Red, White and Black

Hum dekhen ge
8 January, 2011, 12:44 am
Filed under: Islam, Pakistan, Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

The past three days for a liberal/progressive Pakistani have made for a very numbing experience. The public reaction to the horrific assassination of Salman Taseer has shocked many a people in the country. For me and many of my friends, the most shocking aspect of the past few days was the outpouring of public support for this wanton killing.

4 hours into the death of the governor, congratulatory smses started circulating and facebook groups supporting the assassin crept up. Then one read about the flowery reception given by some lawyers to Mumtaz Qadri. The next morning Dawn carried a photo of a garlanded Qadri raising a victorious fist while standing at the door of the police van – all the while surrounded by adoring lawyers. This morning one of my students with whom I had previously discussed Salman Taseer’s stand on blasphemy and challenged to identify verses of the Quran that support this injustice came up to me during the class break. He told me that the point was moot now. He was happy that Salman Taseer had been killed. He did not feel the need to hunt for those verses anymore. Did I not hear that 70% people in online polls supported the murder? Did I not hear about the 500 ulema who had declared the murder just? What more proof could I ask for? He felt vindicated in his opinion and that was the end of the matter. Before class resumed again, I just had the time to tell him that they were all wrong. (I plan to sit him down sometime next week and discuss this matter in a bit more detail. But for the time being, his obvious satisfaction over the act stumped me.)

He is not alone in these views.

I have had sufficient interaction with 200 odd undergrads this semester to know that he will have a good number of friends standing by him on these views. A while back a Newsline study by Ayesha Siddiqa argued that Pakistani students at elite universities had strong religious identities and were politically conservative. My experience teaching the history and politics of Pakistan at a premier engineering university this semester has reaffirmed these findings. (For that matter, why should these views be surprising at all? Recall SDPI’s “The Subtle Subversion“, which catalogued how the state in Pakistan has sought to cultivate a highly conservative and reactive mindset through primary and secondary education textbooks?) So why should we be so shocked when seemingly decent/rational/educated people around us think it of no big concern that an innocent man was killed in broad daylight for expressing his opinion? Why should we be perturbed at the unleashing of public joy at this murder?

72 hours later, I think the fog is finally lifting. As horrific as the events of the past three days have been, they have given us a reality check. They have exposed our opposition. No longer can we comfort ourselves that the silent majority would not support those who had holed up at Lal Masjid, that the silent majority would be appalled by attacks at Marriot and at crowded marketplaces in Peshawar, that the silent majority would have condemned the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team. The line has been drawn and we at least have a better appreciation of the opposition that we are up against. And we also know that we have to fight back. That we have to confront those with regressive and intolerant worldviews. We surely have to confront them. For not confronting and giving up the fight for the future of this country is simply, simply, not an option.

So where do we go from here? I have a few thoughts. For one we need to start defining the public discourse on these matters. There is this one particular bit of Aaron Sorkin dialogue that kept coming back to me today. It went something like this:

Lewis: “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

President: “… People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

The leadership that we have is inept and has failed to set any sort of public discourse on strategic matters for the country, let alone something as contentious as blasphemy. So when the public discourse is being set by the religious right and no feasible alternative is being presented to the thirsty masses, they are going to drink the sand and think they have just been blessed with God’s man-o-salwa. So let’s start setting the debate.

In the media discourse there are already some signs of hope. When the conservative Nazir Naji  argues on Capital Talk that Pakistan’s problems will only be solved once we return to a secular political system. When someone like Ch Shujaat Hussain musters the courage to call for a review of the blasphemy law. When even Kamran Khan begins to acknowledge that rising intolerance and religious extremism and diminishing space for rational dialogue are critical problems for the country. But this is not enough. We are standing at the precipice. A structured push for changing the discourse on critical national matter is the need of the hour. We need to provide the leadership – the alternative vision. We want to re-imagine Pakistan. At the same time, we need to recover the space that has been ceded to the religious right and start challenging the conservative mindset. I don’t know yet how or who will do all this? But I know that I am going to do what I can in my immediate circle, with friends and acquaintances and in my classrooms.

