Many Pakistani Pushtuns find themselves in a spot of bother when some political commentators and analysts define extremist organisations like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as an extension and expression of Pushtun nationalism.
Though religion has always played a central role in the make-up of Pushtun identity, Pushtun nationalism (especially in the 20th century) was always a more secular and left-leaning phenomenon. It still is.
This nationalism’s modern manifestation was founded on the thoughts and actions of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan) and expressed through such left-wing parties as National Awami Party (NAP), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and the Awami National Party (ANP).
However, for nearly three decades now, or ever since the beginning of the US/Pakistan/Saudi-backed ‘jihad’ against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pushtun identity (at least in popular imagination) has been gradually mutating into becoming to mean something that is akin to being aggressive, fanatical and entirely religious.
Yet, till 2008 the county’s Pushtuns were enthusiastically voting for secular Pushtun nationalist parties like the ANP, and till even this day, there are a number of Pushtuns who are openly canvasing to eradicate not only religious violence and extremism from the Pushtun-dominated province of Khyber-Puskhtunkhwa (KPK), but also busy working towards debunking the belief that Pushtuns are by nature fanatical, driven by revenge and radically ‘Islamist’ in orientation.
Such Pushtuns point out the unique Pushtun-centric secularism of men like Bacha Khan and how left-wing parties like NAP were once KPK’s most popular exponents of electoral politics.
They blame the Pakistani ‘establishment’ for corrupting the notion of Pushtun nationalism by radicalising large portions of the Pushtuns through radical religious indoctrination and the Saudi ‘Petro Dollar.’
The idea was to neutralise Pushtun nationalism that had been the leading player in NAP, a party that also included Baloch and Sindhi nationalists, and was suspiciously eyed (by the establishment) to have had separatist and anti-Pakistan sentiments.
In the last decade or so – especially ever since extremist violence gripped the country, and with the KPK and the tribal areas that surround the province becoming the epicentre of this violence – various Pushtun parties, groups and individuals have been aggressively using political, social and cultural platforms to challenge the perception that religious extremism found in certain Pushtun-dominated militant outfits have anything to do with Pushtun culture or nationalism.
But so far it has been an uphill task and unfortunately the word Pushtun continues to trigger images of bushy, violent fanatics exploding themselves up in markets and mosques or beheading ‘infidels’ in the hills and mountains of KPK and the tribal areas.