Archive for July, 2010

Pakistan is Drowning

AP: Vilagers near Nowshera, in northwest Pakistan

As if this week wasn’t bad enough for Pakistan.

In the last three days, floods caused by monsoon rains have reportedly killed at least 430 people in the country, the worst to have hit the region since 1929. According to the Associated Press, “The rising toll from the monsoon rains underscore the poor infrastructure in impoverished Pakistan, where under-equipped rescue workers were struggling to reach people stranded in far-flung villages.” More than a million people have been affected by the disaster, and many have been displaced from their homes as the floods submerge villages and bridges, bloat rivers, and trigger landslides throughout the northwest of the country. A state of emergency has reportedly been declared in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and authorities have told people to evacuate the banks of the Kabul and Swat rivers. Residents in Muzafarabad also told the BBC there was no electricity or drinking water in parts of the city.

As the Pakistani Army transfers people to safety by helicopters and boats, the United Nations announced they will be launching rescue efforts in 29 affected districts in K-P (The UN agency has already launched similar efforts in Balochistan).

But after the rains subside, what will be the long-term impact of these floods? And, given Pakistan’s recent spate of militant attacks, political instability, natural disasters and plane crashes, how much more can our country take? Fahad Desmukh echoed my sentiments exactly when he tweeted, “God is giving the terrorists tough competition.”

(Ahsan at Five Rupees also has a great post on the issue of class in the coverage of national tragedies, looking at both the Airblue plane crash and the floods, see here).

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A Tragic Morning

AP: Mourners outside the Hospital

I woke up to really sad news this morning.

On Wednesday, an Airblue plane flying from Karachi crashed in Islamabad’s Margalla Hills. According to the NY Times, “Rescue helicopters fought against thick smoke and flames as they tried to find survivors amid the wreckage — about a two-hour drive into the hills above Islamabad — but hours after the crash, Pakistani officials said that none of the 146 passengers or 6 crew members had survived.”

Among the 152 people killed, news agencies report that six were members of Youth Parliament Pakistan and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said two Americans had been on the flight. For the full passenger list, see here. Dawn in its coverage also included the number for the Crisis Management Cell, for more information regarding passengers who were on board the plane: 051-9211223-4.

So what caused the plane crash? Raheel Ahmed, a spokesman for Airblue told reporters, “Apparently the cause of the crash is bad weather, but we leave that to the investigators.” Al Jazeera correspondent Kamaal Hyder further reported, “Visibility was very poor… Questions are now pointing at why the airplane would try and land considering weather conditions were so bad. What will be critical is finding the black box which will give the final moments of the cockpit conversation that will give better clues into what happened.”

What exactly is a “black box,” you ask? According to HowStuffWorks, investigators generally turn to the airplane’s flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) for answers on how the plane crashed. Costing between $10,000 and $15,000 (not sure if Pakistani airlines get similar models), these black boxes reveal details of the events immediately preceding the accident. According to Dawn, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) told reporters that this black box has been recovered, so details surrounding the crash will presumably be released soon, (though GEO reports that Pakistan actually lacks the “facility” to decipher these gadgets).

According to the Wall Street Journal, Airblue was established in 2004 by Pakistan businessman and politician Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who was a former chairman of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) in the 1990s. The airline “has quickly grown in to the nation’s number two carrier,” with 1.4 million passengers in its 2006-2007 fiscal year compared to PIA’s five million.  The WSJ included an interesting angle in its coverage, noting that Pakistan’s airline industry “has expanded rapidly in recent years to cater to a growing middle class.” The expansion resulted in safety concerns which led to the European Union partially banning PIA from flying in EU airspace in 2007. This was soon after a PIA Fokker F-27 aircraft crashed in June 2006 after taking off from the city of Multan, killing all 45 people on board. According to the news agency, “That was the last major air crash in Pakistan.”

The tragedy of today of course is expressed in the images and videos of the victims’ families and friends, who swarmed the hospital and ticket counters at Islamabad’s airport this morning desperately seeking information about their loved ones. The office of PM Yousaf Raza Gilani said in a statement that the federal cabinet has declared today a “national day of mourning” for the victims of Airblue flight ED202. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those who lost their lives today.

