Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A hectic holiday season

I trust everyone had a good holiday season. December happens to be a particularly hectic month for me as the exact first half is my birthday, followed my parent's wedding anniversary then the Iranian Christmas of Yalda and then the traditional Holiday Season.

It's interesting that Christmas has a remarkable effect in the UK of strengthening the national culture. It is almost mandatory catch-up with relatives time (I believe Thanksgiving has more of that role in the US). 

Other than that my friend Rahul M has a new post up on his blog on David Beckham's latest drink Haig:

A whisky brought to you by David Beckham and Simon Fuller working along side Diageo present Haig Club. Although I don’t quite know how that works since David Beckham doesn’t actually drink. Well putting that to one side for the moment, Haig Club is a sweet single grain Scotch whisky that comes from Camorenbridge Distillery the oldest grain distillery in Scotland. This whisky is certainly different, not only because of its unique taste but because of its main market.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Pakistan: Litfests and Bookfairs – Two Worlds? by Ajmal Kamal

The following is a note from Ajmal Kamal (who edits the Urdu literary magazine Aaj, runs City Press in Karachi, and is an institution in his own right). Comments welcome. My own first thought (reflective of my current obsessions) is at the end of this note...

If you have attended this year the two events that mark the pinnacle of Karachi’s book culture – the Karachi Literature Festival and the Karachi International Book Fair – you may have noticed that these two well-attended public events are not looking at each other at all. In fact, the situation may seem to mirror the split in our country’s social fabric that is becoming more brutally evident by the day.

The KLF enthusiastically promotes books and authors from Pakistan that link the national literary activity with the international book trade scene, a la the pioneering Jaipur Literature Festival on the other side of the border. Both the KLF and JLF are commonly criticized for the fact that they are rather unfairly tilted towards the desi literature produced in English at the cost of the literature of ‘local’ languages. To be fair, KLF, being sensitive to the accusation of being elitist, has strived to give a gradually increasing exposure to Urdu literature, even if the languages relegated to ‘regional’ status – Sindhi, Punjabi, Saraiki, Balochi and Pushto - still get only a token representation. However, the primary concern of such events remains the English language writing.

Similar is the case, for example, of the weekly review magazine Books and Authors, brought out by the prime national English daily Dawn. Till some time ago, it reserved two pages exclusively for reviewing local language publications (including, mainly, Urdu books); now one of the two pages has been taken away as the weekly column by Intizar Husain has been shifted from the main newspaper to the B&A.

The Book Fair, on the other hand – despite the prefix ‘international’ with its name – may be taken to present a more realistic picture of what is actually going on in the national market of reading material. Provided, of course, someone bothers to look and ponder.  The fair is an annual event organized by the country’s publishers and booksellers, driven by their legitimate commercial interest. Anyone visiting the fair at Expo Centre on the University Road can notice one basic fact: Urdu books promoting a delusional political ideology – flaunting an unmistakably religious-sectarian colour – dominate the printed material displayed, bought and sold here. As for the ‘regional’ languages, they are conspicuous by their near absence at the fair – they seem to have little market, maybe because they have failed to become efficient vehicles for the seemingly dominant ideology mentioned above. But that is just a guess.

We, the common consumers of reading material, have little option except to make guesses. Because our infinitely creative writers represented and privileged in the events like the literature festivals  – using English, Urdu or any other language – appear to be as clueless as their readers about this intriguing phenomenon, aptly named ‘English-Urdu Bipolarity  Syndrome in Pakistan’ by C. M. Naim, Professor Emeritus of the University of Chicago. (http://cmnaim.com/2014/12/englishurdu-bipolarity-syndrome-in-pakistan/)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Waiting in Bethlehem

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
                                                                   W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)

Yeats wrote his great poem almost a century ago in the aftermath of the most calamitous war Europe had ever seen, but it could have been written for today’s Pakistan. The blood-dimmed tide is indeed loose, the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity. But after the tragedy in Peshawar on December 16, there is a change in the atmosphere. Convictions – or at least expressions of conviction – are stronger, and the intensity more widespread. As if woken from a slumber of years, people all over the country, who had been waiting for God to change things, are rubbing their eyes and questioning their assumptions. It is the kind of moment where great changes can indeed happen. But we know that the moment will pass – is already passing – and the tide that needs to be taken at the flood will soon begin to recede. What Pakistan needs today is real leadership that can fundamentally alter the course of this society. Who can provide that leadership?

The traditional – one could easily say “hereditary” – political class of the country is so devoid of vision and so complicit in the status quo that any expectation of radical change from it is futile. At best, it may offer incremental improvement if it can be induced to look up from its narrow interests. Realizing this, many people are now looking to the military to provide leadership, but it can only do so in certain areas. It is the ideal instrument for waging actual war on the terrorists who attack the state, and by all accounts, it is doing so with great energy. The current top military leadership – ultimately inscrutable as always – seems to be exceptionally focused, sensible and professional. But the real change that is needed in Pakistan is societal change – a change of mindset, attitudes and values – and militaries are incapable by their nature of leading such a change. Societies where social organization has been handed over to militaries have always become repressive, violent, misogynistic and paranoid. The culture of unquestioning obedience and hypervigilance that enables an army to fight successfully as a coherent force does not transfer to complex civilian society without squeezing out almost all that is valuable from it. Mercifully, the current military leadership in Pakistan seems to recognize its professional role, though the temptation to go beyond it must be great at this moment.

