Sunday, January 28, 2007

Viewpoint – What Is Wrong In Being A Muslim Fundamentalist?

Disagreement with the opinions articulated in an exclusive Pakistan Paindabad interview.

By Syed Kamran Safdar
[The author is a teacher at the University of Engineering and Technology in Taxila, Pakistan. The picture is by him.]

Mayank Austen Soofi's interview with Pakistani columnist Ishtiaq Ahmed was thought-provoking.

Mr. Ahmed's views on Pakistan, Musharraf and Islam are interesting but I disagree with them. At one place he unfairly compared hijab controversy to Sati, putting dress code and an ancient suicide practice at par! What next? Will ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals come under fire too?

I do not think there was much of an issue regarding hijab and beards in the pre-9/11 world. Now every bearded Muslim living in Europe or USA feels unprotected. In fact, many Pakistani men applying for visas find it judicious to go for a clean shave before appearing for appointments in the American embassy.

I agree with Mr. Ahmed when he says that "hijab was never a problem in the West until the Islamists started using it politically." True, some Muslim groups in Western Europe have used the veil as a needlessly divisive issue but the governments there should have handled it more diplomatically. They should have allowed the women to exercise the freedom of choice. Imposing restrictions surely won't make them secular. The controversy has only put the so-called liberal societies in a poor light. Always projected as educated, modern and secular, the West has in fact ended up looking quite prejudiced.

Mr. Ahmed later went on to praise President Pervez Musharraf for making an "effort to save Pakistan going down the drain into the filth of fundamentalism." I differ from his assessment. Living in a small town in Pakistan, I know the ground realities. The so-called enlightened moderation led by the General is only limited to newspapers. No serious policy has been launched to bring a change in the society. Our President is actually concentrating all his energy in pleasing the western masters.

While reading the interview, I also had a problem with Mr. Ahmed's "filth of fundamentalism" comment. Is fundamentalism really a problem? Followers of every religion are fundamentalist as long they are holding on to their faith. Jews are fundamentalist and so are the Christians. So, what is wrong in being a Muslim fundamentalist?

The truth is that the whole issue of Islamist extremism is a result of unfair treatment of the people in the Middle East and other Muslim countries, by the West, for decades.

Did the West not first colonize us and exploit our resources for its own benefits? Did it not later leave the place hastily leaving the control to bandits masquerading as kings and shahs? Do these western powers now not support dictators in Muslim countries? Were they not the ones who armed the Jehadis first?

I'm a Pakistani, a Muslim man without a beard, and I demand answers.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Conversations with Pakistani Columnist Ishtiaq Ahmed

An eminent Pakistan-born intellectual on his native country, and on Islam as practiced in his adopted nation – Sweden; Interview by Mayank Austen Soofi

Ishitaq Ahmed is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science in the University of Stockholm. He is chief editor of Peace and Democracy in South Asia and writes a column in the Pakistani newspaper, The News International. Mr. Ahmed’s books include State, Nation, and Ethnicity in Contemporary South Asia and The Concept of an Islamic State in Pakistan: An Analysis of Ideological Controversies.

I'm with columnist Ishtiaq Ahmed - one of Pakistan's midnight children. Mr. Ahmed, welcome to Pakistan Paindabad. You were born few months before Pakistan came into existence in 1947. But now the midnight child lives far away in the cold lands of Sweden. How come?

After I did my MA, getting the first class first position in Political Science in the supplementary examination, I had a choice to either take the Central Superior Services (CSS) exam or join teaching. Being of a leftist conviction I decided not to sit in the CSS exam and chose teaching.

I taught between February 1972 and June 1973 at Rawalpindi’s Gordon College but became disillusioned with the atmosphere in that college. Just then my elder brother who had been living in Sweden for a long time visited Pakistan. We talked about my chance of getting admission to the PhD programme at Stockholm University and concluded that I should try to come to Sweden and try from there. That is how I landed up in Stockholm on September 26, 1973.

Is the academic life in sedate Sweden a nice cocoon from the harsh realities of Pakistan? Does it sound comfortingly unreal when you read unpleasant news coming from that part of the world?

Indeed, for me it has been good to settle down in Sweden and do research which keeps me connected with South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular.