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Last week, the NY Times released a video report by journalist Adam Ellick and a corresponding article by Sabrina Tavernise on the issue of tax evasion in Pakistan. According to Tavernise, “nationwide, fewer than a million out of 170 million Pakistanis voluntarily filed income tax returns last year. The rate is among the lowest in the world.” Below, Bilquis, a consultant from Lahore, delves into the issue of Pakistan’s tax structure:

Adam Ellick’s recent video report (see below) provides a snapshot of Pakistan’s rampant tax evasion. He reveals that to counter tax dodgers, the government has employed transgender tax collectors to collect taxes, because “residents are so embarrassed by the scene that they pay up, just to make them go away.” However, contradictory to his reporting, the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) 10 month tax collection (2009-10) stood at Rs. 1.025 billion against the target of Rs. 1.060 billion.  A country collecting nearly 96 percent of its taxes cannot be blamed for tax evasion.  So, why is there international hullabaloo highlighting tax evasion in Pakistan?

What is not pointed out is the difference between tax evasion and avoidance. Tax evasion is not paying taxes that are legally owed, while tax avoidance is the legal utilization of the tax laws to minimize the amount of tax payable. Therefore, the reason Pakistan has such a low Tax-to-GDP ratio in the world—approx 9.5 per cent tax—is because of its tax structure that allows extensive tax avoidance.

To begin with, Pakistan’s tax structure has a narrow base that permits tax avoidance—the World Bank report (2004) states that out of the 39.1 million employed only a paltry 2.14 million (5.59 percent) pay taxes. The reasons for such low returns are:

  1. Cash transactions—transactions made in cash are not documented, making it hard for the government to identify and access income earned
  2. Informal sector—large proportion of individuals are employed in jobs that do not pay fixed wages and hence fall out of taxable net;  and
  3. Exempt income—salary allowances and privileges given to certain groups—federal and provincial government employees, the armed forces, civil servants, research organisations—exclude a large number of individuals from paying tax

Currently, the government via the FBR is attempting to introduce Value Added Tax (VAT) on goods and services—a flat rate sales tax of 15 percent. There are several advantages of VAT: it is broad-based single tax rather than the existing multi-layer General Sales Tax (GST) (between 16 to 25 percent); it is structured to collects tax in multiple stages, which will allow the government to document taxpayers, avoid double taxing and discourage the black economy.  Moreover, it replaces the current GST that has lost its spirit and effectiveness due to the numerous changes and exemptions granted through lobbying by various interest groups.

However to reduce tax avoidance, the government needs to do much more. The government must introduce an equitable tax system—tax the rich at a higher percentage than the poor as they can bear a higher burden which is essential for income parity and reform tax policies which allow deliberate tax avoidance through a penalty based system.

Unfortunately, the trouble here is a conflict of interest –the individuals who benefit from current tax policies are the people in power. If the government desired to bring in reforms, it should have included agriculture in the taxable net or at least introduced a small agricultural tax or threatened to levy a withholding tax on all the sale of cash crops like cotton, sugar, rice or wheat in the 2010-11 budget (14th June 2010, Shahid Kardar Budget seminar, Marriott Khi). However, the budget lacks any hint of equitable tax reforms and continues to benefit the elite.

Moreover, the NY Times’ Tavernise indicates that Pakistan’s elite hardly pay any taxes because of previously passed tax policies that allow for tax avoidance. She noted, “Under a 1990s law that has become one of the main tools to legalize undocumented — or illegally obtained — money made in Pakistan, authorities here are not allowed to question money transferred from abroad. Businessmen and politicians channel billions of rupees through Dubai back to Pakistan, no questions asked.” Therefore, to reduce tax avoidance, it is essential for the government to change such tax policies via a penalty based system. The Pakistani elite are not different from any other elite in the world – i.e., no one will volunteer to pay taxes unless there are negative repercussions.  Game theory dictates that as long as the personal interest (of not paying tax) of an individual is greater than the penalty, personal interest will win. Hence, blatant tax avoidance can easily be stopped by enforcing legal repercussions. Regrettably, the enforcers are the ones who benefit from such policies and prefer to maintain the repercussion free tax system. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that Pakistan suffers from a low tax to GDP ratio.

