My Malaise Speech

January 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm (Uncategorized)

America spends more money on its military than any other country, and a larger ratio of its GDP on its military relative to its allies and other countries with comparable standards of living (save for KSA). Its weapons expenditure accounts for 40% of the global arms trade. The U.S. has more military bases than there are actual countries, on all populated continents. It polices the world, for good and ill. And it has a level of power Islamists dearly wish the Umma had.

With the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century, the failure of Muslim states post-European colonialism (except perhaps Turkey, Singapore and Malaysia), and lack of a Caliphate or credible leader of the faithful, especially for the Sunni majority, many Muslims in the world feel humiliated by this imbalance of power, even when the U.S. military isn’t actually occupying their own lands. Many innocent Muslims have also been victims of bad American foreign policies and unwarranted aggression, not to mention those who have lived under dictatorships allied with America. And of course, there is the resentment caused by America’s support of Israel, the official or unofficial enemy of Muslim states.

More Americans need to take this reality seriously, particularly those who make foreign policy assessments and decisions.

***

I was against the Iraq war (particularly the second one) from the beginning. Not because I care only about America’s interest, but also based on what’s good for Iraqis. I don’t believe all examples of American military intervention in the world are benign or justified. However, not all military actions are mere imperial hubris either.

To see an example of American ethnocentricism, look at an isolationist like Michael Scheuer, former top level member of the CIA, who thinks America should either turn hostile countries into rubble with the full force of the U.S. military, or just completely ignore them. He thinks Americans should not care about non-Americans, especially if these people have nothing to offer Americans in terms of economic advancement. Only American lives matter to him. It’s a form of patriotism that holds that if it doesn’t directly impact my fellow citizens and me, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Who cares if, say, there’s a preventable genocides happening within another nation-state (especially if it has no oil or other important resources)?

Sure, liberal do-goodism in foreign policy can really have terrible consequences – the best intentions go to hell with misguided, misinformed assessments. Robert McNamara was one of the most honest ones to admit that, years after the Vietnam War tragedy. Unwarranted interference and intervention in other countries, whether based on selfish or altruistic reasons, is bad. I say this as a liberal.

But the worldview of rightwing nationalism is inherently pathological, and American “isolationalism” can turn to aggression on a dime, given the right circumstances. Indeed, it’s this isolationist mentality that is preventing the emergence of a genuinely cooperative, peaceful global civilization in which separate states work together for the well-being of all.

***

I’ve been told that I must not “understand the concerns” of Mullahs and the military establishment in Pakistan. Yes, I do. I just don’t share most of them.

There is a serious problem with Pakistani society. And no, this is not “blaming the poor.” I hate it when educated Pakistanis blame the uneducated for the problems in their country. For the most part, I give the poor a free pass – they really are victims of a very unjust system. Pakistani’s problems are not just the fault of the ambitious middle class either (I’m from the middle class myself, so I understand it), even though it does tend to be the most conservative and rightwing sector of this society. Much of the blame should go to the rich and well-educated, especially the economic and political powerhouse Ayesha Siddiqa rightly calls “Military Inc.”

Objectively, we can look at the faults of Pakistan’s feudal-like system, for lack of a better description. It’s hierarchical and closed, full of thaana culture, corruption, nepotism, etc. But there’s also a rise in egoism.

By egoism, I mean the lack of conscientiousness and lack of honesty found not just on the macro-level (in government, or in other large institutions), but on the micro-level. You can see it in every day interactions.

There is a culture of finger-pointing, largely because people are obsessed with preserving honor and avoiding shame. When was the last time you heard anyone around you say: “you know what, I messed up, I’m sorry, I’ll learn from my mistake”? In my experience, this hardly ever happens, mainly because it’s considered a sign of “weakness.”

By admitting mistakes, I don’t mean those who just say “yes, yes” when the boss (or parent, teacher, etc.) yells at the subordinate, or when the servant (or “help”) shows obeisance towards the owner of the house. That’s just pleasing authority. It’s considered normal in Pakistan to lie about what you’ve done or not done and to do whatever it takes to look good, even if it means scapegoating innocents. The justice (or, injustice) system reflects that, as does the political culture, and even workplace culture.

When this egoism translates into thinking about national or international issues, you get this type of discourse: Pakistan is innocent, and even if it does have structural flaws, it’s only the fault of outside powers.

Meanwhile, the problems continue (and with this attitude, it’s doubtful anything would change if Pakistan were indeed completely isolated from all the nefarious “foreign powers”).

In this context, it makes perfect sense why a person like Imran Khan is popular. He is disciplined and has a strong work ethic, which comes from his athletic background, and he lionizes the military establishment, which is idolized for its disciplined soldiers (not that the generals aren’t as corrupt, greedy, and Machiavellian as any civilian politician, mind you, but that’s another story). The military is the only institution that can seem to get stuff done, and efficiently too (well, not all things, but I won’t go there).

And he boosts national pride, advocating self-reliance and focusing most of his anger at America.

But people like Imran Khan are intellectually lazy. It’s the same egoism. Objective thinking towards one’s own society isn’t just pointing out all the individual traitors and fifth columns. (Much of the obsession with corrupt civilian politicians is really anger at politicians for not being Islamically correct; the real target are the inherently evil Crusader-Zionists out to undermine the moral purity of Pakistan).

