Strangers in their own Land

An important documentary on the disgraceful treatment of minorities in Pakistan. The way the country has shirked its duties toward its most vulnerable citizens—Christians, Hindus, Shias, Ahmadis—bespeaks a failure of moral and political leadership. This needs to change. Pakistan’s Sunni majority has a duty to protect these communities from the terror of the extremists among them.

Mind-forged Manacles

A shorter version of this ran in The Nation earlier.

51bnetm1ygl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Over a decade back, while working for an ad agency in Islamabad, I met a recently divorced young woman. The woman had grown up in the US but had submitted to her parents’ wishes when it was time to marry. Soon after the wedding, however, she discovered something amiss. The marriage could not be consummated—her husband was gay. It would be four years before she was allowed to drop the pretense and ask for a divorce.

In traditional society, marriage is a fraught prospect. It is more than the union of two individuals: for the political elite, it’s an influence multiplier; for the economic elite, it’s a corporate merger; and for the have nots, it’s a bid to have. The personal, as it were, is the political—and the social—and the economic.

The transactional character of these unions is rarely acknowledged. Material concerns are sublimated into the concept of ‘honor’, which masks marital dysfunction and serves as caveat emptor. Divorces, consequently, are rare, and divorcees disdained. Many women endure bad marriages for fear of the stigma that attends divorce.

Central to Rafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is the story of her aunt Amina, who, after her husband takes a new wife, decides to stay in a polygamous marriage rather than suffer a divorcee’s fate. Distraught and humiliated, Amina initially returns to her parents and contemplates divorce. But her parents’ anguish and community pressure eventually make her submit and she returns to the indignity of her husband’s divided affections.

Continue reading “Mind-forged Manacles”

The Legacy of Eqbal Ahmad

Eqbal-Ahmad-biography-coverSadly, Eqbal Ahmad is not as well remembered as he should be. Stuart Schaar’s marvelous new biography, Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Agewill help rectify this unfortunate fact.

Among many other endeavours, Ahmad directed the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, collaborated with Algerian revolutionaries, edited the journal Race & Classwrote a column for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and sat trial for conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger. He was a Third Worldist, an internationalist, and a humanist in the very best sense of those terms.

Richard Falk puts it felicitously:

Eqbal Ahmad was a remarkable human being as well as a seminal progressive political thinker. In this illuminating intellectual biography, Stuart Schaar brings his subject to life, drawing on their long, intimate friendship and shared scholarly engagement with the politics of the Middle East and the Islamic world. Above all, Ahmad grasped the toxic interplay between the maladies of postcolonialism and the persistent imperial ambitions of the West better than any of his contemporaries.

In November I had the pleasure of interviewing Schaar about his book for Middle East Dialoguesa video series produced by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Here it is.

Voices from North Waziristan

Mahvish Ahmad of the indispensable Tanqeed interviews refugees in Bannu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, displaced from North Waziristan after the launch of the Pakistani Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Note that these voices go unheard in the Pakistani media and the nationalist and liberal intelligentsia has been cheering on this “war on terror”.

Free Kashmiri Political Prisoners, End the Occupation of Kashmir

We send you this request in hopes of garnering your crucial and valuable support for the letter attached below. This letter is a response to the dire conditions of thousands of Kashmiri political prisoners, both adults and minors, under the Indian Occupation. Your support will help bring global attention to this critical and urgent issue.

Indian Occupation Forces and their 'Fearsome' Targets: Young Kashmiri Boys
Indian Occupation Forces and their ‘Fearsome’ Targets: Young Kashmiri Boys

Greetings,

We send you this request in hopes of garnering your crucial and valuable support for the letter attached below. This letter is a response to the dire conditions of thousands of Kashmiri political prisoners, both adults and minors, under the Indian Occupation.  Your support will help bring global attention to this critical and urgent issue.

On the ground, in Kashmir and elsewhere, we have a concurrent month-long campaign, the “Fast for Freedom,” first initiated via Facebook, which involves optional fasting, sit-ins, protests, lectures, and film-screenings.  This will culminate in civil protests, fasts and sit-ins by various organizations – including the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons(APDP) – and campus events in Srinagar, Delhi, and Berkeley et al, from 9th to 11th February 2014.  It is an opportunity not just for Kashmiris but for all people of conscience to show solidarity with an oppressed people, to protest an illegal military occupation, the illegal detention and torture of thousands of Kashmiri political prisoners, and incessant human rights abuse, including mass graves, fake encounters, forced disappearances, mass and gang-rapes, and daily humiliation under the ongoing military occupation.  (Please see the linked report Alleged Perpetrators for more details.)