Adam Ellick also asserts that the perpetual bailout of Pakistan from various international organizations makes it easier for the government to avoid tax reforms. Various critics stress that the international organizations must pressure Pakistan to reform its tax structure. However, because of Pakistan’s current importance in U.S. foreign policy, international organizations are reluctant to place pressure to institute comprehensive reforms.

Ultimately, bringing ‘top-down’ tax reforms in Pakistan is not an easy task and tax avoidance remains the norm.  The elite have ruled the country for decades and are more loyal to themselves than to the country.  Although international financial repercussion may bring about a change, it is only after the influx of ‘new blood’ and/or changes in the consciousness of current elite, such as Jehangir Tareen, one of the few parliamentarians to raise the issue of tax, will Pakistan get her house in order and tax avoidance will diminish.

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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Courtesy: NY Times

On Tuesday, July 20, Ambassador Hussain Haroon and the Pakistani Peace Builders Initiative hosted the 1st Annual NY Sufi Festival, a free three-hour concert held in the city’s Union Square. According to the NY Times, the Pakistani Peace Builders, an organization formed after the failed Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad, “seeks to counteract negative images of Pakistan by presenting a longtime Pakistani Islamic tradition that preaches love, peace and tolerance.” Below, Sehar Tariq, who just completed her Master’s in Public Policy from Princeton University (and is about to return home to Pakistan) and blogs at Sehar Says, discusses her experience at the concert:

In 2001, when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center located in the heart of America’s financial capital, New York City – Pakistan was catapulted from near anonymity to infamy within a matter of days. When I arrived in the United States for the first time to attend college in August 2001, many people did not know where  Pakistan was. I often had to describe it as the country right next to India. In a matter of one month, I did not need that explanation any more. And while my Pakistani pride had cringed at being described as the country next to India, in the fateful days following 9/11, I wished to go back to that simple explanation of my homeland instead of the rabid, angry and intolerant one I saw each day on television screens in the United States.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has suffered more so than even the United States at the hands of terrorists both in economic and social terms as well as sheer body count but somehow, despite all its suffering, it has been unable to rid itself of the label of a terrorist state. The U.S. media has not helped much in this regard either. Their obsessive focus on hate mongers ignores the millions that yearn and work for peace as well as the thousands who have given up their lives, not just in their homeland but in the countries of those that they will never meet. Caught between the drones and the begging bowl, Pakistanis, despite their best efforts, were unable to come up with an effective response to challenge the dominant image of the country in the United States.

The recent incident of Faisal Shahzad only reminded Americans and New Yorkers in particular, who had been at the epicenter of the violent 9/11 attacks, of the damage that a man blinded by hate can wreak. And even though Pakistanis in America were quick with condemnations of the incidents, one man’s actions spoke a lot louder than the voices of thousands who are a peaceful and productive part of the American fabric. So we who lived here, lowered our heads and gritted our teeth and prepared for more difficult times to come for brown-skinned believers. And life went on with increased searches at airports and impassioned defenses of the Pakistan that we love and call home but not to any great effect.

Sometimes, the voices of hate and fear are more potent and powerful than the ones of reason and rationale, unless the voice of reason is being sung by Abida Parveen, the Faqirs from the Shrine of Sachal Sarmast or the talented Baloch singer from Kalat. For so many years, Pakistanis tried to politick their way into the good graces of Americans but with limited effectiveness. There were many high brow events conducted in the power centers of New York and Washington DC to introduce an alternate image of Pakistan to powerful Americans. But if the current state of affairs is to go by, none of this has been very effective. Mistrust runs deep within the American government of the Pakistani establishment and fear can be seen in the eyes of ordinary Americans at the sight of bearded men – unless they happen to be Akhtar Chanal Zehri and they endear themselves to all of New York with their indomitable stage presence, their soulful voice and their graceful dancing.

