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Archive for January, 2009

roland-2CHUP interviewed Roland Stevenson, owner of RiverIndia, a company that leads kayaking expeditions in India and throughout South Asia. In November 2008, Roland led a team on an expedition in Pakistan, to tackle the Indus River. Below, he tells us about their experience:

Q: You currently lead expeditions for River India, what motivated you to do a similar expedition in Pakistan?

I have always had a strong link to Pakistan; spending some of my favorite and formative years going to high school in Islamabad and then returning to Muzaffarabad in 2006 to work as a UN/WWF earthquake relief volunteer. Since 2006, I’ve been trying to persuade a few pro-kayakers, led by Ben Stookesberry, to run the Indus [River]. This most recent expedition came about after a couple years of building a good reputation with some of these athletes in a similar political region: India’s restricted-access and politically-contested state of Arunachal Pradesh. After a few years of organizing successful expeditions there, which often had us organizing permits, running first descents, filming documentaries, chartering government helicopters, inadvertently crossing borders, tip toe-ing through military cordons, and dealing with “local sensitivities”, I had the confidence to propose tackling the Rondu gorge of the Indus- a river that has never been run completely. Sponsored by Jackson Kayak and RedBull, the expedition succeeded in what we think is the river’s fourth descent ever, and the descent with the least amount of portages.

Q: Given the current security situation in Pakistan, did you have any expectations/fears going into the country? How many people were part of your group?

Having not been in Islamabad for almost 2 years, I wasn’t sure how much the reality on the ground differed with the generally heightened alarm found in the media and the US State Department’s Travel Advisories. I kept in mind while reading the Pakistan Travel Advisories that they are often composed by people who rarely leave the confines of Ramna-5. I had followed events from the developing insurgency in FATA, Lal Masjid, the lawyer’s strike, Musharraf‘s resignation, Bhutto‘s assassination, and the continuing Al-Qaeda attacks culminating in the Marriott bombing, but the political evolution of the security situation wasn’t a primary concern for an expedition that was going to be in and out in 3 weeks, moving frequently.

Short of being unlucky enough to run into a random act of violence, we were pretty confident that most of the people we were going to meet were the peaceful, friendly, hospitable types who I’d had the pleasure of working with in 2006 and living with in the mid-90’s.

We were a group of six: Five Americans (Ben Stookesberry, Phil Boyer, Darin McQuoid, Chris Korbulic, and myself) and one Mexican (Rafa Ortiz). When we decided to have our first lunch in the somewhat conservative town of Besham, despite warnings, we were eager to point out that we were all Americans… AND ONE MEXICAN! Ole! I think our good natured humor, respect of the local culture, and conversational Urdu helped win friends. Any anxiety was put to rest when we realized people were just as eager to learn about us as we were about them.

Q: What was the most surprising experience during your trip?

Obama won the election the first day of our trip – we kept the Dawn newspaper with us for the course of the journey, showing it to many of the villagers on our way through the Indus valley. Many people cheered and congratulated us. It seemed to signal the widespread hope that Pakistanis had for our country’s future, as we were producing a film to draw attention to theirs.

When we reached Skardu, we met with the local officials to get permission to conduct the expedition and filming in the Rondu Gorge for 2 weeks. As far as I know, the hand-written permit that I wrote was the first official permit to run the Indus. But what was even more surprising was that the DC, before signing off on our trip, asked “And do you all like Obama?” Nods, smiles, and laughs passed around, and with that we were given permission to begin! I do not think the DC was a big Bush fan, but perhaps that should qualify as least-surprising.

Q: What was the most rewarding part of the expedition? What lessons did you take away from the trip?

A few days before the end of the trip we met a principal named Shah Rais Khan who invited us to visit his school the following day. The next morning Chris Korbulic and I visited the Dawn Public School, in a village called Haramosh, and taught a class of English. Mr. Khan invited the entire group back the following day for what was to be a “special ceremony”. We were all excited and arrived early the next morning to find all the students of the school lined up for a big assembly. To stand there sipping steaming chai under these massive, snow-covered Karakoram mountains, listening to the Pakistani anthem sung by 3-15 year old children was very moving. We were each asked to address the children of the school and that, without a doubt, was the most rewarding part of the trip. We each thanked the children, Mr. Khan, and his teachers for this honor, and have since incorporated a plan into the film tour to raise donations for Mr. Khan’s school.

