Archive for March, 2010

Jamshed Dasti: Are YOU Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Last week, two parliamentarians resigned from their posts after their educational qualifications were called into question. Below, Usman Zafar, an Islamabad-based producer for Express 24/7 discusses this development, commenting on the state of Pakistan’s current leadership:

Pakistan Peoples Party leader Jamshed Dasti, a prominent member of the National Assembly, is known for his vocal opinions in parliament, to the point where he has been reprimanded for using “un-parliamentary language.” As the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Sports, he has minced no words in lecturing the nation’s cricketers on the importance of ethical behavior on the field, at a time when accusations of match fixing and ball tampering were rife within the Pakistan team.

But on Thursday, the vocal Mr. Dasti was quieter than ever. Nor was he lecturing anyone on morality. The reason, was because his own morality was now in question.

A legal case had been filed against the PPP MNA in the Supreme Court, contending that Mr. Dasti’s Master’s Degree in Islamic Studies was fake, and hence disqualified him from being a member of Parliament. The matter was heard by a six member bench of the Supreme Court headed by none other than the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

It was at this hearing that Mr. Dasti’s earsplitting remarks were reduced to mere murmurs. When asked if he knew the names of the first 15 suras (Chapters) of the Holy Quran, he could not answer. He couldn’t even name the first five suras, casting serious doubt on his credentials as a Masters in Islamic Studies.

But the real shockers were yet to come. When asked to recite the first verses of the Quran, he recitedAl-Hamd Sharif” (Sura-e-Fateha) to the dismay of the Apex Court. And when he was asked what version of the Quran he had read, he replied the version of Hazrat Musa! The Court was appalled. The so called MA in Islamic Studies knew less than a five year old on the subject!

It was then that the PPP MNA’s academic credentials truly came into the forefront. He could not tell what courses he had done in his degree, or what year he had completed it. He could not even give the right answer to 4 multiplied by 2! At that point, the hearing bench had heard enough, and Mr. Dasti was given a choice: Resign from parliament right away, or face a full investigation exposing all his dishonest actions in the courts. Mr Dasti took option one without any hesitation.

To add insult to injury, Mr. Dasti wasn’t the only one who tendered his resignation that evening. In another hearing at the Apex Court, PML-Q MNA Nazir Jutt also opted to resign after it was found out that his Bachelors degree was fake.

After the case hearing, the Chief Justice of Pakistan commented as to how these parliamentarians could make the laws of the country when they themselves were found guilty of gross lies and deceitful actions. And he couldn’t be more right. Our country’s parliamentarians claim to be the true representatives of the people. They campaign on a platform of virtue, honesty, and purity, adhering to the ideals of this country. But if anything, we have seen the exact opposite infiltrating our government. The President of this country is involved in money laundering cases amounting to billions of dollars, and would have not even been eligible for office had he not chosen to seek amnesty under the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a dubious deal under which thousands of cases concerning him, and other high profile politicians, were just swept under the rug, all in the name of “reconciliation”. There is no wonder that the NRO is called the “black law”, but the stains from this law remain, and they are darker than ever.

But sadly, rather than trying to purify the parliament from such impurities, they are actually exacerbating them. The government is actually defending the NRO in the courts, and that too after the Supreme Court declared it null and void on the basis of violating critical parts of the constitution. The cartels of this country run rampant in key areas like wheat and sugar, and the only organization charged with battling them, the Competition Commission of Pakistan, has been declared defunct last week, thanks to government inaction.

The great fable writer Aesop once said, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” That statement seems almost tailor made for the leaders of Pakistan, who seem to talk all about the vices committed by others, but look the other way when it comes to the major crimes committed by our leaders, and talk about how democracy must be allowed to foster. There is nothing worse for democracy than the prevalence of such hypocrisy, for it is the main reason for the public’s disillusionment in their representatives. Unless there is a crackdown on all such activities, and virtue restored to the heart of our governance, this democracy will die a slow painful death, and there will be no one more responsible than these so-called denizens of democracy.

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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CNN: Image of a painting of Paradise allegedly used by militants to indoctrinate children.

Below is my reaction piece to a Washington Post article on rehabilitating child militants in Pakistan. The article was first published on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel:

On Sunday, the Washington Post covered the progress of a new boarding school established to rehabilitate and deradicalize former child militants in Swat Valley, Pakistan. The army-sponsored center currently houses 86 young boys who were either captured by the military or brought in by their families. According to the Post, “Some had been trained by insurgent groups as slaves or thieves, some as bombers.”

The rehabilitation and study of these boys could provide deeper insight into the indoctrination of child militants in Pakistan as well as the broader psychology of child soldiers as a whole. According to Amnesty International, “Approximately 250,000 children under the age of 18 are thought to be fighting in conflicts around the world.” Moreover, although many child soldiers are between the ages of 15 and 18 years of age, significant recruitment starting at the age of 10 and the use of even younger children has been recorded.

