What’s in a tattoo?

Published: December 17, 2012
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The tattoo shows a demonic image inspired by a Peruvian painter. PHOTO: REUTERS

I hate to burst people’s bubbles but all this tattoos-are-“un-Islamic”-and-would-never-be-worn-by-an-Islamist-radical nonsense is a major distraction.

Plenty of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have been found with tattoos. In fact a several years ago so many dead Taliban fighters were found with maple leaf tattoos that senior American counter-terrorism adviser David Kilcullen actually led an investigation into what they represented (short answer: Quality Toyota Hiluxes originally imported from Canada).

It’s also common to find Taliban fighters with tattooed inscriptions and text. Here is a photo of a captured Taliban fighter with a tattoo saying ‘I bear witness’.

Foreign Jihadi fighters who have travelled from other parts of the world to fight alongside the Taliban due to their Jihadist beliefs occasionally bring tattoos with them as well. For example several British extremists, (some inspired by the same group that was invited recently to speak at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad often travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. This has been well-reported in the western media.

Some of these fighters bear tattoos. Some with Jihadist themes but also some that they had from before they became radicalised and decided to wage holy war. For example there was the very well publicised (at least in the UK) case of British soldiers being surprised to find a Taliban fighter they killed a couple of years ago had an tattoo of English Premeier League Football team Aston Villa.

And the famous Australian Taliban David Hicks who fought against the American invasion and was captured and spent several years in Guantanamo Bay before being released had satanic tattoos from the days he dabbled in Satanism before he embraced Islam. He also used to drink heavily and do drugs before he started attending a mosque and changed his ways. Obviously tattoos are ingrained for life and can’t be removed without extensive plastic surgery which one is unlikely to find in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

But once again its worth emphasising that while the elaborate tattoo of the kind found on the back of the Taliban fighter in Peshawar would suggest that he was probably a foreign fighter, tattoos are not unusual in parts of Afghanistan and often have symbolic value. Nor is it necessarily deemed ‘unIslamic’, as one can guess by the description of a pro-Taliban mullah in the following article:

“the religious leader engagement team was approached by a mullah who wore the mark of the Taliban—a crescent moon and star tattooed on the right hand—who was deeply moved by the presence of Afghans and Americans praying together:”

Or this description of American soldiers questioning a possible Taliban spotter:

“The soldiers questioned a man who had seemed to signal their movements by repeatedly honking a minivan horn. His right hand bore a tattoo of crossed swords.

“Asked by the American platoon commander, First Lt. Philip Divinski, what the tattoo signified, the man said he didn’t know. “My mother put it there,” he said. He added, “When I was 2.”

All of this information has been widely discussed and examined by those interested in learning about the Taliban and the war raging in this part of the world so I think those “officials” and “experts” who are claiming that this tattoo is extremely unusual or proof some kind of bizarre plot are either extremely incompetent or deliberately misdirecting the public.

Both possibilities are equally disturbing since, in the first case, severely incompetent people tasked with combating militancy are never going to successfully accomplish the job and in the second, misdirecting the public might well imply complicity with the militants and their agenda.

Is the presence of a tattoo on a member of the TTP newsworthy?

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iftikhar.zaidi

Iftikhar Zaidi

A graduate from King's College, has an MA in Imperial and Commonwealth History and is currently teaching History and Sociology in Karachi.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.