Commentaries Culture Religion

Shams-ul-Iqbal Shams: Pakistani Artist and Calligrapher

Last week was the second time in a year that I had the pleasure of visiting the old campus of International Islamic University, Islamabad (IIUI). On both these occasions, I was there for an academic conference, and while there was able to view the most exquisite work of Sham-ul-Islam Shams.

Originally from Saidu Sharif, Swat, Mr. Shams was born in 1958 and works as an assistant in the Swat revenue court. In his spare tome, however, he creates masterpieces of contemporary Islamic calligraphy. Mr. Shams comes from a distinguished Muslim family and his father, Fazl-ur-Rehman Faizan, was an author of over twenty-five books including Pashto translations of Sa’adi’s Gulistan and Bostan. All that I have learned is from “my father and the artist M. M. Sharif” says Mr. Shams, in his modest manner, when asked about the progression of his work.

An avid scholar himself, with an extensive collection of rare books in Pashto and other languages, Mr. Shams displays his art freely and has never sold his work for profit. He also has quite a few students in Kabul and usually bears the expenses of his exhibitions out-of-pocket.

Mr. Shams is an expert on all major Arabic scripts including Kufi, Nasta’aliq, Diwani, Shikasta and others and mostly uses natural media (leather, stone, leaves, bones etc.) to produce his works of calligraphy.

Besides his calligraphic art, Mr. Shams also writes poetry in Pashto and has  appeared in various public and televised poetry readings and poetry shows. He is influenced by the works of Rehman Baba and mostly writes Sufi poetry. His father was his firstt poetry teacher.

Mr. Shams is also teaching his art to his two children and hopes to establish a calligraphy institute in swat. “There is not a lot of work being done in this area and not many teachers are available” says Mr. Shams.

Let us hope that his work will be more widely recognized nationally and internationally and that he will be able to pass on his skills and vision to the next generation of Pakistan in general and swat valley in particular.


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Commentaries Culture Education

Iqbal: The Reluctant Feminist

Iqbal apologists always suggest that Iqbal wanted the women to have all the rights granted to them in the shariah: how revolutionary is that? It is the job of a philosopher to think on the edge of thought, to go beyond what custom and tradition permit.

I started reading Iqbal in eighth grade. Since then, I have read almost all works of Iqbal and published quite frequently about various aspects of his large literary oeuvre. In fact, almost two chapters of my book (Constructing Pakistan, Oxford UP 2010) rely quite heavily on Iqbal’s poetry and his political wirings. I state all this to prepare the reader that I am familiar with Iqbal the poet, the philosopher, and the historical figure and my critique of Iqbal’s elevation to the level of a national poet of Pakistan, thus, comes from this place of knowing, this place of love.

Appropriating a poet’s work for the work of a nation is always a political project: in this process of imagination, the poet is given a prophetic status and his works are mobilized to underwrite the nation. The British did that in the figure of Shakespeare; The Pakistanis have indubitably relied on Iqbal as the prophetic poet philosopher of the nation.

What happens when a poet is elevated to the mythical level of being a national poet? His works can then be mobilized to crystallize and fix a certain imagination of the nation, could be one answer. In this process of using the works and words of a national poet, the poet’s works become trans-historical and timeless. In simple terms, the thoughts of a national poet become a legitimizing text in defining the nation with an absolute reliance on the past. I believe that it is crucial to the Pakistan’s future to re-read Iqbal within the contextual history of his writing and to challenge all visions of human existence with this matrix.

First, what kind of subjectivity does Iqbal’s works privilege, and what underwrites the retrieval of such subjectivity? (I have written longer works on this that you can read in your own time by following this link: It is fairly obvious that Iqbal’s project of historical retrieval is a masculine project: his ideal man (or or mard-e—mujahid) is an action-oriented male figure modeled upon the male figures of early Islamic history. This retrieval of an idealized male subject involves a chronotopic approach in which time and space come together to invoke him: the time of the Prophet and the region of Hijaz. Our mullahs often quote this timeless figure as the ideal male subject of our present and, not surprisingly, often quote Iqbal in emphasizing their point. Late Dr. Israr Ahmed was famous for quoting Iqbal.

What we need to understand is that Iqbal’s political poetry is deeply tainted with the politics of his times: his retrieved Muslim subjectivity, therefore, is a reactionary retrieval of an idealized Muslim malehood specific only to his particular political context. This retrieval through an idealized past is a common practice during the final stages of all anticolonial movements. During the final stages of struggle, in what Frantz Fanon calls the “fighting phase,” the poets, instead of thinking toward the hitherside of future, think backwards to an idealized pre-colonial past, which in case of Iqbal happens to be the Islam of eighth century. The male subject so retrieved—the mujahid—thus is posited as an ideal subject needed to resist the colonizers through an unsullied, premodern subjectivity. This works fine during the anticolonial struggle as such tropes of masculinity are absolutely essential for any freedom struggle. But this exercise in retrieval also leaves the postcolonial Muslim-state in love with an irretrievable past. Resultantly, if we read Iqbal’s idealized male subject as non-contextual and transhistoric instead of reading it within its historical context, we end up privileging a countermodern, pre-colonial male subjectivity as opposed to its modern counterparts.

