Religion

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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Countering the terror menace

1 January 2015

Ten days after the ghastly attack on the military-run school, Pakistan’s prime minister (PM) finally appeared on national television and announced a set of measures that reflect the civil-military consensus on the country’s counter terrorism strategy. After a national outpouring of grief, anger and global shock in the wake of the Peshawar attack, the government had no choice but to appear tough. The long list of measures announced by the PM relate to tackling the long-standing growth of domestic militancy and proliferation of extremist groups across the country.

In a rare expression of stoutness, the PM announced that violent militias would not be allowed to operate and shall face a crackdown. He also referred to regulating the madrassa network and arresting the sources of hate speech that create violent mindsets and provide the faux-theological basis for asserting sectarian agendas. One of the key announcements came in the shape of setting up military courts. Human rights groups have expressed concerns and reminded that even a remote chance of a miscarriage of justice will only lead to more brutalisation and radicalisation of society.

Pakistan’s justice system is heavily flawed and has been unable to respond to the enormous task of punishing those accused of terrorism. The conviction rates are no more than five per cent and the outdated prosecutorial system is clogged by severe capacity constraints. There is a consensus in the country that without major judicial reform and improvements in prosecution services, the regular criminal justice system cannot deliver.

This is not a new debate. In 1999, the Supreme Court (SC) in the Liaquat Hussain case declared military courts unconstitutional. The SC also provided guidelines to deal with the menace of terrorism, which remain unimplemented. Key guidelines issued were: keep anti-terrorism courts exclusively for terrorism cases and assign one case at a time; daily hearings; announcement of decisions in seven days. Directives were also issued that the challan of a particular case should only be submitted once the prosecution had ensured that all witnesses could be produced. High courts were asked to nominate judges who could review the speed and outcomes of the judicial process. The SC was also meant to appoint a judge who could review the implementation of its own verdict. And, the judgment also mentioned that the government could seek assistance of the armed forces under Article 245 to ensure the security of judges, advocates and witnesses.

Like Pakistan’s repetitive governance failures, this judgment was also forgotten. Fifteen years later, we are in the same situation, except that terrorism has grown beyond belief and extremist narratives have captured public discourse. This is a collective failure of Pakistani society. Deja vu, once again? General Musharraf in 2002 embarked upon a similar path to fight militancy and extremism. In January 2002, this is what the General said: “If any madrassa (religious school) is found indulging in extremism, subversion, militant activity or possessing any types of weapons, it will be closed. All madaaris will have to adopt the new syllabi by the end of this year …”

None of what Nawaz Sharif said is new. It was the agenda of his nemesis Musharraf, too, and the latter happened to be far more powerful than Sharif currently is. But even Musharraf’s resolve remained unimplemented. In fact, the country witnessed proliferation of private militias and the emergence of the deadly Pakistani branch of the Taliban movement right under the nose of the moderately enlightened general.

Musharraf failed because the establishment continued to view certain banned outfits as ‘strategic assets’ in its competition for regional dominance against India; and continued to treat Afghanistan as the strategic arena. Most of the banned outfits reappeared under new names. Few turned into ‘welfare charities’ with militant wings. An alliance with the religious parties in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa meant that madrassa regulation could not be achieved. By 2008, when a civilian government took over, the tide had reversed and the al Qaeda outpost — the Lal Masjid — had become a national symbol of resistance against US-allied Musharraf. Sections of the media played an irresponsible role in stirring up this storm.

This time again, it is the army that is in the driving seat. General Raheel Sharif has been leading the operation in North Waziristan and the recent measures announced have the endorsement of the military.

The government cannot deliver on its recent promise until it manages to engage in a dialogue with the establishment on revising the strategic security paradigm that governs the military-intelligence operations. Pakistan’s foreign and security policies remain ‘India-centric’ and the perceived threat of India encircling Pakistan via Afghanistan continues. Second, if the media commentaries are any guide, the Kashmir jihad militias are unlikely to be touched. Third, the autonomous actors within the intelligence outfits need to report to the civil-military authorities concerned. Fourth, the bail of alleged 2008 Mumbai attacks mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and the impending release of Malik Ishaq are signals that run contrary to the declared intent of the state.

Can the civilians drive these policy changes? Sadly not. Since July, Nawaz Sharif has lost his grip over power largely due to the protests and media-generated frenzy, which some attribute to the meddling of the famed invisible hand in Pakistani politics. The recent all-parties conference once again displayed the weaknesses of Pakistan’s compromised political elite and their lack of capacity, preparation and imagination. By signing on the military courts, they have effectively endorsed a 21st century coup. This follows the follies of Imran Khan, where instead of strengthening the democratic process, he has allowed for greater space for the “umpire” he had been keenly inviting to meddle. Decision-making with respect to security remains firmly in the hands of military commanders.

This is why the next few months are a test of General Sharif’s leadership. The public looks at him as the tough general who can deliver on the menace of terrorism. Given that they are in charge de facto, it might help the commanders to seek civilian input into their strategic worldview. The constitutional requirement of undoing all private militias may serve as a guide here. Dismantling the private jihad infrastructure — from feeder madrassas to education curriculum to militant networks — is the first step to secure Pakistan. The TTP are just the tip of the iceberg. Public hangings and military courts are akin to prescribing aspirin for a cancer that is consuming Pakistan.

‘Europe faces a huge challenge in dealing with its Muslim citizens’

31 October 2014

I talked to Akbar S. Ahmed  about the perception of Islam and Muslims in the West

 

MannequinsMannequins dressed in brightly coloured headscarves at a shop in Cite, France

Raza Rumi: With the rise of ISIS, a global debate has ensued about Islam and its followers. ISIS adherents term their acts in sync with Sharia. What are your views on ISIS and its ideology?

