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Archive for April, 2009

I am currently working on a pretty elaborate article related to the UK-Pakistan terror path, (i.e. requiring me to use more than two sources, none of which include the beloved Wikipedia), but a friend sent me this Amazon product link that I thought made a pretty hilarious buffer post, particularly given how the war on terror has impacted many of our experiences at international airport security. Being a Muslim from Pakistan definitely makes for some interesting and lengthy encounters with immigration, to say the least.

Meet Playmobil‘s Security Checkpoint toy model. For only $62 (a bargain!), children between the recommended ages of 4-7 years receive a passenger, and not one, but two security personnel (male and female – who can accuse Playmobil of not being gender sensitive!). The product description from the manufacturer reads, “The woman traveler stops by the security checkpoint. After placing her luggage on the screening machine, the airport employee checks her baggage. The traveler hands her spare change and watch to the security guard and proceeds through the metal detector. With no time to spare, she picks up her luggage and hurries to board her flight!”

The clincher, though, lies in the reviews of the product. One happy customer wrote,

I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger’s shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger’s scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said “that’s the worst security ever!”. But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.

Another customer, not as enthralled, announced that he/she was “holding out for the Guantanamo Bay playset. Hopefully this will come with an extrordinary rendition option.”

Just the kind of toy that makes me warm & fuzzy about what we teach our children nowadays – don’t you agree?

DISCLAIMER: The aforementioned product is not a real vendor – hence, this post is all in good fun, meant for comic relief. The reviews – at least I hope – are also concocted for humor purposes. Thank you!

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Well It’s About Time…

If you didn’t get a chance to watch U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s rather refreshing testimony before Congress last week, here is the clip:

Ultimately, Clinton recognizes the U.S. role in funding the Pakistani mujahideen, the fighters sent to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. She asserted,

Let’s remember that the people we are fighting today, we funded 20 years ago. And we did it because we were locked in this struggle with the Soviet Union…and we went to work.

Obviously, we cannot change the past – but an acknowledgment from Washington about the part they played in the problem is still pretty cathartic. What do you think?

In related news, the CS Monitor reported that hundreds of protesters marched to Lahore’s General Post Office today, armed with posters and letters urging the government to step up its fight against militancy. The letter, circulated via email and over Facebook, read, “Mr. President, we too must fight the Taliban, who have chosen to fight against the state and who routinely terrorize and kill innocent Pakistanis. It is incumbent upon you to mobilize the nation against the scourge of the Taliban before it is too late.”

Although the rally was relatively small in size, especially in comparison to the country’s Long March last month, it nevertheless shows how the public conscience has begun to sway collectively against the Taliban. And it’s not just secular Pakistanis. Dawn also reported today that top leaders of the Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary Islamic movement, spoke out against the enforcement of Sharia at gunpoint, religious extremism, and terrorism, calling instead for peace, interfaith harmony, and human rights. One leader told a congregation, “Muslims should preach peace, brotherhood and tolerance across the world, including Israel. They must avoid imposing their creed or faith by force because Islam is a religion of peace and promotes tranquility.”

CS Monitor, Lahore Rally

CS Monitor, Lahore Rally

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Image Credit: WWICS
Image Credit: WWICS

This past week, tensions within Pakistan escalated after Taliban militants consolidated power in Buner, just 70 miles from the capital of Islamabad. Although these elements began to withdraw from the area last Friday, the developments raised fears within the country and the international community about the increasing influence of the Taliban in Pakistan and the government’s ability to counter it. Now, as the military initiates its offensive, [Dawn reported that paramilitary troops have taken full control of the Lower Dir district near Swat Valley] many are left wondering what will happen next. Below, CHUP discusses the conflict with Khalid Aziz, the director for institution strengthening with the FATA Secretariat. As someone who is not only from the tribal areas but also has dedicated his career to the region, his insight is extremely valuable:

Q: What do you think has been the biggest mistake the Pakistani military has made when dealing with the tribal areas?

First, it was the inability to address the grievances of the people. There’s always upset people in any society and if they have grievances, they act as a tool for the militants who come and organize communities around discontent. I think allowing simmering grievances to remain in an area has been a mistake, which is not the military’s fault but the state’s fault. As far as the military is concerned, I think the biggest problem is that we don’t have a counterinsurgency strategy - which is a holistic approach to the problem, not a military one. We have been too reliant on the use of force and that has led to a lot of collateral deaths, which has again aggravated and increased the grievances.