I think the biggest lesson any of us took from this trip is this: had we believed the news media coverage or rumors about this area, we never would have enjoyed the experiences and friendships that we did. Media coverage of any conflict area tends to dwell on the extremes and neglect the large percentage of normal people who are not making the news. The people of NWFP and the Northern Areas were curious, helpful, and concerned for our safety. In evening conversations bundled in a shawl around a tandoor at a dusty roadside hotel, many locals were just as worried about the Taliban or Al Qaeda, if not more so, than your average American. Our goal is to share these pertinent stories of the common Pakistani populace with a wider audience in the US through our films. We are willing to go to these areas, encourage communication, and “see for ourselves”, rather than agree that the image of violence and hatred is ubiquitous. Our experience has shown that it generally is not.

Q: Will there be more expeditions in Pakistan? How does one become a part of that?

I certainly hope so- the experiences on the Indus and in Muzaffarabad are some of my most cherished memories. There are definitely plans in the works for more.

The Pakistan expeditions as well as the trips we have planned in Tibet are a bit off-limits for the casual traveler. Not because they’re too tough or difficult, but because they have limited space and are a total gamble- sometimes things work out well, and sometimes not! For the adventurous of heart, the expeditions offered by RiverIndia are a great way to get into expedition running: 2 week immersive expeditions on one of the world’s most legendary rivers, the Brahmaputra, or Siang as it is locally known. People who’ve done well on a trip have often come back to run a special descent more like the gambles mentioned above. We also try to get a couple select guests on a charity guide school that we teach free of cost for about 10 local students once a year. The message of all our trips is the same: Go to some of the most remote places in the world, run a thrilling expedition, and see for yourself that there are good-natured people the world over! Check out http://www.riverindia.com for lots of pictures, video, and info.

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Just in Case You Were Worried…

[Image from TIME, a yoga class in Tehran]

The Daily Times reported today that Islamic scholars in India, including those at the Darul Uloom Deoband, “say they do not object to Muslims practicing yoga, contrary to a recent decision by Malaysian clerics to ban yoga for Muslims.” Maulana Abdul Khaliq Madrasi, deputy vice-chancellor of the Darul Uloom, told an Indian news agency, “Yoga is a good form of exercise. If some words, which are supposed to be chanted while performing it, have religious connotations, then Muslims need not utter those. They can instead recite verses from the Quran, praise God or remain silent.” The Times of India cited a spokesman for the Darul Uloom, who added, “If you observe closely ‘namaz‘ [prayer], which every Muslim is expected to perform five times a day, is itself a sort of yoga and plays an important role in keeping a person healthy.”

The debate and controversy over Muslims and yoga began last year, when Malaysia’s top Islamic body, the National Fatwa Council, issued a fatwa banning it, “saying that it combines elements of physical exercise and chanting of religious mantras.” According to a TIME magazine blog, the council claimed “that the sweaty ‘Oms’ and other Hindu elements of a standard 60-minute yoga class could ‘destroy the faith of a Muslim.'”  This past week, prior to the Deoband announcement, Indonesia‘s Islamic body followed the Malaysian example, issuing a similar edict banning yoga’s practice.

A Guardian columnist echoed my sentiments exactly when he noted, “The MUI’s [Indonesian] fatwa reflects a creeping conservatism influenced by an increasingly vocal extremist fringe, in a country where most observe a moderate brand of Islam.” In my opinion, fatwas are often used by religious councils to exert greater influence over the personal lives of local citizens. Edicts regarding the education of girls, [hello, Swat] or health policies are obviously much more serious than those banning exercise. However, the yoga fatwa is ludicrous because it’s so trivial, and because it could  ultimately undermine the credibility of these councils. Yoga has become such an intrinsic part of pop culture that I am certain very few people realize its religious connotations. In fact, noted the aforementioned TIME blogger, “Muslims, at least those of the Middle East, have been practicing yoga widely since the mid 1990s, and in some countries the exercise is now as commonplace as it is in blue-state America.” Thank God the Deoband seminary didn’t give in to such melodrama. I don’t think my chakra could take it.

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President Barack Obama sat down with Al-Arabiya television today in his “first formal interview as the American president,” [see clip above for full interview]. The Associated Press called the segment “part of a concerted effort to repair relations with the Muslim world that were damaged under the previous administration.” The news agency added in its coverage, “Obama cited his Muslim background and relatives, practically a taboo issue during the U.S. presidential campaign, and said in the interview, which aired Tuesday, that one of his main tasks was to communicate to Muslims ‘that the Americans are not your enemy.'” CNN aired a clip of Obama asserting, “We can have disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians, and we will hunt them down. But to the broader Muslim world, what we are going to offer is a hand of friendship.” The newly inaugurated president added, “My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people that simply want to live their lives…my job to the Muslim world is to communicate that Americans are not your enemy.”