Recently, a third force has arisen is Pakistan – the “New Pakistan” movement led by Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). In the aftermath of the Peshawar massacre, and given Imran Khan’s previous overtures towards the Taliban, this movement seems rather irrelevant now. Imran Khan implied as much when he called off his sit-in outside Parliament on December 17. However, this did not have to be the case. Societal change requires, above all, changing the attitudes of the young and the educated middle classes. Those are exactly the segments where Imran Khan had – still has – the greatest following. It also requires commitment, and his followers are committed. As such, of all the potential leaders in Pakistan, Imran Khan was in the best position to actually lead the change that this moment demands. But, tragically, he has yet to show that he has the vision and character to do this. Everything he has said so far in the aftermath of the tragedy has struck even his followers as self-serving and weak. If social media and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, his movement is deflating rapidly, which is a pity – and I say this as a staunch opponent of the movement. For all its vices, it was – is – a real movement driven by commitment rather than self-interest, which is a rare thing in Pakistan. Its problems came mainly from the top, but the movement itself could be a great vehicle of social transformation if its energies were diverted from such petty things as shouting down politicians and harassing opponents to the greater cause of changing hearts and minds. I believe that the foot-soldiers of the movement are ready for that, but unfortunately, the leadership is not. Contrary to popular belief, I think that the tragedy in Peshawar could have been an opportunity rather than a setback for Imran Khan, but only if he had the character to admit his mistakes and change direction. So far, there is no evidence of that.

A friend recently responded to some cynical comments by saying “It’s too early to be pessimistic.” Perhaps, but I think it is equally true to say that it’s too early to be optimistic. What will happen in Pakistan over the coming days, weeks and months is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the military will decide that the times are too critical for it to indulge the vacillations of civilian leadership, and take over. Or perhaps the current crop of politicians – Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan or others – will discover some hidden reserves of wisdom and resolve within themselves. Or – hope springing eternal – perhaps new young leaders will emerge from civil society to ignite the change. But perhaps none of these things will happen and Pakistan will continue on its current course after a time of mourning for all those young, heroic lives lost on December 16. If so, it may be a good idea to think upon the rest of Yeats’ poem:

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

How ready are we for that rough beast?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Changing Pakistan after Peshawar: The Role of the State

Three long, agonizing days have passed since the unspeakable events in Peshawar on December 16. As people everywhere grapple with a tragedy that is beyond comprehension, the one thing that unites all Pakistanis – indeed, all those who care for humanity – is the desire to do whatever it takes to fight back against the forces that unleashed this horror. Knowledgeable Pakistanis and others have written insightful analyses, offered moving pleas, expressed new hope, and made important suggestions. There has been a gratifying upsurge of revulsion against extremists that is already producing some concrete results. But this is now, while the tragedy is still fresh in our hearts. What of the longer term?

As human beings, we all know that the solidarity that we see now will fade over time; the old differences will resurface; the grief will dissipate, except for the families that actually suffered the loss of loved ones. In this age of distraction, unity of purpose is ephemeral, and unity of action even more so. Thus, it is critical that this passing period of common rage and determination be used to set up concrete plans and policies that will outlive our rage and achieve our purposes.

The immediate response to the tragedy will come from the military, the intelligence services, the police, and the political leadership of the country. The military response will be swift and brutal, as it should be. And even the politicians may be able to overcome their petty differences sufficiently to put better policies in place. But the problems epitomized by the Peshawar attack were not created in a few months or years, and will not be solved quickly. The question is whether the state of Pakistan will make long-term changes that begin moving us towards a solution.

The cynic in me is skeptical, and this skepticism is shared by others who have followed the history of Pakistan. However, it is also true that great calamities sometimes produce permanent changes that had appeared impossible before. Perhaps this massacre of innocents will be such a “hinge event” for Pakistan, but to make it so will require answering some hard questions and making some difficult decisions. So, first the questions:

Question 1: Who is to be considered a “terrorist”?
Will this term be applied narrowly to those who directly challenge state institutions such as the Army, or broadly to all those who attack innocent people in the name of any ideology or political purpose. This is not an issue peculiar to Pakistan – the post-9/11 West has faced and failed to solve this problem. But clarity on this issue is especially important in the context of Pakistan. This is because, unlike the situation in, say, Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers, terrorism in Pakistan is not rooted in a single concrete cause but in a state of mind. This state of mind can, and does, promote diverse causes: Enforcing strict religious laws; combating India; suppressing sectarian rivals; creating a new caliphate; and even hastening the Day of Judgment. With such a breadth of incommensurate and sometimes irrational purposes, one must define terrorism not by its goals or its targets, but by its underlying ideology. The thing that unites all those who kill innocents en masse in Pakistan (and indeed, all over the world) is their deviant view of the value of human lives – they love their cause more than they love their fellow humans. The term “human” is critical here – not “Muslim” lives, or “military” lives, or “Pakistani” lives, but “human” lives. Unless we use this greatest common denominator as our definition, we will continue to distinguish between “good” terrorists and “bad” terrorists – and perhaps also some “neutral” terrorists who kill people we just don’t care much about. Even the term “Taliban” is insufficient, since many terrorist groups don’t use that name. But once we recognize the primacy of protecting all human lives, it is easy to determine who is a terrorist, regardless of whether they fight for religious, sectarian, nationalist or metaphysical causes. It is abundantly clear that groups (such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)) that target military personnel are closely linked with groups that target their sectarian rivals and specific communities such as Shi’as, Ahmadis and Christians. Unless both types of groups are included in the definition of “terrorists”, pools of infection will survive in Pakistan and will continue to infect the population in the future.

Question 2:  Where do the terrorists get their ideology?
The painful answer here is that, in the case of Pakistan, they get their ideology from an exceptionally literalist, inhumane and narrow-minded interpretation of Islam. Like all great religions with a substantial history, Islam has had many forms and interpretations in different times and places. This plurality has largely been accepted by Muslim societies, with some notably bloody exceptions. The form of Islam that has dominated in the areas of Pakistan for many centuries is a relatively open-minded, even syncretic, version of the sufi tradition. However, much more austere and puritanical interpretations have sporadically infiltrated the region from both the east and the northwest. This infiltration became more sustained during the colonial and post-colonial periods – through the emergence of pan-Islamist ideas, the ideologically rooted movement for the creation of Pakistan, the rise of political Islam in the form of Jamaat-e-Islami, the influence of ultra-orthodox seminaries, the influx of more orthodox Muslims, and, most importantly, the importation of the Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia during the years of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. Today, violence in the name of Islam is perpetrated by groups aligned with different Muslim sects, with targets varying accordingly, but all these groups ultimately derive their zeal from the same attitude: Regarding those with differing beliefs as inferior and worthy of elimination (waajib-ul qatl).

