Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lessons from Egypt


                                                                Maryam Sakeenah

Given a similar baggage from the past, the social spectrum in Egypt and Pakistan is built on ideological polarization as a result of political decisions- on both domestic and foreign policy- by leaderships unrepresentative of the public sentiment. These were unguided by understanding of social reality, creating a gaping split between religious and secular-liberal extremes over ideology, opinion, identity, worldview, lifestyle and affiliation: both strongly entrenched in passionate ideological commitments, feeding off one another and unwilling to budge.

Both nations suffered years of unscrupulous authoritarian rule directly or indirectly supported by the United States and allied Western nations. In Egypt, the resentment this created boiled over in the Arab Spring last year. Heartening and exciting, yet it also was in many ways a detonation of pent-up feeling with little organized political planning behind it. That should not however, take away the deep admiration the resilient protesters at Tahrir Square inspire. However, a huge question stared in the face: where to, and what now?

It still haunts the mind. While the Muslim Brotherhood has won an historic electoral win, for many the options were limited between a pro-Mubarak military man and the Brotherhood’s candidate. The vote was more against the continuation of a dictatorship many had given blood sweat and tears to defeat, than in favour of what the Brotherhood symbolized. Ruling over a populace so diversified in level of religious affiliation, Morsi faces huge challenges to bring to fruition the Brotherhood’s Islamist dream. The opposition against the attempt to increase presidential powers and the eventual success of the referendum approving the  draft-constitution by an Islamist-dominated council resonates with vital lessons Islamists in Pakistan have much to learn from. 

For starters, governing a society divided between the fiercely secular and the warmly religious is to have a hand in the hornet’s nest, unless one realizes that as human beings we all share in common the need for justice and basic freedom, for dignity and a decent life and two square meals a day. And if rulers set about delivering these, schisms and ideological affiliations do not stand in the way of achieving the common human good. The secular-liberals and the conservative Islamists are united by their basic human need for a dignified existence. In fact, for a government aspiring to rule by Islam, providing bread and rights is not about expediency, but a primary moral responsibility.

The Muslim Brotherhood with its well articulated prioritization of economic welfare, egalitarianism and social justice seems to have reached political maturation. In his first address after the referendum, Morsi said,"The coming days will witness, God willing, the launch of new projects ... and a package of incentives for investors to support the Egyptian market and the economy,"

Islamic political groups in Pakistan and abroad have made the mistake of putting the achievement of political ascendancy as their prime goal while ignoring the social project that must accompany it. Groups calling for a return to the Khilafah believe the establishment of Islamic government is the panacea, while religious parties often claim that the promulgation of the Shariah law shall crystallize a veritable Utopia. This runs contrary to the  precedent we have from the sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) whose epic spiritual and social mission preceded the establishment of the Shariah.

Both law and political policy are means to greater ends. Religious political groups make the mistake of seeing them as ends in themselves. The Shariah of Islam is the guarantor of the maqasid e Shariah, the guardian of Islamic values by which life is to be lived. Similarly political power is a means to establish an order that guarantees rights indiscriminately. Islamist groups in Pakistan have not so far proven themselves here. The talk of Shariah and the dream of Khilafah cannot be sold to a public writhing in the throes of poverty, ignorance, oppression, disease.  

Before launching a political struggle, Islamist parties need to embark upon the social project to mend a broken society, moderate between the dangerous ideological polarization and address social injustice. Such an effort can act as a secure launching pad for a political movement and a support base for a stable government. Without demonstrating this ability, political struggles of Islamic groups will be stillborn.
So far, an intellectually robust discourse mediating between the ideological polarization has not emerged from Islamic scholars in Pakistan. A comprehensive strategy to address the real problems has not been presented. 

As long as polarization between the religious and the secularized exists and grows, any religious group winning power will have to deal with stiff opposition leaving its hands tied.  That is the lesson from Egypt’s dilemma which the ruling Islamists seem to have dealt with skilfully. With a council including sizable diverse groups like Coptic Christians, leftist social activists and women, the draft constitution referring to the centrality of the Shariah managed to scrape through. The president has assured that the concerns have been taken seriously and that the constitution offers protection for minorities. The decision to put the draft to vote by a public referendum demonstrates the Brotherhood’s commitment to democratic process and its inclusive vision. Opposing groups quit protests in the wake of the Brotherhood’s conciliatory gestures, settling for a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Most ordinary people protesting in Egypt’s streets in 2011 and now have always been more interested in liberty, equality and rights than Shariah or the lack of it. Those calling for a return to the Shariah or actively opposing it will always be at the fringes, even if loud. The mass man wants things more tangible than legislation. As long as religious parties fail to take on social ills, they will remain unattractive to the man in the street.

Putting the cart before the horse by making Shariah law precede the provision of basic justice has proven disastrous. When the letter of the law is imposed without first actively promoting the value it exists to protect, this becomes brutal and spiritless. The experiment with the Hudood laws in Pakistan in the 80s allowed Islamic law (or the pretense of it) to fail by not creating the necessary conditions for it to work. Such disasters are likely to be committed by those seeking to win legitimacy by appealing to religious sentiment.
Islamic groups must also be conversant with modernity. Both freedom and democracy are part of the inevitable modernizing process in societies today. Egypt is livid over what is perceived as Morsi’s attempt to curtail both these hard-earned gifts. While the democracy package bred in Western society may certainly not be suitable for Muslim societies, the values of governance by popular will, decision-making involving public participation and accountability before the public and the law are values Islam vigorously promotes. Certainly, the intricacies of how these democratic values can best be ensured is something scholars and leaders have to work out given their social contexts. Other than that, the implementation of laws must be done in a manner that does not encroach upon personal liberty. While an Islamic society will facilitate and promote the values of Islam, it must not call for moral policing that trespasses the line between the public and the private. Individual morality in an Islamic system is promoted through education and gentle ‘dawah’ and no imposition is acceptable in the private lives of individuals as that is between a man and his God. Islamic groups in Pakistan are still unclear and uncomfortable with both these aspects of modernity and what these mean to them: freedom and democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be learning the right lessons and growing in the right direction. Josh Rogin writing for Foreign Policy terms the Egyptian government an ‘honest broker in the Middle East.’ Morsi’s aide Essam Haddad makes it clear that the Muslim Brotherhood does not want to create a theologically based state in Egypt, but that it does want shariah to inform governance and law going forward. The Brotherhood's religious leader, Mohamed Badie, tweeted on the eve of the referendum approving the constitution by a 64% vote: “Let's start building our country's rebirth... men and women, Muslims and Christians."

Their Pakistani counterparts, while in awe of their victory, still have a long way to go- with a good deal to be unlearnt and a good deal to be learnt. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Attack on Swat girl


Maryam Sakeenah

That attacking a child who expressed her will to educate herself and others like her is a crime most heinous is something every right-minded human being would assent to. There is, quite unsurprisingly therefore, an absolute consensus among Pakistanis and the rest of the world about the reprehensibility of the act_ and that certainly tells us our hearts are still in the right place. It is also a given that whoever is behind this attack is evil. 

Thinking thus is not leftist or rightist, or liberal or conservative or religious or secular. It is just common decency. 

But I must risk being controversial beyond the facile narrative of this episode. There are vital questions that need to be asked. For one, who would do this, and why really? I am told it is the thing called Taliban. But I must be cautious against unproven assumptions. Not because I am a Taliban sympathizer, but because I do not know enough to make that conclusion other than the fact that one Ihsanullah Ihsan claimed it was the Taliban. Mr. Ihsan however, does not quite have the credibility I need in order to believe him. He also tells me he wants her killed because she ‘promoted secularism’ and had the shamelessness to quote to me the Quran and the sunnah to justify the most despicable act. Indeed, the devil can cite scriptures for his purpose.

