New Age Islam Edit Bureau
18 September 2015
• Updating The ’73 Constitution
By Ayaz Amir
• Condemnable Actions Of Saudi Arabia In Yemen
By Zeeba T Hashmi
• Syrian Refugees On The Move
By Abdur Rahman Chowdhury
Updating the ’73 constitution
By Ayaz Amir
September 18, 2015
Our exceptional quality of governance has to be admired. The prime minister sets up a high-powered committee to “resolve the issue of undue fee hike by private schools.” Not long ago such an issue would have been settled by the local deputy commissioner. Now it takes Pakistan’s heavily-elected prime minister to address it.
My morning paper also informs me that the PM chairs yet another meeting on the energy crisis and quotes him as saying: “…the country cannot afford power load-shedding for longer period of time since the economic betterment and comfort of the common man is linked with it.” Ye gods, have mercy on us. The meeting disperses, with the energy crisis exactly where it was before it started.
The interior minister, the PML-N’s gift to brevity – in a country given to longwinded statements he yet takes the prize – addresses another press conference (the man is fond of them) at which, characteristically, he manages to say almost nothing. This is a neat division of labour: the army fights terrorism, the interior minister addresses press conferences. And he is supposed to be amongst the brightest in this lot.
I forget. While the PM is at it, why hasn’t he addressed that other momentous issue: selecting the right market-place in Islamabad – sector this or that – for sacrificial animals on the occasion of Eidul Fitr? Doesn’t this also call for a cabinet-level committee?
And it’s going to be close to three years and the government can’t make up its mind about the ban on YouTube. Decisiveness, thy name is the government of the heavy mandate.
If these geniuses had their wits about them, they would have declared war on terrorism before the army did. But they had other priorities – mega-projects and metro-buses and foreign trips that to the average Pakistani looked more like private business visits than anything else. Now with Gen Raheel Sharif’s star in the ascendant – with even the political class reluctantly beginning to acknowledge his popular standing – you have to see their long faces.
It’s a safe bet that between now and next November when the general’s term is up, this government will have a single-item agenda: fervent prayers seeking divine help for the safe exit of their nemesis. He is the spectre at their feast, the ghost at the table, who has spoiled their feast for them. With real decision-making gravitating to the army, and the army chief’s hosannas being sung all around, no wonder the PM is seized with issues like undue tuition fees.
Exile and wilderness would be preferable to this power. But these are survivors who have been around for a long time, tutored in the hard school of patience. They think they are playing the long game, banking on the device left to them: out-waiting the general.
Three-time PM and if anyone thinks this is exceptional luck, consider also the bad luck interwoven into these high exercises of authority. Nawaz Sharif spent his first term praying for the exit of then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. His second term was spoiled by Pervez Musharraf. His exile in Saudi Arabia and later London was spent pining for his destruction. His third term has been spoilt, irrecoverably spoilt, by another man at arms. Of what use power if drunk from such poisoned chalices?
For most mortals, better than this would be to ride out into the desert and take up residence at a shrine. But this is a tough breed and power of whatever sort, poisoned or otherwise, has meant everything to them…the path to riches and glory.
So they cling to it, even if it is the shadow of power, nursing the hope that over the long-term they will prevail even if for the present they are putting up with greater embarrassment than ever before.
The tussle with Ghulam Ishaq Khan made Nawaz Sharif a popular politician and the PML-N a popular party. Exile at Musharraf’s hands transformed Nawaz Sharif into a symbol of democracy and even of resistance. This may sound funny today but that’s how it was at the time. But this third stint is bringing no such reward. It is only bringing embarrassment.
No tanks have moved; no 111 Brigade has swung into action. But the hollowness of the elected dispensation is being exposed with no mitigating circumstances…no compensation in the form of political martyrdom. While the army goes about the business of taking on terrorism and cleansing Karachi – and dealing with the likes of Malik Ishaq – the knights are left to twist in the wind…and look into the far distance.
That this is turning into a farce is plain to see. How long can it last?
Thanks to army action in Fata and Karachi, Pakistan is all right for the moment. But what happens afterwards? What guarantee is there that the present course is followed, with the same singleness of mind and purpose? These are the questions agitating the public.
A constitution is only as good as the goods it produces. We can hold as many elections as we like. We’ll still get the same paladins of democracy, knights of the mandate and so on. Whether politicians are more corrupt than champions in other fields is beside the point. Politicians have failed the acid test of leadership.
