New Age Islam Edit Bureau
November 28, 2015
• The pariahs of Pakistan
By Farrukh Khan Pitafi
• This endless war
By Salman Tarik Kureshi
• A new politics?
By A.G. Noorani
• Culture wars
By Yaqoob Khan Bangash
The pariahs of Pakistan
By Farrukh Khan Pitafi
November 28, 2015
Ishtiaq Ahmed, author of hundreds of children’s books, died this month. What struck me after hearing the news was the sheer number of admirers I came across on social media that day, some of them hyper-conservative and some ultra-liberal. I didn’t know so many people even knew his works. I came across his novels in the late 1980s when I was trying to improve my written Urdu. A schoolmate, in a small town where my father was then stationed, gave me two of his books in exchange for the first few volumes of The Hardy Boys series. The late author had some interesting plot devices, which usually helped him in maintaining a loyal readership. But then he also laced his works with an unhealthy dose of paranoia, pseudo-history and geography, and a remarkable disdain for religious minorities. Chief among those who were at the receiving end of his disdain was the Ahmadi community, which in his infinite wisdom he preferred to call Jabani. In his world of intricate conspiracies, all non-Muslim countries, including America, Israel, Britain, Soviet Union, India, were all out to get us and Jabanis were their most useful tools.
While many of our good friends have probed school and madrassa curricula to understand the evolution of paranoia and intolerance in this country, I am sure nobody paid heed to missing links like this one. Children in this age of the internet, ebook readers and easily available audiobooks will perhaps not understand how difficult it was to find books back then that were considered appropriate for kids. Wary of romance and adult language in books, parents considered anything without it age-appropriate for their children. Nobody bothered to check what religious or political prejudices their children were being taught through these books.
Recently in a plush conference room in Islamabad, I was attending a workshop on minority rights. During the discussion, it struck me that we were all focusing on difficulties faced by Hindus, Christians, even Zoroastrians, and yet nobody had even spared a thought for Ahmadis. After a stunned silence caused by the sudden rush of self-awareness, all participants agreed with me that the matter was considered such a taboo in our media and society that we had stopped even thinking about it.
I distinctly recall how segregated the children from this community were during our childhood. As soon as it became public knowledge that there was an Ahmadi child in our school or class, we were explicitly forbidden to play or even socialise with him/her. We grew up studying with children from Christian, Hindu and other minority communities. Yet the Ahmadis were the only ones we were forbidden to interact with. I have strong reason to believe that the motives behind it were not religious but social and political as Ziaul Haq’s legacy compelled people to steer clear of such stigmas.
Recently, when the community came under attack in Jhelum, I could not help notice the lukewarm media response. One reason would be the ease with which clergymen can declare anyone a closet Ahmadi. A few might have feared a violent backlash. But the majority, I suspect, either don’t care or else think that the community deserves the treatment it is being meted out. I recall a show hosted by a leading televangelist in which a cleric not only refused to believe that Muslims had anything to do with suicide bombings, but went on to claim that this was an Ahmadi conspiracy. That is the kind of mindset we are talking about.
No one likes an underdog. In societies like ours, if not checked in time, political expediency makes persecution of underdogs a cultural norm, if not public sport. I am a firm believer in the separation of the church and state, but even I don’t think that any change in the constitutional status of the community is politically possible. But to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to a community’s plight is no more an option.
And let me be honest. My intentions are far from altruistic. It is a fact that hate, denial and paranoia change you profoundly. They changed us because we were raised with some very telling prejudices. As a selfish parent, I want to shelter my children from such negative programming. It took me a lifetime to break my programme and undo such a negative code. Perhaps, talking more openly about the matter would be a good start.
Farrukh Khan Pitafi is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi
This endless war
By Salman Tarik Kureshi
November 28, 2015
The Turkish air force has now shot down a Russian warplane. Whose fault this may be is not the question. What is more to the point is whether this incident will result in a further widening of the extremely messy war going on in and around Syria.