Because the military operates in an honor society, people who have had their kin killed, then come out and taken revenge for those deaths. It has led to an increase in suicide bombers, which was an unknown phenomenon amongst the Pashtuns, but now it has become part of the protest, part of the model. The third failure is not strengthening the state, because when you negotiate with the militants you tend to reduce the effectiveness of the state and the people’s respect for it. One has to be very careful – if any peace agreements are going to be done, the government has to do it from a position of strength and not of weakness.

Q: Given the negative news of late, people have felt pessimistic about the current security situation in Pakistan. Do you feel the mistakes the military and government have made can be rectified for the future?

I think what happened in Pakistan on the 15th of March when the whole nation stood as one for the reinstatement of the chief justice should act as an example. My own feeling is that the situation is not hopeless but we are a divided house. We all have to act together – the politicians the military and the civil society – and once we build up this momentum, we’d be in a much better place. And that would be the best response to the militants, and it would also strengthen the state forces who are fighting them, give them the moral edge, and give more legitimacy to deal with the insurgency. We should invest more time and effort in trying to mobilize our society against the insurgency.

Q: If it has been long known that we have needed to fight these militants using a proper counterinsurgency strategy, what are the obstacles that have prevented us from enacting it sooner?

By not having a COIN [Counterinsurgency] strategy we have created a confused response by the state security apparatus. Let me explain this by an example. Four days ago a police party was leading a convoy of Frontier Constabulary soldiers which is a paramilitary force into Buner. In a situation where there are militants opposing such a movement, which was the case in this example, precautions through the use of advance reconnaissance or the use of helicopters is normally undertaken. This was not done. The police party was attacked by militants and the policemen were killed. The movement of troops was stopped. Failure such as this could be prevented if there had been a detailed COIN strategy that outlined standard operating procedures in such cases. As in other cases, we lack the political will to do the right thing and thus we are adrift and losing ground to the militants.

Q: In Iraq, the U.S. would distinguish among insurgents by referring to some as “reconcilable” militants versus those who are “irreconcilable.” In the case of Pakistan, is it important to make that similar distinction – and, more specifically in the case of the Sufi Muhammad and the TNSM, should we continue to negotiate with them?

Negotiations can only succeed if the state is in the more dominant position. In Swat, we negotiated from a position of weakness and therefore I feel that the agreement will turn out to be an embarrassment. Militancy has to be tackled through a multidimensional approach which is absent.

Q: What is your opinion on the increased U.S. drone strikes in the region?

The drones are the spearhead of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the region. If Pakistan fails to prevent the planning of a threat against the US forces in Afghanistan or terrorist operations worldwide, then US drone strikes become inevitable. If Pakistan wants these strikes to end, then it must remove the cause. Secondly, there is a need to create a due process of law for the use of drone strikes inside FATA by embedding it inside the FCR [Frontier Crimes Regulation] and allowing the political agents to call jirgas with the tribes before any action is taken against proscribed persons through drones, [i.e. informing the jirgas of who the strikes intend to target beforehand, so that they will not give the militants safe haven]. This is likely to reduce reactions against such methods of counterterrorism. [Khalid Aziz has also advocated that if drones are used, they should be under the Pakistani flag, not the U.S.]

Q: Moving to the more human aspect of the conflict – there are currently 80,000 Internally Displaced Persons living in camps in Pakistan, and more than 700,000 throughout the country – what services are being provided to these people? Can the government do more?

Various Pakistani agencies, international organizations and NGOs are busy in providing different services in the field of health, education, water supply and drainage etc to the IDPs. However, there is a shortage of funds. Funds are available only till May. If more money is not made available soon the crisis of the IDPs will deepen, causing more grievances.

Q: Last but not least, do you see the glass as half empty or half full?

Half full…


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Taliban Pulling Out of Buner

Map, NY Times

Today, the Taliban announced they are pulling out of Buner, the district just 70 miles from Islamabad, [see left image]. According to the NY Times, “Some 400 to 500 insurgents consolidated control of” the strategic district, “setting up checkpoints and negotiating a truce similar to the one that allowed the Taliban to impose Islamic law in the neighboring Swat Valley.” However, on Friday, media outlets cited militant spokesman Muslim Khan, who announced, “Taliban have already withdrawn from some areas and a complete withdrawal will start after some time.” Dawn, in its coverage, reported, “The withdrawal began after the government threatened the militants with action and after outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-Muhammadi (TNSM) and Malakand Commissioner signed an agreement,” although Muslim Khan denied the Taliban was leaving due to any pressure. BBC News added, “The Taliban have agreed a peace deal bringing Sharia law to some districts in return for ending their insurgency. The peace agreement covers six districts of Malakand division, including the troubled Swat region, in North West Frontier Province (NWFP).”