Raheel Sharif has not created space for himself. He has not pushed anyone to the wall. The vacuum was already there, created by fecklessness and incapacity. The general merely stepped into the breach, shouldering responsibility that should have been the province of others. It is not through any Goebbels-like trick that the army has won public support. Public acclaim followed the army’s actions.
Let’s be plain about one thing. We know the wages of dictatorship but what did democracy, the variant of it here, deliver? Licence and freedom for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, licence and freedom for the MQM, licence and freedom for the various ruling coteries to carry on loot and plunder. All this was accomplished in the name of that motto made inviolate and sacred by endless repetition: continuity of democracy.
This was the hymn song sung when Pakistan lay at the mercy of religion-spouting terrorists who were not above cutting the heads of soldiers of the Pakistan Army and the Frontier Corps and playing football with them…and when Karachi lay in the grip of its own kind of terror. The political leadership held out olive branches to these football players. And the best of politicians made it a holy creed to hide their wealth abroad. And people were not supposed to open their mouths because democracy was being preserved and strengthened.
Such democracy has brought ruin to countries stronger than ours. Such a democracy ruined Russia before Vladimir Putin, no one’s description of an ideal democrat, came forward to stop the slide and save his country.
So what dream world are Pakistan’s democrats living in? Do they want a return to that laissez faire period when leading politicians went into deep mourning at the death of the TTP leader, Hakeemullah Mehsud? Do they want Peshawar to once again become a beleaguered city? Do they want the Rabita Committee to again become Karachi’s true corps headquarters?
How to solidify the present? This is Pakistan’s foremost need…best ensured by constitutional changes envisaging a directly-elected president with meaningful power. Sham, money-tainted democracy has already run its course. It’s time to move ahead.
Gen Zia injected a booster shot of Islamisation into the 1973 constitution and no one complained. A directly-elected president will not alter the democratic provisions of the constitution (although I wish someone were to have the guts to do away with the protection granted to the Hudood Ordinance). So on that score why should there be any grounds for complaint?
Condemnable actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen
By Zeeba T Hashmi
September 18, 2015
Human misery has no limits, especially when the disaster is created by human follies for political dominance. In Saudi Arabia’s case, it is more a matter of the paranoia of Shia influence in Yemen where it believes that Iran is supporting and facilitating the Shia rebels. In geographical terms, it is strategically easy and a well thought out plan for Saudi Arabia to show its military might in Yemen. With negligible casualties on the side of the Saudi coalition forces, the infliction of war falls heavily on the people of Yemen who have no place to go and seek refuge. They are trapped in an inferno.
Sitting on Bab ul Mandab strait, Yemen’s waters present an important link between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which makes it essential for the Gulf States to use that route to export important oil shipments. With a Houthi take over, the Gulf States fear their transit will be severely affected, thus causing them huge economic losses in future. With the conflict between the Zaidi Shia rebels, or the Houthis, and the loyalists of the self-exiled Yemeni president, Hadi, non-state powers like al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are gaining power. Al Qaeda, which is against both Houthis and President Hadi, is also detested by IS. With a pot purée of fighting between all factions, which is quite worrisome for the west, there is confusion as to who is fighting whom. For the west, which is endorsing Saudi coalition forces, there is immense fear of Iranian alleged involvement in the region, a charge Iran denies.
Historically, the Houthis remained in power for 1,000 years until 1962. In 2004, Badr al-Din al-Houthi led the first uprising to gain power in Saada province. Since his death, Houthi’s followers have rebelled against the state’s forces to regain dominance as they feared a Sunni takeover of their culture and traditions. In January this year, the Houthis managed to hold the reigns of the country, dissolved the assembly and placed key political figures under house arrest. With Shias in a minority in the north, the Sunni majority in the south and their tribal leaders have strongly opposed the Houthi takeover, thus bringing inevitable chaos to the country. The Saudi-led forces, as appealed to by the toppled President Hadi, started taking action against the Houthis by initiating airstrikes in Yemen in March.