I am suggesting that we need to re-read Iqbal within the context of our current predicament. Also, we cannot rely on Iqbal to give us all the answers and we need to have the courage to admit that maybe, like so many of us humans, Iqbal can also be wrong sometimes. But Iqbal has been so deeply impressed upon our consciousness as the national poet philosopher that even suggesting that he was not at all perfect, can incite a venomous counter attack from his acolytes.

Rereading Iqbal with the tools of modern theory will enable us to read the very male-specific and sexist nature of his work. While his work lauds the exploits of men and produces a detailed genealogy of a male mujahid identity, the attention to the role of women is pretty thin. In fact, Mullahs often use Iqbal to justify the status of women as “passive citizens.” When it comes to the question of women’s rights in the postcolonial Pakistan, I think Iqbal terribly squandered his cultural and symbolic capital in not taking an explicit stance on the rights of women. It is no that he could not have found existing works on the subject: after all Maulana Mumtaz Ali had published his revolutionary, and now totally neglected, Haqooq-e-Niswan and had already launched a journal to this effect. Iqbal’s silence, or lukewarm engagement, with the question of women’s rights can thus only be attributed to a matter of choice, for, being a learned philosopher, he could have not been ignorant of the debates in progress and of the importance of the this particular issue for the future of Pakistan.

His stance on women is pretty clear form his earliest works: women are whole only in supporting roles and cannot really have or possess an individual, agential subjectivity of their own. This is quite odd coming from a philosopher who leaves no philosophical thought untouched in his last work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

Of course, the Iqbal apologists always suggest that Iqbal wanted the women to have all the rights granted to them in the shariah: how revolutionary is that? It is the job of a philosopher to think on the edge of thought, to go beyond what custom and tradition permit and this is what Maulana Mumtaz Ali had done with great courage and wonderful eloquence in his book on the rights of women. The reason our Mullahs have never engaged with Mumtaz Ali’s work is simply because none of them have the kind of wisdom to grasp the issue and debate it; it is easier just to parrot the age-old clichés for the secondary state of women as “sanctified” by religion.

In my alternative history of Iqbal, I imagine him thinking deeply about the rights of women. In this alternative history Iqbal asks the following questions:

  • – Are women capable of reason and speech?
  • – Are women responsible, legally, for their actions?
  • – Are women responsible for their actions and shall be judged as individuals on the Day of Judgment?

If the answer to all these questions is in affirmative, then, in my imagined history, my Iqbal employs his monumental philosophical skills to form an answer. He writes, or says, or declares that since women are individually accountable for their actions in this world and the other, that accountability presupposes that they have an individual, agential, and fully realized political and social identity. We cannot have it both ways, Iqbal would say, for if women are not fully realized active citizens, then they should not be fully accountable for their sins both here and in the hereafter. In fact, my Iqbal would go a step further and suggest that if we acknowledge women only as secondary beings—in relation to their male counterparts—then all their spiritual and corporeal sins should be attributed to their male masters.

But as we all are painfully aware, Iqbal never goes there. He challenges, unravels, and berates a hundred different philosophies but never has the courage to tackle the most significant question of Islamic way of life: the question of the rights of women.

And now, sadly, in his postcolonial apotheosis to the role of a national poet and philosopher he has become the most useful prop to all those who can only imagine a reactionary Pakistan: A Pakistan uncomfortable in the present, terrified of the future, and deeply in love with a romanticized irretrievable past.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

Commentaries Culture Politics

Auctoritas, Potestas, and the Talibanistic Imaginary (Part 1-6)*

(This is a provisional summary of what I have written on this topic so far)

In discussing the complex concept of the “State of Exception” Georgio Agamben traces the origin of current normative and central role of the State of Exception through a discussion of the two competing Roman concepts of Auctoritas and Potestas.

Auctoritas, in the sphere of private law, Agamben explains, “is the property of the auctor, that is, the person sui iuris (the pater familias) who intervenes . . . in order to confer legal validity on the act of a subject who cannot independently bring a legally valid act into being” (76).  The term, Agamben further suggests, “derives from the verb augeo: the auctor is is qui auget, the person who augments, increases, or perfects the act–or legal situation–of someone else” (76).