CNN’s Rick Sanchez spoke with Professor Fawaz Gerges [of Sarah Lawrence College and author of several books including, Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy], who commented on Obama’s statements today. When asked, “If this was a public relations war, is Al Qaeda winning,” Gerges replied, “I don’t think AQ is winning the war at all. In fact, I have argued all along that [they] lost the war of ideas in the last two years, and what Obama is trying to do is hammer a deadly nail in the coffin of AQ.” The professor called this approach “a very promising beginning,” adding that the policy will ultimately “make the U.S. safer”  and  go a long way to repair the bridges [of trust] between U.S. and Muslim world. [For a related & interesting article on the growing irrelevance of Al Qaeda, read this piece by The Economist.]

The interview today was significant because of how Obama framed “the enemy.” There was a marked shift from past Bush administration policy, which often polarized good and bad, using abstract phrases like “The Axis of Evil,” the “War on Terror,” and “you’re either with us or against us.” President Obama acknowledged the “gray area” in today’s televised segment, drawing the distinction between terrorist organizations and the people of the “Muslim World” who, as he asserted, do extraordinary things and want extraordinary things for their children. His rhetoric demonstrated an understanding of the complexities that exist in the international community today, a far cry from the policy over the last eight years.

Putting rhetoric into practice may prove difficult though, particularly in regard to Pakistan, and the continued air strikes in our tribal areas, [see recent post on recent drone attacks]. Today, Dawn reported that Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the United States “will continue to carry out missile strikes against Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan.” The news agency noted in its coverage, “‘Both President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after Al Qaeda wherever Al Qaeda is and we will continue to pursue that,’ Gates said. Asked by committee chairman Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, if that decision had been conveyed to the Pakistani government, Gates replied: ‘Yes, sir.'”

Hmmm. Is it ever justifiable for the U.S. to hit targets if it means coming on to Pakistani soil? What if the only casualties are Al Qaeda or Taliban-linked militants? Will it impact the Obama administration’s new olive branch to the Muslim World? I pose these questions not only because I’m conflicted over the answers, but because I think it’s an interesting opening for discussion.

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CNN is reporting today that “suspected Taliban militants” blew up a government-run boys school in Swat Valley. Although no one was wounded, the blast marked the 183rd school destroyed by Swat militants in the last six months, [although Dawn earlier this month put the number at over 100 schools in the last 14 months]. According to BBC News, the militants justify the bombings because they say the schools “are used for shelter by [Pakistani] troops.” Today’s bombing comes just a day Swat’s radical cleric, Maulana Fazlullah [also known as the Radio Mullah] threatened to kill more than four dozen government officials if they did not appear before him for opposing the Taliban, [see Rabia at Grand Truck Road for the full list]. According to Dawn, “It has been learned that most of the people on ‘the list’ have already left Swat. The only man, who defies militants is veteran ANP leader and former federal minister Afzal Khan Lala, who lives in Durushkhela under the protection of an army unit. He has twice come under militants’ attack.” The militants’ spokesman, Muslim Khan, asserted, “The rest of the people of Swat should feel secure while those who have fled and have not been included in the list may return to their homes.”

The above statement would be laughable if the situation wasn’t so dire. Obviously the people of Swat shouldn’t feel secure – numerous schools have been destroyed, roadside bombs are a frequent occurrence, hundreds have died in the clashes between security forces and militants, and Fazlullah’s organization has banned girls’ education in the Valley. According to the BBC’s M Ilyas Khan, “Residents said an indefinite curfew was in force in the area as troops continued to search for militants.” Military spokesman Athar Abbas told Voice of America, “We are hopeful of establishing peace in Swat. We will not let these militants succeed in their designs.” Dawn reports that the government has decided to deploy army and paramilitary troops at a number of educational institutions in Mingora in the wake of mounting attacks in Swat Valley. However, the news agency quoted an official who added, “It is impossible to protect all government buildings against militants’ attacks by deploying troops.” According to Dawn, “He was alluding to requests by the valley’s administration that the government step in to protect educational institutions in the face of repeated threats by militants to destroy schools and colleges ‘corrupting the youth.'” The new security measure has translated into 25 soldiers being posted at 16 different institutions.

