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Archive for September, 2009

30mosques

The below piece first appeared on Dawn News’ blog today. It was my first in a series of pieces on “Muslims in America,” where I attempt to show how Muslim-Americans are working to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes in the United States. You can read the Dawn piece here.

New York City is not only home to a significant Muslim population, the community is also a reflection of the city itself – vibrant, diverse, and colorful. Muslims in New York are South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, East Asian, European, and African-American, all speaking an array of languages and practicing Islam in their own culturally nuanced ways.

Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, two young South Asian Muslims living in New York City, decided to explore the diversity within New York City’s Muslim community, visiting a different mosque each day during Ramadan – from Malcolm X’s mosque in Harlem to the Bosnian Cultural Center to the Islamic Center at New York University. Their journey, documented at 30 Mosques in 30 Days, gained an enormous following, with up to 1,500 people visiting the website each day to learn of the previous night’s discoveries. Towards the end of the month, they had reached their goal of 20,000 unique visits to the blog.

When asked what inspired 30 Mosques, Aman noted the project began as a simple personal experiment, since there were so many mosques he and Bassam wanted to explore in the New York area. They were overwhelmed with the unexpected number of responses they received from both Muslims and non-Muslims around the world, writing in to express their desire to pursue a similar experiment in their own cities or communities. What started as an innovative personal adventure soon became a way of connecting people throughout the world.

The two young Muslims wanted the experience to be as natural as possible, despite the subsequent media attention their website received as the month progressed. Ultimately, Aman and Bassam wanted to document what treatment any Muslim would receive walking into a mosque in the city. The overwhelming hospitality they received at each place surprised them both. On Day 28, Aman visited a mosque in the Bronx that had burned down the night before. Despite the tragedy, the congregation was united in their resilience. Aman, in his post, wrote,

Bilal [a man in the congregation] brought up one of my favorite sayings from Prophet Muhammad that really captured the mood in the air tonight. That the Muslim community is like a body. When one part of the body is in pain, the entire body is in pain. In other words, when one of us suffers we all feel the pain. But Bilal brought up an interesting point. He said this saying also applies to happiness. When one of us is feeling good, the rest of us should feel the same as well. He told me this was not a time for us to be sad and depressed. Instead, this is a time for us to smile and be thankful that everyone is here to support each other during the end of this blessed month.

On Day 9, Bassam blogged about the Masjid Aqsa, a predominately West African mosque in his neighborhood. He told me how a man insisted he stay after his prayers to eat, making sure everyone there knew he was a guest and should be welcomed. In the corresponding post, he wrote, “The hospitality during Ramadan has been unbelievable. There’s something in the air, and the weather only seems to get better.”

Each post on 30 Days further cements this notion – that despite their ethnic, cultural, and sectarian differences, the Muslims Aman and Bassam encountered were universally hospitable and inclusive.

Aman told me, “The Islamic Center at NYU was built by college students, while one mosque on Staten Island was established by a guy who worked in a factory during World War II. Each one of these threads make up the Muslim-American narrative –we are united by the belief in Allah, hospitality, and welcoming others.”

For both of them, these stories are instrumental in showing what the Muslim community in the United States has to offer, and how Muslims in America fit into the broader American identity. Aman asserted, “In America, we have different races, ethnicities, and religions, and for the most part live peacefully side by side. The prejudice and “clash” that occurred after 9/11 stemmed from ignorance and misunderstanding. One of the reasons we did this project was to show people that Muslims aren’t two dimensional characters…that such anecdotes humanize us.”

Although Aman and Bassam’s spiritual journey to 30 Mosques was only a modest attempt to break perceptions, their subsequent narrative indicates how easy it can be to break barriers, to challenge stereotypes, and get to know one another. Bassam, who recently met the great Abdul Sattar Edhi, said when asked to autograph his book, the renowned Pakistani philanthropist wrote, “Love human beings.” That simple message, Bassam noted, “is what it’s all about.”

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On Sunday, Pakistan and India’s foreign ministers reportedly met for 100 minutes on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York City. According to Reuters, it was “a fresh attempt” to improve bilateral ties between the two nations since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. However, Pakistan’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi and India’s S.M. Krishna told reporters later that they “did not fix a date” for the resumption of full-fledged peace negotiations, otherwise known as composite talks.