This particular war already involves Turkey and Russia (but not yet against one another), the US and the recently wounded France (both sounding extremely belligerent), the Assad regime in Syria against the ‘democratic’ rebels, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iraq and the UK, the al Qaeda terrorist franchise and the sinister entity known as Daesh or Islamic State (IS). Alongside, and still continuing with no end in sight, is the series of conflictscentring around the usurped rights of the Palestinians, and the still to be concluded civil wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. None of these show any sign of coming to an end any time soon; no, not even the war in FATA despite the valiant (and overdue) campaigns undertaken by our armed forces.
My piece today is not about this or that particular war. It is about modern warfare itself. The first and most important point I wish to make is this: wars do not end. If the victories of one side over another do occur, these victories themselves become the seeds of further conflicts down the road.Consider. In the country once called Annam, thereafter French Indo-China, and now Vietnam, the Japanese were fought, defeated and driven out in the 1940s and the French in the 1950s. Then, the US entered the war, plastering Vietnam with the “rolling thunder” carpet-bombings that showered down on the citizens of that small countrydoubled the total explosive tonnage used in all the previous wars in human history. But, thanks in part to consistent Soviet assistance, April 1975 saw the US defeated and scuttling in disarray from Saigon. As a distasteful post-script, China also invaded Vietnam in 1978,and was repulsed in turn.
But things did not end there. The US was determined to salve its humiliation by punishing the USSR for having backed Vietnam. In Afghanistan, the social radicalism of the Parcham-Khalq revolutionary regime brought it into conflict with the Afghan clerics, tribal chieftains and landowners. By October 1978, resistance to the Saur Revolution’s reforms had become open revolt.
The unconstitutional Pakistani usurper,ZiaulHaq, sought to exploit his self-proclaimed ‘Islamisation’ project as a pretext for clinging onto power and for hanging, flogging, lashing and imprisoning Pakistani citizens. The mujahideen’s raids into Afghanistan, in support of the revolt there, offered Zia the opportunity to use these anti-communist Islamist guerrillas to gain acceptance for his repulsive regime with the US and other governments, as well as for securing large inflows of military and other aid. US National Security Advisor Brzezinski saw the opportunity to prepare his ‘bear trap’.
We know from the published memoirs of the former CIA director and later US defence secretary, Robert Gates, that the CIA armed and trained the mujahideen under President Carter’s executive order of July 3, authorising CIA covert operations and funding for the mujahideen. This was nearly six months before December 24, 1979, when the Soviet army actually entered Afghanistan.Brzezinski would later recall, “That secret operation had the effect of drawing the Soviets into the Afghan trap. The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: we now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.”
The Soviet army was fought to a standstill. The USSR itself collapsed and disintegrated a couple of years afterwards.
In Afghanistan, the war morphed into armed conflict between various militias. Eventually victorious, the Taliban militia permitted headquarters to be created for the al Qaeda multinational enterprise’s terror campaigns against the US. With the US actively brought into the theatre, the war in Afghanistan took yet another form. It spilled across the border into Pakistan. It was also carried into Iraq, thereby unleashing the deadly forces that are at play today in the Syrian theatre and elsewhere in the world.
And so it goes on: unending warfare, insurgency, terrorism, anarchy, state failure, enormous refugee displacements, human misery and millions of lost lives.Does the reader note this continuum between the Japanese occupation of Indo-China in 1940 and what is happening in our country, in Afghanistan and in Syria today? Wars do not end. They perpetuate themselves and spread in a kind of domino effect around the globe. In his book, The Shield of Achilles,the historian Philip Bobbitt in fact suggests that the epochal war of our times began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in August 1914, itself an offshoot of the earlier conflicts in the Balkans.The Great War in Europe that ensued ended in an unjust peace, as a result of which the Second World War became inevitable. The Second World War ended in the nuclear bombing of Japan and ushered in the Cold War between the US and USSR. The Cold War was itself a series of hot wars in various theatres, including prominently the Middle East and Vietnam.
And these, as we have seen, have fed into the unending war that is going on today.Consider the consequences of modern warfare; the nations, economies, roads, factories, homes and lives destroyed. Consider the ranks of the jobless, the homeless and the destitute. Again and again, writers and commentators have decried the senseless destruction caused by warfare. Wars do not, as we have seen, either achieve their objectives or, in most cases, even come to an end. Therefore, this is the next observation: warfare is irrational, causing completely gratuitous destruction. And this is without even considering the extraordinary horrors of nuclear war.
