“Only the mood music has changed”: Tariq Ali on Obama’s presidency

OK… here’s the PULSE exclusive I’ve been working on. Hope you enjoy.

Is president Barack Obama the change America has been waiting for or is he another corporate Democrat representing elite interests?  According to Tariq Ali, very little has chanced between Obama and former president George W. Bush.  In his latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad,” Ali argues that Obama is carrying on the reckless policies of the Bush regime.  If Obama continues down this path, the Democratic Party not only face the prospect of the House & Senate in 2010 but also the presidency in 2012.  This should be a cause for concern.

I caught up with Ali during his American book tour and here’s what he had to say about the Obama presidency.

Where did the idea for this book emanate from? Why did you want to write a book about “The Obama Syndrome” and what does that refer to?

The idea occurred because I speak a lot on the United States. People ask me questions after each talk and increasingly in the past two to three years, the talk has been about Obama.  I thought a short book which essentially provided a balance sheet from the left on the mid-term would be a useful exercise. Given that he’s being attacked nonstop for being a socialist, a leftist, being a Muslim and all this nonsense that comes from the Tea Party-Fox Television alliance, I thought it was better to have a hard-headed realistic account about who the guy really is.  So my book is a critique of him, but it’s also by implication a very sharp critique of people who claim that everything Obama is doing is so radical that they can’t take it anymore.

Continue reading ““Only the mood music has changed”: Tariq Ali on Obama’s presidency”

Peaches

by Arif Ayaz Parrey

Can I tell how much I love peaches?
Not ordinary ones
But those plucked from
The orchards along Jhelum

The ones in the basket before me
Are nebrim for sure
But they blush like a home-grown innocence
And hold as many juicy promises

I wonder what tree bore them
I wonder if it’s wise to ignore them

The tree of life
Has many buried roots

It is said that my only son
Was killed under the canopy
Of the branches of one such tree
By the army
Also known as the security forces
An old joke
What do they secure
These so-called security forces?
Not the people, not our lives, not our liberty
Not our sentiments, nor our emotions, not our sanity
Not our sons who are shot
Nor our daughters who are raped
Not the truth, not the facts, not humanity

Continue reading “Peaches”

From “Islamist Watch” to Islamic Mimbar: the Politics of Hypocrisy

Raheel Raza leads a group of Muslims in prayer in Canada

By Huma Dar

On Thursday, June 10, 2010, Jerome Taylor, the Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Independent posted an article headlined, “First Woman to Lead Friday Prayers in UK.” Two-thirds of the way down this article, we find that:

“Ms Raza’s appearance in Oxford is a repeat of a similar prayer session in 2008 which was led by Amina Wadud, an American-born convert and Muslim feminist. But this is the first time a Muslim-born woman will lead a mixed prayer service in Britain.”

Continue reading “From “Islamist Watch” to Islamic Mimbar: the Politics of Hypocrisy”

Boycott Israel? Amitav Ghosh & the Dan David Prize

The call for academic and cultural boycott is clearly a way to encourage civil society to play a broader political role—that is why it has the support of wide sections of Palestinian civil society. One of the most significant questions that call poses to us is simply this: How could those of us who oppose apartheid, occupation, and colonialism not support such a call?

Dear Amitav Ghosh,

We wish to express our deep disappointment in your decision to accept the Dan David prize, administered by Tel Aviv University and to be awarded by the President of Israel. As a writer whose work has dwelled consistently on histories of colonialism and displacement, your refusal to take stance on the colonial question in the case of Israel and the occupation of Palestine has provoked deep dismay, frustration, and puzzlement among readers and fans of your work around the world. Many admired your principled stand, and respected your decision not to accept the Commonwealth Writers Prize in rejection of the colonialist framework it represented.

