LAHORE, PAKISTAN - MARCH 28: Pakistani commando stand guard at the suicide blast site in Lahore on March 28, 2016.  At least 70 people, mostly women and children, have been killed at a crowded park in Pakistan in a suicide blast that also wounded more than 300 people. (Photo by Rana Irfan Ali /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Pakistan Needs Deradicalization Programs. Force Alone Won’t Cure Intolerance

LAHORE, PAKISTAN - MARCH 28: Pakistani commando stand guard at the suicide blast site in Lahore on March 28, 2016.  At least 70 people, mostly women and children, have been killed at a crowded park in Pakistan in a suicide blast that also wounded more than 300 people. (Photo by Rana Irfan Ali /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Even by Pakistan’s warped standards, recent turmoil in the country is extraordinary. On Sunday, a suicide bombing in a public park in Lahore killed more than 70 people and injured at least 300. Most were women and children. A Taliban splinter group that treats non-Muslims as inferior claimed the Lahore attack was an assault on Pakistan’s small and marginalized Christian community, taking advantage of the tradition of celebrating religious festivals in public spaces.

While Lahore was still grappling with the immense tragedy, a rally in Islamabad turned violent. Thousands of demonstrators had turned out to protest the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a former policeman who murdered a governor who had dared to criticize Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.

The demonstration was organized by groups that follow relatively peaceful branches of Islam in South Asia. The protestors burned vehicles and reached the Parliament building in a high security zone. Their demands — other than declaring the executed policeman an official martyr — include the imposition of an Islamic system in Pakistan.

Military action and executions are no substitute for structural reforms of schools and seminaries that breed intolerance.

Together, these events represent many of the various shades of religious extremism found in Pakistan. From the country’s inception, disparate groups have continually contested Pakistan’s identity. The founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, mobilized Indian Muslims using religion as a marker of a distinct identity. When the idea of a Muslim homeland became reality, Jinnah quickly declared the need for religious tolerance. But he died soon after, and his successors — both civil and military — exploited religious imagination as a useful political lever to both maximize power and also build a new “nation” composed of diverse ethnicities and linguistic groups.

The slide continued as the country acquiesced more space to religious extremists. Over the decades, Sunni clerics, representing the majority, pushed the state to adopt numerous laws and constitutional provisions that are semi-theocratic in nature. For instance, a non-Muslim cannot be the head of the state in Pakistan (and many other majority-Muslim countries).

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A message from Nizamudddin Dargah

I have never met Marta but the attachment to Nizamuddin Dargah has bound us for years. Yesterday I got this email and beautiful photographs from Marta Irene. Marta herself suffered a major accident in recent years and survived.
Human connections… RR

Dear Raza Rumi,

After a long time I am finally back in Delhi for a short visit. My heart is an explosion of joy. It seems that I love everything here, pollution included: the voice of the Kabari-Wala, the barking dogs, the children playing in the street, the traffic, the exciting fragrance of flowers mixed with many less noble smells…But above all, the Dargah. 31 years have passed now since I wrote the essay you later published on your site. My passion has just kept growing, every day pushing me beyond the limit of my capacity of love, everyday leading me across my fears and my endurance. An extraordinary travel, and so much way to come ahead!
Sitting in front of the Dargah, of course I also think of you. I have no news, and if I try to imagine your life, shivers run along my back…May God protect you with His grace. I know the Saint is close to your heart, He is the best Friend you could have.
I send you a few pics of the Dargah, hoping to convey a little of its magic to you.

With Love,

Marta Franceschini

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A twist in the tale

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My Interview conducted by Abdullah Khan for Earthen Lamp Journal:

ELJ: Tell us something about your journey from being a civil servant to a journalist and then to a writer of non-fiction books.

