DAWN - Opinion; April 11, 2007

April 11, 2007


Anatomy of extremism

By Shahid M. Amin

THE brutal killing of a woman minister of the Punjab government recently is illustrative of the convoluted thinking of Islamic extremists. The assassin believed that women should not rule over men and a Muslim woman must wear Hijab when she appears in public. This ‘Maulvi’ was confident that he was acting in accordance with Islamic teachings by killing the woman minister.

He also had a previous criminal record of killing some prostitutes. That too, he believed, was done to uphold Islamic values. It is likely that such a fanatic would face the hangman with the cry of ‘Allah is Great’, believing till the end that he had acted to uphold Islam.

How does one account for this kind of fanaticism? What kind of teachings produce such monsters that have been brainwashed so thoroughly that they can justify cold-blooded murder without any remorse? Similarly, how should one explain the mental state of the Al Qaeda operatives who make video recordings to publicise their gruesome acts of cutting the throats of kidnapped victims while shouting ‘Allah is Great’? Not far removed from this category are the suicide bombers who join worshippers at prayer time and then blow up the congregation – all brother Muslims.

These fanatics have some common features. Their interpretation of Islam is rigid, doctrinaire, intolerant and exclusive. They are full of self-righteousness and seek to impose their version of religion on others. They act as judge and jury and executioner, and arrogate to themselves the divine function of dispensing justice. Their driving force is vengeance and retribution. They are convinced that Islam is under attack, or has been betrayed, or corrupted.

They see it as their duty to set matters right through individual and collective acts to punish those who, in their view, have harmed Islam. They regard themselves as the only true believers: they see other Muslims not conforming to their version of Islam as deviants and sinners. In fact, they declare anyone who opposes them to be outside the pale of Islam.

For instance, the Taliban in Afghanistan and other extremists in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been using force to shut down girls’ schools, cinemas, cyber cafes, etc. They describe music as the devil’s voice. They force men to keep beards of a certain size and length, and, of course, women must be covered by the shuttlecock burqa if and when they venture outside their homes. These fanatics destroy television sets, which they see as instruments of vulgarity. They object to publication of any photographs in newspapers or elsewhere as something un-Islamic.

This kind of religious fanaticism represents a rejection of much that the modern world stands for. It is an attempt to return to the dark ages. As a result, there is a fierce struggle going on between the extremists and the moderates for the soul of Islam. Indeed, the world of Islam is currently going through a period of crisis. The dispute is about what is true Islam.

The moderates, who remain a majority in most Muslim countries, believe in moving with the rest of the world in the context of education, government, economy, culture and entertainment. The moderates hold that the teachings of the Quran and the traditions of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) emphasise tolerance, mercy, forgiveness and moderation. They reject violence and terrorism as counter to Islamic teachings.

The struggle between the modernists and the extremists started in the 19th century when Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was bitterly opposed by the traditionalists who declared this modern saviour of Indian Muslims as an apostate. Such fanatics also branded the poet philosopher Allama Iqbal, who wrote stirring poetry to revive Muslims in the 20th century, as a kafir.

In the more recent past, religious groups in South Asia and elsewhere have organised themselves as political bodies. Not all of these parties are extremists but the common features mentioned above exist in most of them, for example, an assumption that they are the true guardians of Islam and those who do not subscribe to their views are misguided, or deviationists or outside the pale of Islam. By and large, these religious parties are intolerant of dissent and some among them seek to ensure conformity by ostracising, intimidating and even terrorising their opponents.

In the last decade, the religious extremists seem focused on what they see as the threat to Islam, more particularly from the West, but also from other perceived enemies, including Israel, India, and Russia.

They are waging a big propaganda campaign whose main objective is the demonisation of the US and the West. Based on a mixture of facts, fiction and distortions, the Islamist extremists paint a picture of the world in which the US figures as the principal evil force – the great Satan – that is out to destroy the Muslim world.

In particular, since 9/11, the thrust of their propaganda has been that the US is seeking to conquer and occupy Muslim countries in order to exploit the resources of the Muslim world.

In their anti-US propaganda campaign, the Islamist extremists are capable of making all kinds of mental somersaults. For instance, at times, they deny that there is anything like Al Qaeda or any person like Osama bin Laden; on other occasions, they claim that Al Qaeda and Osama are the creation of the US itself. At times, they portray Osama as a fearless Islamic hero and justify the terrorism of Al Qaeda, including 9/11, as a just retribution for America’s sins against the Muslim world.

