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Archive for June, 2009

Recently, media outlets have used the words “faltering,” “fragile,” and “bleak” to describe Pakistan’s economy. Below, contributor Bilquis, a consultant from Lahore, assesses the current situation and challenges the notion that former President Musharraf‘s greatest legacy was Pakistan’s economy:

People often consider that General Musharraf’s brilliant legacy was Pakistan’s booming economy. During his military tenure, most felt that our standards of living had improved: mobile phones in the hand of street vendors, multiplication of cars in every household, value of property tripling — made us all feel wealthier. The belief was further cemented by growth figures stated in the Economic Survey of Pakistan (2007-2008) that showed the economy grew by 7 percent per annum. These figures would suggest a vast improvement in standards of living, falling poverty ratios, stronger core economic sectors and a build up foreign reserves. However, post-Musharraf, the Pakistani economy is in an appalling state. The new government faces a totally opposite condition of the economy than would have been expected after a decade of 7 percent growth.

So, where is the brilliant economic legacy quoted by General Musharraf?

Many economists actually doubt the authenticity of these growth figures. Herald magazine (December 2008 issue) reports that Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, ‘believes that the official growth figures were often met with skepticism.’ With regards to the poverty level figures, Karamat Ali states, ‘In 2007, the Planning Commission’s chief economist was transferred when he refused to approve government’s claim that poverty level had been reduced by 10 percent from 33 to 23 percent. These figures were clear manipulation as according to the latest UN assessments, poverty has intensified to the extent that in over half the country, hunger stalks one-fifth of the population and malnutrition about two-fifths. In Dawn this month, Kaiser Bengali, reported, ‘The years 2000-2007 … composition of growth brought little solace to half the population and, in fact, misery for the bottom quarter.’

The current government was more upfront regarding the figures and blamed the previous government for not accounting for them appropriately. Ex-finance minister Naveed Qamar (PPP) accused them of not including the interest cost on government borrowing in the budget of 2007-2008. Furthermore, Rs 138 billion subsidies on petroleum products, Rs70 billion on account of non-payment to Wapda, and Rs 45 billion incurred on importing wheat, were all excluded from the budget 2007-2008. This meant that, in the budget 2007-2008, Pakistan understated its liabilities by more than Rs 253 billion and presented a better picture than actually was the case. Moreover, the impact of these omissions was felt in the following year budget 2008-2009, causing the haphazard finance ministry of the current government to frantically triple the electricity and oil prices to make ends meet.

Moreover, contrary to general perception, economic policies did not bring about any remarkable benefits for the whole economy; instead these policies were detrimental for long term economic growth.

To begin with, development and growth in an economy results in falling unemployment level. However, in Pakistan, this was not the case. Unemployment levels actually rose in some sectors. In the industrial sector, for example, unfavorable economic policies led to the closure of mills and subsequently high unemployment. Furthermore, reported Kaiser Bengali, “in the period when the agriculture sector grew by 1.5 percent and the banking sector grew by 30 percent ….. this was jobless growth. It was profit-centered and not wage-centered. It ensured that stock market indexes and corporate profits boomed but was meaningless for the people, who are now faced with the stark reality of unemployment and declining real wages. Of course, official labor force statistics have reported a decline in unemployment. That, however, is a product of blatant data manipulation that the previous regime had come to specialize in.”

With an expanding economy and money flowing in, following sensible economic policies result in building up reserves and decreasing a country’s debt level. In Pakistan, our debt levels rose dramatically between 1999 and 2008. If you sift through history, debt levels between 1947 and 1999 was Rs 2,946 billion. Conversely, if you look at the trend in the past ten years, the government borrowed so heavily that our debt level increased by Rs 2,749 billion to Rs 5,695 billion. Ultimately, it took the previous government eight years to bring up the debt to what was accumulated in over 50 years. Ishaq Dar (the first Finance Minister under the current regime) said in Nation that “those who claim to have broken the begging bowl have actually enlarged it…” High level of debt is not conducive for sustainable development as debt is a burden and has to be paid off. It suggests that Pakistan was living way beyond its means and needs to either expand its economy (which it was unable to do) or contract in future to bridge the gap (which is currently happening).

