Archive for April, 2010

AFP/Getty Image

According to a senior unnamed official from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence yesterday, Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud is actually alive. According to the Guardian, “Mehsud was reported to have died in a CIA drone strike in South Waziristan in January but, although Pakistan’s interior minister claimed he had been killed, the death was never confirmed by either U.S. or Pakistani intelligence.” Yesterday, the anonymous official told reporters he had seen video footage of the missile attack on Mehsud “but other intelligence had since confirmed the insurgent leader survived.” He noted, “He is alive. He had some wounds but he is basically OK.” Dawn quoted him stating further, “It was just a miracle that only one person escaped that attack, and he was Hakimullah Mehsud. Miracles do happen.”

Reuters also quoted the ISI official, who emphasized, “Initially, our intelligence in the field suggested that he was killed from the wounds he sustained in the strike but we have made checks and our intelligence has now concluded that he was wounded, not dead. It’s all based on intelligence.”

Seriously, am I taking crazy pills here? Back in January, reports of Hakimullah’s death, though not officially confirmed, were legitimized by numerous sources. For example, a local government official, citing paramilitary sources, told CNN that Mehsud was seriously injured and subsequently moved to the Orakzai region, where he died and was buried more than a week ago, a story that was then confirmed by Pakistan’s state-run television, PTV. And, although the Taliban never confirmed Hakimullah’s death (they did, in comparison, eventually confirm Baitullah‘s death), news agencies did report that at least three other Taliban sources and a government official confirmed the report, though these sources differed when he died.

What’s interesting is that even though there was a degree of certainty in past media reports about Hakimullah’s death, news agencies are now all pointing to why this could never have been true. According to numerous outlets, including Dawn and BBC News, the reasons were: (1) There was no leadership challenge to replace Hakimullah, and (2) there was no martyrdom video or official announcement of his death posted on jihadi websites or released to media outlets (a cell phone video of Baitullah’s body, in comparison, was aired on Pakistani television).

Unnamed ISI officials now indicate Hakimullah has become less effective in the hierarchy of the Pakistani Taliban, and that Waliur Rehman (who was reportedly Hakimullah’s rival in the leadership dispute following Baitullah’s death) and Qari Hussain (the suicide bomber recruiter) are now the most powerful commanders.

The story is so convoluted that it lends itself to a number of questions: First, if previous intelligence pointed to Hakimullah’s death, how can we have any faith that today’s intelligence indicating he’s alive is any better? Anonymous officials throwing around statements like, “Miracles do happen” and “It’s all based on intelligence,” do nothing but undermine the state apparatus providing this so-called intelligence. Given that getting information independently from FATA is virtually impossible and almost always devolves into a he said-(s)he said debate, media agencies can only speculate on the credibility of the stories they receive. Finally, if Hakimullah’s role is now irrelevant within the TTP command, what good does it do to confirm that he is alive three months later? Why now?

Developments like these only further expose how little we know about this entire situation, and that deaths of top leaders don’t necessarily impact the overarching TTP command. At the end of the day, though, we should treat every revelation with cautious skepticism, remembering that we still have the ability to reason, rationalize, and question. Even if it’s only speculation, we don’t have to swallow everything with doe-eyed naivete.

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Sometimes we are really hard on our politicians. I mean, come on guys, they’re people too! Sure, many lie, cheat, and steal from the country. The whole “there’s no I in ‘team‘” saying is completely lost on most of them.  But beneath that lying, cheating, bratty exterior are people, with real feelings. Because politicians – they’re just like us!

For example:

They’re forced to wear dorky costumes that someone told them looked “amazing” at the time!

Ugh. This is SO not something Harry Potter would wear...

They sported bad haircuts in the 80’s and had jungle-themed bedrooms!

You're a tiger, Imran!! Growl! Rawr!

They think fuzzy animals are just SO adorable!

