Saturday, January 31, 2009

For forms of government let fools contest;

Just a reminder:
For forms of government let fools contest;

Whate'er is best administer'd is best:

For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;

His can't be wrong whose life is in the right.

In Faith and Hope the world will disagree,

But all mankind's concern is Charity:

All must be false that thwart this one great end,

And all of God that bless mankind or mend.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, EPISTLE III: Of the Nature and State of Man, With Respect to Society

Or, to quote a South Asia poet I have quoted before:

mazhab thoe buss mazhab-e-dhil hai; baaqee sub gumraahee hai

[the only (true) creed is the creed of the heart; all else is heresy]

Friday, January 30, 2009

Erdovan, Davos, and Dealing with Israel

This mornings Stratfor Podcast is titled "Erdovan's Davos Walkout Lays Down the Marker". I haven't heard it yet (hoping to, on the exercise machine), but just from that title, you can see one thing: the recognition of Israel has been anathema in the Muslim world, but if you had wondered if any good could ever come out of recognizing them, this is it. The fact that Turkey is seen in the Western World as a "moderate" Muslim state and has respect for being one of very few Muslim states to recognize Israel gives Erdogan's action much more weight than, say, a Pakistani or Indonesian leader doing the same. I am not saying Pakistan should up and recognize Israel, but it's something for Pakistanis to think about in the debate of whether and when to think about "normalizing" relations.

Folks not related to Pakistan might ask: Why Pakistan, specifically? Why not Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia? Well, Pakistan IS the 2nd largest Muslim nation in the world--and it's not Arab, and it's the only nuclear power in the Muslim world. Not to mention that ideologically and socially, it's a center of much that happens and affects the rest of the world--both Muslim and otherwise. This IS the "most dangerous country in the world" if we are to believe the conventional wisdom in the West; this is the "training ground of terrorists", no? Of course, it is a country I identify with (together with the US and Nigeria), and therefore it's my job to raise the issue in its context; others can chime in with the view from their corner of the globe.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Brother Barack Hussain talks to Al Arabiya

When my son started First Grade, come the start of African-American History Month, he coolly informed his first (predominantly East and South Asian) classmates that his otherwise very Pakistani-looking, and -sounding, "dad is an African-American". I do not remember ever having used that phrase within earshot of him. But he knows that I was born in same region of Africa that is the origin of most of the people who came to this country as slaves. One way to put it, therefore, is that I came to this country as an African-born grad student much like Barack Obama Sr. 

So don't get me wrong; I love my brother Barack Hussain. I have been following his presidential ambitions almost from the first buzz around a possible run--and have discussed it in my blogging and even Urdu podcasting. I am joyous at seeing him in the White House. To repeat the cliche, it tells me that my now 8-year old son and, even more possibly, my 4-year old daughter can really follow in his footsteps.

And I am actually one person who did NOT hold his staying mum about the events in Gaza over the last month or so against him. Speaking out would only have used up political capital that he didn't need to spend for no substantial gain. Whichever way he chose to lean, it would have have cost him; either in terms of political support at home, or in goodwill that he still has on "the Muslim street".

But when my brother Barack Hussain says:
"My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."
And then his first real communique in terms of practically reaching out and touching, so to speak, people in the Muslim world is an unmanned drone dropping bombs in violation of the sovereignty of the 2nd largest Muslim country in the Muslim world--a country that has been one of the longest-term and most faithful allies of the US--then I feel it is my duty, as a person who wants him to succeed, to ask him to think about what message the people who actually live at the business end of that communique will be receiving.

In case you missed the full interview (say you've been vacationing on Mars and just returned), here is his first formal foray into the Muslim media 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Wading into the Palestine Discussion

Okay. I guess it is time to talk about Palestine--if nothing else, because that's what everyone seems to want to talk about and the issue intersects with everything else  that's happening.

When one  friend put me on the spot by asking my opinion about the "Palestinian issue", my first reaction was to ask whether he meant the Palestinian issue or the current situation in Gaza. Of course, Maulana Techno promptly said I was free to comment on whichever I felt was more relevant and urgent and what was possible given the medium (a Facebook comment-swap). Here, expanded to some extent and rephrased a bit, is what I said:

The situation in Gaza is what it is; it hardly needs any elaboration.

