Saturday, January 5, 2013

THE NEED FOR A NEW STORY
THERE are competing narratives about the US’s drone war in the Waziristan area, a bastion of militants. These narratives have so far failed to gain traction in the public, inside Pakistan and elsewhere.
The Pakistani narrative goes like this: the drone attacks are a violation of our national sovereignty. They kill innocent people, including women and children, as collateral damage and hence incite suicide attacks across the country in a cycle of reprisal and retaliation, thus killing more Pakistanis, which again includes women and children.
In short, suicide attacks on public places like markets — and even mosques and shrines — are provoked by drone attacks. If there are no drone attacks, there will be no suicide attacks in cities and towns.
The US has yet to publicly acknowledge that the CIA is remotely conducting, with joysticks, a deadly war in North Waziristan, Afghanistan and Yemen. But still, the dominant narrative in the US is that drones are a ‘surgically precise and effective tool’ that ‘take out’ only terrorists with ‘minimal collateral impact’, and thus make the US safer.
The diction of this narrative is tempting: deadly weapons are sanitised by clothing them in non-lethal, curative medical terms. As if all this happens in a hospital’s operation theatre while treating a patient to save his life.
The drone war itself and the narrative of the US are challenged by another narrative, which is spearheaded by international organisations like Reprieve, a UK-based advocacy group, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent journalist organisation in England, and a recent study conducted jointly by Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law.
They argue that the US does not acknowledge civilian deaths and injuries caused by drone strikes; they harm the daily lives of ordinary people beyond death and physical injury and that this secret war may set dangerous precedents for others to flout the rule of law and international legal protections.
However, the reality of this war, like any other war, lies somewhere beyond these narratives. Missiles and bombs are not surgical tools and humans — terrorists included — are not tumours that are taken out. Terrorists cannot be dehumanised.
Militants terrorise both the ‘enemy’ and those they seek to win over; those who seek to win the hearts and minds of people need to occupy the moral high ground.
The US and its allies can gain that by adhering to the Geneva Conventions and other international laws that govern the rules of war. No war is different from any other. Terrorists are criminals who need to be brought to justice, which is delivered in courts of law, not through deadly missile strikes.
By showing a blithe defiance of the Geneva Conventions, the US and its allies are fighting this war on the terms of the terrorists, which is their (the terrorists’) victory.
Similarly, sovereignty comes with responsibility and only the state, and not any non-state actor, has a monopoly on violence, that is, the use of force to defend its borders and maintain order. Pakistan has outsourced, if not lost, its sovereignty in the Waziristan region to extremists like the Taliban who have repeatedly avowed their allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Pakistan’s ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hounds’ policy has brought the country face to face with an existential threat. There are no good and bad Taliban, just like there is no good and bad terrorist. This is the reason why civil society in Pakistan seems confused about this war, while political parties desist from owning it. This confusion has provided a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, which get a new layer with every new terrorist attack or bomb blast in the country.
Influential Lebanese scholar Fawaz Gerges emphasises that jihadists are conspiratorial by nature and ascribe all actions that are at odds with their conventional wisdom to Zionist and American plots (include India in the case of Pakistan). The deliberate confusion at the institutional level has percolated through society as a whole.
As a result of this double game the writ of the state is now non-existent in North Waziristan, which has become an information black hole. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain the exact identity and number of those who are targeted by drones. It is equally difficult to know the opinion of the people, if it ever counts in the legality or otherwise of a war, especially the so-called war on terror.
Be that as it may, the fact is that the drone war is an illegal war because it is being fought in secret; it is being fought secretly, because it cannot be justified or defended on legal grounds. Public approval cannot justify an illegal war, just like public support for Al Qaeda cannot justify terrorism.
However, the existing narratives have confounded the situation so much that the people who are caught in the crosshairs of the war have lost their voice and their story to tell. Therefore, we need to have a new story that is legitimate and can create solutions for the tough problems that we face.
Who will create this new story and how? Strategic communication expert Amy Zalman posits that since political power intervenes, inevitably, in making the narratives we share by suppressing some voices and elevating others, it is important that we have a responsible political leadership.
We need it to help us forge a new narrative that has exactly three things: it rings true, it has a sense of reality, and it is participatory. Unfortunately, the narratives of the US and its allies and of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine do not ring true, have no sense of reality, and are not participatory.
Published first here, then here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Paksitan: And extremism spread, not that silently!


