Archive for August, 2010


My crappy attempt at image splicing...

On most days, I use Twitter to find interesting insight about the news or Pakistan. Today, though, many Pakistani Twitter users found a far more “patriotic” use of our time. Fitting, really, since August 14th (Pakistan Independence Day) is fast approaching.

Allow me introduce you to the PAKISTAN HULK. Or, #PAKISTANHULK. He is angry. He is green. He is Pakistani. He is also knock-off (slash pirated version) of others like, @MuslimHulk, @FeministHulk, and even @DrunkHulk. Who are they? Who cares? But they come up with gems like:


So dear readers, yours truly and others decided enough was enough. Pakistanis have a hell of a lot to be angry about these days. Enter #PAKISTANHULK. Here are some of my personal favorites:

Pakistan Hulk likes conspiracy:

Gotta love the shorts:

Ah, peer pressure:


For more PAKISTAN HULK brilliance, check out the hashtag trend. Now all we need is someone to officially launch a @PakistanHulk Twitter account and my life will be complete. Anyone? Bueller?

Ramazan Mubarak everyone and a Happy Pakistan Day in advance! ( A far more sober post on the floods will be up soon, but thought we all need a little comic relief.)

Update: Someone out there was listening! @PakistanHulk now exists on Twitter!

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Zardari, Shoes & Floods

"The shoe was not...a Ferragamo...no..."

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal released an op-ed by President Asif Ali Zardari defending his Europe tour, a trip that garnered tremendous criticism and even resulted in shoes being lobbed in his direction.

Yes, shoes. Nice throwback to Bush in Iraq in 2008, don’t you think?

In the article “written” by Zardari, he noted,

As the floods hit the country, I faced a dilemma as head of state. I could stay in Pakistan and support the prime minister in our response to the floods, or I could continue with a scheduled visit abroad. I chose to use my travels to mobilize foreign assistance—money, supplies, food, tents, medical care, engineers, clean water and medicine—for our people. Some have criticized my decision, saying it represented aloofness, but I felt that I had to choose substance over symbolism.

To an extent, I agree with the-aide-writing-as-Zardari. If he had stayed in Pakistan instead of jetting off to Europe, would that have made an enormous difference to the government’s response, or lack thereof, to the floods? Probably not.

He went on to add,

I might have benefited personally from the political symbolism of being in the country at the time of natural disaster. But hungry people can’t eat symbols. The situation demanded action, and I acted to mobilize the world.

Mister President, I agree with fellow bloggers that media attention on your trip has been overblown and took away from the much more serious issues at hand. But I am not sure a Europe jaunt was the necessary step in “mobilizing the world.” Couldn’t a phone call have sufficed? Skype? A few smiley faces and lol’s can go a long way these days.

But regardless of our feelings toward Zardari’s trip, the series of developments prior to and upon his return are even more frustrating. After the GEO and ARY television networks aired the shoe-hurling incident against Zardari, the two stations’ signals were reportedly “blacked out” in parts of Sindh. Geo’s managing director Azhar Abbas told CNN, “Activists of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party are threatening cable operators to take Geo off the air as well as cut cables of operators in Karachi and interior Sindh.” Copies of the Jang group’s daily Urdu newspaper, the Daily Jang, were also set on fire, and when a group of PPP activists surrounded Geo’s building Tuesday, “law enforcement groups did nothing to stop them.”

While the threat of media groups is a dangerous phenomenon, it is also exacerbated by these outlets’ responses, which sensationalize reports and further this cycle. All the while, the attention that should be dedicated to the 14 million affected by the floods in Pakistan is diverted to far less important things. So shame on you. Shame on all of you.

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Bilawal and the PPP Throne

Image: Telegraph

Anger continues to rise against President Asif Ali Zardari, as critics lambast the leader for jetting off on a Europe tour while the country faces devastating floods and violence. After his meeting with British PM David Cameron [who made some very controversial remarks against Pakistan last week], Zardari told reporters,

Storms will come and storms will go, and Pakistan and Britain will stand together and face all the difficulties with dignity.

Storms will come and storms will go“? Very sensitive analogy, Mister President, particularly when 4.5 million people have been affected by floods caused by torrential storms.

