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The Rise and Fall of Pollywood

Recent flooding across Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) region and the provinces of Punjab and Sindh has wreaked havoc on an already downtrodden and terrorized Pakistani citizenry. The floods serve as a stark reminder of how vulnerable the people of Pakistan are, especially those in the KP region. In July I had the unique and rewarding opportunity to visit Pakistan’s KP province. For four days, I visited Peshawar and the surrounding villages alongside members of Pakistan’s Pashtun film industry, which has steadily declined since 2001. Today, the Pakistani Pashtun film industry is reduced to a risky and largely underground operation.  With Australian filmmaker and artist, George Gittoes as my guide as well as members of the Pashtun film industry, I was able to gain an appreciation for the hardships this community faces at the hands of extremists, or miscreants as they are called in KP. The Taliban and religious extremist parties like the Muttahdia-Majilis-e-Amal (MMA) have have declared these films haram, or against the laws of Islam. As a result, theaters in Peshawar and across KP have been forcibly closed, DVD sellers killed and their shops razed, and the actors and actresses that are the mainstay of the industry forced underground.

The Miscreants of Taliwood Poster

George Gittoes Poses with Taliwood film stars for the 'Miscreants' Movie Poster

I witnessed the second and third order effects of this clampdown on creative expression firsthand on a visit to the village of a famous Pashtun actor.

Three hours north of Peshawar, in the heart of KP, I received a warm welcome into the modest village and home of one of the industry’s great actors, Javid Muzavi. With more than 300 movies under his belt (both as an actor and a director), this star of BBC radio programs has name and face recognition that would make George Clooney blush.

During the 1990s Javid and his fellow Pollywood stars made more than enough money to support their large extended families. More importantly perhaps, they made films that entertained and resonated with the broader Pashtun community. Today the situation has changed dramatically. The remnants of Pashtun film industry have split; core talent like Javid and his colleagues are now making low budget action/drama tele-movies as a seedier faux-Pashtun cinema emerges out of Pakistan’s Punjab province. It is the Punjabi variety of Pashtun cinema, predominantly funded by criminal elements with ties to the Afghan poppy industry that include storylines which run counter to Pashtun values, that is currently masquerading as true Pashtun cinema. The real Pashtun film industry and its stars remain, in large part, in hiding and out of the limelight. There is, however, room for hope. The MMA party was thrown out of office in the last election and a progressive and educated class of citizens in Peshawar and across KP and the Swat valley are organizing against the miscreants to promote the rebirth of Pashtun arts and culture. While the United States remains deeply unpopular in KP and the tribal regions, the Taliban and other insurgent groups’ popularity and the support from the general population is waning.

When I sat down to dinner one evening in Peshawar with faculty from Peshawar University, local businessmen, and other individuals from the community, it was heartening to hear the hope and optimism they had regarding the future of their region and that of the Pashtun community. At the cornerstone of this resurgence of moderate Pashtun culture is the film industry that at one time so accurately reflected the values and mores of Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With support from local and international NGOs, the Pashtun film industry is slowly being put back to work, distributing their work through established vendors across the region. While the revival of this industry will not signal the defeat of the extremist and miscreants, it will surely provide a sense of hope and semblance of normalcy to a population that has suffered enormously over the past decade.

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“The Birds of Paradise”, al-Qaeda’s Approach to Use of Minors in Combat

“You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” -Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

Dickens’ quote is exemplary of the 19th century attitude about children’s education, where students were regarded as vessels receiving information without the right to debate the source or validity of that information. Today’s radical Selafists supporting violent Jihad subscribe to a radical adaptation of Mr. Gradgrind’s statement – that winning the war is a reality as long as recruits are told who they are fighting for and who they are fighting against. This attitude, promoted in Salafist discussions, is in line with Ibn Taymiya’s 1400-year old reasoning and Ahmed bin Abd al-Wahhab’s 18th Century puritan thoughts on Islam. These do not harmonize with the pace of life and the 21st century reality.

The Birds of Paradise,” a group launched in 2008, is al-Qaeda’s project to use minors in combat for observation, data collection and to launch attacks. This group has been credited directly with the recruitment and brainwashing of children under the age of 15 to carry out violent activity. In its twelfth issue, the e-magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the “Echo of the Epics,” published an article justifying the use of children in combat. The article “The Rule of the Boys and Young Men’s Participation in Combat” states that the four (4) schools of thought in Islam[i] agree that a boy of 15 is no longer a child, but a man, and thus compelled to participate in combat.

Jihad in Islam is not applicable unless the participant is fully aware of this duty. If most of those recruited to participate actively in violent actions under the guise of Jihad are not aware of the true meaning of this “sacred duty,” how could a 15-year old truly understand it? A child of 15 lacks decision-making experience about what he wants to pursue, making his act of detonating himself in the midst of a crowd, – committing suicide and killing others – one of the greatest sins in Islam.