Both sides insisted the meeting was “positive, frank and useful,” but Krishna noted that for a meaningful dialogue to continue, “it is essential to ensure an environment free of violence, terrorism and the threat to use violence.” He added to reporters, “We remain concerned about the threat which groups and individuals in Pakistan continue to pose to us.” And, although he acknowledged the legal action undertaken by Pakistan against suspects in the Mumbai attacks, “a crime of the magnitude that was committed in Mumbai could not have been done by seven or eight individuals.”

Dawn quoted Krishna, who also announced that India had rejected Pakistan’s proposal for back channel diplomacy, noting, “When we have front channel, there’s no need for back channel.” Given that Pakistan had already announced that former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan would be appointed as special envoy in the back channel talks, Krishna’s announcement was slightly embarrassing. The development, however, does raise some interesting questions about back channel diplomacy and its advantages for Indo-Pak ties.

Back channel diplomacy refers to negotiations that take place in secret between parties in dispute or with a neutral third party present. In Pakistan, such talks occurred back in 2003, when a ceasefire pertaining to the Line of Control was negotiated, as well as during Musharraf‘s presidency in 2007. In the March 2, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll delved into the talks during Musharraf’s era, noting the top diplomats involved – Tariq Aziz from Pakistan and Satinder Lambah from India – were tasked with developing a “non paper” on Kashmir, “a text without names or signatures which can serve as a deniable but detailed basis for a deal.” Khurshid Kasuri, the then-foreign minister, noted the back channel talks were so advanced by 2007 that they’d “come to semicolons.” An Indian official told Coll, “It was huge – I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem…You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.”

The agreement, which was close to being signed [Coll noted that one quarrel over the Sir Creek waterway would be formally settled during a visit by PM Manmohan Singh to Pakistan] was shelved due to political turmoil in Pakistan, i.e. Musharraf’s firing of the Supreme Court justices and the subsequent declaration of the state of emergency. Coll wrote, “In New Delhi, the word in national security circles had been that ‘any day now we’re going to have an agreement on Kashmir…But Musharraf lost his constituencies.”

Since Zardari’s PPP government came to power, there has been talk of reviving the back channel talks of the past and concluding work on this reported “non paper.”  From a U.S. standpoint, a breakthrough in Indo-Pak talks would be conducive to shifting Pakistan’s attention to its western border, not to mention that progress could potentially reduce rivalry between the two countries in Afghanistan, [see Myra MacDonald's Reuters blog: Now or Never? for more]. Such an approach has been embraced by the current Pakistani administration, who advocate for front and back channels to “work in tandem.”

There are many advantages of back channel diplomacy. Shuja Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords and director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, told me that back channel talks are “essential to get rid of the undergrowth and to build up vested interest groups of non-official actors.  Track I  [diplomacy] tends to be stuck in history and detail as the mandarins fight old battles over and over again.” Ultimately, in atmospheres that are as charged as India and Pakistan, this type of back channel diplomacy bypasses the need to toe party lines and spout rhetoric. Coll, in his New Yorker piece, even noted the aforementioned “non paper” was a factor in tempering India’s response after the Mumbai attacks.

Despite these advantages, back channel talks can only be successful if trust exists between the two nations, and if both sides want to come to the table. Given the environment in India following the Mumbai attacks, there is a deep mistrust in New Delhi of Pakistan’s ability to control militancy within and outside its borders. And, despite Islamabad’s eagerness to enter into negotiations, the issue of Balochistan and India’s alleged involvement in the restive province also hinders the potential for successful peace talks. Moreover, Pakistan’s very publicized call for back channel diplomacy seems almost counter-intuitive, since the benefit of such talks is that they bypass constituency pressures.

Should Indo-Pak back channel talks resume? Given the current status quo in Indo-Pak relations, this alternate form of diplomacy could be instrumental in jump starting the peace process. But due to the above mentioned factors, the nature of the talks would be different from the ones that took place in 2007.  A neutral third party would change the previous dynamic, but could help broker negotiations, acting as a bridge in bringing the two state actors to an even table.

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In August, an angry mob set fire to 50 houses in Gojra, killing seven people, all Christians. The incident was indicative of the ongoing persecution against Pakistan’s minorities. According to Minority Rights Group International, Pakistan had the world’s highest increase of threats against minorities last year and was ranked the seventh most dangerous country for minorities overall. Below, a blogger by the name of Rotifan [she blogs at Kiss My Roti], discusses her own experience growing up as a Shiite in Pakistan, and how the Gojra burning impacted her:

I didn’t know I was different from anyone else until I was seven. It was during lunchtime that one of my classmates began to make strange wailing noises and proceeded to beat her chest mockingly while telling everyone that this was what the kaffir Shiites did. I joined in the laughter only to realize later that she was talking about me. From that point on, I was aware that I was an outsider. The fact that I was religiously curious from a young age didn’t help either. When I was nine, I decided that I was going to go to attend mass at my Catholic school church just to see what it was like. The most interesting part of this wasn’t the mass; to be honest, I couldn’t understand a word. It was everyone else’s reaction.