"Gimme the panda!! Give him to me!" "No he's my fuzzy wuzzy bear!" "NO! MINE!"

They really do love their pets!

"Aren't my lions AMAZING?! I call that one Nawaz and the angry one's Shahbaz."

Sometimes all they really want is a nice, big hug…

"If you insist, I might hug. No, really. Insist."

Or a big, fat, kiss!

"Come give your Altaf Bhai a smoochie!" "Oh. God."

So next time you rag on your seedy politician, remember – they’re just like us!

(Credit for the Imran Khan photo goes to Rockistani and via @dishoompk and @fiverupees on Twitter)

(Inspired by US Weekly’s inane “Stars – They’re Just like Us!)

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The South Park Controversy

Image from LA Times

The Comedy Central show South Park is no stranger to controversy. In fact, in last week’s 200th episode,  every celebrity South Park has ever made fun of –  from Tom Cruise and Tiger Woods to George Lucas and even Mickey Mouse – came together to protest against the town, which they called, “a hotbed of hatred and lies.”

Last and this week’s episodes also dredged up far more real-life controversy when a U.S.-based Muslim group, Revolution Muslim, compared South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, after they showed a character in a bear suit said to be the Prophet Muhammad. According to the NY Times, the post on the group’s website, written by Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the episode “outright insulted” the prophet, adding:

We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.

For those of you who don’t know, Theo Van Gogh was killed in Amsterdam in 2004 after making a controversial film about the abuse of Muslim women in some societies. So, as much as Al-Amrikee insisted the message wasn’t an incitement for violence, it at least attempted to stir the pot of discontent, particularly since the group also attached a news article listing the home addresses of Stone and Parker, as well as a photo of the assassinated Van Gogh.

Comedy Central responded to the Revolution Muslim message by bleeping out any references to the Prophet Muhammad in the second of the two episodes. According to BBC News, “Wednesday’s 201st episode saw any spoken references to Muhammad bleeped out, while a prominent banner stating “censored” was used in the program. The images of the Prophet in a bear outfit were substituted with Santa Claus in the same costume.”

Via NYT: The South Park Studios Message on the Website

In the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy as well as the death of Van Gogh, television networks, newspapers, and film companies have learned to err on the side of caution, so as not to incite tensions and violence. But at what cost? The South Park development raises the raging debate over freedom of expression another notch. Yes, depicting the Muslim Prophet in a bear suit is disrespectful and would make most Muslims uncomfortable, but South Park as a show practices “universal discrimination” – everyone and everything is satirized, disrespected, and made fun of. In the case of the anniversary episodes, Stone and Parker also depicted a drug-snorting Buddha and a Jesus watching pornography.

Interestingly, this is not the first time South Park has depicted the Prophet Muhammad. In 2001, the show featured several religious figures and Prophets, including Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and Prophet Muhammad, in an episode entitled, “Super Best Friends.” In the segment, Prophet Muhammad is a super hero with “the powers of flame,” who, when a character says, “Even though people fight and argue over different religions, you guys are actually friends,” he answers, “More than friends, we are super best friends with the desire to fight for justice.”

The episode obviously aired before the Danish cartoon controversy (a later attempt by Stone and Parker to air another Prophet Muhammad-related episode in 2006 was blocked by the network), but the difference between then and now is also an interesting commentary on a society much more on edge today. But it still begs the question – In our effort to remain politically correct, do we blur the line between freedom of expression and censorship? In the post-9/11 period, where Muslim stereotyping, prejudice, and anti-American sentiment have become a self-enforcing monster, how often do we lose sight of the bigger picture in our effort to maintain some semblance of order?

I am a Muslim and I am a fan of South Park. To make those terms mutually exclusive is polarizing and frankly, unproductive. Aasif Mandvi over at the Daily Show summarized my sentiment exactly when he said last night, “Yes, it [the depiction] would make me uncomfortable and I can understand people being upset about it…but here’s whats more upsetting. Someone, in the name of a faith that I believe in, threatening another person for doing it.”

