VIEW: Tribal Targets —Saleem H Ali
Once we are able to recognise our mutual interdependence on global resources, the positive aspects of tribalism, as exemplified by indigenous languages, art and learning, will shine through
For much of the Pakistan’s history, the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) have been off limits to the central government both in terms of establishing systems of governance systems and providing social services. Indeed, the fact that the tribal belt needed governing was something no one dared advance in Islamabad’s halls of power; there was a stale sense of sanctity ascribed to this terrain that most were too afraid to tread upon. Thus, with scant investment in educational infrastructure and social development, the tribal areas became a twilight zone for those who wished to cling to a bygone warrior era.
The missiles that destroyed a madrassah in Bijaur agency last week have alerted Pakistanis about how President Musharraf has taken it upon himself to tread the terra incognito that is the tribal belt. That may be so, but one wonders whether the government has considered what constitutes the tribal identity in the greater context of the pan-Islamism so many in the frontier region claim to espouse?
The other target for the current government is Baloch communities who also frame their identity in tribal terms albeit with a much lesser allegiance to Islam. As one Baluch leader recently remarked in an interview to the BBC, betrayal of his tribal identity would be, for him, an act of kufr (blasphemy).
A mention of the word kufr leads us to another tribal group that has been given the epithet of kafir (infidel) though with more benign connotations. The fabled Kafir-Kalash (also known as the Kalasha) are the most celebrated “infidels” of Pakistan and have lived in relatively peaceful coexistence with their Muslim neighbors in the Chitral valley. Recently, however, even this remote community of less than 3000 individuals has been under siege by the forces of religious intolerance and economic intrusion.
As polytheists, the Kalasha have found themselves in the unenviable category of mushrikeen and hence particularly ripe for conversion. Unlike their ethnically similar neighbors in Nuristan, the Kalasha have so far been spared any cornered conversions but this may change as religious radicalisation spreads across the tribal frontier. While the Islamic doctrine is very clear on there being “no compulsion in religion” (Surah Baqarah, verse 256), there is no denying the pressure of evangelism in Pakistan whether it is directed towards cricket teams or remote tribal communities.
Tribal populations constitute ancient social systems that historically provided a means of survival under hostile environmental conditions. At one level, we should try to transcend “tribalism” as broader conceptions of human civilization become widely accepted; on the other hand, however, these tribal affiliations give us distinct and diverse cultural traditions — food, music and language, which provide texture and meaning to the fabric of humanity.
Unlike Judaism, both Christianity and Islam have attempted to go beyond tribal identity as a binding force. All ethnic groups are welcome to join in without any requirement of matrilineal association or ethnic descent as was traditionally the case with Judaism. However, the darker side of this universalism in the later two Abrahamic faiths has been their propensity to proselytize and claim exclusivity over salvation. By claiming that only their adherents can reach heaven, many Muslims and Christians have themselves formed tribal identities that are connected by scripture rather than ethnicity or genetics.
The international community is confronted with the dilemma of whether or not religious identity should be subsumed within the broader categorisation of “culture” when it serves to negate other cultural attributes such as music and art. Last year, I attended a meeting of the United Nations Permanent forum on Indigenous People in New York. This was a colourful gathering of tribal groups from around the world who defined themselves as having the most continuous and close relationship to their region of habitation. There was one Pakistani delegate at the meeting from Chitral who repeatedly expressed concerns about the perils of nationalism in stifling tribal expression.
Given this exposure to the debate on indigenous recognition, it was gratifying to learn in June this year that the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a landmark declaration on the rights of indigenous people. Pakistan voted in favor of the declaration along with 44 other members. Only two members of the council voted against the declaration — Russia and Canada, who are geographically the world’s first and second largest countries respectively.
Geographic expanse may explain the fear of these two countries in endorsing some aspects of the declaration; perhaps they feel it could erode the sense of national identity. Yet, if we are to mitigate threats to national unity and contain conflict escalation, we must develop a truly global identity which trumps the divisive aspects of tribalism at multiple levels.
Once we are able to recognise our mutual interdependence on global resources, the positive aspects of tribalism, as exemplified by indigenous languages, art and learning, will shine through. Religious devotion and patriotism to national identities could also coexist in such a world but with due deference to the larger goal of a truly “civil” society.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a Senior Fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com