Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Trip to Pakistan

A heartfelt post consisting only of pictures and Urdu verses from Dr Hamid Hussain (about his latest trip to Pakistan). 

My recent trip to Pakistan was in the aftermath of the December tragedy in Peshawar.  More painful at personal level as it is my hometown but I and many had no illusions and though hoping against all hopes that this may be the last whole sale slaughter but we knew in our hearts that this is not yet the drop scene of the horror movie.  Surely, the ever enterprising militants showed up again and mowed down several Shia praying in a mosque in Hayatabad where brother and cousins of a very dear friend narrowly escaped death.   During my trip, many in different cities in Pakistan were kind enough to share their fears, anger and hopes with me and I’m thankful.  Sometimes few short verses give more meaning to feelings than lengthy explanations but off course it is only for Urdu readers. 

November 2009. Over ninety People killed in bombing of a crowded bazaar in Peshawar.
زمیں سے آیے ھیں یا آسماں سے آیے ھیں
عزاب شھر پہ جانے کھاں سے آیے ھیں

Sunday, February 22, 2015

End of the Muslim Brotherhood

This is an old post and I would probably change some things now (and in fact, will change some things soon once I do a new post) But this was lost when the old Brownpundits crashed and I wanted to recover it. So here it is
Posted on October 7, 2013 by omar

Hussein Ibish has written an article on the decline and (impending?) fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Reports of their death may be exaggerated, but surely the “Islamist political party” project is not doing well in most places. Turkey will be cited as an immediate counter-example, but I think AKP just hasn’t had the chance to really become too “Islamic” yet. If and when they do (and pressure to do so is bound to come from within, unless the project falls apart so badly in the middle east that Turkey gets away without trying it), they will find themselves in trouble as well.

The problem (in over-simplified form):

Modern states and modern politics (not just all the complex debates about how power should be exercised, who exercises it, who decides who exercises it, the theories around it; but also the actual institutions and mechanisms that evolved) arose first and foremost in Europe. There are surely things about that evolution that are contingent and could have been different elsewhere, but there are also many very fundamental features of modern life (modern levels of knowledge, modern industry and organization, modern understanding of human biology, psychology, sociology etc) that will still hold no matter where they develop on this planet. This is an extremely dense and imposing edifice. You cannot reject it and be modern in ways most people do seem to want to be modern (I have NEVER met an Islamist who did not want an air-force). Some non-western countries have already managed that knowledge transfer (e.g. Japan, South Korea), others are getting there (China), others hope to get there someday (India?) but Muslims are notable for wanting to get there while remaining medieval in terms of theology, law and politics. And not just at the fringes. Fringes are fringes everywhere. But in the Islamicate world, this dream is mainstream.

Why? maybe because while no serious theory of politics developed in Islamicate religious thought (Ibn Khaldun is not religious literature), some dreams/fantasies of an idealized “Islamic state” were allowed to percolate. The deal was that the ulama would throw this dream around at each other and leave actual ruling to the rulers (who in practice were always and everywhere guided by existing Byzantine, Persian and Central Asian models and by “mirrors for princes” kind of literature, not by the dreamworld of the “rightly guided caliphs”). Every Islamicate empire down to the late Ottomans ruled in the name of Islam, but they did so using institutions and methods that were typically West-Asian/Central-Asian in origin. And then the Europeans took off (literally by 1903 but earlier metaphorically) and that whole world crashed and burned.