Film: Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters)
Genre: Drama
Written and directed by Sabiha Sumar
This film is set in a Pakistani village, which is shown as a microcosm of the pangs of separation that Sikh families had to bear when India was divided in 1947 to create Pakistan as a separate Muslim country in South Asia. This is also the story of how religious extremism, as a state policy, was enacted in order to stifle resistance against dictatorship and forestall the spillover of a socialist revolution that just occurred in Afghanistan across the border.
The film is set in Charkhi village of Pakistani Punjab, which had a mix population of Sikh and Muslims until 1947. The village is also home to the second holiest shrine of Sikhism after Golden Temple in Amritsar in India. In 1947, almost all the Sikhs fled the town—or were driven out—and crossed into India; but this flight from the newly created Muslim country was not peaceful, especially for women. Scores of them were kidnapped by Muslim zealots; some were killed by their own men in order to ‘save their honor’.
Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters) is a French-German-Pakistani co-production with a cast from India and Pakistan. It was filmed, just before the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., entirely in Wah town and Rawalpindi city of Pakistan. It depicts the rise of religious obscurantism in 1979, when a military dictator, Ziaul Haq, took over power in Pakistan by deposing—and then hanging—popularly elected Prime Minister Zulifikar Ali Bhutto. It was released in 2003 and has won seven awards, including Golden Leopard (Best Film), Best Actress and Best Direction at the 56th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.
This is the story of Ayesha, a middle aged woman, who unlike other Sikh women in 1947, had refused to commit suicide by jumping into a well and just ran away, only to be waylaid by frenzied Muslims. To save her life, she had no other option but to become the wife of a Muslim. For this to happen she had to renounce her own religion and accept Islam and thus became Ayesha from Veeroo. But soon she becomes a widow to raise her only son, Saleem, who as a young lad falls in love with Zubaida, a spirited school student. Riding on military dictator Ziaul Haq’s rhetoric of making Pakistan an Islamic society, two young religious extremists come to the village with a mission. It goes sour for the local people, especially for Ayesha when hundreds of Sikh pilgrims descend on the town to visit and pray in their shrine, Punja Sahib.
The local landlord lends support to the fundamentalists and they start recruiting people for their Islamist cause. Saleem, a young, confused orphan, who looks for a social/political identity, joins their ranks—hesitant and more confused at first. But after gaining sort of identity by being someone whom people listen to, he becomes a religious bigot: he spurns his sweetheart and starts questioning his mother’s past. Under pressure from his fanatic friends, he starts at first doubting and then questioning his mother’s loyalty to Islam.
One day he asks his mother to accompany him to a public meeting where she has to proclaim afresh her Muslim faith in front of everyone. But she remains silent, having flashbacks from her painful past. Fearing the wrath of rising extremists, her co-villagers ostracize Ayesha. When going gets tough for her, she goes out and jumps in the same deep well wherefrom she had ran away 32 years back. Her remorseless and un-repented son grows into a fundamentalist politician. Zubaida, who stood by his mother till last despite being rejected by Saleem, completes her education and becomes a workingwoman in a big city called Rawalpindi.
Director/writer of the film Sabiha Sumar comes from a family with mystical traditions of Islam. In Silent Waters she tries to highlight the mystical aspect of Islam, which is overtaken by an intolerant religiosity in 1979 onwards. Mystical lyrics and music have been used as soundtrack in the film.
Erving Goffman, one of the leading proponents of ‘symbolic interactionism’, believed that meaning is created through social interaction. This is exactly what happened to Saleem. The reality of religion, belief system, society at large and even ‘motherhood’ changes for him in a changed social interaction, which leads to the creation of new meanings and to reinterpretation. After joining the ranks of religious fanatics, he develops a new concept of reality in which Ayesha is not just his mother, but also “the sister of a non-believer (Sikh)”. He is redefining the “object” of family in relation to the social category mother. Having roots in another religion sticks out more for him, then motherhood and the piety of his mother.
He faces a new reality in which his mother’s past becomes more prominent and important for him than her present. The very meaning of blood relation changes for Saleem. For Saleem, Ayesha is no more his mother—not even mother figure—but the proverbial “other”, a traitor in the ranks. While his former lover, Zubaida, becomes someone who tries to “mislead” and “disgrace” him by her love. He sees a threat to his masculinity in Zubaida’s ambition to complete her education in her pursuit of a decent job for a decent life.