For sustainable economic growth, unless a country doesn’t have absolute advantage (a country has an absolute advantage over another country in the production of a good if it can produce that good more efficiently/cheaply) in a sector, policies should target all sectors. In Pakistan, we did not have an absolute advantage in the service sector as we were entering an internationally mature market. Also, the service sector boom was a consumer boom and it would not continue indefinitely. Hence, the approach of spuriously strengthening our service sector while neglecting other sectors was not a beneficial policy as it would not bring in long term benefits.

Moreover, if we look at the breakdown of real GDP by sector for the fiscal year 2007-2008— agriculture grew by 1.5 percent while the service sector grew by whopping 8.2 percent. Finance & Insurance, part of the service sector, grew by a massive 17 percent. The small growth in agriculture sector shows that hardly any policies were implemented to make the sector more competitive. Agriculture and manufacturing sectors employ a large amount of people. If strategic uncompetitive sectors are not improved through the right incentives and care, it can lead to massive closure of businesses and rise in unemployment within that sector. For instance, we have witnessed our neglected knitting and weaving industries collapse, resulting in the rise in unemployment within the lower income bracket.

The government’s blatant disregard of other sectors emphasize that contrary to popular belief, economic policies pursued were neither broad based nor sustainable. And the impact of growth was for a few, not for the masses as often implied.

Economists further argue that even with the world being in recession, if our agriculture and manufacturing sectors hadn’t been left in a dismal state, our economy would not have been in such a wretched condition. For example, although the economies of India and China have declined, they have done so at a lesser rate because local demand is fueling growth.

Finally, the policies pursued by Musharraf’s were free market and Pakistan rapidly liberalized its economy without protecting its core sectors. Although everyone advocates for the removal of barriers to trade (tariffs, quotas, etc.), in reality, countries protect their core industry. For example, the United States provides subsidies to its agricultural and steel industry, while Europe subsidizes its agricultural sector. India and China  were protectionist economies for the longest time and only after building a strong base did they liberalize. Unfortunately, the previous government did not strengthen core economic sectors. By liberalizing the economy, we inherently subjected our incompetent yet crucial sectors to failure. This again highlights that prudent and long-term policies were not pursued. Instead, these policies have exacerbated economic conditions and our industries witnessed a massive collapse.

Therefore, as evidence reveals, rather than implementing beneficial economic policies, it was obvious data manipulation and hullabaloo of executing good policies that built up the perception of a brilliant legacy. In reality, only the rich got richer while the poor got poorer.

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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AFP: The aftermath of the Lahore madrassa bombing

AFP: The aftermath of the Lahore madrassa bombing

On Friday, media outlets reported that suicide bombers attacked two mosques in Pakistan. The “near simultaneous” blasts occurred in Lahore and Nowshera, a city in NWFP. According to news agencies, a leading moderate cleric was killed in the Lahore bombing. BBC News reported that Sarfraz Naeemi, the senior cleric at the Jaamia Naeemia madrassa in Lahore, “was greeting visitors in his office after Friday prayers when the suicide bomber managed to get inside and detonate explosives.” Naeemi, who had denounced the Taliban as “un-Islamic,” was seriously injured and was said to have died on his way to hospital.

The Associated Press in its coverage spoke to Naeemi’s son Waqar who was close by when the bomber attacked. He said, “I was still in the mosque when I heard a big bang. We rushed toward the office and there was a smell of explosives in the air. There was blood and several people were crying in pain.” The NY Times cited another eyewitness, a student from Naeemi’s madrassa, who told the news agency, “I thought the whole building had collapsed. I rushed down the stairs and when I reached the bottom I saw Naeemi Sahib and three other people injured.” Five people were killed in the Lahore mosque bombing, and 10 were injured, Dawn reported.