I would really like to know and condemn whoever is behind this in the strongest possible terms. But I cannot but put my finger on a murky, dubious and elusive entity that is called Taliban. I do not know what that is, except that it is an umbrella-term for something far more nuanced and complex than the term implies; used more liberally, loosely and expediently than it should- by both those who call themselves the Taliban as well as those who use it for others. Because while it originally described a popular defensive struggle against warlordism and civil strife in Afghanistan and thereafter against the US occupation of the same, it is now adopted by a band of sorts, consisting of mercenaries, petty criminals, hired assassins, agency funded terrorists, double agents, spies and pathological fanatics. Their link with the original Pashtun resistance by this name in Afghanistan remains unclear and questionable, and often denied by mainstream Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.

The skewed up mindset I read in the letter by Ihsanullah Ihsan is sickeningly diabolical. I stop and think what kind of a mind would call for the killing of a mere child using a completely irrelevant, ill-fitting and utterly out-of-context sacred text to justify the point-blank targeting of a female child who had come to mean so much for so many. Even if one cannot expect moral scrupulousness from the Taliban, this sounds like a masterstroke of grandiose stupidity in terms of political consequences as well as psychological repercussions. It is an absolutely suicidal move on the part of the Taliban, given the fact that the very natural and very expected sympathy for the innocent victim will bring utter condemnation and ruination to their cause. It is only natural that a pretty little girl wanting to educate herself and getting shot in the head by misogynistic terrorists for it will deflect any sympathy there may have been for what the Taliban fight for and will provoke the ire of all feeling hearts.

But perhaps there is method in this madness? For one, the episode came to light right after Imran Khan’s peace march against drone strikes had managed to draw attention to this issue that ails the heart of many Pakistanis, and just when there was talk of creating grounds for an operation in North Waziristan.  A news report in ‘The Express Tribune’ on September 17, 2012 entitled ‘North Waziristan Operation to Stay Under Wraps’ quotes a Pakistan government official saying that Pakistani authorities plan to create a ‘necessary environment’ for the Waziristan operation. Moreover, soon after the attack_ given the overwhelming public sympathy_ there is conspicuous effort to swing opinion in favour of the necessity to use drones to hit targets in the region and the necessity to begin a military operation in North Waziristan agency. This had been a demand from the White House since some time. 

I must be allowed to wonder who really is the beneficiary of it all? The pattern I detect is a familiar one. Before the Swat operation some years ago, opinion had been swung in support of it after the screening of a video that showed the Taliban lashing a yelping woman. Months later, a small news strip revealed the video had been a fake one. It did not matter then, for the deftness of the forgery had come in handy to justify the operation and to give an inept regime reasons for self-congratulation over something the Former Dictator had failed to do: rally public opinion before a military move into the restive, bleeding north.

Last month’s joint report by Stanford and NYU on the impact of the drone strikes in Pakistan calls them ‘damaging and counterproductive’ as opposed to the false US narrative of these being ‘surgically precise effective tools’ to hit specified targets with minimal collateral damage. The report documents 2562 to 3325 casualties by drone strikes since 2004, out of which 474-881 are civilians including 176 children.  The number of injured is roughly between 1226 to 1362 individuals. The report includes harrowing narratives of survivors and victim communities in a region where the ‘free media’ of the country cannot dare to tread.
I may be dubbed a hopelessly illiberal fanatic for linking up the Malala incident to the drones when I say that the sympathy generated for Malala must also be for all victims of terror, drone strikes, sectarian and ethnic killings, indiscriminately. We cannot discriminate between dead bodies just because it may not be ‘politically correct’ to question and condemn the cause of the deaths of some, depending on who the killer is. However, the necessary link between Malala and the drone strikes is best drawn by an anonymous lady holding up a most unforgettable placard that confounds the senses: ‘Drones Kill so that Malala can Live.’ I commend her scathing honesty. Few can put so succinctly the political agenda behind the state-sponsored media campaign for Malala and the vital link that does exist between the two. It is, in fact, quite ordinarily a strategy of psychological warfare to generate favourable opinion and support for a planned military offensive which may otherwise be opposed and questioned on moral grounds. In American military terminology, this vital strategy is called PSYOPS (Psychological Operations). Wikipedia explains: 
Psychological operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.The purpose of the United States psychological operations (PSYOPS) is to induce or reinforce behavior favorable to US objectives. They are an important part of the range of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic activities available to the US. Strategic PSYOPS include informational activities conducted by the US government agencies outside of the military arena.”
So now again I hear talk of military operations with renewed vigour while public outrage is toned down and muted. Hawks who cannot see beyond a military solution to the complex, deep-rooted phenomena on the rampage in the tribal north must be patting themselves on the back for yet another tawdry, meaningless triumph. I shudder to think of the possibilities being contemplated.

And I wonder if this really is all about girls education as it is being made out to be? How effective will this be to further the cause of education for the girlchild in this country? Or will it blow to smithereens more lives, generate more terror wreaking havoc on human lives and keeping little girls away from school? And I think of those other victims it is not good manners to make mention of: those battered anonymous and unsung lives connected to so many other lives; of children whose dreams of brighter futures die away and recede into the falling debris; and of my religion audaciously sinned against and made a malleable ploy to the whims and unholy ambitions of evil self-appointed guardians of it.
But if we wish to reach solutions we must be ready to understand, ask questions and wonder why, really? If it is really an ideology that motivates the Taliban’s diabolical moves, I wonder why the ideology never drove these misogynistic Pashtuns into paroxysms of fury and frenzy when Swat hosted tourists and many young honeymooning couples a decade ago? A friend born and raised in Swat speaks of the cheerful, chivalrous, hospitable people with well-knit and warm community lives. My mother who went to school in Nowshehra and Peshawar reminisces of ruddy chivalrous Pathan youths escorting groups of girls to school and of bright-eyed Pathan girls following their dreams into high school and college, many of whom graduated as professionals. So where exactly has it all turned awry? Ideologies do not take birth instantaneously; but vengeance does.
And, if it really is an ideology that motivates the madness, can the use of wholesale, blind brute-force that does not discriminate, defeat it? The answer is a most basic lesson of history it would serve us well to learn.

And somewhere, this simplistic narrative I must believe, just does not cohere.

The pointer here is that maybe this uncontrollable hydra of insane extremism and terrorism is the work of our own fumbling, bloodied, sinning hands? Maybe it is the inevitable result of the dirty deals we brokered and the unholy alliance we forged in indecent haste and sinister hush? And maybe the monster will not be tamed and cut down to size unless we dare to understand that violence begets violence, and the victim does not forget or forgive; that drones don’t see the faces in the dust nor hear the moans in the darkness, but that the faces are people and lives and stories forever knitted into several other stories with the silken ties of love. And by being complicit in this unholy mission, we make these sad stories ugly, grotesque, haunting, terrifying, vengeful. And our own story of ignominy and annihilation is writ indelibly by the Moving Finger. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

On the offensive Youtube video....

                                                             FROTH ON THE SEA

Maryam Sakeenah

That a thirteen-minute long tawdry inanity from a dubious manic character could trigger off an uproar both from the emotionally and psychologically volatile fundamentalist groups as well as from states and governments is something that needs talking about. Complex social trends are taking over, quite beyond taming- a plethora of forces, factors, ideas and ideologies that collide and crack and clash and rebound.

For one, the disproportionately huge impact of something that deserves no more than a contemptuous sideglance points towards the enormous sway of the mass media in determining what ought to garner attention, how much and for how long. It also raises critical questions about the ‘freedom of expression’ that defines the cyber world- a blind and amoral freedom with no parameters and no ethic, that knows neither good nor evil, truth nor falsehood. Before the communication revolution becomes a hydra on the loose making fools and gasping helpless spectators of us all, we need to engage in a rethink of the entire concept of freedom and liberty as it relates to expression. Where does one draw the line between free expression and hate speech? And who draws those lines? Do we want to live in a world where everyone has complete and unlimited access to misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, pornography, falsehood, hate and prejudice indiscriminately disseminated all in the name of freedom of expression?

