Magnificent Marvel Supersale

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores

Original Essays

Sounds Complicated, but It's Not That Simple

by Tamim Ansary
  1. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes "Ansary has written an informative and thoroughly engaging look at the past, present and future of Islam. With his seamless and charming prose, he challenges conventional wisdom and appeals for a fuller understanding of how Islam and the world at large have shaped each other. And that makes this book, in this uneasy, contentious post 9/11 world, a must-read." Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns
  2. West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[Ansary's] descriptions of his Afghan childhood are luxe and delicious....The author's profound, complicated homesickness burns across every page." Esquire

    "A book that steadies our skittering compass....It speaks with a modesty of tone and is all the more resonant for that reason....[It] sees things we cannot make out, and need to." The New York Times

  3. The Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir
    $8.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir

    Tamim Ansary and Farah Ahmedi
    "Inspiring....A wonderful story." James McBride, author of The Color of Water

    "Very compelling....Here you have a girl, a child, who suffered her own disability, [and] the loss of her family and her homeland. She's taking care of her aging mother and adapting to this new culture, and she's a bright, shining light in the world....Very moving." Mary Karr, New York Times bestselling author of The Liar's Club and Cherry

Recently, the government of Pakistan relinquished the Swat Valley and the Malakand Province of which it is part. From now on, this whole area will be ruled by the Islamic code known as shari'a. Disputes will be settled by local, self-appointed religious judges instead of government courts. As a first taste of what the future holds, a video made the rounds, showing a teenaged girl shrieking for help while unidentified men beat her for consorting with boys.

Uh-oh: does this mean the Taliban are winning? The question is, I think, too simple. Taliban... terrorism... moderates... extremists — all too often, we use these terms in ways that reflect categories of Western thought but match up only crudely to the situation as seen in parts of the Islamic world.

When we speak of "moderates" and "extremists," for example, it's as if we're talking about two different concentrations of the same thing, a mild form and a strong form of Islam. But Islam actually contains many distinct schools, many streams of thought. The Jihadists of Swat are not an extreme version of the secular Muslim intellectuals who live and work in cities like Islamabad. They're categorically different. If you look for a moderate version of those Jihadists, you don't find some Oxford-educated economist who avoids pork but enjoys wine and feels okay about his wife wearing short skirts. You find instead some petty clerk who eschews violence and wants to keep his job, but still argues for an Islamic society ruled by shari'a.

Most sentences containing the word Taliban suggest by their very syntax an organized entity with a will and a purpose. "The Taliban announced..." "The Taliban set off a bomb..." Certainly there was such an entity between 1994 and 2002: it had a supreme leader, a ruling council, cabinet ministers, headquarters, the whole kit.

But that organization fragmented after 2002. What survived was a cluster of ideas: an ideology, an amorphous movement united by a sense of endpoint. It's not so much "the Taliban" that stalks the region now, but "Talibanism." I doubt that Sufi Mohammed, who led the movement to impose shari'a in Swat, actually "reports" to (supposed) Taliban leader Mullah Omar. I doubt that Baitullah Masood, whose name pops up ever more often in reports about the Taliban killing someone or planning something, can be located on some organizational chart.

What matters now is not this or that leader, nor the growing military power of any organization, but the growing adaptability of an ideology, the propensity of Talibanism to find purchase in new social structures.

Talibanism was born in the tribal belt. Originally, it expressed in purest form the xenophobic resentments of a tribal society that had seen its social fabric eroded by modernism and eviscerated by foreign armies. That version of the Taliban could not have ruled in sophisticated, urban Kabul without nourishment from the Pakistan military.

Now, however, Talibanism has adapted to the social fabric of Pakistan and grievances peculiar to that country and is assaulting the very Pakistani military caste that helped spawn it. In Swat, Talibanists have succeeded in mapping the utopian mythology of revolutionary Islamism onto the ancient tension between peasants and feudal landowning families. Well, feudalism is a pervasive feature of Pakistani society going back to Partition days (and before). The same feudal families that rule the countryside supply the upper echelons of the military and the ruling political establishment. If emerging Talibanism can spread out of the tribal belt, beyond the countryside, and into Pakistan's most populated cities, it is time to say uh-oh.

As is true in many parts of the Muslim world, ideas that we in the West casually label "moderate" reflect a secular modernist interpretation of Islam compatible with Western political forms such as parliamentary democracy. These ideas find fertile soil mostly among the educated ruling elite of Pakistan and in the technocracy that operates the country's apparatus of modernity. Benazir Bhutto was an urbane secular modernist but also a privileged member of a powerful aristocratic feudal family. So when we say "moderate" or "secular" we might also be saying "feudal" or "ruling class."

People who were impervious to the appeals of revolutionary Marxism because "the classless society" had zero cultural resonance for them, may be open to the appeals of revolutionary Islamism precisely because it invokes a utopian myth already seated in their dreams: the myth of a perfect community whose actual existence in the 7th century is an article of faith. The most striking features of that community were egalitarian justice and austere moral rectitude.

When we in the West see videos of a girl shrieking for help while being beaten for consorting with boys, we picture a society filled with shrieking. It's important to realize that shrieking is not the anticipated soundtrack of the society preached the revolutionary Islamists. Once the perfect Muslim community has been established, they would say, there will be no lashings because there will be no adultery, no amputations because there will be no thefts — they're not selling beatings but a beatific future.

Yesterday, I read a blog from that part of the world by a fellow who insisted vehemently that the video of that girl being beaten was faked, was propaganda to make Islam look bad. Curiously, the same blogger went on to argue that beating a girl for consorting with boys outside her family was right and proper.

It may seem trivial to draw a distinction between "the Taliban" and Talibanism, but it does have implications for policy. To defeat an organization, we might well strive to arrest leaders, kill cadre, bomb headquarters. But what if we're up against an adaptable cultural virus capable of exploiting social grievance in every Islamic society? Dropping 17,000 more troops into the mess at least invites the question: how exactly will this help?

÷ ÷ ÷

Tamim Ansary is the author of the memoir West of Kabul, East of New York, co-author with Farah Ahmadi of the New York Times bestseller The Other Side of the Sky, and has been a major contributing writer to several secondary school history textbooks. Ansary is director of the San Francisco Writers Workshop. He writes for, the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Alternet, Edutopia, Parade, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. spacer

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at