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Archive for September, 2010

The Takeover Rumor Mill

NYT: "Ooh, Pretty Vesty..."

The rumor mill is churning again.

For weeks, media outlets have hinted that Pakistan’s military, which historically views itself as the “savior” of the country (I prefer “meddling mother-in-law”), has been “weighing options” for an indirect intervention in Pakistan’s political sphere, as reported by last week’s Friday Times. According to Reuters Now or Never,

Rumors of change in the government were set into motion last month after a coalition partner of Zardari and self-exiled head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, called on “patriotic generals” to take revolutionary steps against corrupt politicians. Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and main opposition leader [PML-N], strongly opposed Hussain’s suggestion but recently said a “change” could be brought out through constitutional means if the present government did not rectify its wrongdoings.

On Tuesday, the NY Times’ Jane Perlez reported that the Pakistani military is “pushing for a shake-up” of the current government and, “in the longer term, even the removal of President Asif Ali Zardari and his top lieutenants.” The army cannot feasibly take direct control of the country, what with operations against militants and ongoing flood relief efforts, but that doesn’t mean they still wouldn’t be in support of an indirect “reshuffling” of the current regime.

Zardari, PM Gilani and COAS Kayani reportedly met to discuss this issue on Monday. Following the meeting, the president’s office released a statement that the government will complete it’s full five-year term. The Express Tribune quoted the statement as saying, “We will continue our forward march and complete the term no matter what the machinations against us.” According to the NYT,

Having secured an exceptional three-year extension in his post from Mr. Zardari in July, General Kayani appears determined to see to it that the government prevents the economy from entering a tailspin, which would further weaken the health of the nation and also the value of the military’s own vast landholdings and other business enterprises.

If this is true, and it’s in Kayani’s interest to not see the economy spiral increasingly downwards, then keeping the stability of the government in check is also key in this scenario, particularly since economic and political stability are intrinsically linked. But a statement from the president’s office rejoicing the sanctity of the “democratic process” will not be enough in achieving said stability, particularly since people are justifiably angry and dissatisfied with the current regime. This anger is further exacerbated by corruption allegations and a perceived mishandling of the flood disaster, all further propelled by rumors and conspiracy theories.

Former President Musharraf is also leveraging this anger to push for his own return to politics. [A political opportunist! Maybe he was a better politician than we thought.] On Wednesday, in a public interview with a former British ambassador to the U.S., Christopher Meyer, Musharraf stated, “The situation in Pakistan can only be resolved when the military has some role. Pakistan’s army chief ought to be involved in some form, to ensure checks and balances, to ensure good governance. [Just like you did?] We must involve the military men. They should have a place to voice their concerns. [Maybe they can try your Facebook discussion thread! OMGZ.]

I didn’t start this post as a rant. But, I’m tired, and frankly, I’m pissed off – with the corruption, with the fact that the rich doesn’t pay their bloody taxes, with the fact that we’re left to beg for scraps from the rest of the world, with leaders who previously plundered the country coming back to have another go again. And while I’m as critical and caustic about the current civilian regime as anyone else, I also don’t think the answer is a military takeover/reshuffle/sudoku that will create more instability and put us back at square one in the political process. I think we need to stop discussing military takeovers as casually as we would talk about the weather. I think we need to stop thinking about the military as the blanket “good guy” every time they’re not in power. I think we need to think through all our options before jumping to conclusions. I think we need to stop feeding the rumor mill. And I think we need to stop being so self-destructive. Because at this rate, we will not survive.

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FP Image: Lalala, Friends Forever...

Yesterday, investigative reporter/author Bob Woodward‘s Obama’s Wars made its highly anticipated debut in bookstores. The book highlights more of what many of us already knew – that the government is deeply divided over the current Afghanistan policy (cough, Stanley McChrystal‘s interview with Rolling Stone). According to a book review by the New York Times,

Although the internal divisions described have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known and offers new details. [Vice President] Mr. Biden called [Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan] Mr. Holbrookethe most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met,” although he “may be the right guy for the job.” A variety of administration officials expressed scorn for James L. Jones, the retired Marine general who is national security adviser, while he referred to some of the president’s other aides as “the water bugs” or “the Politburo.”