Saleem undergoes a change in identity too. In fact, he finds a social and political identity for the first time after he joins the group of religious fundamentalists. Arguing with his mother, Saleem emphasizes that now “people stop and listen to me. I am somebody (now).” Saleem faces a new reality, which his social group creates for him by interpreting the same old symbols and events in a new light. Now that people stop and listen to him, he gets a sense of power too, which he exerts on making them listen to him but not question him.
The film is depiction of a male-dominated society where masculine power plays out on the body of the woman, just like Michel Foucault’s description of how the body of the prisoner used to be a spectacle of exercising power through punishment. Women are visible in the film only inside their homes, cooking, sewing and washing clothes—all unpaid labor, which is gender inequality. They only time they are shown outside their homes are when they go to fetch water from a public well, or as children when they go to school.
It is also a depiction of a patriarchal society where women have no capacity for moral reasoning and agency. Saleem tries to impose himself on his mother by making moral arguments with her and she is shown as speechless when he questions her loyalty to Islam. Women, both collectively and individually, constitute the honor of their men. When men talk about nationalism and honor, they make frequent reference to their womenfolk. For example, when a group of Sikh pilgrims in their shrine in Charkhi village reminisces about their life in that village before the partition of India, one of them asks about any Sikh woman left behind. This mentioning flares up the emotions of another Sikh pilgrim, for he feels his honor has been injured.
He cannot stand the fact that any woman of his community might have ended up in the hands of a Muslim. He riles and assures everyone that his uncle had killed 22 women of his family with his own hands “to save our honor”. “We saved our honor” by killing their ‘own’ women, the Sikh pilgrim announces with a pride. In another scene, Muslim fundamentalists taunt their fellow Muslims in these words: “Indians would come and pick our women to dishonor us, while you will be worrying about day-to-day life.” Women are also subjected to structural oppression because not every woman faces the same discrimination. Women, who are Muslim by birth, don’t have to worry while Ayesha, who had been forcibly converted to Islam, is being oppressed by her own son.
There is also gender inequality at play: those men of Charkhi village who had embraced Islam—willfully or under coercion—are not suspect any more. And nobody from his earlier [Sikh] community tries to locate and contact them. Sikh people try to locate their women, not men, left behind to somehow restore their honor. A converted Muslim man is spared all the travails that Ayesha goes through, just because he is a man and she is a woman.
The two fundamentalists come to Charkhi village where they are provided boarding and lodging by the local feudal. The landlord gathers the local people in the village mosque and introduce the young fanatics as someone who want to ‘strengthen’ Pakistan and ‘save’ its society from ‘evils’. He asks the people to listen to them and heed their call. In this scene a nexus of power—feudal, religious figures, and politicians—is all visible. They play out their power on the body of common people. The religious fundamentalists do not challenge the power of the feudal, who is shown as having an extravagant and profligate life among people who hardly manage to make both ends meet. Ironically, the profligate life of the feudal, who throws a sumptuous party at the wedding of his son, hosts dance parties at his place where a young lady dances to an all-male audience with cups of wine in their hands, is looked at as a friend. While Ayesha, a practicing Muslim who teaches the Holy Quran to the village children and ekes out a meager living, is looked upon as a threat to the society and country.
The film shows how power-holders, feudal and religious figures, display their power to create a social order where the poor and women are ‘disciplined’ to create a social order. The film also shows how ideology and nationalism, supported by the state, cuts across human relations through coercion and power. Saleem’s relations with his sweetheart and his own mother are transformed once he succumbs to the power of ideology and nationalism, which gives him an identity but robs him of human passion.
Khamosh Pani depicts a society, which is in the throes of transition. However, this transition does not change the power equation; rather, it solidifies the power of those who already wields them and subjects common people into further subjugation by giving them a new slogan. Religion.  Those who already have a disproportionate share of resources, which ensures their power is well ensconced, don’t have to change themselves. Only the common people have to re-align themselves to the new realities of life as power resides in the same old sources.
However, the film lacks some background information. The fundamentalist guys frequently refer to ‘Lahore,’ which is understandable for Pakistani audience. But for those who are not familiar with Pakistan, this can be an answered question and confusing too. The background is that Pakistan’s main fundamentalist party, the Jama’at-i-Islami, was the force behind rising extremism in Pakistan. Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship worked as a front for the spread of Jama’at-i-Islami’s ideology. It has its headquarters in Lahore. So when the young guys say ‘Lahore,’ they mean Jama’at-i-Islami’s headquarters in Mansoora, Lahore.