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” – Einstein

Post-conventional moral reasoning challenges national prejudices. It requires a level of objectivity – by examining  one’s own nation-state and civilization – that openly admits any injustices done to the “other” and bigotry towards non-group members (e.g. non-Muslims, non-Pakistanis, non whatever ethnic group you are). Many people just won’t do such an analysis, any more than unconscientious people don’t like to introspect, blame themselves, and take responsibility for their actions. It threatens their identity, self-image, and sense of superiority.

For Pakistan to have a just, genuinely democratic society, at peace with its neighbors, the changes must be cultural as well as structural. Its best, brightest, most sensitive and open-minded citizens often simply get up and move to more tolerant and just societies where they can have a better life. The good ones left behind are burdened with picking up the slack, and must raise the level of national discourse.

And yes, I am preaching. I’ve earned that right. I’ve lived here for five years, and the fate of both America and Pakistan are intertwined at this point in history. I’ve spent a good chunk of time scrutinizing and criticizing the ways in which my country has done wrong in this relationship.

A historian who is a Holocaust-denier would not be taken seriously by any respectable university in Europe or America, and for good reason. Yet, a professor of International Relations at National Defence University, one of the best schools in Pakistan, refers to the Bangladesh genocide, one of the biggest genocides in history, as a “baseless accusation.”

As much as Pakistan, like many developing countries, has monetary problems, budget deficits, food shortages, inefficient/unaccountable institutions, and extreme poverty, this country is also seriously lacking in conversational honesty.

Consider this my malaise speech for Pakistan.

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On Servants

May 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ve never been totally comfortable with ideas of a servant staff. I know it’s polite to call them “help,” but let’s face it, they are servants. When I hear about rich celebrities in California hiring illegal Mexican workers, I feel the same way. I understand that they come to America for a better life, they are very hardworking, and deserve to make more money than they would south of the border. And unlike how they’re portrayed, the vast majority of them don’t commit crimes, and I think on average commit less crimes than other poor people around them born in America (most of the drug cartels and narco-terrorists operate out of Mexico and other Latin American countries, and most Latinos in America are not only not in gangs, but many are now upwardly mobile and entering white collar professions). Race-baiting against immigrants is an old tradition for American nationalists, and while the current rate of illegal immigration surely has negative economic repercussions for America as a whole, we should rationally analyze the push-pull factors instead of taking our frustrations out on Mexican families, especially children settled in America who didn’t even have a choice in the matter of this illegal entry. And the problem would be nipped in the bud if companies and estates were punished for hiring illegal workers to begin with.

So I came to Pakistan with the emotional baggage of liberal white guilt. Here I am, born in the richest and most powerful country in the world, in one of the wealthiest regions of the country. When I go abroad, wittingly or not, I am the face of it. And now I’m in a poor country or, rather, a country that is highly stratified with a huge divide between the elite (who pay no taxes), a squeezed middle class, and millions living in real, abject poverty. Seeing servant staff reminds of poor immigrant Mexicans, the differences of class and power in America, and the difference between America and its southern neighbor which, by all rights, has the means to be doing much better. It’s like going back in time to feudal times (to some Americans it might even sound like a fairy tale — like I live in a castle — but I can assure you it’s not so romantic).

I was raised in a middle class family, and as is typical was taught to do my own chores, work hard, and not be a burden on others. It was not extraordinary to be told to clean my room, clean up my own messes, and accept responsibility for my actions. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The idea of paying someone to do something I could do myself, as convenient as it is, is anathema to the Protestant work ethic mindset instilled in me. Always being onguard against the personal tendency towards sloth, wasting time (which is also money), and unproductiveness, it’s a sin to let work go by and put it on the lap of others. Or so I was (implicitly) taught.

On the other hand, having a servant staff is a status symbol. But it should be reserved for those who earned their wealth through hard work. I didn’t buy the house I live in. I just happened to be married to a girl who has a home with that setup. Of course it’s convenient, and it makes it much easier for me to help take care of our needs. But I still question whether I have the right to enjoy this privilege. Have I earned it? Yet, by living in Pakistan, is it feasible or practical to function without it?

Yes, I understand that uneducated Pakistanis, or those with little education, need jobs, and this is better than them living on street as beggars. They are not slaves – they do get a salary. And they can quit and go to another household, which they often do.

But I also want them to be educated, especially children. Children should only be focused on going to school, not doing house labor for the upper class family they live with. Why should they have to serve, just because of the situation they were born into? Why should others get the privilege of being served, just because of the family they were born into? Unfortunately, the children would do everything possible to not go to school or do school work, even going to such lengths as running away from home.

So my way of coping has been to treat them as nicely as possible, and to do things I can easily do myself. That strategy has had mixed results at best.

Sometimes it does get me more respect, but at times less so. Like the time, before I was given a house key, I was outside for my usual afternoon walk. I knocked on the door and rang the bell, as I always did, and the whole family was outside, and saw/heard me. They knew I was stuck there. I asked repeatedly, in three languages (all of which they understood) to let me in, and they just stared at me. I eventually got so tired of waiting in the hot sun that I just scaled the wall and climbed in, causing them to laugh at me.

That’s when I first noticed the passive-aggressive attitude. Not doing things that were asked of them, or lying and saying they did when they didn’t, or repeating errors on simple tasks, became routine. Worse, lying and blaming me for things they do. My experience with drivers, who again and again undermined me, was even worse. I learned that it wasn’t just due to cultural differences, or language barriers.

