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Arab Spring in Pakistan? No, Thanks

In an interesting and slightly misguided article about the possibilities of an Arab Spring in Pakistan, Michael Kugelman, (a senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC) begins his opinion piece with the following profound assertions:

Will Pakistan experience an Arab Spring? The question has been on many minds since revolution swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 – and especially since a major anti-government rally took place in Islamabad this month. . . .

It’s easy to understand why. Pakistan, like the Arab Spring nations, boasts a young and mobile communications savvy population. Its masses are victims of the same indignities that incited revolt in the Middle East: corruption, oppression, and injustice.

However, the similarities end there. Let’s stop talking about a revolution in Pakistan, because it’s not going to happen. (http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/30/the-myth-of-an-arab-spring-in-pakistan/?hpt=hp_bn2)

That Mr. Kugleman’s entire argument relies on false analogies is obvious:

  •  The Arab spring has happened.
  • It was mostly a revolutionary attempt led by the tech savvy youth of several “Arab” countries.
  • Pakistan shares the same kind of material conditions with the Arab countries.
  •  Should the so-called “Arab Spring” happen in Pakistan? Yes.
  •  It has not happened.
  •  Conclusion: There must be something wrong with Pakistan.

Mr. Kugelmen then mobilizes the most hackneyed list to prove his point: corrupt leaders, Pakistani propensity for the cult-of-personality politics, and ethnic and cultural divisions. In this argument, revolution is offered as a progressive narrative that cannot be sustained in Pakistan because, we are to believe, Pakistan has not crossed a certain threshold of mass mobilization to join the other lauded revolutions that have happened and are happening in the Arab world.

The first problem with this framing of an argument is that it relies on a simplified understanding of revolution: it uses the spontaneous rise of the youth against their oppressors in Tunisia, Egypt, and other nations of the Islamic world as an ideal type. Thus, anything that cannot be posited as a universal popular response, somehow, fails to be of value.

What Mr. Kugleman and others like him fail to account for is the very complexity of Pakistan, a complexity that they posit as a detriment to the chances of any mass political mobilization.

Let us account for this complexity: Pakistan is a diverse nation, which has a written constitution, a defined system of government, a trained bureaucracy, and a viable educational system. Yes, in terms of political consciousness and political origination, Pakistan is far ahead of its Arab counterparts. Pakistanis have strong party affiliations and have several organized national parties and numerous regional political parties with very strong following. This is a great recipe for a democracy: organized political parties and their base is an absolute precondition for any viable democratic system.

Is there corruption? Yes, certainly. But all democracies have a set of illegalities that exist at legal and quasi-legal levels. The US political system is corrupt to the core: all politicians in the US system are paid for and bought by contributions. Now, of course, these contributions are legal, but if they purchase influence for the contributors, then that is a refined form of corruption.

So, yes Pakistani politicians are equally as corrupt as their US counterparts. But does Pakistan have the necessary scaffolding to structure and sustain a viable political system? Yes, absolutely.

Mr. Kugleman also forgets to mention that the so-called “Arab Spring” did happen in Pakistan and, in fact, it preceded the now valorized Arab Spring. In 2007 the lawyers movement supported by all major factions of Pakistani political spectrum was successful in not only restoring the sacked chief justice, but was also instrumental in the eventual ouster of Mr. Pervez Musharraf, the US-sponsored dictator of Pakistan.

Furthermore, given the particularities of Pakistan’s political climate, a mass revolution is the last thing needed in Pakistan. The current government, ineffectual as it may be, is the first government in decades that is almost there, almost about to finish its five-year term. The best path forward for Pakistan, reformative as it might be, is not to ask and hope for a mass revolution but the continuation of the process in the form of timely held general elections. Only this continuity will enable Pakistan to strengthen its institutions and build its political and public sphere.

So, not only has the “Arab Spring” already happened in Pakistan, it is also no longer necessary. Thus, it is the democratic future of Pakistan that we should be concerned about instead of hoping for a revolution that we absolutely do not need.

 

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Conspiracy Theories in Pakistan

All cultures usually have different groups of people who believe in grand conspiracy theories. One cursory internet search on the topic would lead you to numerous websites dedicated to one or the other form of conspiracy theory about secret orders and powerful underground organizations. Pakistan is no exception. At any time in Pakistan there are always some conspiracy theories in circulation. What concerns me is how Pakistani media sometimes perpetuate these theories and how even the most educated sometimes fall victim to their lure. I will briefly touch upon two different examples.

