Friday, 11 February 2011

The Tell Tale Heart: The Smiling Assassin - Mehreen Aziz Khan

A gut reaction of hatred engulfs me when I see the triumphant face of Qadri, Governor Salman Taseer’s bodyguard who shot him so cold bloodedly on Tuesday evening at Islamabad’s Kohsar market. To my liberal-minded, upper-middle class psyche, this Qadri stands for everything that I currently hate about my increasingly Talibanized and radicalized country. Violence in the name of religion, maddening intolerance, crippling narrow-mindedness, annoying self-righteousness.

But after some soul-searching, I realise that I think the way I do because of my relatively privileged life experiences. My family and I have never known poverty. We are relatively well read, well travelled and have had the opportunity to receive a well-rounded education. I am currently living in a first world country with a very cushy lifestyle.

Its all very well for me and others like myself to read the headlines and register our outrage and anger against the ‘inhuman’, ‘brutal’, ‘disgusting’ man who shot Taseer, and the equally ‘misguided’ and ‘abhorrent’ religious right that is applauding the killer and declaring him a hero. It defies what to our minds is well-reasoned logic about the ‘true message of Islam’ and shakes our ‘moderate’, ‘tolerant’ selves to the core. How could our country come to this? What’s going to become of us? And once again, as the battle lines are drawn across social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, blogs and opinion forums between those who are condemning the killing and those who are celebrating it, the widening chasm that exists between the two diagrammatically opposed ideological groups becomes even more painfully clear. And its posing a threat to our very co-existence as a nation.

The background story to the killing seems straightforward enough. A poor Christian woman became the latest victim of the (outrageously unjust) blasphemy law. Governor Taseer, unusually one of the most controversial and widely derided political leaders of the country, found a soft spot for her plight, and became a champion for her rights. For once he was not making headlines because of corruption, self-serving politics or lavish lifestyle, but standing up for the downtrodden. This made him a target of the ‘mullah brigade’ who drummed up their usual hate-mongering vitriol and issued angry fatwas. But the Governor’s stance resonated with us - the ‘liberal’ and ‘educated’ segment of society, who could identify with his sentiments and are finding overt Islamization a threat to our Western-influenced lifestyles and belief systems. We might consider ourselves patriotic Pakistanis and proud Muslims, but there is no denying the heavy influence of the West in things that shape our opinions, like our education and media consumption (books, magazines, movies, music, television, internet etc.), as opposed to the lower middle class and working class, which have a more indigenous viewpoint about things.

So with such widely differing influences and life experiences at play, it’s only fair to ask: Is demonising Qadri and his huge number of followers a constructive approach on our part?

Aren’t we guilty of being as intolerant as the group we are so eloquently condemning since the past few days?

Aren’t we being as small-minded as the Americans who divide humanity into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and indiscriminately bomb countries and citizens without addressing the root cause of the resentment in those parts of the world?

Shouldn’t we think about what makes a ‘Qadri’ in the first place?

I believe its simplistic to think his ideological opposition to Salman Taseer’s blasphemy law stance was the only reason that caused him to pummel 20 rounds of ammunition into the chest of the man he had been recruited by the state to protect.
Is he not the product of the complex matrix of the region’s geopolitics, the warped ‘war on terror’, the cruel policies of the West and their cohorts that pan the fires of resentment in the local people? Not to mention a reaction to the self-serving elite of our country whose corruption and greed knows no end and who would never part with a penny to help their poor fellow countrymen.

And poverty and deprivation and social injustice all play a role. Back in 2005 when I was working with a media company in Islamabad, I worked on a documentary about police reforms. I remember visiting the living barracks of the Punjab’s Elite Force Guard, the outfit that Qadri belonged to. They were housed in a makeshift ancient Hindu mandir and there was certainly nothing ‘elite’ about the place. These guys, clearly the cream of the police crop in terms of fitness, training and ability – were sitting around swatting flies in the stifling heat, made to live in a place barely fit for animals to live in.

What kind of life-prospects do men like Qadri and their families have to look forward to? They are the ‘have-nots’, and as the country plummets deeper into economic crises and basic amenities become harder to afford and access, the extravagant lives of the ‘haves’ must be becoming harder to stomach. It should come as no surprise that signs of a social revolution have begun to surface. And with some of the ‘have-nots’, these frustrations are readily channelled into an extremist mindset, with religious self-righteousness fuelling the need for their ego to somehow feel superior to the elites of the country whom they are forced to serve every day, and the Western superpowers who walk all over their rights. Thus Qadri’s deep-rooted resentment towards the ridiculously rich, well-dressed, well-educated, partying Government functionary was turned into a deluded sense of self-belief of being a better Muslim – a ‘custodian of the ‘honour of the Prophet p.b.u.h.’, a cause higher and more ennobling than his own life of drudgery and deprivation could ever offer.