RR: It has been a mad, chaotic yet edifying journey. I have been a civil servant in Pakistan and then with the Asian Development Bank. Learnt a lot for both these careers but I realized that if I had to write, I needed to be free of shackles. However, that dream still eludes as one cannot make a living as a full-time writer. So I have been doing other jobs while attempting to write. I haven’t given up on the idea of becoming a full time writer. [Laughs]

ELJ: What was the inspiration behind your first book, Delhi by Heart?

RR: Delhi by Heart was a result of my discovery of medieval Delhi that even in the twenty-first century captures your attention due to the layers of visual symbols everywhere. I had read the history of India-Pakistan but visualizing it in Delhi was a different experience. As I learnt more about the forgotten chapter of our shared history, I thought there was a book and newspaper articles of essays will not do it justice. The book was also a statement that constructed nationalisms of India and Pakistan were a departure from nine centuries of myriad, contradcitory histories.

ELJ: Pakistan has produced many gifted fiction writers during last two decades. But, on the non-fiction side, there aren’t many popular names. Do you think Pakistani writers prefer the fiction route to tell their stories?

RR: I think there are many who are writing non-fiction as well. But the real acclaim has come through ficiton in an era when global curiosity on Pakistan grew. The novels of Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeeem Aslam provide a window to the world beyond the horrific headlines that are attached to Pakistan and its residents.

ELJ: Your first book Delhi by Heart was a travel memoir, right? What is your latest book, The Fractious Path, all about?

RR: The Fractious Path is actually a collection of commentaries written for a Pakistani newspaper during 2008-13. This was the period when democracy returned to Pakistan after a decade of dictatorship and has continued. The commentaries provide a view on the democratic transition, the issues that Pakistan faced (and continues to face) and how the society is coping with them. Unlike the gloom and doom views, I think my articles capture the struggles of Pakistani civilian actors to reclaim space from civil-military bureaucracy and a shift in our history where the democratic government peacefully handed over power to another civilian government.

ELJ: How do you look at the future of democracy in Pakistan?

RR: The future of democracy in Pakistan is not bleak as pundits used to predict. In fact, there is an inner robustness within the political processes that has enabled the civilian actors. This does not mean that the military has completely retreated into the barracks but the fact that it no longer is in a position (or even interested) to launch a coup is a departure.

At the same time, the politial parties need to instil greater public confidence. Most are dynastic, leader-centric and largely undemocratic structures. But there is immense pressure from the urban electorate especially the young men and women for ‘change’. So the signs are not too bad.

ELJ: From Tahrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan, to the fringe elements in India and Bodu Bela Sena in Sri Lanka, almost all South Asian countries are infested with right wing extremism. How do you see these negative trends?

RR: Pakistan’s case is slightly different from the others. For more than three decades, the Afghanistan connection and wars have led to the growth of elements like TTP. For years, the country has supported militias to attain foreign policy goals. There is some reversal now as the military has been engaged in counterterrorism operations. But in general there is an increase in religious violence in the region. In India, we have seen caste and religion based killings, in Bangladesh secularists are being killed and the government is also clamping down on democratic freedoms. Sri Lanka is reeling under the after effects of a long civil war and the human rights abuses that took place in the wake of it. The reality is that minorities across the region are under threat and this has something to do with the brand of nationalism that most states have espoused. Only a SouthAsian vision can undo this.

ELJ: How important is democracy in Pakistan for continuous peace in South Asia?

RR: Democratic or let’s say representative rule is vital for peace in the region. In Pakistan, the civilian leaders are committed to regional peace as they want the country to progress in economic terms. Similarly, democracy allows for check and balances against executive excesses and inhibits states to indulge in irresponsible tactis.

ELJ: How do you look at the Indian prime minister’s visit to Pakistan? Will the Nawaz-Modi duo solve all pending issues between India and Pakistan?