And I do think that the conflation of criticism of the actions of Israel and Zionist ideology and the actions taken to further it on the one hand and anti-semitism on the other is starting to break down a bit in American public discourse and the "mainstream".

And, as I was saying in a comment on Teeth Maestro's blog, in the US in particular, any challenge to Zionist actions (and I mean that advisedly; in the sense of actions that further the ideology and aims of Zionism) have been painted with the anti-semitic brush and thus kept in check. It is only in the last 2-3 years that some discussion has started in the public space. Until recently, this was true without exception even in progressive circles. But things ARE evolving; we’ve come a long way since 9/11, quite frankly. And the current assault on Gaza and the coverage of it has been both a case in point and another “halla” (as we say in Urdu) in that direction.

And, this might sound like a broken record, but this is not to pick on Jews; or even Zionists. After all we have the same thing gaining momentum both in Pakistan and in the wider Muslim world: the bugbear of “Islamophobia” is used to keep any challenge Maududist/Qutbist/Salafist thought and politics at bay.

Also, mind you, I am not saying Islamophobia does not exist–it is as real as anti-semitism; but my point is that both concepts have been used by extremists in our respective (Jewish and Muslim–the Hindus have their Hindutva, too) communities to their political benefit.

But there are still a ways to go and many myths to bust and many bugbears to put to rest along the way. I will address what I see and write and comment as we go along. Here's another one:

Someone expressed one thought that's been going through many minds around the world--not least in the Muslim world: that the Palestinians are being "punished for electing Hamas". While a very tempting argument for a lot of reasons, one can't forget that at one point the Israeli government used the same arguments and rhetoric ("No negotiating partner on the Palestinian side." "Terrorists we can't talk to." and so on) for the PLO and were actually, actively supporting Hamas in an effort to create a counterpoint to the PLO. Again; this is a tactic. It ain't Zionist or Jewish or American or Islamophobic in origin. It's just ye goode old "Divide and Rule" at its "finest"!

Another friend, going back to the media theme, wondered aloud--and that's what I'd call it; wondering aloud with your keyboard--why "the general media" was so on-it when the events in Mumbai happened but is "silent" now. My first response was what I said above; that there IS quite a bit of coverage and a regular body count in the headlines (and I am talking about the US media here). What I see is a media (thankfully she didn't say "news media", or she'd have gotten an earful from me) that was being played well by the Western and Indian establishment in the aftermath of Mumbai; and I see a media that is being played well by the Western and Israeli establishment now.

But, I also saw and see something else. I saw alternative media and the media and grapevine in Muslim and progressive circles buying in to some of the narrative of the neo-purist Islamist and hyper-jingoistic Pakistani (not always the same thing) circles at the time of the Mumbai tragedy/atrocity; and I see alternative media and the media and grapevine in Muslim and progressive circles buying in to some of the narrative of the neo-purist and hyper-jingoistic Islamist circles now.

Not much has changed qualitatively. But "facts on the ground", to use the favourite phrase of Israeli functionaries, do seem to be moving.

Let's see where they go. All I can do is quote something that's been going through my head the last month or two--what with the month of Muharram in the Muslim calendar upon us, with it's highly charged dates of Ashura. (And if you don't know what that is, do click through to the Wikipedia; any further ignorance about basic concepts from the Muslim world is just plain stupid--and dangerous for all of us.) The quote? No, not the "Every day is Ashura; Every land is Karbala" line that's been on every slideshow about Gaza that's gone around, but this one:

