Blank Canvas

21 January 2015

I am not a task
To be accomplished
In a timely fashion.
Nor a note
To be played
For the melody.
I’d rather be
A blank canvas
With no lines;
Than a tale
Of Un-lived moments

Islam Needs Reformation from Within

18 January 2015

“Would you permit me to teach my children that God is greater, more just, and more merciful than all the (religious) scholars on earth combined? And that His standards are different from the standards of those trading the religion” — Nizar Qabbani, Syrian poet.

Much has been said about the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and its slain cartoonists and their provocative cartoons about Muslims. Satirical representations of the Muslims in Europe do merge with racism and evoke destructive passions. But the barbaric killing of journalists exercising their right of free speech is beyond condemnable. It strikes at the heart of press freedom.

Muslim communities in most Western countries view themselves as besieged collectives. Issues of integration, racism and the colonial baggage resonate each day. But in the past two decades especially with the rise of violent extremism as global phenomena, these complexities have become even more intractable.

By brutally killing staffers of Charlie Hebdo magazine, the violent extremists have offended their faith far more than the perceived blasphemy of the magazine. Theirs is a political ideology — of using terror as a weapon — to avenge a history, to settle grievances and to assert power through violence.

Billions of men and women who practice Islam often have little input in shaping such narratives of hatred. Such violent ideas emanate from the minority schools of thought within Islam, which rationalize the killing of ‘infidels’ and their ‘associates’. This ideology is the same that hounded Salman Rushdie, and killed Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam for a film.

Ironically, the main targets of this ideology have been Muslims themselves. From the mass killings of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the ongoing killing spree in Syria and Iraq, it is the Muslims that bear the brunt of this violent mindset.

Dozens of Sufi shrines and hundreds of schools have been blown up in Pakistan by extremists. Most of the 50,000 Pakistanis killed in the last decade were Muslims. And in this day and age this ideology prevents the majority of Pakistanis to access YouTube simply because somewhere, someone lampooned the holy figure of Islam.

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Back in the Driver’s Seat

16 January 2015

Pakistan’s military retakes pivotal control, and the public does not seem to mind.

PAKISTAN-DEFENCE-SECURITY

Pakistan’s military is back in the driving seat. This time, not through a conventional coup d’etat, but through an amended constitution that enables military tribunals to try civilians accused of terrorism.

On Jan. 6, in a joint session, the Parliament amended the country’s constitution to establish military courts. The Islamist parties, opposed to the inclusion of the term “religious terrorism,” backed out at the last minute. But the major secular political parties, ostensibly committed to democratic rule, passed on the judicial powers to special military courts for a period of two years. This is a significant blow to the democratic transition that occurred after Gen. Musharraf’s ouster in 2008, when the country returned to civilian rule.

The unenviable history of democratic evolution in Pakistan is well known. The military directly governed for more than three decades, and in the periods of so-called civilian rule (such as the present one), the military retains control over security and foreign policy. Pakistan’s military is also synonymous with the nationalist identity and therefore shapes the political discourse as well.

The current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, assumed office in June 2013. In November, he appointed a new Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, thinking that he was consolidating civilian power. Sharif also pushed for the trial of former President Musharraf (who ousted Sharif in 1999) for violating the constitution by imposing emergency rule in November 2007.

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No exit

16 January 2015

The US must not forget the importance of a democratic, pluralist Pakistan

US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a press conference in Islamabad

US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a press conference in Islamabad

The recent visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Islamabad is a continuation of the improving relations between Pakistan and the US. From the declared frenemies in 2011, things have changed thereby proving that nothing is permanent in international relations except interests.

Kerry during his visit lauded Pakistan’s ongoing fight against terrorism and urged the authorities to take action against militant groups that threaten regional peace and stability. Furthermore, the State Department has declared Mullah Fazalullah, commander of TTP fighting Pakistani military, a global terrorist and froze his US assets, if any. On Tuesday, Afghan authorities reportedly apprehended 5 suspected planners of the Peshawar school attack based on the intelligence shared by Pakistan. This came after the weekend visit of Pakistani intelligence chief to Kabul and his meeting with President Ghani.

What distinguished Kerry’s current visit from earlier visits by US officials was that Pakistan Defence Council and other such xenophobic networks did not carry out public demonstrations against the US. A clear effort was made that such an embarrassment is avoided. Phrases such as ‘drone strikes’ and ‘violations of sovereignty’ were missing in the official communiques. Both countries are back to their old military to military relationship and trust deficit has considerably narrowed.

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A definitive history of Pakistan

13 January 2015

Pakistan’s best-known historian, Ayesha Jalal, is back with a new book: The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. This book essentially synthesises much of Jalal’s earlier work that by all accounts is rich and comprehensive. In short, the new book presents an overview of Pakistan’s progression as a national security state, a lop-sided federation to its current existential woes fuelled by state-sponsored Islamisation. Jalal acknowledges that the country’s Islamic identity was not enough to hold it together and the continued cycles of military rule turned it into a polity that cannot provide full citizenship rights to all Pakistanis.

