What can we do when one man’s Paradise is another man’s brutal dictatorship? This question faces the world once again with regard to Pakistan. It was announced on February 16th that the Pakistani government had reached an agreement with the pro-Taliban insurgents in the turbulent northwest region of that country. In exchange for peace, the government agreed to institute Shariah law, based on Islamic principles of jurisprudence.
The news sent a shudder through much of the world, even among those who fervently extend respect and good will toward Islam. Although the Pakistani government tried to put a good face on it, calling the agreement essentially a technicality (apparently there has always been a statue that prohibits any law that contradicts the Koran), it’s obvious that the rebels were winning. With 3,000 fighters in the mountainous Swat Valley, the main area of conflict, the pro-Taliban forces were vastly outnumbered by 12,000 army soldiers. But as so often happens, guerilla tactics had the upper hand over tanks, trucks, and artillery. The rebels were merely gaining official sanction for the stranglehold they already have in the region.

Why does Paradise enter into this uneasy truce? When they seized control in Afghanistan, the Taliban declared that they were turning it into an Islamic Paradise. The implications of that term are now being repeated in Pakistan: denial of all women’s rights, including medical care and education, the destruction of girls’ schools, public beheading of offenders against the faith, without trial. Already the rebels have forbidden dancing, watching television, and the shaving of beards. In exchange for an end to the insurgency, the Pakistani government has consigned a once-mainstream area of the country to a forced regression back to medievalism.
The world found this to be an intolerable state of affairs in Afghanistan a decade ago, but without the 9/11 attacks, no country was willing to intervene. Now the dilemma has multiplied in difficulty. Pakistan is an ally who doesn’t want American military intervention. It possesses nuclear weapons and a weak regime increasingly powerless in the face of extremism. President Obama’s promise to find and capture Osama bin Laden is basically nullified now that the region where he is likely to be hiding has officially become a de facto Taliban province.
I’ve laid this grim situation out in order to pose the question: When oppression strikes, is there an alternative to military intervention? The unilateral invasion that the Bush administration engineered in Afghanistan isn’t an option here and has proved a failure in any case. Nor can we ignore the outside destabilization that allowed extremists to arise in the first place. The basic issue is whether the moral outrage of the non-Islamic world has more right on its side than the general approval (or passive acquiescence) of hundreds of millions of Muslims. They are in uneasy accord with the Taliban’s Paradise. This is an acute case of the post-colonial dilemma. The unlawfulness of colonial rule doesn’t escape the mind of any Arab; therefore, insistence from the West that Muslims must change their ways — including Shariah law — creates resistance, anger, and intransigence.
Nor is this a case where negotiation holds any short-term promise. It is a cultural belief among Muslims, going back many centuries, that religious law and medieval social norms should be honored and upheld over any incursion from non-believers. The educated elite in Muslim countries are Westernized, yet they pay lip service to the rule of mullahs, ayatollahs, and clerics in general (the Taliban holds itself to be a clerical reform movement, “reform” meaning the extirpation of secular modernism).
Thus the Muslim world stands between two stools. The vast majority lead lives steeped in modern amenities like electricity, television, cars, antibiotics, etc. But spiritually there is a yearning for a long-lost and largely mythical Paradise in which the Prophet’s every word is reality. Today each of us must ponder this dilemma as uneasily as past history pondered slavery, imperialism, fascism, and militant Communism. What to do? Our only tools are negotiation, humane entreaty by the UN, persuasion, moral witness, patience, and a change in consciousness. In the long run, the trend has always been to benefit and uphold tolerance over intolerance, freedom over oppression, and common humanity over inhumanity. But the long run can seem like an eternity, and it does no good for the innocent citizens held in the vicious grip of extremists.
Deepak Chopra on Intent.com
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