I’ve never hit them, as that’s unthinkable to me, even though that does happen often in this country, especially in villages. I’ve rarely lost my temper, though shamefully, at times I have. I try not to yell or bark instructions. I go out of my way to be polite, and would not ask for favors unless I think I’m not able to do it myself. And yet, I often wouldn’t get results unless I would tell on the staff for not doing things (and even then, I wasn’t always supported). And never mind all the items that were stolen from me, which was blamed on me, rather than them.

And then I realized that maybe it was due to me being perceived as “weak.” As an American, or someone in upper class circles, most of the “respect” comes from being feared, not necessarily being liked or admired, which is exactly what I didn’t want to happen when I moved to Pakistan.

Rather than feeling touched by empathic gestures, the attitude that seems to govern responses is – let’s take advantage of the naïve American. Instead of cooperating because of a felt sense of solidarity, they wait to their chance to get revenge at one of the big men who control their lives.

And what is the perception of the two country’s relationship? What is Pakistan, to Pakistanis, if not just a “servant” of America? Its people feel humiliated at  how their corrupt leaders grovel up to America, so for many, the servitude is unwilling (and even the grovelers resent it). Since so few Americans come here, and even fewer are willing to humble themselves, except for token gestures, by actually living with Pakistanis, my move here can either get appreciation and lead to hospitality and friendliness, which Pakistanis are famous for, or deviousness against the person who represents a country considered the new Britain, the colonist out to rule Pakistan.

Yet another reason for me to ask – has my move made any difference or done any good? Only time will tell (I think).

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I’ll Comment on OBL Expert, not OBL

May 4, 2011 at 9:53 pm (Uncategorized)

I won’t go into conspiracy theories and questions of the legitimacy of Osama bin Laden’s death right now (they dumped him in the sea to avoid making a shrine, and Saudi Arabia didn’t want to take him – makes sense). I’ll accept that the circulated photo, allegedly peddled by Pakistan as well, is probably a fake, and the international media should be more skeptical (the U.S. didn’t release it or comment on it, mind you).

He’s dead, there are other targets to go in the war against Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is still unstable and full of major problems (as is Pakistan), more revenge attacks and reprisals will come from Tehrk-e-Taliban will happen, splinter cells and smaller, AQ-influenced networks will continue to work in isolation, and on it goes. AQ is down but not out (in fact, will get nastier in the short-term). Funding and central organization (between all international groups united by the ideology) are disrupted temporarily, but we are not automatically safer (I’m not, especially with all the unrelated problems in Karachi concerning the continually bloody fighting and infighting of ruling party MQM). But the symbolic value of the symbolic of his assassination is there.

I’d rather shift my attention to Afghanistan and OBL analyst, and former CIA chief, Michael Scheuer. This is a man, mind you, who believes that the U.S. requires another major terrorist incident (with nukes even) as a means to awaken the population to demand that the government protect them. And that we should have used the “full force” of our military (read: nukes and more ground troops) in subsequent wars around the world after WWII. And while I agree that the U.S. should get tougher with Israel and its internal policies (e.g. settlement expansion), as it is a huge funder of this state, he seems to go further and head into the “blame Israeli lobbies” territory for all of our foreign policy woes. I can only conclude that his worldview, while seemingly leftist at times in its critique of certain neoconservative policy, is really far right. Certainly, it is anti-humanitarian (except for extreme obliteration of other countries, he cautions military intervention to prevent genocides, and advocates letting the chips fall where they may in international events, even if it means an ally is attacked and asks for help).

But I’ll give the man credit where credit is due as well.

I think Scheuer is bullshitting us if he wants us to believe Bin Laden made a clear distinction between U.S. foreign policy and the nature of its domestic society. He wants us to believe that Al Qaeda is a “legitimate resistance” merely protecting the interests of Muslims and has no aim other than defensive jihad in their home countries (he is devout Salafist/Wahhabi, it’s true, but that’s not all of Islam or even most of it). Then again, this guy is unapologetic about his involvement in Operation Cyclone, so can we really trust his judgment? If he had his way, the U.S. would bomb the shit out of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, possibly with nukes, if another 9/11 happens.

Indeed, by validating Al Qaeda propaganda, it’s as if he’s saying, these earnest Muslims are really just trying to protect themselves and they have that right, as we really are out to rule them all, and force them to replace all of their traditions with our socio-economic system and way of life. But we should continue ruling the world like this any way, and totally destroy Muslims if they retaliate. If this is what the “sympathetic” American policy analyst thinks, no wonder you don’t trust America!

Never mind that Wahhabis fund radical madrassahs all over the Muslim world. Never mind that the ideology eventually envisions the total submission of the world to Allah (i.e. Islam being the dominate religion in all states, if states will even continue to exist in such a universal “utopia”). Never mind that radical Islamists are at war with non-Muslims all over the place, and don’t just target America or the West. Never mind that all non-Muslims and false Muslims (munafiq) are defined as the enemy (the former if they don’t humble themselves before the morally superior Muslims) by this “Muslim insurrection”.

Scheuer is right that AQ is strategic, is specific in its goals, and is deliberately trying to hurt America financially in order to weaken it. They can’t win without divide and conquer tactics, and judging by the nature of American political debate, it’s working. Rightwingers blame America for being threatened, either because they make a link between liberal rhetoric and AQ statements (which AQ does on purpose) saying that all critique of U.S. policy gives aid and comfort to the enemy, or even because biblical fundamentalists (who share this same set of deeply conservative values) think God is punishing us for having the abomination of homosexuality and other “sins” in America. And it’s no secret that the extreme left validates AQ, and even shows deference and respect for their “freedom fighting.”