The bombing in Nowshera, which occurred a few minutes after the Lahore attack, took place in a military high-security zone, close to an armed forces supply depot. According to BBC News, a van “drove up to the gate of a mosque compound during Friday prayers before the driver detonated the explosives.” The news agency added, “The blast was so powerful that the roof of the mosque collapsed, with many people now feared to be buried under the debris.” The attack killed at least six people and wounded more than 90, reported Pakistani media outlets AAJ Television and Dawn.

AFP: Cleric Naeemi spoke out against the Taliban

AFP: Cleric Naeemi spoke out against the Taliban

Friday’s bombings and the subsequent assassination of Sarfraz Naeemi garnered swift condemnation from government officials and Pakistan’s political figures. GEO News quoted PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, who called the killing of Naeemi a “great national tragedy,” asserting his assassins “have proved their enmity with Islam, mankind and Pakistan.” The Times of London noted, “Dr. Naeemi appears to have been targeted because he had been integral in helping to generate political, religious and public support for the army’s campaign in Swat over the last few weeks.” Last month, he established the Sunni Itihad Council, an alliance of 22 Islamic groups and political parties, who explicity oppose the Taliban. The Council, reported the Times, “claims to represent about 85 million Pakistani followers of the moderate Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, which incorporates music and mysticism and venerates saints and their shrines.”

In an interview last month with the Times of London, Naeemi stated, “The Taliban is a stigma on Islam. That is why we will support our Government and our army and their right to destroy the Taleban. We will save Pakistan.” He added, “The Taliban are few but because they have turned to Jihad they are seen more. If there are 100 people in this room and one is waving a gun, then you see the one with the gun.”

The statements made by Naeemi  must be remembered in the aftermath of these bombings. Taliban militants are attempting to enforce the perception that they are winning the war by bombing high-profile targets and launching large-scale attacks. And, while these attacks are still damaging because they highlight the cracks in Pakistan’s security apparatus, perceptions do not always mirror reality. These militants are targeting innocent civilians, worshippers during prayer time, and foreign workers who have come to aid the country’s displaced. They are targeting those courageous enough to speak out against them. The commitment of such atrocities is counterproductive because it marginalizes their support. It increasingly seems these militants are grasping at straws and attacking out of a desperation to show they still have the upper hand, rather than acting out of a position of strength.

This week’s string of violence should sway public sentiment further against the Taliban. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Associated Press conducted a string of interviews with more than three dozen Pakistanis across the country, [the AP noted that this was not a scientific poll]. According to the news agency, “not a single person expressed sympathy or allegiance toward the Taliban. The most common answer was the militants should be hunted down and killed.” The AP added, “Certainly, the militants retain some support, particularly in the lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have used as sanctuary. The extremists would likely retreat to these areas if they continue to suffer defeats elsewhere. But the change in public mood is empowering the army in its offensive against the militants…”

Ultimately, we have gone from a country where many remained ambiguous about the Taliban to a nation where even Nawaz Sharif, who often catered to the right, have denounced their actions. Given that this is as much a war of ideas as it is a tangible offensive, that shift is extremely significant. However, while an increasing number of Pakistanis have decided they are against the Taliban, this does not mean their faith in the government has been renewed in its wake. The state must therefore also work to demonstrate that it can provide services and security to the average Pakistani, particularly those who are displaced and must return home.

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The Power of Photography

According to Pakistani authorities and UNHCR, 3 million Internally Displaced People [IDPs] have now been registered as a result of the ongoing operations in Swat, Buner, and Lower Dir districts. As the military offensive enters its sixth week, the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen, partly due to host family fatigue and an easing of government-enforced curfew restrictions in the conflict areas. According to Relief Web, on June 8, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that IDP camps received approximately 1,800 new families between June 5 and 7 alone. As I [and many others] have emphasized [see past CHUP posts on the IDP situation], we need to continue to raise awareness about this issue and increase support, [visit The Swat Plea to find ways you can help].

