Who or Why, or Which or What, is the Akhund of Swat?
Is he wise or foolish, young or old?
Does he drink his soup and his coffee cold,
or hot the Akhund of Swat?
The above lines are from Edward Leer, the English writer of limericks, and refer to a self-styled “holy warrior” who made a bit of a splash in the 19th century by launching a “Jihad” which lasted several decades and claimed the lives of large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians.
It is impossible to hear the latest taped message from Osama bin Laden, or whoever pretends to be him, without thinking of the Akhund.
The first thing both have in common is that they came from wealthy families and, thus, didn’t have to do a day’s honest work to earn a living. As a result they decided to redeem themselves by finding a “cause”.
Their second common point is that they respond to what seems to be a local need. The mountainous region of the Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan has always been home to warlike clans seeking an outsider who would give them an excuse to fight not against one another but against real imagined common foes. With the creation of Pakistan as a state, however, the area was suddenly left without such an outsider. In 1983, however, the American Central Intelligence Agency arrived on the scene to fill the gap with a “Jihad” against the Soviet-backed Communist regime in Afghanistan . With the demise of the Soviet Empire and the fall of the Communists in Kabul , the region was once again left without the needed “outsider”
By the end of the 1990s it was bin Laden’s turn to promote himself in that role.
The third point that bin Laden and the Akhund of Swat have in common is that both brought substantial sums of money to what is, after all, one of he most
poverty stricken parts of the Asian uplands.
The Akhund, whose real name was Abdul-Ghafoor, secured the money needed through raids against rival tribes and tiny khanates that dotted the region. Bin Laden, for his part, initially got his money from the Americans and their regional allies and, after breaking with them, organised a financial lifeline thanks to contributors in the Middle East and the West.
Finally, both Abdul-Ghafoor and Osama are endowed with, or afflicted by, egos the size of Everest. Abdul-Ghafoor started his career with a relatively modest goal: to secure a place among the clergy attached to the Yussufzai, a semi-nomadic Pushtun tribe. Once he had achieved that, however, he set his sights higher. He first asked his entourage to call him Akhund, an honorific Persian-Turkish title which means “Agha-Khandeh” the equivalent of a civilian “colonel” in the Turco-Mongol hierarchy. But Abdul-Ghafoor would not be content. As son as his title of Akhund was commonly accepted he began pressing for other, loftier, titles. He started with Hazrat A’ali
(Sublime Presence), proceeded to secure the title of “Sahib” (Master)of Swat , before claiming that of “Murshid” ( Guide). But he still wanted more.
By the end of his life in 1877 he had accumulated two dozen titles- some of them bizarre:
Rukn Din ( Pillar of the Faith), Qows-Zaman (Sphere of the Time), and Qibleh A’alam (Pivot of Universe).
Similarly bin Laden, who started his career as deputy-manager of the so-called “Services Bureau” in Peshawar , would not be satisfied with his real role which consisted of channelling money to three small groups of Mujahedin fighting in southeast Afghanistan . He promoted himself to the title of Mujahed and, when that did not satisfy him, encouraged his associates to call him “Sheikh”. The next step was to issue “fatwas”, religious opinions, and to claim the title of “Mufti”, regardless of the fact that he had never had the religious training necessary for the job.
Bin Laden’s career has other similarities to that of Abdul-Ghafoor.
The Akhund started by declaring Jihad against the Sikhs in 1835. Soon, however, he found that too modest a goal for so great a man as himself. Next, he declared Jihad against local Muslim rulers. But that, too, was not enough and the Akhund proceeded to declare Jiahd against the British with the aim of conquering the north-western region and, later, the whole of the Indian subcontinent. Not knowing where to stop he ended up by declaring Jihad against the entire world, and even accused some of his closest associates to be “kaffir” (infidel).
Bin Laden’s career has had a similar trajectory.
He started by declaring Jihad against Afghan Communists and then expanded the scope of his hatred to include the USSR and the Soviet bloc. In 1990 he declared Jihad against Saddam Hussein, and in 1993 it was the turn of the United States and Saudi Arabia to be added to the list. This inflationary tendency to Jihad is reflected in bin Laden’s latest video and audio-taped messages. His ever lengthening list of “kuffar” (Infidels) now includes not only the European governments but also their peoples plus Russia , China , and every single Muslim nation. Even the Sudanese regime that had granted him hospitality for years is now subject to his anathema. The latest list of people that bin Laden wants to kill includes Muslim “thinkers and liberals” and ordinary voters in all countries that hold elections.
There must be something in the waters of Waziristan that brings out the worst egomaniacal tendencies of self-styled “ holy warriors.” Towards the end of his life the Akhund had developed a fantasy in which he saw himself as the promised Mahdi whose mission was to save mankind from its own follies. The Akhund felt no need to talk to anybody or read the newspapers, assuming they were available in his mountain hideout, to form an opinion on any issue. All he needed was a brain-wave, usually after an afternoon siesta.
Similarly, bin Laden, if he is really alive, cannot be in a position to consult with anyone apart from his tribal bodyguards, or study any issue in depth before forming an opinion. Nor has he obtained any mandate from anybody within the Muslim world. But he does not need to: he is the “Sheikh” and the “Mufti” and thus above both truth and reality. What need does he have to consult anyone or receive a mandate from any group of people in due form? By listening to the Arabic service of the BBC he thinks he has enough
information to dictate to everyone on all issues: the new Hamas government in West Bank and Gaza, the Arab militias in Darfur, the insurgents in Iraq, the rebels in southern Thailand, the fighters in Chechnya, and the terrorists in a dozen Arab and non-Arab countries. He offers ceasefires and peace deals which, when ignored by everyone, he cancels with a bitter sneer. To him it is all a game: a game of self-aggrandizement by a trapped egomaniac suffering from claustrophobia in his cave.
Abdul-Ghafoor’s Akhundism survived him by many decades. In a sense it continues to live even today in the form of small groups of adepts spread across Pakistan . But , as a real political force, Akhundism died after reaching its zenith in 1862. The same is true of bin Ladenism which died on 11 September 2001 when it reached its zenith by attacking New York and Washington. Bin Laden may continue to remind the world of his continued existence thanks to Al-Jazeera. But his time has come and gone. The world has moved on. This does not mean that terrorism in the name of Islam, is over; far from it. It means that, like the Akhund, bin Laden is no longer relevant to a game in which he had once played a central, though fleeting, role.