I wonder how effective the military’s ground offensive has been in Swat – Has it been coupled with a counterinsurgency approach – i.e., an effort to sway the war of ideas in Swat Valley and counter the hardline rhetoric of Mullah Fazlullah? What needs to occur for “peace to be restored” in the area?

Additionally, here is a link to a haunting BBC piece – a diary of a schoolgirl in Swat: One notable part – “Some of my friends have left Swat because the situation here is very dangerous. I do not leave home. At night Maulana Shah Dauran (the Taliban cleric who announced the ban on girls attending school) once again warned females not to leave home.”

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Below, Jackie, an American working for a social enterprise in Karachi and CHUP’s correspondent, reviews Karachi’s production of Chicago, the renowned  musical about the city of Chicago in the 1920s, [to see Jackie's other posts, click here]:

I was very excited to see many of the city’s prominent billboards advertising for the musical production of Chicago, and in English!  While I have heard much about Pakistan’s theater scene, particularly in Lahore, many of these plays are in Urdu and are therefore inaccessible to me. While I had never actually seen the musical nor the popular movie – I couldn’t resist an English play and immediately bought tickets.  Before reading my critique, I would like to make a small disclaimer: I have only been to a handful of live musicals in my life, and none in Pakistan.

Due to my unfamiliarity with Chicago, I was instantly shocked by the play’s overtly sexual tone and the incredibly seductive, sensual female characters.  For those also ignorant – the play portrays a snapshot of the city of Chicago in the 1920s – a time of jazz and excess in a city ripe with thugs and speakeasies.  The story follows the lives of a group of women, jailed for killing their husbands or lovers over seedy reasons involving love, sex and betrayal.  A hustler and sleazy lawyer take advantage of these women’s stories for personal fame and money, manipulating the press to spin spectacular tales about the women and portraying them in the courtroom as poor, helpless souls.

The most entertaining and surprising aspect of the musical given our setting in conservative Pakistan, was the overt portrayal of stark sexuality. The Cell Block Tango, the main song and dance number, involves women dancing seductively on and around chairs bemoaning the gruesome, sordid details of their husband’s dalliances and subsequent murders.  One of the characters kills her husband because she catches him with a girl ‘spread eagle’ on the floor.  Another character laments about her husband’s poor performance in the bedroom.  These issues are not mentioned in even some of the most liberal, elite households I spend my time in. The costumes hugged every curve of the actresses’ bodies and sheer black tights did little to hide long legs – a complete contrast to the often abaya-covered women of Karachi’s streets.

Roxy Hart, the main role, was played by Sanam Saeed who stole the show.  Sanam completely embodied the character, and I was utterly transfixed by her performance.  Each little action and mannerism and the all the intonations in her speech oozed sexuality.  She mimicked the Chicago accent very well!  In fact, I didn’t realize until looking at the program during intermission that she was Pakistani – I assumed her to be an American. Momin Zafar also gave a wonderful performance, playing the part of Roxie’s pathetic, puppy-love husband Amos Hart.

Unfortunately, aside from Sanam and Momin, many of the other characters were not up to speed. While I thought the acting was good, particularly the difficult Chicago accents each of the characters adapted, their musical and dancing performances were lackluster.  Many of their voices were not strong enough for the stage nor were their dance moves very inspiring.  The dances seemed too mechanical and rehearsed.  That being said, at the last minute the production company had to change venues, and the stage went from an indoor area to an outdoor area.  I would assume this involves a change in acoustics and a different sound system – perhaps the late venue change deserves at least part of the blame.

All-in-all an enjoyable two hours, and fascinating to see such sexually-charged performances and controversial themes played out under bright lights here in Pakistan.

The musical finished its Karachi run on January 20th. It will run in Lahore from January 30 – February 6, 2009. For ticket information, click here.

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Two U.S. missile strikes hit Pakistan’s North Waziristan today, media outlets reported, the first to occur during Barack Obama‘s administration. CNN’s Reza Sayah noted, “This is perhaps a loud message by the new Barack Obama administration. Many people were very cautious what type of military strategy this administration would use in Pakistan’s tribal region. Would this administration continue the controversial U.S. missile strikes from those unmanned drones…on this Friday night we seem to have an answer, and it seems to be yes.” The first strike occurred around 5:15 pm Pakistan time, and reportedly killed 10 people. According to the Associated Press, “At least five of the dead were identified as foreign militants,” and most news agencies noted the area has been identified as a “safe haven for Al Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants.”

