Tragedy – by its very nature – is a disorienting affair but Shahbaz Taseer’s story consists of a sequence of events so dramatic and bewildering that one could be forgiven for confusing it with a Shakespearean drama.
In August 2011, Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped in Pakistan by a militant group that goes by the name, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’ (IMU). He spent the next five years in captivity – surviving brutal torture, incessant drone strikes and fierce infighting between various militant groups – until one day, suddenly, one of his captors opened the prison door and told him to go home.
A few months earlier, his father, the late swashbuckling Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own security guard for decrying the country’s blasphemy law that renders insulting Islam a crime punishable by death. The late Governor had come to the defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death over a flimsy accusation of blasphemy, urging an overhaul of what he considered a “black law.”
No surprise then that Shahbaz didn’t feel comfortable traveling with a security detail, choosing instead to move around as normally as he possibly could – a modest desire that would come at a heavy price when, one day, on his way to work, armed men surrounded his car, shoved him in the back of a van and took him to the ill-famed province of Waziristan, situated along the lawless border of Afghanistan.
During the worst of the next five years, the proud example of his father gave him the strength to cope with the daily grind of life in captivity, holding on to his principle of common decency in a world infested with bitter rage. The greatest battle, according to him, was not against his tormentors but against his own nerves – a struggle that, some might argue, fits the correct interpretation of the term, Jihad.
His faith helped him discipline himself, fend off ‘the sin’ of despair and hopelessness, and hold on to his humanity when fanatic zealots launched violent attacks against his dignity. It fortified his resolve and gave him courage to pursue a freedom of character that could transcend prison walls.
Following a violent discord between the Afghan Taliban and the IMU, Shahbaz almost managed to escape, only to be captured again – this time by the Afghan Taliban who mistook him for an Uzbek militant. He would then find himself in the tragically bemusing situation of sharing a prison with his former captors, till one day, a senior Taliban opened the prison door for him, and Shahbaz began a chilly week-long journey back home again.
Finding himself captive in the middle of two wars, one between ‘Islam and the West’, and one within Islam (IMU vs. Afghan Taliban), Shahbaz provides a unique insight into the shifting landscape and internal power struggles of political Islam. His harrowing tale brings up the intricate connections between faith and politics, and the diversity of belief within the Islamic world that challenges the selective gaze of Islamphobes and apologists. Most of all, his story is an epic tale of survival, full of sound and fury – illuminating the deepest and darkest abyss of the human condition, signifying the temerity of hope.
Guernica spoke with him over email about his time in captivity, how his greatest battle was the one against himself, and why he would never leave Pakistan for safer ground.
—Farhad Mirza for Guernica
Guernica: No one is ever prepared for the horrors you have endured. How are you settling in?
Shahbaz Taseer: Settling in is one of my biggest challenges. I always knew that the longer I am away the harder it will be to adapt. Luckily my family and friends, my main support base have done their best to help me settle in. Plus, I feel like for years I was just starved of life for so long that every second feels amazing! My friends took me to Barcelona which is such a beautiful city but for me just being able to walk or take a deep breath by the sea is liberating. The hardest thing though is [adapting to] smartphones.
Guernica: Can you tell us how you were treated by your kidnappers and how you managed to cope with the daily grind of life in captivity?
Shahbaz Taseer: You can’t ever learn to cope with captivity. You shouldn’t either. We were all born free. No one has the right to take that away from us. So always remembering that helped me to cope. I would tell myself everyday that I was a free man. I didn’t care what they said or did to me. I was free. My younger sister tweeted when Nelson Mandela died that ‘ prisoners of conscious are always free, so if you are listening you are free ‘ she didn’t know at the time but I was listening. Those words inspired me to be better. To fight and to never give up. It’s easier said than done but for me every day was a fight. I fought for my sanity. I fought to remember the faces of the people I loved and I fought against my own mind which everyday told me to give up. Giving up is easy but I’m a Taseer. Since I was a child I saw my father fight for what’s right and I saw him die fearlessly for what’s right. If I was one percent the man he was I would make it and my greatest victory is that I did.
Guernica: Why do you think your kidnappers targeted you? What did they want, and how did you manage to escape?
Shahbaz Taseer: My kidnappers targeted me for being my father’s son. They wanted to show the world that [they] kidnapped the governor of Punjab’s son in broad daylight. They obviously wanted money and a prisoner exchange. Kidnapping money helps most of these groups to operate and it’s actually one of the largest sources of revenue for them. My escape is a long story but [I want to] write a book about my ordeal and the details will be in the book. But basically the group that kidnapped me was affiliated with ISIS and that affiliation led to a full on confrontation with the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban killed and jailed all the Uzbeks in Zabul province Afghanistan where I had moved because of the massive military operation that the Pakistani Army is carrying out. While in jail I approached a senior Afghan Taliban who had also been jailed for not fighting. I offered him money but he refused citing that the Afghan Taliban did not believe in ransom and kidnapping and then one day on the 29th of February he literally opened the jail door and told me to leave. 8 days later after one heck of a long journey I found my way to a little city called Kuchlaq outside of Quetta in Balochistan, Pakistan, and called my mother and the rest as they say is history.
