Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 3)

Shahab Ahmed began the first chapter of his book ‘What is Islam?’ with these words,
” I am seeking to say the word “Islam” in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning. In conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon, I am precisely not seeking to tell the reader what Islam is as a matter of Divine Command, and thus am not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation. Rather, I seek to tell the reader what Islam has actually been as a matter of human fact in history, and thus am suggesting how Islam should be conceptualized as a means to a more meaningful understanding both of Islam in the human experience, and thus of the human experience at large.”

The difference between ‘literal’ Islam (something I had been taught all my life-till that point) and ‘human experience’ of Islam (as theorized by Shahab Ahmed in the lines above) became acutely aware to me in the days and months following ST’s assassination. Where did the theory end and practice start? Does believing in something and doing things contrary to those beliefs hypocrisy or just the way things work? Are the five ‘essentials’ (Tauhid, Namaz, Roza, Hajj, Zakat) of Islam necessary to be performed if you just gain brownie points with God by killing infidels/blasphemers? I was also growing up in an environment of Islamist terror. Militants who professed to be better Muslims than us mere mortals (who performed the aforementioned ‘essentials’) were killing innocent people in Lahore, in Karachi, in Swat, in KP. How does a practicing Muslim reconcile his faith with the Islam professed by the militants? How does an ordinary Pakistani Muslim view the history of Islam? (a pol sci-major friend of mine recently said something very interesting on this topic. According to him, “actual” history doesn’t really matter to people. History in the public imagination is whatever the elites/mil-establishment want it to be )

Following my basic introductions to political theory and rudimentary economics(at IPSS and beyond), I began to think about the intersection of religion and politics. I probed some fundamental concepts regarding political Islam and how accurate they were, like the concept of Muslim Ummah and the statement that ‘Islam is a complete code of life’. While I was pondering over these questions, I was still living in the same social milieu that had existed around me.

I remember debating some 9/11 ‘truthers’ among my medical school classmates. They refused to entertain the notion that it could have been an Al-Qaeda operation, done by fellow Muslims. One day, I got into an argument with a burly, 6 ft 4 in guy in m class about the ‘complete code of life’ theory. I had probably mentioned it on my Facebook wall or in some Facebook group that I didn’t believe in the veracity of this claim because it was a newer (19th/20th century) addition to Islamic teachings. That tall, muscular guy approached me in the lecture hall the next day and said that he didn’t like my comment and that he was offended by it. I tried to reason with him but he got agitated and asked me to shut it because I was questioning religion which made him angry. I switched gears and changed the topic to save my skinny ass. A few days later, I was talking to a classmate who was among the very few friends I had and she said, Please do not get killed for your ideals.

For me, the public reaction to ST’s assassination was an eye-opening experience. There was a notion of a ‘silent majority’ in Pakistan, people who didn’t like mixing religion and politics (this theory was bogus and had no basis in fact). Fasi Zaka, a very intelligent commentator and writer on Pakistani society wrote, “After Salmaan Taseer’s death, Pakistan’s ‘silent majority’ finally spoke up. They liked it.”I heard someone in the ‘liberal’ (secular liberal or group B) circle say that ST’s death closed the door on critical discussion of blasphemy laws in the near future. It was a battle that we (secular-liberals) lost. We were grossly outnumbered and there was a very remote chance that we could incrementally chip at the edifice of blasphemy laws, for example by changing/improving the law of evidence or publicizing the historical consensus among Sunni Ulema that blasphemy is not punishable by death.

Instead, we have Khadim Rizvi and Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a ragtag group that can publicly mock the most powerful people in Pakistan and get away with it. ST’s death and Qadri’s hanging opened an avenue for these peddlers of hate to come out of their cubbyholes and wreak havoc on the “silent majority”(pun intended). Mohammad Hanif wrote about the aftermath of ST’s murder for The Guardian (full piece here), an excerpt of which is relevant to what I’m saying.

“So who are these people who lionize the cold-blooded murderer? Your regular kids, really. Some Pakistani bloggers have tried to get these fan pages banned for inciting hate. But as soon as one shuts down, another five crop up. Those who have trawled the profiles of these supporters have said that they have MBA degrees, they follow Premier League football, they love the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Miley Cyrus figures on lots of these pages.”