Upon my return, my Islamiat teacher declared that I had converted to Christianity. Soon after, all of my classmates started to ignore me. This was also the year that graffiti began to appear on the walls on my way to school proclaiming, Shia kaffir, Shia kutta (Shiites are infidels, Shiites are dogs). It boggled my mind that people I did not even know hated me.

However, I soon moved to Canada and forgot everything. But all these experiences came back when I heard about the attacks in Gojra and the ongoing sectarian violence. As all of us know quite well, attacks on minorities in Pakistan are all too common. Despite the fact that there are between three-10 million religious minorities – both Muslim and non-Muslim – living in Pakistan, since 2000 there have been several large scale attacks leaving scores dead and hundreds injured.

Minorities in Pakistan do not only face violence and intolerance, but also discrimination at both a social and political level. As the Minorities Watch’s report on Pakistan points out, the average literacy rate for Christian’s in Punjab is 34 percent, eight percent less than the national average of 46.56%. The average literacy rates among Hindus and Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists are 34% and 17% respectively. According to Human Rights Commission on Pakistan (HRCP) suicide rates are high among impoverished Christian and Hindu communities. Among the approximately 1000 suicides committed in Sindh in the year 2000, 25 were committed by Christians and Hindus. For minority women, the situation is much more dangerous. The HRCP notes that Hindu and Christian minority women are much more likely to be raped than their counterparts for supposed religious and political outrage.

While it is true that discrimination against minorities is institutional, it is not fair to only place blame on the legal and political spheres. The societal attitudes about minorities must change. The resounding condemnation following the Gojra attacks provides hope for a changed future, but condemnation is simply not enough. Genuine efforts must be made to integrate minorities into the public sphere on their own terms. This can only happen when there is a separation between the mosque and the state.

The problem with Pakistan as an Islamic republic is that anyone not embracing the state sanctioned belief (Sunni Islam) cannot be an equal citizen to those that do. Elevating a religion to the state level not only provides it with both legitimacy and protection not available to other beliefs (aka Blasphemy Law). And as long as this is the case, attacks on minorities similar to Gojra will continue.

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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Eid Mubarak!!

Reuters: From the Boston Globes Big Picture Series

Reuters: From the Boston Globe's Big Picture Series

Eid Mubarak CHUP readers!! Eid ul-Fitr, the holiday which celebrates the end of Ramadan, was celebrated by Muslims in the United States and across much of the Middle East on Sunday, and will be celebrated in South Asia today.

Growing up, my favorite part of Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr always centered around two things – my family and food. On Chand Raat, the night before Eid, I loved going to the market to buy bangles or get henna painted on my hands. My memories of Eid as a child were flooded with color, bright new clothes, laughter, and the taste of sivaiyyan [vermicelli noodles in sweetened milk] first thing in the morning.

As an adult, Ramadan has become increasingly a time to think about others around me, particularly the poor. Working in the development realm has helped put such issues into further context. My thoughts and prayers go out to the women recently killed in the stampede for food in Karachi, as well as the numbers of others in Pakistan and throughout the world who don’t have the luxury to go back to eating heartily and regularly like I will. I hope we all continue to think about their well-being and find ways to help, in our own small way.

So, Eid Mubarak, and I hope everyone enjoys their holiday! Do tell us – what has been your favorite memory from Ramadan and Eid? How do you celebrate the holiday?

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I feel the need...the need for speed!

"I feel the need...the need for speed!"

CNN on Monday included a refreshing piece on the seven women who are trained and ready to fly Pakistan’s F-7 supersonic fighter jets in the Air Force. For sixty years, it was nearly impossible to break into the male dominated profession. According to BBC News, “Women could join the armed forces but only for non-combat jobs like the medical corps.”

That changed six years ago, when the Pakistan Air Force decided to allow women to train as fighter pilots. Although women cadets are small in number, they are making strides. Back in 2006, the BBC reported that one of the graduating women flying officers, Nadia Gul, “received the trophy for best academic achievement along with two of her male colleagues who got trophies for best flying performance and general duties.”