Still more interesting is the predictability of the action-reaction, provocation- backlash sequence that plays itself out every now and then. Whoever posted the filth onto Youtube seems to have done it with calculated deliberation- in his own words, it was a ‘political act’ in order to push the button driving Muslims into a feverish frenzy sending them to a spree of smashing and burning and ripping. It is like a bored passing urchin looking for some fun, who decides to throw a rock at a rival group so that he can stand back to watch the ensuing entertainment for a cheap thrill. A sick-minded desperado throws the bait and it is eagerly picked up by emotionally charged extremists. The theatric episode gives Islamophobes and extremists from both sides, much to shout out from the rooftops, much to reinforce their simplistic us-and-them narrative of binaries. It is too familiar and too regular a pattern.

And deeply distressing too. One can compare the sudden surge of religious passion over a despicable piece of filth a random maniac posted on Youtube to the lull in the Muslim world, over the state-sponsored carnage in Syria. One can also read into these pathological religious hysterics a tragic disconnect with the spirit and essence of the personage in whose blessed name it is claimed to be. Umm Jameel bint Harb, the wife of Abu Lahab, made up some verses of poetry to defame the Prophet by changing his name to a word that meant ‘the insulted one’ as opposed to "Muhammad" (i.e. the praised one). This enraged Muslims, especially in the early days of Islam when they were weak. The Prophet (SAW), however, responded thus: “Allah is protecting me from the Quraish's insults as they are cursing and swearing at "The Insulted One", whereas I am "Muhammad", the Praised One! (Sahih Al-Bukhari) 

In an Islamic Studies class while explaining Surah Al Kausar I could not help but draw the obvious and vital connection between the ‘Abundance’ (Kausar) granted to Muhammad (SAW) and the contemporary context. Kausar, the Abundance of God’s blessing, of virtue, of God’s Mercy and Love, of felicity, peace, spiritual richness, radiance and beatitude through which any obscenity spewed out by odious villains matters nothing. Kausar is also interpreted as abundance of following- but a following not as the froth on the beach...
Thauban (R.A) reported that the messenger of Allah said: "It is near that the nations will call one another against you just as the eaters call one another to their dishes." Somebody asked: "Is this because we will be few in numbers that day?" He said: "Nay, but that day you shall be numerous, but you will be like the foam of the sea, and Allah will take the fear of you away from your enemies and will place weakness into your hearts." Somebody asked: "What is this weakness?" He said: "The love of the world and the dislike of death." (Abu Daud)

An important narrative in the Islamic tradition is of the man who refused to make puerile effort to guard and defend the Sacred House in Makkah against an attacking army, realizing the futility of such an attempt, and relying instead, wholly on the help of Allah Himself while displaying great courage and strength of character. Divinely armed hordes of midget birds crushed the army in an awe-inspiring miracle that manifested the Glory of Allah and His transcendence above and beyond human machination. Realizing that the honour of the Prophet of Allah (SAW) does not stand in need of violent protest marches, nor does such expression accentuate his spiritual stature is a fundamental lesson in faith.

In my part of the world the angry mobs in the name of the Prophet (SAW)’s honour betray the spirit of what they seek to defend. It exposes the superficiality of our understanding of the message of Muhammad (SAW). The audacity of the corrupt and inept regime’s decision to celebrate the ‘Youm e Ishq e Rasool’ (Day of the Love of the Prophet SAW) is revolting, and uncontrollable street mobs on the rampage smashing public property make a grotesque mockery of the grandiose motive. Such street sentiment actually expresses the pent up feelings of frustration and grievance, helplessness and anger over drones and poverty and Gitmo and joblessness and the great atrocity of the War on Terror, seeking cathartic relief in burning and boot-kicking effigies of freakish blaspheming idiots which personify the invisible Effigy of that one hostile monolithic entity called ‘The West.’

I long for a ‘Youm e Ishq e Rasool’ wherein I can relive the message of Muhammad (SAW) in acts of kindness and compassion and spread around me some of the goodness he exuded in abundance. I long for a ‘Youm e Ishq e Rasool’ when I work with greater honesty and integrity, and smile at my colleagues at work more spiritedly than usual, and lend a helping hand more enthusiastically than usual; refuse to throw that plastic wrapper in the street and dispose off the ones I see lying around; send blessings to the Prophet (SAW) and read about the Prophet (SAW) to derive lessons relevant to my personal life and understand more clearly my responsibility towards the community I am part of. That would be a ‘Youm e Ishq’ I would love to celebrate. Not one with aggressively externalized displays of religious passion that turn ugly and then dissipate and fade away like froth on the sea, swept away by the incoming tides just as easily as it came.

We have a remarkable capability to transform into celebrities and global figures of great importance petty deranged slimeballs with our mislaid enthusiasm and fervour. Terry Jones and Nakoula Basseley ought not to matter, as they do not.

What matters, uplifts and heartens is that glow on the horizons still young and rosy but promising- of a rising, rejuvenating contemporary Islam personified by a new generation of young Muslims in the West and also emerging in the Muslim world who have risen to the occasion and responded with composure and wisdom, creativity and intelligence. Lesley Hazelton describes these Muslims as ‘writers, filmmakers, political activists, comedians, academics who wear their Muslim and hyphenated Muslim identity with a casual confidence, are activists but not of a defensive nature, armed with wry humour and a sharp sense of irony. They laugh at simplistic slogans like ‘Islam versus the West’ and the infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ as they represent the blending of civilizations. These are the polar opposites of Islamist extremism and confound the stereotypes, and the more visible they become, the less the smallest and most extreme minority can claim that it represents the whole.’

 During a particularly long day at work and longing for a respite, my senior batch of students walked in, telling me they wanted to work on a documentary film on the personality and legacy of the Prophet (SAW). It was heartening, a breath of fresh air to see the enthusiasm, positivity and activism of these young girls. They wanted to record my views on the film by Nakoula. “That doesn’t matter,” I answered. “Like froth on the sea. But this work matters. It is not the froth on the sea, but the glow in the eastern sky. And that is something to talk about.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Profane Spirituality


Maryam Sakeenah

Pakistani private television channels glamorously sport sensational televangelists to satiate the public appetite for spirituality amidst tawdry entertainment galore. The trend rockets in Ramadan when popular media faces don sobriety in cotton shalwar kameezes of subdued hues, skull caps and most alluring beaded scarves and chiffon dupattas. It sells.

This year once again we have on screen with all his guns blazing one of these popular televangelists known for his versatile talents in speaking, singing, making dramatic invocations and tear-stained supplications as well as skills one cannot mention at the family dinner table. The latter came to light in a leaked video that had recorded this ‘aalim’s behind-the-camera antics and escapades. There was great shock and horror at this most dramatic volte face from a simple-minded populace that loves hero-worship. The wiser ones chuckled, saying, ‘I told you so.’ The 'aalim' carried on with classic composure, invoking divine retribution for the liars behind the scandal in his usual flowery and flamboyant language. The dexterous televangelist  carries on with his repulsively seductive religious rhetoric aimed at the simplistic mass mindset.

Notwithstanding the public humiliation he underwent and the aggravated sentiment of his massive fan-following (largely female), the aalim stuck to his guns and emerged unscathed. There you have it- the aalim graces the screen of Pakistan’s most popular private television channel this Ramadan with an unbelievable audacity. In your face. What adds a flabbergasting twist to the tale is the fact that the earlier video had been allegedly publicized on youtube and elsewhere by this very channel which now advertises his program as its Ramadan highlight. The channel also must be credited with putting up this ignoramus of abysmal moral standing and dubious background as an 'aalim' before the Pakistani public in the first place. After his metamorphosis into an ‘Aalim Online’ thanks to this channel, the so-called aalim reappeared on a similar evangelical show on another channel having quit his mentors in the previous one. That is when appalling off-camera clips from his programs recorded for the first channel went viral. In a mind-boggling move, the aalim returns to this channel he had quit, reaffirming his loyalties and once again using his odious eloquence to seduce gullible minds.