Qadri’s name became a brand (see here and here) that became synonymous with love for the prophet and the whole blasphemy debate. One could argue that in a country that was premised on the idea of a separate homeland for a particular religion, that religion would become the yardstick by which you proved your nationalism and patriotism.  As for me, I moved out. It became apparent a few years after the ST murder that things weren’t getting any better in my homeland. I could either suck it up and keep living or leave and start afresh. It was very hard to choose one of the routes but I chose the way out.

What about the few liberal spaces left in Pakistan? They are constantly shrinking. IPSS blew out of steam (and funding), NGO-funded youth groups and ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE) forums ran out of money after the US decided to decrease its footprint in Af-Pak. I was on an exchange visit (a misnomer, really, since no one ever visited Pakistan in return) to the US in 2012 and everyone at the policy level was talking about a post-2014 withdrawal scenario. There are still some valiant people working on secular ideas in Pakistan. Social media has helped but only a little bit. It has gotten the proverbial 72 seculars in Pakistan together on Facebook but it has also fueled the rise of a neo-Islamist political class that takes part in TLP protests and roadblocks. There are also certain bubbles in which you can dare criticize the state narrative such as LitFests and English newspaper op-eds. I remember talking to a pharmacy student whom I knew from a former workplace at Lahore Literary Festival and asking him what he was doing there since most of the conversation on stage there is in English (by decree or by choice). He replied that he was there just as a spectator to see how the ‘1%’ live in Pakistan and had not understood anything that was being discussed. The most important pockets of secular space consist of indigenous movements and organizations that work with people in their own language. I worked with two such organizations that communicated with people in their languages (Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi etc).

Social media also helped tremendously in the information warfare raged by Milestablishment, turning former Musharraf-lovers into Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) followers. There is a lot of talk about a ‘youth bulge’ in Pakistan but policymakers and commentators rarely talk about the dangers of having a majority of poorly-educated young people who are taught actively and passively that they are victims of some unknown ‘agenda’ and that if they were given the right set of circumstances, they would conquer the world. I used to teach at private medical schools in two different cities of Punjab and I saw the moral and mental confusion that young people had about their lives and their futures. Youth and Naivete go hand in hand, however constant ideological propaganda about Islam’s greatness and Pakistan’s underdog status is a terrible fertilizer for young minds.

ST was not the first victim of this madness. Sabeen Mehmood was killed in cold blood on the streets of Karachi, Raza Rumi was attacked and his driver was killed, Mashal Khan was lynched to death. Each of these individuals tried to talk about secular values in society. What would become of the society? I don’t know. I don’t make predictions. Omar Ali asked me in November 2015 (in Lahore) about my thoughts on Pakistan’s future and I told him that things were doing downhill every passing day. I standby my pessimism.

 

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India Still Rising (a)

This is the second article in this series after India Still Rising.

India’s ministry of external affairs has little understanding of China, America, India or the world. The ministry of external affairs has little institutional understanding of economics, how global commons works, how global collaboration works; or the importance of:

  • execution
  • transparency
  • honesty

Part of the issue is that the ministry of external affairs lacks internal think tanks and doesn’t extensively use external think thanks. Another part of the problem is post modernist colonization of the mind, virtue signaling, risk averse careerist mindset. The ministry of external affairs needs to hire older experienced private sector Indians, ex-patriot Indians or Indians who have extensively interfaced with foreigners. They also need to learn to better use external resources such as external experts, academics, religious institutions and think thanks. Including foreign ones. [For example consulting wise friends of India such as Zachary Latif.] However to use or collaborate with foreign resources requires the ministry of external affairs to get its own house in order first . . . or it risks being played by various interest groups without a deep understanding of what these interest groups are.

India Still Rising

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The Conundrum that is Husain Haqqani

I was recently asked by AnAn to write a detailed post about Mr. Hussain Haqqani (henceforth HH) and his three books that I’ve read. I find it difficult to write about someone who is still active in his field of work and someone who arouses so much anger and partisanship among the commentariat in Pakistan. I decided to write about things that I know definitively, publicly available information about him and testimonies from two reliable witnesses about HH and then briefly discuss the three books (Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Magnificient Delusions and India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t we just be friends) that I’ve read (I just started reading his fourth one, ‘Reimagining Pakistan’). It is hard to label HH as a turncoat or opportunist because most major politicians in Pakistan changed course in their political life starting with Zulfiqar Bhutto, followed by Mian Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto(BB) and Imran Khan. People and their ideas evolve or else, they are ossified and become part of history while they are alive (Exhibit A: Most of the left-wing politicians of Pakistan).