Having discussed the term itself, Agamben asks the following important questions: “But where does the ‘force’ of the auctor come from? And what is this power to augere? His answer provides the most important explanation of auctocritas as a signifier of a specific juridical power. He suggests that auctocritas has “nothing to do with representation” (77) nor is the “auctor’s act” “founded upon some sort of legal power vested in him to act as a representative” (77). This power to augere, Agamben suggests, “springs directly from his condition as pater” (77). Important also to note is that Agamben argues that “auctoritas is not sufficient in itself” (76), its very existence also depends on an “extraneous activity that it validates” (76). Thus the act of the auctor reaches fruition only when it, in concert with an other, completes a perfect act by validating the act itself. That is why Agamben goes on to define the perfect act as follows:

It is, then, as if for something to exist in law there must be a relationship between two elements (or two subjects): one endowed with auctoritas and one that takes the initiative in the act in the strict sense. If the two elements or two subjects coincide, then the act is perfect. However, if there is a gap or incongruity between them, the act must be completed with auctoritas in order to be valid. (76)

Thus the role of the auctor is to fill the gap between the two parties, or elements, by adding his legal weight in order to erase the inequality that might make the transaction imperfect.  The auctor, whose power is inherent to his person, thus erases the deficit in a contractual act simply by inserting his will into the act itself: like the father giving consent to marry or the teacher providing an answer. This discussion is still only pertinent to the function of auctoritas in the sphere of private law. The next part of Agamben’s discussion touches upon the role of auctoritas in public law. But before I discuss that it is important to dwell on potestas. Generally speaking, while auctocritas deals with the anomic aspects of the law, potestas deals with the laws normative functions and in Roman law both are supposed to function in a sort of dialogic embrace.

Generally speaking, while auctocritas deals with the anomic aspects of the law, potestas deals with the law’s normative functions and in Roman law both are supposed to function in a sort of dialogic embrace. Traditionally in the Roman sphere of public law, potestas was the legal power vested in the magistrates who exercised it within  the law. Imperium, military power, was the highest form of potestas. Thus, while auctoritas (the anomic aspect of the law) performed the private function of the law and was associated with all those who could claim the status of pater, potestas (the normative aspect of the law) was always related to the magistracy and could not be claimed by virtue of one’s social status. A healthy and dialogic tension between the two was necessary to maintain the social order.

Agamben further complicates the discussion of these two concepts by re-reading the interpretations of yet another Roman practice: Iustitium. Agamben explains: “The term iustitium. . . literally means ‘standstill’ or ‘suspension of the law’.” (41). In most modern assessments of the term, the term is interpreted as an act of public mourning, but Agamben explains the term against this much traversed terrain of explication. First, he explains the material circumstances within the Roman history when an iustitium was proclaimed:

Upon learning of a situation that endangered the Republic, the Senate would issue a senatus consultum ultimatum [final decree of the Senate] by which it called upon the counsels . . . and even, in extreme cases, all citizens, to take whatever measures they considered necessary for the salvation of the state. (41)

Agamben also suggests that such a decree was contingent upon a real situation that could qualify as tumultus: like an invasion or internal resurrection. So how does this practice, Agamben asks, come to be understood as public mourning? Here is what he writes about the usual readings of the term:

Indeed, with the end of the Republic, iustitium ceased to mean the suspension of law in order to cope with a tumult and the new meaning replaced the old one so perfectly that even the memory of this austere institution seems to have entirely vanished.  . . . But how did this term that was used in public law to designate the suspension of law in situations of the most extreme political necessity come to assume the more anodyne meaning of a funeral for a death in the family? (65)

While discussing several misreading and explanations of the concept as mourning, Agamben finally suggests a particular explanation of this transformation of meaning of the term from a concept related to tumult to a concept signifying a public mourning. Agamben explains this subtle meaning by discussing Augustus’s conflation of auctoritas and potestas into one person, the figure of Caesar Augustus.  By having combined the private function of auctoritas and by absorbing the public aspects of potestas unto himself, Augustus had become the very body of the law. As Augustus had made auctoritas public by ascribing to himself the role of the pater of the nation and had arrogated to himself the powers of the magistracy, in him then, the anomic and normative functions of the law are made to reside in one person and the state of exception becomes the law. His, death, therefore, is also the death of law, the death of the state of exception, as the law resides in him. Agamben describes this, while discussing Agustus’s death, as follows:

The correspondence between anomie and mourning becomes comprehensible only in the light of the correspondence between the death of the sovereign and the state of exception. The original nexus between tumultus and iustitium is still present, but the tumult now coincides with the death of the sovereign, while the suspension of the law is integrated into the funeral ceremony. (68)

In a way, then, Agamben explains, by appropriating all powers and by making exception the norm the sovereign becomes “living law”, “nomos empushkos” (69) and thus can assert himself to be above law (69). Thus, the reason isutitium is read as public mourning is because literally the death of the sovereign itself becomes a tumult as law has died.