And out of this wreckage, somebody dug up the old stories of the rightly guided caliphs; It seems to me that early fantasists (like Allama Iqbal) took it for granted that a lot of this is just propaganda and we all need propaganda, so “ek hi suf mein khaRey ho gaey Mahmood o Ayaz” (a famous verse of Iqbal, describing how Sultan Mahmood and his “slave” Ayaz could pray in one row; the wonders of Islam, that sort of thing) but they fully expected reality to be much closer to London than it was to Medina (witness his approval of the Grand Turkish assembly). To them, it was more like Chinese or Japanese reformers creating their own version of what worked and getting out from under the imperialist thumb. I am sure Iqbal did not expect to be the leading poet of the Pakistani Taliban! But over time, stories frequently repeated can come to be seen as the truth. Islamist parties want to create powerful, modern Islamic states. But the stories they are using are more Islamic than modern. Far more so than the early reformers perhaps realized. The result is that every party is all the time in danger of becoming hostage to those espousing primitive notions of Shariah law and medieval political ideas. It turns out that pretending to have “our own unique genius” was much easier than actually having any genius that could get the job done. Human nature being what it is, the easy path was taken.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The signs when you become white

(1.) you actually start becoming punctual
(2.) your schedule runs months into advance
(3.) you stop socialising nearly as much
(4.) you start saying Christ inadvertently
(5.) when you and your other half are the only dark-haired (let alone dark-skinned) people in the room
(6.) your friends are based on shared hobbies
(7.) your social calendar revolves around societies
(8.) you would never dream to drop into other people's homes as you used to
(9.) seeing people once a year is more than enough to sustain a friendship
(10.) Christmas becomes a BIG thing and you start thinking about bona fide Easter Eggs lol.

Bonus 11:
(11.) your ethnic identity becomes a very valuable tool to differentiate yourself from the white bread upper middle class, who are very homogenous & metropolitan at times.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Is Islam a Religion of the Book?

Razib put up an interesting post on this topic on his blog . I think his point is that no religion is a "religion of the book". People make the religion and they remake it as time demands. Messily and unpredictably in many cases, but still, it moves. And in this sense, Islam is no more fixed in stone by what is written or not written in it's text (or texts) than any other religion.

Someone then commented (and I urge you to read the post and the comments, and the hyperlinks, they are all relevant and make this post clearer) as follows:

"Well, if you take the Old Testament and Koran at face value, the OT is more violent. The interesting question is then why Islam ends up being more violent than Judaism or Christianity, and for that I agree you have to thank subsequent tradition and reinterpretation of the violence in the text. It appears that for whatever reason Islam has carried out less of this kind of reinterpretation, so what was originally a less violent founding text ends up causing more violence because it is being interpreted much more literally."

I replied there, and then thought I would put that reply up as a new post here because I want to see what people think of this quick and off-the-cuff comment. THEN, I can maybe improve it in a final new post this weekend. So, without further ado, my comment:

There is an easier explanation. Islam the religion we know today (classical Islam of the four Sunni schools and it's Shia counterparts) developed in the womb of the Arab empire. It is evident that it provided a unifying ideology and a theological justification for that empire (and in the case of various Shia sects, varying degrees of resistance or revolt against that empire), but at the very least, they grew and formed together; one was not the later product of the fully formed other. Being the religion of a (very successful and impressive) imperialist project, it's "official" mature Sunni version obviously has a military-supremacist feel to it.