HH comes from a Muhajir family based in Karachi and went to Karachi University where he was an active member of Islami-Jamiat-Tulaba (IJT), the student-wing of right-wing, religio-political party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). He claimed in Magnificient Delusions that he stopped students from burning down the American Consulate in Karachi in 1979 when Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by ultra-Wahabi rebels and the conspiracy theorists put the blame on the US initially (the Embassy in Islamabad was burnt down by a mob of students). His claim has been debunked by several members of IJT at the time. He worked as a journalist for a few years after graduation. In the late 1980s, he was a media-consultant for Nawaz Sharif, the center-right politician from Punjab who rose to prominence as Punjab’s finance minister under General Jilani’s governorship (1980-85) and later served as the Chief Minister of Punjab (1985-90). Nawaz Sharif was part of an Islamist alliance, Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI) which opposed Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the 1988 elections. It is beyond doubt that the character of Benazir Bhutto and Nusrat Bhutto was mercilessly attacked during the election campaign. Helicopters were used to throw fliers over major cities in Punjab with explicit photos of the Bhutto ladies to malign their reputations. According to witness number 1, he saw HH in New York during that campaign where HH was offering nudes of Benazir Bhutto to anyone who was interested to see them. IJI still couldn’t win the federal election and ended up winning in Punjab, where Nawaz Sharif assumed the Chief Minister-ship.

Due to Palace intrigues and constant bickering between Punjab and the Federal Government and unrest in Sindh, BB’s government was dismissed by Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the President, after twenty months. In the ensuing elections, IJI succeeded in winning the election (there was massive rigging taken place on orders of the Presidency and funds were distributed to various IJI politicians, details of which can be found by googling ‘Mehran Bank Scandal’). HH served as Sharif’s spokesman till 1992 until he was sent to Sri Lanka as Pakistan’s ambassador. In 1993, the Sharif Government was dismissed by President Khan (with prodding and backroom deals by BB and Co). HH flew back from Sri Lanka and became a spokesman for the BB government that followed (1993-1996).

In 1996, the second BB government was dismissed by President Laghari and Nawaz Sharif’s party started ruling again. It was toppled during October 1999 and General Musharraf became the ‘Chief Executive’ of Pakistan. According to witness number 2, he saw HH begging Musharraf (or one of his generals) for the Information Ministry. The request was denied and HH spent a few years running a consultancy. In 2002, he arrived in Washington DC, as a guest of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2004, he joined Boston University as an Associate Professor of International Relations. He also headed a project by Hudson Institute on Islam and Democracy. Post-9/11 was a time in which the issue of Islam and Democracy was selling quite well in the ‘West’.

In January 2005, ‘Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military’ was published. It is a very good book detailing the history of Pakistan and the Mullah-Military Nexus that rules Pakistan today. The book was written with the help of Carnegie Endowment and the audience in mind was definitely American (with emphasis on post 9/11 understanding of Pakistan). It touches on all the relevant bases (quoting Ayesha Jalal, Khalid bin Sayeed, Margret Bourke-White, Stephen Cohen, Lawrence Ziring), the way Islam was used by Muslim League (and in certain instances, Jinnah himself) during the ‘Pakistan Movement’, the paranoia induced by newspapers and politicians about threats to Pakistan’s existence, the trifecta of Pakistan Ideology (Islam, Urdu, hostility towards India), suppression of dissent by ethnic groups using the tools of the Ideology (branding anti-state elements as anti-Islam is favored strategy even today), the way history was shaped from an anti-British perspective to an anti-Hindu perspective (since we got Independence from the British, not the Hindus), the first Kashmir War, the first Martial Law, attempts at a revisionist historiography, the disaster that was the 1965 war with India and so on. The book reveals very little new information (if you have read the liberal-secular version of Pakistan’s history) but is a very good collection of various liberal-secular  and diplomatic sources and serves as a good primer on Pakistan’s political history. I’ve always maintained that HH’s writing is often much better than his politics or his past.