In Pakistan, a disturbing number of suicide bombers are between the ages of 12-18 years old, about 90%, noted Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain, who is the senior editor at Newsline magazine and the author of Frontline Pakistan. However, in the PBS Frontline World documentary, Children of the Taliban, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy interviewed Taliban commander Qari Abdullah who revealed he also recruits children as young as five, six and seven years old, emphasizing, “Children are tools to achieve God’s will. And whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it.”

In an interview with BBC News Hour, Chinoy noted that one of the most interesting things about meeting with the Taliban, particularly the younger militants, was that they “all look like they’re in a trance, they rock back and forth, it’s as if they’re reciting things that they have been programmed to recite.”

Pakistani authorities rescued 20 young boys who had been among hundreds recruited by the Taliban, reported media outlets in July 2009. Major Nasir Khan, a military spokesman in Swat, stated the child fighters had been heavily brainwashed by militants.  When asked what they had been told by the Taliban, the boys reportedly said, “The Pakistan army is the ally of the Western capitalist world, they are the enemies of Islam. The fight against them is justified, they are apostates, the friends of the infidels.”

In the upcoming  issue of the CTC Sentinel, S.H. Tajik notes the main theme in lectures in both the senior (ages 16 years and older) and junior (ages 7 to 15 years) camps centered on revenge.  Given that honor and revenge are intrinsically linked in Pashtun culture, this tactic is an important recruitment mechanism, and instructors often “call attention to the helplessness of Muslims whose daughters and sisters are dishonored by non-Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Young would-be suicide bombers are also persuaded by the promise of Paradise. In January 2010, the Pakistani military uncovered a Taliban compound in Nawaz Kot, allegedly used to train child suicide bombers, (though the Pakistani Taliban denies the compound was theirs). According to CNN correspondent Arwa Damon, children are shown brightly colored paintings meant to depict the heavenly delights that await them, including rivers of milk and honey and female virgins. The images stand “in clear contrast to the barren and harsh landscape surrounding [them],” drastically different from the poverty many of these young recruits face on a daily basis.

At the army-sponsored rehabilitation school, neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha says the patterns among the 86 young boys have so far been revealing. The Post reports that Peracha has observed that “most of the boys are middle children who have been lost in the shuffle of large, poor families with absent fathers. Few had much formal schooling, many are aggressive, and most score poorly on educational aptitude tests.”

While the efforts of this center should be lauded, more resources must be allocated to absorb the overwhelming number of child fighters, particularly as the Pakistani military gains ground against militants in Pakistan. The center, as a pilot school, can apply best practices from successful programs rehabilitating child soldiers in other countries. In Sri Lanka, for example, the government established numerous transit centers as part of a complex program to rehabilitate former child soldiers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The International Cricket Council (ICC), the Sri Lankan Cricket Association and UNICEF have also partnered in this effort, sponsoring a program that uses cricket to rehabilitate and engage these children.

There are universal lessons that can be drawn from past and current rehabilitation efforts. By using innovative programs like sports, children are engaged as children, not merely as reformed militants. While child soldier recruitment and indoctrination obviously varies from conflict to conflict, such programs can be adapted to the nuances of Pakistan’s situation.

Pakistan should also assess the complex root causes behind this phenomenon in order to design solutions. If a number of these children are from poor families, de-radicalization programs should also include skill-building courses that will provide these young boys opportunities after they return to their families. If rehabilitation centers are replicated, they should be adapted for the nuances of that particular village, tribal culture, and society. A one-size-fits-all model will not be able to address the complexities of Pakistan, and needs assessments must be conducted to ensure these regional differences are taken into consideration.

The growing phenomenon of child militants in Pakistan is a horrific reality, one mirrored in various conflicts throughout history. Children are targeted because they can be easily manipulated and brainwashed by a group’s ideology. In Pakistan’s northwest areas and tribal agencies, there is a younger generation whose lives have been punctured by violence — bombings, drone attacks, ongoing fighting between militants and the military. The psychological impact of conflict not just on Pakistani child militants but Pakistani children as a whole is an issue that we neglect at our peril.

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Strategic Dialogue. Sustained partnership. Long-term commitment.

If I hear those terms used in three consecutive sentences again, I may have an aneurysm.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that we have all been over-saturated with news of Wednesday’s high-level talks between the United States and Pakistan. Prior to the dialogue, Islamabad presented a 56-pagewish list” to Washington, detailing their priorities and demands – including a desire for a civilian nuclear deal, drone strike technology, and aid for development issues like education, agriculture, as well as $647 million for dams.

Following the talks on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly spoke of having a partnership that stands “the test of time,” while foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he was “a happy man.”