Below is Stone and Parker’s interview with Boing Boing, incidentally before the 200th episode aired:

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Over the weekend, more than 47 people were killed in an attack on a line of people waiting at a food distribution point at a refugee camp in Kohat in northwest Pakistan. On Sunday, another bombing targeted a Pakistani police station in the town of Billitung, killing seven and wounding around two dozen. And yesterday, two explosions struck the city of Peshawar, killing at least 23 people and wounding 42. All of these bombings were perpetrated by suicide bombers. Daniyal Noorani recently wrote and released a single entitled, “Find Heaven,” on YouTube, which addresses the recruitment of young militants (see Dawn’s interview with him here). Below, he discusses his inspiration behind the song, (to see the Urdu version, “Jannat Pao Gaye,” click here):

When Kalsoom asked me whether I would write a piece on my music video, Find Heaven, I was hesitant and I felt as if I would be tooting my own horn. But then I took a moment to think about it and realized that this was an opportunity to tell how the song came about and why I made it.

I could tell you that I sat down one day with the intention of not moving till I wrote a song that addressed the issue of extremism in Pakistan, but that would be a lie. The lyrics for “Find Heaven” was a moment of inspiration. That being said, during those days I was clearly disturbed by the events that were transpiring in Pakistan. Suicide bombings were happening on a daily basis and the subsequent public opinion, at best, was apathetic. I was wrestling both with my faith and understanding of religion. I even tried to start a blog, Forgotten Islam, as a way to try and voice my thoughts. The subject of extremism and terrorism was clearly  on my mind.

While writing “Find Heaven” I thought of it more as a narrative and story which highlighted society’s failing as opposed to thinking of it as a statement against the extremists. The goal of the song and video was more to highlight how the impoverished people of Pakistan are being manipulated and taken advantage of for the gain of a few. Given the current situation in Pakistan at that time, I thought it pertinent to use the extremists in this video. But the whole narrative would still be valid if the extremists were replaced by politicians who offered the impoverished people a form of Heaven via power, fame and money.My focus was on showing how society’s flaws force the main character to choose a certain path and that this problem of extremism is more an issue of society’s failing than that of religious ideologies clashing.

The hope that I had from this video was that people would start to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions. Why were the extremists the only one reaching out to the main character? Why don’t we have society where there is justice and equality? Where is the God in what the extremists are doing? Why aren’t we, ourselves, doing anything to stop this? I believe that once we, as a society, honestly start asking ourselves these questions, we can begin to move forward. Because one can only get to an answer if they ask a question.

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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A few days ago, my cousin discovered piles of old family photos in Dhaka – images documenting my mother’s family history from the 1930s until today. Technology and communication being what it is, she scanned and uploaded a number of them on Facebook, to share with our relatives now spread across the world.

Growing up, I was always mesmerized by my parent’s stories, not just about their own childhoods, but also about their parents and their families. Through the charismatic storytelling of my father, I experienced the glamour and carefree innocence of Karachi in the 1950s and 1960s – the nightclubs, the cinema houses, the musicians, and the scavenger hunts on the beach.

I imagined I could hear the sweet and calm voice of my Dadi (my father’s mother), who passed away before I was born. Who I was named after. “She was the kindest woman imaginable,” my father would tell me, his own voice faraway in the memory. “She never raised her voice, and she would give all she had to the poor.” In elementary school, when asked to list the one person I’d like to meet dead or alive, I told the class without hesitation, “My grandmother, Kalsoom.”

One night when I was younger and staying at my aunt’s house in Dhaka, I lay awake as my mother unveiled glimpse after glimpse into her childhood – how she would insist as a little girl on sleeping in the arms of her father, my Nana Bhai. How she and her sisters (and one brother) would watch in awe as he treated my grandmother like a queen. How my grandmother (my Nani) was widowed at only 36 years old, left to care for eight children. Since that day, my Nan – who once wore the most fashionable and bright saris – has only worn white.