The continuous fighting in the Middle East’s poorest country has caused about 1,950 deaths and more than 42,000 wounded since March. With escalating inflation rates and lack of governance, about 12.9 million people are believed to now face food insecurity, with about 1.2 million children severely malnourished. In severe conditions like this where Yemen relies on 90 percent food imports, only a fraction is allowed into Yemen, thus causing serious food shortages. Around six million people are internally displaced and are living in refugee camps in pathetic conditions. According to UN figures, out of a population of 26.7 million, about 21 million have been deprived of basic amenities and humanitarian aid, and about 20 million have no access to safe drinking water thanks to the devastation caused by airstrikes. About 15 million people are now deprived of basic health facilities. With about half the population under the age of 18 years, UNICEF warned in August that at least eight children on an average are being killed or wounded on a daily basis. Amnesty International published a report in which it observed that Saudi-led forces have targeted civilian areas, which were far from military targets. It has also accused the Houthi rebels of committing war crimes by their indiscriminate targeting of both armed opponents and civilians. The escalation in human misery has grown three times since the onset of air strikes in March. This is a desperate cry for help that demands the attention of the international community. The UN has appealed for $ 1.6 billion from the international community but only a fraction has been achieved. Saudi Arabia committed to contribute $ 274 million but, so far, it has not lived up to its pledge.
To consider what Saudi Arabia and the gulf Corporation Council (GCC) countries are doing in Yemen as ‘war’ is an over estimation. Morally, it is wrong to call it a war unless both sides are equal in their military prowess and are fighting a fair battle. Saudi Arabia asked for Pakistan’s assistance in its so called war with Yemen, which Pakistan rightly declined, much to the dismay of religious-political parties, which condemned Pakistan’s parliament for not doing enough to ‘protect’ the harmain al sharifain (holy houses in Mecca and Medina). Pakistan’s decline also caused a severe backlash from the GCC countries and warned of consequences. It was indeed one of the few instances where Pakistan took a fair stand, despite the fact that its military has its economic interests vested in Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan also withstood the pressure from religious parties that are still adamant about helping Saudi Arabia in its war. Little do they realise that the people in Yemen, which is a Sunni majority nation (if that is something that matters to religious parties here) are being made to suffer just because some countries want to contain Shia political space, which they attribute to Iranian influence. Yemen has become a tragic hub of proxy wars fought by various power players at the cost of human lives. The unjust embargos on sea transits to Yemen and stopping the supply of food and medicines to the displaced people there should be equaled to war crimes. With the uninvited interference of Saudi Arabia in cultural and social dynamics in Pakistan through the opening of sectarian madrassas (seminaries) that are causing hate and violence against Shias, it is time Pakistan puts a stop to this and officially condemns the Saudi-led coalition forces for their documented war crimes in Yemen.
Zeeba T Hashmi is a freelance columnist and may be contacted at email@example.com
Syrian refugees on the move
By Abdur Rahman Chowdhury
September 18, 2015
The death, destruction and suffering inflicted by a four-year-long civil war in Syria have now reached a breaking point. More than 250,000 people have been killed and about a million have been seriously injured. Not a single city has been spared from bombings either by forces loyal to the Assad regime or by the rebel army. About four million people have left the country and taken shelter at refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and another four million have become internally displaced. Half of the population displaced or taking refuge in neighbouring countries is teenagers. The population displaced and population turned refugees combined make half of Syria’s total population. The remaining populations are not at peace either; their loyalties are questioned by both sides. Many of them are harassed, imprisoned, tortured and then set free. They are not sure whether they will see the next sunrise.
As the crisis unfolded the international community responded with great generosity. The refugees were provided food, shelter and healthcare. Children were provided with elementary education. People hoped that the crisis would end sooner rather than later; they would return home and rebuild their lives. Their hopes were not unfounded. The UN initiated mediation first led by former Secretary General Kofi Anan and then by former Algerian diplomat Lakder Ibrahimi, who made an inexorable search for peace and put in place the framework for a peace deal. However, the peace talks collapsed largely due to the intransigence of the Assad government. It was not prepared for power sharing let alone abdication of power. The overconfident rebel leaders also convoluted the peace initiative. Consequently, the country is now falling apart.
The emergence of Islamic State (IS) in mid-2014 added another dimension to the civil war. It unleashed horrendous brutality, destroyed ancient heritage in Palmyra and brought a large territory of central Iraq and southern Syria under its control. IS’s ruthlessness generated another wave of displacement and thousands joined the refugees in neighbouring countries. The civil war now has several fronts with multiple actors. The Syrian army, backed by Iranian troops, is fighting against rebel forces and IS. The rebels, aided by the Arabs and Gulf States, and supported by US air strikes, are chasing the Syrian army and IS forces. In Iraq, the government and army, aided by Iranian troops and militia with US air support, has been trying to regain the territory lost to IS. The US is spending over nine million dollars a day in the warfare in Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon has deployed over 3,000 military advisers in Iraq to train and guide the Iraqi army against IS. US military advisers are apparently cooperating with Iranian militias in Iraq while it is at war against the same in Syria. Russian troops are reportedly expanding the airfields, assisting the Syrian army against the US-led coalition’s offensives.