In the same breath, they deny that Osama had anything to do with 9/11. In a further mental gymnastic, they assert that 9/11 was actually staged by the US secret agencies themselves, along with Israel, in order to malign the Muslim world. As their evidence, they rely on a totally unsubstantiated assertion that the Jews in New York had been alerted not to visit the World Trade Towers on that particular day.

Their rationale for making such assertions regarding 9/11 is that the US had created an excuse to attack Afghanistan in order to seize the ‘vast’ natural resources of that country. The fact that Afghanistan is dirt-poor makes no difference to them.

In the context of Iraq, these extremists minimise the cruelties of Saddam Hussein. They never raised their voice when Saddam used chemical weapons to kill Iranian soldiers as well as Iraqi Kurds, and repeatedly slaughtered Iraqi Shias – all brother Muslims. In the eyes of the Islamist extremists, the moment Saddam confronted the US in the Gulf War of 1990-9, he became an instant hero. After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, these extremists have eulogised Saddam as a new Saladin Ayubi fighting the infidels.

However, in a typical mental somersault, when confronted with evidence of Saddam’s genocide of the Shia and Kurdish people of Iraq, they claim that Saddam was actually an American agent who was merely carrying out the orders of Washington. Either way, America must be blamed.

As for the current bloodshed in Iraq, they claim that the daily casualties are the result of the operations of the US occupation forces against Iraqi patriotic resistance, whereas news accounts suggest that most of the casualties are being caused either by suicide bombers attacking ordinary Iraqis, or by Sunni and Shia gangs killing each other. When confronted with these facts, the extremists contend that it is the US that has created the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq, disregarding the fact that such a claim has not been made by any notable Shia or Sunni leaders in Iraq itself, or even by Iran.

While this kind of propaganda campaign is a key factor in the ability of the extremists to win recruits, they have also profited by exploiting to their advantage the widely shared sense of grievance in the Muslim world that Muslims are being treated unfairly and their just rights are being denied.

At the heart of these grievances is the problem of Palestine where Israel has perpetuated its unlawful occupation for decades, in violation of the UN resolutions and demands of the international community. Muslims are bitter that the US in particular and the West in general have all along extended strong support to Israel.

Apart from Palestine, the denial of the right of self-determination to Muslims in Kashmir and Chechnya has caused deep indignation and led to resistance that has taken the shape of jihadi movements.

Events since 9/11 have deepened an impression in the Muslim world that the US and the West are targeting Muslim countries one by one. All the crisis areas at this time seem to be in the Muslim world. The Islamist extremists use these grievances to enlist fresh recruits to their cause.

Clearly, the US has failed to realise that its policies, particularly since 9/11, are producing exactly the opposite results – other than those intended by Washington. There is much more Islamic extremism and terrorism today than was the case before 9/11. Anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is at an all time high. As a result, Muslim moderates are being isolated and pro-western regimes getting destabilised.

These trends can be reversed only if there is a fundamental change in US policy vis-à-vis Israel, leading to a fair resolution of the Palestinian issue. The US occupation of Iraq has also antagonised Muslims all over the world and nothing less than an early withdrawal of US troops from that country would mollify Muslim opinion.

The best way to counter the threat of Islamist extremism is to remove the root causes that produce such terrorism, namely, by bringing about a fair solution of problems like Palestine and Kashmir.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Language question in education

By Zubeida Mustafa

LANGUAGE controversies have been a sensitive issue in Pakistan. Half the country was lost in 1971 when, among other things, we could not concede the right to the people of East Pakistan to use Bangla, their own language, in the affairs of the state.

In 1972, language riots took place in Karachi when the “new Sindhis” were unwilling to recognise the right of the people of Sindh to use Sindhi as the language of the government. The alienation that was caused ran deep and has still not been bridged.

Now we are heading towards another disaster induced by an ill-advised language policy. This time the policymakers want to use language as a tool to deprive the masses of Pakistan of the right to acquire good education and, by virtue of that, good jobs and a respectable status in society. How? The government is determined to teach English from class one upwards and use it as the medium for teaching science and mathematics at the secondary level.