These stories became black and white snapshots in my imagination, immortalized moments that acted as a testament to where I came from and, to a small extent, who I am today.

When my cousin posted the aforementioned photos yesterday, I was struck by two pictures – one of my Nana Bhai with the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and another of my Nani with Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, the wife of the first Prime Minister of Pakistan. The juxtaposition of two major figures in Pakistani history next to my grandparents was a shock, to the say the least.

My grandfather in the bow-tie behind Jinnah.

According to my aunts, who I probed for more information, my grandfather – who was in the civil service before and after the British Raj, was working in Shilong, in Assam, India, where Jinnah came and stayed for three days. The above photo was taken before the 1947 Partition – before my grandfather moved his family to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) when he opted to join the new state.

My grandmother walking next to Begum in the sari & glasses.

Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, the wife of Liaquat Ali Khan was a tremendous activist for women’s rights. In 1949, she formed the Pakistan Women’s National Guard, which served to protect women during the Partition period, when several riots and killings occurred. In the above photo, taken in 1949 in Chittagong, my Nan, who was a commander of the National Guard, walked alongside the PM’s wife as young girls (including my mom’s sister, pictured on the right) did drills. It was during this time that my grandmother learned how to handle a rifle, and during the 1971 War (which I’ve written about here), she would sleep with a rifle next to her in bed, in case looters tried to ransack the house, or the Army decided to make an unannounced visit.

I wanted to share the above images not really to showcase the well-known figures, but to point out how our own personal histories can contextualize the timeline of our nations. The first picture of my grandfather with Jinnah is, in my opinion, a testament to the faith our families put in the fledgling nation of Pakistan, a state that was still just a concept at the time of this photo.

While the second image exemplifies broader issues of women empowerment and emancipation in the early years of Pakistan, it also solidified what I already knew about my grandmother – that she was a warrior. To this day, she is the most fearless woman I know. And if I could live my life in the footsteps of either of my grandmothers, I’d consider myself blessed.

To end, I wanted to share my absolute favorite photo of the album – my mother (the smallest one in the middle) dancing with her three sisters (the two on either end are meant to be playing the “men” in the sequence):

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Dawn photo: Abbotabad Riots

Below is my piece that first appeared in Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel, a continuation on my previous post that delves more into the party politics that often clouds what the real issues are or should be:

As the 18th Amendment, the constitutional reforms package designed to bolster parliamentary democracy in Pakistan, inches closer to becoming a historic “landmark bill,” one particular part of the legislation has sparked considerable controversy and political wrangling — the renaming of North-West Frontier Province to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Over the weekend, people from the province’s Hazara Division, (who speak mainly Hindko as opposed to Pashto) staged demonstrations, and on Monday, at least seven people were killed and over 100 were injured in Abbottabad when police used force to break up a protest. The demonstrations continued on Tuesday, with Dawn reporting that mobs in Haripur, Mansehra, and Abbottabad (in Hazara) blocked roads, chanted slogans, and burned tires — all in the name of a name.

The bumpy journey to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa did not begin in the last few weeks. The Awami National Party (ANP), the secular Pashtun nationalist ruling political party of the province, has long campaigned for a change to Pakhtunkhwa, even passing a resolution in favor of the development in November 1997, noted The News columnist Rahimullah Yusufzai. The name, argued the ANP, accurately reflects the Pashtun-majority of the region, much like Pakistan’s other provinces — Balochistan, Sindh, and Punjab.

But the PML-N staunchly opposed this label, (officially calling for a referendum last September), claiming the title marginalized other ethnic and linguistic groups in the province, including Hindko, Seraiki, and Khowar-speakers. A deadlock over the name continued, with an array of alternative names proposed as a compromise. While some reflected more neutral geographical areas (Khyber, Neelab and Abaseen) and historical references (Gandhara, the old Buddhist-era name of the region), other noteworthy runner-ups included Afghania, the clandestine ‘A’ in “Pakistan,” coined by one of the earliest proponents of the Pakistani state, Chaudhry Rehmat Ali in 1933.

