BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Time was when young ethnic minority Pashtuns in Britain might dream about returning to the lands of their forefathers to fight for the Taliban, following links of blood and tribe.
Now, when Pashtun teenagers discuss the hardline Islamist militia, they see the mostly Pashtun force as the enemy.
Pashtuns in Britain, among Europe’s most insular and traditional Muslim minorities, are reacting with horror at the loss of life and destruction produced by conflict in the Swat valley and other parts of Pakistan’s northwest.
Their readiness to blame the al Qaeda-aligned group for the turmoil may boost efforts to counter radical recruitment among British youths of south Asian origin, experts say.
“They are killing women and children,” says Kashif Yousufzai Khan, a slight-looking 17-year-old Pashtun in jeans and T-shirt in the Hockley district of the industrial city of Birmingham. “I feel very upset about what they are doing.”
The homelands of the Pashtuns, a fiercely independent tribal people who speak a language distantly related to Persian, lie on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Britain is home to the largest community of Pashtuns in the West. They number up to 100,000, among a wider population of more than a million people of Pakistani and Afghan ancestry who settled in the former colonial power over the past 50 years.
The community has acquired a reputation as inward-looking and reticent, but the humanitarian crisis in northwest Pakistan is prompting community leaders to speak out loudly against the Taliban and in support of its Pakistani army foes.
The strands of Taliban support that once existed within the community have all but withered away, its leaders say.
They describe it as a significant change in opinion, because some in the community had regarded the Taliban as a mixture of freedom fighters and dispensers of local justice, and because it echoes a switch in broad public sentiment in Pakistan.
“Innocent blood has been spilled. The Taliban’s actions are not morally right,” says Mohammed Yousuf Javed, 18, a Pashtun.
Jahan Mahmood, a south Asian community expert partly of Pashtun ancestry, said he had seen a dramatic change in people’s view of the Taliban because of the displacement of people, desecration of shrines and “disregard for life” in Pakistan.
Sympathising with the strict Islamists was once respectable.
Pakistan backed the Taliban when it took control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. While it officially dropped its support after the Sept. 11 attacks, Islamabad was suspected of continuing to take a permissive line with the group.
That perception changed drastically in May when the army began a big assault on the Taliban in the Swat valley, 130 km north of Islamabad. The offensive has won a welcome from many in Pakistan, angered by what they saw as Taliban excesses.
“I’ve not seen a single person who says the Taliban is right,” said Samina Khan, a presenter at Manchester-based British Pakistani television broadcaster DM Digital.
“The violence caused a lot of frustration because people here have friends and relatives in the area of fighting,” said Rab Khan Khattak of the British Pashtun Council.
Pashtuns are “very alienated”, he said. A proud people, they are often unwilling to ask for benefits or apply for grants from the local authorities that might be available to them.
That reticence has not helped Pashtuns respond effectively at times when they have been stigmatised as Taliban stalwarts by other south Asian communities who point to the ethnic link.
Such attitudes resurfaced in April after the arrest of 11 Pakistanis, some of them Pashtu speakers, and one Briton in northwest England in raids to foil a suspected al Qaeda plot.
All 12 were later released without charge, although 11 face deportation on national security grounds.
Pashtuns point out their community has not figured among the perpetrators of proven plots to attack civilians in Britain in recent years, most of which have had links to Pakistan, including bombings which killed 52 people in London in 2005.
The community remains very critical of U.S. policy in the region and in particular Washington’s “completely unacceptable” use of “drone” planes to kill al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, Khan Khattak says, because civilians have been killed in the process.
British politicians have expressed concern at media reports that British Muslims apparently fighting for the Taliban have been involved in conflict with British troops in Afghanistan.
“Up until the recent broader change of opinion about the Taliban, you could hear young people express support for the idea of jihad,” said Mahmood. “But it was a very small minortiy and whether they were serious you could never really say.”
“But that’s changed now.”