It is often said that Pakistan’s political landscape is dominated by 3 A’s (Allah, Army, and America). The discussion on US-Pakistan relations in the first book forms the basis of his second book, Magnificent Delusions. Four years ago, I wrote a couple of articles, titled ‘Good Ally, Bad Enemy?’ reviewing US-Pakistan relations with excerpts from HH’s second book alongside the works of Carlotta Gall, Gary Bass and Daniel Markey (1. here 2. here). I’ll mention some quotes from HH’s book that I used in those articles.

“Anti-western propaganda was often unleashed precisely so Pakistani officials could argue that the United States had to support Pakistan against India, so as to preserve its alliance with them. Few Pakistanis knew how much their country and its armed forces had become dependent on US assistance.”

‘James L. Langley, American Ambassador to Pakistan (1957-59) wrote, “Pakistan’s forces are unnecessarily large for dealing with any Afghan threat over Pashtunistan. Pakistan would be of little use to us should perchance worse come to worst and India go communist… One of the most disturbing attitudes I have encountered in the highest political places here is that the United States must keep up and increase its aid to Pakistan, and conversely, that Pakistan is doing the United States a favor in accepting aid, in addition to the Pakistani pro-Western posture in the Baghdad Pact and SEATO and the United Nations, when actually these postures are in part dictated by Pakistani hatred for India.”

“India’s Prime Minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, ‘tried to persuade [Henry] Kissinger to recognize the need for more robust US involvement. She said that Pakistan has felt all these years that it will get support from the United States no matter what it does, and this has encouraged an “adventurous policy.” India is not remotely desirous of territory, and to have the Pakistanis base the whole survival of their country on hostility to India was irritating.”

“When Zia was approached by an American diplomat who conveyed the anxiety on America’s part regarding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development, Zia said: ‘I am an honorable man. We are an honorable people. I ask you to tell your President that I give him my word of honor as President of Pakistan and as a soldier, that I am not and will not develop a nuclear device or weapon.'”

In his third book, HH focussed on certain aspects of the thorny India-Pakistan relationship: History, Kashmir, Nuclear Bombs, and Terrorism. The book is peppered with anecdotes and is a useful read as a primer on the relationship and the difficulties therin. One gets the impression after reading the book that if it were left to the civilians, the two countries would have patched out most conflicts, however, Pakistan’s military and India’s diplomatic bureacracy took maximalist positions to thwart that ambition time and time again.

Why is HH so controversial in Pakistan now?

He was appointed Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US by the PPP-led government (2008-13). It was a turbulent time for Pakistan because barbarians were literally at the gates (Taliban in Swat and Al-Qaeda+TTP in Waziristan). HH has certain views about Pakistan that are not palatable for the military establishment/Deep State. Those views include his insistence on civilian supremacy in the country, deceptive attitudes towards the United States and over-reliance on religion in political discourse. In addition, HH was trying to be a conduit between Pakistan’s civilian government and the United States during his time as the Ambassador (as opposed to a majority of Pakistani Ambassadors to the US who are appointed only after a firm nod from the GHQ) and that irked the establishment even further. It was during his tenure that Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Abbotabad (May, 2011). HH, in an op-ed published last year in Washington Post (read here), took credit for helping the Obama administration in that endeavor (which, in light of Trump’s recent ascension to power, seemed an opportunistic move). Soon after the raid, a conspiracy theory was hatched by the Military Establishment in Pakistan implicating HH. It was alleged that HH had sent Admiral Mike Mullen a memo (on President Asif Zardari’s advice) through a shady in-between named Mansoor Ijaz asking for help from the US in case our generals tried to topple the government in the wake of the OBL raid. The case dragged on in the court and later, a judicial commission but the charge was not proven. HH had to resign as the Ambassador. He has since been at Hudson Institute. In recent years, he has started, with the help of another Pakistani-American, Dr. Mohammad Taqi, SAATH forum (South Asians Against Terrorism and Hatred) that gathers progressive voices in London every October to talk about the future of Pakistan. (Full disclosure: I have been invited to the last two versions of this forum but the first one i couldn’t attend because of visa refusal and the second because I was doing an internship in Houston at the time). I personally agree with most of his views regarding Pakistan but I think his name has been tarnished so much by the Deep State that it is hard to advocate for his name/ideas/books in Pakistan. I believe that he is worth-reading and worth-engaging. If only the military establishment could fight ideas with ideas instead of slander and mis-information.