A few years ago during my visit to Pakistan quite a few highly educated people kept asking me about my opinion about the “Blood Borders.” Obviously, in the beginning I was clueless as what this term meant. Eventually, I was told that America believes that the borders in the South Asia regions should be redrawn so that they truly represent the natural ethnic and blood ties amongst the people of this region. According to this theory, offered as truth, the US policy in the region was geared toward achieving this end and pretty soon, it seemed, the US was likely attempt to restructure Pakistan according to this vision of the region.

Finally, when more than three of my learned friends in Pakistan invoked the term “blood borders” I got curious and asked them about the source of the term itself. They informed me that blood borders was accepted US policy and as a proof they offered me a copy of an article published in the US Armed Forces Journal. This brief article by Ralph Peters is basically a speculative piece offering realigning of borders in the Middle East to solve the ethnic or regional conflicts (Article available here: http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2006/06/1833899).

It seems this article had been circulating in Pakistan, but not as a speculative article by a scholar but as document that, somehow, represented US policy. Obviously, the problem was not with the article—one can find thousands of speculative policy articles on any topic published in hundreds of journals—but with the modes of reading applied to it. The readers obviously could not differentiate between the opinion of one scholar and his nation and thus his ideas were assigned the same degree of legitimacy and acceptance as would have been assigned to a policy paper written by someone in the US administration. And since the story made sense within the logic of US war in Afghanistan, it became accepted as truth. No amount of discussion or explanation on my part, it seemed, could dissuade my friends from reading this article as absolutely true statement of US intent in the region. Part of the reason for easy acceptance of such bizarre theories is the extreme lack of critical education in Pakistan. Most of our schools are content oriented and rely heavily on learning the content and then reproducing it. Thinking critically about the issues or about the texts is encouraged neither in the public school system nor in the private sector. As a result we are producing millions of uncritical citizens who either learn the very basic narratives of nations—of which a dangerous other is always a presence—or just learn the surface values of material aspects of capitalism. In both cases the students are neither trained nor learn the methods of looking at the sources critically in order to decide whether or not the sources are reliable or not. Our media pundits—some of them who have bought their PhDs from for-profit universities in the US—also perpetuate varied conspiracies through their frequent appearances on TV shows.

Some conspiracy theories, however, have nothing to do with the grave threats to Pakistan but rather rely on popular desires and dreams to perpetuate themselves. I had one such experience a couple of years back when one of my old friends contacted me to talk about a famous Pakistani scientist.

My friend, a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Corps of Engineers, informed me that he had recently come into contact with a famous Pakistani scientist, Dr. Aurangzeb Hafi and wanted me to read the said scientist’s poetry. Naturally, as someone who edits a journal on Pakistan I was deeply interested and I informed him that we would also like to publish an interview with this person in the next issue of our journal. Things took a different turn after I did my simple research about this famous scientist.

According to my research, not only were all the claims about his two doctoral degrees false, but I also could not find a single refereed article in any database that the said scientist had published: his website claimed that he had published over three bundled scientific articles.

Furthermore, the scientist had already been interviewed by a local TV network, had been written about in the Urdu press, and the Pakistani blogs had also reported about the singular honor that this scientist had brought to Pakistan. Troubled by what my research revealed to me I contacted my friend and informed him that according to my research this scientist was fake. My friend informed me that the news of Hafi’s accomplishments had been published by Yahoo news and thus his claims could not be false.

Now, Yahoo News is an aggregating service, which means that their webcrawler harvests different sources and then simply reposts them without any editorial oversight. In case of Dr. Hafi, he himself or someone on his behalf had published a press release with PR web (a service that would publish any news if you pay the fees) stating that Mr. Hafi had been declared the man of the year. This press release later showed up in the yahoo feed.

Needless to say, all my efforts to convince my friend that the scientist was really not a scientist failed. My efforts failed because my friend and so many others had built an entire edifice of hope and pride around the accomplishments of this particular person and any attempt at undoing that was also a direct threat to their hopes and aspirations.

In both kinds of conspiracy theories, the one about dangerous beings and dangerous enemies and the other about great leaders, scientist, etc., the users find these theories to fit their own matrix of desire. In other words, the conspiracy theory becomes a sort of ideology through which the users can make sense of the world or ascribe specific meanings to their lives and the world around them. In most cases these people are harmless, but when conspiracy theories start underwriting our worldview to an extent where we decide whether or not someone is our enemy, then the consequences can be dangerous.

