Imperialism, religion and class in Swat

Issue: 123

Sartaj Khan

The Pakistan military claimed at the beginning of June that it had achieved success in its all-out assault on Taliban insurgents after driving more than two million people from the Swat Valley and other areas of the north west of the country. The assault followed the breakdown of an agreement reached in February between the government and Sufi Mohammad, leader of one of the Islamist groups, for Swat’s legal code to be based on Nizam-e-Adl—an attempt to mix constitutional rules with the local interpretation of sharia law. The agreement was meant to bring an end to fighting between the Pakistan army and the Swat Taliban, led by Sufi Muhammad’s son in law, Maulana Fazullah.

The military onslaught happened after pressure from the US, which worried about the implications an agreement between the Pakistan government and the Taliban would have for its operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Pakistan. But the assault found favour with most liberal and “civil society” opinion, and much of the left, even if this was sometimes mixed with horror at the effects on civilians. Articles in the Pakistani press habitually refer to the “barbarity” of “terrorist” rule in Swat. This feeling was given a sharp edge by a mobile phone video supposedly showing a 17 year old woman receiving 30 whippings for “illicit” relations with a man—although other reports claim that the video was fraudulent and that the woman has denied she was whipped. 1 Whatever the truth of the matter, the video played a role in leading much of the left internationally to take a similar approach to the Pakistani liberals, treating the Pakistan Taliban as if it were as much a foreign force in Swat as the Pakistan army or the US army in Afghanistan. Yet there is strong evidence of a class element to the conflict. The New York Times could report in April, “The Taliban have advanced deeper into Pakistan by engineering a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants…the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power. To do so, the militants organised peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops.”

The Karachi newspaper The News has carried a debate which, according to one far left contributor, “has pitted those who claim that the situation in Swat is a reflection of longstanding class inequities against those who refute this notion of ‘class war’; while the former suggest that the ‘Taliban’ has generated support amongst the subordinate classes, the latter argue that the ‘Taliban’ has imposed itself in the area on the basis of brute force”. 2 One of the articles prompting the debate, reprinted in edited form here, came from Sartaj Khan of the International Socialists of Pakistan.

Society in Swat is divided bitterly on ethnic and class bases. Those known as Khans are feudals, while those known as Pushtun, Sayed and Miagan are owners of considerable cultivated land. These groups were dominant for centuries before they were challenged from two sides—by the emerging commercial bourgeoisies and new middle classes on one side and the landless on the other. There are two sets of non-landowning groups. First there are the old inhabitants of the valley—the Gujars, Ajar, Khostanis and Kami Kamins—marginalised by the conquest by the elite groups in the 16th century. These are the “wretched of the earth” who have been denied their right to the land. Then there are the “commoners”, the traditional petty bourgeoisie, such as blacksmiths, cobblers and barbers.

The anthropologist Fredrik Barth, who studied the area 40 years ago, described the divisions as analogous to that of the caste system in India, with separate mosques and graveyards for elite groups and the commons. He found the non-landowning groups to be “directly or indirectly dependent on the landowners both politically and economically”.

However, a commercial bourgeoisie and a so-called “new middle class” emerged to challenge the old Khanite landed classes across the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). This is connected with the migration of large numbers of Swat’s inhabitants to industrial zones such as in Karachi since the 1960s. Most worked in the textile industry but a small minority did emerge as middle class. From the 1980s onwards people from Swat have also travelled to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The impact of the remittances from these migrants is uneven. Abid Qaiym Suleri and Kevin Savage claim that “remittance households are generally better off than non-remittance, own better houses and more valuable assets”; a Sustainable Development Policy Institute discussion paper notes “the poverty alleviation often associated with labour migration has yet to reach rural NWFP”.

Further contributing to the growth of the middle class has been the money made by selling off forest, and smuggling goods, weapons and drugs. Real estate agents, transporters, contractors, traders, personnel in the state bureaucracy and the armed forces, and, above all, government agents from the periods of the Zia and Musharraf military regimes have wealth and power from sources other than land. So too do some from the old exploiting classes. These changes have considerable implications for the social order.

NWFP is the poorest province of Pakistan with 43 percent poverty. Some 85 percent of the population live in the rural areas. Swat is 17th out of 24 districts in NWFP ranked in terms of average income. The situation is deteriorating with every passing day.

The rise of Islamism

Three movements, all in the guise of Islamism, arose to give expression to the desires of the petty bourgeoisies and new middle classes. They have each challenged the dominance of the Khanite landed autocracy. Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammad (TNSM) was founded by Sufi Muhammad in 1992. It enjoyed the support of former servicemen and the commercial bourgeoisie, capitalising on two vital issues: the judicial system imposed on Provincially Tribal Administered Areas (PATA) and the corrupt national political system. Both systems alienated the masses of Swat.

Swat was a “princely state” until it was fully absorbed into Pakistan in 1969 and subjected to the PATA regulations.3 The old Jirga of Kheels (council of tribes) that had endorsed previous rulers was replaced by the corrupt Dala (or ParaJamba) system, where leaders supported adherents by hook or crook, concentrated on petty issues and ignored the common cause. The year Swat merged with Pakistan was also a year of the mass peasant upheaval in the country. The landless occupied the land they cultivated. Thanks to this movement, Gujars, mostly peasants, acquired up to 42 percent of land in some villages. But settlements of these cases are still pending in the courts.

The judicial system in Pakistan is corrupt to the core and land cases take decades to process. The more remote the rural area is, the greater the likelihood that the case will be prolonged. A common view is that a single generation never sees a settlement in its own lifetime.

