al-Qaeda has already murdered many of Waziristan’s maliks. (Mullah Noor Muhammad rose to power in
the ’70s on assassination threats and violence against traditional maliks.) Insofar as economic and educational change has penetrated Pakistan’s tribal areas, it seems to have undercut the basis for creating a new generation of government-friendly maliks, and fed into a populist Islamist revolt instead. Nevertheless, there are unconfirmed reports that America and Pakistan are even now exploiting latent tensions between al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan.

In the 1970s, once Noor Muhammad’s combination Islamist rebellion/tribal war got out of hand, Pakistan was forced to crush it. The army bulldozed Wana’s thriving traditional market, turning the Wazirs’ most important trading center into little more than freshly plowed ground. Tipped off, the mullah took to the hills. Employing tactics reminiscent of Britain’s original P.A.s, Pakistan seized his followers’ property and systematically blew up their homes and encampments. After three months of this, the disheveled mullah and his followers came down from the hills and surrendered. Nowadays, burning a thriving Waziristan marketplace to the ground and blowing up civilian settlements as ways of getting to Osama bin Laden would doubtless elicit global howls of protest. Yet far from the glare of international publicity, Pakistan once freely employed such tactics.

Sunny Conclusions

When, a couple of years after the destruction of Wana’s market, Ahmed took over as P.A., the defeated Wazirs were looking to restore their lost honor and prove their loyalty to Pakistan. Trained as an anthropologist and convinced he could use the Pushtun’s code of honor to good effect, he decided to give the Wazirs their chance. Breaking with established agency precedence, he placed his own life at risk by taking regular evening strolls around Wana without bodyguards. Ahmed could easily have been kidnapped and held in exchange for the imprisoned mullah’s release, but the Wazirs left him untouched.

Ahmed then visited the Wazirs’ holiest shrine, on the far border with Afghanistan– territory where no P.A. had ever set foot. As a guest of the Wazirs, he once again staked his own life and honor on the Pushtunwali of his Wazir hosts. In this way, he both pacified the Wazirs and extended Pakistan’s writ in Waziristan further than it had ever gone. He even managed to coax a number of the region’s storied “Robin Hoods” into surrender.

Based on these impressive successes, Ahmed concludes in his book that despite their reputation for violence and double-dealing, tribesmen can be peaceably governed within the terms of their own code of honor, if only they are given the chance. He regards solving tribal problems through military action as a sign of failure. Unfortunately, despite his considerable insight, his optimistic conclusions far outrun the terms of his own account.

Ahmed was the consummate good cop, in the right place at the right time. His ability to use the Pushtunwali code to evoke the best in the Wazirs clearly depended upon the army’s violent actions in Wana two years before. Even the cross-border miscreants talked into surrender were balancing the refuge and respect he promised against the substantial dangers of living under the Soviets, who had entered Afghanistan during Ahmed’s term. The former P.A. acknowledges some of this in passing, yet his unrelievedly sunny conclusions about tribal governance don’t begin to acknowledge the depth of his own dependence on Soviet and Pakistani bad cops for success. His account has much to teach us. The honor code can indeed serve to offset and minimize tribal violence, and that effect can be encouraged by wise rule. But taken alone, Ahmed’s analysis and prescriptions are dangerously misleading and incomplete.

The thesis of his next book, Islam Under Siege, was an extension of the analysis presented in Resistance and Control in Pakistan. The Muslim world as a whole is suffering from a loss of dignity and honor, Ahmed argues. As mass-scale urbanization, uneven economic development, migration, and demographic expansion undercut traditional social forms, the Muslim response has been to resist these changes and interpret them as outrages against collective honor. His solution was for the West to accept, support, and ally with traditional Muslim society, thereby helping the Islamic world to recapture its lost sense of honor.