According to the Washington Post, the Pakistani delegation said it was satisfied with U.S. pledges on aid delivery, after Clinton announced $125 million to help Pakistan overcome its power crisis. The Post added,

Most of the agreements announced after the one-day meeting had been decided earlier, including disbursement of a new $7.5-billion, five-year U.S. aid package for Pakistan’s energy, water, agricultural and education sectors. Long-standing Pakistani complaints about nearly $1 billion in promised but unpaid U.S. reimbursements for Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations had been largely resolved, with the remaining money to be paid by the end of June.

So yes, as expected, a diplomatic “We’re Just Not That Into You” move on the civilian nuclear deal and drone strike technology, but a thumbs up on the substantial topics, i.e. development. That is certainly a plus, depending on how well it’s implemented and allocated.

With the imagined strains of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” in the background, it seems the media is as excited to depict this wonderous state of affairs as the delegations are. Please observe:

Clinton: "Yes, pookie poo?" Qureshi: "Just looking into your eyes shnookie."

Qureshi: "Oh lookie! It's a leprechaun and a rainbow!" Clinton: "And a puppy with a bow!"

Qureshi: "Hahaha. You're so FUNNY, shmoopsy!" Clinton: "I'm just catching your grease in my glass! Snookie!"

Personally, I’m far more interested to be a fly on the wall during COAS Gen. Ashfaq Kayani‘s closed door sessions with the U.S. military brass, especially given Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan vis-a-vis India. See if the below photo offers any clues for how well it’s going so far:

[Insert your own caption here]

"I'm not your friend, buddy!" "I'm not your buddy, friend!"

Disclaimer: Please excuse the snarkiness.

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(Not) The Grinch Who Stole Pakistan Day

Gotta love the Boston Globe's Big Picture. I call this Man Luvs Goaties.

Today is Pakistan Day. Although we celebrate our Independence Day on August 14, today commemorates March 23, 1940 –  when the Muslim League passed the Lahore Resolution. Dubbed “the cornerstone of Pakistan’s independence,” the resolution cemented the idea of Pakistan as a separate Muslim homeland.

This concept has been the source of constant ideological wrangling throughout Pakistan’s history, as the country continues to search for a coherent and cohesive identity. But rather than fixate on an exhaustive list of our pitfalls, or our Derek Zoolander state of affairs (I’m not writing our eugoogly yet), I decided to resist becoming the Grinch who Stole Pakistan Day.

There’s a lot I criticize Pakistan for on a daily basis. But today I think it’s important to list the people and efforts that make me proud to be from this country:

  1. Abdul Sattar Edhi – The founder of the Edhi Foundation is one of the most active and well-respected philanthropists in Pakistan. Born in 1928, Edhi and his family migrated to Karachi from India after Partition. In 1957, a major flu epidemic swept through Karachi. Edhi was quick to react, setting up tents on the outskirts of the city to distribute free immunizations. After hearing of his work, Pakistanis throughout the country donated to his efforts. With the donations, he bought the rest of the building his dispensary was located in, soon opening a free maternity center and nursing school. Today, the Edhi Foundation has established hospitals, takes care of orphans and the mentally ill, and provides relief services after major natural disasters and bombings. In fact, it provides transportation to over one million people annually to hospitals throughout the country, setting the Guinness World Record in 2000 for having the largest voluntary ambulance organization in the world. Most recently, Edhi won the prestigious United Nations prize for promoting non-violence and tolerance.
  2. Innovative organizations & social enterprises – Recently, there has been an increasing number of socially innovative non-government organizations and enterprises that are thinking strategically and revamping traditional approaches to development. Although many have said that microfinance could not be replicated in Pakistan, the Kashf Foundation has over 300,000 clients and $100 million in loans, becoming the second largest private microlender in Pakistan. Focusing on women, Kashf’s goal is to reach one million women in Pakistan by 2010. Naya Jeevan, a social enterprise dedicated to providing urban low-income families affordable access to quality, catastrophic health care, is also making waves in the development sector by instituting an innovative model that can not only be replicated and scaled, but will also be sustainable in the long-term.
  3. Maria Toor & Naseem Hamid – Though few and far between, these female sports stars are truly setting an example for young girls throughout the country and further making the case for why funds should be invested in women. Toor, Pakistan’s number one ranked squash player, would chop off her hair in order to play sports with boys in South Waziristan, [see this related post]. Hamid, from a low-income family in Korangi Town in Karachi, recently became the region’s fastest women after she won a gold medal in the 100-metre race at the South Asian Federation Games.
  4. Coke Studio – The immensely popular television show, which “embodies a musical fusion of exciting elements and diverse influences, ranging from traditional eastern, modern western and regionally inspired music,” recently completed a successful second season. In an interview with producer Adnan Malik, he said, “My favorite aspect of this show is its engagement in helping define a Pakistani identity. We are clearly at a crossroads in terms of a collective cultural ethos, and I believe that this show is an example of how we should engage with our past, present and future.”
  5. You – I am always inspired by Pakistanis who never give up on this country. And, although I generally dislike the burgeoning numbers of Facebook groups or online petitions that call for national solidarity against terrorism but don’t provide anything tangible to the debate, I do think there is some value-added there. Currently on Facebook, 33,279 Pakistanis around the world have pledged to wear green “against terrorism.” While I’m skeptical of what wearing a color does to combat terror, I do think those same people can be mobilized to actually do something for Pakistan in a strategic and centralized way. For overseas Pakistanis, this could involve turning that anti-terror solidarity into tangible funds for organizations that provide aid to victims of terrorism and their families, (like the Edhi Foundation). For Pakistanis at home, they can support these causes financially, volunteer, or start their own local initiative based on the needs of their community/area, (like these young Lahoris who picked up trash in their neighborhood).