For the common man this means that he should forget good education for his children who will never be able to grasp the various concepts they are taught in a foreign language they are not too familiar with.

The federal education minister, Lieutenant General (retd) Javed Ashraf Qazi, has made up his mind on this count. He initiated the process of consulting the stakeholders to make recommendations for informed decision making.

For that purpose he set up a national education policy review team under Javed Hasan Aly. When the stage was reached for formulating recommendations, the minister instructed the team leader not to suggest anything that ran counter to the minister’s policy. As could have been expected Mr Aly resigned and the education policy and the White Paper have been left in the doldrums.

The federal minister insists that all children should begin to learn English from class one and from class six onwards the medium for teaching science and maths should be English.

The revised white paper, unlike the first draft, also recommends this, albeit conditionally. It states, “Such compulsory education of English should only start after suitably qualified and appropriately trained teachers for the English language are available to staff positions in all primary schools of the country to ensure that the benefit is assured to all the citizens, and not just the elite.”

What we have at present is a dual system based on a class divide. Since the children of the elite are exposed to English at home and also outside, they acquire proficiency in the language fast and derive advantage from it. The private schools they attend use English as the medium of instruction and their familiarity with the language enables them to understand to some extent the concepts they are taught.

On the other hand, we have the vast majority for whom English is an alien language. Many of them have had no exposure to it at all. At a time when their minds are beginning to understand a variety of concepts, which a good system of education should ensure are explained in the child’s mother tongue, is it fair to load the children with the burden of learning a language that makes little sense to them?

Worse still, the teachers who teach the children of the poor are the products of a system that has been in decay for quite some time now. They are not fit to teach English. The children learn by rote whatever they are taught in the name of English.

In the process, Pakistani society is being stratified and the gulf between the classes is growing. The policy of ignoring the mother tongue is having a negative impact on the culture of the various regions and the ethnic chasm is widening. It is time the language issue was addressed seriously, scientifically and dispassionately.The revised White Paper takes note of the hurdles that will be faced in adopting the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in the early years of learning. It concedes that “a number of local languages, including Punjabi and Balochi, have never been formally used as medium of instruction and, therefore, it would take some time and effort to get them on the ground, especially the preparation of textbooks in these languages will take some doing.”

The most sensible recommendation made by the White Paper is that a national language commission must be set up to help operationalise “the policy options and cater to the demand of the development of regional languages.”

The problem is that when one argues for teaching a child in his mother tongue, the critics of this approach misconstrue it as an attack on English. This is not the case. We do want our children to learn English but as Zakia Sarwar, the honorary director of Spelt, so aptly observes, “Ten years of teaching bad English cannot produce a proficient English learner.” She also emphasises that for three years a child must be taught in his mother tongue if he is to make a good start.

“It has been scientifically proved that it is a myth that a child can learn a language only up to the age of six,” Sarwar says. A language can be learnt at any stage provided the resources and the environment are provided, she adds.

Farida Akbar, the director of Pakistan Montessori Training Centre who understands the working of a child’s mind very well, is worried that teaching a child in a language he is not familiar with restricts his vocabulary and understanding. “That amounts to limiting his mental horizons since ideas are directly linked with language and words, and a child learning in a foreign language does not have a vast repertoire of words to express ideas,” she says.

Tailpiece: An education department functionary when asked from where will we get good English language teachers was overheard saying, “We can import them from Sri Lanka.”

Looking after ministers

By Hafizur Rahman

WHO is more powerful in our political government: the minister or his officers? Who has his way more often: the elected political boss or the appointed/promoted head of a department or corporation? To be quite honest, the questions should be framed in another way: in a democracy who should be more powerful and who should have his say more often?

There is an old Urdu saying that whoever wields the stick keeps the buffalo. So, wherever there is a dispute about authority and wherever possession of the buffalo is in question, the respective parties try to get hold of the stick first.

When I posed these two questions, I knew there was no actual stick involved between, say, the minister and his administrative secretary. At least it is not a visible palpable stick that you can see. But it is the invisible magical stick comprising one's ability to make one's power felt and feared.

An editorial in a national newspaper bewails the fact that government departments keep their ministers in the dark even about important policy matters. One wonders if this is part of the ongoing game or is done purposely to embarrass the poor minister and to remind him that he is "here today and gone tomorrow."