For Agamben this conflation of the normative and anomic aspects of the law and the creation of a permanent state of exception is a dangerous combination, and he asserts:

But when they [auctoritas and potestas] tend to reside in a single person, when the state of exception, in which they are bound and blurred together, becomes the rule, then the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine. (86)

With this discussion of the state of exception, auctoritas, and potestas, I will now move on to discuss the sort of juridico-political world created by what I call the Talibanistic imaginary.

First, a brief explanation of what I mean by Talibanistic imaginary. Talibanistic imaginary is a worldview constructed within modernity, is shaped by the material, cultural, and political conditions, and relies on a literalist, reductive, and exclusionary definition of tradition. A Talib, the subject of this particular imaginary, views modernity itself as a threat to the body and soul and attempts to alter modernity by attempting to overwrite it with a premodern explanation of the real.

Though I use the term Talib and Taliban, I do not use it in its reductive usage from the US media as a signifier specific for the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban movement. In my theorization, the term signifies the Talibanistic trends on both sides of the global division of labor. With this brief explanation of the term, I will now discuss the Talibanistic imaginary as it develops on two opposite ends of the global division of labor: Afghanistan/Pakistan and the United States.

The term Taliban entered the metropolitan vocabulary in the mid nineteen-eighties, and it is only apt to first dwell on this term itself with a reference to its place of origin, Afghanistan. Taliban as a linguistic unit is plural of “Talib,” which literally means a seeker or a student in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. The pluralization, Taliban, however, is in Pashto. Thus as a signifier, the term Taliban is overloaded with its semantic origins but also with the traces of the Pashtun culture and politics. The term Taliban used in the popular vocabulary specifically tends to signify the kind of politics and worldview practiced by the followers of the Taliban movement, but I intend to stretch its usage to cover a particular countermodern imaginary and praxis that defies any regional locus and explanation.

The Afghan Taliban movement, I suggest, is an apt example of the conflation of auctoritas and potestas under a perpetual iustitium, and I will now elaborate on this claim by dwelling a little on the rise of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in the mid nineteen-eighties. There is an important passage in Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban where the author touches upon the popular myths about the rise of Taliban, and that particular passage is the starting point of my argument. Rashid writes:

There is now an entire factory of myths and stories to explain how Omar mobilized a small group of Taliban against the rapacious Kandhar warlords. The most credible story, told repeatedly, is that in the spring of 1994 Singesar neighbours came to tell him that a commander had abducted two teenage girls, their heads had been shaved and they had been taken to a military camp and repeatedly raped. Omar enlisted some thirty Talibs . . . and attacked the base, freeing the girls and hanging the commander from the barrel of a tank. (Rashid 25)

This is the moment when Mullah Omar, a teacher and a pater to his students, is approached by the community simply because he possesses a form of auctoritas in the private sphere. His help is sought in the face of a permanent state of iustititum caused by the post-Soviet-Afghan war internal strife. His act to enter the political arena can also be read as his assumption of the regulatory responsibilities by instituting a state of exception in which auctoritas and potestas are conflated in one person, and, by extension in his followers. The purpose of their actions: to seek justice at a time when law is at a “stand still.”

The rise of the Taliban cannot just be attributed to the Qur’an and the Islamic texts, for after all these texts had been there for centuries without spawning something such as the Taliban. The rise of the Taliban is inherently connected to the material conditions and the perpetual state of tumult that existed in Afghanistan in the mid-eighties.

When the Taliban finally oust their opponents and capture Kabul, the final phase of the conflation of auctoritas and potestas is completed. The way in which Mullah Omar defines his official position is analogous to that of  Octavian declaring himself “Augustus.” Mullah Omar takes on the title of Ameer-ul-Mominin, the leader of the faithful. Traditionally, this title was designated for the early caliphs of Islam. By declaring himself the leader of the faithful, Mullah Omar can conflate his private role as an auctor with that of the “law-giver”, thus creating a perfect and perpetual state of exception in which his person becomes the law. This title also makes him into a supranational figure, for by declaring himself the leader of the faithful he becomes the leader of all those Muslims willing to join his cause regardless of their national or cultural origin.

But the situation is further aggravated also by a perpetual state of tumult in which each of his followers is given imperium to regulate life. This imperium is granted to them under the rules of behavior governed by the tradition of “Am’r bil ma’roof wa nahi anil munkar–to encourage the correct actions and to stop the wrong actions.” In the streets of Kabul, this guiding formula gives the Taliban foot soldiers the power to regulate and punish all actions that may not fit their particular definition of “right” and “wrong.” Thus, just when the law is at a stand still, a permanent state of exception is established in the shape of a power to regulate life through a popular imperium granted by the authority of the “Ameer” in whom the law has become embodied in one person. The result of this conflation of auctoritas and potestas, amidst a perpetual tumult, of course, is the creation of a “death world.”