The Sufi Music Festival held in New York’s Union Square, has probably done more diplomacy for Pakistan in the three hours that it lasted than all the work being put in by our missions in the US for the last ten years. On a bright and rather hot and humid summer day, a large crowd had collected to hear the much awaited performers from Pakistan. Featuring an eclectic blend of modern fusion music in the form of Zeb and Haniya and the Meekal Hassan Band to the more traditional singing at Sufi shrines in the form of Abida Parveen, the Sufi Festival boasted an impressive line up of performers. Friends drove for hours to see this concert. We arrived early and positioned ourselves in a convenient place with a good view. And there was a large enough crowd already present.

The concert kicked off on time and Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, who was instrumental in organizing it, introduced the concert to the people of New York as Pakistan’s present to New Yorkers  in the wake of the Faisal Shahzad incident. Speeches were kept to a minimum and the focus remained on the performers. The concert opened with the soulful singing of Zeb and Haniya and then moved on to the classical singing of Rafaqat Ali Khan. This was followed by the more upbeat Meekal Hassan Band and then the brightly dressed faqirs from the shrine of Sachal Sarmast followed with an energetic performance. This led to my most favorite act of the evening, Akhtar Chanal Zehri – who the average New Yorker would probably run away from in fear. His face is framed with a thick, dark beard and his eyes are lined with dark kohl. His strong clear voice reciting the melodic lyrics boomed over New York in absolutely perfect melodic harmony as he twirled like a whirling dervish lost in the beat of the music and in his devotion to God. And then came Abida Parveen, undoubtedly one of the greatest singers of the sub-continent. Her performance was breath-taking.

I have no words to describe what it felt like to stand in the very heart of New York City and see hundreds of heads nod to the beat and clap to the tunes of centuries-old religious poetry. When we had first arrived and taken up our positions, the park was about half full, but by the time Abida Parveen took stage, there was not an inch of space to stand on or dance in – so packed was the once open space of Union Square. Thousands of hands clapped to the rhythms of Abida’s mesmerizing songs and hundreds of people broke into loud spontaneous chants of Ali Maula and Mast Qalandar. It seemed as if all of New York was reverberating with the beat of drums and dhols from the subcontinent spreading the message of love, peace and devotion to humanity. I have never seen such a sight in the city. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. As my little Pakistani heart was overflowing with pride, it couldn’t help but be sad about why we could no longer preach and practice the traditions of our Sufi saints and carry on the great intellectual debates captured in their poetry for fear of vengeance by the puritanical brigade who are leaving no stone unturned in the effort to alienate us from our rich cultural heritage.

It was a magical New York day, as people from across the sub-continent, from across the city, and all over the country, came to hear the messages of love and peace, written hundreds of years ago by our Sufi saints. And it was also refreshing to read a piece in The New York Times about Pakistan that was not about what an intolerant and violent country we are. It was nice to hear the words of those saints spoken louder than the words of those satans who murder the innocent and hog the limelight. What I liked best was that for once, concerned citizens in New York (who have formed a group called the Pakistani Peace Builders) brought the songs of saints to all of New York in an event that was free and open to the public. This was aggressive and impressive public diplomacy at its best and this is what Pakistan and Pakistanis living in the United States need more of in order to drown out the cacophony of hate mongers. I hope New York will continue to witness the brilliance, richness and sheer genius of Pakistani culture with greater frequency, not just behind closed doors catering to the elite but reaching out to all of New York and all of the world.

And while I hope such public events continue with greater frequency, I cannot help but be sad at not being able to be a part of them anymore as I leave for Pakistan this week. But I will always take with me the immense pride I felt as I stood amidst a sea of people from all over the world who clapped with one beat and sang in one voice the songs of our saints and their message of peace and love. It was inspirational.

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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Pakistanis & Tea Baggers? So Not a Tea Party.

