Bypassing the roadblock
PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf’s four-point plan for Balochistan has its merits but may fail to bring peace to the province. The offer is too heavily tilted towards a strategic approach while it lacks the political underpinning without which no conflict of this nature can be resolved. Admittedly, Balochistan has assumed a serious dimension. Since December 2005 when the rocket attacks on Kohlu took place and the Frontier Constabulary retaliated with counter-attacks on the so-called miscreants, over 160 people have been reported killed. There have been three major incidents of attacks aimed at disrupting the railway system, two occasions when gas pipelines were destroyed, one case of the telecom link being disrupted and innumerable rocket attacks on various strategic installations. Seen against this backdrop, the president’s response is naturally one of a military leader. But as we know from our own experience, conflicts of this nature can only be resolved at the negotiating table. This is a fundamental reality that the Baloch sardars, who are waging a war against the armed forces, should also be aware of. By carrying on with the hostilities they are causing devastation of their own land and undermining the development prospects of their own people.
The president has called for the surrender and disarming of the local militias. True, no progress can be made in the peace process as long as the militias continue to indulge in their hostile activities. But a unilateral surrender as demanded by the president is not very practical either: this happens when one side is routed by the victor. We do not know if that stage has been reached because the same day as the president spoke demanding the disarming of the militias, there were reports of 270 rockets being fired on strategic installations and the FC’s positions in Dera Bugti. Rather than waging a war to the finish, it would be wiser for the government to achieve the same result by political means. A step in that direction was taken in April last year when members of the parliamentary committee on Balochistan had visited Dera Bugti and negotiated a truce with the sardars. The truce was later broken — probably because of the impatience of the Baloch since the political actions that were to follow in the wake of the ceasefire never came.
It is time the road once taken is traversed again. The president is right when he insists on the militias laying down their arms. We cannot have the sardars operating in the province as a state within a state. But how does one go about achieving this goal? It will have to be by political means. There are a number of Baloch leaders, many of them in the ruling PML-Q, who should be asked to come forward and play a vital mediatory role. If their credentials are not acceptable to the sardars other elder statesmen now in retirement could be invited to act as intermediaries. This is important if the polarization that is building up fast is to be broken. With the two sides locked in a military confrontation, it is not possible to talk about political solutions. The president has acknowledged that. But he should know that it is too early to expect the Rs 140 billion his government has “allocated for a string of development projects in Balochistan” to have won over the people. This will take time and until then we cannot allow hostilities to continue.
Why another train disaster?
IT is shocking beyond belief that a second train should have derailed in Punjab within a span of six days. Yesterday morning’s crash of the Karakoram Express near Samasatta killed at least one person and injured 27. As with last Sunday’s derailment of the Lahore Express near Jhelum, the state minister for railways was once again quick to blame unnamed saboteurs for the tragedy. Police investigators probing last Sunday’s crash, however, have been more cautious; they have not ruled out negligence and poor maintenance on the part of the railways as being the most likely cause of the accident. But then, was it sheer coincidence that both the ill-fated trains were bound for Lahore, from Rawalpindi and Karachi, respectively? Other common features between the two incidents include the fact that they involved the fastest, most preferred, non-stop express services on their respective routes with Chinese-built locomotives and carriages. Leaving the sabotage theory aside for a while, could it be the equipment that is to blame for the two disasters? Reports of the Chinese locomotives imported three years ago developing faults and the railway workshops’ inability to fix these appeared in the press last year. The railway authorities were embarrassed because the purchase of the equipment in question had cost millions of rupees. They reportedly took up the matter with the Chinese manufacturers who promised to correct the faults at no extra cost, but there is no telling whether that promise was fulfilled.
Negligence and poor maintenance have plagued the railways in recent years. Last July’s triple-train collision involving high-speed trains on the main line near Ghotki left 130 dead and scores injured. Investigations revealed that the railway staff manning a nearby station were to blame for it, and there were also mentions of faulty signals and of speeding on the part of the drivers. These indeed are worrisome aspects of the railway’s operations and should be looked into carefully as possible factors that could have led to the latest crashes. Meanwhile, the railway minister should not jump to conclusions pending full inquiries into the tragic incidents. Indeed, under the circumstances, any minister elsewhere would have resigned by now.