America is weakened by this. No less than in Pakistan, it’s full of paranoia, divisiveness, conspiracy theorizing, the constant look out for fifth columns, etc. The Patriot Act, choking off of immigrants who can help the country, ploys to unthinking patriotism (i.e. it’s “un-American” to regulate banks and corporations, even when they destroy the economy, or to not keep spending billions on wars of choice, giveaways to Halliburton, because it “undermines the troops”) all of this is not helping America.

This, I suspect, is why Obama has been so obsessed with uniting the country, bi-partisanship, transcending identity politics, convincing the public that government should work for people, etc. but has failed in that regard. This couldn’t be any more different than how the country pulled together under F.D.R. Americans voluntarily underwent temporary personal sacrifices that eventually paid off, lifting the country out of depression, creating social safety nets, defeating the Nazis, and enacting the Marshal Plan. The solidarity now is hallow in comparison – shrill, token, and often uniformed (and often xenophobic and jingoistic).

And, to his credit, OBL asked a valid question – why are we not attacking Sweden? Because Sweden is not the world’s police and hasn’t done anything to Muslim countries, as America has, is the obvious answer. If it had, you’d heard something along the lines of “this nation is not secular, they’re still involved in the Crusades”.

But let’s not forget that Muslim countries basically tried to pressurize Denmark because, instead of following Islamic legal norms, they would not censure a newspaper in their country that allowed offensive speech (never mind how offensive the Muslim media is to Jews and others). That made Denmark culturally “at war” with Muslims. If a highly liberal northern European nation like that had America’s power and influence in the world, you can bet that they would be attacked by AQ as well.

But here’s another good question – why isn’t the U.S. at war with every oil rich country? Because most of them trade openly with the U.S., and it makes no sense for America to occupy their lands. When U.S. ships were abducted by the Barbary pirates, it wasn’t because Americans had troops in Muslim lands back then, or because of bad relations with Muslim countries (in fact, Morocco was one of the first states to openly acknowledge the new country’s existence). The pirates made it very clear to U.S. diplomats that they were non-Muslims (now without British protection) and thus, as non-believers, were fair game for pillaging, holding for ransom, killing or enslaving. Self-interest on the part of those Muslims, yes, but certainly not the rational kind envisioned by Adam Smith. The U.S. did not respond with disproportionate force, did not occupy Muslim countries, and went back to trading on the high seas once the hostages were freed.

What we face now is no less than modern Barbary pirates, but with a fundamentalist core that is, at its heart, a reaction to the conditions of the modern world. Iraq was a serious blunder, unnecessary, and wasted American blood and treasure, not to mention the lives of a people suffering a decade of harsh sanctions and dictatorship. And it was a gift for Islamist propagandists. But limited use of force against select “pirates”, if you will, is totally justified. As is the desire for trade, aid, and cooperation on security issues with Muslim countries.

I’d like to lobby for a new sort of Marshal Plan for Muslim countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. But getting the American people onboard is tough enough – they are rightfully demanding that their money be spend more wisely and ethically, as am I – but it simply won’t go through if the people of those countries reject it, because they reject the U.S. as a whole. And to me, that’s a lose-lose.

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Grassroots Or, Short of That, Middle Class Roots

January 18, 2011 at 6:48 pm (Uncategorized)

To both Pakistanis, and outsiders, the country can look like one daunting, seemingly unsolvable puzzle.

The formula for democracy is certainly no mystery. If all Pakistanis are to live in a country in which they have the opportunity not just to survive, but to flourish, then they need access to resources and capital (both financial, and social, i.e. education), free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, the right to air grievances against the government (and any other authority, for that matter), and a crackdown on political corruption. The government must lead by example, if we want an open society based on meritocracy on all levels.

Naturally, that requires a head of State who is not corrupt. A crackdown on government corruption is only possible if the leader of this campaign is him or herself incorruptible. Given the cliche that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” then not only are true checks and balances necessary on the head of State necessary, but must apply across the board to all authoritative bodies. If all are not equal before the law, the law is useless.

So how do we determine who is incorruptible and fit to lead? The classic answer is also plain and well-known – moral authority. This often translates as charismatic authority.

In Pakistan, this generally means brandishing one’s Islamic credentials by showing how passionately devoted one is to Muslims, and showing how strict one is in following Islam, say with hajj photo-ops, or public denunciations of personal immorality (one’s actual private behavior not withstanding). Also, it means dressing up, on the right occasion, in traditional clothing, donning the karakul, pakol or any other topi, and of course the shalwar kameez. A populist Sufism, that which is supposed to be based on love and humility, can be brought into it, which translates into fiery displays of passion and piety towards Muslim figures and the Ummah. The age-old urge to brandish charismatic leaders with a supernatural aura – being blessed by divine powers – is mixed in with Sufism as well.

One does not have to be a Muslim to avoid financial corruption or work for a fairer, more open society. A good leader can follow the five pillars of Islam, or the moral injunctions of another religion. It does not matter what clothes they wear, or what family they come from, given that they don’t put their family loyalty above the good of the country. A good leader can pray in a mosque, a church, a gurdwara, or mandir. All that is needed  for a leader of such integrity is rationalism, transparency, and a deep-seated belief in fairness.

Further, the campaign to rid the society of all corruption (let’s just say financial corruption, and not questionable matters of personal morality) can no longer rely on top-down leadership. There has to be a ground swell. The poor are, well, too dis-empowered and demoralized to attempt such a campaign. The wealthy elite are often too apathetic, or corrupt themselves, to do it. The middle class, who have the means, and the power of the ballot, seem to hold the reigns.