CNN also spoke with their Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, who confirmed that the strikes were perpetrated by unmanned drones, “most likely operated by members of the U.S. intelligence community.” She added that it is very likely that President Obama will continue this policy of U.S. strikes “with no hesitation.” Starr asserted, “Expect this first strike to be followed by additional ones.” CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, on the “Situation Room” sat down with former President Musharraf today, who commented on this recent development. Musharraf told Blitzer, “Nobody in Pakistan is comfortable with the strikes across the border, public opinion is very against it…we have to find a way out…that satisfies [Pakistani] public opinion and is in line with our resolve to fight terrorism.”

I don’t know about you, but I was extremely disappointed to hear about today’s air strikes. Maybe the policy of “change” doesn’t apply to the U.S. approach to Pakistan. Maybe as Musharraf noted in the interview, “Policies don’t change with personalities…” What do you think?

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About six and a half years ago, I interned with Women Aid Trust, a small not-for-profit organization in Islamabad that provides legal aid and rehabilitative services for women and juveniles in Pakistani prisons, [see their official website]. In 2002, many of the female prisoners I met in Rawalpindi‘s Adiala Jail were zina [adultery] cases. However, as was often the case with the Hudood Ordinance of 1979, many of the prisoners hadn’t actually committed adultery – rather, many had been raped, and because they could not provide four male witnesses [of the act], were subsequently arrested and charged for zina – a non-bailable offense.

One woman I met that summer had been raped and subsequently impregnated by her brother-in-law. Although she went to the police station to report the crime, she was ultimately charged with adultery. Pakistan’s lower courts found her guilty of the crime, sentencing her to stoning to death [the punishment outlined by the Hudood Ordinance]. The case subsequently garnered so much attention from international rights groups and women’s organizations that the country’s High Court swiftly reversed the decision. Despite her relatively happy ending, I will forever remember my image of this woman at the end of the trial – clutching a tiny baby [born within prison walls], she appeared tiny and frail among the swarm of reporters, human rights organizations, and big shot lawyers. It made me wonder – in our quest to address the overarching obstacles facing women’s rights in Pakistan, how often do we forget the individual victims? How often do they become just another statistic, another nameless face in our crusade for the greater good?

Working with Women Aid Trust [WAT] allowed me to comprehend that in the gender battle, both top and bottom approaches are necessary. WAT takes the latter avenue, addressing specific cases, providing legal aid to individual women and [male] juveniles, and teaching them the professional skills [from tailoring to embroidery to carpet weaving] necessary to lead a productive life post-prison. For the organizations campaigning for more overarching change, their victories are also significant. In 2006, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed the Women’s Protection Bill, which effectively replaced/amended the Hudood Ordinance. The bill ultimately brought the crime of rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, which is based on civil law, not Shari’a [Islamic law], thereby abolishing the need for four male witnesses, etc.

Last week, I witnessed the product of both these approaches. The company I now work for supports and funds WAT, and I paid a visit to Adiala Jail once again. Six and a half years later, the change is palpable. In 2002, the women, their small children in tow, would show us how their food had been infested with maggots and insects.  Many stared blankly into space or cried helplessly on WAT co-founder Shaheena Khan‘s shoulder. Today, with WAT’s support, the women’s section has their own kitchen as well as small stovetops to cook their own meals. Today, skill development classes run seamlessly within the prison. The children of some of the female prisoners have a small classroom, and will happily recite their latest poem or show off their colorful drawings. While this is obviously no utopia, it is nevertheless a dramatic improvement from the state of affairs I witnessed almost seven years ago. Moreover, the organization itself has expanded its work to include juvenile boys – who are often susceptible to militant recruitment when they leave these prison walls – by teaching them professional skills and preparing them for a matriculation exam accredited by a local university. WAT, with a staff of teachers, psychologists, anthropologists, and lawyers, now supports six jails throughout Pakistan. Their success is  both due to their dedication as well as the support and cooperation of the prisons’ staff – the superintendents, the guards, etc.

The advent of the Women’s Protection Bill has also altered the prison demographics, and is a shift worth discussing, [also see a related study conducted by former WAT interns]. As mentioned above, many of the women I encountered in 2002 were either zina cases or had been involved in drug smuggling cases. In Pakistan, much like other societies in the developing world, many women involved in narcotics-related cases commit such crimes because of their impoverished situations [i.e., they are given a small sum of money - sometimes as small as 500 rupees - to carry drugs from one point to the next.]. Following the Protection Bill, adultery-related cases have decreased, and the women who are charged for the crime can now be bailed out. As a result, many of the women I encountered in Adiala Jail last week were either convicted of drug smuggling or murder. In several of the murder cases I observed, many of the women had actually killed their husbands – and, while I am not armed with quantitative proof, I am convinced that some, if not many of the female prisoners had been victims of domestic violence.