Question 3: Why does religious extremism lead to terrorism?
Traditionally, extreme religiosity has manifested itself in asceticism and piety, not violence. What is it about Muslim extremism in the 21st century that leads inevitably to violence? The answer lies in the way Muslims – not just extremists – have come to relate to their faith in recent times. Following its early expansion, Islam quickly shed any puritanical tendencies it had, becoming an instrument of politics at the collective level and a vehicle for piety at the personal level. Kings – even if they were called Caliphs – could not countenance a supra-royal orthodoxy and, contrary to popular belief, the history of Muslim societies is one of religious flux rather than rigid orthodoxy – punctuated occasionally by orthodox-minded kings such as Aurangzeb Alamgir. Extremists of the kind we see today have always existed, but they have been treated as rebellious outsiders (khawaarij) and suppressed strongly by the state. The celebration of such groups as heroic is a phenomenon rooted in more recent history – particularly in the revivalist vision with which many Muslim societies responded to colonial subjugation. This vision saw deviation from the “true” faith as the main cause of Muslim decline, and sought to purify Islam by returning it to its founding principles. This attitude of originalism (which is much broader than just the Salafism of Wahhabis) is a major source of violent fervor among Muslims today, enabled particularly by three core aspects: 1) Belief in a mythologized history; 2) A strongly bipolar view of the world in terms of believers and unbelievers; and 3) A literalist view of Islam and its practice. All three strains have acquired special power in modern Pakistan through the revivalist ideological narrative underlying the creation of the country. The vision of Pakistan was sold to many – both before Partition and after – as that of an ideal “fortress of Islam” that would revive the polity of the original “State of Madina” under the Prophet Muhammad. Politicians still use this trope to move their supporters. Of course, if Pakistan is to be the fortress of Islam, it must have ferocious enemies, which are conveniently available in the form of Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. And finally, if Pakistan is truly to revive the State of Madina, its people must follow the original laws and texts of that state, not just in spirit but in letter. From there, it is a short step to believing in the virtue of fighting unbelievers, oppressing minorities and accepting laws such as the blasphemy law, which prescribes irrevocable capital punishment for any disrespect of Islam. Unfortunately, these attitudes are not confined to a few fringe extremists, but are widely accepted by the Pakistani populace. They have been woven into the distorted curricula taught in schools, reinforced by the rhetoric of a religiously-defined nationalism, and promoted by the media through the amplification of bigoted voices. The government of Pakistan has systematically created an institutional framework to support this ideology through laws and courts. The extremists have not needed to create intolerant attitudes; government and society have already done that. The extremists just take the ideas to the extreme – some might say, to their logical conclusion – identifying suicide bombing with martyrdom, narrowing the circle of believers to only their sect, and enforcing the blasphemy laws through vigilante action. These extreme positions are possible only because less extreme versions of them are considered mainstream, making it almost impossible to denounce the extremism without risking a charge of blasphemy. This has to change if Pakistani society is to make any real progress against terrorism.

Question 4: Why does the state allow these attitudes to persist in Pakistani Society?
The single biggest factor that allows the attitudes described above to persist is the fractured state of the Pakistani state:  Every political party and religious group has its own exclusive center of power; the military is a state unto itself, with its own policies and purposes; and the intelligence services are widely believed to comprise an even “deeper” state that links up with extremist groups. Even the traditionally weak Pakistani judiciary has shown signs of “going rogue” in recent years, not always to the benefit of society at large. All these centers of power sponsor specific narratives to exploit patriotism, ideology and religion for their own purposes. In the prehistoric days of exclusive state control over the media, this made little impact on the public, but in today’s laudably open and cacophonous media environment, every narrative can find a voice, leaving people confused and seeking certainty. Too often, this certainty is provided – by the same agents through the same media – in the form of bizarre conspiracy theories that rapidly become part of the national psyche, going from rumor to fact to belief, and often connecting up with pre-existing ideological and religious dogma. Dwelling in this forest of whispers, it is hardly surprising that many people lose touch with the reality of the rest of the world and slip into a state of mind where a mythology of millennial wars, dark forces and the Hand of God guiding history begins to make sense. The romance of crusaders, fortresses, black banners and caliphates emerges from this, and is nurtured by the fictional history taught to the populace.

Again, this is not a peculiarly Pakistani or Muslim phenomenon – most countries have their national mythologies, in some cases connecting with actual ancient mythologies (as with India and Israel) or seeing the Hand of God or Destiny in their affairs (as with the British Empire and the United States). The difference with Pakistan (and to some degree in Israel) is that the myths have become central to national identity and even policy-making.

So how can all this be changed?

It is tempting to embrace an ultra-authoritarian model like that of Ataturk in Turkey and now Sisi in Egypt, secularizing the country by force and squashing dissent. History suggests that this is unlikely to work and can be exceptionally dangerous. First, it is impossible to guarantee that dictators in an authoritarian state will always be enlightened – in fact, that is very unlikely (see Mugabe, Robert G.) Second, deep beliefs do not disappear in a few generations because they have been suppressed by force. The case of Muslim Central Asia is instructive: A population indoctrinated into strict communist ideology for decades has now become a fertile source of jihadists for extremist groups everywhere. And Turkey, which was the most successful example of top-down secularization in the Muslim world, is rapidly moving back to the old ways before our eyes. The Chinese experiment goes on, but there are too many differences for it to apply directly to Pakistan.