And the middle class is rather conservative, socially and religiously. Campaigns against corruption will have to be tied to an Islam that is strict and politicized. The broader values and spirit of the religion can be subverted in the name of an Islamic revolution.

The way out is a liberal reform of education. The very thing the conservatives, such that they allow education at all, fight tooth and nail against.

This puzzle might not be unsolvable, but it’s not hard to see what so many find it daunting!

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Repeal Blasphemy Laws Now!

January 11, 2011 at 3:41 pm (Uncategorized)

Let’s examine the laws, shall we.

“§ 298-B and § 298-C prohibit the Ahmadiyya from behaving as Muslims behave, calling themselves Muslims, proselytizing, or ‘in any manner whatsoever’ outraging the religious feelings of Muslims. Violation of any part of § 298 makes the violator liable to imprisonment for up to three years and liable also to a fine.”

This refers to a small unorthodox Muslim sect in Pakistan who are highly discriminated against because they believe in an extra prophet. During the floods, for example, many starving Ahmedis were not allowed to get aid. During the terrorist attack on a Sufi shrine this summer committed by hardline Islamists who are against all “devient” forms of Islam, including the Ahmedis, the locals falsely accused the Ahmedis themselves. They are regularly threatened, harassed, and even attacked by hardline Islamic students in universities (a few years ago they were forceably kicked out and had their property confiscated at a university, and the school did nothing to stop it). Hateful propaganda against them is common.

What this law means is that mainstream Muslims can proselytize, which they regularly do, but the Ahmedi cannot. And what, exactly, constitutes the “feelings” that can be “outraged”? Anything that Muslims deem “offensive.” It’s just a poorly written, biased, bigoted law. If a Muslim doesn’t like that another person has different religious beliefs, for example, they can cite this law and say that the accused “hurt my feelings,” leading them to be fined, or even put to death.

There is no law to specifically stop Muslims from outraging the feelings of others, although “§ 295-A forbids outraging religious feelings.” Yet, I’ve heard them say the most vile, untrue, offensive things about Jews, Christians, Hindus, even Buddhists, on a regular basis – on the streets, in the schools, in work places, in the media, in mosques – and yet I know of no case in which Muslims have been punished for this. And if you think blasphemy laws don’t unfairly punish Muslims too, think again!

“On 4 August 2009, a Muslim mob attacked a factory-owner by the name of Najeebullah and others at Sheikhupura in the Punjab. The mob killed Najeebullah and two others, and set fire to the factory. The mob complained that Najeebullah had placed an outdated calendar, which contained verses from the Quran, on a table. For that offense, a worker accused Najeebullah of blasphemy. The workers may have been in a dispute with Najeebullah over wages.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-10696762 

“In October 2000, Pakistani authorities charged Younas Shaikh, a physician, with blasphemy on account of remarks that students claimed he made during a lecture. The students alleged that, inter alia, Shaikh had said Muhammad’s parents were non-Muslims because they died before Islam existed. A judge ordered that Shaikh pay a fine of 100,000 rupees, and that he be hanged. On 20 November 2003, a court retried the matter and acquitted Shaikh, who fled Pakistan for Europe soon thereafter.” http://www.mukto-mona.com/news/shaikh_free.htm

The former incident is just not absurd on its own merits, but probably stems more from an issue having nothing to do with religion, one that could be simply settled by a workers union. It was “offensive” because the qur’anic calendar was outdated and was placed on a table! That notion of respect borders on idolatry, which Islam is supposed to reject.

I’ve yet to hear a well-thought, compelling argument in support of these laws. I’m done trying to patiently reason with otherwise normal, educated Pakistanis who defend them. It’s time for the liberals in Pakistan to pick up the slack and make their case. If this happens, more will probably die for it. I don’t want that. I want the liberals to be protected and to have a strong voice, so at the very least they can bring about a larger, more mainstream culture of enlightenment that isn’t restricted to an elite, cloistered few.

Yes, major changes in education, both in terms of greater access for the poor, and a major overhaul over what’s taught (and not taught), must happen for this enlightened culture to emerge, but that will take decades, if at all.  The change has to start somewhere, and it’s overdue.

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On Salman Taseer

January 6, 2011 at 2:16 am (Uncategorized)

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here. I don’t know how many people are even reading my blog any more. I’m not even in Pakistan right now – back in the States on vacation – and yet, as soon as I read about Salman Taseer’s assassination I felt like I was right back in the thick of it. 

When I first read the story I was shocked. What will happen with the coalition government? Will this only empower the far right parties? 

The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Worse still, many of the so-called moderates I saw online were excusing it. Actually supporting the most unfair, illogical, poorly crafted laws in Pakistan, the “blasphemy” 295 laws, right up there with Hudood Ordinances.

I remember much of my time in Pakistan wondering why no one would even talk about the existence of such barbarity in the law books. Not once did I hear it! In the discourse – in public, amongst colleagues, in the media – one constantly heard about lesser crimes and legal contravinces in countries like Israel, India, or America (the three favorite targets) and narry a word about systematic abuses like the blasphemy laws. Even the equally bad problems Muslims face in other countries, which are worth talking about, get much greater weight than what happens closer to home, such as hate crimes against sects like the Ahmedis (even flood victims!). Or the treatment of Christians. Or the discrimination in work places against non-Muslims (or those not belonging to the right political parties). Or the constitutional statute against non-Muslims becoming prime minister or president. Or the bill three years ago calling for the death penalty for apostasy. Such obvious insanity is frequently looked over, while every outrage against Muslims is drummed up endlessly.