And thus he shot the ‘atheist’, and hence he smiles.

He knows he is not a nobody anymore, and probably expects to be showered in rose petals in Jannat just like he was in the courtroom yesterday.

Deluded mindsets like these must be battled against, and we must speak out against the pervading extremism and those who espouse violence in the name of religion – but we shouldn’t hold our breaths as to what that would achieve. After all, what credibility do us privileged but apathetic lot have when making statements? We can choose to look at this simplistically, or try and scratch beneath the surface to confront the uncomfortable truth. There is a grossly unfair social divide that is helping to fuel this twisted, bigoted thinking. We need to come off our high horses and start thinking about ways we can lessen this divide and give back to the less fortunate. We need to think up of ways to share our wealth and privilege, and work tangibly towards improving our society and the plight of the poor. Only then might we have some credibility when we preach a doctrine of tolerance and non-violence to the ‘other side’. In his own way, Salman Taseer was doing his bit right before he died – using his status and influence to speak out against religious intolerance, and trying to protect the rights of a marginalized community. And since he died so dramatically because of it, he is being hailed today by many as a hero who stood for something – not a petty politician with a shady past.

We must ask ourselves what we are prepared to do to wash away our sins. It might not be long before the pitchforks reach our own gates.

Mehreena Khan
6th January 2011

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Pakistan: A Deficit of Dignity

by M. Shahid Alam


Pakistan's rulers and ruling elites may well be thinking that the wave of people's indignation that started in Tunisia and is now working its way through Egypt, Jordan and Yemen will never reach them. Perhaps, they are telling each other, 'We are safe: we are a democracy.'

The Arabs who are pouring into the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen are not protesting only against their dictatorships. Simultaneously, they are also protesting against governments that have sold their dignity and bartered the honor of their country. Nearly, all the Arab rulers are self-castrated eunuchs in the courts of foreign powers, who have turned their own countries into police states, and who jail, maim, torture and kill their own people to please their masters.

The Arabs are venting their anger against elites who have stymied their energies by turning their societies into prisons. In complicity with foreign powers, these elites have ruled by fear, blocking the forward movement of their people because this movement collides with the imperialist ambitions of Israel and the United States.

It is true that Pakistan has had 'elected' governments alternating with military dictatorships. Increasingly, however, these governments, whether civilian or military, have differed little from each other. The priority for both is to keep their power and US-doled perks by doing the bidding of the United States and Israel.

Starting in the early 1990s, Pakistan hurriedly embraced the neoliberal paradigm that emanated from Washington. Hastily, successive ministers of finance and privatization - all of them IMF appointees - went about dismantling Pakistan's industries, selling off for a song its state-owned enterprises, and empowering Pakistan's elites to engage in unchecked consumerism.

In other words, Pakistan's military, landed, and trading elites chose to align their economic interests with that of global corporations. Without a protest, they allowed Washington to impose a new colonialism with the glib mantra that 'liberalizing' Pakistan's economic regime would bring massive flows of foreign capital - and enrich Pakistan.

The neoliberal paradigm is a lie: it subsumes the economic interests of the great powers. It has brought waves of devastation to Latin America and Africa, and while Pakistan has been spared a devastating blow, two decades of neoliberal policies have prevented Pakistan from acquiring any new growth-driving industries. To this day, Pakistan relies on the products of its farms and low-value manufactures for the modest volume of its exports. Pakistan's capitulation to the IMF and the World Bank - added to the calamitous economic policies of the 1970s - has prevented Pakistan from climbing on the trajectory followed by China and India. If Pakistan has been spared economic bankruptcy, in part this is because of the blood money it has 'earned' for waging America's war against its own people.

Pakistan's bouts of democracy have been a farce. The country's elites jostle for power in the offices of foreign embassies or fly to Washington to present their credentials to their ultimate masters, each faction offering to outdo the others in doing Washington's bidding. The farcical elections bring the same gaggle of wealthy parliamentarians, who have repeatedly proved their appetite for corruption, mismanagement, and untiring loyalty to foreign paymasters. Consider the shame of a country of nearly 200 million people, whose leaders often turn for patronage to the potentates who own oil wells in the Persian Gulf.