As the civil war has prolonged donor generosity has declined with the surge of the refugees in these camps. Twice in the recent past, the World Food Programme — the UN’s food agency — slashed food assistance and even suspended the delivery of food rations to refugees due to a deficit in funding. Its funding situation still remains precarious.
Refugee camps, regardless of how well arranged, cannot be a substitute for homes. Nonetheless, refugees have to put up with the ‘camp life’. The hardships inflicted by harsh winters, hot summers, restriction of movement, inadequate healthcare, disruption in food rations and the pain of leaving behind lifelong earnings make people desperate enough to try anything different. This is why refugees in the thousands have decided to undertake extraordinarily dangerous journeys in quest of unknown destinations. These were not excursions, not river cruises; there were absolutely no joys in these voyages.
As the crisis intensified unscrupulous human traffickers began transporting refugees in small and ill-equipped boats to European coasts. The boats were susceptible to storms and strong waves at sea. Many boats capsized and over 2,700 migrants drowned in the Aegean Sea. Aylan, a two-year-old Syrian boy, was one recent victim. His body was washed up on shore in Turkey. The footage of Aylan’s motionless body with his face down in the sand received wide publicity. People, especially in Europe, were moved by the tragedy. They urged their governments to do more for the Syrian refugees.
Chancellor Angela Merkel asked European Union (EU) countries to share the burden and pledged to accept 800,000 Syrian refugees in Germany. More than 50,000 refugees have already moved into Germany and more are on the way. This is not the first time Germany has rushed to help the people uprooted from their countries of origin. During the Cold War it accepted 13 million people who had fled from East European countries to avoid persecution. Germany provided asylum to over 250,000 people displaced during the Balkan War. Austria, France, Sweden, Finland and Poland have now agreed to accept refugees fleeing from the conflict zone. British Prime Minister Cameron, after a long hesitation, announced that the UK would accept 20,000 in five years.
The ambivalent attitude of the US and Canadian governments is despicable. The conscience of the leaders of these countries has not moved for even the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. President Obama’s decision to accept 10,000 refugees is ridiculous. Following a humiliating defeat in the Vietnam War the US accepted 190,000 refugees from Indo-China and during the Balkan crisis 180,000 people were granted asylum. Washington’s response to the present crisis is incongruous with its de-rigueur of immigrant hospitality. Obama’s attribution that “someone else’s civil war spills far beyond Syria’s border” marks a distortion of history. The Syrian crisis would not have lasted long had Iraq not been subjected to unjust US-led invasion 12 years ago.
Aid agencies estimate that another million refugees might be on the move. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban led the countries opposed to granting asylum to refugees as he believed the influx of Muslim migrants would threaten the Christian trait in Europe. But Europeans, in general, have stood above religious divides and welcomed the migrants. The EU, in its meeting held on Monday, decided to allocate 40,000 people stranded in Italy amongst the member countries and pledged funding for the resettlement of families. EU leaders, however, remained undecided on earlier allocation of 120,000 refugees amongst the member states.
The egregious indifference of leaders in the Muslim world has been disconcerting. Oil rich Gulf States and Saudi Arabia could have come forward with resources to avoid disruption of food assistance to the refugees in the camps. During King Salman’s visit to Washington last week the Four Seasons luxury hotel was exclusively reserved, costing many hundreds of thousands, paying scant attention to the worst humanitarian crisis next door. The Gulf States and Saudi Arabia could have provided all Syrian refugees temporary shelter on their soil. Sadly, the kings and sheikhs have different priorities. Amazingly, notwithstanding the unforgivable apathy of Muslim rulers, Martin Schulz, the president of European parliament, did not apportion blame but instead acknowledged, “It is the intergovernmental decision-making process within the EU jealously guarded by national capitals that has once again proven its ineffectiveness.” Angela Merkel has set a paradigm to world leaders on how compassionately a politician can respond to a humanitarian crisis.
This crisis will not end any time soon, at least until a political solution is worked out. The UN and the EU can jointly design a peace plan. The people of Syria and Iraq have suffered too much for too long. They deserve peace.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations