Salman Masoodm, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: April 08. 2009 8:30AM UAE / April 8. 2009 4:30AM GMT
ISLAMABAD // The video of a teenage girl being whipped in public by the Pakistani Taliban has riveted the country and has highlighted an ideologically strained and divided society faced with the growing threats of Talibanisation and extremism, analysts say.
The video, broadcast last week on Pakistani television and widely posted on the internet, showed a 17-year-old from the Kabal area of the restive Swat district. The Taliban publicly flogged her after she was accused of having an illicit relationship with a neighbour.
Her screams and pleas for mercy in the two-minute video sent ripples of shock across the country and the incident was widely and immediately condemned.
But soon, dissenting voices from the religious Right in defence of the video and even claims about its veracity started to surface.
In February, the provincial government of Awami National Party (ANP), a traditionally secular political party, in the North West Frontier Province entered into a peace deal with the Taliban in Swat. In return for the establishment of Islamic courts, the Taliban agreed to put an end to months of violence as they battled with the Pakistani military.
The leaders of the ANP claimed that the video was recorded in January before the peace deal was signed.
Jamaat-i-Islami, an Islamic political party, claimed the video was “part of a conspiracy”. A statement by the group said the release of the video seemed to be an attempt to stop the implementation of Islamic law in Swat.
The Taliban in Swat also claimed the video was a fake even though their spokesman had initially acknowledged that the incident did take place.
However, there has been a backlash against the video.
“The right wing in Pakistan is trying to say that the video is fake or that if it happened it was kosher,” Raza Rumi, a columnist for The Friday Times, the country’s most popular weekly paper, said in an interview.
“What they have failed to understand is that the brutality shown in the video has swung public opinion. People are aghast.”
Last weekend, there was an outpouring of condemnation as thousands of citizens took to the streets in all major cities.
“The urban middle class has realised that the country’s survival as a civilised society is at stake,” Rumi said. “The airing of the video was a big blow to the agenda of those who want Talibanisation in the country as there was a big backlash against it.”
Rumi said a reason why the politicians from the ANP also tried to downplay the video was because of political expediency. “They have a pragmatic issue at hand. If the peace deal doesn’t work then there will be more bloodshed and it will reflect very badly on the ANP. Their denial of the video is just a political gimmick,” he said.
However, despite the condemnation of the incident, the Pakistani Taliban are getting some support in the country, particularly defence of some of their actions as acts of retribution in response to drone attacks by the United States.
The attacks have targeted Taliban and al Qa’eda militants but are unpopular throughout the country. Politicians from both the opposition and the ruling party have condemned them as a, “violation of the country’s sovereignty”. Ordinary Pakistanis feel the drone attacks have mostly resulted in the deaths of civilians.
“For most of the Pakistanis, the narrative of the Taliban is very compelling,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a political economist based in Islamabad. And this was not because the society wants to be Talibanised but because the religious Right hijacks the language of the Taliban and al Qa’eda, he said.
That is why an attempt was made by the religious segment to divert the attention from the flogging incident to the drone attacks by the US inside Pakistan, Mr Zaidi said.
“The United States is out of step with the people of Pakistan as it fails to recognise the sense of kin Pakistanis have with fellow Muslims. The drone attacks are equated with the murder of innocent Muslims.”
The lack of moral clarity among ordinary Pakistanis regarding terrorism comes from confusion between political violence and faith, Mr Zaidi said.
“There are a lot of similarities between the religious symbols of Islam and the terrorist groups using the name of Islam,” he said.
“Furthermore, the state has tolerated and cultivated an angry and political Islam. That explains part of the trouble.”
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a well-known political analyst, in The Daily Times, a Lahore-based daily newspaper wrote: “This pro-militancy mindset cultivated by the Pakistani establishment has resulted in divided thinking on terrorism in non-official and official circles, including the security and intelligence apparatus.
“The argument that terrorism is a threat to Pakistan does not necessarily mean that they think Pakistan’s counterterrorism is justified or that militant groups are responsible for Pakistan’s predicament.”
The ambiguous approach, both by the government and the public, coupled with weak political will, is responsible for Pakistan’s inability to cope with terrorism, Rizvi said.