The journey for Pakistan’s future might just gotten harder, but I refuse to believe that the future is lost to us. For really, what other option do we have?

On tolerence and freedoms
21 May, 2010, 12:57 am
Filed under: Pakistan, social | Tags: , , , , ,

I set out to pen some thoughts on the Facebook debacle [1, 2, 3] of the past two days. But then I found the following two articles in my mailbox, which very gracefully discuss some of my feelings/concerns. Adil Najam wonders why did we even have to throttle this shameful act to the fore? Why could not have just ignored it and moved on?

Let’s think about it, what did the creators of the offensive page want to do when they set it up? First, they sought attention, and hits, and notoriety in a world where attention is too easily confused with fame. Second, they wanted to ridicule Muslims by the reaction they excepted from this. If you think of it, irrespective of whether Facebook removes the site or keeps it, the organizers of the page have achieved their goal. Well beyond what they expected. Now every other Islamophobic nutcase will get new ideas about how to have his little 10 minutes of fame spewing bigotry and hatred against Muslims.

But more importantly, they simply could not have done this without us. The only people who have turned this from nothingness into a huge issue is us. I am sure that those who set up the page are jumping up and down and thanking us for making their page such a huge success! And that is what pains me. [#]

Another blogger, Nabiha Meher, laments our incapacity to entertain multiple perspectives, our choice to be offended by the drawing competition and our “persecution complex”. She notes:

And I ask you: why do I HAVE to be offended? Is our faith so weak that a cartoon will destroy it? And even if I am offended, why am I not being given the option to boycott facebook voluntarily? A voluntary ban would have been much, much more effective in order to send a message out. A blanket ban has only lead to exactly what we like to cry about so much: negative publicity in the world press and many outraged Pakistanis protesting the ban such as me. How conveniently we pick and choose from religion! Lest we forget, I would like to remind the Muslims reading this of the incident of the woman who used to throw garbage at our prophet. The prophet, in whose name we claim we are protesting, was a peaceful, cooperative man who forgave people who pelted him with garbage and rocks. Responding with an intelligent dialogue, responding with patience is, in my opinion, the best way to protest one’s concern.

There is one other matter that concerns me. Why are our limits of tolerance so fragile? And for that matter, why do the organisers of this cartoon competition believe that their twisted view of freedom of speech exonerates them of all responsibility? But returning to our limits of tolerance. Today at the Karachi Press Club, Awab Alvi and some friends were almost mobbed by some members of Jamaat-e-Islami for protesting internet censorship.  Note that they were not condoning the cartoon competition. Far from it. They condemned it, but argued that in a civilised society blanket censorship of this nature has no place. And for their troubles, they were attacked by some members of the media and then had to escorted out under police protection. Read the newsreport here. I first learnt of the story on television and the news report made it sound like they were supporting Facebook’s position on the matter. The questions this raises is this: why are we so intolerant of perspectives that don’t agree with ours? And why do we possess such over-bloated and sanctimonious religious egos that are hurt at the drop of a pin? These are tough questions that we, as a society, need to answer. For this is a very slippery slope that we are navigating. And why aren’t we willing to question these attitudes of ours? Is this is what is entailed by being Muslims?!

‘Imaging the Future’
31 December, 2009, 1:38 am
Filed under: Pakistan, social | Tags: , , ,

As I write this, the last day of the decade dawns. And I wonder: what did Pakistanis imagine for themselves and the country as 1999 drew close? What were our dreams and aspirations?

A while  back after a series of terrorist attacks in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, my grandmother remarked that she had never even feared that we would be living in such times. She found it difficult to relate with the times we are living in today. What did her generation envision as a future for their grandchildren?

Another incident: a few weeks ago, I observed two boys (about 5 and 7 years of age) engaged in a role-play game. They were wielding play-guns and running around corners shooting. Every now and then, the older of the two would tell the other that he had spotted a ‘terrorist’ and they should lob a bomb now. What do they imagine themselves as when they grow up?