I won’t get too much into Salman Taseer, except to say that I didn’t know him, but knew people who did, and I generally respected him. I don’t know what will happen with the Asia Bibi case now. This is a good piece on him: http://www.facebook.com/#!/notes/wajahat-s-khan/the-governor-of-us-all/190724227610816.

As I tweeted yesterday, enough is enough! I’m tired of trying to debate people, people who should know better, on why this crime and this law need to be stopped. Pakistani moderates need to fight back. I want to see more people challenging this law, and others like it. I want Pakistanis to shout as loudly as they can about the injustices against their fellow Pakistanis, especially women and non-Muslims, in addition to other marginalized groups.

The time for polite discussion is over. I want to see dedication and a real civil rights movement worthy of the name. I want to see the “silent majority” become outspoken and shout about it until they drown out the bullies who are shouting them down. I want to see people get tired of being scared, tired of feeling sorry for hurting the feelings of those with no conscience, and instead act as bravely as Taseer did.

The fanatics want a fight, and the moderates will only be their cannon fodder if they continue to be meek. Most people don’t want to end up like Taseer did, and who can blame them? Therefore the moderates must intelligently use all tools at their disposal to outlast and subvert the bigots. By any means necessary.

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Comment on the Plane Crash

July 30, 2010 at 7:59 am (Uncategorized)

As Pakistan reels from one attack to the next, so often now that it’s difficult to keep track of them all, an accidental disaster (we assume at least) has now caught our attention. It’s bad enough that innocent people are being purposely killed, needlessly, to advance a horrible political agenda, on top of all the other difficulties Pakistan faces, ones typical of developing countries, but now we are reminded of the more regular types of tragedies that can and do happen as well.

I tried to make a comment on a colleague’s recent blog entry about the Margalla Hills plane crash, but was not able to put it up, so I thought I might as well put it here.

First, it’s heartbreaking to hear the stories of young people, including a recently married couple on their way to a honeymoon, full of hopes, dreams, and potential blotted out so quickly.  I hope the survivors, the families and friends of the victims, find the strength to move on.

I keep thinking about all the episodes of Air Crash Disaster I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel and Nat Geo; it is, admittedly, a rather morbid sort of program to watch as a traumatic event unfolds like a classical Greek tragedy, but there is a moral: there are causes to random events, tragic or otherwise, no matter how senseless they seem. I hope that investigators find the black box of that plane, and find out what went wrong that led the pilots to decide to land where they did, instead of the airport in Islamabad, and how exactly they crashed. Hopefully, in the future, these problems can be avoided.

Yet I also remember something that a high school coach once said to my team – you can minimize risk, but you can’t totally eliminate it.

Yes, we should prepare for the worst, as best we can, and learn from past mistakes. But there’s no such thing as 100% safety. To put it crudely – no one gets out of this world alive.  So as cloying as the cliche is, I’ll still use it – let’s not forget to appreciate what we have, right now, big or small, and live meaningfully. Whether or not we attach meaning to particular events, we can live in a way consistent with our values, and it’s good to think of others during our scramble to survive and get by in this world, as others are also, in a sense, survivors.

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A Bit of Unsavory Schadenfreude on My Part

March 7, 2010 at 9:38 pm (Uncategorized)

I had to stop watching BBC and rush to my computer for this one!

This just in… Adam Gadahn, a.k.a. Yahya Majadin Adams and Azzam al-Amriki, the American-born convert to Islam now living in Pakistan, and a leading spokesman for al Qaeda, was caught and arrested by Pakistani authorities here in Karachi today, the city I’m living in. (See:  http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100307/ap_on_re_a /as_pakistan_al_qaida_arrest).

He has urged Muslims who serve in the U.S. military (and that would include some that are my own friends, no doubt) to switch sides and kill Americans, including civilians (but presumably not converts like him?).

I have nothing eloquent to say at the moment, other than I wish I knew the location of his prison, because I’d love to go down there now and tell him that he’s a disgusting traitor, not to America per se, but to civilization itself, and that he deserves to be abandoned by the country he thought he could take refuge in in order to attack his homeland (rather than, say, to try to build bridges, encourage genuine peace and tolerance, or doing anything constructive for the people of Pakistan that privileged douche-bags like him could surely have done if he wanted).

It would be hard for me not to spit in his face and scream at him, but I’d like to think that, usually, on my good days, I’m not a savage, but a reasonable man who wants to understand this confusing world, with many different people’s points of view, and perhaps try to heal misunderstandings. But tolerance for intolerant viewpoints is a logical contradiction. Reason cannot inform a perspective that is, by its nature, anti-reason. And enlightened discourse cannot prevail against propaganda accepted by those predisposed to believe in non-sense. Quality education, and sane role-models, at impressionable ages – that’s probably our best bet. But who knows what went wrong in his case?

Speaking of which, I urge any one to learn about Greg Mortenson – a real American hero and former Army serviceman, trying honestly to benefit the people of Pakistan. When I finish his books (Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools) I will review them here.

Basically, he’s built schools, not to indoctrinate poor Balti children with pro-America viewpoints, but simply because they asked him to, after saving his life, as they know it’s their best shot out of extreme poverty, neglect, and hopelessness (often at the hands of thugs). He also started an institute, see here: www.ikat.org.

