Tom Hussain, Foreign Correspondent
Thousands of people are flooding into refugee camps such as this one in Swabi in north-west Pakistan. Yesterday they were holy warriors fighting for the popular cause of Islamic justice. Today Pakistan’s Taliban militants find themselves denounced by the orthodox clergy as infidels.
The Taliban’s fall from public grace over the past month has been dramatic, the slide having been sparked by an ill-timed statement by Sufi Mohammed, the cleric who negotiated a short-lived peace agreement in March between the Swat Taliban and the government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Mr Mohammed caused a political furore when, at a so-called peace rally in Swat on April 19, where hopes that the Taliban would disarm were finally dashed, he declared Pakistan’s constitutional democracy and judicial system un-Islamic and reiterated the militants’ intention to impose their agenda across the country.
Like the militants’ subsequent attempts to occupy the neighbouring districts of Buner, Dir and Shangla, the edict proved to be a huge tactical error.
Islamist politicians had, up to that point, dared not criticise the Taliban for fear of being branded America’s puppets. Mr Mohammed’s slur against democracy, which extended to many leading clerics with seats in parliament, ended the detente and set the stage for a war of words that has questioned the religious legitimacy of the Taliban.
Leaders of Pakistan’s mainstream religious parties pounced on the fact that Mr Mohammed had once, unsuccessfully, contested a local council election as a candidate of the Jamaat-i-Islami, and derided him as a hypocrite. Mr Mohammed was later expelled from the party for preaching extremist beliefs.
“By his own reckoning, Sufi Mohammed is at least part infidel,” sneered the Senator Allama Sajid Mir, the head of the Markazi Jamiat Ahl-i-Hadith, a party that follows the Saudi-based Wahhabi school of Islamic thought. The Jamaat-i-Islami and Markazi Jamiat Ahl-i-Hadith represent the right-wing fringe of Muslim thinking in Pakistan and have long campaigned for the enforcement of Islamic laws, with a significant degree of success, despite their modest presence in parliament.
However, the most significant criticism came from the Tableegh-i-Jamaat, an influential movement of proselytisers that is popular among born-again Muslims. It is considered apolitical, having cleansed its ranks of al Qa’eda sympathisers after some embarrassing arrests several years ago, and has a big following among educated, urban Pakistanis, particularly within the civil service and armed forces.
“Islamic law cannot be enforced at gunpoint. People who think that are ignorant [of their faith],” Haji Abdul Wahab, the leader of its Pakistan chapter, told a congregation of thousands in Islamabad on April 27.
Predictably, the response of the Swat Taliban was violent: four members of a Tableegh-i-Jamaat mission, preaching in the valley during the last days of the brief peace, were kidnapped and their fate remains unknown.
The criticisms by mainstream clerics have played on a key weakness of the Taliban leadership: their failure to attain advanced Islamic educational qualifications that would empower with the scholarly authority to issue edicts.
Islamist party activists said the clash of the ideologues was inevitable because they were competing for the same conservative political audience. They said the Taliban had been waging a cold war against the mainstream Islamist parties in their parliamentary strongholds, threatening, kidnapping and sometimes killing activists.
The parties, some of which maintain highly organised, armed cadres of their own, had refrained from taking retaliatory action because it would have undermined their stance against the Nato occupation of Afghanistan and the promotion of Islamic laws in Pakistan, the activists said.
But privately, activists concede they might have to switch tack if the Taliban responds with an expected campaign of terror attacks.
“An armed conflict is something we want to avoid, but if it comes to that, the Taliban will find themselves confronted with a force led by their teachers – men who led the jihad against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan and Indian forces in Kashmir,” said a senior official of the Jamaat-i-Islami, who requested anonymity.