It is also important to realize that, in today’s complex world, the state can only make a limited impact in trying to change society. Any change towards a moderate, enlightened Pakistan must come from the people. I believe that this is very possible, because most of the people who live in the country come from an open-minded tradition, and still celebrate it in many aspects of their culture. The role of the state should be to reconnect people to that tradition, and to remove, as far as possible, the factors that impede this reconnection. It is also futile to propose radical ideas such as declaring Pakistan a secular state or immediately normalizing all relations with India. Sensible as these ideas may be, they will take root only if they develop organically within the society rather than being imposed in Kemalist fashion. The key is that the trajectory of Pakistan must be changed – both by its people and by the state. What the people must do is a complex topic that I will leave for another time, but here is
a (necessarily incomplete) to-do list:

Implement fundamental reforms in the educational system
Educational curricula at all levels should be changed to emphasize a modern, rational, inclusive world-view rather than the obscurantist, hyper-nationalist, mythologized and exclusivist narrative that exists today. This will require: a) Teaching real history rather than a fictional one; b) Focusing  broadly on world history rather than just on the history of Pakistan; c) Exposing students to the history of ideas, not just the history of events and personalities; d) Encouraging the habits of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry rather than a mindset of received certainties; and e) Emphasizing engagement with the world of human endeavor through the sciences, arts and humanities rather than immersing students in abstractions of religious dogma. Let young minds learn that what we make of this world depends on natural forces and human actions, and that morality comes from social responsibility rather than religious edicts.

Highlight the diversity of interpretations within Islam rather than supporting a single orthodoxy
Contrary to popular myth, puritanical beliefs are not the only standard ones held by Muslims through the centuries. They often come from more recent interpretations by the clerical class to whom the public has ceded all religious interpretation. If there’s one thing that the state must do to combat extremism, it would be to change this religious narrative. At the present time, the amount of pure hate preached from pulpits and taught in seminaries all over the Muslim world is mind-boggling. Ordinary people who live immersed in this miasma are easily conditioned to accept such beliefs as part of their faith. The state must provide alternatives to this – not by creating some new “official version” of Islam, but simply by highlighting the many interpretations of Islam that have been held in Muslim societies throughout history. Extremism does not come naturally to human beings, and exposure to the truth will always bring moderation.

Combat the cult of death by respect for life
The terrorists thrive on the idea of embracing death in the hope of rewards in the hereafter. This allows them to devalue the lives of everyone who disagrees with them. The best way to combat this is to oppose it with a system that values all human lives- not just Muslim lives. There is vast justification for this within the Islamic tradition, but it needs to be codified into the law of the land. The political rhetoric must also change accordingly from exclusivist to inclusive –emphasizing equal respect for all communities within society. Most importantly, the state must not allow the use of hate speech to stoke violence against any group. A bright line must be drawn between personal free speech, which should be protected, and incitement, which must be curtailed. People should be free to express hateful views as individuals, but not from pulpits or in public forums. And under no circumstances must the institutions of the state be perceived as supporting or condoning such speech. Let the purveyors of hate live, but as social and official pariahs.

Unify the structures of government around service to society
No state can survive if it is at war with itself. The current situation where power groups within the government act to advance their own narrow agendas has to change, and all these groups have to align themselves towards a single purpose. In a modern state, this purpose can only be service to society at large. Each institution will play a different part in this, but all must agree on the same principles. Ideally, these must come from the elected civilian leadership, but if they must be negotiated with greater participation from the military and other institutions, so be it. The core element that must not be sacrificed is a system of mutual checks and balance between the institutions of power.

Stop using militants as “strategic assets”
There is a long and instructive history of societies using mercenary militant groups as weapons against their opponents. In almost all such cases, the militants turned against their patrons at catastrophic cost to the latter. The classic example of this in Muslim history is the invitation of the fundamentalist Berber group Al-Muraabitoon (Almoravids) by Muslim rulers in Spain to fight against their Christian foes. The group did fight Christians effectively, but also found their own Muslim sponsors insufficiently Islamic and proceeded to destroy them. A similar process has unfolded in Pakistan, where extremist groups have been nurtured as “strategic assets” by hyper-nationalist forces within the power structure, mainly for use against arch-foe India, to (unsuccessfully) create a zone of influence in Afghanistan and possibly to combat the influence of Shi’a Iran. Like wild beasts kept as pets, these groups are now devouring their keepers.  It should be easy to decide that this strategy has failed, and to stop feeding the beasts, but this will require giving up dreams of an Indian reconquista and a new caliphate. Recent reports (pre-Peshawar) suggest that this has not yet happened.

Stop promoting conspiracy theories and blaming others
It is tempting for any individual or group to ascribe their problems to circumstances beyond their control, but enough already with conspiracy theories! Even today, after the TTP have loudly accepted responsibility for Peshawar, “responsible” people are out in the media blaming the massacre on India.
Pakistan does have real enemies, but most of what ails it has come from its own misguided policies. The Crusader-Zionist-Brahmin axis, the CIA-Mossad-RAW alliance, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the ubiquitous “foreign hand”, the impending arrival of “Dajjal” (the Antichrist), secret atmospheric weapons (HAARP) causing floods and earthquakes, 9/11 trutherism – these and many other outlandish conspiracy theories rife in Pakistan serve only to distract people from the real authors of their woes. Ultimately, these can only be combated by a better educational system, but to the extent that these theories are promoted by specific power groups for their own narrow agendas, they can be controlled at the source. The institutions themselves should develop cultures where propagating such conspiracy theories is cause for ridicule. In particular, the nexus between religious fantasies and conspiracy theories must be broken.

