DAWN - Features; 25 April, 2004

Published April 25, 2004

Islam and the West: distorting realities

By Touqir Hussain

While the subject of "Islam and the West" is vast and one on which much has been written throughout the ages, the time frame of this article is contemporary and the focus of enquiry limited. The discussion here revolves round on how the West, more precisely the United States, and the Islamic world have come to perceive and treat each other in the wake of 9/11.

The European view of Islam is a little nuanced and tempered, at least in appearance, but has been submerged in the flood of American perceptions that have somehow overwhelmed the debate.

In the US, Islam has come under severe scrutiny through the filter of some narrow issues defined by the "prism of pain" of 9/11. This is an age of media, mass politics and popular democracy in the West where governments have come to live and lead at the level of public opinion. They are especially deferential to the interests of their core constituency.

And the media, more specifically American, powerfully reflects as well as affects the public mood and perceptions. It has magnified the threat of terrorism as much as the response, and endlessly plays out the drama of an angered nation that soothes its anxiety by wringing out its trauma by beating up on the "enemy".

Indeed, the entire range of America's intellectual life as well as intelligence agencies and the political leadership have joined the media in this daily ritual. Much of the intellectual effort is inspired or sponsored by ideologically laced institutions or special interests; and the intelligence agencies have either been tempted by survival instinct to exaggerate the threat or seduced by an extreme rightwing government to adapt analysis to political purposes.

Of course, there are saner voices out there, specially of well-reputed and non-partisan think tanks and institutions, but these are in a minority and too faint to influence either government policies or public opinion in a nation polarized by politics but united by a paralysing fear of "radical Islam". When it comes to terrorism there is but one America.

Each of the dominant and influential strands of opinion and analysis as well as government policy has responded to Islam from its own perspective. First, the academia. Most US academics are conditioned by a secular bias, almost secular fundamentalism, and historical misrepresentations about Islam. Religion helps to emphasize and exaggerate historical memories and feeds contemporary issues; and the fact is historically, Islam and the West have not had the happiest of relations.

Both expanded at each other's expense and the story of their seesaw struggle is all too familiar. The Arab and the Ottoman empires prospered in the decline of the West whose own rise to domination later led to the colonization of much of a faltering Islamic world.

The western domination was capped by the planting of Israel in the heart of the Islamic world, a monument to the defeat and decline of the glory that Islam once was, a strategic instrument of future Western primacy in the region, and an alibi for much of the Arab world to wallow in the past.

Except for European literature, western writings on Islam are by and large silent about the fact that the West and Islam in their collision and cooperation had also learnt from each other raising the potential of their societies. For them somehow their relations have always seemed so irreconcilable. Unfortunately, the contemporary extremism in the Islamic world helps to sustain this anti-thesis.

Religion and socio-political issues across civilizational divides do not lend themselves easily to objective analysis. There is no scientific truth involved - only opinions, perspectives and moral or didactic impulses are at play. That is why you have exceptionally smart people from the West, on the one hand, and some of the brightest intellects from Asia, on the other, disagreeing vehemently, and sometimes in utter honesty, about the same issue.

One is speaking from a western, liberal, Judeo-Christian perspective, and the other from the framework of Asian or Islamic values. The two sides' terms of reference are different; their concepts, philosophies, values irreconcilable. Even their perspectives on history clash, one representing the colonialist or imperialist view, entertaining a sense of cultural superiority and material advancement, and the other that of the colonized nursing its historical grievances. And where the subject happens to be religion the disagreement is sharper, particularly against the background of 9/11.

As for the media, its approach to Islam, often bereft of any intellectual pretence or dissimulation, is even more partisan, driven largely by the sweeping changes in American society in the recent past. The overwhelming power has somewhat disfigured American idealism and masked the strains caused by rising prosperity but uneven distribution of wealth, an extraordinary ascendancy of individualism, declining family and moral values, and growing influence of the Christian right.

This has led to two contradictory trends in American society; it is getting politically conservative but culturally liberal. Indeed the Islamic world also faces its own dilemmas and contradictions. On top of that, both the West and Islam find themselves in a disordered world which seems to have come specially unstuck after the end of the Cold War to which globalization and the worldwide ascendancy of fundamentalism have made no small contribution.