Guernica: What sort of communication did your captors maintain with your family and the government. What were their demands, and how did they go about pursuing them? Did you ever think that they were serious about the messages they were sending to your family, that a day might have come when they would have actually murdered you?
Shahbaz Taseer: They would call my family once a month I think and their demands were ludicrous. They wanted an un-payable sum of money and 25 militants including my father’s killer. Ironically, they removed him once they found out which school of Islamic thought he came from and dismissed him as an infidel. They went about very seriously pursuing their demands. They would torture me and send horrendous videos to my family. It started with daily lashings that started from 75 and went to 200. Then they pulled my nails out. Took flesh out of my back, buried me in the ground for days at a time, carved my back open with blades and even starved me by sewing my mouth shut.
They would have seriously killed me had it not been for the fact that three of my kidnappers friends were held captive because of my kidnapping. Only in his greed for money and insistence on their release did I manage to not get killed by his group, the IMU.
Guernica: How did you cope?
Shahbaz Taseer: I had my faith. I prayed all the time. I believed that God would save me and I left my matter to him. Live or die, whatever happened would be best for me. It sounds a bit silly but such was the strength of my faith. Psychologically, it was much harder. Not because of pain or fear. Pain is physical. When you are being tortured you have no control over how much will be inflicted upon you. Unfortunately, you just have to take it. And get used to it.
Even fear. When you have flesh pulled out of your back, a slap on the face becomes meaningless. It actually gives you the strength to stand up and stop being afraid of evil. Having said that you are always your worst enemy. Being alone with yourself is a very dangerous thing, especially in my situation. You have so many emotions that you are left alone to deal with. From being repentant to resentful but if you want to live you have to rise above this. You have to believe in yourself and most importantly you have to be ready to fight the fight of your life to simply live. You set that goal and take whatever they throw at you. You turn all those emotions into goals. It took me a long time and a very dark place to finally place my self in a situation where I could set that goal and engage in a much longer struggle to reach it. So being back home is a personal victory for me.
Guernica: You have been giving interviews to local and international news outlets. How has the response been – both, domestically and internationally?
Shahbaz Taseer: I think the response has been great, obviously you will always have people that insult you but generally I think it’s been amazing and the amount of people that have prayed for me is unbelievable!
Guernica: In the West, people often tend to imagine Islam as an isolated bloc that holds an unmoving and eternal position, unrelated to passing events – and more often than not, devoid of humanity. Of course, this is a view replicated by people on the other side of the world as well. Your story refutes such monolithic views. I heard you say that you found solace in prayer. It must have been surreal and disorienting to pray alongside people who believed they had a divine mandate to inflict you with such pain and cruelty. How does one reconcile this double-edged nature of faith, did you ever have any doubts about your own beliefs?
Shahbaz Taseer: No, there was a time I was in a very dark place. I wanted to give up because the torture was too hard. I felt like they were going to carve me open piece-by-piece but that’s where my faith came in. I remember once my captor took a blade and carved lines in my back and then threw salt on it. But I screamed Allah hu Akbar (God is great) and suddenly they all fell silent. They used the same words to commit atrocities but here I was in front of them being tortured, screaming the same words. Whatever divine mandate they had was torn to pieces right there. They knew every time they touched me that they were torturing a Muslim.
Something beautiful happened very early on with me. I read something about being hopeless in Islam and how it is actually a sin. I at the time thought that very soon I would be dead. If it’s not these guys then maybe a drone or a jet but something was going to give and it was impossible for me to live. But then I read these words and I told myself No, God will take me home. I know how difficult this may be to understand but I always knew I would come back.
Guernica: Have you felt some disparity in terms of the attention focused upon the faith of your captors? Do you think people cast a selective gaze on the minority that comprises the Taliban, ISIS or the IMU, whilst ignoring the Islam practiced by its main victims – ordinary Muslims, like yourself?
Shahbaz Taseer: Of course! I wish people would see ordinary practicing Muslims like myself and understand these people have nothing to do with Islam. Just because they carry out atrocious acts in the name of Islam doesn’t mean they are our representatives. But ordinary Muslims must take a stand! It’s sad but we ordinary Muslims must remember that silence is no longer an option. These guys are carrying out a genocide in Islam’s name. How can we stay silent?
Guernica: What sort of mythology did these militants cook up to sustain their convictions? What sort of facts did they twist, and what sort of fantasies did they employ to justify the idealization of endless ‘holy’ war? How did they conceptualize the West, and themselves in relation to the West?