Yesterday, Foreign Policy (dot com) released a biting article by David Rothkopf (a scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) entitled, “A Tea Party Made in Heaven: Should Islamabad be the Next Stop for Angle & Co?” In the piece, Rothkopf claims that two of the biggest threats facing America – “the decay of nuclear Pakistan and the rise of the Tea Party movement here at home” – can be resolved by sending the Tea Party away to Pakistan. He noted,

We need to keep an eye on Pakistan, but can’t officially send troops there…At the same time, at home we are confronted by a new political movement whose leaders drape themselves in the flag and then proceed to espouse a worldview that is alternatively un-American (anti-immigration in a nation of immigrants, anti-personal freedoms like choice, pro-infusion of politics with religion) and ante-diluvian (anti-science, pro-vigilantism, pro-solving problems at the point of a gun). They are out of place here and lord knows — given our history of success without them — they are expendable. The tea-baggers want a country? Let’s give them one: send them to Pakistan.

Rothkopf proceeds to compare the “Tea-bagger” worldview with the “Pakistani” one, gleefully noting similarities among sentiments toward taxes (the rich don’t pay taxes in Pakistan and they don’t in the U.S., so if Tea Baggers left for Pakistan, maybe the government could actually implement sensible tax policies in the U.S.), gun control (both Tea-baggers and Pakistanis LOVE guns! Whee!), religious tolerance (they both are intolerant! Who knew!), love of foreigners (no love! Sad face 😦 ), and foreign policy (both likely to see Russia from respective houses).

Is Rothkopf being facetious? Of course. Was he successful? Not really, especially with literary gems like these,

Here is a country with a large population committed to policies rooted in the values and outlook of centuries ago and a large group of Americans with a similar nostalgia for hangings, gunfights, superstition, racial and religious conflict and witch hunts. So theoretically, despite Pakistan’s historically documented, deeply rooted strain of anti-Americanism, this may well be the one group of Americans with whom they have the most in common and thus, the ones with the best chance of building the bridge we need between our two cultures.

I am not denying that Pakistan as a whole tilts more right of center, (when I asked the Twitterverse to weigh in on the issue of Pakistan’s right-wing, @umairjav noted that politically it’s about 30-35 percent right-wing, and about 95 percent socio-culturally right-wing). Regimes in the last 40 years have also approved legislation that have increasingly legitimized intolerance and violence towards Pakistan’s minorities, and the paranoia among the “right wing” has been discussed at length. But to paint an entire country with the same brushstroke as a right-wing socio-political movement? That’s offensive.

Maybe the better solution would be for Pakistan’s militants to run away with American Tea Party supporters. That way we’re both rid of them.

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Sarah Palin, you are not William Shakespeare.

Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska and Republican VP candidate, garnered a lot of media attention for her incendiary tweets related to the “Ground Zero” mosque this past weekend. According to Geoffrey Dunn over at the Huffington Post, Palin first tweeted, “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”

Yes, refudiate is not a real word. Palin deleted and tried again: “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” She then tweeted, “Peace-seeking Muslims pls understand. Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.”

I’m not going to comment on Palin’s mastery of the English language [or lack thereof] – for anyone who followed her VP candidacy in the 2008 elections, none of this is at all surprising. Her underlying message, though, is far more important and is ultimately a reflection of the growing polarization of the Ground Zero Mosque debate. Just last week, both CBS and NBC refused to air an ad by the National Republican Trust PAC, that declares, “to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.” Jennifer Riley at NBC Universal told Entertainment Weekly,

An ad questioning the wisdom of building a mosque at ground zero would meet our issues of public controversy advertising criteria. However, this ad which ambiguously defines ‘they’ as referenced in the spot, makes it unclear as to whether the reference is to terrorists or to the Islamic religious organization that is sponsoring the building of the mosque. Consequently the ad is not acceptable under our guidelines for broadcast.

The ad [which has been viewed 232,314 times on YouTube] frames the issue in black-and-white, conveying that the September 11th attacks were perpetrated by Muslims, not terrorists who used religion to legitimize their violent aims. The construction of the mosque, therefore, would not be an act of peace, as its supporters suggest, but an act of provocation and disrespect.

