Archive for November, 2008

On the same day that India and Pakistan negotiated a joint anti-terrorism mechanism, agreeing to exchange information on terrorists, coordinated attacks struck India’s commercial capital Mumbai Wednesday. At least eight targets were hit and 100 are said to have been killed, and hostages are reportedly being held in the Hotel Oberoi. Although a previously unknown group claimed responsibility for the string of attacks, MSNBC implied that it could also be linked to Kashmiri separatist groups, like the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Although this blog focuses primarily on Pakistan, India is our next door neighbor, and today’s bombings are immensely tragic. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. To read updates by those in Mumbai and throughout the world on this story, read this Twitter page. [Image from the NY Times]

UPDATE [1220 EST]: The Lashkar-e-Toiba has denied any role in Wednesday’s attacks. Although Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said no one should be blamed until the investigations were concluded, Indian PM Manmohan Singh said the perpetrators were based “outside the country” and India would not tolerate “neighbors” who provide a haven to militants targeting it. According to BBC News, “Though he did not mention Pakistan by name, the inference was clear.

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On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund announced that its executive board had approved a credit of 7.6 billion dollars for Pakistan, “the Fund’s first rescue in Asia since the global financial crisis began,” reported the AFP. According to USA Today, “The IMF said a first installment of $3.1 billion will be transferred immediately.” The news agency quoted IMF acting Chairman Takatoshi Kato, who said, “By providing large financial support to Pakistan, the IMF is sending a strong signal to the donor community about the country’s improved macroeconomic prospects.” The AFP also cited the statement, which noted that the 23-month credit line will “support the country’s economic stabilization program.”

The Associated Press reported, “Pakistan’s young government had been reluctant to go to the IMF but had little choice after close allies — the United States, China and Saudi Arabia — turned down pleas for significant bilateral aid.” The lead-up to today’s development faced much opposition in Pakistan by parties and political figures who argued that the IMF will “impose austerity measures that will hurt ordinary Pakistanis, two-thirds of whom live on $2 dollar a day or less.” PML-N‘s Javed Hashmi told the AP, “This IMF loan the government is getting is in fact poison, and the nation has been forced to drink it.” Nevertheless, said Muazzamil Aslam, an economist at the Pakistani securities firm, KASB, “The loan removes the most pressing risk facing the country – that it would not be able to repay dollar-denominated government bonds due to mature early next year.”

According to USA Today, “With the IMF deal now in place, Pakistani officials hope those three and other nations in the “Friends of Pakistan” group will move forward with their own assistance packages.” In related news, Pakistan reached several deals with neighboring countries in the region. Yesterday, media outlets reported that Zardari and UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan met on Monday and expressed their resolve to upgrade and further strengthen their existing bilateral ties, particularly in the trade and economic fields. According to The News, “In the delegation-level talks, there was unanimity of views on bilateral matters with focus on encouraging UAE public and private investment in joint ventures in the fields of energy, agriculture, construction and infrastructure development.” Dawn reported that the leaders also “stressed the need for joint efforts to improve the security situation in the region.” [Above image from The News]

Officials from India and Pakistan also discussed security-related issues today. GEO News reported Wednesday that the neighboring states “agreed to boost cooperation between their civilian investigation agencies to control terrorist activities, illegal immigration, influx of fake currency and liberalize the visa regime under a joint anti-terrorism mechanism.” The news agency added,

Under the joint anti-terrorism mechanism, a two-member committee has been formed, comprising additional foreign secretaries of the two sides. The committee will exchange information about terrorists.

Visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband praised the recent developments between Pakistan and its regional neighbors, particularly Afghanistan and India, asserting that the new “zeal” in its foreign policy was vital as the region struggles with Islamist terrorism. According the Associated Press, Miliband further noted that it was “very important in turning Pakistan outwards and making clear that it sees itself as a cooperative force for stability in the region.” [Left image from AFP]

While Pakistan’s foreign policy meetings this week are certainly significant, a domestic development is also noteworthy. According to the Financial Times yesterday, the Pakistani government “has disbanded the political wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence, the notorious military-run spy agency, in a bold move intended to reduce sharply the military’s influence in politics.” The news agency added,

The effort to refocus the intelligence agency came a day after Asif Ali Zardari made one of the strongest overtures of any Pakistani president to India. He offered to abandon Pakistan’s first-strike nuclear threat, sign a South Asian nuclear non-proliferation treaty and join India in an economic union.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi termed the move a “positive development,” telling reporters, “The ISI is a precious national institution and it wants to focus fully on counter-terrorism activities.” However, Tariq Azim, leader of the opposition party PML-Q warned that a permanent end to the military’s role in politics “would only be achieved when civilian governments were more robust and effective.” He asserted, “The quality of governance remains very weak in Pakistan and the government today has failed to take charge on a number of fronts…We must always remember . . . that every time a civilian government has become weak and controversial, the military has used that as a pretext to take charge in the name of improving the country’s outlook.”