Akbar S. Ahmed: Let me make some generalizations here based in research and reflection. ISIS can only be understood in the context of the collapse of relations between tribes and central governments and the implosion of tribal society. I go into this process in detail in my book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a War on Tribal Islam in which I examine 40 case studies in detail across the Muslim world. In Pakistan we have seen something like ISIS with the emergence of the TTP, in West Africa with Boko Haram and Al Shabab in East Africa. Muslim tribes typically live by a code of behavior that emphasizes honor, hospitality, courage and especially revenge. This code has provided a kind of stability for centuries despite the fact that certain aspects of it such as taking revenge are against Islam. Yet after independence these tribes were integrated into modern states and the relationship between them and central governments has often been tumultuous. Today, in a trend seen especially since 9/11, Muslim tribal society is in chaos and the code of revenge especially is completely out of control. Support for ISIS comes from tribal groups in both Syria and Iraq who have been oppressed both by central governments in Damascus and Baghdad. There is nothing Islamic about what they are doing, but their actions can be explained through the mutation of the code of revenge. When they kill western hostages, for example, they say explicitly this is to take revenge for airstrikes. Similarly, the TTP has taken similar action against Pakistani soldiers in revenge, they say, for drone strikes. There has been simply too much suffering in these societies as ordinary people are confronted with airstrikes, drones, suicide bombers, and tribal feuds. In order to remedy the situation and bring stability and peace, we must all have a clear idea what is going wrong. We must not confuse the minority of militants with the larger tribal society from which they come—as has too frequently been done. We must work toward a situation where the tribal people of Muslim countries feel they are treated as full citizens of the state with respect for their human rights and opportunities for economic development. It is only then that the violent forces in these societies will be effectively checked.

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Farzana Parveen and the death of the state

1 June 2014

Farzana’s brutal murder represents all that is wrong with us.

It has become a useless routine to condemn the most ghastly acts of violence and injustice in Pakistan. For many, these are daily occurrences and thus the levels of desensitisation have grown. So has the brutalisation of society, when it adapts to some bare facts and upholds and sometimes celebrates the worst of what constitutes custom, tradition or ‘culture’. What else would explain the fact that there were dozens of passerby near the Lahore High Court — known for its imposing architecture and not the delivery of justice now — who silently witnessed the death of a woman scorned for choosing her partner? Worse, the police did not intervene either. This has become the norm with what we know as the ‘state’ in Pakistan. It chooses to remain indolent, indifferent and even complicit at times. This has left the citizen vulnerable. The weaker you are, the more chance there is of your life meaning absolutely nothing.

A few weeks ago, I underwent the worst of nightmares. Seeking help on a roadside with two wounded men: one almost dead and the other struggling to stay conscious. My romanticism for my own country was shattered on that fateful night of March 28. I am privileged and lucky that I escaped a brutal, unsung death but a life was lost. A large crowd had gathered to ogle at the blood sport but none of them was willing to help in taking a near-dead body out of the car. On a busy street, no car was willing to stop to take my injured driver to the hospital. Farzana’s death and her calls for help have only reopened my wounds — far from healed and as painful as before. This state of our society, drunk on honour, pride, ghairat and other medieval notions of self-worth, has crossed all tolerable levels of dysfunction. Yes, two girls were also hanged, allegedly gang-raped in India, and crimes against women are prevalent in other societies as well. But, at least, there is collective uproar, pressure on the governments and results. (more…)

Pakistan: At the edge of the abyss?

25 May 2014

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is used to fuel violence and death.

 

 

The recent murder of a brave human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman reminds us of the society we have shaped. It is now an unregulated space where even defending the rights of an accused is a crime. Rehman had made all the threats, including those in the courtroom, public. The local state authorities did next to nothing to protect him or rein in the individuals and groups preaching violence. It seems when it comes to religiously motivated violence the might of the state disappears. Victims of blasphemy law are no longer fit for due process. They need to be punished directly. A few days after the murder of Rehman, another accused of blasphemy was shot dead by a teenager in a police station near Lahore.

Since the brutal murder of Salmaan Taseer in January 2011, debates on the colonial blasphemy law have disappeared from the public domain. Those who advocated against its misuse were also silenced through litigation in courts by the right-wing lobbies that no longer constitute the lunatic fringe. In fact, the idea of blasphemy as a threat to Pakistan’s carefully constructed “Islamic” identity mixes passion, politics and power. A state that quietly smiles at the success of its project is now complicit in mob justice and even brutal killings such as the one that took Rashid Rehman’s life. (more…)

Pakistani journalist shares why his work led to an attempt on his life

20 May 2014

I was recently interviewed by Al Jazeera TV – here is a video clip:

Raza Rumi describes the state of the media in Pakistan, where 34 journalists were reportedly killed since 2008

http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201405062237-0023704

Journalist Raza Rumi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by members of the Taliban network in Pakistan on March 28, 2014.
He joins Aljazeera host Antonio Mora to discuss why journalists in Pakistan often put their lives in danger.

Pakistan is not afraid of Modi’s win

19 May 2014

Finally, the verdict is out. The Indian electorate has given a clear message by electing Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) precisely in this order. The 16th general election in the neighbouring state was contested around the issues of governance, corruption and development. The dismal performance of the Congress’s second term was compounded by a leadership crisis, the diarchic model of governance and highly mediatised incidence of corruption scandals. Mr Manmohan Singh, despite his personal reputation, seemed helpless and at times, directionless. Modi seems to have fully benefited from the public disenchantment with coalition politics and a decade of Congress rule. India is now ruled by a right-wing party with a thumping majority. Unlike the earlier terms, the BJP is in a position to form the government on its own and the opposition has been virtually reduced to naught. (more…)

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