 

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Romanticizing the regressive

A few months ago I happened to watch the film Meet the Patels. Though you do meet all the “Patels”, the film centers around the love life, or lack thereof, of the actor Ravi Patel.

Filmed by his sister, the documentary predates Patel’s current modest fame by many years (he has a small recurring role in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None). As his life has changed in many ways, perhaps his views and outlook have too. The comments I’m making in this post are not about Ravi Patel, but rather about the views he expressed many years ago in this documentary at a particular point in his life, and how it reflects a thread of South Asian American nostalgia and romanticism of our cultural roots.

Like many young Indian Americans Patel and his sister grew up between worlds. Their parents arrived in the United States among the very first wave of Indian immigrants, which today makes them somewhat unique, as there has been a huge migration since the 1990s from India due to the H-1B visa program. At one point the matriarch of the small American Patel clan bemoans how Americanized her children are compared to many other Indian Americans, who arrived later, when various South Asian American communities were more mature.

But Ravi and his sister are not entirely Americanized. Or they weren’t. Both avoided the conventional dating rituals of American life deep into their 20s, and as of filming Meet the Patels Ravi had had only one girlfriend, Audrey. Attractive, and depicted as level-headed and kind, on paper Audrey seems to have been the perfect girlfriend. But there was a major problem with her biodata: Audrey is a white American.

Eventually Ravi broke up with Audrey because of his confusions as to what he wanted in his life, and whether she belonged in it. Did he want what all his friends had? The American dream of love and marriage. Or, did he want what his parents had? An Indian arranged marriage with commonalities of culture.

But there is more to the Patels than just an Indian arranged marriage. Ravi Patel’s parents want him to marry someone from the same subcaste of Patels from the region of Gujarat that they come from. This is entirely typical of Indian culture. But it is rather peculiar in an American context. Though in some ways Ravi finds this all strange, some part of him also entertains the idea that his parents have a mutual comfort, a cultural identity, which he envies. At one point he goes back to Gujarat to a celebration of his people, his subcaste of Patels, and he looks around at wonderment at the safety and security of being among his his kith and kin. A sense of belong clearly has come over him.

As far back as Herodotus Indian society seems to have been characterized by caste. Genetically the castes, and more precisely jatis, are very distinct. And their persistence on the Indian scene suggest some level of functional utility.

Realistically Ravi could never recreate what he felt in Gujarat in the United States because such a community does not truly exist. Yes, there is kinship among Patels, as recounted by stories about Ravi and his family on the road, staying at Indian owned motels. But in the United States the Patels are a Diaspora, an archipelago of families scattered across the 50 states.

The romantic notions that Ravi airs in Meet the Patels about group solidarity, and cultural affinity of the sort his parents have, would seem creepy and disturbing if you posited it in the context of an upper middle class WASP from New England. But the strong group cohesion evident among the Patels of Gujarat, and many Indian communities, also generates as a byproduct the sort of exclusion illustrated in the 1970 film Love Story.

And the exclusionary tendencies of middle class Gujaratis is reflected in part on the social-political nature of the state of Gujarat. It is in this state that the current prime minister of India, a tribune of lower middle class Hindu nationalism, grew up, and originally came to power and prominence. It is in this state in the early 2000s that communal riots occurred, and accusations of organized genocide against Muslims have been leveled.

The connections between liberal Democratic Indian Americans and right-wing Hindu nationalism in India have been extensively discussed. That is not what I am getting at. Meet the Patels is not a political film, it is a personal one. There is no reason that Ravi should address political topics in the documentary, and much of what I am saying here would be implicit to any South Asian watching Meet the Patels. But to many Americans these darker realities would not be visible or implied in the cultural practices which Ravi admires.

The attitudes expressed in Meet the Patels is no different from pining for the “good old days.” The reality is that the old days were often not so good. Or they weren’t how you remembered them. And just as some people pine for the days of yore, others romanticize the “homeland”, where everyone was your uncle, and the aunties took care of you when your mother was a way. But this world is in many ways fundamentally regressive and constrained, and the benefits of communal responsibility are often correlated with inter-communal tension and conflict.

Again, there is no reason that Meet the Patels should have gone into this. But I wanted to put into the record what was unsaid so that those who see in it purely a charming inter-cultural story comprehend the other dilemmas latent within the narrative.

Related: Ravi’s AMA.

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