RR: I think Modi’s Pakistan initiative was fantastic. He surprised and silenced his critics in both countries. But the situation is so complex due to non state actors like Jaish e Mohammad that we need bold political initiatives on both sides. Pakistan must nab and undo the elements that are keen to sabotage peace. I don’t think that the situation would improve soon but all we can do now is to keep the borders peaceful, solve the smaller disputes and encourage people to people contact. The iron curtain built after 1965 war needs to go away.

ELJ: What is going to be your next book?

RR: I am working on a memoir that deals with my recent years of media and public engagement in Pakistan, my decision to leave my country and adjusting to a different soceity even if for a short period of time. More than a book it is a catharsis that I need to undergo. Let’s see if publishers will find it interesting.

ELJ: Do you have any plan to do a fiction book?

RR: Indeed. Now that I am in a small town where many fiction writers live, I am finding the right kind of space and environment to imagine the stories that have been long brewing but could not be penned due to my hectic life in Pakistan. I have realised that phases of solitude and disengagement are necessary for writing. Fiction requires an intense engagement with yourself and I am slowly getting there.

Wish me luck. [Laughs]

Raza Rumi is a Pakistani author, policy analyst, and a journalist. He has been affiliated with The Friday Times, Pakistan’s foremost liberal weekly paper as a writer and an editor for a decade. Raza is also a commentator for several Pakistani, regional and international foreign publications. In Pakistan, he worked in the broadcast media as an analyst and hosted talk shows at Capital TV and Express News. In 2014, he moved to the United States after an assassination attempt, ostensibly carried out by Islamic extremists. Currently he is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College, New York USA; and visiting Faculty at Gallatin School, NYU. Raza is also a fellow at National Endowment for Democracy (USA), the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs (USA) and Jinnah Institute (Pakistan). In the past he has worked at the Asian Development Bank as a Governance Specialist and later advised several international development agencies such as UK AID, UNDP, UNICEF World Bank, among others. In his early career he was a member of Pakistan Administrative Service and an official at the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Kosovo.

He is the author of Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller and The Fractious Path.

Badge of honour

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s incisive documentary helps reignite the debate on honour killings in Pakistan.

Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters

Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has won the second Oscar for a short documentary that brings international attention to an endemic evil in Pakistan (and India for that matter) known as honour killings. Officially, there are a thousand victims of honour killings every year but the actual number may be much higher. Aside from Sharmeen’s recognition by Hollywood, which by itself is a big win, the Oscar for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a victory for Pakistan’s long list of activists who have been advocating to end this heinous practice. Days before the Oscars ceremony, a special screening of the movie was held at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s house. The Pakistan PM issued a statement saying he would bring changes to the legislation to end the curse of honour killings. Sharif’s recent overtures to causes such as minority rights and talking about a liberal Pakistan have come as a surprise, given his conservative politics, and his party’s attempts to prevent progressive legislation during the 1990s. Or it is a sign of Pakistan’s drift into extremism that even centrist politicians like Sharif are worried about the future of the country.

A Girl in the River narrates the heart-wrenching story of Saba Qaiser who survived an attempt to kill her and lived to tell her tale. Saba was lucky to survive. Most victims are not. The issue of honour killings is cultural as a woman’s conduct is seen as an instrument of honour of the family. That such tribal and feudal customs continue in the 21st century is a shame indeed. As if the customs were not enough, General Zia-ul-Haq and his successors worked on a law that compounds murder and also enables the murderer to seek forgiveness under an interpretation of Islamic law. In short, honour killings rarely, or never, get punished.

Worse, the parliamentarians, who in any democratic society are required to enact legislation that ends brutal customs, have been divided and complicit. In 1999, a young woman, Samia Sarwar, was killed outside the offices of Pakistan’s renowned human rights lawyers, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani. A resolution moved by a liberal senator in Parliament could not be carried through as a Pakhtun member of the Awami National Party objected to the attempt to interfere with the ‘honour’ culture. In the Musharraf era, a weak law was enacted but when a woman member of parliament presented a resolution, it was shot down. Sherry Rehman’s earlier efforts to table a reform bill were also rejected by the then ruling party closely allied to Gen Musharraf. The Islamists who were in the opposition supported the government on that front.