Although the Taliban are now withdrawing from Buner, the consolidation of power in the district raised many red flags, particularly among U.S. officials. In today’s NY Times, “U.S. Questions Pakistan’s Will to Stop the Taliban,” Carlotta Gall and Eric Schmitt reported that despite the Taliban shift closer to the capital, “Pakistani authorities deployed just several hundred poorly paid and equipped constabulary forces to Buner, who were repelled in a clash with the insurgents, leaving one police officer dead.” The news agency added,

The limited response set off fresh scrutiny of Pakistan’s military, a force with 500,000 soldiers and a similar number of reservists. The army receives $1 billion in American military aid each year but has repeatedly declined to confront the Taliban-led insurgency…The military remains fixated on training and deploying its soldiers to fight the country’s archenemy, India. It remains ill equipped for counterinsurgency, analysts say, and top officers are deeply reluctant to be pressed into action against insurgents who enjoy family, ethnic and religious ties with many Pakistanis.

The government’s recent negotiations with the Swati Taliban have also garnered criticism from the U.S. and Pakistani officials. Former Pakistan ambassador to the U.S., Maleeha Lodhi called the pact a “disaster,” noting, “First and foremost, it represents a retreat from Jinnah’s PakistanIt is the very antithesis of [his] visions and ideals, the core of which were a modern, unified Muslim state, not one fragmented along obscurantist and sectarian lines.” She further asserted, “Rattled by more aggressive actions by militants, the political and security establishments caved in to the challenge … The deal signalled weakness and bankruptcy on the part of the ruling elite that [has] chosen appeasement.” Despite the criticism, though, the government continues to defend the militant peace deal, arguing it was their “only viable option.” In his column this week, the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall wrote,

Some analysts suggest the government is biding its time, waiting for the Islamists to over-reach – and that when it is plain to the public that they cannot be trusted or reasoned with, Islamabad will send the army to crush them. But others detect a lack of political will, a deep-set ambiguity about confronting groups that have served Pakistan’s purposes in the past in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and also, perhaps, a failure of nerve.

So, which is it? While I am inclined to believe the government lacks the political will necessary to combat the rising Taliban threat, recent developments have polarized the public against the militancy – whether or not that was the state’s intention or just the product of recent escalating developments. According to MP and The News’ columnist Ayaz Amir, the turning point came after Sufi Muhammad‘s rally this past Sunday, [see related CHUP post]. He noted, “But the Maulana’s rhetoric and Buner, both happening in quick succession, have hit public opinion like a bombshell. All at once Pakistan has woken up to the Taliban danger, the state of denial transformed almost overnight into a state of alarm.” Dawn’s Cyril Almeida echoed, “Suddenly, people have woken up to the fact that the great soldier of Islam is a dangerous kook. ‘He thinks we’re what?’ ‘He wants to do what?’ Yep, he thinks the rest of us are sick and what we really need is a dose of Sufi’s medicine. Y’know, to straighten us out about our romance with infidel democracy and yearning for quaint things like basic rights, a functional economy, education, etc.”

Almeida echoed my sentiments exactly when he added that this “wake up call” needs to amount to more than initial outrage, which has been the norm thus far. He noted,

But the outrage will prove momentary, the consensus fleeting if the people’s representatives don’t rise to the occasion. There are a few promising signs, with the PML-N and the religious parties joining the MQM in expressing their reservations about what was agreed to in Swat…But desperately as we do need a public consensus against militancy that is not what is ultimately going to defeat the militants. To defeat the militants, the state, particularly the security establishment, must be on board.

The military made an effort to indicate its resolve in the face of criticism, when COAS [Chief of Army Staff] Gen. Ashfaq Kayani told an operational meeting today that the Army was committed to preserving the safety and well-being of Pakistan’s people, adding, “The operational pause, meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance, must not be taken for a concession to the militants.” According to Dawn, “It was the most direct statement by General Kayani, or any other security or civilian official, about the prevailing situation and the manner in which it needs to be tackled.” While we must wait and see whether these statements translate into formative action, the next 48 hours will be crucial, particularly because sources say the military operation in Swat will soon be underway.