The entire episode reeks of a most worrying and dangerous trend in Pakistani society. The commercialization of the mass media has taken a heavy toll on our most sacred values, marketizing the sacred, commodifying spirituality. Religion too is to be sold, like soap or whitening creams or cheap powder. It is embellished with a deliberate spirituality calculated to keep the viewer glued to the screen, packaged under brand names, presented by alluring faces in lighter shades of lipstick framed by an oceanic-blue-green or pristine white sequined scarf. For a more dramatic touch, the camera captures a little tear droplet streaming down the lightly painted face at the precise time when the camera zooms in. It is a winning advert- sure to guarantee a sizeable viewership of semi-literate housewives from all over the country.

The ethos of Islamic culture is simplicity. Spiritual practice is an intensely private matter, and when it is brazenly flaunted by exhibitionists it loses all sanctity. The individual’s faith is a matter between him and his Creator, and humility is the defining trait of the believer. Religiosity dripping from phony appearances, hairy faces appropriate for the occasion, titles, headgear exposes the emptiness, superficiality and hypocrisy of the trade. According to a hadith, ‘Allah does not look at your appearances, but He looks into your hearts.’

The Pakistani media has reached the lowest point of depravity with this marketization of spirituality. It steers directionless, blinded by the commercialist and competitive imperative, leading a nation wired into the matrix, frozen into a hypnotic trance like sleepwalking starry-eyed zombies.

The artifice, pretentiousness and even shameless hypocrisy of it all is a damning verdict on our collective morality as a society. I fear for the generation that grows up in and is socialized into this morass of values. When the persona of the 'religious scholar' is tarnished with debauchery, hypocrisy and showmanship; when spirituality is worn and flaunted for appropriacy according to the occasion; when our most sacred values are presented in such blatantly superficial and distasteful ways, I shudder to think of what we are dwindling into as a society and a nation, what papier mache ‘role models’ and inspiration we are leaving behind for our children.    

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Clash of Extremisms


Maryam Sakeenah

“Do not go to excesses in your religion.” (The Quran, 4:171)
I remember the first time long ago I had listened to Dr. Zakir Naik speak on extremism. I had been enthralled by the brilliant ‘turning the tables’ logic with which he spoke refuting the charge of extremism against Muslims: ‘Yes, Muslims are extremists in the sense that they are supposed to be extremely good, extremely peace-loving, extremely honest, extremely kind etc.’ I remember how I had quoted it afterwards. Years later, I feel I have lost the naive idealism. I miss now that juvenile conviction I had drawn from Dr. Naik’s words.

In the long years of my association with various Islamic groups, I have had quite the opposite thrown in my face. The spectre of extremism lurks very really at the heart of contemporary Islamism.

To be fair, however, it has to be clarified that extremism is not an exclusive enterprise of believers in religion. Extremist patterns of thought are clearly decipherable both among the secular-liberals who see all religion as regressive and among the religious who espouse extreme fringe interpretations of religion, very often not warranted by their own sacred texts. Both kind of extremists hold on to a dogmatic belief in the absolute rightness of their own worldview in total opposition and exclusion to all others. This rigid adherence may be a reaction to the pluralism and fluidity of postmodern society where nothing seems to hold ground and there is no generally accepted transcendent absolute truth to live by. Often, there are inherent contradictions at the core of the extremist sensibility: the secular extremist for instance, while believing in pluralism and tolerance, is convinced of the wrongness and inferiority of all differing worldviews. Similarly, the religious extremist very often betrays the essence of what he claims to believe in.   The Quran says, “Be steadfastly balanced witnesses  for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that you deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty.” (The Noble Quran, 5:8)

Certainty is a human need, and as societies modernize and become more pluralistic, certainty becomes harder to find as doubt and scepticism of traditionally held ideas grows among the proliferation of contending perspectives. This need to anchor oneself in what is believed to be universally true is therefore intensified and stances harden. The subject takes comfort in adherence to what gives him certainty and makes the universe meaningful for him. In a diverse milieu where ideas struggle for ascendancy, this often becomes fanatical adherence and grows exclusivist and at times even militant, especially in the case of the religious extremist who takes cover under religion to sanctify his ‘righteous anger’ against the degenerate out-group. However, as Peter Berger states, the psychological profile of the dogmatic secularist is remarkably similar to the religious extremist. While ostensibly being averse to and rejecting each other, both actually thrive on the other’s extremism. They seek justification of their extreme positions by citing the unreasonable, degenerate and dangerous agenda of the other which cannot be left to seek converts. They fan hatred and hostility through suspicion and threat-perception, feed off one another and fuel each other in a vicious cycle of provocation and reaction. Extremists of both the secular and the religious kind work wonderfully well as cohorts.

In her article ‘Our Dogmatic Liberals’, Humeira Iqtedar takes on Pakistan’s (pseudo) liberal elite: ‘The Islamists may have their own agenda but to continuously define themselves in a reactive opposition to their stances would be a fatal mistake for groups that claim a stake in progressive politics. By remaining stuck in a static definition of progressive and regressive and allying themselves ever more closely with oppressive power, the liberals may ultimately render their cause irrelevant. For those of us committed to a just and democratic Pakistan, these dogmatic liberals are as great a danger as the militants.’

The defining characteristic of extremist thought is a social imagination based on binary opposition of ideas, that is, defining and understanding concepts as diametrically opposed mutually exclusive terms. For instance, ‘democracy’ and ‘Islam’, even though a number of democratic values like equality of opportunity, public accountability and consensus of opinion are not alien to Islamic tradition and history. Similarly, secularism and Islam are seen as water-tight, fixedly opposing ideas, even though secular values like tolerance and pluralism and discouragement of theocracy are recognized by Islam. Understanding ‘secular’ to mean ‘that which pertains to the world’ (its literal meaning) makes it have a fundamental orientation akin to Islam which chooses to describe itself as ‘Deen’ and not ‘religion.’

The world is seen as black and white with the extremist’s colourblind vision- a battleground of ideas and ideologies. To minds like these, theories like the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ have strong appeal and make a perfect fit. During my research on the responses to the said theory, I discovered remarkable similarity between the stances of Islamist thinkers and Western neoconservatives. If the jargon was interchanged, one would not be able to tell if it was coming from Abu Hamza Al Masri or Daniel Pipes or Anjum Chowdhry or Bill Maher. 

However, it has to be mentioned here that many feared Muslim religious extremists and militants notably Osama bin Laden clearly do not aim rhetoric at belief, values and ideology, but at politics and policy. Secular extremists on the other hand are often virulently Islamophobic, aiming vituperative rhetoric at a belief system, a faith, a people. This kind of an attack aimed at identity and what is most sacred to human beings is intensely provocative and has whipped up a strong backlash from Muslim communities. When secular societies tolerate in their midst maniacs like Terry Jones and Geert Wilders, they add insult to injury, aggravate the hurt and anger and utterly betray the secular principles they claim to uphold. It will not be inaccurate to say that religious extremism in the Muslim world is reactive in nature- a response to the calculated imposition and relentless onslaught of the Western secular order on non Western societies in a reckless manner that disrespects religio-cultural sensitivities, hurts in the softest part. The rise of religious extremism among Muslims has only followed the attempts by developed nations in the Northern-Western hemisphere to globalize what was perceived as a 'superior'culture, civilization and way of life. Understanding this gives an important insight into religious extremism- that it is a response and a reaction articulated by restive conservative populations smothered under the sway of an imposed 'superior' secular order. 

This said, religious extremists in Pakistan are distressingly out of touch with contemporary reality and unfamiliar with its nuances. With a naive faith in their simplistic black-and-white thinking, alternate perspectives and counter narratives are met with disdainful rejection and self-righteous condemnation. A discomfiting ‘cognitive dissonance’ is created when an idea that does not fit into the subject’s familiar thought pattern is introduced. This leads to strong reactionary responses to defend and vindicate one’s own thinking.
This is not only with regard to the religious extremist’s rejection of secular ideas but also those coming from other denominations and schools of thought within the extremist’s own religious tradition. Denunciation of diverse religious opinions is at times so extreme that the one holding differing views is ‘excommunicated’ and accused of heresy and serious infidelity. The poet-philosopher Iqbal wrote in a moment of distress, ‘Waaiz e tang nazar ne mujh ko kafir jana / Aur kafir samajhta hai Musulman hoon mein.’ (The narrow minded preacher considered me an infidel / While the unbeliever insists that I remain Muslim.) 