But perhaps the more startling revelation – or at least the one that is garnering news headlines this week – is the allegation that the CIA is running a 3,000-strong Afghan army to carry out clandestine operations in not only Afghanistan, but also across the border in Pakistan. According to the Washington Post review,

The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.

In the words of Scooby Doo, Ruh roh.

NPR‘s JJ Sutherland, also struck by this revelation, further confirmed the existence of these Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams with two anonymous U.S. officials. And Reuters, in its blog Now or Never, noted that U.S. officials not only confirmed their existence, they “bragged about it.” CNN quoted one official as saying, “You’re talking about one of the finest Afghan fighting forces, which has made major contributions to security and stability.”

We have heard time and time again that the key to stability in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. And so far, the U.S. has preferred drones in the air versus boots on the ground, walking a tenuous tightrope above Pakistan’s sovereignty. Drones have obviously been immensely unpopular, and reports indicate that the CIA has conducted 20 drone strikes in September alone, “the most ever in a single month and more than twice its monthly average.” [For more on drone strikes, see New America Foundation's comprehensive coverage and map].

The recent rise of drone strikes illustrates the U.S.’s frustration with Pakistan, and have resulted in increasing efforts to take matters into their own hands. Media outlets reported that NATO helicopters launched three attacks in Pakistani territory this past Friday. According to Al Jazeera, “Sergeant Matt Summers, an ISAF spokesman, confirmed on Sunday that the helicopters had crossed into Pakistan in pursuit of fighters. He did not say which countries’ forces were involved, but the United States is the only coalition member that uses Apaches.” Not surprisingly, the Pakistani government responded with a “very angry” statement threatening to “consider response options” unless ISAF took “corrective measures.” [Insert Team America Hans Blitz reference here.]

The recent revelation in Woodward’s book is yet another sign of this more aggressive approach towards Pakistan, but it holds very problematic ramifications. First, training local Afghans to fight across the border in Pakistan is not only a challenge to national sovereignty, it also bears an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman noted,

…that same history also shows that the U.S. can’t control those proxy forces. Splits within the mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal (and the end of CIA cash) led to Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, which paved the way for the rise of the Taliban. One of those CIA-sponsored fighters was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a key U.S. adversary in Afghanistan. And during the 2001 push to Kabul, a Northern Alliance military commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, killed hundreds and maybe even thousands of Taliban prisoners. He was on the CIA’s payroll at the time.

Moreover, as Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin noted, Woodward’s book “sheds new light on the Obama administration’s vast outreach to the Pakistani civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari,” considering its war effort contingent on the success and survival of this government. This, to me, is why this U.S. aggressive security policy is so problematic – on one hand, the administration has a vested interest in the survival of Zardari’s government. On the other hand, these security-related decisions that ultimately challenge Pakistani sovereignty and fan the flames of anti-American sentiment only further undermine this civilian regime.

Regardless of the Pakistani government’s “very angry” statements following helicopter attacks and repeated drone strikes, the public sees the state as complicit in this U.S. policy, or, at the very least, too weak to truly challenge this strategy. In a country suffering from a recent flood disaster, a weakened economy, and political volatility, such policies ultimately breed further instability and rumors of regime change. The U.S. has often said the stability of Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. But that statement goes both ways.

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The Pakistan Granta Issue

Granta Mag Cover (© Islam Gull, design by Michael Salu)

On Tuesday, I attended a really fascinating event at the Aicon Gallery in New York City. Entitled, “How to Talk About Pakistan,” the event centered on Granta magazine’s recent Pakistan issue and featured editor John Freeman, as well as Kiran Khalid (CNN producer), Mohsin Hamid (author of Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Lorraine Adams (journalist and author of The Room and the Chair), and Ayesha Nasir (journalist and filmmaker).

For those who don’t know about Granta, it is an incredibly rich and textured publication first founded in 1889 but “reborn” in 1979. According to the website’s About section, Granta “does not have a political or literary manifesto, but it does have a belief in the power and urgency of the story, both in fiction and non-fiction, and the story’s supreme ability to describe, illuminate and make real.” The Observer once wrote of the magazine, “In its blend of memoirs and photojournalism, and in its championing of contemporary realist fiction, Granta has its face pressed firmly against the window, determined to witness the world.”