To be honest, my recent experience at Adiala Jail did challenge my previous black-and-white notions of right and wrong. However, although I realize that not all women in Pakistan’s prison system are victims, there is still a viable gray area that should always be considered. That is why the work of WAT is so significant – regardless of whether a woman is a victim of a man, of the legal system, or of society, the organization advocates that they all deserve a chance to live a life beyond prison walls. For both the female and juvenile prisoners, WAT’s objective [from my observations] is to find ways to break the cycle, so that their release does not ultimately lead to a re-entrance into the prison system. The organization also engages in advocacy efforts to raise awareness about the issues impacting women and juveniles in the legal system. As someone who has personally witnessed their evolution, I can state with certainty that the men and women of WAT are true heroes – humanizing an issue that is often overlooked in many countries, especially Pakistan.

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recIn the international community, anti-U.S. sentiment has been exacerbated by events like the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, the Guantanamo Bay scandal, and the drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Likewise, stereotypes and misconceptions of the Islamic World have been common place in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Rebecca Cataldi, a program manager for a non-profit in Washington, D.C. is working to change these perceptions with her initiative – the American-Islamic Friendship Project. She was inspired to start this project – a collection of messages of peace and friendships between people in the U.S. and the Muslim world – after visiting the Middle East and Pakistan. Below, she tells CHUP more about her initiative, why she started it, and what you can do to contribute:

Q: Can you explain the concept behind your American-Islamic Friendship Project?

The American-Islamic Friendship Project collects messages of peace and friendship from Americans to people in the Muslim world and from people in the Muslim world to Americans. When enough messages have been gathered, I hope to publish them in a book to be distributed in America and various Muslim countries. The goal is to build greater understanding and friendship between our countries by allowing the voices of “ordinary” people to be heard, dispelling the perception that Americans and people in the Muslim world harbor hostility toward each other, and connecting Americans and people from diverse Muslim countries in promoting our common desire for a more peaceful world.

Q: What inspired you to start this initiative?

Events such as 9/11 and the Iraq War made me want to do something to promote friendship and greater understanding between Americans and people in the Muslim world. I believe that cultural exchange and personal relationships between “ordinary” people can play a powerful role in creating social change and improving relations between their nations. So I began to visit Muslim-majority countries so that I could meet people and learn about their culture firsthand. I admit I was a little apprehensive at first. I wasn’t sure how people would treat me as an American. Many Americans have the perception that people in Muslim countries don’t like them or would be hostile to them if they came to their countries. Before I went to Egypt, for example, people in America told me to be careful and worried that something might happen to me. When I got there, however, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of the Egyptian people. Instead of the hostility or anti-American prejudice I was afraid I might find, I found that people were curious about Americans and were happy that someone from America wanted to learn about their country. In talking about political and cultural issues, we found we had much more in common than we had expected. Yet I was surprised to see that many Egyptians seemed to have the perception that Americans don’t like Arabs or Muslims or would be hostile to them if they came to America. I had a similar experience when I went to Pakistan on a project to visit women’s madrassas. People there were incredibly kind, hospitable, and welcoming to me. They didn’t seem to dislike Americans, yet many of them seemed to believe that Americans dislike them.

In my opinion, the majority of people in America and in the Muslim world don’t have any hostility toward each other and want to have greater friendship and understanding between our countries, yet we tend to believe that the other has hostility toward us. I wanted to dispel this misperception by finding a way for Americans and people in the Muslim world to be able to communicate their real feelings to each other. One Egyptian university student did some beautiful drawings symbolizing peace and friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims, and she asked me to take them back to my country and share them with Americans. I was touched by her desire to reach out to us, and when I shared them with Americans, they were so happy to receive a message of peace and friendship from someone in the Muslim world. I started the American-Islamic Friendship Project for two reasons-first, because I wanted to return the kindness I had received in Muslim countries with the gift of messages of kindness and peace from my own country, and second, because I wanted to enable people in America and the Muslim world to hear the real feelings of each other, the feelings of ordinary people beyond what we hear in the media.

Q: What were the most surprising reactions to the book, both from the American and the Muslim side?