I am quite used to thinking that the security and welfare we enjoy in Sweden is quite exceptional and out there the world is much more harsh and tough, but our prime minister, Mr Olof Palme, was assassinated on February 28, 1986 on a main road when he and his wife were returning home after watching a movie. Similarly our foreign minister Anna Lindh too lost her life at the hand of a demented young man on September 11, 2003. Both were without security guards and out in the town as private citizens; so the unreal world that we live in has received severe jolts at least twice.

Now, international drug mafias and other criminal gangs operate even in Sweden so that the vast difference between Sweden and other countries has begun to shrink.

You hail from Lahore. Once you were almost drowned in the city's fabled canal. Please be kind to share all the gory details.

This incident took place when I must have been seven or eight. It was a hot summer day when some people from our locality of Mozang went to the canal. Some of us did not know swimming but accompanied our seniors to the canal. I and a friend, Anas Ahmed , got into the water on the shallow side but for some reason were drawn into the middle. I remember both of us began to sink but held each other’s hand and shouted when we could pop our head above water. A man from our area, I don’t remember his name now, which is such a shame, but his face is etched on the eye of my mind and I can see him even now that way, came to our help and we were saved. I don’t think too much water had entered our bodies and we were saved at the very early stage. So, now I am here responding to your questions.

Thank God for that.

A Pakistani in Sweden

Mr. Ahmed, these are not the best of times. Pakistan is in the midst of US-led war against terror. In one of your columns, you noted that "any hope of changing the world for the better is very unlikely in the foreseeable future." Your pessimism was disappointing.

My pessimism unfortunately is there to stay for a long while until a new worldwide movement for peace, democracy and human rights emerges and can challenge brute forces both within national boundaries and in the international area. We need regional cooperation to offset the power and might of great powers and superpowers that dominate the world. Indeed within South Asian countries the ruling classes are the most heartless and they too have to be made to change their ways. I think this can be done through peaceful protest.

You are living in Stockholm since last 34 years. Islam is the second biggest religion in Sweden after Christianity. Often immigrants from Muslim countries are blamed for not trying hard to amalgamate with the secular traditions of Western Europe. Is that true?

Postwar Western Europe opened itself up for immigration which allowed people from the South to come and work and settle in the North. The underlying assumption was the basically secular and individualistic values that prevailed in the West would be adopted by the immigrants. Things remained rather quiet until the Iranian revolution. But thereafter Muslims fleeing from the reign of the Ayatollahs and later the civil war in Lebanon, followed by the invasion of that country by Israel resulted in large inflows of political refugees. Along with them, fundamentalist Muslims also established their influence in the West and thus started a process which resulted finally in 9/11 and later terrorist attacks in several West European cities.

It revived the undercurrent of suspicion and fear in Western Europe about the immigrant population – read non-whites but particularly Muslims- increasing to an extent that they can begin to change the demographic structure away from the old type of nation-state in which the local Christian populations were the overwhelming majority. Such feelings have been exploited by racist parties and now there is a discussion that if the immigrants want to live in the West they must adopt European values. The Muslims are often blamed most for resisting assimilation into a secular culture and there is some truth in it.

How do you view the hijab controversy? Is Europe getting hysterical in its pursuit of a perfect state of secularism?

I think hijab was never a problem in the West until the Islamists started using it politically. There has been a reaction and now in many Western countries the hijab is being blamed for the degradation of women. In this regard it is important to point out that the objection to wearing the hijab has been confined to educational institutions and work places. I agree with the European policy makers.

I understand it could difficult for Muslim immigrants to retain Islamic values as well as maintain a sincere respect for the liberal traditions of an adopted country like Sweden. Are the compromises worth it?

Yes, because like all other cultures Islam must also adhere to liberal and human rights values. Imagine Hindus saying that sati is part of their culture and the West should allow it to take place when a Hindu husband dies.

Is there a significant population of the people of Pakistani origin in Sweden?

No, South Asians in general are not to be found in large numbers in Sweden. I think there are some 5000 Pakistanis in Sweden. The same should be the strength of the Indian and Bangladeshi groups in Sweden.

Are your students in the University of Sweden mostly Europeans? What is the general impression of Pakistan among them? What do Swedes think of Pakistan?