In the midst of an array of contending ideas, within the recesses of the extremist’s mind there is perhaps an unconscious awareness of the untenability of the ideas he blindly holds on to, and this leads to a strong sense of insecurity and vulnerability which develops into victim psychology as the subject imagines himself to be pitted against a hostile world that is out to eradicate the belief that gives him meaning. The following is part of a post circulated in an Islamic group, pertaining to the USAID photographic exhibition in Lahore in June this year. The sense of perceived threat is strong enough to be palpable, as is the urgency to fight back and defend: “...This is the most dangerous attack on us. Now, they are going with well directed plan to take the reactionary factor from our souls!
This is the part of NEW WORLD ORDER strategy. Their final goal is to create a world free of religion and highly secular. This campaign is the part of BIG PLAN.”

The extremist responds to cognitive dissonance in one of two ways: aggression, militancy and violence; or a stiff and unrelenting exclusivism. Exclusivist trends lead a religious community to ghettoize, shelter itself from corrosive external influences and strengthen an internal sense of community. This also explains the proliferation of world-rejecting Islamist groups all over the world.

The extremist takes comfort in erecting barricades of religiosity to create an insular comfort zone. This leads to intensified and exaggerated personal assertions of piety that enable the individual to set himself apart from what is profane with a comforting sense of moral superiority. Rafia Zakaria studies the revival of the burqa in Pakistan’s wealthy elite as a symbol of pious exclusivity, which has dwindled into the ‘most fashionable route to paradise’: ‘The revived burka of the rich begum can, it seems, traverse all the boundaries of unfettered spending and showmanship, sport crystals and pearls, cost more than the salaries of maids, chauffeurs and maybe a couple of office clerks combined, and yet magically invest its wearer with instant purity and piety.’ Exclusivism leads to a sense of moral responsibility to separate oneself from the depraved and wanton. This separatism leads to an exaggerated emphasis on the outward, an assertion of externality and a shift away from the necessary inner spirituality one expects from the religiously oriented. During my association with religious groups, I was consistently and unfailingly disillusioned with many apparently religious individuals who inadvertently displayed a most abysmal inner moral condition.

The extremist also has no penchant for self-criticism. The readiness to introspect and engage in self-examination and personal reform is at the heart of all moral systems and spiritual doctrines, a hallmark of humility that is central to faith. I can comment with some credibility on this point, having tried several times in the recent past to express alternative perspectives on extremist forums on social networking sites. Invariably, the dissenting voice is beaten back with indignation, and jeered at in most obscene and unethical ways. Often, the commentator is suspected of harbouring malafide intentions.  Initiating a discussion on such forums therefore is impossible because the conditions for genuine conversation almost never exist. Members feel insecure and threatened by alternative perspectives, and respond brashly often in swaggering and demeaning tones, failing to let go of preconceived notions and prejudices. The ‘Us and Them’ divide sets to work and seems to be the defining premise for any discussion. Stubbornness and self-righteousness, coupled with an unwillingness to listen to another on their own terms, utterly rules out genuine communication and healthy debate, and makes all such groups terribly stunted, suffocating and unpromising.

One cannot exclude from the picture the crucial influence of global politics and contemporary international affairs which fans extremist sentiment- both religious and anti-religious. Political leaders in the West have done little to assuage rife sentiments in the Muslim world after US military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its continued support to Israel which has relentlessly oppressed Palestinians. Misgivings against the West understandably increase and a reactionary sense of victimhood is exacerbated given the bare fact of heinous crimes against predominantly Muslim populations committed by the US and its allies as well as their insidious politicking that has inflicted terrible damage in Muslim lands. Terms like ‘Islamic terrorist’, ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ etc have been used liberally with careless indiscrimination by the global media alongwith biased rhetoric and stereotyping of the Muslim persona. Shlomo Avineri traces this back to the ancient mistrust and fear of Islam that has haunted the Western imagination since before the Crusades: “The underlying assumption has always been that Islam- as a culture and not just a religious creed- was primitive, underdeveloped, retrograde, at best stuck in the memory hole of a medieval splendour out of which it could not disengage itself without a radical transformation; and this could only be based on Western, ‘rational’, ‘progressive’ values.”

 Muslim societies in general and youth in particular seethe with a strong sense of injustice and bitterness which makes them anchor all hope in the revival of the Islamic Khilafah. The shadow of a Khalifa who would embody the glory and ascendancy of Islam haunts the Muslim imagination, and its absence transforms the Khilafah in their collective consciousness into a surreal Neverland from which Muslims have been exiled through the machinations of the enemy. History is selectively narrated to reinforce this, ignoring the fact that even a divinely instituted system is established and driven by far-from-perfect human beings, and Muslims have done little to raise themselves up to the pristine, almost otherworldly ideals they nurture.

This selectivity is not just present in the Muslim historical narrative but also in the juristic tradition of Islam, and in the scholarly enterprise of the interpretation of religious texts. The aspects of religion traditionally highlighted and disseminated generally reflect the sensibility and values of the religious elite and their attitudes which have over much of Islamic history been patriarchal and parochial. On the issue of divorce, for instance, two prophetic traditions of equal authenticity are unequally emphasized: the first which masses know by rote is of how divorce is the most disliked of the permissible things; the other very rarely known is how the Prophet (SAW) termed one of the worst sins to be the refusal of divorce leaving the wife trapped in an unhappy marriage. It is not difficult to guess why the former tradition enjoys far greater import and is propagated vigorously while the latter is kept obscured. Which values and whose are privileged through this selectivity is also obvious. In a book of hadith explanation I came across the tradition that commanded men not to stop or discourage women from going to the mosques. The medieval commentator had subtitled it ‘Women must seek permission from husbands for visiting mosques’, which by any stretch of imagination was not the explicit order of the hadith, though it clearly was the preferred inference made by the male commentator.

Berry-picking from religious texts by ulema makes them guilty of a dishonesty towards the sacred tradition they have been entrusted with as well as towards the ordinary Muslim who readily and uncritically accepts what the cleric has to offer.

The problem of clashing extremisms is not amenable to a simple solution, and is likely to remain for a long time. However, for the survival of human society, both camps will have to learn to make major compromises. Both will need to realize that ours is a jostling planet and that the survival of any group or community lies in learning to give space, to tolerate and accept the fact that there can and always will be several contending worldviews, and this diversity characterizes human society in the postmodern world. The Qur’an also notes that people will remain different from one another until the end of human existence. It also states that the reality of human diversity is part of the divine wisdom and an intentional purpose of creation: “If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people, but they will not cease to dispute . . .” (11:118).

Khalid Abou El Fadl writes, "The Qur’anic celebration and sanctification of human diversity incorporates that diversity into the purposeful pursuit of justice and creates various possibilities for pluralistic commitment in modern Islam. That commitment could be developed into an ethic that respects dissent and honors the right of human beings to be different, including the right to adhere to different religious or nonreligious convictions. At the political level it could be appropriated into a normative stance that considers justice and diversity to be core values that a democratic constitutional order is bound to protect..."