Attention has also been directed towards Bilawal Bhutto, son of Zardari and the late Benazir, the “heir” of the Pakistan People’s Party. In a biting article entitled, “Bilawal Bhutto Zardari: Born to Rule Pakistan, but Destined to Fail,” the Telegraph‘s Dan Nelson wrote,

So this Saturday, the Bhutto-Zardari family will present Bilawal Zardari, or “Bilawal Bhutto Zardari” as he is now known, as the PPP’s new leader, head of the family business, at a party rally in Birmingham. Despite his tender age and minimal experience of Pakistan, the young scion of one of the country’s wealthiest feudal families will take over the reins of the country’s largest political party…It’s a position for which there was neither contest nor welcome contestants. While the PPP has a number of promising up-and-coming MPs, like Palwasha Khan, or inspirational and able veterans like Aitzaz Ahsan (the former interior minister who led the successful lawyers’ movement to reinstate the deposed chief justice), merit simply doesn’t come into it.

In a statement released Thursday though, Bilawal “categorically denied” that he would be launching his political career tomorrow, emphasizing that he is instead opening a donation point for the flood victims in Pakistan. He stated, “I felt it was necessary to issue a statement to counter some inaccurate information that has recently been reported. As for my future plans, I intend to continue my education both academic and political.”

The back-and-forth has left me both perturbed and irritated. First, why are we still so surprised and incenced by the presence of dynastic politics in Pakistan? Yes, it is disturbing that the PPP and political parties in the region as a whole portray political office more as a family business than a merit-based career. But isn’t that also something fundamentally wrong with society’s perception of politics? Don’t we, at the end of the day, vote [at least some of] our leaders into power? If dynasties have become the norm in the region, then society also plays a role in perpetuating the reality of personality-based politics.

Second, are we selective in our criticism of Bilawal Bhutto? I find it interesting that past coverage of his political journey have been framed alongside the presence of his cousin Fatima Bhutto, not veteran politicians who have devoted their careers to the PPP. Articles have discussed who is more “deserving” of the PPP throne, with Jemima Khan acidly noting in 2008, “If everything’s in a name, Fatima need not have changed hers in order to inherit. Brought up in Pakistan, unlike Bilawal, and a native speaker, she is an established writer and political commentator. At least she has some work experience. Aunt Benazir’s first-ever job was prime minister of a 160-million-strong nation.” Yowza. Catty.

While I am not a proponent of personality politics, and certainly not of the paradoxical “dynastic democracies,” I do think it’s important to go beyond being angry about Bilawal Bhutto and ask deeper questions about the prevailing reality of Pakistan. Also, I do think (as I mentioned in my last post) that we really should be concentrating our energies elsewhere – like actually donating our time and money towards the millions of people impacted by the floods. Isn’t that what’s really important right now?

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Turning Grief into Action

AP Image

The news from Pakistan has been heartbreaking.

We have been engulfed with images of flood affected citizens wading through what was once their homes, fires from the violence and targeted killings in Karachi, and smoke billowing from cars destroyed by a suicide bombing in Peshawar, an attack that killed the chief of Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary.

And that was just the last few days.

According to news agencies, Pakistan has issued new flood warnings, “as heavy rains are expected to inflict more misery on areas where at least 1,500 people have already been killed and 980,000 more have lost their homes,” reported Al Jazeera English. According to Nadeem Ahmad, chairman of Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, about three million people were now affected by floods in the country – 1.5 million in the northwest and the same number in Punjab. While the disaster, labeled as “the worst flood in Pakistan since 1929,” had been focused in the country’s Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhuntkhwa provinces, media outlets reported that the flood began spreading to Punjab on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders), say the receding water is allowing more access to previously isolated areas, though the new flood warnings “could cause renewed problems.”

Spokesmen from the United Nations World Food Program have also told reporters that workers were “urgently trying to reach flood areas in the northwest cut off from food supplies.” Dawn quoted WFP’s Amjad Jamal noting,

You can imagine for five or six days floods have caused havoc in these areas. People have lost their food stocks. The markets are not up and running. Shops have collapsed. People are definitely in the greatest need of food. That’s what we fear. The need to rush to those areas which have been cut off for the past week to provide them with life-saving food.

The long-term impact of the floods on issues like health and livelihood are also significant. According to Dawn, authorities fear a breakout of water-borne diseases like cholera that could subsequently trigger a health crisis. And as the floods sweep away farm land and devastate livestock, farmers in the affected provinces stand to lose “millions of dollars,” noted Dawn. Moreover, the displacement of numerous Pakistani citizens caused by the disaster further compounds the country’s pre-existing Internally Displaced People (IDP) issue, [in March, I wrote that a million people remain displaced after the military’s operations against the Taliban last summer].

