Five reasons why profiling Pashtuns as terror suspects is racist and unethical

Aslam Kakar

After Trump’s hateful campaign against immigrants, I wanted to write something to condemn it. I criticized him on social media but did not write a full blog or article. Even though it is the right thing to do, the situation of minorities in Pakistan has always stopped me from doing so. Despite all the hate and xenophobia by Trump, I did not feel like having the moral agency to show my outrage precisely because of the mistreatment of minorities for decades in my country. My country fellows in Pakistan, as quick as they were to protest the ban of Muslims by Trump, have hardly stood with Ahmedis, Shias, Baloch or Pashtuns.

One such mistreatment is the profiling of Pashtuns by Punjab police and businessmen. The recent spate of terrorist attacks in Punjab engendered some latent fears and insecurities about Pashtun population in the province. The police chief of Mandi Bahaudin district issued an official notice in which he categorically targeted Pashtuns/Afghans as a potential threat of terrorism. There were other circulars from trade unions making rounds on social media. These circulars also profiled Pashtuns as terror suspects. Some sources denied that any such notices were ever issued. Yet others confirmed their authenticity. According to a Dawn newspaper report, the people of Fata-origin were put under surveillance in Pindi Division.

Whether or not the notices were true, I have credible, first-hand evidence that worries me and allows me to respond seriously to these allegations. As I spent five years in Lahore, it is not difficult to tell that the insecurities of some (many?) in Punjab about Pashtuns exist. However, I must note here that such fears may be unintentional among public, but they are still dangerous and not neglectable when the system harbors and acts on them. Keeping jokes about them on TV channels aside, Pashtuns are with suspicion viewed more prone to aggression and violence as a people. I experienced some serious first-hand misattributions to people of the group on campus, juice corners and in buses and vans. There are five reasons why the narrative and policing of labelling Pashtuns as terrorists is racist and untrue.

Race or culture has nothing to do with terrorism: Racial profiling denotes the practice of targeting or stopping an individual based primarily on his or her race. That is exactly what the Punjab police and trade unions have done recently. Like all cultures, Pashtuns have a way of life. Men have long beard, mostly true in the past though, wear loose Shalwar Qameez and Pakol (Afghan hat) or turban. Today this is true for the working and the least educated classes among Pashtuns. And unlike others, most Pashtuns including the educated are rigid about change. They will settle in cities, but will resist changing their attire and language. In fact, after settling in cities, many will resist harder to change because of the influence of urbanization and the fear of loosing identity. In provinces like Punjab, people see many such working class Pashtuns speaking a language (Pashto) that the locals do not understand. They see these hardworking folks polishing, serving tea, baking corn and doing all kinds of odd jobs. Singling them out and labeling them as a potential threat of terrorism for who they are; how they look; where they come from; and what type of jobs they do is racist and unethical. It is another and completely unrelated issue whether or not they should change, and how and why.

 Pashtuns are the biggest victims of terrorism: Pashtuns on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border have faced the brunt of terrorist violence. Violence by Taliban, drone strikes and military operations have all, for different reasons, conjoined in killing the members of the group. From Quetta to Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan to Peshawar to Tribal areas, hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns are dead in the past three decades. Many Pashtuns in Punjab, who are profiled as terror suspects, are in fact displaced by the unending wars in their region. Many Afghans fled the war and violence in their country in the 1980s for cities like Peshawar, Lahore and Quetta in Pakistan. Recently, hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns have been displaced by military operations in the north almost four times in the past decade. The Pakistani state is one of the chief contributors to the wars in the Pashtun region. Despite the death and destruction of their people and region, Pashtuns are still viewed as a threat by some officials in Punjab. That is because of the double standards of Pakistani society. Do not all Pakistanis wish that Syrians and Iraqis enter safely at the shores of Europe. Did not the picture of a dead Syrian refugee child go viral on social media in Pakistan? To Pakistanis, Syrians and Iraqis as Muslims are not terrorists (which they are not) and are totally fine to live in Europe and America but Pashtuns are a threat. Seriously? That is the fruit of the two-nation theory. Pakistan was built for Muslims, not for Punjabis, Pashtuns, Baloch, etc. And that is why the Pakistani state and society worry more over injustices meted out to their brothers-and-sisters-in-faith Palestinians and Kashmiris than the Baloch or Pashtuns.

