Negotiating Freedom of Expression

23 July 2015

The unresolved debate on freedom of expression was reignited when Islamic militants killed 14 staffers of French magazine Charlie Hebdo last January, ostensibly for the cartoons that offended Muslim sentiments. Earlier this year, two secular bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh. In other countries such as Russia and Iran, writers and journalists languish in prisons on similar charges. The intersection of faith, politics, and history has influenced the global debates on the “limits” to freedom. In June, the Center for International Media Assistance, in collaboration with Media Diversity Institute, held a panel discussion on the limitations on the state of media in multicultural societies. An all-women panel, a rarity in itself, included Razia Iqbal (BBC), Courtney C. Radsch (CPJ), Milica Pesic (MDI), and a well-known academic Verica Rupar.

Negotiating freedom of expression and respect for diversity is a delicate balancing act. The current crisis – of “Western” values versus Islamic teachings – is far beyond the problem of media ethics. Razia Iqbal at CIMA raised crucial questions about the social responsibility of journalists. For instance, is freedom of expression sacred, or is it a subjective construct located in the context of every country? The responses were spirited. Some felt that freedom of expression was linked to other rights such as privacy; and therefore it ought to be viewed in a subjective context. Panelists agreed that freedom of expression was a universal right, but that under certain circumstances, limitations were understandable. Journalists have to act in public interest, as they give voice to and act as public watchdogs on behalf of society. Therefore, media persons have to exercise discretion in deciding what to print or broadcast. That is at the core of the idea of “social responsibility.”

Should journalists practice self-censorship and stay away from certain issues in multicultural societies? One panelist noted that journalism does not exist outside the boundaries of a given society; thus, it should reflect the inherent multiculturalism of a particular context. But this leads to self-censorship. The case of Egypt, among others, is instructive, as unprecedented self-censorship is taking place there due to the pressures exerted by the state and lack of legal protection available to journalists. Multiculturalism entails respect for free speech and the availability of public space to enable diverse groups to air their views. Violence changes this dynamic—perhaps for good. This is why Charlie Hebdo’s editor has announced that the magazine will no longer publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.

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Why India, Pakistan treat their Nobel laureates shamefully

21 July 2015

There is a common thread – of undervaluing our achievers; and looking at ideas, values and contributions from the jaundiced lens of partisan politics.

Amartya sen

In the early 1990s, as students of development economics we were told that Amartya Sen, an Indian, had contributed path-breaking insights into welfare economics. We learnt how he had shown the world that relative poverty mattered and that famines were not caused by a scarcity of food. Sen has added a new set of theories to philosophy and economics. By placing human concerns as central, his work on famines, poverty, gender inequality and political liberalism has altered the way development is viewed across the globe. In my practice of international development for the next two decades, Sen’s continuing contributions deeply informed my work.

Much of this South Asian pride melts away as I follow news and views in Indian media especially the unregulated space in social media. Sen is a villain. And his villainy is related to his unsparing comments about Narendara Modi prior to the 2014 Indian elections. Sen created a little disruption in post-Congress-fatigued India that was hankering for change. He referred to the “organised violence” against a minority community in 2002 and considered Modi’s record in office, as chief minister of Gujarat “terrible”.

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Chronicles of our recent past

10 July 2015

FS Aijazuddin’s new book is an erudite and introspective account of a turbulent decade

chronchiles

The past decade in Pakistan has been cataclysmic. Political upheavals and assassinations, the menace of terrorism that cost us more than 80,000 lives and over $100 billion; and a time warped foreign policy kept pushing the country into a vortex. All of this reproduced the curse of endemic political instability that has been a hallmark of Pakistan’s trajectory. Much has been written on this decade especially by foreign commentators given our global relevance as an American ally in the War on Terror. Within Pakistan, a handful of commentators and analysts have articulated more grounded, organic narratives; and FS Aijazuddin is one of the chosen few. His new book The Morning After is a collection of articles, essays and speeches he delivered in various capacities during the years 2006 and 2014. As the author tells us, the book is a fourth in the series of such compilations. The last one – When Bush Comes to Shove and other writings – was published in 2006.

Such compilations can be tricky for a reader as often the contents respond to time-bound events and explore topics that run the risk of losing relevance overtime. Given the structural constraints of Pakistani state and society, the issues covered in The Morning After appear relevant even in 2015. Take the case of a column entitled ‘Making Cartoons of Ourselves’ on the global outrage against Danish Cartoons. It is hauntingly familiar and newsy. In 2012, there were countrywide protests against a film made on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and last year 14 staffers of a French magazine – Charlie Hebdo – were killed by fanatics in Paris. Aijazuddin’s conclusion is spot-on: “We are not the caricatures stencilled by the western press, nor the cartoons extremists make of themselves and of us by their aberrant behaviour.” (more…)

Abdullah Hussein: alive in his vision

8 July 2015

The great Pakistani writer Abdullah Hussein is no more. Perhaps, he has been relieved of the agony that he underwent as a cancer patient, suffering in his last years all by himself. To say that he was a towering literary figure would be an understatement. Hussein was a trendsetter and a chronicler of our weary generations. Written in 1963, his tour de force, Udaas Naslain, remains the most memorable, grand novel, second only in its expanse to Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya. Both Hyder and Hussein were torchbearers of the modern, non-conformist sensibilities in contemporary Urdu literature. Hyder weaved the 5,000-year story of the Indian subcontinent and for her depiction of 1947 as just another moment in the grand continuum of history, was rebuked in Pakistan and soon left the country.