On Monday, CNN’s Reza Sayah spoke to the seven women along with their male counterparts. He reported, “To become a fighter pilot takes three years of training at the Air Force Academy in Risalpur, Pakistan…The training is often intensely physical. Here, equal opportunity means equal treatment.” Commanding officer Tanvir Piracha noted, “If they are not good enough as per their male counterparts, we don’t let them fly.” The aforementioned female pilot, Nadia Gul, told CNN, “Islam gives equal opportunity to females. Whatever we want to do we can.”

The debate over women in military combat is ongoing throughout the world, and in Pakistan, we have a ways to go. But if the video below shows you anything, it’s that these female Mavericks are breaking barriers, challenging taboos, and really just kicking butt. Enjoy:

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Reuters: Rescue workers from Edhi Foundation carry victims

Reuters: Rescue workers from Edhi Foundation carry victims

On Monday, at least 19 women were killed in a stampede in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Karachi. According to the NY Times, “The stampede occurred as a local trader was distributing food [flour, lentils and other goods] in Khori Garden, a sprawling neighborhood in the southern part of the city. Hundreds of women and children had gathered in the narrow lanes, and witnesses said the women tumbled over one another trying to enter a building in an attempt to collect the food first.” 25 people were reportedly injured in the incident.

BBC NewsArman Sabir noted that the key cause of the tragedy was “the unexpected arrival of large numbers of people.” The crowding and congestion at the distribution site later exacerbated the situation, making it difficult for ambulances and rescue workers to get through. Waseem Ahmed, Karachi’s police chief, told reporters, “The incident happened because the distribution was taking place in a very confined area without any precautions,” adding that the man distributing the free flour, identified as Chaudhry Iftikhar, was detained “because he had not given police prior notice.”

According to Bloomberg, President Asif Ali Zardari has called for an inquiry into the stampede, ordering the Sindh government “to appoint a High Court judge to lead the probe and report within a week on who is responsible for the tragedy.” Zardari “took serious note of the poor arrangements to manage huge crowds,” adding that local authorities should have ensured the distribution was “smooth and safe.” Dawn reported that Sindh’s Chief Minister has promised a compensation of one lakh rupees (100,000 rs.) for the families of the victims.

Media outlets provided several eyewitness accounts of the stampede Monday, humanizing the tragedy further. Fatima Hashim, a 55 year old woman whose daughter was seriously injured Monday, told Al Jazeera, “The place where wheat flour was being distributed was very narrow, which suffocated hundreds of women and children…I went along with two of my daughters to get two bags of flour, but now my younger daughter is struggling for life in the hospital.”

Amina, a maid at a government school in Lyari told Dawn News,

I would have never come here to get flour if the inflation rate was not as high. The price hike this year has made it difficult for us to feed our large families and the government does not seem to care. Every day I stand in long queues to purchase atta (flour) at Rs. 10 per kg, but return home empty-handed. Today, when I heard that free flour was being distributed by someone, I immediately rushed to try my luck here as well…As soon as I reached out to get a bag of flour, two women jumped on my back and I fell down. The crowd stepped on me and I couldn’t breathe for a while and then fell unconscious. My neighbor brought me to the hospital.

In the wake of this heart-breaking incident, it seems we are all trying to find a scapegoat. Authorities blamed the man distributing the food for not taking the necessary precautions in a confined area. Zardari, in his statement Monday, pointed the finger at the local authorities, asserting they should have ensured that food distribution was safe and secure. According to The News, one eyewitness even shifted responsibility to the crowd, blaming the “intolerant, ill-mannered and impatient women.”

At the end of the day, the problem is much larger than the man who didn’t clear the area with the authorities, or the authorities who didn’t ensure the crowd’s safety, or the women who impatiently charged ahead for free rations of food. Tuesday’s Dawn editorial echoed my sentiments exactly when it stated, “The women and children who jostled and pushed their way towards handouts were not driven by greed; they were driven by hunger and the fear of starvation.”

According to the World Food Program, 24 percent of Pakistan’s population is undernourished and 38 percent of children are underweight. The current state of hunger, noted the agency, is “alarming.” Moreover, factors like Ramadan and the sugar and wheat shortages have exacerbated rising food prices. Given that two-thirds of Pakistan’s 160 million people subsist on less than $2 a day, a surge in food prices endangers their very survival. As Dawn noted, “The accouterments of [Pakistan's] state power and prestige ring hollow when people are dying in their search for food.”