The powerful American media feeds on these tensions within Islam and between it and the West. Unfortunately, for the last few years Islam has attracted overwhelmingly disproportionate attention of the international media for radiating a wide array of negative and troubling impulses. It is thus bristling with subjects of intense media interest, many of which have direct impact on the security of citizens and quality of life in advanced societies

The media feeds on myths of an expansionist and revivalist Islam, the "looming" clash between the dominance of American power and resurgent nationalism in the Islamic world - to which religion imparts a sense of mission - fear of another tragedy like 9/11, and the increasingly assertive identity of the Muslim immigrant population in America and Europe.

Take the controversy about the scarf in France which Muslim girls insist on wearing, in part as a compromise with their traditional past, and partly as a badge of individual freedom and cultural identity in a democratic, pluralistic and tolerant society that paradoxically has become scornful of it. Such is the fear of "radical Islam".

The media has abdicated its traditional role of educating society and panders to the pleasure seeking mass population which is hungry for entertainment, and looking for fast news like the food of the same name - appetizing, quick to ingest but lacking nourishment. The media is led by the visual image, that is television, as the prime source of news. To hold the attention of viewers, who have the choice of scores of channels is a big challenge.

To achieve the optimum results issues are presented in stark terms, not beyond average understanding. Indeed the line between entertainment and news is getting blurred. This makes it still harder to disentangle truth and fiction.

To be fair, there are some excellent programmes also disseminating knowledge and quality entertainment for those who care, but their opinion-building role is only marginal. For the discerning audience or readership, there are also erudite analyses in print but they are scanty and written often from a perspective. Very few are strictly objective.

Indeed, the same holds true of the media in Islamic societies. When it writes about the western world does it not write from its own perspective? Whether it is about the "arrogance" of the sole remaining superpower or about its perceived anti-Islam bias, or most recently, the Iraq war, or the promiscuousness of western society, the perspective is singularly its own.

Now the role of the US government. What contribution has it made to exacerbate the debate on Islam? President Bush's war on terrorism, resting on a neat division of the world between those who are with the United States and those who are with the terrorists, is reminiscent of the early Marxists who too differentiated the world into "us" and "them". The war also shares their ideological zeal, and is being fought single-mindedly as a military conflict.

Yet again the world seems to have been divided in two armed camps - one led by the religious extremists and the other by Washington neo-conservatives. One is peddling a dangerously false version of a great religion to dominate the Islamic world. And the other using its post Cold War monopoly of power to guarantee unchallenged assertion of its will on the world.

Ironically, the 9/11 tragedy has played into the hands of both, one using it as a provocation and opportunity to seek public support for the conservative agenda, and the other exploiting the perceived excesses of the war on terrorism to similarly arouse an indignant Muslim world.

The administration's approach has resulted in a paradox. On the one hand terrorism is being treated as if it were a rootless and self-sustaining entity that requires no understanding or remedying of what has caused it. This is a self-serving approach as it pins no responsibility on the US or its vital strategic ally Israel to own any responsibility for the causes of terrorism; and ironically on the other hand, a dangerous war hysteria has led to the profiling of Islam as a universal creed of terrorism thus bearing sole responsibility for this phenomenon.

This obscures the reality of terrorism as well as of Islam making the war on terrorism look like a war on Islam.

The writer is a former ambassador.

To be concluded

Army's top slot: the seniority factor

By A.R. Siddiqi

Who will be the next army chief? The question has generated some interest after General Musharraf's announcement that he would consider and name his successor before he steps down as army chief in December 2004.

Now, what importance should be attached to seniority in the selection and appointment of the next army chief? That remains to be seen. It is to be noted that for promotions from rank of major and above, seniority is counted as only one major factor. These are all 'selection' promotions that depend on several other factors. Some of these are: professional competence, personal character, loyalty, work attitude, number of courses passed and, above all, grades earned in the annual confidential reports (ACRs) prepared by their superior officers.

All promotions above the rank of major and up to major- general must go through the annual GHQ selection board held during the formation commanders' conference. Promotions to the rank of lieutenant-general and general remain the exclusive privilege of the president/prime minister at the recommendation of the army chief.

In almost all promotions to the top slot from Ayub to Musharraf, seniority was noticeably sidelined, even if considered and, in a number of cases, even caused a good deal of controversy. Ayub was promoted over the head of at least two of his senior major-generals, Mohammad Akbar Khan and N.A.M. Raza. General Akbar happened to be the senior most general officer of the Pakistan Army. His personal number was PA-I.