Engage with the world
The wonderful world we live in is the best teacher and moderator of humans. A big factor behind the profusion of outlandish ideas in Pakistani society is disengagement from the world. While the Internet and social media have brought people closer across traditional barriers, this is a distorted connection at best. More Pakistanis – especially young people – need to experience the diversity of the world first-hand. The best way to do that is for the government to support international travel and exchange programs for youth, which would allow students of high school and college age to spend significant time in other countries – notably those which are seen with the greatest suspicion, i.e., India and Western countries. Such exposure at an impressionable age will give Pakistani youth a real sense of the world and its pluralism, making it more difficult for obscuranist forces to infect their minds with thoughts of jihad and martyrdom.

As I write this, the outrage is still pouring in, but it is too early to know if any of the changes suggested above will actually occur, or if the questions raised here will be answered honestly. The establishment has built the current structure with great effort, and there will be many who are still reluctant to let go. To these, the people of Pakistan must speak loud and clear: The time for vacillation is over. The cause is clear and the enemy obvious. Those who still obfuscate these issues must be consigned to the garbage-can of history. 

The urgency of the hour notwithstanding, real change will take time – decades and generations, not months and years, and most of it will come from the people, not the state. Much will change during this time in ways that we cannot imagine today, and not always for the better. The war that is underway now is unlikely to be short, and though its details may still remain in flux, it is critical to acknowledge the nature of this war. It is not a war between believers and unbelievers, Shi’as and Sunnis, or the West and the Muslim world. It is a war between two visions of life and death;  not a clash of civilizations, but a war for civilization. On one side are nihilists who value their beliefs more than the lives of their fellow humans, see this world as ephemeral, and seek their rewards in the hereafter. On the other are those who do care for other human beings and, however imperfectly, want to understand and improve this world. No society interested in thriving can possibly choose the nihilist side over the long term, even if it is dressed up in the garb of faith. Therefore, I will go out on a limb and predict that the day will come when Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, China, Russia, the United States and many others will all fight as allies against an amorphous jihadist threat stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. It may take ten years, or twenty, to get there, but that’s where things are going whether we like it or not, and we will all need to decide which side we stand on.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Massacre of the Innocents: Death Comes Again to Peshawar

 ہے زلزلہ زمیں کو گہن میں ہے آفتاب / بارش ہے خون کی چشم فلک اشکبار ہے 
 ہے عنقریب پھونکے سرافیل صور کو / بس حکم کبریا کا فقط انتظار ہے

The Earth is shaking, the sun eclipsed, the sky is raining blood
The time is nigh when Israfeel will blow his trumpet (to end the world). 
All that is awaited is a signal from God... (Mir Anis)

I saw a pair of big black boots coming towards me, this guy was probably hunting for students hiding beneath the benches.
My body was shivering. I saw death so close and I will never forget the black boots approaching me – I felt as though it was death that was approaching me.
I folded my tie and pushed it into my mouth so that I wouldn’t scream. The man with big boots kept on looking for students and pumping bullets into their bodies. I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again.
When I crawled to the next room, it was horrible. I saw the dead body of our office assistant on fire.
She was sitting on the chair with blood dripping from her body as she burned.
(a surviving student's account)

7 men drove up to the Army Public School in a high security area fo Peshawar. They poured petrol on the car and set it on fire, then entered the school and started shooting people. They were not psychotic loners. They were trained soldiers, fighting for a cause.They were "moral" men. They were following rules and making distinctions. According to their handlers, they had been told not to kill underage children and in this they were following Sharia law (the example of the massacre of the Banu Qurayza was specifically mentioned). They cold-bloodedly went from room to room, shooting school children cowering under their desks (per one journalist, most of the dead had been shot once....in the head). And while students were shot calmly and the assassins may even have confined themselves to older children, some teachers faced a more horrendous fate. A couple of them seem to have been set on fire in front of their students. Whether before or after they were shot is not clear. Perhaps because they were female. 
This is not a psychotic loner going nuts and shooting up a kindergarten. It is not even the same as Chechen terrorists taking a school hostage and causing the deaths of hundreds of children in the subsequent firefight and explosions (started accidentally or during the rescue attempt). This is atrocity at the Nazi level. People following orders, systematically and ruthlessly, for many hours. Shooting school kids. Burning teachers. 
And proudly accepting responsibility and promising to do more. 
They were also talking to their handlers all the time. The last time they called, the terrorist told his handler "we have killed all the children in the auditorium, what do we do next?"

These are the attackers, posing before they go to kill kids 


There has been an explosion of outrage in Pakistan. Even Imran Khan managed to condemn the TTP by name (though PTI's offical account still tweeted that "Whoever" did this, did something awful). The Pakistani state has reportedly stuck back already at Taliban targets. The PM and the army chief have promised action (and are likely sincere, as far as that goes). The media has condemned the attack. Social media has been on fire. So far so good. 
But within hours, the narrative has already started to fracture. First the media groups managed to invite people like Hamid Gul, Hafiz Saeed and Maulana Abdul Aziz (of Red mosque fame) to comment on this terrorist attack. And they managed to muddle the issue with references to the Indian hand and the eternal enemies of Pakistan (Afghanistan, Jews, America, that sort of thing). And on ARY (the most pro-army of Pakistan's many pro-army channels) the anchors themselves have been leading the charge. Mubasher Lucman, for example, angrily demanded that the first step needed at this time was to ban Indian overflights to Afghanistan! Top Military propagandist Ahmed Qureshi and loonies like Zaid Hamid have been busy blustering about how India will be made to pay for this latest atrocity. 
The more things change. .

I wrote a piece three and a half years ago about the Pakistani anti-terror narrative and it's confusions and it is depressing to find that little or nothing needs to be changed in that article. The entire piece, unedited, is pasted at the end of this post. 