A friend asked me this morning as I was formulating my thoughts whether or not we should be truly scared. And I would say yes. Here’s the thing – the Taliban may have withdrawn from Buner, but the fact remains that they were able to consolidate power there in the first place. These militants aren’t just waving their scary guns from the frontier, they were 70 miles from Islamabad, my hometown. Their influence has pervaded Karachi, one of Pakistan’s main cities. They have perpetrated attacks on the relatively untouched Lahore. They have the ability to not just come at us from the north, but enclose upon us from all directions. The threat is very real and it’s very near. It is dangerous because they present a united front.

The reason why hope is not lost, therefore, is because Pakistan – the state, the military, and the civil society – are finally beginning to be on the same page. A successful strategy against the Taliban cannot work without all three actors – the military needs the public consensus behind it, not only to marginalize support for the militants but to bolster its own moral resolve. The public needs both the government and the military to enact a unified strategy and restore security. And finally, the government needs to restore the people’s faith in the state. While I am not a politician or an army general, I am a citizen. And as a Pakistani, the only way to save ourselves is if we do more than just sit on the sidelines. Take notes from the citizens of Budaber, who have established neighborhood patrols to fend off the Taliban. If you don’t want to be out on the street, voice your protest by attending rallies or circulating petitions telling the government to wake up. But for God’s sake and our country’s sake, do something.

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Happy Earth Day!

river-indus

Flickr image by Faisal Saeed, View of Indus from Karakoram Highway

Not too long ago, I interviewed Roland Stevenson of RiverIndia, a company that leads kayaking expeditions in India and throughout the subcontinent. This past November, Roland led a team on an expedition down the Indus River in Pakistan, the longest river in the country and the 21st largest river in the world in terms of annual flow, [click here to read the interview]. While on the trip, considered one of the most successful descents of Indus River’s Rondu Gorge, the team filmed a documentary entitled, Hotel Charley IV: At Your Own Risk. The trailer of the film, shown below, not only highlights the breathtaking natural beauty of our country, but also the people-to-people understanding that was fostered during this expedition.

While on the trip, the team visited a school in a village called Harmosh, where they taught the students a class in English, [the school is now being targeted for closure by the Taliban]. At one point towards the end of the clip, a member of the team told the young students, “Thank you very much for letting us come to your valley and let us experience your river and your home and your culture. Thank you.” The trailer ends with the powerful message, “The children of Pakistan represent the future. Think about it.”

On a day like Earth Day, meant to inspire us all to appreciate the world and people around us, it is important for Pakistanis to be proud of not just our natural beauty but also the tenacity of our people in the face of daily violence, rising extremism, and political turmoil. Happy Earth Day everyone.

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Faiza Shaikh, a London-based artist from Karachi, is groundbreaking in her work, [click images above to see enlarged pieces of her art]. Using strong, bold colors, her art fuses modernity with religious philosophy. Each of Faiza’s paintings impart a message of religious tolerance and peace in a world torn apart by division and polarization. Her show, entitled, “Forbidden Love” will be previewing at London’s Black Rat Gallery on May 22, 2009. She recently also partnered with British NGO, Women’s India and the Tongues on Fire Film Festival, to exhibit her work as part of the festival at BAFTA. Although she has shown her work at various exhibitions in London and Pakistan, her show in Mumbai [scheduled for 28 November 2008] was canceled amid fears that the religious depictions within the collection would spark unrest. Given her message of unity and tolerance, such a development was indeed unfortunate. Below, Faiza talks to CHUP about her collection and the inspiration behind her work:

Q: Much of your art fuses Islamic, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu traditions – what inspired you to use themes of religion and tolerance in your work? Is there a method or a purpose behind the kind of texts you use in a specific piece?

I paint the philosophy I meditate upon. I use texts from Quran, [Bhagavid] Gita, Tora and others to represent the universality of their ideas. Religious intolerance arises from our ignorance about each others faith. My art simply says- look into the mirror of your own being. Know yourself to realize that your battles are unnecessary. When every religion speaks the same truth and everything ends in the same reality, all of this is just a tamasha (spectacle). Life is sacred as it is an opportunity to touch the light of our existence. It is about universal truth. My purpose is to engage the viewer and the engagement is achieved by the use of the texts. Once my painting is placed on someone’s wall, everyone asks the meaning of the verse. They can be directed to the translation that accompanies the painting. It may spark a debate or a conversation or perhaps just appreciation.

Q: Have you faced any kind of religious opposition to your work?

Frankly, I am not bothered how the viewer sees my paintings, however I take extreme care to ensure that the sanctity of each religion is adhered to.

Q: What is your opinion on the current state of Pakistan’s art industry? How can it be bolstered/improved?