Since September 2001, these betrayals of Pakistan's sovereignty and the erosions of its dignity have been sinking to new depths that know no bottom. Sham democracy or dictatorship: they do the same things. They have Washington, betrayal, inefficiency and corruption written all over them.
These governments trade in the lives, livelihood and dignity of their own people. In September 2001, at the sound of single threat from Washington, the ruling generals - who had recently usurped power - irrevocably committed Pakistan to fighting America's sham global war against terror. Without consulting the people, they gave away Pakistan's air space, air bases, and land corridors to the US military.

General Musharraf and his co-conspirators were ready to commit tens of thousands of Pakistani troops to fight the Iraqis, alongside US and NATO troops. They repeatedly tried to give full recognition to Israel: and Pakistan's English media ably pleaded Israel's case by touting the many advantages that the Jewish lobby in the US could confer on Pakistan. What blindness: what treachery. These plans had to be shelved in the face of mounting street protests from Pakistan's mullahs.

Over the past decade, Pakistani governments have caved in to virtually every US assault on Pakistan's sovereignty and dignity. For the first time in its history, thousands of Pakistanis have disappeared to be secreted in prisons, tortured, and renditioned to the United States. One thought that these things happened only in the brutal military dictatorships of Latin America; they could not happen in Pakistan. Once the US made the demands, disappearances quickly became common in Pakistan.

General Musharraf boasted in his autobiography of the blood money he took from the United States for kidnapping and renditioning 'terrorists' to the United States. Periodically, the US needs these 'terrorists' to lie to its own people about the progress it is making in its phony war against 'terrorism.' 'You can feel safe (at least for now),' the White House tells Americans. 'Our loyal ally, Pakistan, has knocked a few more 'terrorists' out of operation.'

Pakistan's rulers have turned its military into a mercenary army and worse. Not only have Pakistani rulers been using them against the Afghans fighting to free their country from foreign occupation; this army has been attacking and killing Pakistanis who give shelter to the Afghan fighters.

In retaliation, the Pakistani Taliban started attacking Pakistan's military and - in desperation and folly - they have carried on a campaign of murderous attacks against civilians. These naïf's do not know that Pakistan's rulers will not change course to avoid any loss of life except their own. Don't they know that this same army had carried out military operations against its own people in what was then East Pakistan? It is an army whose generals still behave like their British predecessors in India.

Soberly considered, is there much to choose between Mubarak and Musharraf, between Zein Ali and Zardari. Equally, under their rule and that of their likes, Arabs and Pakistanis have suffered from a calamitous loss of dignity. For too many decades, these nations have faced the same shameful deficits of sovereignty, justice and dignity.

Can we hope that the wave of protests that are now sweeping across the Arab world will sooner rather than later also reach Pakistan's shores? The contagion of a people in motion, striding forward and making sacrifices, respects no cultural or religious boundaries. The impact of the new and still-spreading Arab intifada against US-Israeli hegemony, operating under the cover of local tyrannies, will be felt across the globe, wherever people suffer under the same imperialist yoke.

This is a wake-up call for Pakistan's middle classes. In their often mindless pursuit of consumerism, their neglect of the knowledge-oriented culture of their ancestors, their excessive fascination with all things Western, Pakistan's middle classes have lost their historical agency. They have not been the force that they could have been in shaping the laws, the knowledge and institutions that could move them forward while retaining an organic connection to the best traditions of their own heritage.

If Pakistan's middle classes and its workers fail to act, Pakistan's elites and their Taliban alter ego - the extremist backlash evoked by their treachery - will continue to push the country towards collapse. That collapse may not be too far away, unless Pakistan's young generation - like those in Tunisia and Egypt - take matters into their hand.

Let a million voices tweet, let a million Pakistanis assemble in every major city, and produce the energy, the electricity, vibrations and waves that will coalesce into a thousand creative projects for reconstructing their society, projects to regain the knowledge they have lost, to recover their stolen dignity, and drink again from the spiritual fountain that alone gives meaning to life.

God has honored the children of Adam, the Qur'an says. Shamefacedly, Pakistan's elites have dishonored the children of Adam in Pakistan for more than six decades. Now is the time for the Pakistani children of Adam to raise their hands and their voices to regain the honor that they have lost and that is theirs by God-given right.

M. Shahid Alam Professor of Economics
Northeastern University Boston, MA 02115