My final point is that modern armies and weaponry are extremely expensive, requiring huge chunks of a nation’s GDP to sustain them. Even the mighty USSR crumbled, unable to support its superpower military appetite. Thus, modern warfare is clearly an economically senseless enterprise. If a nation must destroy its people’s livelihoods and homes in order to defend them, what exactly is it supposed to be defending?
In one person’s adult life, I have seen both superpowers embark on vast military projects only to be bogged down, demoralised and humiliated. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, surely, these examples are sufficient for even a child to appreciate the fatuity of modern warfare. Paradoxically, warfare — at least as we know it — isan unsound way of combating an enemy.For the moment, let us understand that the mature nations of the world — Japan, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, among several other examples, and, increasingly, China as well — emphasise commercial relationships over territorial issues and peaceful handshakes over military pugnacity.
It isall in the mindset.So long as we continue to regard killing other human beings for political or territorial objectives as heroic, for so long will this kind of endless war continue and people continue to endlessly perish. And for so long will the world’s armaments’ industries continue to reap endless profits.
Salman Tarik Kureshi is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet
A new politics?
By A.G. Noorani
THE people’s deep distrust of politics is comprehensive and dangerous. It extends to representative government as we have known it: the party system, the political process and, not least, its principal performer, the politician.
Negative emotions do not help in reasoned discourse. It would, however, be foolish to ignore the phenomenon; whether it is the Tea Party hijacking the Republicans in the United States, the veteran dissenter Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of Britain’s Labour Party or Arvind Kejriwal’s brand of new politics in his Aam Aadmi Party.
The latter’s sweeping victory in the elections to the Delhi Assembly, forcing the BJP — once so powerful in the national capital — to bite the dust, reflected popular disdain for the politics of old.
There is popular disdain for the politics of old.
Sentiments of rejection are commonly voiced in the wake of a national crisis in which the political system is perceived by the people to have failed miserably. The noted French author Michel Houellebecq voiced them after the Nov 13 Paris attacks in an article in The New York Times titled, ‘How France’s leaders failed its people’. “There are people, political people, who are responsible for the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in today, and sooner or later their responsibility will have to be examined,” he wrote in anger.
A telling recitation of the charges followed. The conclusion was damning. “One could cite many more examples of the gap, now an abyss, between the population and those supposed to represent it.
“The discredit that applies to all political parties today isn’t just huge; it is legitimate. And it seems to me, it really seems to me, that the only solution still available to us now is to move gently towards the only form of real democracy: I mean, direct democracy.”
It is, however, too late in the day to discard representative democracy. What is sorely needed is serious thought on its reform to meet the conditions of the 21st century.
In France, distrust of the party system has been continuously voiced. Nearly half a century ago, one of its foremost intellectuals Servan-Schreiber wrote in Le Monde that the country “can only be made modern, liveable and to the people’s own measure by transforming the political parties, not by rewriting the laws …
“Have the parties, as they stand, the capacity to carry this out? The answer is all too obvious and it is a cruel one. None of them has yet proved capable of changing itself. Gnawed at from above, undermined from below, they are trying to avoid death. ...Their leaders are ... sunk in intrigue, far from the public eye, clinching deals or venting quarrels, jockeying rivalries, swapping votes, begging for funds. The law of the underworld.”
The phlegmatic Brits will not go so far. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party signifies not a rejection of the party system, but an ardent desire for its reform. The Labour Party adopted a new system for electing its leader in which anyone could vote if they paid a one-time fee of £3. Blairites thought that opening internal elections to the general public would diminish the influence of union members and anchor Labour in the centre ground. To their horror, the £3 offer was taken up by the left.
Corbyn’s is the triumph of the movement over the party. He is not acceptable to the Labour MPs: it was campaigners from a coalition of diverse organisations who put a rank outsider in the leader’s seat. He has served warning enough to all the parties, not Labour alone.
To begin with, the first-past-the-post electoral system has become oppressive. It excludes small parties which have a significant following in the country; the Greens, for example. Even if Corbyn were to fail as leader, dissatisfaction with the electoral system will remain.