Continue reading “Boycott Israel? Amitav Ghosh & the Dan David Prize”

“Veil in the Time of War” or “Veilin’ the Time of War”

In the context of the current multiple arenas of war and occupation in Muslim-majority regions, the issues of gender and sexuality are vitally linked to the casus belli, both within and without academia. Such linkages, with a long and complicated genealogy thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization, decolonization, and neo-colonization, also indicate an obsessive desire to re-enact the “discovery narrative” or the “rescue narrative.” Examining current contestations in popular media – including recent articles written by Maureen Dowd, Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler et al and the poster designed by Alexander Segert, which was integral to the success of the anti-minaret Swiss referendum – this essay investigates whether, how, and where the neoconservative, neoliberal, and the mainstream feminist discourses converge, diverge, and intersect.

Segert's Anti-Minaret Poster

by Huma Dar

In the context of the current multiple arenas of war and occupation in Muslim-majority regions, the issues of gender and sexuality are vitally linked to the casus belli, both within and without academia.  Such linkages, with a long and complicated genealogy thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization, decolonization, and neo-colonization, theorized by Inderpal Grewal, Gayatri Spivak, Lata Mani, Leila Ahmed, Sherene Razack, Saba Mahmood, Sunera Thobani amongst others, also indicate an obsessive desire to re-enact the “discovery narrative” or the “rescue narrative.”  Examining current contestations in popular media – including recent articles written by Maureen Dowd, Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler et al and the poster designed by Alexander Segert, which was integral to the success of the anti-minaret Swiss referendum – I investigate whether, how, and where the neoconservative, neoliberal, and the mainstream feminist discourses converge, diverge, and intersect.  I undertake to deconstruct the ongoing debates that obsessively revolve around the veil or the sexuality that is variously professed to be suppressed, annihilated, or even “discovered” beneath the veil by some liberal explorers.

Continue reading ““Veil in the Time of War” or “Veilin’ the Time of War””

The End of the American Empire

Chalmers Johnson on Media Matters with Bob McChesney.

Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, a non-profit research and public affairs organization devoted to public education concerning Japan and international relations in the Pacific. He was chairman of the academic advisory committee for the PBS television series “The Pacific Century,” and he played a prominent role in the PBS “Frontline” documentary “Losing the War with Japan.” Both won Emmy awards. His most recent books are Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000); The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004); and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

(Neo)Orientalism with an Attitude: In the Footsteps (and Beyond) of Richard Burton

Getting one’s picture taken with the Dalai Lama or the Pope will guarantee neither Buddhist enlightenment nor beatification: my apologies for shattering the hopes of some New Agers. Similarly, entering the Ka’aba in Burtonesque disguise — specially minus his arguably relevant though shifty linguistic skills and textual knowledge — will not and cannot necessarily guarantee much “learning” about Islam.

by Huma Dar

The March 10, 2010, page A27 of the New York edition of New York Times carries an Op-Ed piece by Maureen Dowd titled, “Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca.” Dowd writes about her desire to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11” via “sneaking” into Mecca in “a black masquerade cloak.”  Her self-proclaimed inspiration is Richard Burton’s “illicit pilgrim[age] to the sacred black granite cube…in Arab garb” thereby “infiltrat[ing] the holiest place in Islam, the Kaaba [sic].”

Dowd, however, decides to “learn about Islam” in a way “less sneaky,” “disrespectful,” or “dangerous” and yet more entitled and privileged than Richard Burton could ever have dreamed of.   She herself describes Burton as “the 19th-century British adventurer, translator of “The Arabian Nights” and the “Kama Sutra” and self-described ‘amateur barbarian.'”  The words “illicit,” “Kama Sutra,” and “infiltration” and Dowd’s voyeuristic desires resonate with the Orientalism of yore.  Moreover Dowd’s valuable US passport and USA’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia (read: enabling of the oppressive monarchy) entitle her to meet Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister — of the “sometimes sly demeanor” — on her “odyssey” to that country.  “Infiltration” in disguise is no longer required, and yet this ease of access also disguises and makes more difficult the complexity of any real learning.