Your endorsement of the attached letter will help bring urgently needed political attention to this long-festering issue, as well as help to generate intellectual energy to begin necessary conversations on military occupations with regard to power and privilege, coloniality and postcolonialism, sexual assault as a weapon of war, imperial and decolonial feminisms, the colonial politics of prisons and capital punishment, post/colonial tourism, the construction of the “terrorist,” Islamophobia and other forms of racialization in the context of Kashmir.   Continue reading “Free Kashmiri Political Prisoners, End the Occupation of Kashmir”

Introducing Tanqeed

Tanqeed is an experiment in critical reflection. It is a quarterly e-zine that publishes long form journalism and essays that analyze contemporary Pakistan and South Asia. Four issues appear per year, including essays, reporting and multimedia work published in-between each issue. It aims to dissect a range of issues without falling into a narrative of hopelessness. And it is developing a conversation that is multi-lingual: Tanqeed’s issues are published in English and Urdu.

Tanqeed boasts a great stable of writers including novelist Mohamed Hanif and Pulse co-editor Muhammad Idrees Ahmad. Tanqeed is currently appealing for funds. Donations of five or ten dollars (or more, of course) will be gratefully received. You can donate here.

How Pakistan Can Stop Drone Strikes

This article appeared at The Atlantic.

Nawaz SharifThe picturesque valleys of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan are overlooked by the immense snowcaps of Nanga Parbat. At more than 26,000 feet, it is the world’s ninth tallest mountain, but for alpinists it is a challenge far greater than Everest. It’s a rare mountaineer who is unaware of its reputation as “the killer mountain.” The notoriety derives from its deadly avalanches and crevasses, but the death that was visited on a group of climbers last month took a much different form. Eleven mountaineers were killed when militants affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban entered their basecamp and unleashed a deadly fusillade.

The assailants claimed the slaughter was retaliation for a June 7 drone strike that killed the Taliban deputy leader Waliur Rehman. Unlike the mountaineers, Pakistan was braced for the attack. Only the location came as a surprise.

Earlier in the month, when the newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office, he had used his inaugural address to ask the U.S. to refrain from further attacks in Pakistan. It took less than 48 hours for the CIA to ignore his demand and launch the deadly strike that killed nine, including the Taliban leader. Pakistanis were incensed. It was more than a breach of the country’s sovereignty; it was also an intervention in its politics and an invitation to further violence.

Continue reading “How Pakistan Can Stop Drone Strikes”

Ambiguous drone policies cast doubt on Obama’s lofty pledges

An earlier version of this appeared in The National last week.

It was a “season of fear,” he said. Government trimming facts and evidence “to fit ideological predispositions”; making “decisions based on fear rather than foresight; setting aside principles “as luxuries that we could no longer afford”. “In other words,” he concluded, “we went off course”.

We “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values”, he said. Institutions will have to be updated with “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.”

It was a fine speech: thoughtful, bold, idealistic. US president Barack Obama delivered it at the National Archives in Washington, on May 21, 2009.

Last Thursday, when President Obama again addressed the question of national security, he sounded equally high-minded. But where in his first speech he had to address the excesses of his predecessor; this time he had his own to consider. The most serious of these were born of Obama’s inability to deliver fully on promises he made in 2009.

At the National Archives speech, Obama had vowed to end torture, shut down CIA black sites, and close Guantanamo. It was the clean break he had promised his base. But faced with a Republican backlash, Obama caved. Torture and black sites were abolished, but Guantanamo remained. Torture memos were released, but torturers roamed free. And to shield himself against charges of weakness, Obama escalated the covert war.

Continue reading “Ambiguous drone policies cast doubt on Obama’s lofty pledges”

Everybody has to buy bread

The following piece appears on the London Review of Books Blog.

For most of the world’s media, Pakistan’s general election was about terrorism. Candidates were identified according to their attitude towards the Taliban, and labelled as ‘secular’ or ‘conservative’. Little was said about party platforms. Circumstances appeared to justify the focus. There was a savage campaign of intimidation by domestic extremists in the run-up to the vote. More than a hundred people died, most of them members of the outgoing ruling coalition parties. The Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) said they were targeted because of their uncompromising attitude towards the Taliban and avowedly secular views. There is some truth to this; but their enthusiastic embrace of the ‘global war on terror’ was a more immediate cause.

Despite the violence, turnout was nearly 60 per cent, the highest in Pakistan’s history. Youth participation was unprecedented. Critics of the ‘war on terror’ roundly defeated its supporters. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has taken a consistent antiwar position, crushed the ANP in the north-west. The PTI did particularly well in Swat, Dir and the Federally Adminstered Tribal Areas, where most of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations and US drone attacks are carried out. Also leery of the war, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) evicted the PPP from Punjab, Pakistan’s richest, most populous and developed province.

Terrorism may be foremost in the minds of Western observers; Pakistanis are more worried about the economy, education and corruption. Opinion polls showed that people’s biggest concerns are inflation and unemployment, as well as power outages and high energy costs, which have stunted economic growth and caused much misery: 20-hour blackouts are not unknown. Not all Pakistanis are exposed to terrorist violence; everyone has to buy bread.

You can read the rest here