Warriors, poets, and Bollywood actors. The Pashtun peoples have excelled in all three of these roles. It is easy to put them in a simplistic box. For example, the violent and cruel Taliban are noted for being dominated by Pashtun individuals. Yet, as you will see on day 20, there are entire Pashtun tribes that adamantly oppose the Taliban. Most of the Pashtun people are very traditional and conservative, but those who are in the movie industry are most likely going to adhere to a liberal worldview.
There are many contradictions when someone tries to describe these 50 million people. Even the definition of what makes up a Pashtun depends on who is defining them. Most would agree that speaking one of the related Pashto dialects is a key qualification. Others would stress issues of lineage. To be a Pashtun you need to have a father who is Pashtun.
There are cultural issues as well. A key ingredient to being Pashtun is adhering to pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of honor. Pashtunwali is so central to the Pashtun peoples that many of this month’s prayer entries will focus on various aspects of this cultural way of life. Pashtunwali keeps some semblance of order in their communities, but it also allows the “might makes right” ethic to dominate their communities.
Some would say that you must be a Sunni Muslim to be Pashtun. This idea, however, is controversial; while most Pashtuns are Sunni, there are a few Shi’ite Pashtuns. Some of them are embracing Christ as we approach the day of His return, yet currently this number is only a trickle.
Independence as a Way of Life
Many countries have tried to conquer the Pashtuns. Some have succeeded…for a season. Then the inevitable backlash comes, and the invaders must leave. At the height of the British Empire in the 19th Century, the Pashtuns caused so many casualties that the Brits eventually made deals with them and learned to settle for less than they wanted in South Asia. After the British had to give independence to their South Asian colonies in 1947, India was divided along religious lines. A good percentage of the Pashtuns lived in part of the new Muslim nation of Pakistan. The Pashtuns proved to be ungovernable, so the Pakistanis simply called their land the “Northwest Frontier Province,” and granted them a large degree of autonomy. To this day the government in Islamabad has little control over this province, which has since been re-named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the famous Khyber Pass.
By the late 1980s, the Russian-dominated Soviet Union was becoming increasingly aggressive in their foreign policy. They established a friendly communist government in neighboring Afghanistan. When that regime showed signs of toppling, the Soviet military intervened. At first it seemed that the Russians were successfully extending their influence. But during their 10-year stay in Afghanistan, local Pashtun-dominated fighting units kept the Russians on the defense. Russian tanks were easily ambushed in ravines by armed “mujahideen” freedom fighters. The United States sent stinger missiles to the mujahideen. The Soviets withdrew 10 years after they entered Afghanistan. The Soviet Union dissolved 12 years almost to the day after they invaded Afghanistan.
The mujahideen were feeling victorious. Unfortunately for them, there were many factions within their ranks. Civil war broke out, and they could not form a viable government. By 1996, the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. Pashtuns dominated this Islamic militant group, though some Pashtuns were violently opposed to the Taliban. Afghanistan became a haven for Islamic militant groups such as Al Qaeda, led by Saudi Arabia’s Osama Bin Laden. Flushed with a feeling of power, Al Qaeda planned and successfully implemented a terrorist attack on United States soil on September 11, 2001. American forces and their anti-Taliban Afghan allies soon drove the Taliban out of power. Although non-Pashtuns had a degree of power with the new government, Pashtuns retained positions of influence, including the presidency. The U.S. is scheduled to end almost all of its military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
At the height of their power, the British, the Russians, and the Americans have had to settle for less than they wanted. One newspaper reporter noted that it’s easy to get a military force into Afghanistan, but almost impossible to get out with a semblance of victory. The Pashtuns are a strong people who know how to fight others… and one another. They know how to protect themselves, but at what cost?
Though we will pray for many Pashtun tribes in this issue, pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of honor, will take up some of the daily prayer entries. It is very unusual for us to deviate from our efforts to cover specific unreached people groups, but the people we know who are most familiar with the Pashtuns recommended that we do it this way.
Why is this? Pashtunwali affects the Pashtun way of thinking and their daily lives even more than Islam. When pashtunwali conflicts with Islamic principles, a Pashtun will usually go with pashtunwali.
Though pashtunwali involves certain noble virtues, it is riddled with things that conflict with biblical principles. Here are some key spiritual strongholds that are part of pashtunwali:
Oppression of the weak—Women and children are at the mercy of the men. Weaker clans are at the mercy of stronger ones. Mercy is in short supply among the Pashtuns. Such a situation prevents justice from flourishing.
Pride—The Bible speaks very strongly about giving God the glory in victory and against personal pride. In pashtunwali code, pride is the foundation of honor and is based on your exploits on behalf of your family and your tribe, which can lead to pride in your own strength.
Lack of forgiveness— “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15, ESV). Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus came that we can be reconciled with the One True God whom we have offended by our sins. Simply put, without forgiveness of one another, we cannot be forgiven.
According to pashtunwali, revenge rather than reconciliation or forgiveness is the first response to an offense. To make matters worse, revenge can take place generations after infractions. At a young age children are taught that revenge brings honor. And without honor, life is not worth living for a Pashtun. Such a life includes a constant dread of retaliation, for everyone has someone who will take revenge against them at any time.
Dear Praying Friends,
I am of English, Irish, and Swedish descent. Eighteen hundred years ago my Irish ancestors were headhunters who drank blood from the skulls of their victims. A thousand years ago my Viking ancestors were warriors who were so cruel when they raided and destroyed unprotected villages, that they made the Dark Ages much darker. Eventually the light of the gospel turned many in these people groups to Christ, the One who alone is the Light of the World. Their culture changed, and they began to live more by the teachings of Jesus and less by the ways of the world.
Human history teaches us that without Christ people can be unbelievably cruel to one other.
This month we will be praying for the Pashtuns. It might seem like we are judging these Afghan and Pakistani tribes. But we must remember that without the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, we would be no different than they are.
The Pashtuns have a cultural code of honor called pashtunwali, which puts a certain amount of restraint on their behavior, but also spurs them to greater acts of violence and vengeance. For this reason, we will not only pray for specific Pashtun tribes, but also for aspects of the pashtunwali code of honor and other cultural dynamics that can keep Pashtuns from doing what God wants them to do. We will pray, not against certain behavior, but for the Holy Spirit to lead the people to ways that will honor God and save them from destructive behavior.
Keith Carey, editor, GPD