Yes, we are living through difficult times. Times where not only do we have to deal with mundane worries like power and gas shortages but where we now live under the constant fear for our lives. Times in which mosques have lost their sanctity and students and international players seemingly constitute legitimate targets. One by one, all of our reservations and pillars of faith have been stripped away. Indeed, the times are tough and hope is little. But that is not what I want to write about in this post.

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What is The End?
6 October, 2008, 11:01 am
Filed under: Pakistan, Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

The recent statement making the rounds came from the British military commander in Helmand. Discussing the future of the taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, he stated that:

“It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

Brig Carleton-Smith said the goal was to change how debates were resolved in the country so that violence was not the first option considered.

He said: “If the Taleban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this.

“That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.” [#]

An honest statement. The insurgency in Afghanistand and Pakistan cannot be crushed by western forces. That is a basic fact of this conflict and a fact that the West refues to acknowledge. Therefore, this is a welcome statement.

But this brings us to the question: how can this conflict end? This insurgency can only be defeated through indigenous opposition – when the local people themselves decide to lead the fight against the militants and the role of foreign forces is eliminated or at least curtailed. For that matter, it is pertinent to ask what is the curtain scene for the global war on terror? What is the ultimate objective for the American agenda in the region?

The war on terror was proclaimed with two objectives: to catch and kill Osama Bin Laden and his associates and to destroy the infrastructure of Islamic extremism threatening the US.  To achieve these two objective a military approach was adopted and a “war” was declated. Now, it is possible to achieve the first objective through this approach – yes, OBL and his close associates can be killed. But will that solve the problem? Will that mean that the war has been won?

In all honesty, the American administration is not even serious about the second objective. So the focus is on killing a few men and that is supposed to miraculously solve all the problems. Here is a newsflash: it won’t. Today, its Osama Bin Landen – tomorrow, it will be someone else. There is no end possible to this war. And that is a fact missed by most.

Just musing.

The Bad New World?
12 September, 2008, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Pakistan, Politics | Tags: , , ,

Bush Said to Give Orders Allowing Raids in Pakistan

U.S. Reported to Kill 12 in Pakistan (fifth such incident over the past 2 weeks)

Gilani, corps commanders endorse Kayani’s stand: Nation told not to get upset by US threats

Karzai backs US plan to attack Fata militants (Of course, he has done an exemplary job in Afghanistan)

and this piece says it all:

The September 3 Attack on Pakistan

I am too angry/worried to write coherently about this insanity. But I know that this will not (cannot) end well for any of the parties concerned. We should brace ourselves for worse days. Truth be told, there is not much that the Paksitani state will do about this situation. There will be angry statements protesting the violations of our sovereignty, but we know that will not amount to anything. Will Pakistan do more than temporarily stop NATO’s feul supply? Will the army retaliate? No.

The Pakistani nation will shamefully endure another insult.  Resentment will flourish. The new democratically elected government will be under increased pressure and will have to deal with diminishing space and options. Don’t expect it to grow a spine and stand up to this madness. Tough times are ahead.

And of course, who will suffer the most in this sordid affair? The ordinary people. The militants pissed at the airstrikes will step up their attacks on the rest of the country. (Funny way to fight the Americans.) Yes, this does not augur well.

Dealing with the Taliban Insurgency
27 August, 2008, 8:41 am
Filed under: Pakistan, Politics | Tags: , , , , , ,

In the midst of the political circus of Pakistan, the war in our backyard continues to be ignored.  Violence has been raging in the tribal areas and Swat valley. Violence that is not just related to the war on terror and the Taliban, but adding to the delectable mix is renewed sectarian strife in Kurram Agency. And when the state and the militants battle it out, the ultimate sufferers are ordinary people – whether they are victims of fateful suicide bombs or refugees in their own country. The recent military offensive in Bajur created over 400,000 IDPs. The state moved in to provide relief and support to the dispossessed only as an afterthought. It is from amongst theses IDPs that the Taliban find their potential recruits.