Hussein’s characters in Udaas Naslain recount the upheavals that Indians had to engage with since 1857. The novel’s formidable brush depicts the early 20th century milieu of Punjab as its protagonist experiences the rapidly changing political events. Hussein presents a panoramic, existentialist view of the First World War and how that impacted the ‘natives’ in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The most moving parts of the novel concern the Partition of 1947. Towards the end, the book’s main character, Naim Baig, grapples with a new reality along with immense emotional and historical baggage.

Not unlike Hussein, his almost anti-hero, Naim Beg, is an idealist, but is swept away by larger historical forces. It is Naim’s persona that struck a chord with the post-independence generation, for it was as unfulfilled as him. As Pakistan’s chequered history evolved, the incoming generations have also found a voice for themselves. The novel has an innate absurdist streak, which fits in well with the society that we have created in the preceding decades. Fifty years later, Udaas Naslain remains in print with dozens of editions keeping it accessible. Its everyday language enriched the scope of Urdu fiction. Some found its language obscene and before the morality brigade could strike, the state awarded it the Adamjee Award.

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Save Palmyra From ISIS’s Rampage

26 June 2015

 

Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have placed on view a relic from ancient Palmyra in Syria. In addition, the galleries are displaying images of 18th century engravings and 19th century photographs from its archives. In the wake of Daesh or the Islamic State’s offensive in Syria, this exhibition has attained a symbolic significance. Being held in the capital of the world’s only superpower with a questionable Syria policy, the display reminds us of what is at stake.

It was exhilarating to be connected with this rich past of humanity and at the same time extremely devastating to remember that we live in a world where our ancient treasures can be wiped out while we look on helplessly.

Palmera2

Haliphat – a limestone funerary relief bust on display at Sackler- stares at you with an intense expression. Her two fingers on the chin represent modesty and virtue. For a moment it seems like a reflection on what is happening in Palmyra today. Halpihat has been dated back to 231 C.E. The almost-alive figure displays Roman and Aramaic artistic styles, reminding us of how Palmyra was the bridge between the East and West.

The Islamic State reportedly has planted mines and bombs in Palmyra. It is unclear if ISIS intends to destroy Palmyra or is using the threat as a strategy to deter attacks by Iraqi forces. Nevertheless, our collective heritage under grave threat. (more…)

Charting Pakistan’s Internal Security Policy

6 June 2015

SR368-coverFrom September 2014 to March 2015, I was a senior Pakistan expert in residence at the United States Institute of Peace. This opportunity gave me the time to take a break and do some writing. In May 2015, my report was published.

Can be downloaded here

Traditionally ruled by military or quasi-military regimes, Pakistan is struggling to strengthen its democratic governance but the military remains in charge of country’s security policy. This period of incremental democratization corresponds to the unprecedented rise in terrorism and domestic insurgencies that have challenged state capacity and taken a toll on both the morale of the country and the economy. This report reviews Pakistan’s progress in devising and implementing counterterrorism policy frameworks in recent years. In highlighting key related strategic and operational issues, it offers Pakistani policymakers ways forward on how best to ensure internal stability and security, reminding us that a balance in civilian and military institutions is vital for effective policy outcomes.

Summary

  • Pakistan’s recently announced National Action Plan focuses on combatting both terrorism and militancy and addresses endemic insecurity and radicalization. The plan follows in the wake of the National Internal Security Policy, which has been in place for more than a year.

  • These two policy frameworks underscore the commitment of the government to implement counterterrorism operations. Implementation of both, however, is affected by the civil-military divide that defines Pakistan’s power landscape and by the altered governance architecture since the onset of devolution reforms of 2010.

  • Pakistan’s historically entrenched civil-military imbalance puts the military in the driver’s seat on all issues related to national security. The current civilian government has enabled the military to take the lead on internal security arrangements as well.

  • Internal security challenges of Pakistan are directly related to its external security policy, especially with respect to India and Afghanistan.

  • Centralized management of internal security policies, however, is fraught with difficulties. It is unclear whether the provincial governments “own” the National Internal Security Policy and how far the central government is enabling reform to achieve results.

  • Progress to date remains mixed. In fact, recent decisions indicate that key counterterrorism goals, such as action against proscribed militant outfits and madrassa regulation, may have been diluted to prevent backlash from religious militias. Counterterrorism efforts cannot succeed without dismantling the militias that have operated with impunity.

  • To effectively counter internal militancy and external terrorism, Pakistan’s policymakers will need to harness both civilian and military institutions. To do so, they need to develop a multifaceted strategy that incorporates a national intelligence directorate, an internal security adviser, enhanced jurisdiction of the National Counter Terrorism Authority, parliamentary participation in counterterrorism, increased financial commitments, education reform, provincial counterterrorism strategies, and altering public narratives. Such measures need to be implemented in letter and spirit with complementary institutional reforms.

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Music: Tabla master Sandeep Das & Kayhan Kalhor

16 May 2015

Tabla master Sandeep Das joins multiple Grammy nominee and co-founder of Masters of Persian Music Kayhan Kalhor following their March D.C. appearance with Silk Road Ensemble 
Kalhor018(AliBoustan)
The U.S. does not boast many kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle) performers, let alone any in the same league as Kayhan Kalhor. He is, quite simply, the most internationally acclaimed master of this instrument, which produces a broad range of sounds, from an almost percussive bark to a sweet, throaty tone. The Tehran-born Kalhor closes out Washington Performing Arts’ season-long exploration of the Silk Road, performing with artists from other countries on the historic Silk Road, on Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 8pm at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Kalhor is joined by his Silk Road Ensemble colleague, renowned table master Sandeep Das. This is the second time this season that D.C. audiences will be treated to Kalhor and Das’ inimitable style. Their Jugalbandi was peformed at the lauded March 1, 2015, Washington Performing Arts presentation of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, of which Kalhor and Das are original members and frequent collaborators. (more…)

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