In India, the heart of the problem is that its democratic constitution is being run by political parties governed by oligarchs. New blood cannot be injected without their approval.
What incentive is there for the young idealist with self-respect to submit to this? The remedy lies in fair and free elections to all the posts and institutions in the party. Jayaprakash Narayan worked hard to reform this but stumbled badly and at one stage even fell for party-less democracy.
Rather than reject politics itself or denounce the politician, it would be more helpful to define his role which is to voice distinct interests and harmonise them with the national weal.
As Prof Bernard Crick wrote in his classic In Defence of Politics, “...politics is a preoccupation of free men, and its existence is a test of freedom” — which is why dictators denounce politics and politicians. Powerful NGOs can help to correct both. They are a vital part of New Politics.
A.G. Noorani is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.
By Yaqoob Khan Bangash
November 28, 2015
The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55. He tweets at @BangashYK.
I am currently attending a conference arranged by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis in New Delhi. The theme of the conference is “Culture as a Factor in Regional Cooperation in South Asia”. The fact that a defence institute recognises the importance of culture and wants to harness it for regional cooperation is significant. In a way, however, it is ironic that at a time when the Indian prime minster is promoting a mono-cultural identity for India and the diverse elements in the country are under extreme pressure and threat, a conference celebrating the plurality of the cultures of South Asia is taking place at a government institution. But then this could also be a sign of the complexity of the current culture war in India with there being different forces, even within the government.
All countries in South Asia have a shared culture; and it is beyond the generic. For example, India and Pakistan share not only a lot of cultural affinity, Punjabis and Sindhis are present in both countries in significant numbers. Bangladesh’s counterpart is West Bengal (significant that the appellation ‘West’ is still kept), Tamil Nadu shares a lot with northern Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkwa practically mean the same thing! These connections, despite official attempts by several governments to break them, still apply and in some cases, thrive. It is interesting to note that despite nearly 70 years of separation, the culture of east and west Punjab is largely similar. Yes, there has been some change and difference, but considering that there have been nearly three generations since 1947, the difference is not that significant. In fact, on both sides of Punjab, people still refer to the events of 1947 as ‘Partition’, since Punjab was partitioned, rather than ‘independence’, much to the chagrin of governments on both sides.
While political problems continue, all South Asian countries need to embrace and celebrate their shared cultures and traditions. No country in South Asia is mono-cultural and therefore, first, all countries need to recognise this. Pakistan has suffered from culture wars practically since its inception, and India is currently going through its phase. Recognising only one culture and promoting it alone will result in even scholars making fantastic claims, like the bizarre one made recently in India that the Vedic civilisation predated the Indus Valley civilisation! The Hindu right’s agenda to promote everything Hindu and Vedic has led it not only to attack people from other religions and cultures, but also to create historical falsehoods. This does disservice to both the Hindu religion and culture, and will only lead to more hallucinations and fabrications, and create a false sense and understanding of identity and culture.
Culture is primarily based on shared values, and it brings together all South Asians equally. Hence, secondly, all South Asian countries need to hold events that promote and engage with their diverse cultures, not only in their own countries, but also in other South Asian countries. This will increase shared development of our cultures and also lead to a greater understanding of other cultures and traditions. A large part of the ‘other-ing’ process in most countries is grounded in a lack of understanding of the culture and traditions of the other, and so a mutual celebration of cultures will lead to a deeper understanding and connection.
Thirdly, the shared cultures of South Asia need to be jointly promoted by the countries in other areas and regions of the world. This will not only promote cooperation between our several countries, it will showcase our region in places and venues where South Asian countries have not been able to make an impact. The joint efforts of all South Asian countries — this could happen through Saarc or otherwise — will be beneficial for all regional countries, especially the smaller ones, as working together will allow for better publicity, more public space and hence greater impact and an improved image of the region. For example, there is nothing stopping Pakistan, Bangladesh and India from jointly organising a music festival in Europe. All these countries share similar genres and use mutually intelligible languages, and therefore, such a joint exercise will collectively and particularly improve the ‘soft power’ of all the countries involved.
The two days of the conference with strong representation from all South Asian countries have given us a lot to mull over. There is nothing to lose, but a lot to gain from cultural cooperation. Time to act!