Pakistani Art should be the next big thing I hope. The critical ingredient to catapult Pakistani artists to the world’s stage is good marketing.

Q: The arts medium – theater, dance, film, and art – can often be used as a commentary on society. In Pakistan in particular, recent films have been a commentary on politics or current affairs. Do you feel like your work and message have a place within the current debates raging in Pakistan?

Absolutely. The message of my art dispels misconceptions which are based on heresy rather than on knowledge. In this way, an attempt is made to create harmony and peaceful co existence. The influence of living in London is that it teaches the beauty of tolerance. The society allows respectful co existence of all cultures. The English and the French have fought many battles, similarly with the Germans and yet today they are part of the European union sharing common currencies and common laws. Should the subcontinent learn from this maturity? If the politicians fail to display this maturity, should they be nudged into this direction by a mere artist? We live in hope.

Q: The observation of art is considered a subjective experience, but is there one particular message or lesson you hope your audience takes away from your work?

“Art is never chaste. It must be forbidden to ignorant innocents never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes Art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not Art.” -Pablo Picasso

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Image from Dawn, Sundays Rally for Sufi Mohammed

Image from Dawn, Sunday's Rally for Sufi Mohammed

On Sunday, Sufi Mohammed, head of Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat [TNSM], told a large rally, “The fifteen year struggle of the TNSM for the implementation of Sharia in Malakand is now bearing results,” adding, “Now any appeal against the Qazi courts’ decisions can be made only through the Darul Qaza [Sharia court]. There is no room for democracy in Islam.” According to the Daily Times, Mohammed asserted that Pakistan’s superior courts were “un-Islamic,” demanding that the government “withdraw all judges from Malakand division – including from Kohistan district – within four days and set up a Darul Qaza to hear appeals against the decisions of qazi courts.” Bloomberg quoted TNSM spokesman Ameer Izzat, who stated,  “There cannot be two laws in one area…The duplication of the legal system created confusion and anarchy. It is important that the regular courts are abolished.”  The UK Telegraph also cited the spokesman, who added, “We will go home if this is not done…Then the responsibility for maintaining peace will not be ours.”

Dawn included an interesting piece by Tahir Wasti, who echoed my sentiments exactly when he noted:

A reading of the text of the Regulation 2009 indicates that members of our parliament hurriedly passed the resolution without exerting their right of reading and carefully studying several provisions of the regulation. The regulation lacks all the essential qualities of good legislation: clarity, accuracy and constitutionality. Ambiguity and vagueness ruin the very purpose of the legislation and are the two qualities that one may find floating on the surface of this law.

The danger in ambiguous legislation is it leaves room for interpretation and manipulation. Therefore, the Taliban can issue demand after demand. They can hold the government at gunpoint, while leaders and lawmakers stand frozen, their hands tied by the law they themselves put in place. Dawn columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee in his article, “The Price of Moral Cowardice,” wrote this weekend,

Appeasement is, to put it mildly, a naïve policy denoting weakness. It is a yielding of compromise and sacrificial offerings. More bluntly, it is moral cowardice exhibited by pathetic men and women who offer concessions at the expense of others. Appeasement is doing deals with men who have insatiable territorial appetites with the wish to impose their own brand of false theological practices and beliefs.

Although columnist and MP Ayaz Amir spoke out in the Parliament against the Regulation, what is shocking is that every female parliamentarian stayed silent, despite the countless bombings of girls’ schools, despite the circulation of a cell phone video showing the Taliban flogging a young girl in Swat. Every silent MP who stood in support of the Nizam-e-Adl manifest the horrific state of denial we live in. Yes, the ambiguity of the Regulation allows room for manipulation of the law – but to act as silent bystanders through it all is almost as bad.

To make matters worse, on Monday Muslim Khan, the spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban, jumped on the Sharia bandwagon when he declared that Islamic law would not be contained to just Malakand, but will spread to the rest of the country. In an interview with Dawn news, he also added that the “Taliban will not lay down their arms unconditionally.”

While these are a depressing run-down of developments, it should nevertheless be a frightening reminder that this threat is no longer in Pakistan’s periphery – it’s on our doorstep. As Cowasjee noted in his article’s footnote, “Karachi is already feeling the Taliban pinch. Co- educational schools in Defence, Clifton and Saddar areas are known to have received visits and been threatened if they do not change, others have been sent letters with the same message.” Given that Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, in her PBS Frontline film “Children of Taliban,” also reported on the militants’ increased presence in Karachi, we should know better than to be in denial any longer.

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