It is no wonder, then, that the Taliban rule in Afghanistan is inextricably linked with a permanent state of iustitium as the country, for so many reasons, was and is in a perpetual tumult. Furthermore, since the Taliban had mobilized a purist past in order to cope with the present, their entire political philosophy is linked with this perpetual tumult of modernity that, in their view, threatens their world view. The result:  a system of law in which the state of exception is the norm. Thus, the anomic aspects of law are conflated with the normative functions of the law to create a stable but anomic legal order, an order in which even the foot-soldiers have, in some ways, an absolute imperium over their fellow citizens.

Furthermore, since the Talibanistic imaginay is connected to this permanent tumult, even in absence of a material danger to their rule, an ideological tumult–modernity, corrupting influences, deviations, must be constantly invoked to create a state of ideological siege in which the state of exception can no longer  be erased but becomes a permanent system of law. In fact, under such a scenario, maintaining a permanent state of tumult is a perfect strategy to continue the Taliban rule. The actions of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan these days are a perfect example of this strategy: they do not have a viable long-term plan but their immediate goal is to alter the ground realities in a way that both Pakistan and Afghanistan  either stay in or transition into a permanent tumult. And it is here that the policies grounded in the American Talibanistic imaginary come to play the most crucial role in, probably unintentionally, maintaining the material conditions ideally suited for the Taliban movement. [More later]

* (All citations are from Georgio Agamben’s State of Exception. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2005).


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Commentaries Culture Politics

GoodReads: Engaging the Muslim World, Juan Cole

Engaging the Muslim World

By Juan Cole

Publication Details:
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan; Rev Upd edition (September 14, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0230102751
ISBN-13: 978-0230102750

Details (From

From Publishers Weekly

University of Michigan history professor and blogger Cole (Sacred Space and Holy War) takes aim at the Bush administration’s Islamophobic discourse, highlighting that some of the very people who promulgated the phobia (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld) once sang a different tune. He calls instead for evenhanded and pragmatic policy changes, not least a reckoning with the heterogeneity of the Muslim world. Yet for all his expertise, Cole fails to source some of his harshest accusations; moreover, for a scholar championing greater subtlety of thought, he too often discards nuance himself. To the extent that Cole argues against painting the Middle East with overly broad strokes, he brings a constructive addition to public discourse; his failure to be consistent is a lost opportunity. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Cole has delivered an important book that members of the administration would be wise to read en route to the Middle East.”–The American Prospect
“[A] balanced and effective antidote to oversimplified Western views of Islam. . . . manages to prick western misconceptions without taking extremist movements entirely at their own estimation.” —The Economist
“[Cole] brings a constructive addition to public discourse.” —Publishers Weekly
“Intelligent, clear and erudite. This is a timely and incisive retrospective of the Bush administration’s calamitous encounter with the Muslim World by one of the most noted scholars of the subject. Cole looks deep into what went wrong to show the way forward to a new engagement of the Muslim World.”–Vali Nasr, bestselling author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future

“Juan Cole, distinguished specialist on the Muslim world, delivers his most comprehensive and erudite commentary to date — covering imperialism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, American oil politics, radical Islam and Middle Eastern terrorism. Engaging the Muslim World is the book every educated American should read.”–Chalmers Johnson, bestselling author of Nemesis and The Blowback Trilogy

“Engaging the Muslim World is a MUST read, the right book at the right time for anyone who wants to understand ‘What went wrong, why, and where do we go from here.’ Juan Cole is uniquely qualified to provide a critical, incisive, provocative analysis and commentary that will be welcomed by experts, policymakers and concerned citizens.”–John L. Esposito, Professor of religion & International Affairs, Georgetown University and bestselling author of Who Speaks for Islam? and What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam

“Cole provides a comprehensive alternative analysis of the current situation in the Muslim world and reveals how new U.S. policies might succeed in bringing peace where wars now rage. He proves the key role of oil interests in American foreign policy and demonstrates how incorrect or exaggerated ideas now prevalent in the U.S. are about the intrinsic militancy of Islam, and the aggressiveness of Iran. Everyone should read and ponder the facts he presents and the solutions he proposes.”–Nikki Keddie, Professor Emerita of History, UCLA and author of Modern Iran and Women in the Middle East

“Juan Cole’s depth and breath of knowledge on the Middle East has made him the most prescient analyst of the region’s politics. It might infuriate the neocons who are proven wrong again and again, but Cole’s insight is invaluable to anyone interested in the truth.”– Markos Moulitsas, DailyKos