There is a lot of talk about how this particular horrendous event is SO horrendous that now things really HAVE to change. Maybe. But do keep in mind that this is not the first mass casualty attack. There have been attacks on the Marriot hotel, an Ahmedi mosque, a volleyball match, a meena bazar, a church, even a mosque near GHQ (where the son of a corps commander was among the civilian victims killed in cold blood). And of course there have been countless massacres of Hazara and other Shias. Literally thousands of people have died in these attacks. But until now, there is no evidence that the army has changed it's basic "good terrorist/bad terrorist" policy. Terrorists who kill schoolchildren and shoot up railway stations in Kabul and Mumbai are good. Terrorists who kill children in Pakistan are bad. That policy has not worked for 13 years. It is not going to start working now. 

How can we tell that GHQ is really changing policy: 

1. Ahmed Qureshi and Zaid Hamid are suddenly out of a job and publicly disowned by the army. 
2. Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was sentenced to death years ago for the killing of Daniel Pearl (a terrorist act he may not have committed, though he has surely committed many others). He has not been hanged. In fact there are intermittent reports of him living it up in prison. If he is hanged, that will be a sign of change. Especially since his handler was the famous brigadier Ejaz Shah (a close associate of the father of the double game, Pervez Musharraf himself). 
3. Mumbai attackers rapid trial and punishment. Outside of Pakistan, everybody and their aunt knows that a group of ten terrorists from Pakistan landed in Mumbai in 2008 and cold bloodedly killed a 168 innocent people. In a famous picture, one of the attackes is calmly walking down the platform at Mumbai Railway station, shooting random civilians sitting on the platform. 

Because of international pressure, the FIA (federal investigation agency) in Pakistan actually carried out a very thorough inquiry in Pakistan and identified several people who arranged things for the killers, who trained them, who sent them on their way. The FIA may not have reached all the way to the top, but they certainly made a case against some of the lower level people involved. But 6 years have passed and the trial of these terrorists has not moved forward. The prosecutor has been shot dead. And the supposed military mastermind (Zaki ur Rahman Lakhvi of the JUD/LET) is living it up in prison, and reportedly even got married and conceived a child in prison. If the army has changed it's mind about terrorism, then the trial of these terrorists has to move forward. 

Unless you see some of these happenings, things will go back to "normal" ....

A dissenting note about the double game from a friend on facebook: 
no, not a double game any more. they are being played by the taliban now, manipulating the internecine fault-lines inside the ISI and the army. they don't mind a few casualties in the mountains, if that is the price (in fact their foot-soldiers welcome the chance for martyrdom). they have the indomitable resolution of a madman doing god's work, while the army has the emptied ideology of a failed religious state being devoured by corruption. by day the generals pay hollow homage to the motherland and at night send tithes to their new fathers in the mountains, hoping to buy personal protection from the next suicide attack for themselves and their families.

A more sober take from the redoubtable Ahsan Butt on Five Rupees. 

POSTSCRIPT: it is not looking good for those who thought some great sea change is coming. The script on the media has changed on PTV and to some extent on GEO, but remains the same on other channels and especially on the army's favorite channels like ARY and Dunya..... Blame India, CIA and the Jews. Invite Hafiz Saeed, Hamid Gul and other similar jokers to fog everything up. Bomb someone in the tribal areas and generate suspiciously exact body counts. 
Until the next bombing.
Unfortunately it does look like the song remains the same...

Postscript2: Got some feedback from people focused on the role of Islam in these outrages. I would like to emphasize that while various forms of Islamism are causing problems in many parts of the world, Islam is NOT the proximate cause of the choices made by the Pakistani establishment. Hard Paknationalism is the primary driver. Someone like Musharraf (father of the infamous double-game) was not too bothered about Islam. What caused him to maintain the Taliban and other Jihadist groups was Paknationalism; specifically the "hard paknationalist" belief that we have to defeat India and to do that we need certain force multipliers/strategic-assets/deniable-non-state-actors and the Jihadis are the only people who will do that job. It is this belief that drives the "good-taliban/bad-Taliban" policy and the double games it entails. Commitment to fundamentalist Islam has little or nothing to do with it. (though of course, no Islam, no partition in the first place, so there are other turtles below the first one)...

Postscript3: Lakhvi granted bail by anti-terrorism court. He many not actually walk free if tremendous pressure comes from Uncle Sam, but signals are (or are being misread in Pindi) that Uncle Sam is OK with India-specific terrorists. Lets wait and see...

Postscript 4: Some explanation is needed of two positions that seem contradictory to some people. 
1. I seem to imply that the Pakistani establishment is not going to change, at least not soon. 
2. I objected to right-wing Indians who wanted to shut down "IndiaStandsWithPakistan" because they felt sympathy for a terrorist-supporting nation was unjustified or naive. 

I tried to explain this on twitter with limited success. So trying again:

1. Simple human empathy caused most humans (EVERYWHERE) to feel intense sympathy for the parents of those whose children were so callously and brutally murdered in one of the most awful and bone-chilling atrocities, even in a world filled with atrocities. That simple human empathy is worth preserving and should not be dismissed. Without it, what will be left?

2. Pakistan is a state in crisis. It's core establishment is fracturing. There is a very real constituency for changing course. That constituency is not just in the so-called liberal parties like the PPP, ANP, MQM etc (not to speak of the tiny but culturally significant Marxist and Post-Marxist Left) but even (and sometimes more so) in mainstream civilian parties like the PMLN and even the JUI. The paknationalist hardcore (defined by complete loyalty to the "hard-paknationalist" agenda of permanent war against India, colonization of Afghanistan, dreams of power projection in Central Asia, etc etc) is still in control of key policy areas, but has to FIGHT to stay in control. Among the civilians, they mostly get their way via manipulation of media, pakstudies brainwashing, taking advantage of the foolishness of young PTI supporters and so on. True ideological clarity is limited to a relatively small faction of the army, it's pet journalists and think-tankers and touts like Sheikh Rasheed.

3. That fracture will increase with time anyway (since the Paknationalist hardcore cannot deliver what most pakistanis want: peace and development) but it is helped, not hindered by gestures like "IndiaWithPakistan". I suspect that some understanding of this lay behind the Modi government's willingness to express sympathy and make positive human gestures. Of course, they are also human, so some real human sympathy was probably involved. But beyond that, the cynical calculation is also in favor of such gestures.