I would go into yet another tirade on how not all Muslims are terrorists, but I did that a few weeks ago in this post. I will, however, make a few points:

  1. It’s not really a mosque that’s being built. The Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement jointly proposed to construct a 13-story community center with Islamic, interfaith and secular programming. This includes space for a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, restaurants, as well as prayer space, which, does not necessarily make it a mosque. According to the Cordoba Initiative’s blog about the center, “Cordoba House’s vision is bigger than being a mosque.  It is about creating a community center that serves all New Yorkers.  A prime example of this fact is the planned meditation room, where people of any faith can pray or meditate.”
  2. The center will not be at Ground Zero, it’s several blocks away. And, as Reza Aslan noted in the CNN debate below, “how many blocks is enough? Is five blocks okay?”
  3. The official name is not the “Ground Zero Mosque,” it’s the Cordoba House.

I made the last point for this reason – by continuing to call this proposed center the “Ground Zero Mosque,” we are politicizing the issue more than it ever should have been. And by allowing that politicization and subsequent polarization to take place, the crux of the issue moves further away from dissent over its construction and more towards wider issues of Islamophobia and perceptions of Muslims in America. So, for those who think the construction of this center would “unnecessarily” provoke anger, think about the damage and impact your hate-mongering and stereotyping are causing. Try to refudiate that.

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Pakistan Tops Yet Another List

No, it’s not for another failed state index. That was soooo last month.

Apparently Pakistan ranks number one in the world in sex-related searches. Why Google would think to rank something like that is beyond me, but Fox News gleefully took this as an opportunity to create this headline:

Pornistan? Ding ding ding! Ladies and gentleman, give Fox News an award for most witty wordplay ever.

In the article, reporter extraordinaire Kelli Morgan wrote, “They may call it the ‘Land of the Pure,’ but Pakistan turns out to be anything but. The Muslim country, which has banned content on at least 17 websites to block offensive and blasphemous material, is the world’s leader in online searches for pornographic material, FoxNews.com has learned.”

Oh but wait! Not only are we a closeted perverted nation, but we’re also into pedophilia and bestiality too.

Pakistan is top dog in searches per-person for “horse sex” since 2004, “donkey sex” since 2007, “rape pictures” between 2004 and 2009, “rape sex” since 2004, “child sex” between 2004 and 2007 and since 2009, “animal sex” since 2004 and “dog sex” since 2005, according to Google Trends and Google Insights, features of Google that generate data based on popular search terms. The country also is tops — or has been No. 1 — in searches for “sex,” “camel sex,” “rape video,” “child sex video” and some other searches that can’t be printed here.

Some other searches that can’t be printed here?! What can be worse than what they already published?

Although I’m frankly disgusted (and horrified) that we are prominent on yet another negative list, I’m not that surprised. Because despite Fox and TIME claims that Pakistan is “a Muslim nation, notorious for conservative [and] religious orthodoxy,” we have perverts, just like every other country in the world, (cue: Pakistanis, they’re just like us!). There’s a reason why internet cafes in Pakistan are filled to the brim with seedy characters, and it’s not because they’re just checking e-mail.

I am not denying the hypocrisy behind banning social media and other websites but giving a green light to the above – but hypocrisy extends to much wider issues and to all societies. The framing of the issue by Fox and other news agencies, in my opinion, is also cause for discussion. Thoughts?

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"I'm not yo friend, buddy!" "I'm not yo buddy, guy!"

On Wednesday, news agencies reported that General David Petraeus, the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, is pushing to designate top leaders from the Haqqani Network as “terrorists.” According to the NY Times, “…Petraeus introduced the idea of blacklisting the group…late last week in discussions with President Obama’s senior advisers on Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The idea was first publicized by Senator Carl Levin on Tuesday, who just returned from Pakistan and Afghanistan. During a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Levin stated,

As a matter of fact, I think we have to include on the list other threats to the Afghan mission. We have to have, I believe, we should have on our list the headquarters of the Haqqani network. We know where they are. We know where that headquarters is… I don’t think they should be off-limits to those strikes. They directly threaten the Afghan mission.

Levin went on to add that he would pursue legislative action to ensure the Haqqani network was on the U.S. terror list, calling them “the greatest threat” to stability in Afghanistan, even more so than Taliban militants crossing the border into the country from Pakistan.