So there’s my list. I look forward to reading your really ridiculously good looking ones too. Happy Pakistan Day!

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AP Photo from Boston Globe's Big Picture (Oct 2009)

Last summer, the plight of Pakistan’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) garnered constant news attention. However, once the government announced the phased return home of these people last July (beginning with IDPs from Malakand province), the coverage all but came to a halt. The IDP situation was just not news worthy anymore. But the sad reality is that it never stopped being an issue. Just last month, news agencies reported that an estimated one million Pakistanis remain displaced, adding, “Most of the refugees are staying with host families, but tens of thousands are in relief camps.” According to the organization’s news release, “UNHCR has also rushed relief supplies to help an estimated 135,000 people who fled their homes to escape a security forces operation against militants in Orakzai Agency in December 2009.” A  humanitarian update released February 5 by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) further reported that since December 2009, the number of IDPs from Orakzai has risen nearly tenfold to over 23,000, [ReliefWeb also has an interesting read on Shia IDPs from Orakzai and their situation].

There are also around 250,000 IDPs from Bajaur, who have been displaced since 2008. In Jalozai, the site of one of UNHCR’s largest IDP camps, around  74 percent are from this tribal agency. So, although a large number of IDPs have returned home in the past year (almost 1.7 million people, mostly to Swat and other districts of Malakand Division), a significant amount remain displaced.

As for those who have gone back, their return was the easiest part of the journey. Yesterday, Al Jazeera English had a very interesting story [see below] on the current situation of Swat Valley, nearly a year after the military regained control of the area. In the report, correspondent Hashem Ahelbarra noted that IDP returnees in Swat feel that progress and rebuilding has been too slow “and not enough.” In order to tap into the government funds for these people, Swati families have to open a bank account and get an ATM card, from which they can withdraw $12 at the end of every month. With that meager amount, they can only buy a bag of flour and four kilograms of “low-quality rice,” hardly enough to feed their entire family.

As someone who works in the philanthropy field and, more specifically, with development issues in Pakistan, I find the issue of handouts, even if it’s via more innovative ATM cards, to be problematic. In terms of short-term emergency response, it does provide immediate relief to families in a more organized way than straight cash distribution. However, from a long-term lens, handouts foster a deeper dependency between donor and recipient. It is not a sustainable solution and, at the end of the day, doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, especially if food prices continue to rise and the security situation remains tense, (13 were killed and 40 were injured in a suicide attack in Mingora last month).

Therefore, there needs to be further efforts to build local capacity in Swat in order to develop these communities and lessen their dependence on government and international agencies for basic necessities. This week, the UN World Food Programme announced it has contracted eight mills in Swat Valley to produce fortified wheat flour, “in a bid to boost the local economy and make food more easily accessible to families in the area.” Not only will this initiative ideally provide jobs and generate income in the area, the locally produced flour is also expected to stabilize prices. According to the UN, “They will have the capacity to produce more than 2,000 metric tons of wheat flour daily. That capacity will be increased as the security situation improves.”

All of this is a lot easier said than done, especially given that peace is still a tenuous notion in Swat Valley. However, it is nevertheless important to view reconstruction from a more long-term perspective in order to achieve more sustainable and lasting solutions.

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Last week, Dawn published an article I wrote about Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri‘s 600-page fatwa against terrorism. The issue in general has generated a lot of debate. Below, Tariq Tufail, who is based in Karachi, presents a different perspective on the topic:

Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri, a Pakistani Sunni scholar has issued a fatwa against terrorism. While there is no doubt that this is an important step to dispel the notion that the clergy has been silent on the issue of terrorism, the fatwa has sparked a debate as to whether it will really have an impact on the vulnerable section of our population: the young impressionable jihadis. Readers have pointed out that being a moderate cleric, Tahir ul-Qadri simply does not have the appeal nor the popularity to influence the Jihadis in any meaningful manner. Kalsoom has pointed out that the fatwa can be used as “the focal point for a strategic communications campaign” to counter terrorism.

I am of the opinion that the discussion about the Fatwa is irrelevant and it addresses the wrong problem.