The Pakistan issue truly epitomizes this goal, containing 18 featured pieces by renowned writers and journalists like Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Declan Walsh, Jane Perlez, and the aforementioned Hamid, Nasir, and Adams. A mix of memoirs, poems, fiction, and “reportage,” the publication strives to showcase the nuances and complexities of Pakistan, a country so often talked about but so rarely understood.

The Tuesday discussion was ultimately important because it addressed this very issue – namely, how can writers be instrumental in closing the perception gap about Pakistan? Can fiction writers play a significant role in supplementing the news information that trickles down about Pakistan? And do writers have to be Pakistani or based in Pakistan in order to be legitimate resources on the country? Hamid, who recently moved back to Pakistan after years of being abroad, noted, “I felt that if I wanted to write about Pakistan, I needed to go back to Pakistan…or else I’d be wondering if my opinions were actually my own, or ones that I had heard that I thought were my own…”

Lorraine Adams, who co-wrote a piece with Ayesha Nasir on Faisal Shahzad, touched on the limits of journalism in her comments, emphasizing that most news agencies produce stories based on a “consensus narrative” decided on by the editors, not the journalists on the ground. Given that the original stories are far more contentious and nuanced than this narrative, a lot gets lost in translation. According to Adams, “People think that if they read non fiction or the news, they know a lot about the country than if they read fiction,” which is an untrue assumption.

The debate over the benefits of fiction versus nonfiction is significant and deserves further discussion. From a personal standpoint, neither fiction nor nonfiction alone will give you a full picture of Pakistan. While nonfiction and news items can give you a snapshot of the current affairs of the country, fiction stories can provide further insight into the cultural nuances and intricacies of Pakistan. Even if you read the work of Pakistani writers, “old” and “new” alike, their treatment of issues and their prose can sometimes be windows into the Pakistani psyche and experience. At the same time, there are obvious biases involved in fiction work, while nonfiction pieces tend to be less emotional and relatively more objective (though not always, of course).

Moreover, the line between both is becoming increasingly blurred, with writers like Hanif and Adams doing extensive research and reporting in order to produce properly nuanced and textured fiction work. Authors like Hamid, Shamsie, and Hanif also  straddle both lines, writing novels but commenting frequently on current events in Pakistan. In an article for Canada’s Globe and Mail, Piali Roy wrote,

Fiction writers like Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ali Sethi see literature as a project. They both have said in interviews that they see themselves as explaining Pakistan in all its complexity to the West, not merely as the “failed state” with budding terrorists in every bazaar. It may seem like a hefty burden for any writer to bear, but there is no doubt that Pakistan is a country in need of PR. Is there any wonder that nearly every one of these writers (dare I call them the Pak Pack?) are taking their advocacy role about the humanity of the floods’ victims seriously? Or that they rarely agree with one another?

Do Pakistani writers have a responsibility to always write about the positive side of the country? Yes and no. Writers, by virtue of having a platform, can and should discuss the nuances of Pakistan that often get swept to the side by Western news agencies. But those nuances shouldn’t always have to be about positive topics. As Hamid noted, “There is a notion and expectation that you must write positively about Pakistan, and if you don’t, you at least write hopefully.”

Adeela Suleman artwork at Granta event, courtesy Mahnaz Fancy

The discussion, as a whole, was fascinating and was further bolstered by the incredible exhibition in the gallery by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman called, “After All It’s Always Somebody Else Who Dies,” (see above image). Granta’s Pakistan issue also includes fantastic artwork by contemporary Pakistani artists, an effort by the publication to go beyond their typical photo essays and showcase local talent. According to a review by The Independent, “Granta’s Pakistan is a bleak but mesmerizing one that rages with astounding horrors. Yet this ‘immense homeland of heartbreaking beauty’ is not without love, romance, nor hope.” The print edition can be purchased here.

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The Continuing Disaster

On Monday morning, a headline on MSNBC‘s homepage stated, “UNICEF: 100,000 Pakistan kids face starvation.” It was accompanied by the below photo:

AP: A malnourished little girl in Sukkur, Sindh

The image is both immensely powerful and deeply heartbreaking. The floods in Pakistan have increasingly been relegated to the back pages/tabs of most newspapers and news websites, but the above image obviously shows that the disaster is still very much present. MSNBC reported,

Suhani Bunglani fans flies away from her two baby girls as one sleeps motionless while the other stares without blinking at the roof of their tent, her empty belly bulging beneath a green flowered shirt.Their newborn sister already died on the ground inside this steamy shelter at just 4 days old, after the family’s escape from violent floods that drowned a huge swath of Pakistan. Now the girls, ages 1 and 2, are slowly starving, with shriveled arms and legs as fragile as twigs.

