Compassion in Taliban Territory

Compassion in Taliban Territory
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If you were a Swati and lived in that idyllic land and were suddenly forced to leave your home to seek shelter outside the district, and then saw the destruction of your beloved home first by the violence of the Taliban and then the violence of the Pakistan army in their attempt to defeat the Taliban, you would be either dismayed or angry. You would argue that neither Swatis nor Pakistanis were involved in the events on 9/11 but the unfolding developments since that tragic day have directly or indirectly shattered your life.

I have just received a letter from Swat written by Zebunissa Jilani, my sister-in-law. Last year, she organized a trip to work among Swat refugees with my wife Zeenat, and their respective daughters, Zahra and Nafees after they opened the Swat Relief Initiative specifically to help refugees.

The girls did exemplary work among the refugees including the distribution of desperately needed medical supplies and equipment. But they observed the dire condition of the Swati population living in tents and makeshift accommodation in the Frontier Province. This was Taliban territory and the Taliban were targeting their families having killed several cousins. While the women were seen as a threat by the Taliban, for the ordinary Swati refugees they were a ray of hope. As they belonged to the royal family of Swat, their presence in the midst of the dire poverty and chaos allowed the people to rally around their own heritage and traditions.

These women were driven by the idea that charity and compassion are more powerful than the hatred and anger that had devastated Swat. While charity and compassion are seen as quintessentially Christian values that have driven millions of Christians to acts of kindness, these same virtues are at the core of Islam also. The Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet emphasize charity and compassion again and again. In Islam, God's two greatest attributes are compassion and mercy and the Prophet clearly said that mercy must always trump anger.

These women had unknowingly introduced a new method of fighting the men of violence in their region. They were using the power of their own religion, Islam, in their acts of charity and above all giving people hope of an alternative vision of humanity to the violence that has prevailed.

This summer Zebu, tireless and courageous in her desire to help the population has gone to Swat by herself. She has left her comfortable suburban life and family in Princeton to work in the sweltering heat and challenging conditions of Swat. From her vantage point, she is able to give an unvarnished picture of what is actually going on there that should concern all of us. In her letter she writes:

I have been working nonstop to get our Preventive healthcare project, Swat Relief Initiative, a collaboration with the Human Development Foundation, off the ground. After being in Swat for a month, I have come to the conclusion that the health of the population is in dire straits. The trauma that people suffered last summer has put every one at risk for physical and mental illnesses. I have been going to numerous villages, and have discovered that 99.9% of people are ill, whether they be infants, children, adults or the elderly. The hospitals are filled with incompetent staff--and doctors who prescribe unnecessary adulterated medicines-- which are making people even sicker. Major illnesses and malnutrition are rampant.

I paid a surprise visit to the maternity ward in Saidu hospital a few days ago and the condition there was beyond belief. I did not sleep for several nights, haunted by the sights I witnessed. The stench was stifling, the birthing beds were all torn with deep craters and were never cleaned of blood between patients, the vacuum cup and surgical instruments used on each patient were not even washed, leave alone sterilized between each patient, contraction inducing drugs and episiotomies were given prematurely resulting in ruptured uteruses and unnecessary bleeding. In the 5 hours that I was there not a single doctor could be seen and on top it all the nurses and staff were extremely rude to the patients, slapping them and yelling at them frequently. I am appealing to everyone to join hands to remedy this situation. I am really disturbed by what I saw. I have personally taken it upon myself to fix this situation before I leave Swat.

This is an area which has received billions of dollars in American aid. The ordinary people continue to suffer, and the Taliban, which the Pakistani government keeps assuring the west have been defeated, keeps coming back. In an area where the US is so focused in winning "hearts and minds" this strategy of pumping in billions of dollars and receiving hatred and misery in return is a dangerous and counterproductive strategy.

With the Taliban once again gaining strength in Swat and the US pushing for yet another Pakistani invasion of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, we should all be paying attention to what is happening in that region. In addition to the moral imperative to come to the aid of suffering humanity, the reality is that the battle for Swat--and Pakistan more generally--will be lost if we do not pay attention to the misery and suffering of the local population. And according to General David Petraeus, the War on Terror cannot be won without Pakistan.

And the battle for Pakistan is being fought at the district level, as in Swat. There are several NGO's also in the field. Unfortunately, while some are doing excellent work, ordinary Swatis see them as high maintenance organizations with officials wasting their money on big salaries and attending international conferences. Zebu's organization, in contrast, runs on a threadbare budget and works directly with ordinary people. Of course, the Swat Relief Initiative has the advantage of being run by Zebu herself.

For a Muslim scholar like me, constantly looking for the equivalent of a Gandhi and Mandela among men or a Mother Theresa among women as an alternative to the many examples of violent Muslims, I am delighted to put on record that we may finally have discovered in Zebu a Muslim Mother Theresa in the making.

I would urge anyone reading this to give whatever assistance they can to the following address:

Swat Relief InitiativePO Box 860Pennington, NJ

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and author of Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (Brookings, 2010).

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post's On Faith

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