“A well-reasoned, useful vision for Western-Muslim relations.”–Kirkus

“A leading American expert on the Islamic world, seeks to dispel many of the persistent myths about Islam and the Middle East. Cole convincingly demonstrates why one should not confuse Muslim activism with hidebound fundamentalism. The chapter dealing with Iran is particularly informative and evenhanded, and the analysis of myriad issues in U.S.-Iran relations is a welcome antidote to the barrage of alarmist commentaries on Iran in much of the U.S. press. This readable and intelligent book is a must read for policymakers and the informed public.–Library Journal, starred review
“Juan Cole’s ‘Engaging the Muslim World’ maps those fault lines, and one can only wish Bush had mulled over such material before the misadventures of the post-9/11 era began.  Like Lawrence Wright’s remarkable ‘Looming Tower’, published almost three years ago, this field guide to the politics of modern Islam traces the history of the different movements, whose violent offshoots are still morphing into new forms.” —New York Times Book Review
“The blog I turn to for insight into Middle East news is often Professor Juan Cole’s, because he’s smart, well-informed and sensible — in other words, I often agree with his take.” — Nicholas Kristof, New York Times
“The Obama administration, as it seeks to correct a decade of self-fulfilling phobias, will find no better guide than this nuanced, clear-headed, visionary book.“ –The Huffington Post
“I cannot improve on Juan Cole’s thorough and excellent debunking of the results [of the Iranian Presidential Election].”– Laura Secor, The New Yorker
“Provocative and sweeping . . . Of the three books, Cole’s is the most critically rigorous and empirically informed. Agree or disagree, one cannot ignore cole’s historically and sociologically driven analysis and moral courage.” — Fawaz Gerges, National Interest
“Cole has written a gripping, accessible and elegant book.  One of its great strengths is its weaving together a wealth of data into compelling historical vignettes and anecdotes.  The author is an excellent storyteller and this book is a pleasurable and entertaining read.” –Ziad Fahmy, H-Levant
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The Floods in Pakistan: Short Interview with Fayyaz Baqir, Director Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center

The Floods in Pakistan
Short Interview with Fayyaz Baqir, Director
Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center
Islamabad, August 20, 2010

Maggie Ronkin

Donor link:

1. What regions of Pakistan and sectors of the population are affected most by the tragic flooding?

Vast swaths of land in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously the Northwest Frontier Province), Southern Punjab (the Siraiki region of the Punjab), Sindh, and Balochistan have been devastated by the recent floods. These floods are considered to be the worst in the entire world during the past hundred years. It is not an exaggeration that fifteen million families have been rendered homeless, and hundreds of thousands of homes have been wiped off the face of the earth. Hundreds of villages are no more. Standing crops over thousands of acres, cattle, infrastructure, and productive assets of millions of families have been lost due to flooding. A woman from a very well off and respected family of a rural district contacted by phone said “Everything is gone. We are beggars”. Scores of women from small farm and landless families burst into tears when asked about their plight. “There is no food, no water, no medicine, no help” most of them narrated. If they do not receive assistance soon, they may reach the point where they think that there is “no hope”. Such a situation will add another dimension to the crisis because desperate minds are fertile ground for militants. This is a great humanitarian crisis to which the world’s conscience needs to respond. The scale of this tragedy is so enormous that the country’s entire population is reeling in shock.

2. What does the devastation in Pakistan look like to you on the ground?

Thousands of human settlements are under ten or fifteen-foot deep water. Dead cattle can be found everywhere. Innumerable people are stranded in areas surrounded by water. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, and elderly people who managed to move out of their houses leaving behind their assets accumulated over a life time have squatted along the roads. Tents are in extremely short supply, so the homeless sit under the burning sun without any shade to cover their heads. They often seem overwhelmed and unable to decide what to do. There are shortages of food, safe drinking water, and medicine. Whenever food arrives, scrambling for it leads to scuffles, and inevitably, the poor, weak, and households headed by women are hurt the most. There is no organized, visible, and dependable government assistance available.

3. What can be done to counter “donor fatigue” and the perception that indigenous aid organizations are untrustworthy?

Please be assured that the media are underestimating the resilience, resourcefulness, and capacity of the people to cope with the disaster due to the presence of hundreds of formal and informal institutions and mechanisms that help people on a day-to-day basis. Credible, effective, and trustworthy actors certainly abound. They include philanthropists, NGOs, custodians of shrines, voluntary associations, government agencies, and, yes, the army. Some politicians also have played very active and constructive roles in reaching out to people. All tiers of the government cannot be trusted and government cannot reach out everywhere given the enormous scale of this tragedy.

