For Pashtuns, a tradition of heroes with special powers
In barely literate societies, Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, could take on supernatural status.
MARDAN, PAKISTAN — Mullah Omar - the Pashtun founder of the Taliban - has done everything possible to give himself the allure of one of God's chosen few.
In his early years, he rallied his troops by draping the cloak of the prophet Muhammad around his shoulders and took on the title Amir-e Momineen, or Leader of the Faithful. He believed that God spoke to him through his dreams, and often based his most crucial policy decisions on these dreams.
For some, Mullah Omar has the potential to transform himself from a simple religious leader into an Islamic hero endowed with supernatural powers to take on the world's last superpower. Aiding him is the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are barely literate societies, where history is passed down in the form of myth.
Still, such transformation is far from guaranteed. The fugitive lacks the spiritual heft of former great mullahs, according to some. Others say that the longer Mullah Omar eludes American forces - the US military has been hunting him since Sept. 11 - the closer he'll get to divine status.
A long line of Islamic heroes precedes Mullah Omar. In 1985, Mullah of Hadda, a wiry, charismatic, bearded man from eastern Afghanistan, united the Pashtun tribes against the British colonizers, convincing followers that God was on his side. The so-called Mad Mullah is reputed to have received spiritual powers through intense meditation.
On the streets of this town, most villagers still talk about the Mullah of Hadda's supernatural abilities - how he created hailstorms and hornet swarms to harass the enemy. Or about the Haji Turangzai, a 19th-century Sufi saint from Charsadda, Pakistan, who once turned a handful of dust into bullets. Or the Fakir of Ipi, whose prayers could heal the worst battle wounds.
"Sufism is a very important part of Pashtun society," says Sher Afgan, a wealthy landowner from Mardan, referring to a school of Islam that places great importance on supernatural gifts. "There is a feeling that those who have reached a certain level of piety, then God ordains some spiritual powers [for] them."
Today, the Sufi Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the few journalists to have known Mullah Omar, says a few tales are already being told about the Taliban leader.
"There are stories about that wedding party that the Americans bombed," he says. "The host was a man named Anwar, an ally of the Americans, and he was trying to invite Mullah Biradar and maybe even Mullah Omar to attend." Instead of luring a Taliban leader into an American trap, Anwar lost some 30 members of his family from American bombing. "People say this is God's way of punishing people who sold their souls to the Americans."
But most Pashtuns in Pakistan's tribal belt- where much of the Taliban leadership is thought to be hiding - seem little interested in Mullah Omar or his special powers.
"Mullah Omar is not a popular figure," says anthropologist David Edwards at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., who has studied the supernatural beliefs of Pashtun tribes. "The speed with which the Taliban fell showed his appeal to be localized to the Kandahar area, which is where he made his last stand."
Yet if today's mullahs are not seen to be as spiritual, it may be because today's Pashtuns are harder to please. Mullahs of the past 100 years have increasingly lived cushier lives, taking government salaries and seeking political office.
Moreover, local Pakistani journalists say that Mullah Omar's reputation could grow.
"The longer he is not captured, the more people will start to attach many things to this man," says Mr. Yusufzai, one of the few journalists to have known Mullah Omar. "They'll say he can't be captured, because God is on his side."
Take the Mullah of Hadda, who made his last stand among the Pashtun tribes in a mountain pass north of Peshawar. The British eventually won, destroying the mullah's hideout in Jarobi. Upon his return, widows of war veterans were said to have spat on him. But eventually in the minds of many Pashtuns, Britain's inability to capture the mullah made him all the more powerful.