Film and photography are incredibly powerful mediums in raising awareness and humanizing social and political issues, and I found this Boston Globe series of images entitled, “Children of Pakistan,” to be especially moving. Thanks to my friend who passed on the piece, which focuses on the children impacted by Pakistan’s humanitarian crisis. [You can view the series in its entirety here.] Below are what I found to be some of the most poignant and striking photographs:

Children wait in line for food for hours at a camp in Swabi [Getty Images]

Children wait for food at a camp in Swabi, Getty

A young girl peers over part of a makeshift tent in Swabi [AP Image]

A young girl peers over part of a makeshift tent in Swabi

Displaced children memorize the Quran at a madrassa in a camp [AP Image]

Children memorize the Quran in a madrassa at a camp, AP

A young girl collects water from a truck

A girl collects water at an IDP camp

A girl waits for her turn for food at a camp in Mardan

A young girl waits for food at a camp in Mardan, AP

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Media outlets report that an explosion has killed 5 people and wounded 25 at the Pearl-Continental Hotel in Peshawar. According to GEO News, the injured included mostly workers at the hotel, although BBC News cited an unconfirmed report that said foreign guests are also among those hurt by the bombing. AAJ Television reported, “Government investigator Sahibzada Anees said officials were trying to establish whether a device had been planted or it was a suicide attack. Television channels quoted witnesses as saying it was a gun and bomb attack.” A later report by CNN confirmed that this was a car bombing. The bomb, the news agency reported, had to get through the hotel gate and a security checkpoint. The bomb went off right at the entrance.

According to CNN’s correspondent Reza Sayah, “What stands out is that this is a huge civilian target and this is in the heart of Peshawar.” He framed this attack in light of the bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel in September 2008. Both hotels, noted the news agency, are owned by Sadruddin Hashwani‘s Hashoo Group.

UPDATE 1358 [EST]: CNN’s Reza Sayah says the official death toll is now 11, with the injured now numbering in the 50’s. According to him and other news agencies, the PC Hotel was a “favored destination for foreigners,” and CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson, who has stayed at the hotel, said it is is next door to a police station and near a major army barracks. According to Sayah though, US officials said no Americans who had registered with the embassy were staying at the hotel, [this does not mean there were no Americans at the PC, just that none who had registered were there]. I hope the news focuses also on the Pakistani victims of this attack. It seems there were many hotel workers killed, much like the Marriott bombing in Islamabad.

UPDATE 1430 [EST]: BBC News cited an eyewitness, Fazle Mubeen, who said two vehicles had been involved in the incident. “Policeman told me they had opened fire on two vehicles. Two men were killed in the first car. Then the second vehicle entered the premises and the blast happened.” Following the Marriott blast, Fidayeen-e-Islam, a little-known Pakistani militant group, told the BBC it had carried out the attack with the aim of stopping US interference in Pakistan. However, it is extremely common for unknown militant groups to claim responsibility for large-scale attacks in order to gain notoriety, even if they didn’t commit the attack. We’ll probably hear several claims of responsibility before pinpointing exactly who perpetrated the bombing.

UPDATE 1445 [EST]: Dawn News correspondent is reporting that this bombing was “not unexpected.” According to him, there had been intelligence reports that explosives had entered the city and Peshawar had put on high alert, with extra security at entrance points from the tribal belt. Dawn reported that 500 kilograms of explosives were used in the PC Hotel bombing.

UPDATE 1540 [EST]: CNN reports that officials are desperately searching for casualties. This is the seventh attack to occur in Peshawar in a month, media outlets report. The blast left a large crater, according to an Associated Press journalist, and TV footage suggests part of the hotel was badly damaged. CNN’s Reza Sayah said that government officials are saying it was a suicide bomber. Police told CNN that three men in a pickup truck shot at guards, drove in through the gates, and detonated the bomb somewhere in the parking lot. GEO News is reporting that most of the injured were hotel workers, and CNN cited one report that indicated a United Nations worker was among the dead.