Bringing normality to Bara
WITH the departure of Pir Saifur Rehman, one of the controversial clerics responsible for stirring up religious disharmony in Bara in the Khyber tribal region, there is hope that the situation will now stabilize. Tension had been mounting in the last month when two clerics, Rehman and Mufti Munir Shakir, both outsiders and of opposing views, began using illegally set-up radio stations to preach their sermons, usually inciting hatred and often using abusive language. The political authorities stepped in by beefing up security in the area and arresting some of their supporters in a bid to contain that tension. Both the defiant clerics had resisted leaving the area despite being served notices by the authorities, but Rehman eventually surrendered on Thursday and left with his supporters. Tribal leaders, along with authorities, are now focussing on Shakir and hope that he too will have to leave the area and held a meeting in this regard on Friday in which they renewed their pledge to bring peace to this part of the Khyber Agency. This is an encouraging sign for it shows the tribal leaders’ commitment to stability of their area. Sectarian conflicts have caused much devastation in this country and potential outbreaks must be avoided at all costs.
The issue of operating illegal radio stations is not new. Had the authorities stepped in earlier, some of the tension could have been diffused earlier. People have realized how powerful a tool a radio station can be but to use it to spread hatred and ignite violence is against the law and should not be tolerated. Just as pressure tactics applied on Pir Rehman succeeded in his eviction, the same should be done in the case of Mufti Shakir so that residents in Bara can return to their normal lives, devoid of hatred for each other.
Danish cartoons: provocative and perverse
This is not an issue of secularism versus Islam. For Muslims, the Prophet is the man who received divine words directly from God. We see our saints and prophets as faintly historical figures, at odds with our high-tech human rights and freedoms, almost caricatures of themselves. The fact is that Muslims live their religion. We do not. They have kept their faith through innumerable historical vicissitudes. We have lost our faith.
SO now it’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Ambassadors are withdrawn from Denmark, the Saudis and the Syrians complain, Gulf nations clear their shelves of Danish produce, Gaza gunmen threaten the European Union and foreign journalists.
In Denmark, Fleming Rose, the ‘culture’ editor of the pip-squeak newspaper which published these silly cartoons — last September, for heaven’s sake — announces that we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between secular western democracies and Islamic societies. This does prove, I suppose, that Danish journalists follow in the true tradition of Hans Christian Anderson. Oh lordy, lordy. What we’re witnessing is the childishness of civilizations.
So let’s start off with the Department of Home Truths. This is not an issue of secularism versus Islam. For Muslims, the Prophet is the man who received divine words directly from God. We see our saints and prophets as faintly historical figures, at odds with our high-tech human rights and freedoms, almost caricatures of themselves. The fact is that Muslims live their religion. We do not. They have kept their faith through innumerable historical vicissitudes. We have lost our faith ever since Matthew Arnold wrote about the sea’s “long withdrawing roar.” That’s why we talk about ‘the West versus Islam’ rather than ‘Christians versus Islam’ — because there aren’t an awful lot of Christians left in Europe. There is no way we can get round this by setting up all the other world religions and asking why we are not allowed to make fun of the Prophet.
Besides, we can exercise our own hypocrisy over religious feelings. I happen to remember how more than a decade ago, a film called the Last Temptation of Christ showed Jesus making love to a woman. In Paris, someone set fire to the cinema showing the movie, killing a young Frenchman. I also happen to remember a major US university which invited me to give a lecture three years ago. I did. It was entitled. “September 11, 2001: ask who did it but, for God’s sake, don’t ask why.” When I arrived, I found that the university authorities had deleted the phrase “for God’s sake” because “we didn’t want to offend certain sensibilities. Ah-ha, so we have ‘sensibilities’ too.
In other words, while we claim that Muslims must be good secularists when it comes to free speech — or cheap cartoons — we can worry about adherents to our own precious religion just as much. I also enjoyed the pompous claims of European statesmen that they cannot control free speech or newspapers. This is also nonsense. Had that cartoon of the Prophet shown instead a chief rabbi with a bomb-shaped hat, we would have had “anti-semitism” screamed into our ears — and rightly so — just as we often hear the Israelis complain about anti-semitic cartoons in Egyptian newspapers.
Furthermore, in some European nations — France is one, Germany and Austria are among the others — it is forbidden by law to deny acts of genocide. In France, for example, it is illegal to say that the Jewish Holocaust or the Armenian Holocaust did not happen (wait for Turkey’s problems over the latter if it ever gets into the EU). So it is in fact impermissible to make certain statements in European nations. I’m still uncertain whether these laws attain their objectives: however much you may prescribe Holocaust denial, anti-semites will always try to find a way round.
The point, however, is that we can hardly exercise our political restraints or laws to prevent anti-semitic cartoons or Holocaust deniers and then start screaming about secularism when we find that Muslims object to our provocative and insulting image of the Prophet.