In any nation it is the long-term goal of the educational system to produce critically aware citizens so that they do not fall prey to such conspiracy theories. In the short term, the Pakistani press can also act as a useful didactic tool by challenging all conspiracy theories instead of perpetuating them.

(Also published in Viewpoint Online)

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The Arab Spring and the Autumn of the Dictators

For the last few weeks, I have been, like so many other people from the Muslim world, engrossed in the uprising in Libya hoping for a quick end to Qaddafi’s dictatorship. As someone who comes form a country where one after the other dictator has conveniently defiled the national constitution in the name of national service, this new tide of popular uprisings against dictators is really heartening.

This new wave of popular revolutions not only dispels the often racilized views of Arabs and Muslims (A FOX news commentator recently declared that Arabs were genetically unfit for democracy) but also sends a strong message to any future adventurers in our part of the world. It seems our people will no longer allow local dictatorial puppets to become the local policemen for the imperial interests.

These new revolutions, of course, should also be a lesson to the generals in Pakistan: it seems they can no longer oust popularly elected governments in the name of national security.

There is an ironic moment in Pervez Musharraf’s (remember him?) post-coup speech where he indicts Nawaz Sharif’s government for “politicizing the armed forces.” The fact that he does that with a straight face exactly at the moment when he himself has suddenly become a politician is akin to work of art in sophistry.

I also like this image of Musharraf in uniform being greeted in Lahore as he canvasses for his so-called referendum: a general playing a political without even a hint of irony.

let us hope that this new wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East will forestall any future military adventurism.

Next, we need to teach some lessons to our over-fed and anachronistic waderas and zamindars. I am sure there time will come soon.

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Netanyahu: Offering Old Cliches in a New Wolrd

The Likud Party led by Benjamin Netanyahu wins...
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Last week witnessed, yet again, a visit by yet another Israeli prime  minister to the capital of the United States to offer the same age-old cliches to a group of fawning American lawmakers. It seems when it comes to the actions and the statements of the state of Israel, one ought to apply an out-of-the-world logic to understand it. Our earthly logic and the international treaties and policies, it seems, do not apply to the state of Israel.

Like all of the US lawmakers, I often try to inhabit this otherworldly space to understand the things that come out of the august mouths of Israeli leaders and those of their American counterparts, but lately I have, due to my deep investment in the world I live in, not been able to inhabit this deep space plane of existence. But to reduce this divine logic to our earthly consciousness is an interesting exercise.

So this is how the Israeli statements go:

  • A 1967 border between Israel and Palestine is indefensible.
  • It will leave thousands of Israelis outside the official territory of the state of Israel.
  • The Palestinians cannot be granted the right of return as it would “dilute” the Jewish state.

And the US lawmakers, who usually cannot take a leak without mentioning “Freedom” and “Rights” and “Human Dignity”, applaud these bizarre and out of touch statements of a leader whose nation has starved thousands of people for the last three years in what could be termed as the last existing concentration camp, Gaza.

So here is what all these cliched and hackneyed statements by Mr. Netanyahu imply: Since the original border of Israel is somehow indefensible, Israel, therefore, has the right to conquer and keep territories outside that border in a sort of imperial eminent domain. And since against the Geneva Convention on changing the demographics of a captured territory Israel has allowed illegal settlements to flourish in this occupied territory–required for a defensible Israel–the only way of keeping this illegally acquired territory is to make the act of their capture, somehow, legal. And even though the UN charter clearly states that all refugees will have a right to return to their original place of domicile, the Palestinians somehow must give up this universal right to accommodate their oppressors.

And we must accept this because Israel, as we are repeatedly told, is the only true democracy in the region. Needless to point out, this same democracy is based in an ethnic and religious view of the nation according to which all those outside this particular definition are not really full citizens and must always inhabit a second class status within the democratic state of Israel.

But while Mr. Netanyahu spouts these age-old cliches and while the US congress giggles like a bunch of unimaginative teenagers, the world around Israel is changing quickly. Besides the spring uprisings, this was also the first year when people from all neighboring countries flocked to the Israeli borders in large numbers to protest the racist and inhuman policies of the state of Israel. These instances of popular protest are likely to increase in the future and as the neighboring states become more and more democratic, Israel will have to contend with “democratic” Arab states whose leaders must, on the surface, represent the popular will and not just the US and Israeli interests in the region. The change is already there: the opening of Rafah border crossing by Egypt is a sign that the neighboring Arab states can no longer be a party to the long slow starvation of Palestinian people in the name of security.