Dawn News interviewed the Daily Times’ Ejaz Haider who commented on the security situation, noting the Pakistani military needs to “erode Pakistan’s insurgency from the inside,” and attack the Pakistan Taliban’s “center of gravity” – located in South Waziristan. He advocated the killing and capture of high-profile militants in order to sway the offensive further in the military’s favor.

UPDATE [1726 EST]: According to BBC News, “The attack killed a Serbian UN refugee agency worker and the injured include a British man and a German national…At least a dozen UN employees were staying at the hotel at the time of the explosion.” Most of the casualties of the attack were therefore Pakistanis, specifically those who worked at the hotel.

UPDATE 2311 [EST]: GEO News reports that the death toll has gone up to 12 people killed, although other news agencies still put the number at 11. Dawn quoted the Capital City Police Chief who said, “The assailants first killed the security guards on the main gate to lower the electronic barrier and then went inside the main parking lot, firing indiscriminately. A mini-truck laden with explosives then entered the hotel premises and exploded in the main parking lot close to the main building.” The Financial Times spoke to a senior security official in Peshawar who said,”We had intelligence reports suggesting that Baitullah Mehsud was planning such an attack. He is top of our list of suspects,” [the official also stated that the likely perpetrators were militants loyal to Mehsud].

Here’s also an interesting link to the Lede blog at the NY Times, which reported the United States had been planning to buy the hotel to expand its diplomatic presence in Peshawar – not sure what I make of that story.

UPDATE [TUES]: The NY Times now reports that the death toll from Tuesday’s bombing has now reached 16. The owner of the PC hotel [and the Marriott in Islamabad] Sadruddin Hashwani told news agencies that the government should have provided better security, and he pledged to reopen the hotel in two months. Two foreign United Nations workers were among those killed. The hotel was housing other UN workers, many of whom were there for the IDP relief efforts in the region.

Below is a good analysis and back-and-forth between CNN’s Nic Robertson and Richard Quest.

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Image Credit: NYT, IDPs line up for food rations

Despite news of violence continuing in Karachi, there was still a stream of positive news from Pakistan, particularly among Western media outlets. According to news agencies, hundreds of tribesmen got involved in the operation against the Taliban. The three-day offensive followed the bombing of a mosque Friday that killed 38 people in Upper Dir district. BBC News reported, “Villagers blamed the bombing on Taliban fighters.”

The Associated Press, in its coverage, reported “as many as 1,600 tribesmen joined a citizens’ militia in Upper Dir.” The news agency cited local police chief Atif-ur-Rehman, who said tribesmen “attacked five villages in the Dhok Darra area which are thought to be militant strongholds…The citizens’ militia had occupied three of the villages since Saturday and was trying to push the Taliban out of two others on Sunday…Some 20 houses of local tribesmen suspected of harboring Taliban fighters were destroyed.”

Rehman told the AP, “It is something very positive that tribesmen are standing against the militants. It will discourage the miscreants.” His statement was echoed by military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who told a television news network, “Citizens should ponder upon the way of life they are introducing, if that is acceptable to us…If not, they have to raise a voice against them. They have to rise against them.”

Although the long-term benefit of tribal militias, or lashkars can be debated, [see my related analysis on this topic], the development is still significant, and  is demonstrative of a wider trend. Last week, a NY Times piece entitled, “Taliban Stir Rising Anger of Pakistanis,” reported, “after months of televised Taliban cruelties, broken promises and suicide attacks, there is a spreading sense — apparent in the news media, among politicians and the public — that many Pakistanis are finally turning against the Taliban.” The news agency added,

The shift is still tentative and difficult to quantify. But it seems especially profound among the millions of Pakistanis directly threatened by the Taliban advance from the tribal areas into more settled parts of Pakistan, like the Swat Valley. Their anger at the Taliban now outweighs even their frustration with the military campaign that has crushed their houses and killed their relatives.