Shahbaz Taseer: That’s a great question. So, for example, I would ask them how do you justify kidnapping and torturing? This was the reply: Once there was a battle between Muslims of Medinah and the Quresh (a Meccan tribe that opposed Islam). Quresh lost and quite a few of their living soldiers were taken captives. One of the companions of the Prophet saw a prisoner and told the guard ‘hold him tightly! His mother is a wealthy woman and will pay for his life.’ The prisoner turned around and said, “she is your mother and I am your brother!” But the companion replied, “no, the man holding you is my brother”…
Now, I don’t know what the hell that has to do with kidnapping and torturing me, but that’s the only explanation I was given! You cannot reason with these people! It’s like talking to a brick wall. And so the same weak ridiculous examples were given to justify every horrific act they carried out! When I asked them how could they suicide bomb non-combatants, women and children, they would simply answer by saying half of Pakistan voted in the election so they are now infidels. I mean it’s insane! As for the West, to a certain degree they envy the West. More importantly, these people are social rejects, uneducated and can only seek power through violence. These militant groups give them an opportunity to explore that violence.
Guernica: You found yourself captive in the middle of two wars, one between ‘Islam and the west’, and one within Islam (Uzbek Islamists vs. Afghan Taliban). What sort of internal dynamics and disputes did you observe within various militant movements of political Islam?
Shahbaz Taseer: Basically ISIS, by declaring Abu Bakar Baghdadi their caliph, delegitimized the Afghan Taliban. So, what do the Taliban do? Kill everyone. The Taliban butchered 170 people, 100 of whom were women and children. It was murder. But had they lost, ISIS would have done worse! Once the in-fighting began, I remember my captor who was an Uzbek Mufti (religious law-maker) came in to the room where I was with a few women and children and basically and told them that it would be better for them to blow themselves up than to be held by the Taliban because they had become infidels. And guess what the women did? They took their kids outside and started blowing themselves up! It still haunts me. I saw a girl who was 14, she was 9 months pregnant. She walked outside and blew herself up. Just like that.
Guernica: What do you think was the emotional and social impetus behind the actions of your captors, their recruits and accomplices. From what I gather, many of these accomplices happened to be ordinary people. Did you come across people who seemed bound to these terrorists for reasons other than ideology, for example: family ties, cultural isolation, warped historical narratives or simply not having any state protection on the ground?
Shahbaz Taseer: 99% of the time these guys are ordinary people. But most of the guys I came across were small time thieves in places like Moscow and had gotten into trouble with the authorities and ended up with this militant group in Pakistan. None of them knew very much about Islam some of them didn’t even know how to pray. But when you hand a confused adolescent a gun and tell him he is the master of his destiny and with the tool in his hand he can earn his own respect in a world that has socially rejected him — that’s where we have a problem.
Guernica: I heard one of your guards used to smuggle in a radio for the two of you to listen to soccer games. Did you ever feel a human connection with these people? Did you strike up any unusual friendships during your ordeal? Did anyone show a softness of character?
Shahbaz Taseer: One of my guards like myself was a huge Manchester United fan. It was surreal because here I was completely disconnected from the world and along comes someone who like myself just wants to listen to the game in peace. For me that’s what it was. 3 hours of peace. Completely cut off from my horrible reality. But I could never have a connection or friendship with these people. This guard for example, shut the door every day to my life. They tortured me, beat me and humiliated me. Striking a friendship or having a unique connection with these people would mean I had absolutely no pride. I might be humble but I’m very proud of who I am and the last name that I have. I’m proud of my father and his legacy. Having said that the man who helped me escape was an Afghan Taliban. He took no money, he simply let me go. In him I think I found humanity in a place where I was convinced it didn’t exist.
Guernica: Do you think Pakistan has changed in the 5 years you spent in captivity, in terms of the quality of the debate regarding the issues that your father was trying to bring to light. The sacrifices that the Taseers have made for Pakistan, have they borne their fruit yet?
Shahbaz Taseer: Let’s be clear. There is no debate let alone the quality of it regarding the issue or person my father was trying to bring into the limelight but one of the things that my experience teaches me is that sacrifice never goes in vain. We must as a human beings, as a society always strive to be better and stronger people! And then the sacrifices of our heroes will bear fruit.
Guernica: Do you plan on staying in Pakistan?
Shahbaz Taseer: I love Pakistan. I was away on holiday after 5 years but after a month I got homesick. I have spent 5 years, desperately struggling to come back home, to see my family…How could I live anywhere else?
Guernica: What has been the most valuable lesson of this ordeal that you would like to impart to others?
Shahbaz Taseer: Patience is a dish best eaten cold [laughs]. You must be patient when tragedy strikes. I told myself that God tests those that he loves. Imagine feeling loved when everything around you is fueled by hate. It’s beautiful.