The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. I guess what surprised me most on the American side was how many people said something like, “I’ve been wanting to reach out to people in these countries for long time and I didn’t know how.” They were so happy for an opportunity to communicate with people in the Muslim world. What surprised me most in the Muslim world were the reactions of some madrassa teachers in Pakistan when the messages were shared with them. Some of them actually cried when they read what Americans had written. One madrassa teacher, upon reading a message from a six-year-old American girl, said, “If American children are writing to us to express peace and love, then we have to respond in kind-not only with our words, but with our actions.”

Q: How can initiatives like yours help bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Islamic World?

“Ordinary” people have such a powerful role to play in building better relations between our countries, because it is ordinary people who collectively shape the social consciousness of a nation, and the social consciousness affects the nation’s attitude toward other cultures and international problems. Difficult issues like the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine can only be resolved if America and the Islamic world can work together as partners in problem-solving, and not as enemies or rivals. In order to be able to collaborate as partners, we need to believe that the other wants to work with us, to know that the other doesn’t hate us, and to trust that the other shares goals in common with us-such as an end to violence and a government that protects the rights of its people-even when we have different ideas about how to reach those goals. So it is so important for us to be able to say to each other, and to hear from each other, “We don’t hate you. We want to work with you to solve these problems. We want friendship and peace.” This is a simple but powerful message, which is often drowned out in the fog of war and terrorism. Perceptions can create reality by shaping thoughts and actions. I believe that initiatives that connect people with each other at the human level can play a powerful role in building better relations by affecting our perceptions of each other.

Q: How can people get involved?

There are three main ways: 1. Contribute a message to the book. We are always looking for messages to add to the book, particularly from people in the Muslim world, where we need to gather a lot more. Any message is welcome as long as it promotes peace, friendship, and understanding. It can be as short as a sentence or as long as a page. Anonymous messages are also welcome, but please identity your country. 2. Identify and connect us with organizations or people who may like to receive a copy of the book or contribute messages. Messages gathered so far have been compiled in a makeshift (pre-publishing) book and have been sent to various places, especially schools and universities in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan. We are always looking for new places to send the book and for places where we can gather new messages for the final published version. Contacts at schools are particularly appreciated. 3. Help us find a publisher for the final book. Donations are also welcome. For any of the above, please contact me at shadowseye@yahoo.com and write “American-Islamic Friendship Project” in the subject line.

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Yesterday, the United States ushered in a new political era with the swearing in of the nation’s 44th president – Barack Obama. In his inauguration speech yesterday, Obama became the first president to address the Islamic World, asserting, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Although his rhetoric was powerful, I wonder how much real “change” will be underway in Washington. The NY Times wrote Tuesday, “Some abroad bridled and some were reassured by the recurring foreign policy motif of Mr. Obama’s address — his resolve that the United States, as it rebuilds at home, will not give up its long-established role as the leader of the free world. And while many hailed the change of tone, others were uncertain that real change was coming, given the realities of American politics and the world that has not altered with the transition in Washington.”

Nevertheless, I am still cautiously hopeful. Obama, with VP Joe Biden at his side, may take a less polarizing approach to Pakistan, especially given the recent Biden-Kerry-Lugar legislation, which promises an annual $1.5 billion of socio-economic assistance to our country [garnering Biden the prestigious Hilal-e-Pakistan award]. In an op-ed released today, Maliha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador the U.S., wrote, “How Obama manages issues in the Muslim world will determine the success or failure of his foreign policy because it is here that the greatest challenges lie…” In regards to Pakistan, she further noted:

Washington should cease unilateral strikes into Pakistan’s tribal areas. Its aggressive approach has inflamed public opinion, undercut Islamabad’s own counterinsurgency efforts, and risked destabilizing an already fragile country. Instead, Washington should help strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to contain militants. The Obama administration should also break decisively with the Bush legacy of treating Pakistan as hired help rather than as a valued ally. Pakistan has paid a heavy price – both human and in terms of its socioeconomic stability – for being a frontline ally of the U.S. Thousands of people, including 3,000 law enforcement personnel, have been killed in terrorist violence since 2001. The economic cost is estimated to be around $34 billion.