People who analyze the effectiveness of Dr Tahir ul-Qadri’s fatwa start with the basic assumption:

1. There are poor youth who are susceptible to radicalization by people who interpret religion to suit their own ends
2. The youth then get radicalized and commit terrorism, bombings and killings
3. This phenomenon can be countered by enlightened clergy addressing this wrong interpretation of religion

I am going to counter the basic assumption by pointing out the flaws in this simplistic argument. Let us start with (3):

This phenomenon can be countered by enlightened clergy addressing this wrong interpretation of religion.

While a 600 page erudite opinion by a respected scholar can go a long way into clarifying the role of violence in our religion, this strategy is likely to devolve into arguments and counter arguments about minor points of theology and Islamic jurisprudence with an audience of zero paying any attention. Even if the anti-terrorist faction wins this erudite argument, it will be relegated to a dusty bookshelf of an obscure library. At best, Tahir ul-Qadri’s fatwa can be used as a fig leaf by Muslims to counter the notion that Muslims are pro-terrorism.

Impoverished youth are susceptible to being radicalized by firebrand clerics.

This assumption casts youth as the raw material and firebrand mullahs as the facilitators for terrorism. This assessment is either patently false or is misguided. In my opinion there are three crucial enablers of terrorism. Without addressing these, we will perpetually be victims of terror.

1. Our intelligence agencies are set up to fund, train and shelter proxy groups who advance our political agenda (strategic depth in Afghanistan, Kashmir and other objectives in India). The quest for plausible denial with regards to the activities of these groups mean that our agencies do not exert tight control. This means that beyond a point, the various groups choose their own agenda. It is indisputable that we supported Afghan mujahideen during the Afghan jihad, particularly the Haqqani and Hekmatyar groups. We have funded and trained the Khalistan group and Kashmir groups, as Hamid Gul claimed on several occasions. We have used mujahideen as our proxies in Kashmir – Musharraf admitted this on the record. Our intelligence agencies are aiding LeT, JeM and numerous other Punjabi groups currently.

2. Our politicians tacitly encourage terrorism (mostly as long as it is practiced outside our borders) or feign their helplessness (common refrain being that “Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism” and “terrorist hands are strengthened if India does not resolve outstanding issues”). This is either because of helplessness against our security agencies, or because they do not want to give up  their leverage against India. There was nary a whimper of protest when Jamaat-ud-Dawa held a huge rally last month promising jihad, killings and murder against Indians.

3. Our judiciary is an ineffective instrument against terrorism. The only practiced way of countering terrorism in Pakistan is to kill the terrorists. There has been no record of terrorists being prosecuted fairly and punished in a court of law. Furthermore, there are several cases of our Judiciary playing to the gallery, like when Hafiz Saeed was set free because the court famously found that since India does not honor UN resolutions, Pakistan is not bound to honor UN directives marking Pakistani citizens as terrorists.

4. Our society selectively renounces violence. We hate violence when a bomb goes off in Lahore, but ignore or even support when a few go off in India (or spend inordinate amount of time arguing why it is justified). To those who disagree, I wish to point out two things:

(a) Support for terrorism (as was pointed out by Christine Fair’s study) is higher among the middle class, the upper class and the educated class — in short the informed and “enlightened” class.

(b) Where were the articles or debates when Mumbai was being attacked by our nationals? Or when Mumbai was attacked in 1993 by a spate of 13 serial bombs which killed over 200? Or when the Charar-e-Sharif was burned down in Kashmir by Mast Gul, who subsequently received a hero’s welcome in Pakistan?

We are victims of terrorism because branches of our country and our society either at worst support terrorism or at best ignore terrorism. We simply express anguish for the targets. Any solution that addresses the terrorism problem should therefore avoid analyzing terrorism through an Islamic lens. That is bandaging a finger when the problem is collective insanity.

Before I end, here is some food for thought:  How many Pakistani readers of this blog wholeheartedly support the idea that Pakistani blood, treasure and effort should be spent killing, arresting and convicting Pakistani citizens and other terrorists who operate from our soil and who target Iran, Afghanistan and India?

  • If not, are you truly against terrorism or just against your loved ones getting killed by terrorists?
  • If not, will a fatwa change your world view?

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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AP: A woman mourns the death of a family member in Lahore

The below piece on the recent Lahore bombings and the Punjabi militant nexus was first published on Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel, where I’m excited and honored to be a new contributor:

The last week has been tough for Pakistan. A series of attacks occurred throughout the country, including a siege of the World Vision International office in Mansehra last Wednesday that killed six aid workers, and a suicide bombing in Swat over the weekend that killed around a dozen people and wounded at least 37. However, the wave of bombings targeting the city of Lahore garnered the most attention. Last Monday, a car bombing targeted the Special Investigations group of the Federal Investigative Agency, the Pakistani equivalent of the FBI, killing at least 14 people and wounding 89 others. News correspondents said the amount of explosives “was so large it brought down the two-story building.”

