Guardians of God: Inside the Religious Mind of the Pakistani Taliban
Cmde (Retd) C Uday Bhaskar ·       

The Pakistani Taliban came into global focus in October 2012 with the brutal attack on Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year old schoolgirl - her crime being that she was determined to go to school despite the diktat of the local Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban (PT) has a different identity from the original Taliban, aka Afghan Taliban, although they both see themselves as true defenders of the Islamic faith.

Aptly titled Guardians of God, it must be conceded at the outset that this is a brave book, for the author has literally entered a physical space - the conflict-torn, terrorism-riddled areas of Pakistan’s tribal regions - that few academics have braved, let alone an intrepid young woman. It may have helped that Sheikh, currently a senior researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies, is of Pakistani origin and her perseverance in seeking out and meeting many feared and reclusive Pakistani Taliban leaders is commendable.

The book builds on the author’s doctoral work that explored the nexus between religion and violence, and focuses on the PT. Post 9/11, the dominant Western discourse portrayed the Taliban "as a purely destructive force operating according to a medieval, fanatically religious world view," and a determined Sheikh seeks to open a window to the narratives that flourished among the Pakistani Taliban adherents when the movement was established, and the narratives that have continued to strengthen the existence of Taliban-affiliated movements in the years after its establishment.

It is an empathetic window that Sheikh opens, over hours of conversation with PT militants and their supporters, eaten mangoes with them, joined them in prayers, looked at pictures of their martyrs, and listened to their emotional anthems about the need for jihad.

The strength of the book is the primary sources that have been collated by way of interviews with leading figures of the PT movement. Six analytical themes have been explored by Sheikh. These include the PT’s definition of jihad; their justification for militant activism; what they saw as  legitimate conditions for engaging in militant jihad; their view on legitimate means in militant jihad, including the legitimacy of suicide bombings; their demarcation of legitimate targets and definitions of the enemy; and their demarcation of who is a true Muslim.

The choice of words by Sheikh in identifying her analytical themes is instructive for the focus is on ‘militant jihad’ and ‘legitimate’, even in relation to suicide bombings. The word terror, or terrorism, does not appear prominently in the analytical framework of the book and this ambivalence is a recurring motif in Sheikh’s narrative about competing narratives.

The puzzle that the author chooses is the manner in which each interlocutor rationalises the recourse to violence. Dwelling on dominant Western discourses after 2001, the author notes that "a common political reading was that the invasion of Afghanistan was a defensive response provoked by the 9/11 attacks on the US."

Sheikh then links this with the bin Laden justification for 9/11. "He [OBL] stressed, as many Islamist militants [note—not terrorists] have subsequently echoed, that the world was already at war." And that the al-Qaeda had been "provoked to react against the US."

Highlighting the mirror image of most conflicts, where each side sees the aggressive ‘other’ as the source of provocation, Sheikh notes that this book demonstrates how the Pakistani Taliban, too, frame their violence as a reaction. They are acting not only according to their religious views but also according to their political grievances and to the perceptions of being under attack.

Do authors choose words deliberately or intuitively - include some and exclude others - in a complex manner that derives from Foucault? This was the thought that struck the reviewer when noting Sheikh’s reluctance to characterise the brutality and violence associated with the PT as ‘terrorism’. The preferred choice is militant and militancy, and even when referring to 9/11, Sheikh is austere and settles for "9/11 attacks."

Having carefully outlined the scope of the exploration, the book is neatly organised into six major chapters, and two chapters (over 40 pages each) detail the rise of the PT and the relevance of religion in Taliban narratives. Other chapters dwell upon the collaboration between the PT and anti-Shia movements and an exploration of the ‘justice of violence’.

This is where the analysis offered by the author tends to be ambivalent - veering towards the muddled. Invoking Michael Walzer and his formulation of "emergency ethics" described as "unethical behavior by morally strong leaders (that) can be justified against an unjust enemy as long as there is an accompanying moral realisation that both “the evil we oppose and the evil we do” are essentially wrong," Sheikh re-visits a contradiction that has often been highlighted in the past. This contradiction relates to the use of indiscriminate force, leading to mass casualties by a state entity against innocent civilians and non-combatants, and whether or not this will constitute an act of ‘terrorism’.

Dwelling on the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden by the US in May 2011, Sheikh avers - it illuminates that the claims of defence can be a stronger explanation than the ethical claims of just war, both for Western countries as well as movements like the Taliban. However, tensions within them are resolved by developing concepts like emergency ethics or, in the Taliban case, emergency jihad.

Having brought state and non-state almost on par, Sheikh suggests that investigating the motivation of warriors is a methodological grey area and argues that it is central to "arguments about the distinction between the conduct of state armies and that of non-state activists fighting a state."

The analytical climax, as it were, is Sheikh’s formulation that terrorist acts can also be categorised as security politics and acts of self-defence on par with "our own" (presumably the West); if analysed on a discursive/performative level.

And in the last section of the book, the author poses a critical question: "If states can invoke emergency ethics in situations of war, why can’t religio-political activists be expected to do the same?"

Having empathetically opted to describe the PT as ‘activists’, this question could have been taken to its logical conclusion if Sheikh, who had conducted such rigorous research, had analysed both the attack on Malala (October 2012) and the Peshawar school massacre (December 2014), both claimed by the Pakistan Taliban. Can this be rationalised under the umbrella of just jihad? The reader would have benefited from Sheikh’s take on these two PT ‘triumphs’ - as they were claimed at the time. And, personally, this reviewer was hoping that gender inequity and violence against the girl child/women, legitimised under the draconian theological code of the PT and its driving ideology, could have been interrogated on the anvil of those who profess to be ‘Guardians of God’. Alas, this strand is not pursued by Sheikh.

Know your adversary/enemy is a tenet that goes back to the BC period, and both Sun-Tzu and Chanakya in different ways recommended this dictum. So Sheikh’s conclusion is well-taken that it is "critical" to understand the grievances and mind-set of the PT "in order to find a solution to tackle the spread of Taliban movements, their narratives, and violence across Pakistan."

Sheikh is to be applauded for this valiant effort that provides a partial answer to what appears to be an intractable challenge that is gnawing at the entrails of the Pakistani state and its hapless victims.

Originally published in the IIC Quarterly, Autumn 2017, Volume 44, Number 2. Reprinted with permission.