Given this enormous devastation, [as well as the wave of targeted killings in Karachi that have killed 47 people after the assassination of MQM’s Raza Haider], it is no bloody wonder that the country is pissed off at President Asif Ali Zardari, who is off on a jaunt around Europe while Pakistan is drowning. Regardless whether Zardari is needed to make decisions related to disaster relief or he is merely a figurehead, the decision to press forward with his tour comes across as callous and disconnected, and does not bode well for his already dismal popularity ratings (according to Pew Research Center’s poll, only 20% of those polled have a favorable view of Zardari, compared to 71% for PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif). In a piece for Dawn entitled, “While You Are (Perpetually) Away,” Shyema Sajjad emphasized,

Yes, so while I clicked on some pictures of you smiling with Nicholas Sarkozy, your children along your side, I also happened to come across pictures of some other families. They weren’t well-dressed and neither were they in France. They were crying, sitting in various parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But then again, they are just a statistic right? I am not sure what the death toll was when you left but it has now crossed 1,400, with over three million affected. I understand discussing diplomacy and terror strategies are important but what about these people, sir? Are they really just a statistic for you? People with homes swept away and children drowned, can’t just be statistics.

Even British-Pakistani politicians Khalid Mahmood (from the Labour Party) and Nazir Khan have refused an invitation to meet the Pakistani President, who arrived yesterday for his five-day visit to the UK. Mahmood told Al Jazeera, “I just don’t feel I could bring myself to a meeting with somebody who has no ounce of respect for his own people, when these people are in dire straits.”

While this is certainly a time to be angry at our leadership, or lack thereof, it’s also a time to concentrate our energy towards helping the many people in need. And this is how you can do so [feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section]:

  • My company, ML Resources Social Vision, in partnership with Pakistani Peace Builders, launched Relief4Pakistan on August 13, a global grassroots donation campaign that leverages social media platforms to raise money for the flood affected families in Pakistan. See the R4P website here to donate (donations go directly to Mercy Corps’ first response relief efforts on the ground), or this blog post for more background.
  • [If you live in the United States] TextSWAT” to 50555 to donate $10 towards Pakistan’s flood victims. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has partnered with mGive again to allow mobile contributions for those affected by the disaster. Every $10 helps provide tents and emergency aid to displaced families. When prompted, reply with “YES” to confirm your gift.
  • Donate to Save the Children, which is on-the-ground and responding to the flood by preparing to distribute plastic sheeting for shelters and other household supplies and hygiene kits to families affected. At the request of the Pakistan Health Department and the World Health Organization, Save the Children has also deployed mobile health teams and ambulances to provide emergency medical treatment in the worst affected areas. Click here to donate directly to their efforts.
  • The International Rescue Committee‘s emergency team are currently working to serve Charsadda, Nowshera, Lower Dir and Swat. They are also conducting assessments in Kohat and Hangu, to better understand how those populations are being affected and what assistance they may need. In addition to providing these essential items and services, the IRC are also planning on providing livelihood activities, so as to help families get back on their feet as soon as possible. You can donate to the IRC by clicking here, or if you call 1-877-REFUGEE (1-877-733-8433), you can specifically earmark your donation for the Pakistani relief efforts.
  • Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, has a team on the ground and is providing emergency medical services. To donate to MSF, go to their website.
  • Oxfam International is also on the ground and hopes to raise $6 million for their immediate and long-term response to the disaster. You can choose to make a donation to your nearest Oxfam affiliate, (though Oxfam Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Netherlands and Spain all currently running direct appeals for the Pakistan floods). Click here for information.
  • As noted in the above post, the World Food Programme (WFP) is providing food to those affected by the flood. To donate to their efforts, see here.
  • The Edhi Foundation has a stellar reputation in Pakistan and provides emergency services to those in need. Click here to find and donate to your local Edhi office.
  • CARE International is also working on the ground in relief efforts. 90 cents of every dollar goes towards the cause, see here.