According to UNICEF, about 105,000 children younger than five years old are at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition over the next six months. This past Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that ”risk is very high” that waterborne diseases such as cholera could spread and cause large numbers of deaths, with 57 confirmed cases in recent weeks.

A story today further humanized the cost of this tragedy. According to news agencies, an unemployed father-of-four who lost his home in the floods “doused his body in petrol and lit himself with a match after being denied entry to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s private residence in Multan.” The Express Tribune reported, “[The man] Akram searched fruitlessly for a job and decided to visit Gilani’s home to ask for a job recommendation. The prime minister’s security pushed him back and he set himself on fire, Sami said.”

Prior to the floods, Pakistan’s economy was already declining, with a third of the population under the poverty line. According to the LA Times, “Now, in the aftermath of the flooding, officials face the daunting task of preventing complete fiscal collapse.” Here are some numbers – up to 21 million have been affected by the floods. 10 million are homeless. The floods have swept away 70% of roads and bridges in affected areas. In those same areas, over 10,000 schools and 500 hospitals have been destroyed or damaged. PM Gilani has stated that losses from the flooding could reach $43 billion, with the inflation rate, previously projected to reach 9.5% in 2011, now expected to climb as high as 20%.

What does this all mean? It means that we are in for a very, very tough road ahead. It means that more parents like Akram, who so tragically ended his life Monday, will be left without a way to provide for their families. It means that millions of people, just a year after the last displacement crisis in Pakistan, will be further dependent on handouts. And it means that the disaster is far from over even after the headlines go away.

But as the floods subside and we start assessing and tackling the second phase of relief – reconstruction – we also need to remember how little these villages had to begin with before the floods. Handouts are necessary in providing immediate relief to these affected families, but in the long-term a strategic plan must be developed to address very complex development gaps. In the first six-eight months, families will need food, shelter, and clothing. But in the medium and long term, they will also need livelihood skill-building, livestock, fertilizer and seeds to restore their [mainly] agrarian households. In order to decrease families’ dependency on handouts, there must be continued community investment and capacity-building. There must be accountability and transparency. In short, there needs to be more than what we were able to give many of these areas before the floods.

I’ve blogged extensively about our campaign, Relief4Pakistan, which has raised over $140,000 for emergency first response relief in Pakistan by leveraging social media platforms and people-to-people relationships. We are currently developing an innovative model for this next phase of reconstruction that will target villages that aren’t receiving aid, and will foster collaborative networks and community investment in the process. We are all – Pakistani and non-Pakistani alike – in this together because we are all human beings that have witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. Regardless if you continue to talk about the floods to someone you meet or you are on the ground doing relief work, we all have a responsibility to keep this conversation alive.

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GQ image: Gary Faulkner doesn't need to wear fur. Gary Faulkner skins you and wears it!

Gary Faulkner, i.e. the “Bin Laden Hunter,” i.e. “Step Aside Jack Bauer, there’s a New Bad Ass in Town,” i.e., “What is this Guy Smoking?”, is somewhat of an enigma. He is a  50-something with failing kidneys, a criminal record, and a calling to track down Osama bin Laden, or, as he likes to call him, “Binny Boy.” When Pakistani authorities caught Faulkner attempting to cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border back in June, he was armed with a pistol, dagger, sword, Christian literature, and night-vision goggles. It was his 8th time visiting Pakistan to track down OBL.