The Aligarh Model

Ahmed’s latest book, Journey Into Islam, is riven by tensions between the author’s public battle against “Islamophobia” and his reluctant acknowledgment that the Islamist ascendancy might be worth fearing after all. Journey Into Islam is based on Ahmed’s recent travels across the global Muslim community, and he bills this tour of the Muslim world (with American students in tow) as an “anthropological excursion.” Yet constant coverage of his entourage in Middle Eastern media outlets likely gentled his interviewees’ responses. Pictures of Ahmed and his smiling American students posing with friendly Muslims get the central message across. Unless one desperately wants to be persuaded that all is well, however, his reassurances fall flat.

The book’s Panglossian facade is broken by a single, searingly powerful moment. Ahmed’s entourage visited Aligarh University in India, expecting to rediscover an academic beacon of Anglo-liberalism that had long and famously spread democratic values throughout India and Pakistan. Aligarh University shaped Ahmed himself in his youth, allowing him to synthesize his pride in Islam with a genuinely liberal and modern sensibility.

Yet moments after entering the Aligarh University campus, Ahmed and his American companions were surrounded by furious Muslims students praising bin Laden and raging at President George W. Bush. Students came even closer to descending into mob violence here, at India’s erstwhile bastion of Muslim liberalism, than they had during Ahmed’s visit to Deoband, the acknowledged center of South Asian Islamism. This frightening, unexpected encounter at his beloved alma mater was clearly agonizing for Ahmed, and forced him to acknowledge the collapse of the “Aligarh model” of liberal Islam. “The nation-state and the Aligarh model are not a viable alternative in the Muslim world at present,” he concedes sadly.

This is indeed a tragedy. Ahmed himself embodies another side of the Aligarh model’s fate in today’s world. Modern and liberal though he may be, he is unwilling to concede the need for fundamental reform within Islam. Instead of facing the evident incompatibility with modernity of core aspects of Muslim religious and social life, he reverts to sanitized accounts, accusations of Islamophobia, and complaints about American foreign policy. Although he bitterly resents the influence of Bernard Lewis on American conservatives, Ahmed periodically (and reluctantly) mimics Lewis’s claim that Americans are being scapegoated for the Muslim world’s own decline. Lewis’s conviction that the use of force must be a key aspect of American foreign policy in the Middle East infuriates Ahmed. Yet, rightly understood, his own account in Resistance and Control in Pakistan confirms Lewis’s insight. Without the destruction of the Wana market and the capture of Noor Muhammad, not to mention the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ahmed’s gentle, honor-based rule in Waziristan would not have been possible.

Long-term Struggle

In a sense, global Islam is now Waziristan writ large. Ahmed rightly spots tribal themes of honor and solidarity throughout the Muslim world– even in places where tribal social organization per se has receded. Literally and figuratively, Wazirsitan now seeks to awaken the tribal jihadist side of the global Muslim soul. This has effectively thrust the leaders of the Western world into the role of British and Pakistani P.A.s (a famously exhausting job, Ahmed reminds us)
. With technological advance having placed once-distant threats at our doorstep, the West may soon resemble South Waziristan’s perpetually besieged encampment at Wana. Perhaps it already does. Yet Waziristan was ruled indirectly, without ordinary law or policing. Preventing terror plots and the development of weapons of mass destruction requires a more active hand.

Muslim society will have to reform far more profoundly than Akbar Ahmed concedes if the worst is to be avoided. Our best option may be to reintroduce somehow the Aligarh University tradition of liberal learning and merit-based employment (independent of kinship ties) to the Muslim world. With our strategy in Iraq now reinforcing tribalism, the obvious front to try this is Europe, where concerted efforts must be made to assimilate Muslims to Western values. Globalization might then work for us, as cultural changes bounce back to the Middle East.

Even in the best case, we face a long-term struggle. Simmering tensions between modernity and Muslim social life are coming to a head. Yet all our present recent schemes are patchwork. And someday, perhaps at the peak of a post-emergency civil war between the army and the Islamists in Pakistan, the military steamroller may be called upon to settle the Waziristan problem once and for all. Who knows if, even then, it will work.

Books by Akbar S. Ahmed discussed in this essay:

Resistance and Control in Pakistan: Revised Edition

Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honour World

Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization

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