Do you agree that the current government has exhibited weak governance? Have the recent foreign policy and domestic-related developments shown that Islamabad is attempting to take charge of the number of issues facing Pakistan, or are they all superficial attempts to address Pakistan’s deeper underlying problems?

Also, an interesting read: Dawn discusses the dynamics of Pashtun (Pathan) violence, and how that has mystified Western intellectuals.

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Sheema Kermani, a classical dancer, teacher, drama artist and women’s rights activist, heads Tehrik-e-Niswan, [“The Women’s Movement”], an organization dedicated to improving women’s rights in Pakistan by raising awareness through the use of dance and the performing arts. According to the group’s official website, Tehrik feels “that the fight for women’s rights has to be conducted not only at the legal and political level, which other organizations are already doing, but also at the level of moral attitudes, emotional responses and values. No change can be meaningful and lasting unless it takes place at the emotional level as well. And this can best be carried out through artistic means.” Below, Sheema Kermani tells CHUP about their work and how these messages can be relayed through the performing arts:

Q: You are a renowned classical dancer in Pakistan. How did your love for dance and art feed into your organization, Tehrik-e-Niswan?

Tehrik is a cultural action group and uses the medium of the performing arts to put forth the message of human rights, especially women’s Rights. Tehrik-e-Niswan realizes that the women’s movement can only be carried forward and succeed if it is seen as part of the overall fight against religious narrow mindedness and bigotry. Since women are the worst hit by these rising trends, they should be in the forefront of this fight. This is a cultural fight and it needs to be fought through cultural means.

The objective of Tehrik-e-Niswan is to change the existing values and relationships between men and women. We believe these values are not conducive to women’s rights and are very discriminatory. To change values you have to touch people’s hearts – we feel that the Performing Arts are a means of touching people’s hearts. We use art and poetry to send the message of equal rights, the message of justice and equality. So my love for dance and drama becomes part of the movement and part of the struggle. My politics is integrated with my art and I believe there is no politics without art.

Q: How has art and music traditionally been viewed in Pakistan and how has that been obscured throughout the country’s history?

The establishment in Pakistan, while being anti-culture in general, has a special mistrust of the Performing Arts, which they consider a highly subversive activity as it forces one to look at one’s own life from a distance and question anything and everything around you. In fact, in this sense, all art is subversive, but the Performing Arts are more so than others, as they bring the performers and the audience in direct contact with each other. In a successful performance, a fusion takes place between the audience and the performers. I think that it is this transforming experience and its power, of which the authorities (both religious and political) are scared and therefore ban and discourage dance.

I place the problems facing dance and theater in Pakistan in two broad categories. The first is the active hostility of the state, which is translated into government policies aimed at making life extremely difficult for people who wish to indulge in dance and theater at any other except an extremely crass level. I say this because the theater of vulgar jokes and loud humor and “Filmi” dance in the “Mujra” style, is thriving and encouraged even at an official level. In the old days ,the performing arts were patronized by the rajahs and nawabs and feudal aristocracy of all shades. Later on, this role of patronage in most societies was taken over by the government and private industrialists. In Pakistan, however, the state not only did not fulfill this role, but also went on to formulate a series of policies whose purpose was to thwart cultural expression. The other problem arises from the nature of the society itself, which is culturally conservative, with no tradition of free expression and deep-rooted prejudices towards the performing arts. Unlike other countries of the world, there are no trusts for culture set up by philanthropists. Karachi must be the only metropolis of its size in the world, which does not have a single proper auditorium. Culture is not on the list of worthy causes to be supported.