This past Friday, two suicide bombers struck within 15 to 20 seconds of each other in R.A. Bazaar in Lahore, killing at least 45 people and injuring scores more. The attacks, dubbed by news agencies as “the bloodiest strike in Pakistan this year,” were later followed by six “low-intensity blasts” in the middle class residential neighborhoods Iqbal Town and Samanabad in Lahore. Although the bombs were reportedly locally made and used “a very small quantity of explosives,” the six blasts appeared to be a well-coordinated attempt to ignite panic and chaos in Lahore. Residents rushed out of their homes. Punjab’s police were filmed rushing from one site to another as the deafening sounds of another blast were heard. As Pakistanis remained riveted to their television screens, Lahore was paralyzed with terror.

In the aftermath of the bombings, it is not so much a question of “Why Lahore?” but rather, “Why not Lahore?” The series of attacks does not necessarily mean the center of violence has shifted from one major city to another. It means there was no epicenter at all. Whether or not the escalation of violence was in revenge for the death of Qari Zafar, a leader of the Punjabi militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who was killed in a U.S. drone strike, militants are sending the message that they have the ability to strike anywhere at any time. Despite the Pakistani military’s successes in northwest Pakistan over the past year, this war is far from over.

While it is convenient to attach the broader “Taliban” label to the problem, the network of players is far more complex and nebulous. Although the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan swiftly claimed responsibility for Monday and Friday‘s suicide attacks in Lahore, this organization has only been able to conduct large-scale attacks in Pakistan’s major cities with the coordination and help of militants in the southern Punjab nexus, groups that make up the oft-labeled “Punjabi Taliban.”

In the April 2009 issue of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel, Hassan Abbas defined the Punjabi Taliban as “a loose conglomeration of members of banned militant groups of Punjabi origin — sectarian as well as those focused on the conflict in Kashmir — that have developed strong connections with Tehrik-i-Taliban, Afghan Taliban and other militant groups based in FATA and NWFP.” These organizations, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, provide weapons, recruits, finances and other resources to the TTP and are responsible for planning many of the attacks attributed to the Pakistani Taliban.

A counter-militancy strategy in Pakistan could be successful if this TTP-Punjabi Taliban alliance is targeted and weakened. However, the clampdown has so far been insufficient as Pakistan’s leaders continue to point fingers everywhere but Punjab. Following the recent spate of violence, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that India was the “foreign hand” behind several attacks in Pakistan. Punjab’s law minister Rana Sanaullah further alleged that India’s intelligence agency RAW was involved in the attacks in Lahore, adding, “Israel and other countries could also be involved.”

At the same time, Sanaullah, a member of Punjab’s ruling party, the PML-N, chose to campaign for last week’s by-election alongside the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan leader Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi. Whether Sanaullah’s informal alliance with the SSP was merely an attempt to get votes or a more dangerous indication of his relationship with these groups, his actions further illustrate the state of denial that exists within Punjab’s leadership, as well as parts of the country’s leadership as a whole.

Pakistani political and defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi noted in the Daily Times, “Pakistan’s top civilian and military leadership have come to the unanimous conclusion that the Taliban and other militant elements are a threat to Pakistan’s internal harmony and stability.” However, there has been a lack of cohesion in identifying the nuances of that threat and how to strategically address it. Khalid Aziz, the chairman of the Peshawar-based RIPORT (Regional Institute of Policy Research & Training) told me on Friday, “The Pakistani military is afraid of conducting operations that would create another Waziristan in Punjab, which it can hardly afford.” Ejaz Haider, the Lahore-based national affairs editor of Newsweek Pakistan, further emphasized to me that the Army “is already spread thin in areas where the TTP tried to capture territory — i.e., FATA.” What we need instead, he said, “is good, actionable intelligence to bust the [Punjabi militant] cells,” something Aziz stated can and should be done by Pakistan’s police force.

At the end of the day, the stream of bombings and the subsequent deaths of innocent civilians will continue to undermine Pakistan’s tactical successes against the Taliban. Regardless of the TTP’s actual strength, these attacks enforce the perception that no citizen in Pakistan is safe and the state is inept at protecting them. The blame game exercised by Pakistan’s leaders in Punjab and across the country will get us nowhere. Before we can address the problem properly, we must recognize it for what it is.

