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Faith Trumps Fear For Anti-Taliban Politician In Pakistan

"There is no question of surrending," says Afzal Khan. (photo courtesy PSDP)
The Swat Valley, where for two years local Taliban have been trying to establish Shari'a law, is at the center of the Pakistan government's efforts to root out extremism. Military operations launched in late 2007 in the once-popular tourist region of Northwest Frontier Province has cost the lives of some 2,000 civilians and hundreds of government soldiers. And as the effort gains fresh momentum -- 35 Islamist militants were reported killed in an overnight raid conducted on February 2-3 -- thousands of desperate locals, fearing reprisals from the Taliban, are looking to flee.

Afzal Khan, whom locals refer to as "lala" -- or "elder brother" in Pashto -- is an 82-year-old Pashtun nationalist politician who has emerged as a symbol of the resistance to Taliban extremism in the Swat Valley. Khan has survived numerous assassination attempts, but he nevertheless continues to oppose the Taliban and their representation of Islam. In an interview with RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Najib Aamir, Khan explains why.

RFE/RL: You top the "hit list" recently issued by the Taliban, and which includes a number of politicians and prominent residents of Pakistan's Swat Valley. Do you intend to surrender to the Taliban's Shari'a court, as they have demanded?

So your life reaches a point when going to mosque is virtually equal to running to a trench...Imagine living under such circumstances.
Afzal Khan:
If the Taliban had their own state, and they had a president or a prime minister or a king, and it functioned like a [legitimate state] system -- then they would have a judicial system and courts that would follow Islamic law, Shari'a. But if they don't have a state or a political system, then whose court should I go to and why?

Thus, there is no question of surrendering to such a court. I am a Muslim and, therefore, I believe that only almighty God, who has created us all, will decide how and when to take someone's life. This is my homeland and my people are here, so what can I do? Should I leave my home and my people? But where will I go? Why should I leave -- just because of the fear of death?

RFE/RL: Being a leader of the Awami National Party that leads the provincial government, are you satisfied with the policies it is pursuing to restore peace and stability to Swat?

Khan: I was part of the central and provincial governments [as a cabinet member] in the past, and I know that the central government exerts the real authority. The situation here is [really alarming] because the police have collapsed. And we don't have another [local] armed force. The army is a last resort that the state is now using [to establish its authority]. If this fails, unfortunately, we will have a revolution. I believe that if all institutions honestly play their respective roles, then we won't face a real problem in [establishing authority].

When I was being treated in the hospital, I told journalists that if I ever met our attackers, I would ask them, 'What was our crime? I have never even slapped anybody. Why then are you trying to kill us?'
RFE/RL: Mountainous Swat was once a tourist haven. But considering the prevailing insecurity, what is it like living in Swat today?

Khan: We have a lot of problems here. Imagine that mosques are being targeted in suicide bombings. So your life reaches a point when going to mosque is virtually equal to running to a trench. Going to a market [is equally tough], because you think somebody will attack you or there will be a bomb blast. Imagine living under such circumstances. This is [very unfortunate] in a place like Swat because it had been peaceful for centuries. The people of Swat didn't even think about violence.

RFE/RL: Given that some of your relatives were killed in the numerous attempts on your life, how concerned are you about the security of your relatives and people working for you?

Khan: Two of my young grandsons were killed together. One of their friends was also killed and three were injured. When I was attacked, my driver and a bodyguard were martyred while two were injured. My nephew, Abdul Jabbar Khan, was hit by four bullets, and I was hit by two. If you have to face such circumstances in your home region, how worried would you be? You would definitely ask, 'Why is this happening to me?'

When I was being treated in the hospital, I told journalists that if I ever met our attackers, I would ask them, 'What was our crime? I have never even slapped anybody. Why then are you trying to kill us?'

RFE/RL: With the insurgents blowing up schools, hospitals, and bridges, there is a strong perception among Swat residents that they are the victims of an elaborate insurgent plan to establish a new kind of political order in this region. How do you look at this issue?

Khan: The people who are doing this, if they want to establish a new [political] system, then they should know that they cannot institute a new order on the back of murder. They cannot establish a new political order by bombings or suicide attacks. You have to go to people [to talk to them], to change their minds, and to convince [and win over] their hearts. Islam is a religion of peace and one that emphasizes helping the poor and the oppressed.

RFE/RL: You recently met the head of the Pakistani military, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. What did you discuss? Do you see the military winning in Swat?

Khan: He told us that this is a national issue. We told him that it can only be resolved [when it is prioritized] as such an issue. The military is the last option available for a state trying to restore its authority. If they fail, then we will be confronted with a revolutionlike situation. It is the law of nature when you have a vacuum, somebody will come forward to fill it.

I don't think the military operation will fail. But for it to succeed, everybody will have to fulfill their responsibilities diligently and with honesty.