The poor, on the other hand, are tied to their everyday problems of survival. For them, cultural activities are luxuries beyond their means. Like any other class society, the onus of cultural expression falls on the middle class. The Pakistani middle class, predominantly Muslim, is small, conservative, underdeveloped, and extremely anti-culture and regards the performing arts with disdain and contempt. This attitude is reflected in the derogatory terms that are prevalent amongst them for various practitioners of the performing arts; A singer or musician is a ‘Meerasi‘, an actor a ‘Bhand‘, and a dancer, of course is unspeakably low, if not a ‘Prostitute’.

Q: You are a big proponent of women’s rights. What are the biggest obstacles women face in Pakistan? How can culture and art be used to help realize and attain women’s rights in the country?

The arts and the women of Pakistan have been the two major victims of military dictatorships. Women in Pakistan have been victims at the state level too, especially when anti-women Islamic Laws were introduced in 1977. The state introduced legal and social forms of control over women as part of its campaign of suppression and made women’s sexuality and morality the business of the state. In the name of religion, laws like the “Hudood Ordinances“, “Qisas“, “Diyat” and “Blasphemy Laws” were introduced and are prime examples of laws that devalue women and humanity. The most crucial aspect in these laws is that a woman’s testimony is unacceptable. The Law of Evidence declares that the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man. I believe that Feminism is recognition of both the existence of this kind of sexism, male domination and patriarchy and the desire to change this situation. I consider myself a feminist and strongly feel that I must do whatever I can to change this discrimination against women in our society so that she can find her place of dignity and respect. It is the values that have to change and the attitudes towards women both of society and state. And I believe this can only by done through cultural work.

Dance helps one to cope with the stresses of life. It renews and regenerates one. It brings one in touch with one’s body at the level of generating energy as against expending energy. This is so important for us women to understand. When women energize themselves, they create power within themselves. Our physical strength increases as soon as we begin to believe we are strong and have confidence in our muscles; our emotional and intellectual strength increases when we allow this power/passion to reside in our mind and find a form in ‘Thought.’ Thought can alter reality; thought can create reality. Thought is empowered by intensity. Passion is power, and the necessary active ingredient. And we women have it.

Q: Since 1981, Tehrik-e-Niswan has been presenting plays under its Mobile Theater Program in middle class and low -income areas of Karachi. What has been the reactions to your socially relevant plays? What is your target audience and what do these plays aim to achieve? What medium has the bigger impact – television or theater?

Actually, Tehrik has been presenting its Mobile Theater program since 1979. 2009 will be mark 30 years of our existence in this very difficult environment. The mobile program is carried out in low income areas like Orangi, Korangi, New Karachi and also the rural areas of Sindh and lower Punjab. The target audience are the people, men and women living in these “katchi abadis.” Often our audiences have been young people, because we frequently perform in schools or on school compounds. The purpose of this activity is to provide entertainment to these people and also create an environment of dialogue and acceptance of theatre and theatre arts so that these communities understand the importance of this art form. The young people are encouraged to form their own theatre groups and perform on their own issues. We provide training and conduct workshops for communities as well.

The reaction is usually of much excitement – they dress up and it becomes a major event for them and of course it becomes something for them to look forward to. There have been times when we have had some adverse reactions but that is seldom. My belief that the masses of Pakistan are basically liberal and open to these art forms is always reinforced through our mobile theatre activity.

Q: How can other Pakistanis help contribute to your cause in their own areas?

Tehrik-e-Niswan wishes to set up a permanent cultural center which will house a training academy for dance, drama and music, and will include a performing space. It will also include a bookshop which will specialize in books on women and a coffee shop. The idea is to create a venue where women can come and spend time, meet friends and exchange ideas and experiences freely. Pakistanis any where in the world can contribute towards this through donations by checks made out to Tehrik-e-Niswan, or by arranging performances with the Tehrik group, with the funds going towards the setting up of this center.

To read CHUP’s other interviews, click here.

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On August 5, 2008, CHUP first reported about Dr. Afia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman who, along with her three children, disappeared in early 2003. Many, including her family and several human rights groups, claim that Afia was actually Prisoner 650, a prisoner-of-war who was reportedly held without trial in a U.S. prison in Afghanistan. Despite the allegations that Siddiqui was held in U.S. custody, particularly after the FBI in 2004 described her as an “Al Qaeda operative and facilitator who posed a clear and present danger to America,”  her whereabouts for the past five years were never confirmed. In July 2008, however, Afia allegedly “reappeared” when she attacked and shot a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan. Afia was then transported to New York, where she was charged with one count of attempting to kill U.S. officers and employees, and one count of assaulting U.S. officers and employees, with a maximum 20 years in prison on each charge, [no charges related to the terrorism allegations have been raised]. On September 4th, media outlets reported that she was indicted on those charges.