Two factors are key here. One is that DCOs, those in charge of districts, enjoy much less power, respect, and authority than did their predecessors, the Deputy Commissioners (DCs). Therefore, they are much less effective. Another is that elected local government officials were released from their jobs a few months ago. New local elections were not held because the ruling parties in each province wanted elections when they could achieve “favourable” results. Establishing links among doers, donors, and communities in need is the most important step. It is not transparency of government and relief assistance alone but sharing of information in general that is most critical. We need information gathering, analysis, packaging, and dissemination through electronic, print, and verbal means in a big way. Mainstream and alternative media have to play active roles to build links and trust. Once trust and links are established, donor fatigue will go away.

4. In what areas is need greatest this week (e.g., shelter, food, medicine, etc.)? In what areas will need be greatest a month and three months from now?

As images circulated across the globe show, affected people and communities have lost everything. The greatest need this week is for tents, food, water, and medicine. One to three months from now the need will be greatest for productive assets like seed, cattle, ploughing instruments, water pumps to drain out trapped water, building materials, and credit.

A package to meet the basic food requirements of a family of 5-7 people includes 20 kg flour, 5 kg sugar, 5 kg oil, 1 kg tea, 5 kg pulses and lentils, 3 kg dry milk, and a few boxes of matches. It meets a family’s food needs for one week and costs Rs. 3200 (US $38). This is the cost of 5 lunches on the go in the USA. Millions of families need help. However, even making a donation to help a single family is like lighting a candle.

5. What can US-based educators do to best represent and encourage interest in the tremendous challenges now faced by ordinary Pakistanis?

Please link up with credible charities, NGOs, and autonomous government departments. Disseminate information on effective local actors to donors, volunteers, and technical experts who can help the affected communities, and raise and disburse funds. One way to identify effective local organizations is through the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP). The PCP accredits NGOs in a thorough and rigorous process, and a list of accredited NGOs is displayed on their website. Another way to identify credible organizations is through the UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It has a district and function-wise list of credible NGOs in the field.) The World Bank-supported multi-million dollar Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) is another source for finding credible partners. Their partners are well scrutinized and selected after a careful appraisal process. Last and not least is the National Centre for Human Development (NCHD), which is headed by a former civil society activist and media professional who is highly respected for her competence, integrity, and commitment to the downtrodden.

Commentaries Culture

An Interview with Fayyaz Baqir, Director Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center, Pakistan

Fayyaz Baqir

Interview contributed by Maggie Ronkin, Georgetown University

Q1. Could you share a brief history of the kind of work you did before joining the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center?
In 1968, I joined the struggle for social change in Pakistan as a campus activist at Punjab University, Lahore. I hailed from an extremely conservative religious family in Multan and my father was Ameer of Jamaa’t Islami Multan (an extreme right wing religious political party). He taught me to be rational, disciplined, honest, and hard working. However, my compassion for the downtrodden and sinners urged me to seek new avenues for serving humanity. At the age of 17, I turned into a fire brand communist and organized the largest left wing students’ organization in the Punjab, which was known as the Nationalist Students Organization. I was its Chief Convener in early 1970s. Soon after graduating from the University, I joined the South Asian Institute and chose research and teaching as my career. In 1979, Pakistan’s popular elected Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by the military dictator General Zia ul Haq. After Bhutto’s death, several cases were registered against me in different police stations of the Punjab on charges of sedition, inciting people to rebellion, and disturbing law and order. The police raided various places to arrest me, and they locked up my brother when they failed to find me.

I went into self-exile in 1980 and lived in North America for the next seven years. During this period, I gradually got disillusioned with Marxist politics. My stay in North America enriched my life and understanding of human potential, but my thirst for finding the truth kept me restless. In spite of my intense and short-lived love affairs with socialism, capitalism, and other contemporary rationalist ideologies I always thought there was something missing in all these ideologies. There was something wrong in their assessment of human potential. In 1986, I happened to meet a Sufi teacher and my life changed forever. Sufism is based on sound understanding of human limitations and brings into play human potential through love, compassion, tolerance, and infinite faith in Allah’s mercy. Sufis kindle the light of hope in the lives of the wretched of earth. Sufi thinking is nicely captured in a statement of the great Sufi Master Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani. Shaikh once was asked that if his good disciples will go to paradise, what will happen to his bad disciples. The Shaikh replied, “My good disciples love me and I love my bad disciples.” Akhter Hameed Khan followed the same thinking in working for social change. Through his love, wisdom, and knowledge, he lit up thousands of hearts with the glow of hope, self-confidence, self-pride, and passion for change.

Q.2 Can you briefly discuss the Center’s mission and its major accomplishments.

The Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center (AHKRC) in Islamabad is a repository of knowledge on rural development and poverty alleviation. It was established to commemorate the life-long services of the great development activist Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan. The Center’s main objectives are to accumulate, generate, and disseminate research-based knowledge for policy advocacy with the government, influence public opinion, create reading materials for higher education, and assist policy makers and CSOs  (Civil Society Organizations) in future programming.