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More on My Sufi Experience

June 9, 2009 at 3:25 pm (Uncategorized)

Dawn columnist Nadeem Paracha (“Smoker’s Corner”) is a brave man. Of all the out-of- the-closet critics of Pakistani society in the media, I find his writing to be the most accurate, honest, to-the-point, and humorous. Cowasjee is another exceptional critic, but he’s of an older generation, one that is more erudite – articulate and poetic – and perhaps better educated. Paracha considers himself a “moderate” Muslim, but I would say, for this place, he’s as liberal as you get. He’s also a socialist well-versed in political theory, and he’s not afraid to apply those critiques to Muslim and/or “Eastern” society as much as to Western capitalism. This article in particular backs up my latest blog post: www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/columnists/nadeem-f-paracha-loons-of-doom

And for more backup on my perception of the far right bias in Pakistani media (anti-India, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, pro-patriarchy, pro mullah-military hegemony) here is another Dawn piece from another great writer, Hajrah Mumtaz: www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/local/exploring-a-rightwing-media-159

But that’s not the gist of my latest entry. I said in previous posts that I would write more about my personal experience with Sufism in Pakistan, and I will do that now. At first I thought it would be petty and unwise to put such an expose online, but I’ve already done this in previous posts concerning other nefarious characters, so why not? Besides, I’ve taken care not to name names.

I guess one of the reasons I’m so disillusioned and disappointed is that I’ve long thought that Sufism is Pakistan’s, and by extension Islam’s, saving grace. Not in all forms, but in its essentials it speaks of a certain mystical purity, sometimes also found among the Shi’a, rarely seen in today’s highly politicized resurgent “Islamic renaissance.”

My Sufi teacher, let’s call her “Begum” (which roughly translates as “madam”) I visited on about five different occasions, not including our first meeting at the famous Karachi Sufi shrine Abdullah Shah Ghazi. Her estate, where I attended some of her weekly gatherings (after evening prayers) is rather large – for land-strapped inner Karachi, that is – and is nicely shaded with trees and plenty of green plants, around a spacious house.

She smiled a lot, and seemed content with her own life (which I suspect is what added to her reputation of being “spiritual,” needed for any charismatic teacher of that sort) but I didn’t sense that her beliefs were any different from orthodox Muslims. Like most Sufis, she complained a lot about Wahabbism and its effects on Islam, but not all critics of Salafi Islam are open-minded (indeed, some of these critics include radical militants). One thing she said to me that was perceptive was that I should spend more time with spiritual people, as others can weigh you down with too much negative thinking, they “hurt your heart” was how she put it. Although that statement can sound rather arrogant and elitist, it is true that we should choose our friends wisely. But as it turns out, her own thoughts didn’t impress me either. What’s true about what she said is that many people in Pakistan in my experience, both secularists and outwardly pious “religious” types, are oriented towards material values, more so, it seems, than even in America, which is supposed to be the emblem of shallow, superficial, decadent capitalism to the Muslim world.

When she spoke about politics, I felt, quite frankly disgusted. After Saddam Hussein was hanged, she remarked that “I hope they hang George Bush next.” OK, let’s face it, a lot of people all over the world, not just Muslims, have felt that way. Even I admit to having had such thoughts on occasion. But that’s not something I would care to say out loud if I were a “spiritual” teacher representing the “purist” form of Islam. Many times she went on about how the U.S. and Israel (big surprise!), or sometimes flat out saying Christians and Jews, are causing problems to every other country, especially Pakistan. I asked her – What about Darfur? She said, despite no evidence whatsoever, that Israel, not Arab countries, is supplying both the rebels and the government in Khartoum (a fundamentalist, anti-Israel, friends with Bin Laden regime, mind you) with weapons, and that “if someone sells you weapons, you can’t help but use them.” I thought Sufism taught that people should be responsible for their own lives and work on purifying themselves from the inside out? But when she talked about being “slaves to Allah” I got the idea that it was all about the outside-in for her.

She did, however, show some unorthodox opinion in her criticism of charity, a requirement in Islam, referring to it as just a “handout” and recited the Bible quote about “giving a man a fish.” I replied that it’s easier to learn how to fish if you’re not starving, and millions in this country are doing just that. (I still defend this position – look at what Muhammad Yusuf, a Nobel peace prize winning economist, and a Muslim, incidentally, did with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, now the standard model of micro-loans for many philanthropic organizations. And I can testify in my experience with volunteering with Habitat with Humanity that there is a difference between a hand-up and a hand-out.). Thus, when she told me about the philanthropy she was involved in – running a school for poor children – I was reluctant to participate, as I came to the conclusion that it was a means of filling their heads with the same dismal dogma as the Madrassahs.

One girl I met at her gatherings said she was a journalist, so I told her that I recently started a blog and I asked her if she had written about the problems with the government and such. Begum immediately told us that it is wrong to write negative articles about the government or any political figures in Pakistan. Given her own statements, I found this hypocritical.

I found her general worldview to be as irrational as her political rhetoric. She told me that after doing the obligatory Islamic prayers, I must do extra prayers asking for special favors, and if I did it right, the angels sitting on my shoulders would fly up to heaven and take the prayers straight to Allah. I asked her, from the conventional Islamic view, what the purpose of Sufism is, as the standard practices are supposed to be both necessary and sufficient to lead to eternal bliss in the afterlife, and she said she was more interested in knowing God (Allah) in this life. But she didn’t espouse any special gnosis or metaphysics, as her views showed that she saw God as a completely outer being whom we should fear.