This week, news agencies provided further updates on Dr. Afia Siddiqui’s trial. BBC News on Tuesday reported that Afia “has been deemed by U.S. psychiatrists as mentally unfit to stand trial.” The news agency added, “They have concluded that Afia Siddiqui is unable to understand the nature and consequences of court proceedings and cannot assist properly in her defense…The evaluation was performed at a medical center in Fort Worth, Texas,” where she is currently in custody. On Wednesday, Judge Richard Berman affirmed to the federal court that the defendant was not competent to continue with the trial, emphasizing that her “course of treatment should continue.”

According to a Pakistani news agency, Afia’s lawyer, Elizabeth Fink, told the court that her client was “hallucinating” about her family, saying, “She [Afia] believes she lives with two of the children.” As we learned in September, Afghanistan’s government handed over custody of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s son Muhammad Ahmed to Pakistani authorities. Of her other two children, [that went missing in 2003], one is allegedly dead, while the other is still missing.

Meanwhile, the controversial case has stirred public concern and outrage in Pakistan. Her family insists that Afia is “innocent of any crime” and deny that she has connections to Al Qaeda. According to a Pakistani news agency, “A leading Pakistani human rights activist has reportedly filed a constitutional petition seeking intervention by the Sindh High Court (SHC) to ensure the release and safe return of Dr. Afia Siddiqui.” According to the Nation, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani also recently told the Parliament that he had conveyed  to the U.S. Ambassador the Pakistan’s concern over Dr. Afia Siddiqui’s continuous detention in the U.S., demanding that she be sent back to Pakistan “immediately on medical grounds.”

It is a case marred by controversy, ambiguity, and human tragedy. Regardless of what Afia Siddiqui is guilty of, her disappearance, and more importantly, the disappearance of her three young children for five years are cause for concern and hold further ramifications for the deepening anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan.

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U.S. Missile Strike Kills 5

According to media outlets today, a suspected U.S. drone attack fired two missiles at a house in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least five and wounding seven. According to CNN, “The strike targeted a home outside the tribal areas that U.S. intelligence says have become a haven for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters battling U.S. and NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan, and was deeper inside Pakistani territory than previous attacks.” ABC News framed the incident similarly, noting, “The attack was the first to hit an area outside the semiautonomous tribal belt that directly borders Afghanistan, something which could trigger extra anger among Pakistanis.” [Image from the AP]

The Associated Press reported, “Hours after the strike, a large Islamist political party warned it would block two major supply routes for U.S and NATO forces in Afghanistan that run through Pakistan unless the attacks ended.” The news agency quoted Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, who said, “If these missiles attacks continue, then we will ask the people to create hurdles in the way of supplies for NATO.” The AP added, “The party has shown it can easily mobilize thousands of supporters at short notice. The supply lines have never been blocked by protests but militants and criminals often attack trucks traveling with them.” [Left image from the AP of a rally on Tuesday. The slogan reads, “U.S. subservient Pakistani rulers immediately stop the military operation.”]

Earlier this week, Pakistan temporarily blocked supply routes for convoys carrying supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, “after militants hijacked several trucks whose loads included Humvees bound for the US-led coalition,” reported Dawn on Monday. A Washington Post article reported today that, due the rise in Taliban attacks along the NATO supply route, U.S. officials are seeking alternatives, “including the prospect of beginning deliveries by a tortuous overland journey from Europe.” The Post, in its coverage, noted,

About 75 percent of NATO and U.S. supplies bound for Afghanistan — including gas, food and military equipment — are transported over land through Pakistan. The journey begins in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi and continues north through Pakistan’s volatile North-West Frontier Province and tribal areas before supplies arrive at the Afghan border. The convoys then press forward along mountain hairpin turns through areas of Afghanistan that are known as havens for insurgents.

A Pakistani truck driver told the news agency, “The Taliban, they tell us, ‘These goods belong to the Americans. Don’t bring them to the Americans. If you do, we’ll kill you…From Karachi to Kabul there is trouble. The whole route is insecure.” The security situation is further compromised by U.S. missile attacks like the one that occurred today. According to ABC News, the U.S. has been accused of carrying out 20 cross-border attacks since August, although “the U.S. rarely confirms or denies the strikes, which are believed to be carried out mainly by the CIA.” According to GEO News, “A U.S. newspaper calls [these attacks part of] ‘a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.'”