So it seems that Mr. Netanyahu’s deep space logic will soon stop making any sense to most of the world and to quite a few of his own citizens; this will happen because increasingly people have started feeling more comfortable with earth logic and want to see their leaders to make an effort in speaking in human-speak instead of an alien language that only makes sense to the starry-eyed US lawmakers and the zealots who rely on politics fear and hate to maintain the status quo.

So, wake up America: if freedom and human dignity is your main chant and leading mantra then please explain to me why it does not apply to the Palestinians?

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Pakistan Forum: Most Visited Blog Entries this Year

Provided below is a list of posts that have been popular with our readers so far this year:

05/09 : Thinking of Che and The World
05/08 : Of Cuban Cigars, Rum & Coffee
05/06 : Naked emperor, dead rabbit
05/05 : The Osama Kill: A New Era of Hi-tech Death Squads
05/02 : Obama and the End of Al-Qaeda
04/28 : All Politics is Always Local
04/28 : A Case Against HEC Devolution
04/23 : A Weird Knot
04/23 : Sex and Religion
04/21 : Suicide Bomber: A Product of Capital
04/18 : Media Whiz Kids of the Security State
04/14 : Iqbal: The Reluctant Feminist
04/05 : We Are Conformity
04/05 : The Veiled Woman in the Picture: Mystery Solved
04/03 : Review, India-Pakistan: Coming to Terms, By Amit Ranjan
04/03 : Talibanisation of the Heart
03/31 : Maverik Mullah & his Jamiat Ulema
03/31 : Mullahs in Nation-Building
02/06 : Arab revolution in Pakistan!
02/03 : Pakistan’s Hurt Locker
01/18 : Religious Intolerance Sweeping Pakistan
01/18 : Taliban se Qibla-ru Guftagu (طالِِِبان سے قِبلہ رُو گُفتگُو)
01/17 : Dead in My Tracks: Salmaan Taseer, the Mullah of Bourbon St and Freud’s Uncanny
01/16 : Women’s Rights in Islam, By Sayed Mumtaz Ali
01/15 : Suicide Bombing: The Martyr Machine
01/13 : Understanding and removing the barriers: Story of Nazir Ahmad Wattoo
01/12 : Call for Papers: Second Emory Conference on Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding
01/12 : All Eyes on the Prize!
01/12 : Why do people vote for tyrants? Understanding voting patterns in Pakistan
01/11 : CFP: Rethinking Urban Democracy in South Asia
01/10 : After protests, militancy in the Valley
01/08 : Lashkar-e-Zia kills Taseer
01/07 : Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan: Brief Bio
01/05 : HITEC: An Education Miracle Worth Noting
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A Shameful Foreign Policy: Deploying Pakistani Troops In Bahrain

The news trickling out of Pakistan suggest that Pakistan is seriously considering deploying Pakistan Army to aid the dictators of Bahrain against their own people. This, obviously, is a humiliating and troubling turn in Pakistani foreign policy: it will put us on the wrong side of history and make our army into a mercenary force for hire by powerful tyrants.

Reportedly, the  foreign minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, is visiting Pakistan to sort out the details. The Saudis, it is reported, have also put pressure on Pakistan and promised financial help or Pakistan in return for “lending” their troops to put down the popular uprising in Bahrain. It is also being argued that there are more than 30, 000 Pakistani workers in Bahrain and it is, therefore, in Pakistan’s interest to stabilize the regime there.

Yes, we know Pakistani economy is in trouble and we know Pakistan relies heavily on Saudi aid, but does that mean Pakistan’s army is available to rent for all non-democratic, non-representative, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East? The people of Bahrain have risen against their government: it is their right to do so. They are asking for equality, nondiscrimination, and equal rights for the Shia majority: that is their right, too.

The entire Middle East is in a democratic furor; we should not be the people who stand against this tide. Our army should not side with the tyrants and dictators and if they do so then it would be a sad and shame-filled episode in the history of Pakistan. We cannot even plead that the army has no say in the matter: they always have a say in political matters. If the Pakistan army deploys to Bahrain, it means the army leadership went along with the government’s decision, for they do not have a spectacular history of following the mandates of popularly elected governments if the don’t want to.