Dowd “presses” al-Faisal for the privilege to watch in Mecca, the “deeply private rituals” and “gawk at the parade of religious costumes fashioned from loose white sheets” although she knows in advance that “Saudis understandably have zero interest in outraging the rest of the Muslim world.”  While talking to this high-ranking minister, Dowd bristles at al-Faisal’s reassuring suggestion that if she desired to see any mosque in a place other than in Mecca or Medina, and was prevented from doing so, all she had to do was to contact the “emir of the region” who would comply and enable the fulfillment of her desires.  (Anyone else reminded of Aladdin’s djinn/genie?)  Without conceding the irony of the situation that she, after all, is speaking to Prince al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, Dowd quips, “Sure. Just call the emir. I bet he’s listed.”   Imagine what Richard Burton would have done with the special privileges of this particular magic lamp provided by the New World Order!

Finally Dowd does indeed witness the Hajj — in an IMAX theatre watching Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta. Dowd, much to her surprise, makes the belated discovery that “the Kaaba [sic] was built by “Abraham, the father of the Jews” [why Jews only?]— a reminder that the faiths have a lot to learn from each other.”  It is also a reminder that journalists like Ms. Maureen Dowd have a lot of homework to do before they set out on their surely expensive travels — and I am not even including the much recommended language lessons.  Any commonly available text on Islam, for example by Karen Armstrong, Jamal Elias, Michael Sells, or Ziauddin Sardar, might have served the purpose.  Dowd could thus have avoided relying solely on the “amateur barbarian” Richard Burton or Newsweek’s own Fareed Zakaria.  The former’s scholarly credentials are hardly beyond doubt — see his problematic remarks on “Jewish human sacrifice” in The Jew, the Gipsy and el Islam (1898).  The latter’s forte is not his knowledge of Islam — or at least no more than Zakaria’s mentor, Samuel Huntington’s forte is Christianity.  Dowd might thus have disabused herself of the notion of “the sacred black granite cube.”  The “sacred black” stone is not a “cube” and neither is the “sacred cube” — the Ka’aba — all granite!

Getting one’s picture taken with the Dalai Lama or the Pope will guarantee neither Buddhist enlightenment nor beatification: my apologies for shattering the hopes of some New Agers.  Similarly, entering the Ka’aba in Burtonesque disguise — specially minus his arguably relevant though shifty linguistic skills and textual knowledge (See Parama Roy’s excellent essay for more on Burton) — will not and cannot necessarily guarantee much “learning” about Islam.  On the other hand, a trip to any local library with a willingness to read and learn, and engagement with an open mind in meaningful conversations with the (gasp!) American Muslims, might be better starting points for undertaking this particular journey.

Did the Editor of The New York Times not know the price difference between the ticket to the IMAX theatre plus membership to a local library and the cost of Dowd’s lavish travels to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?  The Neo-Orientalist fantasy to tread in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton is accelerated with privilege and precisely because of this privilege skips and misses its target even more widely.

It is in the spirit of a gift that I offer Ms. Dowd this image:

Labeled elements are as follows: 1 – The Black Stone; 2 – Door of the Kaaba; 3. Gutter to remove rainwater; 4 – Base of the Kaaba; 5 – Al-Hatim; 6 – Al-Multazam (the wall between the door of the Kaaba and black stone); 7 – The Station of Ibrahim; 8 – Angle of the Black Stone; 9 – Angle of Yemen; 10 – Angle of Syria; 11 – Angle of Iraq; 12 – Kiswa (veil covering the Kaaba); 13 – Band of marble marking the beginning and end of rounds; 14 – The Station of Gabriel.

Inviting David Brooks to My Class

The Zionists are prisoners of a bad dream: they must first free themselves, break free from the prison in which they can only play the part of tormentors, if they and especially their Palestinian victims are to live normal lives.