The principal objective of the AHKRC is to promote a macro and micro level understanding of the causes and processes of change in the rural areas of the south in general and in Pakistan in particular. The purposes of stressing this objective are to promote the use of such understanding to develop and/or support rural development initiatives and programmes; to influence government, donor, media, and NGO policies; and to facilitate necessary human resource development to make all this possible.

AHKRC is supporting the International Islamic University (IIU) in running a masters’ degree Programme on Rural Development, and the Director of AHKRC is represented on IIU’s Board of Studies. Recently, AHKRC also formed a unique partnership with Maggie Ronkin at Georgetown University and Nadeem Akbar, Islamabad Director of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, to create a videoconferenced summer course for US-based undergraduates on Justice and Peace in Pakistan in 2010.

AHKRC has started a research group to support the work of leading scholars from local universities who seek to understand and analyze development programmes led by development icons from Pakistan. The goals achieved by the support will include reviewing literature on the programmes; formulating research questions in consultation with practitioners; consolidating and analyzing existing data and collecting additional data in light of the research questions; undertaking comparisons with similar programmes, and anchoring the research process in the field.

AHKRC facilitated the publication of Shoaib Sultan Khan’s book “Aga Khan Rural Support Programme: A Journey through Grass Roots Development” and the Urdu translation of “Rural Development in Pakistan” by Oxford University Press in 2009 and 2010. The Center plans to publish a volume commemorating Dr. Khan’s remarkable intellectual, social, and literary achievements and “RSPs–Growth and Change” by Mahmood Hassan Khan in 2010. The Director and AHKRC-affiliated scholars are widely published in national and international research journals. The Director received UNDP’s award for being one of the ten most prolific contributors to the Global Poverty Reduction Network in 2008 and 2009.

Q3. What prompted you to this kind of work?

Pakistan allocates much less of its GDP to social development than do other countries at the same level of income. A large part of this modest budget is not even spent during each financial year. The amount which is spent produces much lower results than its potential. This low performance is not due to lack of resources. It is caused by the lack of administrative infrastructure below the district level, the disconnect between the socio-economic reality of the poor and technical solutions of the formal sector, and the progressive deterioration of the government’s planning capacity. There is no social infrastructure below the district level to fill the gap caused by the absence of administrative infrastructure.

However, during the past 25 years, some very innovative experiments by CSOs have created the possibility of replicating their successful experiments by government and NGOs on a large scale. This, in turn, has produced the need to create a repository of knowledge on sustainable social development. I believe deeply in the effectiveness of discourses of knowledge in solving human problems, which cannot be handled by discourses of power. AHKRC offered me the opportunity to undertake this work. The opportunity, in fact, is why I resigned from a position with the UN and joined AHKRC.

Q4. Are there any particular experiences that you would like to share with our readers?

From my school days, I grew up with friends who belonged to the working class–sons of street vendors, donkey cart drivers, bicycle mechanics, wood cutters, and domestic servants. Most of them were very bright, hard working, intelligent, and well behaved. As I started moving to higher levels of study, many began to drop out of school because they had to help their parents earn a living. It made me very sad at that time and it makes me sad even now. The motivation to turn life around has been with me since. However, my Sufi teachers as well Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan made me realize that profound and meaningful change begins with self-change. The importance of this teaching is ignored by most revolutionary and political ideologies. All authoritarian and extremist ideologies overlook this truth and use enormous force to “change” others. That gives rise to intolerance, violence, and extremism. I was attracted to the work of Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan because it helps me to be what I am. He taught people humility, simplicity, hard work, patience, love, and care through his personal example.

Q5.  How did you get involved in the course on Justice and Peace in Pakistan?

Maggie Ronkin

I met Maggie Ronkin through Nadeem Akbar last year, and she shared her vision of starting a course to open channels of communication between undergraduates on North American campuses and Pakistani civil society. This idea touched my heart. The need to do away with stereotyping by means of both Pakistani and American images is equally important. Pakistan is an amazing melting pot like the USA, and both societies need to understand each other well. Pakistan is a very diverse, vibrant, and complex country brimming with talent. It has a rich cultural heritage and has been at the crossroads of many civilizations–Arab, Persian, Chinese, Central Asian, European, and Hindu. Pakistanis’ broad mindedness, hospitality, and enormous capacity to assimilate positive external influences is not widely known in the West. The commercialization and sensationalism of the media has largely strengthened and perpetuated negative stereotyping of Pakistanis. This has severely hampered the potential for meaningful interaction between Pakistanis and people in other parts of the world. Not only is this Pakistan’s loss; it is the loss of the entire global community. We must make efforts to change the situation in both nations’ schooling, because reducing human choices for interaction reduces human freedom.

Please visit our website on Justice and Peace in Pakistan at and spread the word about our summer course!