4. When and if the hard-Paknationalist establishment spits in their face by doing something like bailing out Zaki Lakhvi, the fact that they made the gesture only goes in their favor. It does not hamper any other action they may or may not take.

5. With Uncle Sam desperate to get out and save face, options are limited. Planning has to be long-term.

Makes sense?

Some tweets from yesterday and today in order of time posted:

“Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more -
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.” 
― Alfred TennysonIn Memoriam

My older post from 2011...unedited. Original at 3quarksdaily.com

The Narratives Come Home to Roost
by Omar Ali

Most countries that exist above the banana-republic level of existence have an identifiable (even if always contested and malleable) national narrative that most (though not all) members of the ruling elite share and to which they contribute.  Pakistan is clearly not a banana-republic; it is a populous country with a deep (if not very competent) administration, a very lively political scene, a very large army, the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal and a very significant, even if underdeveloped, economy.  But when it comes to the national narrative, Pakistan is sui-generis.  The “deep state” has promoted a narrative of Muslim separatism, India-hatred and Islamic revival that has gradually grown into such a dangerous concoction that even BFFs China and Saudi Arabia are quietly suggesting that we take another look at things.
The official “story of Pakistan” may not appear to be more superficial or contradictory than the propaganda narratives of many other nations, but a unique element is the fact that it is not a superficial distillation of a more nuanced and deeper narrative, it is ONLY superficial ; when you look behind the school textbook level, there is no there there. What you see is what you get. The two-nation theory and the creation of Pakistan in 712 AD by the Arab invader Mohammed Bin Qasim and its completion by the intrepid team of Allama Iqbal and Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the face of British and Hindu connivance is the story in middle school textbooks and it turns out that it is also the story in universities and think tanks (this is not imply that no serious work is done in universities; of course it is, but the story of Pakistan does not seem to have a logical relationship with this serious work).
This lack of depth and sophistication dooms this narrative to a cardboard existence and removes it from the ranks not only of the story of America or the history of that sceptered Isle north of France, but also of the “5000 year old civilization of China” and “Eternal India”. Some intellectuals are aware of these shortcomings and half-hearted attempts to remedy the situation have been made, but I think it is fair to say that nothing has yet brought home the (halal) bacon; the story does not fit the post-enlightenment liberal notions of the world and does not even offer an alternative that claims to go beyond the ruling paradigm. Instead, the claim of an alternative system is being used to create just another nation state in a world of Westphalian nation-states. The working part of the state is entirely within the world norm, the supposed ideology has almost no connection to that norm, and problems were bound to arise at some point.  This statement will sound strange to many people since in polite company it has been usual to ignore the contradictions between the two-nation theory and liberal notions of national identity; to the point that even liberal Pakistanis are not conscious of their own unusual and unique position. This willful blindness is not without precedent in our world and can in fact be said to be just another “normal” facet of the world we live in, but there are contradictions and then there are contradictions. Ours have reached breaking point and will no longer hide quietly in the background. This is, of course, my opinion and may or may not make sense to everyone, but let it sit around in your mental living room for a few months;  it may start to seem worth a look.
I would add that a superficial and even contradictory national narrative is not necessarily the road to ruin. Life goes on, even in countries with less than convincing “national narratives”. Pakistan is a country, it exists, it is located at a strategic location, it encompasses very productive land, it is blessed with many bounties of nature and a talented and resourceful population, and it has an ancient and resilient culture.  It can succeed (and success is being defined here as nothing more than “normal” existence in the world of today, all problems of capitalism and nationalism fully included) in spite of its creation myth since human beings can apparently hold several contradictory ideas in their head at one time (it is even “normal” to do so). So this is not a claim that it is bound to fail, just that it can succeed in spite of its myths, not because of them.  If someone wishes to argue that myths and hot air are being overvalued in my piece today, they may be right. But it is my claim that realpolitik and narrative have intersected with great force in Pakistan today, and while the “deep state” faces many very “real” problems that will take years to solve, the narrative is itself a problem that is making all the other problems much harder to solve.
Let us quickly review some history: In 1954, the ruling elite found its international partner (not without some effort) and Pakistan joined SEATO and CENTO. While Pakistan was happy to be part of the international anti-communist alliance, its elite saw India as the primary enemy. But when they launched an adventure in 1965 that ended in war with India in September, SEATO and CENTO were nowhere to be found.  This started a narrative of American betrayal (a narrative that no American took too seriously) that was accentuated in 1971 when the Indian liberation of Bangladesh proceeded with little more than symbolic American intervention on the Pakistani side. The estranged lovers (estrangement being mostly one-way; the relationship was rather asymmetrical as Uncle Sam never seems to have paid too much high level attention to the hurt feelings of their “ally”) made up in 1980 in order to bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan.
But there was now a new element in the relationship since  Pakistan was led by more ambitious and intelligent people at this time, and managed the relationship with greater independence and “agency”.  The simple-minded and childish notions of the 1950s and 1960s were left behind and the Pakistani high command was able to use American aid while building nuclear bombs and planning for a future projection of Jihadist forces into Kashmir and Afghanistan and beyond.  Whether the American side understood what was going on and ignored it for devious reasons of their own, or whether their arrogance prevented them from seeing that their agents had a mind and plans of their own, the fact remains that the United States was no longer the sole creator of policies and projects in this era.  After the US left the region with “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan, their ally did not allow this to interrupt their glorious work of arming and training Islamist armed groups. Rather they accelerated the process, eventually arming and training half a million young men to fight in the cause of Islam. By the mid-1990s, Pakistan had established a somewhat unruly client regime in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Afghanistan became “Jihad central”; the “go-to place” for any young Muslim dreaming of a new caliphate. This growing network was supported by the intelligence agencies of the state and a wider network of international funders and political supporters built around some favored Madrasahs and the existing Islamist political parties like the Jamat e Islami.