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“Remembering Intizar Husain”

Raza Rumi remembers Intizar Husain as a colossus of letters, but also as a formative influence for himself
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(L-R) Jamila Hashmi, Intizar Husain, Masood Ashar and Kishwar Naheed

I remember the languid afternoon in Lahore when I met Intizar Husain surrounded by his friends and admirers. This formal introduction happened as poet-writer Fahmida Riaz was visiting Lahore and wanted to see Intizar Sahib – as we all called him. This was nearly a decade ago and my memory of that meeting is a bit hazy. All I remember is that Intizar Sahib showed extraordinary enthusiasm when he heard my name.

Arrey I have been reading you in The Friday Times”, he said. Bewildered, I thought that he was trying to humour a young novice with literary pretensions. Noticing my maladroit attempt to hide my expression, he added in chaste, homely Urdu: “I had thought that this guy Rumi was some old man writing about the shared cultures of the subcontinent…Aap tau naujawan nikle (you turned out to be a youth).”

In those days, I was regular feature writer at TFT and had penned many a rant on the civilisational ethos of the Indian Subcontinent that has fast eroded in the past few decades. Little did I know that it would be noted by – of all the readers – Urdu’s master fiction writer and columnist, essayist and a critic!

ishtiaq2Intizar Sahib had resisted the temptations of turning into a cult figure, a pop star or a pir

This was a moment of reckoning for me. I was but a pygmy in front of this literary giant and man of all proverbial seasons. Hearing his acknowledgment was a kind of homecoming – a process that continues, distracted by the necessities of garnering jobs and nurturing pretenses of a ‘career’. Among other reasons to change direction in my life, perhaps Intizar Sahib was a major reason. His encouragement – to an utterly unimaginative person like me – acted as an elixir.

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WATCH: Raza Rumi Speaks Out on Countering Violent Extremism

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 18, 2016:

In November I had a chance to sit down with policy analyst, journalist, and scholar Raza Rumi at the ISLAMiCommentary office of the Duke Islamic Studies Center and speak to him about countering violent extremism in the Middle East and in Pakistan, and the plight of journalists in his native Pakistan.

Rumi was at Duke to lead a conversation on “Countering Violent Extremism: The Case of Pakistan.” He had been invited by the Duke Pakistani Students’ Association and his visit was co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, and the Duke Alexander Hamilton Society.

Rumi has been living in the U.S. since shortly after a March 2014 assassination attempt on his life that left his driver dead and guard seriously injured. While escaping with minor injuries, he said that after his car was ambushed he felt “insecure” and “traumatized,” and had to leave Pakistan after a few weeks. State agencies and local police, he said, couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen again. (Police later reportedly implicated members of the Taliban-affiliate Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the attack) Continue reading

In memoriam: Writers like Intizar Husain never die, they live on in their words and ideas

In celebrating his pluralistic literary roots, Intizar Husain was a truly contemporary writer

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Intizar Husain, the last of great Urdu writers, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.

He’d been hospitalized for some time in Lahore. His ardent followers had been worried that the worst was likely to happen. But the truth is that writers of Husain’s stature never die. They live in their words and the corpus of ideas that they bequeath to future generations.

Husain was definitely one such figure. He leaves behind some of the finest specimens of fiction, journalism, travel writing and critical essays. The sheer volume of Husain’s literary output is mind boggling as it indicates a life that was lived in a deep love of letters; engaged in an eternal search for meaning.

Intizar Sahib spent his early years at his birthplace Dibai in the Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. In one of his interviews, he said that the partition of India in 1947 made him a fiction writer. Nothing could be truer as the shadow of his migration to a new country became perennial. For much of his life, this event and the sense of displacement informed his creative musings.

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Intizar Husain was a sought after presence at literary festivals, where his vast body of work was discussed

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