For centuries Pashtuns were simply called “Afghans,” though today that term usually refers to anyone from Afghanistan. They are the dominant and largest ethnic group in Afghanistan – some 16-18 million. There are twice as many Pashtuns in Pakistan, concentrated in the northeast. Years of conflict have forced thousands to flee the region. Pashtuns speak various dialects of Pashto.
Pashtuns believe they are from the lost tribes of Israel and descendants of King Saul. They are a rugged, hard-working people who love children but find it hard to provide for them. They hide their women and celebrate manly courage. Pashtuns excel in hospitality, and it is central to their sense of honor to treat all guests well. They love poetry and music and are devout in their faith.
The Pashtun have fought back successive waves of invaders. They are mostly Sunni Muslims whose primary identity is as zealous followers of Muhammad. The Taliban is a Pashtun religious movement seeking to enforce strict Sharia law. Thirty years of conflict is destroying cultural identity and tribal order. Few villages still have elder councils (jirga), and few cultural resources remain to resolve conflicts peacefully.
There has been decades of violence among the Pashtun, and Taliban extremism has caused great suffering. Many Pashtuns have lost hope and see no way of escape. Fear, anxiety, and depression are widespread.
Pashtun women suffer enormously under male-dominated tribal customs and strict interpretations of Islamic law. They are secluded, and their rights are severely curtailed. Their tribal code forces women into traditional roles and separates men and women. Literacy among women is much lower than among men.
Grain farming and animal husbandry were long central to the Pashtun economy. With a border dividing two areas of Pashtun people, smuggling has also become a lucrative source of income. A growing number of Pashtuns have migrated to cities, and the traditional tribal, agrarian, village life that has long characterized Pashtun society is in sharp decline.
Response to the Gospel among Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan is quite modest, and there are no known multiplying movements. But there is a “trickle” of people coming to Christ and some underground gatherings of believers. The most persistent forms of opposition, which can be very violent at times, come from family, community, and tribal leaders who see dishonor coming to them when members of their community “become apostates” by following Christ.
The Scriptures and other evangelistic materials are increasingly available in Pushto via satellite TV and the internet – a recent and exciting development. They are being downloaded on mobile apps outside of the control of the Mullahs (religious leaders). A long-awaited new translation of the Bible in the Pakistani dialect of Pushto will be introduced in 2019!
Because of the years of violence, there are substantial groups of Pashtuns living in diaspora communities in India, the UAE, and Europe. There are gatherings of believers in some diaspora communities who are remarkably bold in their witness, even to fellow Pashtuns.