This anger against the Taliban can be an “important turning point” for Pakistan, but it is still a small window of opportunity. Javed Iqbal, NWFP’s Chief Secretary, told the Times, “This is a profound moment in our history…My greatest fear is whether there is sufficient realization of this among people who make decisions.”

One way this opportunity can be squandered is if the government fails to take care of the nearly 3 million people displaced by the offensive. Last week, Pakistan’s foreign ministry told news agencies, “Less than a quarter of the $543 million the United Nations has requested for refugees has arrived,”  and Pakistani IDPs cited the Pakistan Humanitarian Situation Report, which noted “funding remains a serious challenge for all sectors.”

According to UNHCR, as of June 5, people continue to flee Swat for safer districts, and 260,000 IDPs now reside in 21 camps in NWFP. Camps in Mardan are currently at full capacity, and newly displaced are directed to camps in Charsada, Peshawar and Swabi districts. On Tuesday, GEO News reported that UNHCR has set up two new camps to accomodate the growing number of displaced Pakistanis, but noted “the organization hit a shortage of funds” and may not be able to provide the required relief.

The health and food dimensions of the crisis are also worrying. Currently, the World Food Program [as of June 4] has distributed monthly food rations to 2.65 million displaced people in camps and host communities. 35 Humanitarian Hubs, or centers where IDPs can register for assistance, receive food and critically needed shelter and cooking utensils, and be directed into available shelter within the local communities, have been set up, [see map]. However, despite these efforts, the Situation Report notes the pipeline of food “cannot be sustained and is expected to run out in late June or early July.” According to the WFP website, the UN has appealed for $162 million to meet basic food needs of IDPs for two months.”

Image Credit: AP/Dawn Two boys carry Food Back to their tents

Image Credit: AP/Dawn Two boys carry Food Back to their tents

The Sit Rep also asserted, “Current stocks of essential drugs will be depleted as of June.” Urgent funding is required to cover health costs for those who are displaced, noted the report. Moreover, according to Dawn on Monday, Pakistan’s “rundown” health care system is in danger of collapsing. Hospitals have been overwhelmed by the refugee influx, and the resulting crisis “has exhausted doctors, used up limited supplies of medicines and buried hospitals in a mountain of red tape as they try to get money and medicine for the crisis.” Although the government has allocated one million rupees for medicine for the refugees, Dawn cited Dr. Arshad Khan, the Health Ministry’s “top man in Mardan,” who said “it will be months before the refugees see any because of bureaucratic hurdles attached to the money.”

Reading these assessments, it seems evident that the problem in tackling Pakistan’s humanitarian crisis lies not just in funding but also the allocation/delivery of resources as well as coordination. The News columnist Noreen Haider wrote last Tuesday, “There is very little coordination among the various agencies and provincial governments working for the IDPs. There is still a huge shortfall of the items actually required by the IDPs, especially those off-camp and their host families, but no one seems to have any exact data regarding that.” Haider, in her piece, also noted that Pakistan’s emergency assistance body, the National Disaster Management Authority has failed “to set up the provincial [PDMA] and district disaster management authorities…supposed to deal with crises on this scale.”

A new report released by the International Crisis Group echoed these assertions, quoting PML-N General Secretary, Iqbal Jhagra, who said, “The institutions that were set up after the earthquake [PDMA & NDMA] should have pre-planned for this [crisis]. We knew this option [of a military operation] was there. So when you know this, what do you do?” De-centralized relief efforts have further exacerbated the problem, added ICG. The organization further noted, “By other accounts, the civilian bureaucracy, cumbersome and unresponsive to IDP needs, has become a hurdle in relief delivery.”