Whether the text canonized as "foundational document" does or does not fully explain the imperialism and supremacism is a red herring. The Quran is a fairly long book, but to an outsider it should be immediately obvious that you can create MANY different Islams around that book and if you did it all over again, NONE of them have to look like classical Sunni Islam. The details of Sunni Islam (who gets to rule, what daily life is supposed to look like, how non-Muslims should be treated, etc) are not some sort of direct and unambiguous reading of the Quran. Even the 5 daily prayers are not specified in the Quran. The schools of classical Sunni Islam are supposedly based on the Quran and hadith, but the Quran and the hadiths are clearly cherry picked and manipulated (and in the case of the hadiths, frequently just invented) based on the perceived needs of the empire, the ulama, the individual commentators, human nature, economics, whatever (insert favorite element here).
So in principle, we should be able to make new Islams as needed (and some of us have indeed done so over the centuries...the Ismailis being one extreme example) and I am sure many of us will do that in the days to come as well. The Reza Aslan types are right about that (though i seriously doubt that HE can make anything lasting). In fact, in terms of practice, millions of Muslims have already "invented new Islams". Just as a random example, most contemporary Muslims do not have concubines and do not buy and sell slaves (and find the thought of doing so shocking). They take oaths of loyalty to all sorts of "un-Islamic" states and most of them turn out to be loyal at least to the same degree as their other fellow citizens of various hedonistic modern states. And so on and so forth.
What sets them apart is their inability (until now) to publicly and comfortably articulate a theological framework that rejects medieval (aka no longer fashionable) elements of classical Sunni Islam. And this is especially a problem in Muslim majority countries. What stops them? I think apostasy and blasphemy laws (and the broader memes that uphold those laws) play a big role. King Hussein or Benazir Bhutto or even Rouhani may have private thoughts about changing X or Y inconvenient parts, but to speak up would be to invite accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. So they fudge and do one thing while paying lip service to another. Unfortunately, this means the upholders of classical Islam (and ISIS and the Wahabis are not as far from the mainstream Sunni Ulama in theory as is sometimes portrayed, though clearly they are pretty far in practice) have the edge in debates in the public sphere. This IS a serious problem. But the internet has made it very hard to keep inconvenient thoughts out of view. So there will be much churning. Eventually, some countries will emerge out of it better than others.
ISIS itself will not. Of course, in principle, anything is possible. But we can still make predictions based on whatever model we have in our head. Like most predictions in social science and history, they will not be mathematical and precise and our confidence in them (or our ability to convince others, even when others accept most of our premises) will not be akin to the predictions of mathematics or physics. But for whatever it's worth, I don't think ISIS will settle into some semi-comfortable equilibrium. They will only destory and create chaos. And eventually they will be destroyed, though it is possible (maybe even likely) that large parts of Syria, Iraq and North Africa could become like Somalia. Too messy, too violent and too poor to be worth the effort of colonizing even by intact nearby states. But probably not forever. The real estate is too valuable and eventually someone will bring order to it. Probably using more force and cruder methods than liberal modern intellectuals are comfortable with.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Indian Troops in East Africa

As usual, a post from Hamid Hussein, this time about the British Indian army in East Africa, with some comments about "all Muslim regiments' and neo-orientalist claptrap about the Pakhtoons and the British. Enjoy. 


Major ® Agha H. Amin; an authority on history of subcontinent armies sent a reminder about 129th Baluchistan Infantry in E. Africa.  Few questions about Indian soldiers in E. Africa in Great War as well as some ancillary long forgotten aspects of military archeology came my way and following was the outcome.  Only for those interested in military history of the region.

Indian Soldiers in East Africa in Great War

“We are too much inclined to think of war as a matter of combats, demanding above all things physical courage.  It is really a matter of fasting and thirsting; of toiling and waking; of lacking and enduring; which demands above all things moral courage”.   Sir John Fortescue

East Africa is a forgotten chapter of Great War.  Several Indian battalions served in East Africa.  British East Africa is now Kenya and German East Africa is now Tanzania, Rawanda and Burundi.  German army in East Africa was calledSchutztruppe.  Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) - C commanded by Brigadier ‘Jimmie’ Stewart arrived in September 1914.  This force was predominantly from state forces with about half battalion strength each from Rampur, Kapurthala, Bharatpur and Jind state forces.  Only one regular Indian battalion 29th Punjabis was part of the force.  Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) - B under the command of Major General Aitken consisted of 27th Bangalore Brigade (2ndLancashire, 101st Grenadiers, 98th Infantry and 63rd Palamcottah Light Infantry - four companies of Madrassi Muslims, two Tamils and two Christian Madrassi companies) and Imperial Service Brigade (Gwalior Rifles, 2nd and 3rd Kashmir Rifles).  This was followed by battalions re-deployed from European and Egyptian theatres as well as.  As usual unsung heroes of the theatre are pioneers, railway volunteers and sappers and miners who were superb in the most trying conditions.