So what could this inevitably mean? Ding ding ding! More drone strikes and more pressure on Pakistan. Levin emphasized, “Can more be done? It has to be done by Pakistan, unless it is going to be done with drone attacks on their headquarters. More needs to be done by Pakistan. They have not gone into that area in North Waziristan where the Haqqanis are.”

The pressure on Pakistan to go into North Waziristan isn’t new; in fact, both the U.S. and Pakistan have been back-and-forth on this issue for months now. However, if Washington decides to rebrand [the top leaders of] the Haqqani network as “terrorists,” it does send a very clear message, especially amid reports that Pakistan’s military/ISI have begun trying “to seed a rapprochement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Haqqani network,” (COAS Gen. Kayani has denied facilitating secret meetings between the two parties). The message – the U.S. may support Kabul’s Taliban reconciliation program, but leaders of the Haqqani network will not be included in this arrangement.

This may lead to interesting ramifications for Pakistan’s strategic depth ambitions, an effort to hedge India‘s influence in Afghanistan. The less-than-ambivalent term “terrorist” not only shifts the tone from Washington, it also leaves little breathing room for Pakistan. Terrorist/Terrorism labels aren’t light designations in this post-9/11 era, and it will be interesting to see how Pakistan responds. If the military doesn’t go into North Waziristan, will that lead Washington to feel more “justified” in increasing drone strikes in the region? (For coverage of the legal justification of drone strikes, see here.)

Watching these developments play out are akin to a complex chess game. Whose move is it next?

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Tere Bin…Laden

It’s official. Bollywood’s releasing a new film this weekend. But given that the Indian film industry releases the largest number of movies in the world (about a 1000 a year, according to some sources), this isn’t really news.

Except when the film in question is called Tere Bin Laden and it stars Pakistani crossover/pop star Ali Zafar. According to The News’ Instep magazine this past Sunday,

It’s a big, big, scratch that, huge deal to see a Pakistani star promoted this way in India…Indeed, if Tere Bin Laden turns into a box office smash, Ali Zafar will reach a level of stardom hitherto unprecedented in our industry and he will also become a one of a kind phenomenon in Bollywood…After all, which actor does Bollywood have who can act, dance and sing his own songs? The answer is none. Ali Zafar is a rare breed.

Yeah! Take that, Bollywood! Billie Jean is not your lova!

Seriously, though, the film is garnering major buzz (and tweets), and is described as “a tongue-in-cheek comedy about an ambitious young news reporter from Pakistan who is desperate to migrate to the U.S. in pursuit of the American dream.” When the journalist comes across an Osama bin Laden look alike, he decides produce a fake Osama video “and sell it to news channels,” leading to serious ramifications.

Director Abishek Sharma told Reuters, “The film looks to give a fresh perspective to the repercussions of 9/11 that a lot of people are facing but…through humor.” Zafar, in his interview with Instep writer Muniba Kamal, noted, “I knew that I didn’t want to do a typical Bollywood film with romancing a girl around trees. I didn’t want to play second lead in any film and when I was offered the script, I read it and I could see myself doing it. It’s very funny. I think I suit the role.”

Comedy or not, producers are opting to shorten the film title to Tere Bin when it’s released in Pakistan, “so as not to draw the ire of militant Pakistani Islamists,” noted the Wall Street Journal.

Me thinks said militant Pakistani Islamists may be “ired” anyway, seeing as how they probably watch television and know the real name is actually Tere bin Laden. But I digress.

What is great about a film like Tere Bin (Laden) is that it doesn’t really have to stretch the truth to be funny or satirical. Because these days, you just can’t make up some of the stuff in the news. For example:

  • Back in January, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released fresh images of Osama bin Laden, using “digital enhancement” technology to show what the Al Qaeda leader would look like today. What kind of “technology” you ask? Google. Turns out the FBI updated the bin Laden photo using the grey hair, jaw line and forehead of Spanish politician Gaspar Llamazares. Not so intelligent.

Ridiculously good Eugoogling.