I’ve written about Faulkner before, here and here. But nothing prepared me for the awesomeness that was in this month’s GQ. Oh yes. That GQ. Here are some gems from the piece, though you really should read it in its entirety:

  • “Gary’s youngest brother, Scott, a doctor in Fort Morgan, Colorado, drove him to the Denver airport two weeks earlier, on May 30. ‘He was in great spirits,’ says Scott. ‘He was excited about his trip. I remember he was looking at his crossbow, deciding whether or not he should take it.’” Yes. He just said crossbow. He is not kidding.
  • “‘I believe that is going to go down in history,’ his other brother, Todd, tells me, ‘and kids are going to write essays about that 200 years from now.’” Forget 200 years from now! I’ve written two posts already! And damn it, give Gary Faulkner a freaking reality show, Fox!
  • In response to “You’ve been described as everything from hero to crackpot,” Faulkner responded, “I’m a little of everything. I’ve done crack, I’ve done crank, I’ve done coke, I’ve done pot, I’ve done everything in the world out there.… You know, I’ve been to prison, I’ve been shipwrecked, blown up, shot, stabbed. My story does not just start here; it started when I was 5 years old, the first time I tried to hot-wire a car.…” Oh sweet baby Jesus.
  • “‘He just had a dream about hunting down bin Laden,’ remembers Jim Sage, who has worked on construction jobs with Faulkner over the past decade. ‘In his dream he was supposed to get there without his feet touching the ground.’ At first, Faulkner took this to mean that he had to go by boat. So he bought a twenty-one-foot yellow-and-white yacht called the Piña Colada…he set sail from San Diego. He figured he’d head west across the Pacific and work it out from there.” Later Faulkner took the “feet not touching ground” thing to mean he should get there by hang glider. You can’t make this stuff up.
  • “Gary says he was told that Al Qaeda had not only noticed him but photographed him and was circulating his picture. After dark that night, believing they were soon coming to get him, he headed up the mountain…’It’s old-school for me, because I used to be a thief, so nighttime is my time. I laugh. Here I am in the middle, they’ve got a squeeze play going on, and once again I slipped away in the night.’” For some reason, this is my mental image when I read that [circa Zoolander, when he's toiling in the mine]:

(Zoolander image) "Whee! Can't catch me Al Qaeda!"

  • “He has told me that he doesn’t particularly care for the media nickname that seems to have stuck the most, Rocky Mountain Rambo, but I’m not so sure. When I see him write down his name for strangers, he’ll write “Rocky Mountain Rambo” beneath it, and when there’s a problem finding a New York hotel reservation, he wonders aloud whether he might have been booked under the name Rocky Mountain Rambo.” Personally I prefer the Bin Ladenator, but that’s just me.

The piece is about 10 pages long, but it is worth reading, not just for the laughs, or the headache that may ensue afterwards, but because there really is no one else like Gary Faulkner.

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Statues & Crocodile Tears

Source: Christian Science Monitor/AP

Last week, an article in the Huffington Post reported that Pakistan’s government has approved an $11 million statue of Benazir Bhutto. The Huff Po piece cited a Gulf Times report, which noted, “This would be the second monument constructed in the capital city during the last four years.”

Wait. Let me get this straight. Pakistan is suffering from over a month of flooding – the worst natural disaster in decades – that has impacted over 20 million people, and we are spending millions on statues?

If this Gulf Times report is correct, then that is exactly what is happening. According to Shirin Sadeghi at the Huff Po, “The statue itself will cost 4.7 million dollars, and it will be built on land that is worth another 5.9 million dollars. Apparently, Mr. Zardari, whose personal wealth is estimated to be more than 1 billion dollars, just couldn’t afford to donate the land or the statue in honor of the mother of his children.”

But here’s the real question – if the alleged $11 million is coming from taxpayers money, then why didn’t the government previously direct such funds towards flood-affected families? More importantly, the late Benazir Bhutto always at least claimed to be a populist leader. In the spirit of her memory, wouldn’t it therefore make a lot more sense to use that exorbitant amount of money for the people of Pakistan?

Apparently not.

Recently, the Pakistan Consulate in New York City wasted an opportunity to appeal for donations for the flood-affected people in Pakistan on the NASDAQ screen in Time Square. Instead of broadcasting images of the tragedy or messages about the floods, the Consulate showcased photos of bureaucrats standing in front of the Pakistani flag, which flashed on the giant screen. Between that, Gilani‘s visits to fake relief camps, and this new proposed statue, I am increasingly disgusted with our government and their inability to shed more than crocodile tears for the citizens of Pakistan.

(NASDAQ-related story starts about 1:35 in):

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Eid Mubarak!