This is where the media and people of Pakistan must assert themselves: we must insist that our army shall not become a mercenary force deployed to support the petty dictators in the Middle East. No honorable military force will accept such a mission, nor would a democratically elected government, no matter what the size of the proverbial carrot offered by the Saudis, become a party to supporting dictatorship against the will of the people.

So, let us hope our leaders–military and civilian–will pause a little before committing Pakistan to the wrong and shameful side of history.

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Thoughts on Libya Bombing

As I write these lines, the international forces have started bombing key installations in Libya. My feelings on this new air war are, as usual, deeply split. Part of me is sad because it is yet another Muslim country being bombed by the US and its allies. But another part of me is hopeful, as these actions were absolutely necessary by the world community to finally stop Gaddafi.

As the implementation of this “No Fly Zone” continues, let us keep reminding ourselves that this, at least, is not a war engineered by the US. This war started because people of Libya rose against their dictator, who, in turn, unleashed the might of his armed forces against his own people. The purpose of these airstrikes is to stop him from eliminating this first serious popular resistance to his autocratic rule.

Though the idea of yet another Muslim nation under attack infuriates and saddens me; I am, at this point, grateful to the world community for their efforts to enable the Libyan people to fight against Gaddafi and his ilk. We should also remember that this aid by the West cannot and should not be mobilized to make any claims on the future of Libya: this aid should not become a claim to Libya’s resources in the future and if it does become that, we will be there to remind the world community.

And we should keep reminding them even now, repeatedly: The Libyan people started this revolution; they asked for your help; you helped them, but you do not and never shall own their future.

I also hope that if the people of other Middle Eastern nations seek global help against their tyrannical governments, the world will be there to support their efforts for democracy. And if the Muslim nations have a problem with the West bombing Libya, then send in your own troops, planes, and your warships to aid this effort. But I think I will see pigs fly before I see Saudi planes–the most modern airforce in the Arab world–on Libyan skies. It is time to rethink our region and to finally express that tyranny of any kind–no matter what underwrites it–has no place in the world.

So, here it is: thank you world for helping the Libyan people and thank you people of Libya for rising against tyranny.

(Read Aljazeera’s Live Blog on Libya)

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Peter King: Sham Hearings by a Terrorist Sympathizer

While the world was engrossed in the tragic events of the natural disaster in Japan and the popular revolutions in the Middle East, Representative Peter King, Chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, was busy “investigating” the causes of Islamic radicalization in the United States. An apt line of inquiry, some might argue as some Muslim youth have been radicalized recently and have been covered by the US media.

But what baffles my mind is that Mr. King, so sanguine in his public witch hunt about Islamic terrorism, has been an unapologetic supporter of the IRA. His argument for this long-term engagement with a terrorist organization can be roughly summed up: The IRA has been fighting to oust the British from Ireland and cannot, therefore, be considered the same kind of terrorists as the locally radicalized Muslim terrorists. He, inf fact, is on record for making the following statement: “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it.”

So if we are applying such subtle logic to terrorism, then what does the honorable representative have against Hamas, the Hizbullah, the Moro liberation Front, and the FARC; last I heard, all of these organizations were also fighting to oust their oppressors from their territories.

There is, however, something more sinister in these hearings: they open a path toward singling out different groups as examples in order to please one’s constituencies. Yes, some of the Muslim youth have been misguided but by making that a topic of a committee hearing, the representative and his supporters are causing more harm to America and American relations with the Muslim world. In fact, these actions are likely to strengthen the arguments made by Al-Qaeda and other terroristic groups who already claim that America is inherently anti-Muslim.

There are over one billion Muslims in the world, who, by and large live meaningful, peaceful lives sometimes under hard economic and political conditions. Yes, the revolutionary politics of radical Islam does lure away some of them but that does not mean that all Muslims, like Mr. King, are terrorist sympathizers. If majority of Muslims had terroristic leanings, the world would be quite a dangerous place simply in  terms of their numbers. Sadly, though, this sham committee hearing by a known terrorist sympathizer is only likely to become yet another recruiting blurb on the Al-Qaeda brochures.

So, Representative King: tread carefully and do not play politics with what we all belive to be real America:  tolerant, diverse, and compassionate.