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Today, at least 39 people were killed and 95 were wounded in twin suicide blasts in Lahore, the second attack in the city this week. A senior official told Dawn News, “The bombers walked up to Pakistani army vehicles in the densely populated R A Bazaar area of Lahore, blowing themselves up as people sat down to eat before the Friday prayers were to begin.” My piece today in Dawn (republished below), primarily discusses Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri‘s 600-page fatwa against suicide bombing, but given recent events, it provides fodder for further debate on how to counter such attacks. Qadri’s edict, being 600 pages, has been viewed as a good but inadequate attempt to target the right audience – i.e., the young jihadists and potential suicide bombers. My point in the piece is to really find a way to implement it in a wider counter suicide bombing communications campaign so that it is effective. Because at the end of the day, we can’t just sit back and allow these attacks to keep happening:

Image from CNN: Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri

There has never been a shortage of fatwas. These legal rulings or opinions made by religious authorities address a wide array of issues concerning politics and social norms, and have both justified and widely condemned the use of violence. In 1998, Al Qaeda ideologues Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a fatwa “to kill the Americans and their allies.” However, a number of imams and scholars since have issued fatwas against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In November 2008, for example, more than 6,000 Muslim clerics in India signed a fatwa against terrorism, following a similar edict issued earlier in the year by India’s top Islamic institution Darul Uloom Deoband.

Most recently, Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri, a Pakistani Barelvi Muslim scholar, issued a 600-page global ruling against terrorism and suicide bombing, which provides a point-by-point theological rebuttal “of every argument used by Al-Qaeda inspired recruiters.” Although many scholars have released similar fatwas in the past, Dr. Qadri, the founder of Minhaj al-Quran International, “argued that his massive document goes much further by omitting “ifs and buts” added by other thinkers,” noted the BBC.

According to the 80-page summary of the edict,

Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri goes that crucial step forward and announces categorically that suicide bombings and attacks against civilian targets are not only condemned by Islam, but render the perpetrators totally out of the fold of Islam, in other words, to be unbelievers.

The fatwa has garnered much press attention among Western news outlets, such as Fox News, CNN and the Washington Post. But while many have celebrated the release of a religious decree grounded in Islamic jurisprudence and history, others remain doubtful of its actual impact on potential young suicide bombers. While Minhaj al-Quran International is active in 70 countries and has 5,000 members in the UK, Qadri is considered to be relatively liberal and tolerant. Therefore, the people that would follow and accept his fatwa are unlikely to be the same as those susceptible to being recruited by Islamist militant groups.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC, further emphasized, “The Sunni religious authority, as distinct from the Shi’a religious authority, is fragmented. So there’s not one figure who can issue a fatwa that every Sunni will listen to.” While Ahmed noted that any fatwa of this kind is important, the problem we are facing with suicide bombers “is that they are not from the same class [as moderate scholars like Qadri]. These young recruits respond much more to their own imams and preachers.”

No one questions the airtight credibility of Qadri’s text. But the issue we should raise is not whether the fatwa will have an impact, but how to ensure that it does. Fatwas or edicts of this kind can be influential if they are implemented in a culturally nuanced way, using language that can be understood by the intended target audience. In other words, if militant recruiters are using drone strikes to vilify the United States or the Pakistani government, countering this ideology requires messaging that takes similar realities into consideration. Although Qadri’s fatwa is based in exhaustive academic research, most young jihadists won’t take the time to sift through 600 pages in their decision-making.

Qadri may not be a universally accepted figure, but his text can be used as the focal point for a strategic communications campaign geared towards countering militancy and terrorism. This fatwa will only have the intended effect if local imams and religious leaders from various sects endorse and adapt it for their nuanced communities – applying Qadri’s language and framing it within the ground realities. Madrassa leaders more open to reform can incorporate the fatwa’s text into their curriculum. Imams of local mosques can use the fatwa’s framing of terrorists as today’s Khawārij in their sermons, subsequently making it digestible for the public. Rather than simply shutting down jihadist chat rooms, intelligence agencies can create pop-up ads using language from the fatwa to vilify and undermine militant ideology. Pamphlets, billboard ads, and radio spots can be other potential mediums.

We are well-aware that Islam is a religion of peace, that it has been hijacked by militant and terrorist organizations to justify violence and intolerance against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The question, therefore, is how do we use that knowledge to make a tangible difference? As an end, Qadri’s 600-page fatwa has its limitations, and could very likely end up on the metaphorical shelf, gathering dust. However, this airtight research could instead be used to enforce a more localized and nuanced campaign that could have a more strategic impact.

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Mesh Lakhani on VOA Urdu!

Photo by Samier Mansur

Last week, VOA Urdu aired an interview on GEO Television with my younger brother, Mesh (short for Meshal), an aspiring singer/songwriter who recently launched his own music publishing company, Franklin’s Row. In the below video, Mesh discusses why he writes and sings English (versus Urdu) songs, as well as his desire to improve perceptions of Pakistan through his music. It’s a testament to how music truly is a universal language, one that transcends cultural, ethnic, and national barriers.

I generally keep my personal life separate from this blog, but what can I say – I’m a proud sister. I am extremely close to my family, and my brother is truly an example of how hard work and talent can pay off. His company Franklin’s Row is an innovative challenge to the music industry, placing the emphasis on the songwriters and taking a novel approach to music production, distribution and promotion. Amid all of this, though, he never forgets his roots. Last year, when his music first appeared on Pakistan’s FM radio [see my previous post], he emphasized how important it was to share his music both in Pakistan and the West. He told me, “My cultural identity is important to me, but for someone to find a way to relate to my own identity is equally as important. For me, that middle ground is music.”