Eid Mubarak CHUP readers! It is a very somber holiday this year, with millions suffering in Pakistan from the devastating floods. On this occasion, when many of us are with family, eating incredible meals and wearing new clothes, please remember the many families who aren’t as lucky. Therefore, in the spirit of Eid, please donate and continue to spread awareness about the disaster, (our campaign Relief4Pakistan, has raised nearly $133,000 by leveraging grassroots donations, but donate to whomever and wherever you feel the most comfortable, here’s my past list).

Also, in positive news, many congratulations to Pakistani tennis player Aisam Qureshi who came in 2nd place in the U.S. Open finals with his Indian partner Rohan Bopanna. The two may not have won, but their slogan, “Stop War Start Tennis” truly inspired supporters on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. You both did us proud!

Finally, a link to 30 Mosques in 30 Days, the journey undertaken by Bassam Tariq and Aman Ali to experience Ramadan in 30 mosques in 30 different states in America. A truly inspiring adventure, one that has garnered a lot of news attention and focused the spotlight on the wonderful diversity of the Muslim community in the United States, (Al Jazeera has a great piece on them here). I interviewed the pair last year, when they visited 30 mosques in New York City, and am so proud to see where they’ve taken their initiative this year.

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We Didn’t Start the Fire

AP Image. Ridiculous muchie.

In a discussion earlier today on Islam in America, my friend said to me, “I’m happy about the number of senior officials and figures who have condemned ‘Burn the Quran Day,’ but the drawback is that we end up giving the fringe group exactly what they want – our undivided attention.”

It’s true isn’t it? Terry Jones, pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida has been calling for an “International Burn the Quran Day” to take place on September 11 since last month. For many, the event was audacious and despicable but it remained just as the movement did – on the periphery. But fast forward to this past week, days before the aforementioned burning, and there have been countless headlines, interviews, reactions, and condemnations. And just like that,  an event by a fringe movement dying for air time has grabbed the world’s attention.

General Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, commented on the event, telling NBC News,

We’re concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib — that they would in a sense be indelible. They would be used by those who wish us ill, to incite violence and to inflame public opinion against us and against our mission here in Afghanistan, as well as our missions undoubtedly around the world.

Following the statement, CNN interviewed the Florida pastor, who said, “We have firmly made up our mind, but at the same time, we are definitely praying about it.”

I’m sorry, Pastor. But what exactly are you praying for? For some iota of sanity? For tolerance, which is preached in both the Bible and the Quran? For a razor to shave off your ridiculous mustache?

VOA: 1-2-3-4! Tolerance! Break!

The answer: none of the above. Even a press conference with leaders of different faith backgrounds calling for an end to this “atmosphere of fear and intolerance” toward Islam would fall on deaf ears. Because Pastor Jones thinks he’s sending a message to “radical Islam.” And he thinks the only way to do that is to burn a book that would ostracize and offend all Muslims. What he fails to comprehend is that the ramifications won’t just be negative for U.S. interests abroad, but also for Muslims living in America, who are just as much American as they are Muslim, and who feel increasingly marginalized within this xenophobic debate.

Much like the Park 51 “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, the Florida church paints the “Muslim world” – a farcical and imagined term – with a monolithic brush. And the consequences of such actions are dire and severe. But, at the same time, the more unequivocal media attention we give to Pastor Jones and his Church, the more their stocks rise, and the more likely this debate about Islamophobia in America will rage on. It is a seemingly unending and disastrous cycle.

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The Indo-Pak (Tennis) Express

Wheee! Friends!

Last year, I blogged about Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi, a Pakistani tennis player who played at last year’s Wimbledon with an Indian partner, Prakash Armitraj. The pair didn’t go very far into the competition, but their partnership sparked headlines and media attention, with Dawn noting, “The pair believe their tennis doubles partnership shows sport can transcend the boundaries between people — and say the warm response to their joining forces shows how the situation has shifted in recent years.”

This year, at the U.S. Open, Qureshi has partnered with another Indian player – Rohan Bopanna – and the pair has been subsequently dubbed the “Indo-Pak Express.” The Star Ledger (via Sepia Mutiny) noted in its coverage,

Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi looked around the perimeter of the court Tuesday and saw what he’d hoped for. They were sitting together. Pakistanis and Indians, blurred along the bleachers, one just like the other. They were clapping for the same thing. Cheering in unison…“There was a lot of Pakistanis and Indians in the crowd cheering for us,” Qureshi said. “And you couldn’t tell the difference, who was Pakistani and who was Indian, they were all mixed together and supporting the same team.”