The movie makes a good depiction of how extremism and religious fanaticism made inroads into Pakistani society. The extremist forces look for people in the low socio-economic strata, who generally go through a crisis of identity in a feudal society. Being a tolerant and peaceful citizen makes them into non-entities and open to exploitation and coercion. By joining a puritanical and radical organization they get a voice and a recognition, which translates into power for them. By having a nuisance value, they become ‘somebody’ from nobody. This is how ideology, nationalism and hegemony work.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Pakistan: another journalist killed

Journalism is a risky profession, more so in Pakistan: For the past two years, Pakistan has been the deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research. At least seven journalists were killed in direct relation to their work in 2011, says Committee to Protect Journalists in its January 17 report. Five of them were in targeted killings. Another was killed on Tuesday near Peshawar in Pakhtunkhwa province where in most parts the state has either outsourced or lost sovereignty to extremists in its pursuit of 'strategic interests' in bordering Afghanistan.
Mukarram Khan Aatif was a correspondent for private TV station Dunya News and also worked for Deewa Radio, a Pashto-language channel of the Voice of America. He was praying in a mosque near his home in Shabqadar, a town near Peshawar, when two gunmen entered the mosque, shot him several times, and fled on a motorcycle. 
Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan called The Associated Press and said the Pakistani group took responsibility for the killing. Ihsan said Aatif had been warned "a number of times to stop anti-Taliban reporting, but he didn't do so. He finally met his fate."
Atif earlier left his hometown in Mohmand, a Taliban-infested tribal agency that borders Afghanistan, when he received threats because of his journalistic work. Journalists, especially those working in the volatile tribal areas, face threats from several actors--intelligence agencies of the state included.
Atif is the 77th journalist killed in Pakistan since January 2000 and till date no culprit has been named, arrested or punished in any of these cases. This has emboldened both the state agencies and the extremists to kill those journalists with impunity who do not toe their line. The high-profile murder of Saleem Shehzad, who wrote about Al-Qaeda's connection with Pakistan's Navy, was probed by a judicial commission. However, the commission filed its report after a six-month inquiry, without naming the murderers.
Daily Express Tribune in its January 13 report says that about the possible reason behind the brutal killing of the journalist was the conclusion that "in all likelihood, the motive behind the incident was provided by the writings of Saleem [Shehzad]. What is not so clear is the question of who had that motive and actually acted upon it."
In other words, Shehzad the victim is to blame for his own killing, which gives a license to everybody with an interest in suppressing the truth to kill with impunity. States have a monopoly on violence, but when state institutions abrogate transparency and accountability in their use of violence, they also abrogate their monopoly on violence.
When states use proxy forces for their strategic and security purposes, non-state actors become states unto themselves while journalists become target to be taken out.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pakistan at the crossroads, once again

Pakistan army, in a charged political environment, has decided to provide security to Mansur Ijaz when he lands in the country to testify in the memogate case. Pakistan’s military chief met top commanders at the general headquarters Thursday amid a widening rift between the powerful armed forces and the civilian government.
The meeting lasted for 10 hours which was not only attended by the corps commanders but by the Principal Staff Officers of Pakistan army as well. The meeting took place in the backdrop of a standoff between the government and the armed forces over the memogate scandal which is being probed by a judicial commission.
However, it is not clear from whom the army would protect Ijaz, a shadowy character who has blamed Pakistan's former ambassador to the U.S. Hussain Haqqani for dictating to him a memo asking then U.S. army chief Admiral Mike Mullen's help against a feared coup when Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden was taken out by U.S. Marines in Abbottabad on May 2 last year.
But it is clear that army is behaving, instead of a state institution, as a state unto itself by speaking to the government through the media, and that too in a threatening tone. It is one of the rare moments in the history of the country that army is hurling threats at the government instead of toppling it. Many observers are of the opinion that Pakistan's army never wants to usurp power when the state coffers are empty, which is the situation right now.
The May 2 incident rid the world of a high-profile terrorist, embarrassed Pakistan's armed forces, especially its intelligence outfit the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and offered the civilian government an opportunity to reclaim its authority by rolling some key heads heads on many counts. But, in the flush of misplaced nationalism, the whole political disposition became jingoistic in tone.
