Collective punishment in Islam and in the tribal areas

by: J.M Butt

And beware of an affliction that will not smite exclusively those who have done wrong. Know that Allah is severe in exacting retribution. (Al-Quran, 8:25)

In 1897, some Afridi tribesmen carried out a raid on the British fort at Jamrud. The response of the British? An attack on the Afridi mountain of Tirah and the burning down of every single house in the Tirah Valley. Heavy-handed? You may think so, but that is the way the tribal areas have been ruled, certainly since the British arrived on the scene in the late 19th century.

The Pakistani authorities have also followed the same system of collective responsibility in the tribal areas. A crime committed by an individual is considered to be perpetrated by the tribe to which that individual belongs. The whole tribe stands liable to be punished, unless they rein that individual in.

This collective punishment is the price the tribes have paid for their freedom from direct government rule. Since there are no law-enforcing agencies operating in the tribal areas, it is not possible to arrest an actual culprit – the person responsible for a misdemeanor. The tribe is also considered guilty, albeit of the indirect offense of allowing its member to launch an attack or commit a crime. The tribe is then targeted for reprisals.

And what happens if the crime is committed, not by a member of a certain tribe, but by a person putting up with that tribe – an outlaw, a guest, a refugee or an asylum-seeker? In that case, it is the person with whom that person is lodging who is responsible for his behavior. It is true that Pashtoon tribes do give refuge to outlaws – to those who have committed some crime elsewhere and come to the tribal area rather than exposing themselves to a long prison sentence in their place of origin. But part and parcel of this tradition of “panah” – the granting of asylum – is that the asylum seeker should have a strong, well-known and respectable sponsor, one who can vouch for and ensure his guest’s good behaviour.

In 2005, my organization PACT Radio did a series of programs on the conditions applying to outlaws putting up in the tribal territories. The programmes were made in Waziristan, Khyber and Bajaur, so we were able to gain a good all-round idea of the ground-rules applying to outlaws in the tribal areas. One thing was clear. The outlaw was expected to live in peace and not cause trouble for his hosts. In case he did commit any crime, either within the tribal areas or outside, then it would be his host who would be taken to book. On behalf of a tribal union – known as a sharishta – that was formed at the time in Khyber, Ibrahim Kukikhel said that the person with whom an outlaw was residing would be held responsible for the conduct of the outlaw: “If an outlaw is putting up with me, I myself am responsible for his behavior.”

That was in the old days, when it was clear to all who was the outlaw, and with whom he was abiding. That person would be responsible for the outlaw keeping the peace for the duration of his stay in the tribal territory. Now, as the whole world knows, there are huge numbers of international “outlaws” residing in the tribal territory. Far from having any local protector or guarantor, they are a law unto themselves. How does one keep them in check, and ensure that their activities do not sully the reputation of the tribes that are playing host to them?

Recent experience, with drones raining in on the international outlaws, inevitably inflicting some damage on life and property of the local population, would suggest that the tribes are at a loss as to how to control this new breed of outlaw. They are even at a greater loss as to how to protect themselves against the inevitable reprisals concomitant with the activities of these outlaws.

One way for the tribes to do this is to use the drone attacks as a way of reasserting their authority over their outlaw guests. It is somewhat disingenuous for the tribes to protest against the drone attacks. They are an inevitable result of their harboring of outlaws who use the tribal territory as a base from which to launch attacks. Protests against the drone attacks from the Pakistan government are even less convincing. If international militants are a modern form of outlaw, drone attacks are a continuation – a modern manifestation – of the policy of collective responsibility and collective punishment put in place by the British. The Pakistan government and Army are themselves quite ruthless in implementation of this policy, when it suits them.

The tribes have every right to form a sharishta and explain to the international outlaws who are enjoying their hospitality that the independence, safety and good reputation of the tribes are being endangered, not by the presence of these outlaws, but by their using of their territory as a safe haven from which to launch attacks elsewhere. Either the international outlaws should live peacefully, as outlaws have always done in the tribal territory. If they do not wish to do so, then the tribes would not be acting counter to their tradition of hospitality and harboring of fugitives if they asked the international outlaws to leave. It would have been the outlaws themselves – not the tribes – who would have acted counter to the principles under which asylum is granted.

It has always been the conventional wisdom that the principle of collective responsibility and the policy of collective punishment are part and parcel of tribal custom – known as “rewaj” – but have no place in Islam. It is generally believed that Islam only condones punishment of the person who has perpetrated a crime, not someone else – much less a whole tribe – in place of that person. However, PACT Radio, in accordance with its motto “Traditional solutions for modern problems”, has always felt that local custom is more often than not an adaptation of Islamic principles to local conditions. PACT Radio feels that this is the case with collective responsibility also.

The verse of the Quran quoted at the beginning of this piece suggests that Islam condones some notion of collective responsibility. Even more clear is a tale recounted in the Surah of the Quran known as The Heights (Al-A’araf). Some Israelites took to fishing on the Sabbath day, contrary to the teachings of their religion. Some admonished them for doing this, but some were in favor of letting the contraveners of the Sabbath alone:

When some asked, “Why do you admonish a people whom God is going to destroy or to afflict with a severe punishment?” They answered, “In order to be free from blame before your Lord, and that they may perhaps fear Him.”
(Al-Quran, 7:164)

So standing by and doing nothing while those in their midst do wrong does make one liable to punishment, not because of the wrong-doing of others, but on account of one omitting to do anything about it oneself.

The tribes have a strong case, from both a tribal and an Islamic point of view, for reasserting their authority over their guests and reining them in. Otherwise, under the principle of collective responsibility to which the tribes themselves adhere, they have little grounds for complaints if international reprisals follow the asylum the tribes have generously – but somewhat short-sightedly – granted to international outlaws.

John Butt is the head of PACT Radio and a former BBC broadcaster who has lived, studied and worked for more than four decades among the Pashtoon tribes. He is also a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, the pre-eminent Muslim seminary or madrassah in South Asia.


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