  • Gary Faulkner, the Bin Laden Hunter. Nuff said.
  • According to Chinese news agency, People’s Daily Online, the Afghan Taliban is “training monkeys to use weapons to attack American troops.” No, really. Monkeys are apparently being armed with “AK-47 rifles and Bren light machine guns in the Waziristan tribal region near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” And this isn’t the first time! According to the news agency, the CIA also “trained massive “monkey soldiers” in the Vietnam War and dispatched armed monkeys to dangerous jungles to launch assaults on Vietnamese soldiers. Today, the Taliban forces have given the American troops some of their own medicine.” Wow.

Bow down to Monkey Soldier, Yankee!

So yes. Excited for Tere bin Laden and Zafar’s Bollywood debut. But also secretly hoping for a sequel that uses the aforementioned details we call news. Because monkey soldiers, Gary Faulkner, and Spanish MPs-turned-doctored-bin Laden-images are a hilarious combination that you just can’t make up. I think Paul the Octopus may even predict a smash hit!

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The Burqa Ban & Ruling by Fear

Image credit: Churchtimes.co.uk

On Tuesday, the French Parliament began debate on the now-infamous burqa ban, the bill that would prevent women from wearing full-face veils (the niqab or burqa) in public. In a recent address, President Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized his support for the ban, telling French lawmakers, “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” He went on to state, “The burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement…It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”

The burqa is not just unwelcome in France, though. Belgium‘s lower house recently passed a similar measure and “Spain‘s senate recently narrowly voted to impose a ban, too,” reported BBC News. As the debate intensifies over the ban, polarizing statements by MPs, experts, and supporters will only lead to “more contentious headlines,” noted the Guardian’s Nabila Ramdani. She added, “The images used to accompany the scaremongering will be a combination of sinister figures clad in black; if possible set against the background of the kind of rundown council estates that blight France’s reputation for civic élan.”

I won’t delve into my in-depth opinion on the burqa ban, mainly because more eloquent people have already weighed in, (here is a great piece on Feministe). However, I do think an effort to ban the burqa/niqab won’t lead to more integration (one of the main tenets of French citizenship), but may instead exacerbate feelings of marginalization. Taking away a woman’s choice (if it is indeed her choice) is a violation of the individual, whether that translates to a veil ban or enforcement.

I do find the burqa debate as well as other commentaries on Muslim integration (the criticism over the building of mosques in the United States for example) important because they are a reflection of much wider issues . Two weeks ago, NY Times’ video journalist Adam Ellick had an interesting report on Burqavaganza, a satirical play written by Shahid Nadeem and produced by the Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan. The play, described as a “a love story in the time of jihad,” involves a young couple’s “struggle to form a relationship as societal forces try to keep them apart.” All the characters in the play – male and female – are clad in burqas, a metaphor for “creeping Talibanization” and “hypocrisy in a ‘hidden nation.'” The play was banned by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, that bowed to pressure by Islamist groups, including the women’s wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The wing’s leader Samia Qazi told Ellick, “We are not against their freedom of expression…but freedom of expression ends when you start hurting somebody.”

So what does the burqa ban in Europe have to do with the Burqavaganza ban in Pakistan? First, the burqa, or the veil, is more symbolic than literal in both these controversies. In the case of France (and Europe), the full-face veil is seen as a threat to French values of secularism and [gender] equality, instead an indisputable sign of “subservience” and “imprisonment.” In Pakistan, supporters of the Burqavaganza ban noted the satire threatened to “pollute young minds,” showing a “contempt for history and local traditions.” The play, in its commentary on the oppressive use of the burqa, was seen as an attack on Islam and, in turn, on society.

Both bans/controversies therefore stem from a desire to preserve what is traditional and inherent in their respective societies. In many ways, they reflect the problem of ruling by fear, (fear that their values are under threat, of the unfamiliar, etc.) rather than allowing an open and genuine discourse to take place. Such policies and practices, regardless if it means banning the burqa or banning criticism of it, are ultimately unproductive because it further polarizes the debate rather than resolving any of its underlying issues.

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