Instead of taking them to task, the president, the prime minister and the parliament stood by a demoralized army whose ego had been injured not by the presence of Bin Laden but by the U.S. Marine's sting operation. In Pakistan, the strength of a civilian government lies in the weakness of the army--and that was that moment. Now the armed forces are beating the war drums as democracy seems wobbling.
However, leaders can turn their weakness in strength by showing perseverance at a time when the system looks shaky and the adversary indomitable. As the Persian proverb goes: mardee wa namardee qadme fasila daa rud [Manliness and unmanliness are just a step apart]. At a critical moment, like the present one, just a step forward or backwards makes a difference.
It is now a defining moment for democracy in Pakistan. If the prime minister and the president show enough courage by not stepping back, they can save democracy--and their necks too; if they step back, then its a setback both for democracy and their own political careers.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Pakistan, Durkheim and morality

While reading Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the French sociologist, exactly one year after Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by a demented character, I came across the following note which applies quite more aptly to present-day Pakistan than France of the yore:
When society undergoes suffering, it feels the need to find someone whom it can hold responsible for its sickness, on whom it can avenge its misfortunes: and those against whom public opinion already discriminates are naturally designated for this role. These are the pariahs who serve as expiatory victims. What confirms me in this interpretation is the way in which the result of Dreyfus's trial was greeted in 1894. There was a surge of joy in the boulevards. People celebrated as a triumph what should have been a cause for public mourning. At least they knew whom to blame for the economic troubles and moral distress in which they lived. The trouble came from the Jews. The charge had been officially proved. By this fact alone, things already seemed to be getting better and people felt consoled.
Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army captain, who had been court-martialled for treason, an act which had been felt by many to be anti-Semitic. Durkheim was deeply offended by the Dreyfus affair, particularly its antisemitism, but he saw it as a symptom of the moral sickness confronting French society as a whole.
To Durkheim, the answer to the Dreyfus affair and crises like it lay in ending the moral disorder in society. Because that could not be done quickly or easily, Durkheim suggested more specific actions such as severe repression of those who incite hatred of others and government efforts to show the public how it is being misled.  He urged people to have the courage to proclaim aloud what they think, and to unite together in order to achieve victory in the struggle against public madness.
If we replace Dreyfus with Taseer, it looks Durkheim is talking about Pakistan: Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer, is being lionized and is greeted with flower petals--not in the 1894 France, but in the 21st century Pakistan. People celebrated as a triumph what should have been a cause for public mourning. Countries and nations pass through their dark periods and march towards a bright future; Pakistani society willfully stumbles into the dark age. Painfully, it does it with a panache of its own: feeling no remorse and taking pride on something it should have been ashamed of.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Taliban gets an address--and recognition too

It is not surprising to know that the U.S. and Pakistan have been in talks with the Taliban of their respective choices.  But it surely is demoralizing for those who want to see extremism defeated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 
The Afghan Taliban have agreed to open a political office in Doha, Qatar, to kick-start negotiations with the U.S., which wants to pull its troops out of Afghanistan by 2014--come rain or shine. Pakistan is talking to another kind of the Taliban that have 'gone astray' after they were unleashed to find a strategic depth for it in Afghanistan.
The U.S. wants to disengage the Taliban from Pakistan's influence which could make them agree to share power with President Hamid Karzai. Initially, Karzai had been kept out of the loop which prompted him to call back Afghanistan's ambassador from Doha in protest.
Both Pakistan and Karzai look askance at the U.S.'s single-handed overtures to the Taliban: Karzai, sensing betrayal, fears for his power--and his life too--in any new arrangement in Afghanistan. Pakistan does not want to sit on the fence while the fate of Afghanistan is being decided. This can bring Karzai closer to Pakistan and together they can spoil the game for the U.S.
Whether these talks succeed or fail, it has already emboldened extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have been accorded a recognition by giving the Taliban an address. It does not mean that one does not want a negotiated peace in Afghanistan. But, the U.S. seems to be negotiating only for its in-time withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It seems that the people of Afghanistan are in for another bout of retributive punishment when a victorious Taliban revisit their blighted country after another super power makes a shameful flight. Across the border, the elks of the Taliban will be readying to punish and discipline the people of Pakistan.
And then, people in the U.S. will ask once again: "Why do they hate us?" Better they this time ask this question from their government.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Pakistani Journalism: Dangers of a shared reality