It wasn’t just her statements that disturbed me, but the literature she had me read. While she first gave me this nice, nonsectarian workbook (one endorsed by none other than Deepak Chopra) I was also given this large, imposing looking tome, written by someone who was as fundamentalist as any Wahhabi, about the “glorious religion of Islam.” Most of it was basically a litany of strict rules, and lists every type of person who will go to hell: all non-Muslims, and many Muslims for seemingly slight offenses, such as men not having their beards the correct length, or not using the full name of Allah – “Allah Subana Watala.”

What I saw there didn’t comfort me, either. During one session of reciting religious songs, I saw men twitching like they were overdosing on medication, and one man prostrating in front of her who started screaming at the top of his lungs with agony. Red-faced and slobbering, he alternated between weeping and what appeared to be a wild rage or frenzy. I was later told that he was being “purified,” but I sensed no joy, gentleness, or warmth about it – only fear, aggression, and at times seeming psychosis. It wasn’t very different from what I saw when I was invited to attend a Pentecostal mass – people swaying, yelling, “speaking in tongues.” I think many in the spiritual community would do well to carefully to distinguish between a transformational breakthrough and a personal breakdown!

And that’s when it hit me that this place was nothing more than a cult. That was confirmed when in another session I saw a woman prostrate in front of her, muttering praises about her, and kissing her feet. She allowed this, even though Islam, Sufism or not, doesn’t. The big smile on Begum’s face showed that she seemed to get off on this worship, and she seemed far from immune to the effects of ego that Sufism is supposed to transcend.

I discussed this with the girl journalist I met, and her responses confirmed my suspicions. The girl was not able to demonstrate any independent thought. When discussing the Muhammad cartoon row, for example, all she did was repeat the talking points of fundamentalists, justifying the riots and the carnage, blaming the Danish government for “not protecting Muslims” and refusing to blame the Egyptian clerics or the Saudi establishment for the role they played. She then admitted that she could not form her own opinions on such matters, and that she must consult with Begum on all matters relating to Islam, politics, or anything important. In other words, she acted like she was brainwashed.

This was just too much for me, so after the last gathering I requested to speak with her privately, and she asked me to come two hours early next time. I did just this, but when I arrived I was told by the guards that she would not talk to me and that I could only come at the scheduled time. That was my last attempt to ever see her again. She must have known I was on to her, and that I knew that she knew. It’s just as well, for whatever it was I could learn from her, good or bad, I did.

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No Time To Gloat

May 30, 2009 at 3:15 pm (Uncategorized)

I have some things to be happy about. The strike is over (and yes there was some violence and destruction of property in Karachi because, apparently, the MQM feel that refugees in Swat don’t deserve aid from Karachi, despite all of the power given them, a party founded by refugees!). After experiencing the hottest May, probably the hottest month, in my life, I now have workable air-conditioning once again in my bedroom. This week there was also a carnival at a beach near my house, so I actually had somewhere fun, close by, and inexpensive to go to at night.

But that’s not why I feel satisfied. I feel vindicated because this recent article in Time (Asia edition): www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1898251,00.html has validated my observations, pin-pointing the problematic mentality itself instead of just laying out another general laundry list of the country’s overall problems. It mentions Dr. Houdboy, a man I deeply respect (I have not talked to him, but I have conversed with his brother at length). And going by what the Pakistani ambassador, after some gentle but well-executed prodding by Jon Stewart, seemed to imply as a guest on the Daily Show last week, it seems that the need for earnest self-criticism may be getting through to some. I’m tempted to gloat, but that won’t solve anything. Instead, I’d like to illustrate my feelings with a parable –

Somewhere, in an isolated kingdom, something strange happened to the water. It contained an undetected chemical that, when ingested, made the drinker gradually lose their sanity. At first it only affected a few people near the well, whom everyone dismissed as village idiots. Then the poor were affected, who were dismissed as lunatics due to starvation. Then the whole kingdom, save for the king, who had his own private water, started going mad. The king warned them not to drink the water, but everyone dismissed him, wondering if he was insane because he was not acting like them or saying the kinds of things they were. Eventually the kingdom totally ignored the king because they decided that he in fact was the crazy one, and they were all sane. Tired of uselessly warning them, having his edicts ignored, and having his sanity called into question, he decided to drink the poisoned water himself. When he eventually became like them, they said: “Ah, the King has finally come back to his senses!”

The obvious meaning is that when you can’t beat them, you join them. Not that you should do this, but simply that this is what people typically end up doing when facing extreme social pressure to conform and not be judged wrong simply because you are different. It means, in a sense, that one’s reality is at least in part socially constructed. And while your senses might be working just fine, and your logic in order, it makes no difference if the majority routinely distort their own reason when it comes to politics (owing much more to psychological and emotional factors, rather than a lack of intelligence or even access to education).

To wit, the ideology of Pakistan has always been very skewed.  Thus it’s not a big surprise that the creation of this state has been, overall, a disaster for most people involved (including those it was supposed to help). Zia-ul-Haqq was not entirely to blame, but the seeds his regime planted were so destructive that over 20 years after he was killed Pakistan has not fully recovered, and will likely continue to reap this bitter harvest for decades to come.

Nothing short of a major overhaul of the entire education system is likely to produce long-term results, which is as likely to happen in this country as going a full week without rolling blackouts.

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