Although today’s attack could incite further anger among Pakistanis, an Arab Al Qaeda operative were among the five militants killed. Reuters reported that the fighter was identified as Abdullah Azam al-Saudi by an intelligence official based in Dera Ismail Khan. The official told the news agency, “He used to coordinate between Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, and had also been responsible for recruiting people.” Other news agencies have not yet corroborated these reports.

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CHUP recently introduced its new correspondent. Each week, Jackie, an American now living and working in Karachi, [see her first post], will discuss the prevalent day-to-day issues occuring on the ground. Below, she addresses the controversy surrounding Karachi mayor Mustafa Kamal‘s alleged award of being the world’s “Second Best Mayor”:

ah-111108-11Last week, several media outlets, including Dawn, reported that Foreign Policy (FP), a U.S.-based magazine, identified Karachi Mayor Syed Mustafa Kamal as the “Second Best Mayor in the World.” Shortly after, major billboards around Karachi were blanketed with pictures of Altaf Hussain, founder of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), hugging Kamal and congratulating the young mayor on his award, [see image to the right].

For those unfamiliar with the MQM, it is one of the largest political parties in Pakistan, and was founded by Altaf Hussain in 1984. It sprung out of a student organization, All Pakistan Muhajir Students Organization, also led by Altaf Hussain. Amid rising tensions between the military and MQM in the 1990s, Altaf relocated to London where he continues to serve as the party’s leader in self-imposed exile.  The party’s initial goal was to organize the ethnic Urdu-speaking group known as Muhajirs, but it later adopted a more inclusive mandate of returning power to the ‘people’ – i.e. the lower classes. How successful this has been is up for debate; many people view the MQM as a bunch of thugs who use violence, intimidation and bribery to achieve political and personal gains. Less questionable is the MQM’s very influential role in Pakistani politics, particularly in Karachi. Syed Mustafa Kamal is the current mayor of Karachi and an increasingly important member of this party.  Since taking office in 2006, he has received international recognition and attention for many of the public works and infrastructure projects he has undertaken.  In June, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a series focused on Karachi, during which Kamal was interviewed, [CHUP also covered this series, in this post].

Towards the end of last week, a rumor began circulating –  FP did NOT name Kamal as the world’s second best mayor. I did some very basic research and it appeared that the recent flurry of praise and media coverage were not entirely merited. Karachi was mentioned in an FP piece entitled, “The 2008 Global Cities Index.” Mayor Kamal appeared in a “Mayor of the Moment” segment which was a smaller part of this larger piece, however, he was not recognized as the second best mayor in the world.  Just to be absolutely sure, I called FP headquarters and they confirmed my suspicions.  In fact, they received an overwhelming amount of inquiries regarding this matter, and recently posted the following link on their site, entitled “What FP didn’t say about the mayor of Karachi.”

While this “Mayor of the Moment” recognition deserves an accolade, the local media’s misrepresentation of FP’s story and the MQM’s ‘takeover’ of Karachi’s billboards detract from this proud moment.  As Pakistan’s economy continues to plummet and violence is on the rise, particularly in Karachi, the ruling MQM  has inevitably suffered a decline in popularity. Could this be a MQM hoax to gain popularity at a time when Karachi is falling apart or just a misunderstanding? By now, many people are well aware of the mistake, so why are the pictures still on the billboards? Why, just yesterday on front page of the Dawn, was there a quarter-page, color advertisement congratulating Kamal on his recent award? Shame on the major papers for not investigating this matter further and instead taking the information at face value from whatever source.  Perhaps this is an exaggerated response to what might be an ‘honest mistake,’ but seeing these billboards of Altaf clasping Kamal to his bosom is getting a little old as other headlines continue to tell stories, daily, of violence, kidnappings and murders in their city. [Image from Karachi Metblogs]

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The Green Kaleidescope, a monthly online magazine that highlights the diverse perspectives and views of Pakistanis at home and abroad, included my piece [originally posted on CHUP] on the Balochistan Earthquake that occurred several weeks ago. Click here to read it, and to read this great publication. Although this month only marks its third issue, TGK already displays a great variety of articles – from witty pieces to informative news commentary, all written by young Pakistanis.

Thanks, TGK!

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