Congrats Mesh! If you would like to check out his music catalog and read more about Franklin’s Row, click here. To hear one of my personal favorites, “Edgar” (with album art, lyrics, and link to download), click here.

[Thanks to Raza Naqvi, who did an awesome interview!]

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Last week, I came across a really interesting post at Feministing.com. Entitled, “Jessica Simpson and the Price of Beauty,” the piece discussed Jessica Simpson‘s upcoming docu-series The Price of Beauty, as well as the unfair standards of beauty placed upon women around the world. While Simpson’s series will undoubtedly have its flaws (Feministing noted it may fall into the “all too familiar trap of cultural relativism and Western desire to understand the ‘other'”), the article caused me to ponder the price of beauty in Pakistan. I turned to my close friend Maria Saadat, who runs the South Asian beauty blog, Lipstick Masala, and asked her to weigh in on a timely piece for International Women’s Day. Below, Maria discusses the often arbitrary and unfair standard of beauty impressed upon many women in Pakistan:

The latest Bollywood song blared from the speakers and the crowd at my sister’s wedding cheered in delight. As I laughed with my friends and shimmied my hips in time to the music, I was unaware that a family friend’s son was observing me from across the room. He had attended the event in order to “take a look at me” for a possible rishta (proposal). I didn’t make the cut, however. I wasn’t gori (fair) enough. It didn’t matter that I was well educated, courteous to others, or that I could cook a mean chicken karahi. No, he did not know any of these things about me or even the sound of my voice, for he didn’t bother speaking to me. I was simply cast aside, rejected from afar, solely based on the color of my skin. Six months later said bachelor was married – to his 17-year-old cousin. Yes, she was a child. But, oh, was she pale!

The general response amongst my friends to this story was, “Oh, they must have been backward. Nobody cares about these things anymore.” As much as I would like to believe that is true, this kind of bias is still prevalent in our society, and not just with our grandparents’ generation. In the last decade, women in Pakistan have made a place for themselves independent of their husbands – whether in high heels and a pantsuit or a modest shalwar kameez and chador, they have stormed the workplace as educated television news anchors, driven politicians, and dynamic business women. But, it seems no matter how many barriers we break, or how far we women come, our worth is still measured in many circles by how closely we resemble a blank sheet of printer paper and whether or not we can produce beautiful, milky white babies.

We belong to an age where dark beauties like Rani Mukherjee and Bipasha Basu sizzle on screen, and fake tanner is sold by the millions in the U.S. so that lighter-skinned ladies can achieve the bronzed glow most of us Pakistanis are born with. The whole world is trying to go darker, yet our society is still hung up on what products or methods to use to become just a few shades paler. Who do we blame for this? Should we condemn advertisers hawking skin-lightening products to the working classes with the promise that success will come with fair skin? Should we point fingers at our great grandparents who passed their own prejudices down to the younger generations?

Fair & Lovely, aka skin bleach.

The truth is, the blame does not lie solely with the ads for “Fair and Lovely” cream or obnoxious aunties admonishing us for sitting out in the sun for too long. It lies with us. We ourselves are feeding into preconceived notions about what we should look like. How many of us flip through the Daily Times Sunday magazine? As a relatively forward thinking publication, they share delicious tidbits such as “how to wear red nail polish to make one’s hands look fairer.” We skim through such articles without a thought, but the words are embedded into our subconscious. A few days later, we find ourselves at the nearest beauty salon getting a red manicure. There, while our nails are being buffed and shaped, we are offered the newest “body polishing” treatment that will bring a “neat” (read: FAIR) look to our skin. And we say, “sure, why not?”

I was blessed with a beautiful niece a few months ago. The first question asked was not “is she healthy?” but rather, “Rang kaisa hai?” (What is her complexion like?). When it was discovered that she didn’t have the fair coloring of her mother, our family was advised to rub her skin with besan so that her skin would become saaf (clean). Is this what it has come down to? Torturing a newborn’s fragile skin with gram flour in the hopes that her color will change?

This is why I say NO. NO to the “body polishing”, NO to the mothers inspecting me for their sons, and NO to the magazines that tell us we should be something that we’re not. I will not allow my niece to grow up in a world where she is conscious of what shade of brown her skin is. Yes, I know – it sounds like a cheesy anti-drug campaign. But, the truth is, this obsession with fair vs. dark is an addiction, especially when one spends thousands of rupees on it! And I refuse to let myself succumb to it. I may offend people by how I tan my skin in the summer or how much bronzer I use, but ultimately I choose to be defined by who I am, not what color I am. So, put down the whitening creams and toss out the trashy magazines and embrace your color, whether fair or dark. Who knows, maybe we’ll start a new trend.

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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