M. Shahid Alam

On January 12, the New York Times carried an article by David Brooks on Jews and Israel. It so caught my eye, I decided to bring its conservative author to my class on the economic history of the Middle East. I sent my students the link to this article, asked them to read it carefully, and come to the next class prepared to discuss and dissect its contents.

My students recalled various parts of the NYT article but no one could explain its substance. They recalled David Brooks’ focus on the singular intellectual achievements of American Jews, the enviable record of Israeli Jews as innovators and entrepreneurs, the mobility of Israel’s innovators, etc. One student even spoke of what was not in the article or in the history of Jews – centuries of Jewish struggle to create a Jewish state in Palestine.

But they offered no comments about Brooks’ motivation. Why had he decided to brag about Jewish achievements, a temptation normally eschewed by urbane Jews. In my previous class, while discussing Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, I had discussed how knowledge is suborned by power, how it is perverted by tribalism, and how Western writers had crafted their writings about the Middle East to serve the interests of colonial powers. Not surprisingly, this critique had not yet sunk in.

I coaxed my students, asking them directly to explore if David Brooks had an axe (or more than one) to grind. Was there an elephant in the room they had missed? What was the subtext of the op-ed?

Continue reading “Inviting David Brooks to My Class”

Pakistan’s ‘Oral’ Society

Public library of Hulwan, Baghdad

M. Shahid Alam

(Note: This essay was written nearly twenty years back, in April 1991. A great many changes have come to Pakistan since then, but I am afraid that the observations I had made then about ‘orality’ of Pakistani discourse still hold true. Pakistan’s best young minds do not go where their hearts and their talents lead them. Instead, overwhelmingly, they still pursue job security. Sadly, education – even for the brightest – is still mostly vocational education. With the introduction of multiple private cable channels, however, orality has entered a new age. The oral discourse, previously confined to drawing rooms and campuses, is now led by ‘talking heads’ in television studios. Is this discourse now more solidly rooted than before in the written word, in history and the social and natural sciences? I doubt it: and why should it? Pakistan’s brown Sahibs continue to drag the country deeper into dependency; they work overtime to trap Pakistanis in the most superficial consumerism, without the capital, technology and skills that support this malaise in developed Western societies. In other words, Pakistan is still caught in the disease that Jalal Al-i Ahmad had described in his book, Gharbzadagi Occidentotis: A Plague from the West.)

I first became aware of differences between ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ societies when I returned to Pakistan in 1979 – after an absence of some five years in the United States and Canada – to take up a fellowship at the Applied Economics Research Center, affiliated to the University of Karachi.

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Native Orientalists at the Daily Times

M. Shahid Alam

The more a ruling class is able to assimilate the foremost minds of the ruled class, the more stable and dangerous becomes its rule.
–Karl Marx

A few days back, I received a ‘Dear friends’ email from Mr. Najam Sethi, ex editor-in-chief of Daily Times, Pakistan, announcing that he, together with several of his colleagues, had resigned from their positions in the newspaper.

In his email, Mr. Sethi thanked his ‘friends’ for their “support and encouragement…in making Daily Times a ‘new voice for a new Pakistan.’” Wistfully, he added, “I hope it will be able to live up to your expectations and mine in time to come.”

I am not sure why Mr. Sethi had chosen me for this dubious honor. Certainly, I did not deserve it. I could not count myself among his ‘friends’ who had given “support and encouragement” to the mission that DT had chosen for itself in Pakistan’s media and politics.

Contrary to its slogan, it was never DT’s mission to be a ‘new voice for a new Pakistan.’ The DT had dredged its voice from the colonial past; it had only altered its pitch and delivery to serve the new US-Zionist overlords. Many of the writers for DT aspire to the office of the native informers of the colonial era. They are heirs to the brown Sahibs, home-grown Orientalists, who see their own world (if it is theirs in any meaningful sense) through the lens created for them by their spiritual mentors, the Western Orientalists.

Continue reading “Native Orientalists at the Daily Times”

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