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Keeping Faith
26 August, 2008, 4:00 pm
Filed under: Pakistan | Tags: , , , , , ,

Last Tuesday was a happy day for most Pakistanis. They were still rejoicing in the afterglow of the resignation of a military dictator. Musharaff finally read the writing on the wall and bowed out. Last Tuesday discussing this on another forum I had written:

This is what they should do now. The judges issue is nothing but a ceremonial issue now. They will be restored..well and good. And I hope the judiciary will retain its spine and keeps these fools on their toes as well. Next on the 17th Amendment will be repealed and the parliamentary form of government will be restored in earnest. The President will be a ceremonial head again – minus 58-2b. Of course, the first real test for the coalition would be the choice of the new President. It’s an open field there.

Looks like I called it wrong. I realise now that I was hoping for the ideal situation and forgot about the relaities of Pakistani politics. I had hoped that rationality and good sense would revail. But only a week later the coalition split. Zardari reneged on his promise and said that political agreements cannot be considered to be as sacrosanct as the Quran-Hadith. Nawaz Sharif has a right to be angry with Zaradari. Does it matter now that Zardari apologised? After all his apology will be as good as his political agreements, no?

I am really angry over these developments. I am angry that Zardari has put his ego and ambition infront of naitonal interest. I am angry that he has squandered a historic opportunity to establish a national unity government where both the main parites of the country would have been able to work together to strengthen the democratic tradition and to fight the pressing issues of terrorism and economic fraility. I am angry that we may not get a similar opportunity soon. I had a long discussion on the issue with a friend today and the premise put forth was this: We should let this continue. This wrangling is what democracy is all about. We need to let this assembly complete its term and establish a precendent for democracy in Pakistan.

In other circumstances, I would have agreed. But this is not the time to let the kids learn how to grow. The time demands that they act as adults yesterday and figure out a roadmap to steer the country through these troubled times. If anything, whatever we know about Zardari and the democratic governments of the decade of the 90s does not give me hope. There is already talk of Zardari keeping 58-2b, of the PPP working to oust PML-N from Punjab, of the possibility that the national assembly will be dismissed if PML-N gets too rowdy. And of course, this would create yet another classic situation for the military to intervene.

And to think that we did not have to take this path. But old habits die hard, don’t they? Here’s to hoping that I am proved wrong. I desperately want to..but at this point keeping faith in the system is turning out to be extremely difficult.

SMSing trouble
14 August, 2008, 9:28 pm
Filed under: general, Pakistan | Tags: , , , ,

This morning The Daily Times carried a news story that has me worried. The news story reports the incidence of controversial SMSes being spread in Karachi:

Some people in the city have been growing more and more worried about the fears of the alleged spread of ‘Talibanization’ especially with the appearance of incendiary graffiti, posters and cell phone text messages.

“Some families from [the name of a place in Sindh] arrived at [the name of a place in Karachi] and were taken upon by [the name of one linguistic group] who misbehaved with their women,” said one text message. “Their bodies were painted red and they were stripped naked… [One linguistic group] has given [the name of another group] a deadline to leave [an area in Karachi]. Think, are you going to do something or just talk? Send this SMS to all [one linguistic group] so that the nation awakens. Long live [the name of a political leader.”

Another message said: “An elder from [a place in the Punjab] has told the people of Sindh in a message to pray [a certain prayer] and ask their friends to do so because a great tragedy is about to befall the province. He sent a similar message to Balakot as well before the earthquake happened.”

This is coming in the backdrop of a series of reports over the past week which have warned against the imminent “Talibaniation” of Karachi. Karachi is already scared with ethnic warfare and fanning of hatred and anti-ethnic feelings in this manner does not bode well for the social fabric of the city.

I have witnessed the power of smses in another conflict recently. And the ability of these not-so-innocuous messages to spread fear and panic cannot be underestimated. The state can take a number of educational steps to counter the spread of such hatred, but the utlimate responsibility lies with the users. We are a country where sms forwarding is a hobby and we have to be extremely careful of what we are spreading. I hope that these messages fizzle out but they will do their damage if we don’t pause to think about them.

Edit: A related opinion piece.