My students are almost all Europeans. We do not discuss Pakistan or any other South Asian society so much because we don’t have courses on that region at the university. Unfortunately thus far there is little interest in South Asia.

On Pakistan

How often do you visit Pakistan?

About once in two years.

In your columns, you have emerged as a passionate critic of religious extremism. You have advocated the promotion of a desegregated society where men and women could enjoy healthy relationships. Please tell us if you feel lonely having tea in a Karachi drawing room?

I am too old to mind having tea alone in a Karachi drawing room but I wish I had a more mixed group of friends to talk to and be close to when I was a young man. I think I speak for all those who are young and long for greater contact between men and women.

Author Arundhati Roy once described Pakistan as an imperfect dictatorship. But even the religious fundamentalism here seems imperfect. Else how to explain the success of Begam Nawazish Ali, a transvestite TV host?

Yes, I think Pakistani culture is not extremist and people have an amazing capacity to appreciate and live with non-conformist ideas and life styles. So many cultures and ethnic groups and local clans and cults are to be found that it is impossible to imagine Pakistan becoming a fundamentalist society in any lasting sense.

Pakistan's economy is shining. GDP grew by 8% in 2005-2006. Do you feel the impact of these figures in the country during your visits there?

Well, those who are rich enjoy even more amenities and luxuries than when I was in Pakistan. I really don’t understand how the poor and the unemployed manage to survive. Pakistan has become more brutal when it comes to the struggle for survival and street crimes have become more frequent and more heinous.

If President Pervez Musharraf leaves his posts at this moment, how will you evaluate his legacy?

I think he would be remembered for making an effort to save Pakistan going down the drain into the filth of fundamentalism.

Parting Shot

You are as old as Pakistan. Whom do you think has done better in life - the midnight child or the fatherland?

I think I have done quite well, but Pakistan still has to make an effort to convert itself into a state where justice is done and nobody lives in hunger and fear.

Thank-you for the interview, Mr. Ahmed.

You are welcome, Mayank.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Photo Report - Running for Pakistan

A recent marathon in Pakistan made a political statement of its own.

[By Usman Ahmed and Mayank Austen Soofi]

On a cold January morning recently the Pakistani President inaugurated the Third Lahore Marathon by using the occasion to reject Islamic extremism. General Pervez Musharraf told the throngs that “through this international competition, the people of Pakistan have rejected the extremists, giving them a clear message that they are keen to organize and participate in such healthy sporting activities." It’s true that politicians can be prone to exaggeration.

Even so, an impartial eye could not ignore the unusually high attendance at the marathon. This was not always so. In 2005, the objections of conservative clerics to mixed-sex sport events were vehemently opposed by civil rights activists. The conflict grew so volatile that the provincial government of Punjab decided to prohibit the gathering of more than four people in a public place. The move was clearly intended to discourage a pre-planned mixed marathon.

The order was later lifted, and a special Marathon for Civil Liberties was then led by the celebrated human rights activist Asma Jehangir. This year, too, the clerics did not hesitate raising stale rants but were largely ignored. Runners included generous sprinkling of women and girls. Another positive sign was the inclusion of special events like a wheelchair race and a competition for the visually impaired. First held in 2005, Lahore Marathon has become a yearly event. More than 30,000 people, including 50 athletes from 15 countries, participated in the 2007 edition – with total cash prizes of $115,000. Ethiopian runners won the both men and women 42-kilometre events.

Winds of change?

So, is a breeze of enlightened moderation finally blowing in Pakistan?

“Yes”, said Mian Naeem, a Lahore-based art critic. “The fact that so many women took part in the Marathon clearly proves that people in urban Pakistan do not care about the mullahs. But their influence prevails in the villages.”

Saeeda Diep, a well-known social activist, was not upbeat. “It’s all a part of Musharraf’s strategy to please his American masters. For the time being, he has to display his liberal side to please the West.” Surely the enthusiastic participants were not running because of presidential pressure? “Considerable sections of the people are progressive and liberal. They are obviously happy to be a part of such events. My point is that Musharraf is merely using them for his own ends,” replied Ms Diep.

The Lahore-based newspaper Daily Times was more scathing. In an editorial Marathon versus Extremism, it blamed the Musharraf government for not “doing anything significant to protect the people against the propaganda and threats of the mullahs.”