Har Phir'aon ra Musa; har Karbala ra Hussain

For every Pharoah, a Moses; for every Karbala, a Hussain

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

TIME Mobile - Another Gitmo Grows in Afghanistan

Another Gitmo Grows in Afghanistan

Obama faces a tough decision on detention policy at the U.S. prison at Bagram

The incoming Obama Administration says it wants to shut down the U.S. military prison at GuantÁnamo Bay. But even if GuantÁnamo closes, the controversial U.S. practice of jailing suspected al-Qaeda militants and other terrorists indefinitely won't end, because such detentions continue on an even greater scale at the U.S. military base at Bagram, Afghanistan, 40 miles north of Kabul. Approximately 250 detainees are currently being held at GuantÁnamo; an estimated 670 are locked up under similar conditions at Bagram. The Obama transition team has declined to comment on whether U.S. detention policy for enemy combatants will change with a new Administration. Nevertheless, the U.S. military is building a new prison for what it calls "unlawful enemy combatants" at Bagram that won't be finished until Obama is well settled in the White House. "The Obama Administration is inheriting not so much a shrinking GuantÁnamo as an expanding Bagram," says Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, a nonprofit legal group based in New York City. (Read "Trying to Tie Obama's Hands on Gitmo.") Foster and a consortium of other human rights lawyers will be in Federal District Court in Washington on Jan. 7 to demand that those being held at Bagram get the same habeas corpus rights - the right to know the charges against them, and to be freed if a court deems those charges insufficient - that the Supreme Court gave GuantÁnamo detainees last summer. Their case centers on Redha al-Najar, a 43-year-old Tunisian national who has been held without charge in U.S. military custody since May 2002. Al-Najar was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan, where he had been living with his wife and child. According to his attorneys, al-Najar spent the next two years being shifted among various CIA "black sites" before ending up at Bagram. They argue he has been held for more than six years, virtually incommunicado and without charges or access to a fair means to challenge his imprisonment. The suit asks the court to order al-Najar's release. What the Pentagon calls "the long war" on terror has led the U.S. military to seek a way to keep people it deems a threat behind bars indefinitely. While GuantÁnamo's unique status - far from the battlefield yet subject to total U.S. sovereignty - led the Supreme Court to grant Gitmo detainees habeas relief, the U.S. government argues that neither circumstance applies at Bagram. "Federal courts should not thrust themselves into the extraordinary role of reviewing the military's conduct of active hostilities overseas, second-guessing the military's determination as to which captured aliens as part of such hostilities should be detained, and in practical effect, superintending the Executive's conduct in waging a war," the Justice Department said in its Dec. 19 filing in the al-Najar case. The U.S. military had hoped to farm out the Bagram detainees to prisons run by Afghanistan and other nations, but over the past year, amid escalating violence and a surging prison population, it became clear that it would not be able to hand over all the detainees. So the Pentagon has decided to build a new prison to replace the current Bagram Theater Internment Facility, a converted hangar used by the Soviets during their occupation. The new facility, expected to cost at least $60 million, is slated to hold 600 detainees under normal circumstances, with a capacity of 1,100 in emergency conditions. It will be tucked into a remote 40-acre location on the 4,000-acre base. The original U.S. prison, established early in 2002, was the main screening site for those captured by Americans and their allies during initial fighting in Afghanistan. At least two detainees died there in December 2002 after being beaten by U.S. troops. While conditions are said to have improved since then, hundreds of prisoners remain in wire mesh pens edged with coils of razor wire, and earlier this year U.S. military officials revealed that a Bagram interrogator had been convicted of assaulting an Afghan detainee who later died. Just last month, the military issued a statement saying it would investigate whether a pair of U.S. soldiers had abused Afghan detainees. The al-Najar case presents Obama with a tough choice. If he keeps the existing rules at Bagram, he'll have to justify why those prisoners should be treated more harshly than those who ended up at GuantÁnamo. But if he wants them handled the same way as the GuantÁnamo detainees, he's going to run afoul of the U.S. military's wishes. Given Obama's promise to nearly double the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, that's not something he wants to do. And the Pentagon argues that giving those held at Bagram habeas relief would endanger the very U.S. troops Obama is prepared to order to Afghanistan. "Given the ongoing war, there is every reason to believe that our military mission in Afghanistan would be compromised if the writ is extended to Bagram," the government said in its court filing. "To provide alien enemy combatants detained in a theater of war the privilege of access to our civil courts is unthinkable both legally and practically." But Foster, one of the lawyers representing al-Najar, sees the case from another angle. "Does Obama," she asks, "really want to have Bagram be his GuantÁnamo for the next four years?" See pictures inside GuantÁnamo. See TIME's Pictures of the Week.