This emphasis on citizenship is an important perspective that Jalal has brought forth to a global reader, who views the country as an epicentre of terror and blowing itself as a jihadi state. As the premier scholar on the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jalal refers to the origins of Pakistan as a “truncated … moth-eaten and mutilated state” in the most peculiar circumstances of 1940s and the breakdown of power-sharing schemes that were deliberated in that decade. Lord Mountbatten’s ominous sentence marked the start: “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.” And even today in many parts of the country, the tent exists without a responsive state structure. Sixty-seven years later, Pakistan is a country of 200 million people with no local governments that can assure accountable services (including security) to its citizens.

Pakistan’s insecurity is rooted in that phase when it was widely projected that it may just collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions. Over 40 million Muslims stayed in India; its two wings were 1,000 miles apart and the task of creating a nation-state was even more onerous given the diversity — ethnic, linguistic and religious — of the new state. Nearly 25 per cent of Pakistanis in 1947 were non-Muslims (today only four to five per cent are). The perennial debate on Pakistan’s national identity has not ended. (more…)

Reboot the narrative

5 January 2015

My views incorporated in The Jinnah Institute’s new brief on the urgent policy interventions for 2015:

Jinnah institute
Reboot the narrative. Pakistan needs a new narrative of nationhood and its security. This requires a parliamentary debate and resetting the public discourse. If the civil-military leadership is serious about changing the future course of the country, a public debate should be initiated, led by Prime Minister Sharif on the role of jihad as a tool of foreign policy. This will enable us to build a national narrative against extremism and reduce space for militants in Pakistani society. Political parties and the military should be part of the national conversation, given their immense influence in society and the military’s capability to implement the policy. The constitutional bar on private militias of any kind, meanwhile, is mandatory, and the civil-military elites must not continue to subvert the constitution.
Protect moderate voices. Pakistan’s Islamic identity has become a reality. Presently there is no space for moderate, progressive Islamic scholars. In 2014, we saw the murder of the Dean of Islamic Studies at Karachi University who was arguing in favour of a rational interpretation of Islam. Protecting such voices is crucial. In addition, Muslim scholars from around the world should be invited to Pakistan in 2015 to exchange ideas and experiences with Pakistani ulemas. Malaysia and Indonesia are two Muslim countries that have achieved remarkable economic growth and prosperity with a deeply religious society. Such an exchange of ideas and meetings with ulemas and scholars from Muslim nations would go a long way in addressing the issue.
Regulate the mosque-madrassah nexus. Militancy and extremism are directly linked to the unregulated mosque-madrassah complex that operates with impunity, with functional and ideological linkages with private militias. Mosques and madrassas need to be registered for the sake of regulation. All mosque leaders must operate according to and meet certain standards before they can lead congregational prayers. Hate speech should be dealt with an iron hand. The use of the loudspeaker must also be monitored and regulated, as per the laws on the statutes, which are rarely implemented.

An icon for a sane, just Pakistan

4 January 2015

Salman taseer10

Salmaan Taseer’s defiance of convention and collective cowardice is one of the watersheds of Pakistan’s contemporary history. His defence of a poor Christian woman purely on the grounds of humanity has chiseled his memory and legacy in stone. Taking a position on a narrowly defined religious issue is rare in today’s Pakistan. Even rarer is to defend someone on the grounds of humanity in a republic that uses religion for its identity and rationale, and where public opinion has been crafted to perpetuate such attitudes.

Within Muslims, this struggle between reason and bigotry is not new. It has existed for well over a millennium. Rationalists have always been the target of fanatics and their patrons in power. In South Asia this is even more complex where the historic evolution of Muslim beliefs and practices has followed an inclusive trajectory imbibing the folk, non-Islamic traditions as an expression of lived, dynamic Islam. In each era, the power of orthodoxy was challenged by unique men and women who took dissent to be more important than the Mullah’s edicts. Bullleh Shah, Dara Shikoh, Princess Zebunnissa among others faced persecution. Dara Shikoh had to lose his throne and his life in pursuit of a humanistic vision that sought to reiterate essence over form, spirit over ritual and synthesis over division. The bigots declared that he was a heretic and his own brother leading the pack, ordered his killing.

Taseer’s politics was fiercely anti-orthodoxy based on his progressive worldview. Unlike a few progressives, he was a staunch Pakistani nationalist and viewed Pakistan as a modern and enlightened country. This was a position espoused by his party – the Pakistan People’s Party – through the 1970s and onwards. In the 1990s, disillusioned with the changing nature of Punjab politics and his own party’s drift towards pragmatism, he took a break and focused on expanding his business empire. Musharraf’s rule came as another faux moment that brought him back into active politics. A short stint under Musharraf as an interim minister was a tricky decision but it was his re-entry into political life. He had decided to end his political ‘exile’. (more…)

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