We have to learn to agree to disagree and yet not lose sight of the common thread that runs through and knits up the colourful human family regardless of religious or secular orientation. ‘And mankind is but one family. But they disagree.’ (The Noble Quran, 10:19) The way we educate our young must be informed by an awareness and appreciation of this commonality and the ethics of disagreement. In this regard, the ‘Charter of Compassion’ project undertaken by Karen Armstrong is right on target given the chaotic and frightening times we are living through and the dark clouds gathering on the horizons. The ‘Us versus Them’ narrative of political policymakers backed by the military-industrial complex and echoed by the media needs to be enthusiastically rejected. An academic study of Islam needs to be undertaken and encouraged very seriously so as to develop a deeper, insightful and informed understanding of the evolution of Muslim identity and consciousness, and the roots of extremism. This will expose and defeat the black-and-white discourse of the traditionalist seminary, the simplistic nature of which exercises seductive power on gullible mass mindsets. Scholars who understand the dimensions and vicissitudes of contemporary society and how religion can effectively engage with the secular order, who see a vibrant constructive role for religion and have not lost sight of its potential to harmonize and help create the necessary consensus of values needed for any society to function must be heard in this hysterical bedlam of extremisms.
The Prophet (may Allah bless him) stated, “Beware of extremism (or excess) in religion for those before you only perished due to extremism (or excess) in religion.” [Ahmad, Musnad]


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Commuting Between 'Two Worlds'


Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted- at least ostensibly- in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. While the tendency is generally positive, its universal and indiscriminate application may in fact be reminiscent of the cold, rock-hard post- Enlightenment Rationalism that Post Modernist thought struggles to throw overboard for some of the infamous disasters attributed to it. 

It strikes me each time in my Religious Studies class I raise a point from within the Islamic tradition that requires acceptance through faithful submission. While the classes are delightfully interactive  and invigorating with questions, debate and discussion, the same may also at times afford a glimpse into a stark, gaping abyss that lurks at the heart of this kind of education that carries the baggage of post Enlightenment thought.
I happened to mention in the course of a class discussion, the fact that the wearing of gold for men is strongly discouraged in the mainstream Islamic tradition, and was showered with sceptical comments on the rationale of the ruling that bordered on impertinence. ‘But guys look so cool with all those accessories, and what about those gorgeous wedding rings? What’s just so wrong with this? I mean I don’t see the point,’ said a particularly spirited young lady. I am also very often asked to suggest quick and easy ways to help students get regular with the daily prayers. And I always find myself unable to provide short and easy solutions, because the will to express adoration, submission and reverence to God in the daily prayer is engendered by a deep humbling sentiment within_ ‘God-consciousness’ (taqwa)-  not attainable through the Logos alone. 

The Western logocentric worldview ruthlessly drilled into these minds that privileges objective, empirical knowledge and rationalist thought over the intuitive ‘mythos’ does not help create the sentiment that can make the daily prayer an act of loving labour. Judged and perceived by the logocentric yardstick, worship rituals ‘lose the magic’, reduced to an arduous, necessary undertaking that doesn’t quite help in the business of life. Moreover, the prioritization of individual liberty as the core value makes the demands placed by religious belief on personal behaviour and conduct become confining and restricting. The ascendancy of Logos over Mythos interprets existential questions as objectively knowable, reducible to ‘facts’ and explainable by ‘empirical evidence.’ Religion with its core principle of a Transcendent Unknowable Absolute Truth intuitively experienced through the exercise of the mythos therefore is unappealing to the highly intellectualized mindset produced in modern urban schools. This also explains the rising incidence of Atheism in Pakistan’s institutions for the ‘privileged elite’- high schools, colleges, universities. Encouraging a culture of questioning, critical thinking and non conformism to convention, this kind of a ‘privileged’ education makes Atheism an exciting alternative many like to consider with some seriousness and express with an audacity that becomes admirable in that educational context. 

William Egginton writes in ‘How Religions Became Fundamentalist’: “One of the functions of religions was to teach people that the transcendent nature of ultimate reality was such that no human could ever, in principle, come to know the ultimate truth. What is crucial to grasp is that this core principle simultaneously sustains the existence of mythos and logos as two separate but equal domains of knowledge; for if the ultimate, all-encompassing questions are by nature infinite, if human knowledge in principle cannot grasp everything, then practical, objectifying logos is simply not relevant to such discussions, and the holistic, metaphoric standards of mythos have their place. Likewise, to the extent that modernity has allowed mythos to be pushed aside by the practical successes of the scientific method, the axial principle of the transcendence of ultimate knowledge has been weakened. But it is this principle that more than any other works to defend humanity from the dangers of its own certainty.”       

By ignoring and excluding the ‘mythos’ and ignoring the need for religious narrative and myth, our educationists have made young minds incapable of developing an appreciation of aspects of religion inaccessible through pure Logos. Iqbal had said, ‘Reason is the lamp that shows the road, but does not mark the destination’- for the destination lies beyond the abyss that is intractable to reason, and requires the ‘leap of faith’ above and beyond that abyss. Pascal famously said, ‘above the logic in the head is the feeling in the heart; and the heart has reasons of its own that the head cannot understand...’
 On the other side, there is a conspicuous absence of religious discourse in our part of the world that can respond to or even grapple with this heightened propensity for questioning and demanding rational explanations. The rising numbers of young atheists across Pakistan’s higher education colleges and universities therefore is no surprise.

And then there is that other world. At Pakistan’s traditional religious schools (madrassahs), the ‘Dars e Nizami’- a religious studies curriculum that dates from Deobandi seminaries in 18th century India- is taught. Although it is inaccurate to say that this curriculum is stuck in the medieval past it originated in, given the many new ideas and course contents added to it since, the fact remains that these new course contents deal largely with the refutation of the concepts of other religious schools of thought and sects. There are many madrassahs that also include in the course, a heavily lopsided critique and refutation of Western ideas. This threatens to develop exclusivist tendencies as well as what Sociologists would call a ‘world-rejecting’ orientation that pits the religious graduate against a monolithic and ‘otherized’ world full of false, evil and deviant ideas. According to Dr. Tariq Rahman, “Thus, while on the surface the madrassa curriculum is medieval and unchanging, in reality it changes to refute whatever seems to threaten it. This threat might be from alien religions or philosophies but the fact is that the madrassas do counter it. The madrassas, then, are not static institutions. They are not buried in the past; they are active and dynamic institutions which have seen themselves as being besieged since British days and which are still fighting against the external world.” (The Education of ‘Maulvis’: the Dars e Nizami debate)

The other half of my day is spent at a religious school that struggles in its attempt to protect values sanctified by religion in the midst of what it sees as an amoral morass in the wider society. However, lacking a comprehensive curriculum for a modern Islamic school competing with the urban private school and yet promising something unique in terms of faith, educators at the school face an uphill task. Without the necessary educational basis consisting of traditional aqeedah (the Islamic creed/belief/doctrine/theology) and tazkiyah (ethics, spirituality) science that can help students internalize the values the school aims to impart, these well-intentioned educators’ attempts to mould Muslim personalities in what is seen as an increasingly valueless society become reduced to a superficial imposition. This external emphasis without the internal grounding triggers off among students a variety of responses. Taking for example the issue of the Islamic dress code, the responses range from zealous espousal of it by a small minority, to reaction against the perceived imposition by asserting rejectionist behaviour on the contrary. There are many more that docilely accept the dress code, not understanding or appreciating its symbolism and significance, hence taking it as a matter of course. At best, many of these schools mushrooming now in urban centres, present an alternative environment for students to study much the same that they do in the regular schools, with desperate attempts to include religious jargon, uphold religious form and ritual. The advantages of the ‘Islamic environment’ promised by these schools are debateable, given its islandic and insular nature in a diverse, jostling external environment that the students of such schools eventually have to find space in the midst of. 

However, all said, these kind of modern Islamic schools cannot and should not be so easily dismissed. This kind of school is a response by sincere, educated, religiously inclined novices to the world-rejecting outlook of traditional madrassahs, the obscurantist tendencies of religious clergy and the exclusivist teaching of fiqh (juristic) schools of thought adhered to by respective madrassah administrations. The modern Islamic school is an attempt to bridge gaps, and hence tries to fulfil an important need. However, these schools are in a nascent state, often employ amateurish methods and need to evolve towards maturation.