The arrival of neoliberalism in the 1990s saw a speculative boom in real estate. But the real estate agents who hoped to benefit from this also saw their land deals and commissions held up by the judicial system. Sufi Muhammad’s TNSM gained support because of these judicial delays. It presented sharia law as the answer to the public grievances, most significantly the rapid settlement of land disputes. But in 2001 TNSM’s leaders were arrested after it mobilised publicly for jihad in Afghanistan against the US invasion. This allowed the reformist Islamists’ political coalition, the MMA,4 to gain in the elections of 2002. Their petty bourgeois leadership mobilised the rural poor to defeat the politics of Dala-Para-Jamba but they too were soon found to be corrupt, alienating the masses. The secular Pushtun nationalists of the Awami National Party5 won the elections in 2008 but lost the support of the people even more quickly. The Pakistan Taliban were waiting in the wings.

The social base of the Taliban in Swat

Islamism builds at the expense of the liberal-left, secular nationalist movement. The Pushtun nationalism of the Awami National Party and Islamic reformism of the MMA failed to challenge the ruling elite or imperialism, mainly due to their class character. The anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Taliban largely displaced the secular nationalists, portraying corrupt rulers as puppets responsible for the poverty and misery in the country.

Poverty had increased in the 1990s, after declining in the 1970s and 1980s. The globalisation of war and the integration of Pakistan into the world market paved the way for the emergence of new movements and brought changes to old ones. Islam and Islamic leaders could transcend the boundaries of a society dominated by ethnic, cultural and tribal lineages, uniting people in a common cause. Class interests could be disseminated in the name of Islam and sharia. That is how Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Swat Taliban, appeared on the scene. A dropout from a school in Mingora and a wire-lift operator who worked for Rs 1500 (around £15) per month, he emerged at the age of 28 as the leader of his organisation.

He initially enjoyed support from all sections of society. Prince Asfandiar Amir Zeb, the descendant of the family that ruled Swat for years and the grandson of a former president of Pakistan, said, “Quick justice and efficient government” was what “people wanted” and this was “what the people saw” in Fazlullah. Fazlullah’s madrassa (religious school) in Swat was built with the support of the petty bourgeoisie and the middle class, with people across the valley donating $2.5 million for the cause. Every village was given a specific target and a turn at working for the building.

But the big landlords kept their distance and as the movement gained momentum it changed rapidly. As it became more radicalised, resentment developed among sections of the middle classes. Today the militant sections of the movement come from the rural poor—a significant difference with the petty bourgeois and middle class domination of the TNSM in its prime.

According to Khadim Hussain (an academic who supports military action in Swat), Fazlullah “communicates with…groups that do not have a share in the land distribution of the area…in their language”. His “supporters in the marginalised groups get a sense of empowerment… Both the state and the traditional elites along with the political elites of the valley…have all along failed to respond to the aspirations of those who remained marginalised.”

Militants are targeting Khans regardless of their political affiliations. According to journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, “The militants justify the attacks by alleging that the Khans committed excesses on the common and landless people in the past.” The police and administration always sided with feudals so they too are being targeted.

The first political leader who came under attack from militants was Malik Bakhat Baidar. He was a businessman, vice-president of the Swat Awami National Party, belonged to a wealthy family and was in close contact with the armed forces. Even Prince Asfandiar Amir Zeb was not spared. He bitterly opposed Fazlullah and frequently requested that dictator General Musharraf undertake military operations against the TNSM. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)6 leader Mohammad Sher Khan and his family were targeted many times. He escaped narrowly but his brother, Kabir Khan, was killed along with his wife and son. The two brothers of another PPP leader, Mohammad Zimmer, were also assassinated.

After the collapse of the first peace talks and army operation in Swat last year, the feudals from the Awami National Party came under attack from the militants. The biggest Khan, former federal minister Afzal Khan Lala, was attacked several times but survived. Ministers from Swat and all seven members of the provincial assembly were forced to take refuge in Peshawar or Islamabad.

The present conflict in Swat grew out of a broader struggle that has been waged by the exploited classes for centuries. The agreement in February was a victory for the militants, but they were led by the madrassa-owning and small landholding layer of petty bourgeoisie. Instead of liberation from the Khans and state rule, the leaders of the uprising agreed to share control with them, while continuing to use the rhetoric of liberation. The agreement allowed exceptional repressive power through the open-ended sharia, which was essential for the petty bourgeoisie to suppress the expectations of the lower classes. It recognised the failure of the neoliberal order but in a way that expressed the desire for liberation of the petty bourgeoisie alone. Everybody knew that the agreement would break down. The Pakistani military regarded it as only a temporary expedient. Their spokesman said on the eve of the agreement that it was only a pause.

Much of the left has taken the same position as over the occupation of Afghanistan: it is against the occupiers and occupied as well; against the imperialist invasion and “terrorism” at the same time. Generally the left is bankrupt and fails to understand the dynamics of capitalism or the implications of war, and consequently the resistance to it. It is still living in the era of the 1960s: if there is class struggle it must be waged under the leadership of an enlightened and educated Maoist intelligentsia under a red banner. No class war in the name of religion is seen as possible.

Meanwhile two and a half million people have been forced from their homes. The society of Swat, once considered a paradise, has turned into hell.


1: “Swat Girl Denies Flogging by Taliban”, The News, Karachi, 6 April 2009.

2: Asim Sjjadd Akhtar, “Some Observations On The War In Swat”, The News, Karachi, 29 January, 2009,

3: Kalim Bahadur, Democracy in Pakistan (Har-Anand Publications, 1998), p310.

4: The coalition of Islamist parties that contests elections and ran the NWFP government until last year’s elections.

5: The Awami National Party supports the Pakistani People’s Party government.

6: The party of the Bhutto family and of the current president, Asif Ali Zadari (Benazir Bhutto’s widower); originally formed in the late 1960s with a social democratic colouring, it is dominated by rich landowners and supportive of US imperialism.