Ayub's successor General Mohammad Musa's promotion over the head of two of his seniors - major-generals Sher Ali Khan and Latif Khan, both commissioned from Sandhurst in 1933 - caused much bad blood and bitter controversy. Sher Ali and Latif Khan both resigned. However, while Sher Ali stood retired, Latif took back his resignation at the personal intercession of Ayub. Musa was commissioned from the Indian Military Academy (first course) in 1935, but had his service in the ranks count towards full seniority as well as pension to gain an advantage over the two senior generals.

Yahya Khan, who took over from Musa in September 1966, was promoted chief over the head of two senior lieutenant-generals, Altaf Qadir and Bakhtiar Rana. He tumbled through his fateful and traumatic period and tumbled out of it in the black December of 1971.

Lt-Gen Gul Hassan, the old cavalier, hopped on the high horse riderless after Yahya Khan's disgraceful fall. He superseded his senior, Lieut. Gen. Tikka Khan, Commander II Corps, Multan. Gul happened to be the last commander-in-chief and the first and the last one in the rank of lieutenant-general to have commanded the army.

He was summarily retired by President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on March 2, 1972 in spite of his confirmed three-year tenure as C-in-C. Bhutto promoted Tikka Khan to full general and appointed him as chief of the army staff (COAS) instead of C-in-C. Tikka's promotion to full general, as a superseded lieutenant-general, remains the only example of its kind on the Pakistan Army list.

He completed his tenure in 1976 to leave prime minister Bhutto at sixes and sevens about his successor. He was looking for a person professionally compliant and personally loyal to him. On top of the list of senior lieutenant-generals was Gen Mohammad Sharif followed by Gen Mohammad Akbar Khan, Aftab Ahmad Khan, Azmat Awan, Abdul Majid, Ghulam Jeelani and Mohammad Ziaul Haq. Tikka had recommended Akbar for the top slot.

An ex-ISI chief and politically-oriented, Akbar was distrusted and seen as a potential coup-maker both by Bhutto and his personal secretary Afzal Saeed Khan. He was rejected out of hand.

After detailed consultation with his personal staff, Bhutto chose the senior-most Gen Sharif and junior-most Gen Zia, respectively, to be chairman, joint chiefs of staff committee and the chief of the army staff - a clean sweep of the seniority list.

Zia's vice-chiefs of staff, Sawar, Iqbal and Arif - all full generals - retired without making the top slot. Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, the incumbent vice-chief at the time of the Bahawalpur crash, hit his lucky patch and made it to the top.

Amongst Beg's successors, Asif Nawaz died while still half way through his tenure, Wahid Kakar completed his tenure, and Jehangir Karamat was summarily retired by Nawaz Sharif in October 1998 - just about four months short of completing his tenure. He yielded place to Lt Gen Pervez Musharraf, Commander, I Corps, Mangla.

It would be seen that seniority hardly had a part to play in any of the above promotions. Except perhaps for Jehangir Karamat, all others were placed way down the seniority list. Gen Pervez Musharraf himself superseded two seniors, Ali Quli Khan and Khalid Nawaz.

It would be interesting to see who makes it to the top job after Gen Musharraf. May be a senior major-general or one of newly promoted lieut. generals.

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army.

Frightening apathy to environmental issues

By Nusrat Nasarullah

Let's get down to the earth, on the thematically rich and environmentally troubling International Earth Day that was also observed in Karachi on April 22. Were one to contend that the day was more of a formality than any real substance, would it have any supporters? That the day was yet another ordinary day in the lives of ordinary people and extraordinary people (the haves) don't care about such days or any other.

Having said this, I am distracted by a thought which suggests that this day falls in April, hence, it does not create the right kind of environment for bringing out the depth and degree to which the Earth Day message needs to be conveyed and grasped. Karachi's weather in April is mild, not yet the wrath, warmth and weariness of summer.

It is in summer that, for example, Karachi's environmental degradation, and deprivation appear the sharpest, and when suffering due to weather and environment are the highest. Try and imagine if this day was observed in June or July. We should not forget that April is spring time, a season of moderation, transition a sort of neutrality. A mildness!

Let us return to the earlier contention that the observance of the Earth Day was not taken with the real spirit and the zeal that citizens and organizations here are capable of. The day was characterized by a nonchalance that reflects the cynicism of public perception on environmental issues. In other words, they believe that nothing will come of the rhetoric that is flung at the people from time to time.

And if some good takes place it will either be a result of ulterior motives of vested interests or reasons they neither comprehend nor do they seek to understand. Why this has happened to public mind is easy to imagine.