There are non-Pasthun terrorist groups: Pashtuns are located in a region which has been the battleground for influence and power for centuries. From the Englo-Afghan Wars to the Russian-Afghan War and to the post 9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the people of this region have been affected by endless conflicts. The Afghan war and mujahideen and later on the emergence of Taliban is almost a household story and does not warrant repetition. But what is important to note though is that the Pakistani state has ever since used the Pashtun land for the jihad project first and later on for Taliban and other groups. Thousands of maddrassas were established and thousands of Pashtun children were indoctrinated. But it was not just Pashtuns. There were Arabs, Uzbeks, etc. Osama bin Laden was not Pashtun. Hafiz Saeed, Maulana Aziz, etc. are not Pashtuns. There are extremist groups in Punjab. There are Punjabi Taliban even though the leadership in Punjab denies it. The leaders of some groups in Punjab are running the project of sectarian violence in the country. It is a different thing that the politicians and military elites of the province are are not honest about it. So let’s not attribute terrorism to a particular race. There are terrorists from a range of racial groups. They share a common vision of radical ideology. Their race has noting to do with it.

Not Pashtuns, blame the state’s policies, population boom and radical Islamic ideology: There is a dire need for challenging conventional wisdom and thinking in smart ways about the causality of terrorist attacks and the not so well-argued factors. First is the state’s policies and inability. While it is true that there is an information asymmetry between citizens and the state (meaning the state has more direct access to information about its affairs), but that does not make it right. The state may be hiding true information or promoting false information about what it is doing to stop terrorism. Questioning where it is wrong is very important. Population boom is another issue. I am not saying that it is directly driving terrorism, but it is a serious worry. During the 1990s in the U.S., crimes dropped by drastic numbers after abortion was legalized. What do you think the new born babies are going to do in their youth when their parents have less or no resources to cater to their needs? Education in the country is miserable. Child labor is ruthless. And employment opportunities are almost non-existing. Our neglect of population control and lack of free and equal education for children from underprivileged backgrounds in the past decades has prepared an army of young men ready to die for a cause ‘greater’ than their lives. Well, when your life is in misery, any cause but living could be greater. Another factor is the root cause of terrorist violence: the evil of radical Islamic ideology. Some argue that religion has nothing to do with terrorism. I think it does, particularly when it gets intolerant and exclusivist of other beliefs.

 When it is wrong for Trump to profile Muslims as terrorists, why it is right for some in Punjab to label Pashtuns as terrorists? It is of course wrong unless logic applies otherwise to the east of the Atlantic. But for good reasons that is not how logic or principle-based arguments function. When divested of consistency, it is not logic but hearsay, prejudice and stereotypes. It is ignorance, fear and blatant racism. It would have caused less pain and one would also have ignored it if it were out of ignorance as many in Punjab can hardly tell the location of Quetta or the difference between Pashtuns and Baloch. But it is not ignorance because the notice came from a police official of officials. If for no other reason, police officers and others in bureaucracy learn some geographical and general knowledge facts about rest of Pakistan for the federal and provincial services exams. They are not ignorant but afraid and are acting in stupid and racist ways. That is what fear does. It frustrates you and prevents you from rational thinking and long-term processes, especially when the situation, like terrorist attacks, are in present, deadly and out of control. Then you find an easy target, turn that into an ‘enemy’ and blame the whole thing on them. Some counter terrorism experts in police and academia like simple theories because they are an easy sell to the public. That is what has been done to Pashtuns by the province’s police. In fact, it is a commonality between Trump and those police officials in Punjab. The approach is the same but the difference is that Trump is labelling Muslims as terrorists while Punjab police are profiling Pashtuns as terror suspects. Yet one is wrong but the the other is right.

Aslam K. is a recent graduate student of Peace Studies from the University of San Diego. He is of Quetta-origin and tweets at @aslamk_kakar, and can be reached at