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Leaking Haqqani’s Letter

Picture 1

CNN-IBN Report

On Saturday, CNN-IBN reported that they had obtained a copy of a letter sent from Pakistan’s U.S. Ambassador Husain Haqqani to Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary and Chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha. In the letter, dated July 28, 2009, Haqqani warned that “harassing Americans or denying them visas hurts the country’s image and can have severe consequences” for U.S. aid to Pakistan and military sales. CNN-IBN cited the letter, quoting Haqqani as saying, “Over-reliance on physical intimidation and harassment causes bitterness and resentment. Additionally, the subject becomes more careful thus making surveillance that much more difficult.”

The letter reportedly mentions the recent instances in which Americans were denied visas, allegedly harassed, or put under intelligence surveillance while in Pakistan, suggesting that a Black List exists for certain journalists and non-government organization officials who are “perceived to be critical” of Pakistan’s “national security objectives and policies.” According to the letter cited by CNN-IBN, Pakistan harassed both NBC and CNN correspondents Richard Engel and Reza Sayeh, canceled the visa for Newsweek photographer Kate Brooks, and denied the visa renewal for the chief of the Asia Foundation and the director of the International Republican Institute.

The News on Sunday reported further on the development, noting that a Pakistan embassy spokesman refused to comment on the letter, instead calling the communication between Washington and Pakistan “a national secret.” The news agency added,

Diplomatic circles, however, confirmed that Pakistan’s embassy in Washington was under tremendous pressure, for quite some time, from U.S. media organizations over the issue of alleged harassment of U.S. journalists at the hands of Pakistani security officials. At the same time the Embassy was finding it difficult to get clearance from Islamabad to issue Pakistani visa to certain members of U.S. media which was, in fact, raising questions about the commitment of freedom of expression on part of Pakistan’s military and civil leadership.

The development as a whole is interesting, and raises some important questions:

  1. Why was the letter considered a “national secret”? The document is indicative of the major rift that exists between Pakistan’s embassy in Washington and the players on the ground, as well as the divisions between Pakistan’s civilian and military/intelligence sides. Moreover, noted CNN-IBN, “Experts say Haqqani’s letter is a reflection of the rift… between President Asif Ali Zardari,” who is reportedly close to Haqqani, and PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, “who is close to the ISI.” Ultimately, the Pakistani establishment can hardly be perceived as unified if its  arms are pursuing conflicting agendas.
  2. Why was the letter revealed this weekend? According to CNN-IBN, the document was dated July 28, 2009, nearly two months ago. Why was it leaked this past Saturday? While I have no definitive answer to that question, it does seem interesting that the letter was revealed amid rumors that the United States, and more specifically, Blackwater, have been expanding their presence in Pakistan. If anti-American sentiment is increasing because of such alleged rumors, how do Pakistanis perceive the harassment of journalists and U.S. NGO officials within this context? How is Haqqani perceived as an extension of raising this issue?
  3. How did CNN-IBN obtain a copy of the letter? A letter was written in the Pakistan establishment channels nearly two months ago, a letter that has since been called a “national secret.” On Saturday, CNN-IBN, an Indian news agency, magically obtained a copy of said letter, not a Pakistani news agency that perhaps may be more privy to such channels. Pakistani media outlets that have since reported on the topic only cited CNN-IBN’s coverage of the letter, leading me to conclude that the news agency is the only one that has access to it. So, perhaps a better question to ask would be, who leaked the letter to this news agency and why?

The letter itself is significant because it highlights the intimidation and mistreatment of foreign journalists and non government workers in Pakistan by the ISI/military. For a so-called democracy to stifle the freedom of speech and expression is problematic and should be a point of contention.

However, the story becomes more complex after placing it in the context on which it was revealed. The leaked letter could be an attempt to undermine Haqqani and marginalize his role in Washington. If discussion threads and blogs are any indication of public opinion, then a number of Pakistanis believe Haqqani’s letter further cements the diplomat as a “traitor” and someone attempting “to undermine national security.” Pakistan Ka Khudafiz wrote, “It is the duty of Inter-Services Intelligence to defend Pakistan’s borders and block any covert attempts to trample Pakistan’s sovereignty. Mr. Haqqani’s assertion that ejecting Americans found involved in suspicious activity and denying them entry is hurting Pakistan’s image, is idiotic at best and treason at worst.”

I can’t help but think that Haqqani’s letter may have garnered a different response had it been leaked in July rather than three days ago. What are your thoughts?

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