The al-Arabiya Satellite Channel covered a story about a ten-year old boy in Amiriyat al-Falluja, west of Baghdad, on April 7th, 2010. The child was outfitted with an explosive belt and then asked to detonate himself as close as he could to a checkpoint barrier when it was packed with people. In scenarios like this one, violent militants seek to cultivate a dark hatred towards the enemy in the recruit, often by presenting them with facts without rational justification. In doing so, militants are overlooking the fact that teaching violence and revenge will backfire and harm the same society they are supposed to protect. The boy in Amiriyat al-Falluja was arrested before managing to detonate his belt.  This story is an example of the children who have been associated with al-Qaeda. Many of these children have gone to work planting IEDs or serving as informants for the terrorist organization after losing one or both of their parents.[ii]

The “Echo of the Epicsarticle goes on to explain that, in the case of “Fardh Kifaya,” “Collective Duty”, 15-year old boys do need parental approval to take part in combat.  This parental consent is discarded, however, in the case of “Fardh A’yn”, “An Individual’s Duty” (see Female Jihadists Part I).

The growing number of orphans in Iraq, mainly in areas still lacking a strong security presence, provides a rich source of potential recruits for militant groups that believe in violence as the only means to promote their unjustified views. The lack of government care for these orphans, the rise in unemployment rates and the increase in prices of goods are only some of the obstacles presented to immediate family members struggling to provide shelter and care for the orphans. Additionally, young widows, most in their late teens or early 20s, in areas heavily influenced by tribal codes, are forced into marriages to preserve[iii] the rising number of young husbandless mothers, and add to the fighters the unaccounted for orphans[iv]. The Emir in command of a particular area not only controls the fate of the young widows who are oftentimes married to foreign fighters, he is also the one who decides the fate of the orphan boys. In doing so, an al-Qaeda Family is formed.

Militant radicals insist on depriving the majority of the Muslim population from education, lest they lose their control and power. If the majority of Muslims realize there are numerous options where they can prove Islam is not a religion that promotes violence, the Dark Ages imposed on Islam would be over. Through their good deeds in building their own nation and protecting it from culprits, Muslims, men and women, seniors and children are able to counter the attempts of these radicals who have marred the image of Islam worldwide. How can the Muslim nation grow if its children and women are used as human bombs? How can it survive if its people are not allowed the education that goes hand in hand with the actual teachings of Islam, where they can live, worship and help each other and their Umma as God ordered them to?


[i] The four major schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam are, Al-Hanafi, al-Maliki, al-Shafi’e and al-Hanbali.

[ii] “Al-Qaeda Launches ‘Hareem al-Qaeda’, and ‘The Birds of Paradise,’ to Execute Suicide Operations, Al-Arabiya Satellite Channel, 04/08/2010.

[iii] “preserve” is to keep the widows safe and away from harm’s way, not to be victims of harassment for being young widows. That society looks with suspicion at young widows or young divorced females for no longer being virgins and thus could be easily involved with sexual activities outside marriage.

[iv] “unaccounted orphans,” are the orphans with husband-less mothers, that is why the Emir tends to marry these young widows to other fighters so the children would be part of the bigger al-Qaeda family.

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Cultural Understanding in the U.S. Military

The United States military has greatly increased its cultural understanding within its theaters of war since 2003.  That was the conclusion of Georgetown University Professor Rochelle Davis, at a lecture last week titled “Culture as a Tool of War: US Military Approaches to Occupation in Iraq” at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.

Professor Davis asserted that the military’s greater focus on counterinsurgency is the result of Field Manual 324, the highly influential Army/Marines guide whose implementation proved highly successful in the Iraq Surge of 2007.  Professor Davis said that this cultural focus represents dramatic progress in the way it uses culture as a weapons system.   Despite progress, however, she called for the need for more subtle understandings of different ethnic groups in a theater of operation.  She also questioned whether using culture as a weapon was compatible with a “hearts and minds” strategy, in which a military seeks to win over a target population by providing security and civil services.

Professor Davis insisted we re-evaluate how we study, define, and use cultural characteristics for military purposes. She asserted that it is overly simplistic to describe ethnic groups by who they like and dislike, and that we as Americans would never describes ourselves as such.  However, in the theater of operations, cultural understanding is only useful to the extent that it is an asset for victory.  While an in-depth, graduate-level understanding of the nuances of Iraqi politics and culture for every serviceman and woman would no doubt be an asset to the military, such capabilities are neither cost-effective nor necessary to achieve mission objectives.  Davis’ contention did not spend significant time addressing this potential concern.

Professor Davis also questioned whether using cultural understanding as a “weapons system” conflicted with a hearts and minds strategy.  The military tends to think about programs in terms of enhancing specific capabilities and assets of battlefield commanders.  Use of the “weapons system” terminology is a way for commanders who support cultural training to drive home the battlefield effectiveness of such training to their colleagues in the military.  They value effectiveness.   Davis’ presentation ultimately promoted cultural understanding for the sake of greater awareness, and neglected to tie the concept to meeting military objectives. Most would agree the military is best served by cultural understanding which helps troops complete the mission.  Despite this oversight, the otherwise insightful comments Professor Davis made indicate that finding the balance between understanding and efficacy is likely to be the subject of ongoing discussion.

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