So, like everything else in Pakistan, a running event has become a source of intense speculation. However, the spectacle this time around was less political and more sporting – as marathons should be.

*Running for Pakistan - Women Included

Running for Pakistan - Getting International

Running for Pakistan - On the Run

Running for Pakistan - They Like Musharraf!

Running for Pakistan - Man, Woman, Man

Running for Pakistan - Three Cheers

Running for Pakistan

*Pictures by Usman Ahmed in Lahore

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Editorial - Pakistan and India Will Never be Friends

The dividing wall of mistrust between these two nations won't come tumbling down anytime soon.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Ever at loggerheads, Pakistan and India staged yet another mutual discussion last week. Feel free to rejoice: at the end of it all, they agreed to launch the fourth round of the composite dialogue on March 13-14, 2007….Wow!

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri said, “We reviewed progress on all issues on the composite dialogue framework comprising peace and security, Jammu and Kashmir...promotion of friendly exchange and trade and economic cooperation." Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee acquiesced, "We agreed that the first meeting of the joint anti-terrorism mechanism will take place before end of March 2007."

Pretty exciting stuff.

Mr. Mukherjee was in Islamabad to deliver an invitation to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to attend the 14th regional SAARC Summit in New Delhi on April 2-4. It has not been accepted. The letter was instead passed down to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. But no one is moaning in agony. All attention was focused on the important talks that Mr.Mukherjee was expected to hold with Mr. Khurshid and President Musharraf. Their performances were revealing.

At the post-discussion press conference the two foreign ministers resembled actors playing minor roles in some surreal East European film. They announced to have "agreed to allow the movement of diplomats to Noida and Gurgaon in India and Taxila and Hasan Abdal in Pakistan." Gurgaon and Noida are shopping suburbs of New Delhi, while Taxila and Hasan Abdal are historical landmarks within a few miles of Islamabad. These destinations are barred for the diplomats of either country.

However, the diplomats need not plan weekend jaunts just yet. “Procedures for this will be worked out," Mr. Mukherjee added.

Should we clap and cheer that the governments of the two biggest South Asian countries have finally decided to grant their bored diplomats the modest pleasure of driving to nearby malls and historic ruins? If elaborate procedures are painstakingly devised for non-issues, we need not be think-tank experts to imagine the kind of insurmountable roadblocks that lie ahead for matters of actual concern.

Such bureaucratic lethargy exposes how far the policymakers have drifted away from the ground realities on the shore. Now it's too late to float back. The time for peace has perhaps already passed away. Pakistan Paindabad believes it unwise to expect peace in our life times and unrealistic to dream about it for our grandchildren either.

The dividing wall of prejudice and mistrust is here to stay.

Pakistan Paindabad - Long live Pakistan.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Blocking Blogs in Pakistan

While Time magazine makes bloggers the People of the Year 2006, Pakistan government is blocking access to blogs

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Pakistan Paindabad blog (run by this author), along with several others hosted on Blogger - a popular blog-hosting service, has been blocked by the Pakistan government.

Replying to an e-mail, Mr. Danish of The Blogger Team said that the “Pakistan government has been blocking all Blog*Spot pages from being shown within that country”.

The world generally perceives Pakistan as a troubled nation with terrorists swarming within its border. This is not true. Due to obsessive attention to crisis news, the international media do not report the other realities of Pakistan. Pakistan Paindabad was launched on September 2006 as a humble attempt to make the world aware about the "normal" and beautiful aspects of this South Asian country.

In its short history, the blog-site has received support from many netizens. Some readers, particularly of Pakistani origin, have become habitual visitors; a few contribute articles, and even send spectacular photographs of the country to be published in the site.

Thus it is surprising that the site has been deemed unfit for the readers in Pakistan. Else why is it accessible everywhere but in that country?

President Pervez Musharraf has frequently pleaded for enlightened moderation. He has publicly lambasted the conservative elements in the society. A recent story in Pakistan Paindabad had lauded Mr. Musharraf for playing a proactive role in changing the anti-woman Hudood ordinance.

But the inaccessibility of blogs complicates the idea of enlightened moderation. This blogger urges President Musharraf to stop wasting time on harmless sites and immediately de-block them.

Pakistan Paindabad – Long Live Pakistan.