Ultimately relief should not only be supplied to those displaced by the conflict, but also those shouldering the burden of this crisis. Given that the majority of IDPs are living outside camps with relatives, these people must also be provided support. Families once housing and feeding five to ten people are now providing refuge to double or even triple that amount.

Moreover, the doctors and nurses providing health care to those in crisis must also be taken into consideration.  According to the World Health Organization, “There are only 12 doctors to every 10,000 people in Pakistan and 10 hospital beds to every 10,000 people.” Dawn reports the outpatient unit at Dr. Khan’s 213-bed district hospital used to see 100 people a day before the war. “Now it is up to an average of 500 a day.” Dr. Khan from Mardan told Dawn, “Our staff is disheartened. They are not motivated, the pay structure of doctors and paramedical staff is terribly low and under government rules we can’t hire more people.”

While the recent upsurge against the Taliban is positive, it is important to remember that sentiment is tenuous. The government must properly addres the growing humanitarian crisis in the country to ensure this small window of opportunity does not completely vanish. **Because I don’t want to leave this post on a completely tragic note, here are some other positive pieces related to Pakistan’s Rising Tide Against the Taliban:

For CHUP’s past coverage on Pakistan’s displaced, click here. For ways to help, visit the Swat Plea or Pakistani IDPs.

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Image Credit: NY Times

Image Credit: NY Times

Today, President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim World at a speech at Cairo University in Egypt, [also see my lead-up post yesterday]. In the speech, he pledged to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” imploring America and the Islamic world to drop their suspicions of one another and forge new alliances to confront violent extremism and heal religious divides,” reported the NY Times. He asserted,

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings…There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Quran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

The U.S. President went on to relate this new resolve to his own upbringing, noting that although he is a Christian, his father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. He added, “As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith…So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t.”

The speech Thursday was not all rhetoric. Obama went on to detail his specific positions on Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the topic of Pakistan, he emphasized, “We also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced.” On Israel and Palestine, the President  noted the U.S. bond with Israel was “unbreakable,” but also noted, “It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” According to the NY Times, “He offered no major initiatives on the Middle East peace process although he put Israelis and Palestinians on notice that he intends to deal directly with what he sees as intransigence on key issues, evoking the concerns of both parties but asking both to shift ground significantly.”

Obama’s address today was not groundbreaking or revolutionary, but he never claimed it would be. In fact, in an interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams that aired yesterday, the President stated,

I also don’t want to, you know, load up too many expectations on this speech. After all, one speech is not going to transform very real policy differences and some very difficult issues surrounding the Middle East and the relationship between Islam and the west…And the question then is how do we now go forward with a honest, serious relationship based on mutual respect and mutual interest?

The speech was powerful in its messaging. Obama demonstrated a true understanding of the ideological divide that currently exists between the U.S. and Islam, or the “Islamic World,” and exhibited a resolve to address this problem and change perceptions on either side. This marks a dramatic paradigm shift from the Bush adminstration era, which often polarized the conflict into an “us” versus “them” issue that only further exacerbated this divide. Obama attempted to bridge this gap throughout his speech, quoting the Quran not once, but three times and even noted that the first American Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, “took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Quran that one of our Founding Fathers  – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library.” It was, as the NY Times noted, “the riskiest speech of his young presidency.”

The question that now remains is, will Obama carry out the foreign policy objectives he outlined in Cairo? Will they turn into concrete initiatives? Will his order to close Guantanamo Bay actually occur? And, in terms of Pakistan, [since that is the focus of this blog], will the $1.5 billion in aid finally move past Capitol Hill in Washington to our country? While all of these questions are up for debate, I will say that I was inspired by Obama’s speech. His presidency represents an attempt to rebrand America in order to better its perceptions throughout the world, not just among Muslims.

He also is redefining what it means to be an American – that a Muslim-American is just as American as anyone else. As he noted, “So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America. And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.” That point is important because it exemplifies a fundamental shift in the U.S. leadership that was not evident in the past eight years. What were your thoughts on the address?