Bopanna and Qureshi also teamed up for this year’s Wimbledon warm-ups, declaring, “Stop War Start Tennis.” Qureshi told Sports Illustrated, “Obviously we have to look at the bigger picture. Nelson Mandela, Arthur Ashe, all those big legends: Definitely you can change people’s minds through sports. Football does that; there’s no reason tennis can’t do it. Our combination is very rare and we’re getting all this publicity and hype. And I feel like we can use it to change peoples’ minds. Minds are changing anyway. Every time Indians and Pakistanis come and support us, minds are changing.”

Qureshi is no stranger to tennis diplomacy. During the 2002 U.S. Open, he partnered with Amir Hadad, an Israeli tennis player. Although the partnership was denounced by the Pakistani tennis federation, who banned him from the Davis Cup, the pair were awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award for continuing to play together despite pressures from both communities. This year, the Indo-Pak Express has played extremely well and will play in the men’s doubles quarterfinals today. Qureshi has also advanced to the mixed doubles quarterfinal with partner Kveta Peschke of the Czech Republic, (update: he just reached the finals Tuesday, noted Dawn, the first Pakistani to qualify for the final of any Grand Slam competition!).

Pakistan’s cricket team – what with their spot-fixing, match-fixing, [insert-here]-fixing – have disappointed us time and time again. Qureshi, in comparison, is pretty damn refreshing and inspirational. And frankly, between the Qureshi-Bopanna partnership and the Sania Mirza-Shoaib Malik love story, I’d take the former any day. More tennis diplomacy, if you please.

(Shout-out to Ramez for the tip. Thanks!)

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The Cacophony of Tragedy

I’ve felt very drained by the news of late. Cricket players implicated in a spot-fixing scandal. A flood disaster of epic proportions, affecting millions of people and requiring billions of dollars in long-term humanitarian assistance. Political violence and targeted killings in Karachi. A triple bombing that targeted a Shiite procession in Lahore, killing 25 people and wounding 150 others. A firing on another Shiite procession in Karachi, all during the month of Ramadan.

The minute we divert our energy elsewhere, something else explodes outside the periphery. It further illustrates the cacophony of tragedy, and it is deafening. Below are some very powerful images that illustrate the situation poignantly:

From NYT: AP Image

A photographer captured the above image yesterday, following the triple blasts in Lahore that targeted a Shiite mourning procession. The man is running from the explosions caused from protesters burning vehicles, after the attacks incited clashes between mourners and police.

Via Asher Hasan/Naya Jeevan

The image above was posted by Asher Hasan, the founder of Naya Jeevan, a social enterprise providing quality health insurance to the urban poor in Pakistan, and raising money to provide health care to people affected by the floods. The photograph was taken in a village in Charsadda, and shows an entire home washed by the floods, with only the front door remaining. The message in his caption reads: “Over the next few months, thousands of pregnant women will need to deliver their newborns in an unsanitary, high-risk environment,” created by the disaster. According to aid agencies, the floods in Pakistan have exposed nearly 500,000 pregnant women to health risks. Sonia Kush, director of emergency preparedness and response for Save the Children, noted, “We know that mothers are giving birth in flimsy or crowded shelters, steps away from stagnant water and debris.”

From NYT: Reuters Image

Children are also at high risk of malnutrition and water-borne diseases. The above image depicts a mother holding her baby suffering from diarrhea at an overcrowded clinic in Sukkur, Sindh. According to UNICEF, the floods have affected nearly 8.6 million children.

(From the NYT): Reuters image

Above, another powerful photograph, taken as flood victims gather outside a police station in Sukkur, awaiting food. According to a statement, the World Bank has increased its flood-related support to Pakistan from $900 million to $1 billion. As the inflation rate is expected to climb from 15 percent to 20 percent, the government announced that the floods damaged $1 billion of crops, causing food shortages. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for funds to replace half a million tons of wheat seed stocks destroyed by the floods, with planting of the staple due to take place over the next three months.

Below is a new song released by Laal, a rock band in Pakistan, called “Doob Gaya Hai.” Very powerful:

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