Ultimately, the atmosphere in Washington, D.C. and the rest of the world has been one of relief, to the say the least. Regardless if change is really in the cards, people seemed more than eager for an end to the Bush era. Above are two pictures I took in Washington, D.C. two days ago, where an enormous inflatable George Bush doll was set up for people to throw shoes at. Yes, shoes – a la the Iraq-shoe-throwing incident not too long ago [see related CHUP post]. Every time a person managed to get a pair of shoes around “Bushoccio‘s” nose [as the badge on the doll's chest read], the crowd cheered. Just a small example of the fervor that persisted in Washington this inauguration week.

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In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, the relationship between India and Pakistan has certainly suffered. Below, Rakesh Mani, a New York-based banker and freelance writer, discusses the current state of our countries’ relations, and what needs to occur for the good of both nations. [The piece originally appeared in Dawn newspaper on January 19]:

We are now gripped by a solemn fear that the terrorist atrocity on India’s financial capital can trigger new furies across the arc of the subcontinent. If the terrorists wanted a mobilization of troops to the India-Pakistan border and a diversion from the pressure applied on them in Pakistan’s northwest areas, they will soon have their way if the region allows itself to be taken over by nationalist fervor.

Across the world, Indians are outraged by what they see as Pakistan’s alleged complicity. But it might well be that the terrorists, though Pakistanis, were not state-sponsored. It is a difficult fact for many Indians to accept, but the Pakistani state seems to have largely exited this “business.”

The fact that India held peaceful elections in Jammu & Kashmir with massive voter turnout points to this. The electoral success would not have been possible if Islamabad had sent in extremists and militants, as New Delhi believes it is wont to do.

Yes, Mumbai’s terrorists may not be state-sponsored agents but, as with other terrorists, they are indeed society-sponsored. For various reasons, Pakistan has become the global epicenter of Islamic terrorism – a problem that has serious security implications for not just India, but for Pakistan itself.

Still, we cannot afford war. It will be political and financial suicide.

Politically, launching targeted strikes against the militants’ facilities will give rise to increased public support for Pakistan’s fiery mullahs and pose a dangerous threat to the country’s stability. Economically, the prohibitive price of battle will hit hard at India’s booming economy and Pakistan’s crumbling one.

Escalating tensions need to be defused swiftly. Now more than ever, we need real statesmen to step up to the plate and act with maturity, restraint and vision. We need a realisation that India and Pakistan are in this together, one cannot succeed while the other falters. Along with a shared history and culture, we now have a shared enemy.

The only real beneficiaries of this are the right-wing religious parties. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accuses the ruling Congress party of being soft on terror. “Fight Terror. Vote BJP,” they say. Can we feign shock if an embittered India votes to sacrifice its pluralism for the sake of its security in the coming elections?

And who benefits the most from Hindu nationalists sweeping to power in India but the Islamists in Pakistan? It gives them justification as the defenders of faith. The two complete each other’s constituencies, they thrive on each other. But if we can knock them out on one side of the Wagah border, we can take the ground out from beneath their feet on the other.

But here it is the failure of Pakistan’s intellectual and social elites. Sipping cocktails comfortably in New York and London, they bemoan the government and old mindsets. But in Karachi, they won’t ever set a bold example. Back home, it’s easier to follow the rigidly conservative social diktats. Social freedoms are better exercised abroad.

They’re educated and modernized, but won’t speak out against anti-Indian rants and hard-line religious doctrine. So from the pluralist, tolerant Islam that was once the case, the country is now held captive to a puritanical version of the faith that is constantly policed by those who believe themselves to be rightly guided. Growing up with this rigid doctrine, young, ordinary Pakistanis are readily subordinating the love of the state to religiously inspired visions.

A crisis is the perfect opportunity for solutions; even radical solutions. So we cannot let this crisis go to waste. It must be used to curb a dangerous national obsession with faith, and to arrange an economic marriage in South Asia. Ultimately, this economic marriage is what will bring long-term peace and prosperity in the region. Businesses must open up across the border. When times are less tense, permits must flow for industries and investments. The impacts on the economy and on the people’s psyches will be huge.

Soon, South Asia’s businessmen will become the region’s most ardent diplomats. They will exert every pressure on their governments to avoid conflict, because conflict will hurt their commercial interests. Perhaps in the long term, the region will become one economic bloc, and share a common market and currency, along with a common culture. Divisions can break down in the face of economic cooperation.

The world has woken up to India’s economic potential. India is being courted as never before. Why should Pakistan, whose people have so much in common with Indians, not do the same? Getting riled up by old prejudices arrests us – Pakistan can only gain from an economic marriage of convenience with India. For Pakistan’s sake, and the world’s, let’s hope that wedding bells are round the corner.

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