The madrassah-educated Deobandi muqallid (exclusive follower of a school of thought) whose speech is laced with religious jargon and references to religious authority, and the English-speaking Social Sciences/Humanities student quoting Dawkins and Hitchens represent two ‘worlds’ rubbing shoulders in this society. These two cultures created by two widely differentiated education systems are all set upon a head-on collision course. It is frightening because these ‘cultures’ overlap the stratification of the society along the lines of social class. This means that the university graduate possesses the cultural capital that eventually makes him monopolize resources, sit at the helm of affairs and control policy, even when his value-system is at the fringes of an otherwise deeply conventional religious society. He is poised for the control over the generation of ideas and opinion-making, and constructs inroads into the media and the academia. On the other hand is the culturally deprived religious seminary graduate whose fewer career prospects and the constant fear of poverty complicates the situation for him as he perceives himself as disempowered and reduced to a social underclass. The resentment this breeds means that he may not always react to this predicament in ways that may be measured and moderated. It means the existence- far from peaceful- of two clashing cultures and ideologies pitted against each other in this society. Often the clash is intellectually played out as the discourse and rhetoric emanating from both sides hardens against each other and becomes increasingly intolerant and damning towards the other side- be it from the religious or the secular-liberal fanatic. 

I crave Middleness in a society pulled taught at the seams. The poise of ‘middleness’ can be reached through the understanding that concepts considered ‘secular’ and ‘Western’ and hence diametrically opposed to Islam may not actually be so. Reason and rational thought, democratic values, pluralism and humanism may in fact be as characteristic of Islamic tradition as they are understood to be of modern ‘Western’ secular society, though both traditions have unique ways of understanding these. In the broadest terms, the two may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Most of these values are shared and universal. However, given our cultural-religious context, these must be interpreted and understood as distinctly envisaged by the Islamic tradition. This is where the need and role of the ulema (Islamic scholars) comes in. 

Nor is it wise in the least to think- as the secular-liberals tend to- that solutions to contemporary problems have to be found beyond religion, or that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the Enlightenment West did- lock, stock and barrel. This narrow and superficial approach is the recipe for disaster that will understandably provoke a backlash from the religious sections of the society. The panacea seems to lie in a rediscovery and reassertion of the values of Islam that address contemporary issues- values that may not necessarily be averse to and against what many in the West may also have discovered and advocated: the values of social justice and human rights, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, rationalism and egalitarianism. Religious scholars must engage in the colossal task of reinstating this rather eclipsed Islamic discourse and narrative, evidence for which is voluminous in the Quran and the Sunnah (life and example of the Prophet PBUH). This must be presented in the language and method that can reach out to and address the modern mind. Central and most vital to a solution is the understanding that answers have to be sought (and are amply present) within the religious tradition of this society, and not outside of it. Trying to seek them outside of it is a self-defeating, mislaid endeavour.    

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sophisticated Beasts?

Civilization is but Skin Deep...

Maryam Sakeenah

Kath Walker laments the loss of civilization thus:

No more boomerang,
No more spear,
Now we go to bar
To have a glass of beer.
Now we got movies
Now we work for money
Now we got atom-bombs
To kill everybody

What separates the barbarian and the brute from the human? Those fancy gadgets, Iphones and Ipods, high-rising sky scrapers and sleek cars that whizz past, leaving clouds of dust and smoke behind? Is it those phony painted faces on huge commercial billboards staring down at the city? These are but the outward trappings, for civilization has to do with that which is more profound: our values, our beliefs, our worldviews, our perspectives on life, our heritage and our fidelity to it, our faith and our vision.

Will Durant says 'Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. It begins when man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.'

One of the sicknesses of the modern mind is, however, the fact that we are obsessed with outward appearances, with the mere trappings of civilization, while the core is all but hollowed out. That has made us materialistic and reduced civilization to an empty shell. Beneath the veneer of our civilization, there lie the same instincts of selfishness, greed, lust and selfish passions that defined life in the ancient jungle. In those jungles our ancestors tore each other up for space or food. Now, in the Brave New World, we have Ministries of Defence to do the job. We do it with bombs and we do it for oil.

Our material progress and technological advancement is but the facade of civilization, its mask and not its soul. Where is the soul? Lying huddled somewhere with bated breath in the cracks between the stony slabs on a peopled New York subway, perhaps?

Joyce Carol Vincent was a successful 30 year old with an active, busy social life. Her dead body was discovered three years after she quietly died all alone in her flat while watching T.V. When it was noticed she was not paying her bills, some officials checked her flat, only to find a skeleton on the couch before the T.V, which had stayed on for three years. That is the isolation, the loneliness and the distance that exists among people in our urbanized modern lifestyle.
That is the soullessness of contemporary civilization.
Amy Winehouse, one of the most successful British pop stars was found dead at 27 after she committed suicide taking an overdose of drugs and drink, dissatisfied as she was with her life- apparently, her life was a modern success story. Or was it?

In my own city a guard outside a bakery committed suicide a few days back, as according to him when he looked through the windows at the bread and cakes, he thought of his hungry weeping children at home... Our mad rat race for material wealth has made us blind and selfish so that we have forgotten those lesser people living among us who sleep on empty stomachs and wake up to another day of misery...

Global warming, nuclear warfare, smart bombs, dirty bombs, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo... are the gifts of our soulless civilization, perpetrated by some of the most civilized nations among us. Civilization wears thin, showing the ugly bones below...a thin crust you can poke your finger right through into the emptiness, the heart of darkness gaping within.

For, if our civilization has not taught us to be self-disciplined, to learn to share the planet and be peacemakers, to tolerate and respect diversity and live with difference, to establish justice for all and to ensure basic rights, and to give us deep spiritual fulfilment and enlightenment of the soul, are we entitled to consider ourselves civilized? If we have not learnt the right lessons from history, have we really moved on? Are we headed towards progress or back to the jungles?

Civilization humanizes, refines and teaches to live meaningfully. It is the difference between the Best of All Creation and the Lowest of the Low. Has our civilization given us that important distinction or are we just sophisticated beasts in mortal guise?
George Orwell is not quite sure as he concludes his book 'Animal Farm' thus:
“The creatures looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Balochistan crisis and the International Dimension...

The International Dimension in the Balochistan Conflict

Maryam Sakeenah

The international dimension of the Baloch conflict is linked to the immense strategic importance of the province. It is rich in natural resources, has a long coastline providing a link to warm waters for the landlocked Central Asian countries to the north. The Gwadar port has tremendously increased the region’s importance. According to analyst Frederic Grare, there are almost 20 countries that are in need of the trade facilities the development of the Gwadar port promises. The proximity to China, Afghanistan and Iran and the increased importance of South East Asia in the context of the War on Terror has brought international attention and focus on Balochistan. The Chinese have invested in the Gwadar port as it can provide a convenient link to ‘monitor US military activities in the Persian Gulf region.’
Recently there have been efforts to materialize the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline, which will pass through Balochistan. The estimated cost of the project is $ 4 billion.[1] For India, the gas pipeline is essential for its growing energy requirements as it aspires to become the regional power. The pipeline project can generate employment in the heavily populated region along its route, and attract international investment in Pakistan. It can also act as a means to develop friendly and enduring bilateral ties among the countries involved, particularly the traditional rivals India and Pakistan. The United States is not supportive of this project owing to its hostility against Iran over its alleged pursuit of a nuclear armament programme and its ‘support to terrorism’ in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. The pipeline project will turn South Asia into an energy rich zone, bringing benefits for both Central Asia and more importantly, China_ the emerging world economic giant. This is not in the interests of Washington.   

The ongoing unrest in Balochistan and the volatile security situation has brought about a halt to the development projects, particularly the Gwadar port. The pipeline issue is in a stalemate, shelved till the security situation improves. The killing of Chinese engineers working at Gwadar on the eve of the Pakistani President’s visit to China is an indicator of the precariousness of the situation. Reportedly, a number of multinational companies find the situation in Balochistan an unwelcoming and rather hostile milieu for investment and are considering pulling out.  

