With his flowing white beard and thick spectacles, Sufi Muhammad has an avuncular air about him that can initially appear reassuring. But all that changes when the 70-year-old kingpin of the Swat valley opens his mouth to promise more of the kind of punishment meted out to the 17-year-old local woman captured in the mobile video footage.
Muhammad is leader of an Islamist movement that has long since agitated for sharia justice. And he took a big step towards his objective in February when he struck a “peace for sharia” deal with the authorities under which the Taliban would stop a two-year armed campaign in the region in return for the establishment of new religious courts. In a rare interview with any media outlet, domestic or foreign, he told the Guardian that the new courts would formalise penalties including flogging, chopping off hands and stoning to death.
Floggings are the correct punishment, Muhammad explained, for sexual intercourse between unmarried people, drinking alcohol and slander. Thieves should have their hands chopped off – unless they were poor people stealing to feed themselves. And, for adultery, stoning to death…
The descent of Swat from the country’s favourite honeymoon destination to Taliban stronghold mirrors Pakistan’s own decline into violence and chaos over the past two years.
It has always been easy for the unconvinced, opportunists of the world to find “acceptable” reasons to live alongside despotism and demagogues. The Taleban hope that Pakistan’s tidy little agreement may make good press in Islamabad – at least comfort politicians in their British-style clubs – and their perverse sharia, their reactionary definition of Islam and Islamic law will prevail in the territory they control by force of arms and intimidation.
Unless the Pakistan government acquires some backbone to accompany the U.S. weapons and training that are forthcoming – military decisions will have to override political decision in the lawless Tribal Territories. Be certain of that.