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Giving Nuance to the Pew Poll

The below piece was originally written for Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel and was an attempt to delve into what survey results often don’t show. For example, the Pew Research Center’s poll, released last week, shows that Pakistani Muslims overwhelmingly feel that punishments like stoning and flogging should be put into law. However, in practice, many of these same people would not advocate for such an approach or such repurcussions. The phenomenon reflects the complexities of Pakistani identity and the idea behind the state itself. Over at AfPak, the piece garnered some interesting comments, mostly from people who didn’t believe my hypothesis at all (which is fine). I did want to repost the piece here to generate interesting discussion on the topic and get all views on the table:

Last Thursday, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, which conducts public opinion surveys around the world, released a new poll on Pakistani perceptions based on face-to-face interviews conducted from April 13 to April 28, 2010. However, the sample size is relatively small — 2,000 Pakistani adults out of a population of 180 million — and admittedly “disproportionately urban.” Moreover, while Pew polled people in Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP), portions of Balochistan and K-P were not included because of instability. Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA), Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir were also not included in the survey, leading one to question how reflective Pew’s poll results are of Pakistan’s entire population.

The results were, for the most part, unsurprising, and paint a grim picture of Pakistani attitudes in the wake of militancy, military operations, a worsening economy, and political instability. For example, an overwhelming number of Pakistanis polled continue to have a negative view of the United States (68 percent), and a majority of Pakistanis (53 percent) see India as the greatest threat to the country, over the Taliban (23 percent) and al-Qaeda (3 percent). Much like last year’s Pew survey, the majority of Pakistanis polled say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, citing terrorism, crime, and a lack of jobs as very big issues.

Some of the most interesting results relate to attitudes toward religion, law, and society. According to the findings, “Pakistani Muslims overwhelmingly welcome Islamic influence over their country’s politics. Nearly nine-in-ten (88 percent) of those who see Islam playing a large role say that is a good thing.” Moreover, many Muslims in Pakistan say there is a struggle between groups that want to modernize their country and Islamic fundamentalists (44 percent), and of those who see a struggle, most identify with the modernizers (61 percent). At the same time though, a solid majority of Pakistanis polled said they would favor making gender segregation in the workplace a law in the country (85 percent), as well as punishments like whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery (82 percent), and stoning people who commit adultery (82 percent).

So what explains this obvious paradox between people who side with modernization but simultaneously support punishments like stoning and flogging? According to Peter Mandaville, professor of Government and Islamic Studies at George Mason University and author of Global Political Islam, this reflects “a mistaken tendency to conflate modernization with the adoption of liberal social and religious values. When many Pakistanis think of “modernizing” their country, they think primarily in terms of economic development and technology — both of which can comfortably coexist alongside conservative religious attitudes.”

Although Pakistan has drifted right of center over the last three decades, the aforementioned findings seem to be contradicted by the reality on the ground. Cyril Almeida, an assistant editor and columnist at Dawn, noted that though Pakistani Muslims overwhelmingly welcome an Islamic influence over the country’s politics, citizens continue to “consistently reject religious parties at the polls.” The alliance of Islamist parties in Pakistan, the MMA, was trounced at the 2008 polls, managing to win only a miserable 2.2 percent of the vote. Moreover, a rise in public opinion against militancy in 2008 was in part due to a video showing the Taliban flogging a girl in Swat Valley, images that generated outrage in Pakistan. Almeida emphasized, “Pakistanis have certain fairly rigid conceptions of what is religiously permissible and what isn’t. This isn’t to say they will always do what they believe is required of them — but when a survey puts certain questions, they’re more likely to respond to what ought to be than what they do.”

The framing of survey questions can help explain contradictory quantitative data. In the case of the results generated in Pew’s Religion, Law, and Society section of the survey, respondents were asked black-and-white questions, like, “Do you favor or oppose making stoning people who commit adultery the law in Pakistan?” According to Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, much of the so-called “Muslim World” find it difficult to go against anything seen as ordained by Islam. He added, “At an abstract level, Islam remains important to even the most secular of Muslims — remember Islam is very candid about state and religion being an integrated whole (at least in the classic narrative) and so such questions would elicit such responses.”

When faced with a choice between what they are supposed to say and what they actually practice, respondents tend to match abstract questions with equally abstract answers. However, Yusuf noted, “Do they want to be flogged or stoned for the same sin? No way. What about their own family members? Most probably not.”

But issues related to such punishments continue unabated in Pakistan (Just last week, media outlets reported that a couple was sentenced to stoning to death for alleged adultery in a tribal court in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). This suggests that quantitative data cannot capture the nuances and complexities of identity and society. In the case of the Pew opinion survey, the data provides an important snapshot of some Pakistani attitudes, but it is by no means the whole picture.

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