The War on Terror has added complex dimensions to the issue:
“In the post 9/11 world, a struggle for their rights will pit the people of Balochistan against a trigger-happy army on the hunt for ‘terrorists.’ The religious parties, not quite without support, may oppose this and the Pashtuns of the region may be egged on to act against their provincial brethren... certain American agencies and individuals with decades-old links with the Pakistan Army may even supply intelligence and surveillance aid to their friends in such a conflict. With Afghanistan also under the American grip, this can happen quite easily.”[2]

With claims of Al Qaeda leadership operating from Balochistan, international attention and involvement in the region is still likely to increase. The kidnapping of UN official John Solecki by Baloch rebels, the cold blooded murders of politicians, civil servants and bureaucrats demonstrates the sway the miscreant rebels hold in the region, the rampant insecurity and lawlessness and the ineffectiveness of the government’s writ in the area. 

The Pakistan government has very often mentioned the interference of Afghanistan and India in the province. There have been allegations of the Baloch Liberation Army receiving financial assistance and training from Indian Intelligence Agencies, notably the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). India happens to be the only country that has officially expressed its concern over the Balochistan conflict, and called for international attention, highlighting the Pakistan Army’s ‘atrocities.’ During Afghan President Karzai’s 2005 visit to Pakistan, the Pakistani president shared with him evidence of the RAW’s involvement in militant and terrorist activities in Balochistan.’[3] The role of Iran has also raised suspicions in Islamabad. Iran suspects that the Gwadar port, so close to the Iranian territory, may be used by the US_ Pakistan’s strategic ally and partner_ as a base for monitoring Iran. Some suspect that Washington has an interest in using Balochistan to consolidate its military presence in the region in order to monitor and threaten Iran and China. There is also a competition among international contenders to control the oil and gas supply from Central Asia that will pass through the Makran Coast.[4] How much of this is speculation and suspicion, and how much is fact, however, remains to be seen. 

There are, however, a number of questions that surround the situation and seek answers. For one, the leadership of the Baloch Liberation Army reportedly has international connections, and it is not clear where it receives support, weapons supply, training and finances. Other than that, there also exists a record of the involvement of Soviet intelligence agency_ the KGB, in Balochistan during the decade of Russia’s war in Afghanistan. There is evidence of the fact that the KGB had indeed helped arm Baloch rebels and instigated insurgency to destabilize Pakistan which at that time was helping Afghan mujahideen. KGB secret offices still operate in Balochistan and have close ties with the BLA. 
Yet more stunning is an investigation report by five eminent researchers. It begins thus: “Deception and treachery. Live and let die. The ultimate zero sum game. Repetition of bloody history: Call it what you may, something is happening in Balochistan that defies comprehension on any conventional scale...”[5]
The report discloses the active involvement of Russian, America, Indian, Afghan and Iranian intelligence agencies in the province. These help arm and finance the militant groups, primarily the BLA. The story goes back to the days when Soviet intelligence officials landed in the region prior to and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These KGB officials have thorough and indepth knowledge and experience of the nature of the conflict in Balochistan. As a strategy of vengeance against Pakistan’s active support to the Afghan jihad, Russia began to use its intelligence arsenal to fund and support sabotage activities in Balochistan in order to weaken the federation. The Balochistan Liberation Army was hence the brainchild of the KGB. The BLA went underground after the signing of the Geneva Accord in 1988, but re-emerged with a new leadership following the onset of the War on Terror which focussed international attention and increased American presence in the region. The Russian KGB officials, having known the area and its people well_ perhaps better than most Pakistanis do_ assisted the Americans to ‘set up shop’ in Balochistan. The CIA and KGB have a relationship of co-operation on the issue of Balochistan, the report maintains.

Balach Marri who heads the BLA stayed for several years in Russia where he got a degree in Engineering and developed close ties with Russian officials. Training camps were set-up in 2002 and an insidious plan of indoctrination of Baloch youth began, in order to fan their already existing grievances against the state. The report summarizes the following points as the highlights of the BLA indoctrination programme:[6]
i)                    The Baloch people’s right to independence.
ii)                   The concept of ‘Greater Balochistan’
iii)                 Sabotage as a tool for political struggle
iv)                 Tyranny of Punjab and the plight of oppressed ‘nations’within Pakistan
v)                  Propaganda and media-friendly methods of mass protest
The RAW lent its assistance in training and arming the BLA, as the anonymous KGB officials interviewed in the report disclose: “When we first began the BLA, it was logical to ask RAW for assistance because they have several thousands of ground contacts in Pakistan, many of them in Balochistan. Anyone wanting to set up shop in Pakistan needs to lean on RAW. Our training camps have rapidly increased with time and now there is a big triangle of instability in Balochistan as 45-50 training camps are freely operating, each of them accommodating from 300 to 550 armed militants. A massive amount of cash is flowing into these camps. American defence contractors, Pentagon operatives, CIA foot soldiers, instigators in double-disguise, fortune-hunters, re-hired ex-soldiers and freelancers are reportedly playing a big part in shifting loads of money from Afghanistan to Balochistan. The Americans are invariably accompanied by their Afghan guides and interpreters.”[7]
The forbidding terrain of the region as well as the weak communication links with the rest of the country give these operatives a free hand, and most of the clandestine work carries on undiscovered. The border with Iran is entirely under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who use the route for movement of intelligence and espionage personnel. This route is frequently used for free-flowing ‘international traffic’ of intelligence agents, arms supplies and money. Other than that, the coastline brings in Indian ‘aid’ to keep the insurgency ‘alive and kicking.’[8]

The KGB agents interviewed by the researchers describe the scenario as ‘a pragmatic solution to a strategic problem.’ Moscow’s original interest in the region began from its search for ‘warm waters.’ Russians today want monopoly over the energy resources of Central Asia, and want to keep the CAR states dependent on Russia for oil and gas. The prospective pipeline and access to sea trade through Gwadar would not be in the interest of Russia. The US has a similar interest. An energy-rich South Asia would boost up the Chinese economy, as China already has good relations with Pakistan. Hence Washington leaves no stone unturned to keep Balochistan volatile and its prospects of development as an energy-rich region thin. America deeply resents China’s assistance and involvement in the construction of the Gwadar sea port. 

Gwadar can step up competition with Iranian ports that can be an alternative route for landlocked Central Asia. Iran is also suspicious of America using Gwadar to monitor Iranian territory given the close Pakistan-US alliance. In Afghanistan, there exist numerous elements in the government who have links with India and harbour ill-will against Pakistan. They use their long border with Balochistan to stir up trouble for Islamabad and appease their supporters and allies in Delhi. The BLA currently also receives tremendous support from the Baloch sardars.

It is obvious that the mineral wealth and strategic importance of the region has made Balochistan a theatre for the ‘Great Game’. This is tremendously dangerous for Pakistan as, if left unchecked, it could lead to the bifurcation of the state itself_ which the country has already suffered in 1971. This time, history must not be allowed to repeat itself.

Dr. Noor ul Haq opines, “To eliminate the external factor, the best alternative is to put our own house in order. Internal harmony and strength is to be achieved by a constitutional government established through a democratic process, rule of law and dispensation of justice, economic development and prosperity, abolition of feudalism and empowerment of the people, adequate military strength and proactive foreign policy. This will deter external powers from exploiting internal grievances and interfering in internal affairs.”[9]

[1] Ali, Imtiaz, “The Balochistan Problem”, Current Affairs Digest, Lahore, November 2005.
[2] Singh, Airavat, “The Baloch National Question”, Bharat Rakshak Monitor, Vol.6 (4), Jan-Feb, 2004.
[3] Reported by The News (Islamabad), February 22, 2005.
[4] Grare, Frederic, “Balochistan at the Crossroads”,, June 27, 2008.
[5] Saeedi, Tariq, Pyatakov, Sergei, Nasimzadeh, Ali, Jan, Qasim, Kasi, SM: “The Stunning Investigative Story on the Birth of the Balochistan Liberation Army”, 2006.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Haq, Noor ul, Dr., “Balochistan Disturbances: Causes and Response”, Islamabad Policy Research Institute Journal, Summer 2006, Vol.6 (2), Islamabad.