If you missed the speech, you can watch the video below, or read the full transcript here.

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Image Credit: NY Times

Image Credit: NY Times

On Wednesday, Al Jazeera aired segments of what they said was a new audiotape by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In the recording, Bin Laden asserted that U.S. policy in Pakistan has planted “new seeds of hatred and revenge against America,” adding that President Obama has proved he is “walking the same road of his predecessors to build enmity against Muslims and increasing the number of fighters, and establishing more lasting wars.” According to CNN, the speaker on the tape cited U.S. strikes, destruction and Obama’s “order” to President Zardari “to prevent the people of Swat from implementing Sharia law.” The message went on to say:

All this led to the displacement of about a million Muslim elders, women and children from their villages and homes. They became refugees in tents after they were honored in their own homes…This basically means that Obama and his administration put new seeds of hatred and revenge against America. The number of these seeds is the same as the number of those victims and refugees in Swat and the tribal area in northern and southern Waziristan. The American people need to prepare to only gain what those seeds bring up.

A CNN analysis of the audiotape as it aired indicated the voice on the tape sounds like bin Laden’s. CBS News cited U.S. intelligence officials who further confirmed the authenticity of the tape, but assured, “There’s no reason at this point to believe that any specific or credible threat is contained” in the message. A counterterrorism official told CBS, “There has never been a fake bin Laden tape. In the past, he has timed the release of the messages to major events. So it’s unsurprising that he chose this particular week…While the words are different, this latest message recycles many of the broad themes of messages past.” The NY Times, in its coverage, noted that the recording, if verified, is a signal that bin Laden “remains alive and in touch with current events, and that he retains effective channels of communication with the outside world.”

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke addressed the audiotape during a press conference with Zardari today, and stated it was “ludicrous” to suggest that anyone but Al Qaeda and the Taliban are responsible for the refugee crisis in Pakistan. The U.S. official arrived in Pakistan Wednesday to assess the plight of the 2.4 million people displaced by the conflict in Pakistan’s northwest, reported Dawn. GEO Television quoted him during the news conference saying, “Today, the [U.S.] President has asked me to inform you and your government that he has requested the Congress of the United States to allocate an additional 200 million dollars…He [Obama] sent our team to Pakistan to do several things, first to show our concern to the people of Pakistan and to the world our concern for the internal refugees.”

Obama, meanwhile, is in Saudi Arabia on the first leg of his Middle East & Europe tour. The Osama bin Laden message was therefore strategically timed to be released as the U.S. President arrived in the Middle East, a trip intended to address a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and improve the image of the United States in the Muslim world. On Thursday, the U.S. President will address the relationship between the United States and the Islamic World in a speech at the University of Cairo, [it will air at 610 EST]. According to BBC News, Obama “will hope to break with the hostility of recent years and set a new tone designed not only to isolate the extremists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but to re-establish the understanding America gained on 9/11 and lost in Iraq.

Although some have criticized the way Obama speaks about Islam as an entity, suggesting it “gives ammunition to those who define Islam as a political movement as well as a religion,” the administration’s press secretary Robert Gibbs said tomorrow’s speech “will outline his personal commitment to engagement, based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. He will discuss how the United States and Muslim communities around the world can bridge some of the differences that have divided them.”

Today, the NY Times featured a series of opinions from the region on what Obama should say in Thursday’s address. Shahan Mufti, a journalist from Pakistan, wrote,

When President Obama addresses the Muslim world his words will be best understood by the people of Pakistan — literally, that is, because this is one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world. And today, with Pakistan being torn apart in a battle between the ideas of Western democracy and Islamic law, its people could use a few encouraging words from the American president, in the language the two nations share.

Below, is an Associated Press report featuring further opinions from Muslims around the world. I’d like CHUP readers to weigh in on this question as well – As Obama prepares to deliver his speech to the Muslim World tomorrow, what would you like to hear him say?

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