Of course, some efforts had been made to care about the environment but almost like a drop in the ocean. On the Earth Day, there was a news report in Dawn which was a listing of the failures with regard to what needs to be done for this environment - garbage disposal, polythene bags, hazardous hospital waste, clean water, fresh air. These continue to be the main sources of anxiety, concern. But who cares!

What has disappointed many of us is the fact that on the Earth Day, particularly in Karachi, there was missing the kind of focus that could have set this day apart from others. It could have shifted our attention to the future challenges and to the responsibility of a single citizen towards city's health. For example, what every family can do to improve environment? What a neighbourhood can do? And what the community can do in the ultimate?

Somehow, the war against the threat to the earth is not receiving the priority that it deserves. In fact things are moving quite to the contrary, whereby each individual, family and community is working knowingly or unknowingly against the larger interest of the environment. See the way the average citizen cares about his house being cleaned and not about the street that he lives on. I know it is not as simple as it sounds. It is an infrastructure problem too.

However, we must agree that in many instances it is not an infrastructure problem. It only calls for the citizen's participation in community affairs. In community welfare, where a sharing and mutual caring has to be initiated, generated, sustained. The concept of the neighbourhood has to be promoted. An awareness needs to be created for this.

The question that arises is how this can be done in the face of resource constraints. "How much resource can come from foreign sources and for how long?" wonder such citizens who argue that it is the time Pakistani society should realise the urgent need to care for itself from its own resources. This also means that an awareness has to be created for this goal - a kind of self-help - a dignity that comes when society is able to generate its own resources, and thereby pursue its own policies and agenda.

One reason why there is this sustained apathy to looking after the environment is the fact that there is not enough being done by the non-government organizations and other such platforms that do exist on the canvass. For example, they have been singularly absent in most cases on the Earth Day except a handful of organizations, which was certainly insufficient keeping in mind the magnitude of the task that lies before us.

Strangely enough, no newspaper supplements were brought out on the occasion. Keep in mind that sometimes these newspaper supplements are published for reasons and occasions that are of far smaller significance and justification than the Earth Day. One would have imagined that there would be at least a few organizations from the corporate sector which would have sponsored or supported newspaper supplements. There could be advertising agencies which could come forth with public service advertising for the supplements. It would have helped to create the mood and set things in motion.

Not just on the Earth Day, but, such campaigns and media support is needed throughout the year. A selfless sustained campaign of public service message advertising, which would facilitate communications in this crucial sector. It is high time that public opinion platforms, media and advertising agencies should come together in long term efforts to create public awareness, to bring about the change that is needed to confront the challenge that our urban centres are up against.

Here one would like to mention the efforts of Shehri, a non- governmental organization, to have the environment Education Mela 2004 that they would have held by the time these lines are put into print. It is said that the event was scheduled for the weekend after the International Earth Day with a "positive blend of education, entertainment and promotion as a platform for socially responsible and environment-friendly companies and groups to interact with the public". What is reassuring here is the fact that the Shehri has underlined the "pain" that Karachi is in.

There was a very interesting point of view that I heard from a citizen who wasn't very motivated by the fact that the Earth Day was an international one in nature. He said that what needed to be emphasised was the fact that each society should have its agenda for a day like the Earth Day. He said that Pakistani society should spell out its own agenda, clearly and coherently. He said that right now the average citizen like him was confused and unsure whose agenda was contained in this International Earth Day. He contended that Pakistani citizens were sceptical of priorities and agendas that come from abroad.

One would like to conclude with a detailed judgment of the Supreme Court that has been reported in Dawn on April 23. The report stated: "The Supreme Court has upheld the Sindh High Court's order of closing down steel fabrication plants near residential buildings, a school, a church and a hospital located in the jurisdiction of Eidgah police."

The news report further stated that the order spanning 34 pages by Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Justice Rana Bhagwandas and Justice Sardar Mohammad Raza Khan agreed with the earlier judgments that the use of heavy machinery for cutting, rolling of heavy and thick iron plates, and welding plants for manufacture of heavy containers, water and petrol tanks and poultry feed machines were injurious to life and health of the population in the neighbourhood. The judgment maintained that these workshops not only disturbed the peace of chronic patients of heart diseases, diabetes, and tuberculosis, but also the church-goers and the students of the nearby school.

Finally, the fact that we have failed as a community to take due notice of the Earth Day this year should not deter us from the possibility of making each day an occasion to show that we do care for the environment.

With our kind of fearful environment and prospects that could unfold, there is reason to demonstrate our concern throughout the year. And a larger part of the year lies ahead.



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