 When some of these warriors took the fight to the West and triggered a much larger war (justified or not is another argument) Pakistan’s military establishment decided to dump its more unruly friends (the “bad jihadis”) but either through lack of capacity or lack of will, did not wish to go after the good jihadis (the ones who target India and Afghanistan).  Unwilling or unable to find a narrative that justified their sudden change from pro-jihad to anti-jihad, GHQ opted for a short-cut. Bad Jihadis were described as agents of evil powers (mainly CIA, RAW and Mossad). Many of the Taliban killed in Pakistan were said to be uncircumcised Hindus. India was said to have 14 consulates in Afghanistan from where they and their American friends were running this vile operation.  Military-affiliated websites like paknationalists.com and rupeenews.com provided a narrative that may seem fantastically improbable to outsiders but that fit in well with previous military psyops efforts and was smoothly accepted by many middle class Pakistanis.  When losses in this new civil war accelerated, another element was added to the narrative. Now we were innocent victims of America’s “so-called war on terror”. This narrative could also draw upon liberals in the West who had their own suspicions about their ruling elite and served as a rich source of  talking points for the military’s favorite propagandists.  
This narrative of “we are fighting America’s war” cleverly excluded any mention of our own role in bringing this menace to our shores. That America (and not just America) may have picked on Pakistan because Pakistan’s own armed forces had worked hard to make it the world headquarters of jihadist terrorism was not part of the story that was put together. Instead, it was all America’s fault. They brought the jihadis here, they dumped them on us and left. They were now using the jihadis as an excuse to attack us unfairly and with mala fide intent.  The mala fide intent was usually presented as an American desire to “steal our nuclear arsenal”, but other theories like “imposing Indian hegemony” or protecting Israeli interests (the last being an activity that the US has long performed at great cost to itself, so it was not a claim without any foundation) were also cited.
This story, while useful in the short term since it got the armed forces off the hook and preserved the possibility that the mullah-military alliance could be revived once the Americans left, is now turning out to be too clever by half. The crucial assumption in this scheme was that America would leave and let us return to status quo ante prior to our being overwhelmed by the confused civil war we are fighting in the interim. This fine balance also required that the Americans remain indifferent to the narrative and don’t take counter-measures in the media-management field. Finally, it assumed that the US could be alternately pressured and pleasured forever without seriously rupturing the relationship. Unfortunately, the plan did not factor in Seal Team Six and Obama’s willingness to risk a unilateral operation that simultaneously humiliated and pressurized the military high command while putting them in a very uncomfortable position in front of their own people.
Only time will tell if the net effect of this operation will be positive or negative. In the early weeks, the only thing that is clear is that GHQ had not anticipated any such operation and may not even have known about Osama’s presence half a mile from their military academy. The Pakistani leadership (which in this case means not just the military leadership but also the political leadership, who have been handed an unexpected opportunity to play a role beyond being the military’s human shield) initially reacted by trying to find some backup from China and Saudi Arabia and even Russia. But early indications are that neither China nor Saudi Arabia is willing or able to bail them out if they continue with their past policies. The word is that the Chinese have told the Pakistani leadership that they are our bestest, fastest, deepest friends and the entire politburo prays for our health every day, but as far as budget support is concerned, it may be a good idea to apply to the IMF and Uncle Sam. The half-hearted effort to wave a Russian offer in America’s face is even more of a joke as both the Russians and the Pakistanis are just blowing hot air in an attempt to get Uncle Sam’s attention and neither is likely to get very far. Meanwhile, the jihadis are not rolling over and playing dead either, which complicates matters further.
In short, in the real world, the second coming is not about to happen and the black flags from Khorasan are not going to drive the infidels into the sea. Pakistan will have to live within its current boundaries and will have to make a serious effort to go after any transnational terrorists based in our territory. Even the India-specific terrorists will have to be told the game is over. For the deep state, this is not an easy news bulletin to deliver to its own people because they have been telling a very different story for a very long time.   Most people in Pakistan do not even know that Pakistan was world headquarters for international Jihad for so long and that our own intelligence agencies set up most of the militant organizations and trained most of the terrorists we are now fighting. Most Pakistanis probably believe that 9-11 was an “inside job” and Mumbai was staged by some rightwing Hindu colonel. This amazing level of denial and disinformation has been carefully cultivated by the deep state, but is now coming home to roost. With the US plucking Osama a stone’s throw from PMA Kakul and with the jihadis attacking our most cherished institutions (GHQ, the Sri-Lankan cricket team, now Mehran airbase) the narrative is coming home to roost with a vengeance.
What will happen next? As an eternal optimist, I think things will slowly get better after several years of civil war in which the state will be pitted against the very people it created and lionized not too long ago. While the initial phases of this civil war were fought while telling our own people that our enemies are Hindus and Jews and their uncircumcised agents in the tribal areas, this clever scheme will have to be abandoned because it is impossible to fight one set of jihadis while working with another set as friends and allies. They all see each other as friends and they can see (even if some people in GHQ cannot) that this war can only mean that the state is abandoning its jihadi dreams in exchange for membership of the capitalist globalized world led by Chimerica. To them, this means war and it means war to the finish. This would be a very hard war to fight even if we know what is going on; it an impossible war to fight when our own people don’t know who is fighting whom. Which is why the narrative will have to be altered and a start has already been made by the generally pro-army anchor, Kamran Khan.  It will not be an easy job and there will be much resistance from within GHQ’s own propagandists, some of whom have such serious psychological issues with India that this realignment threatens to fry their fragile eggshell mind. But there is no choice. Slowly but surely, the times they are a changing…

 I may have been too optimistic. There are some other pieces too




see more at http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/MondayMusings.html (scroll down a lot till you see my articles listed)

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