For many Muslims, the ‘Islamic’ reaction to this whole squalid affair is an embarrassment. There is perfectly good reason to believe that Muslims would like to see some element of reform introduced to their religion. If this cartoon had advanced the cause of those who want to debate this issue — if it allowed for a serious dialogue and no one would have minded. But it was clearly intended to be provocative. It was so outrageous that it only caused reaction. And this is not a great time to heat up the old Samuel Huntington garbage about a ‘clash of civilizations’. Iran now has a clerical government again. So, to all intents and purposes, does Iraq (which was not supposed to end up with a democratically elected clerical administration, but that’s what happens when you topple dictators).
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 per cent of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections. Now we have Hamas in charge of ‘Palestine’. There’s a message here, isn’t there? That America’s policies and ‘regime change’ and ‘democracy’ in the Middle East — are not achieving their ends. These millions of voters were preferring Islam to the corrupt regimes which we imposed on them. For the Danish cartoon to be dumped on top of this fire is dangerous indeed.
In any event, it’s not about whether the Prophet should be pictured. The Quran does not forbid images of the Prophet even though millions of Muslims do. The problem is that these cartoons portrayed Islam as a violent religion. It is not. Or do we want to make it so? —(c) The Independent
OPPONENTS of US policy in the Middle East have described Hamas’s victory in last week’s Palestinian elections as a disaster that proves that President Bush was wrong to insist on elections in the West Bank and Gaza.
The result, they say, has been the destruction of the peace process and the empowerment of a movement inimical to Israel and the United States; the lesson is that Mr Bush should stop pressing for democratic change elsewhere in the region. While the consequences of the Palestinian vote remain highly uncertain, this rush to condemnation is nonsensical. It ignores the collapse of authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip before the elections, and it ignores the opportunity democracy created to remedy it.
By the time the Palestinian vote was held, it had become painfully clear that President Mahmoud Abbas would not and could not establish a viable government or rein in the armed thugs even of his own Fatah movement. The cadres that Yasser Arafat installed in Palestinian ministries had resisted reform or displacement, while the Palestinian payroll had grown so heavy with gunmen that European nations had suspended aid.
Militants were attacking police stations and border posts in Gaza, kidnapping foreigners and firing rockets at Israel with impunity. For its part, the Israeli government barely concealed its view that peace talks with Mr. Abbas were useless and that its only option was to continue unilateral steps toward establishing a de facto border in the West Bank.
Some critics say that Mr. Bush should have forced Mr. Abbas to call off the elections or exclude Hamas from the ballot. Had he done so, the result almost certainly would have been a resumption of the Islamic movement’s armed campaign against Israel, along with the perpetuation of a corrupt and crumbling regime.
By insisting that the elections go forward, Mr. Bush and Mr. Abbas empowered the Palestinians to carry out the clean sweep of Mr. Arafat’s cronies that had previously proved impossible. They also ensured that Hamas would recommit itself to a cease-fire that has led to a dramatic reduction in bloodshed and returned normality to Israeli cities. The chances that the Palestinian Authority will be able to restore some order in Gaza have risen.
While Hamas is unlikely to recognize Israel or formally renounce violence, it is no more likely to turn the Palestinian territories into an Islamic state. Most probably it will seek to implement its moderate campaign platform, which promised an uncorrupted and effective government while working out a modus vivendi with Israel. It should have to try this without direct western aid or diplomatic recognition. But more extreme measures by Israel, Egypt or others to prevent the formation of a Hamas cabinet, or strangle the Palestinian territories with a cutoff of tax revenue or essential services, would likely only strengthen the Islamists or trigger a resumption of terrorism.
The Hamas victory is a poor guide to elections that might be held elsewhere in the Middle East. Despite the disarray of secular parties, the Islamists won only 44 percent of the popular vote. If there is a lesson to be drawn from Hamas’s victory, it is that it is unwise to suppose that corrupt and autocratic regimes can somehow be induced to renew themselves enough to win free elections. Rather than banking on such governments, the United States should be insisting that they allow the growth of independent political movements, including secular alternatives.
Democratization in the Middle East will inevitably mean that Islamists and others with anti-Western agendas will have the chance to compete for power — and occasionally to govern. If so they will be forced to choose, as Hamas now will, between ideology and pragmatic success, and suffer democracy’s consequences if they fail. To oppose that development is to invest in an untenable status quo and to raise the chances that the Islamists — who are a force the Middle East will live with for decades to come — will assume power and rule not by democracy but by violence.
—The Washington Post