At the end, hyphenating the name to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa became the compromise everyone could agree on.

Well, almost everyone.

Although Pakistani media outlets televised people in the “province-formerly-known-as-NWFP” celebrating in the streets, the honeymoon period was soon over. PML-Q immediately expressed reservations over the new name, claiming they were not privy to the negotiations between the PML-N and ANP. PML-Q leaders have since criticized both the ANP and PML-N, alleging that PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif supported the new name “for his personal gains,” and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was part of “a conspiracy to divide the province.”

While it would be easy to cloak Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with the “conspiracy” label, twirl some handlebar moustaches and call it a day, Pakistani politics are never that straightforward. The PML-Q, as Ejaz Haider, National Affairs Editor of Newsweek Pakistan told me, has significant support in the Hazara division, “as is clear from the fact that its candidate was the runner-up in the January by-election in Mansehra.” However, PML-N has a more considerable vote bank in the region, with strong ties to the people of Hazara.

Given that the PML-Q suffered major losses in the 2008 elections, it seems they are trying to remain politically relevant and “capitalize on the emergence of the malcontents at the expense of the PML-N,” noted Dawn’s editorial. But at what cost? Their political provocations have indirectly led to the deaths of innocent people in Abbottabad, and the spread of mobs throughout Hazara. If the party claims to truly represent the interests of the people, it should address the issues that go beyond names and frilly hyphenated labels — the power shortages, the rising food prices, and the unemployment. Even if the 18th Amendment sails through the Senate and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa remains intact, political parties must avoid language that will destabilize the province further. At this rate, a province by any other name would not smell as sweet.

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Guardian: Survivors in a Peshawar hospital

On Tuesday, news agencies reported that up to 71 civilians were killed in a weekend air strike by Pakistani jets in the Khyber tribal agency. However, the Pakistani military has yet to confirm the deaths as civilian casualties, and military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas emphasized that the army “had intelligence that militants were gathering at the site of the strike.”

On Tuesday though, the story was confirmed by an anonymous government official, who said authorities “had already handed out the equivalent of $125,000 in compensation to families of the victims,” a development further backed by The Guardian, which cited residents who had received the money.

News agencies interviewed two survivors of the air strike today, who were in a hospital in Peshawar, and stated that most people were killed “when they were trying to rescue people trapped by an earlier strike on the house of a village elder.” One survivor, identified as Khanan Gul Khan, told the Associated Press, “This house was bombed on absolutely wrong information. This area has nothing to do with militants.” Khan’s statement echoed Ikramullah Jan Kukikhel, a tribal elder who spoke to The Guardian by phone, noting, “The Kukikhel [tribe] are with the government. We have never joined the Taliban or any other fundamentalist group. We are normal people who just want peace for the country.”

Reading this horrific news today, a few points struck me. First, 71 people are not just a statistic of this war, the unavoidable collateral of conflict. If the news coverage is accurate, this was avoidable. The fact that it occurred doesn’t just reflect “poorly on the security apparatus’ intelligence-gathering capacity,” as Dawn’s editorial suggested. It also is a testament to how little we know about this war, (see Huma Imtiaz’s fantastic related piece) and how counterinsurgency is more than a trendy term to throw around. Yes, “the battle for hearts and minds” has become a cliched and overused term, but the Pakistani military must understand that denying air strikes and civilian casualties may blindfold the larger public, but it undermines their campaign with the people directly impacted by their actions.

At the end of the day, the local residents in the military’s area of operations are the ones who must be ensured safety and protection. Giving the victims’ families compensation, or “blood money,” does little more than bandage a wound. It cheapens the gravity of a tragedy. And it is certainly not enough.

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