I was a government officer for 34 years. In the last ten or twelve I was in a position where the introduction of a minister in the administrative scheme of things appeared to most of us like an interloper walking in and disturbing the quiet, welld machine that has been running smoothly so far.

The intrusion of a man wanting to know everything, or at least something, about what concerned his own interest or that of a friend or voter, just because he had been elected by a pack of ignorant simpletons, or so it seemed to us, jarred on our nerves and definitely distorted the status quo.

But this had to be. His presence had to be there; and we should understand that, because the journey of democracy with us had been frequently interrupted by marauders in uniform who believed that the people should feel beholden to them rather than to their elected representatives for whatever little the state was able to do for them.

Had the journey proceeded without military interference, we, the government officers, supposedly public servants, would have known our proper place in the hierarchy and acted accordingly while dealing with elected ministers instead of resenting their presence.

However, let me not become serious about an issue that is actually a nonissue as compared to all the other problems that face the country today. The minister who doesn't know how to wield the authority that the Constitution has vested in him is not fit to be a minister.

Two incidents that occurred during Mian Nawaz Sharif’s first term stand out in my mind as glaring examples even after so many years. Once Interior Minister Shujaat Husain said he had not been consulted, or even informed, when the Islamabad Administration and the Capital Development Authority launched police action against illegal constructions in Bani Gala village on Rawal Dam lake that led to death of a couple of persons.

Two, Defence Minister Ghous Ali Shah complained that he had not been consulted when the army commenced its operation against lawbreakers in Sindh. Should we have sympathised with the two federal ministers, ostensibly both fairly powerful? Or should we have called them "socalled ministers" or incompetent ministers? Or, to be very frank, ministers subsisting at the pleasure of their secretaries?

In either case they would not have sounded like fullministers of a sovereign state. In a way that was not very surprising. In a country where the post of prime minister was (at that time, as it is even now) encroached upon by the constitutional head of state, the ministers too had sometimes to be impotent to an equal degree.

That is why when they are unable to exercise their authority as ministers when the cases put up to them have to be explained by the secretary, they make a feeble attempt to assert themselves in other ways. The most common form that this takes is to arrogate to themselves the authority normally exercised by a joint secretary, to appoint naib qasids and chowkidars, and even sweepers. This at least gives them some respect in the eyes of visiting MNAs and MPAs and their own supporters and voters from their constituencies.

And since the work of government has to go on, secretaries and heads of departments and corporations continue their prosaic duties while the ministers bask in the limelight of TV cameras, presiding over mushairas and bookinaugurating selfrestaurants, and being chief guests at memorial meetings for famous poets and writers they have never heard of.

Sometimes, during this process, the ministry or the department takes an emergency decision which attracts inordinate public attention and which the minister knows nothing about, he then has to admit that he was not briefed about it in advance by his bureaucratic subordinates, and goes and weeps on the prime minister's shoulder.

If I were a minister I would never do that. I would make some kind of excuse, howsoever unbelievable, tell a white lie, but never say that my inferiors took such an important decision over my head. A decision can be right and it can be wrong, it can't always be the best in the circumstances. Political prudence lies in owning it brazenand getting away with it.

To conclude, if the interior minister had told a whopper at that time that the Bani Gala operation was undertaken with his approval, you could have said (no matter if a few people died in it) that it was unwise and indiscreet, but you wouldn't have said, "What sort of minister is this who doesn't know what his officers are doing under his very nose?"

The same should go for the defence minister of old, although in his case it was a rather different matter, for the army was involved in the Sindh operation. And when the army becomes serious about something it listens to the COAS and doesn't run after the defence minister to seek his permission!

Publish and be damned

NOBODY comes well out of the decision to permit Britain's released Iran hostages to sell their stories. But whose judgment should we criticise first when there are so many candidates jostling for censure? Step forward the defence secretary, Des Browne, who last night announced a ban on military personnel selling their stories to the media, pending an internal review of procedures.

He was shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. Mr Browne said he wanted to be sure that there was clear guidance for the future. There is little doubt that this is needed. The command structure of the armed forces collapsed on first contact with the Fleet Street chequebook. But nor should a free pass be given to the beasts of the media, so often happy to wave the flag and get behind our boys (and now our girl) but then, when it suits, to tempt them with gold. And after all that, they're now surfing their own story, denouncing the authorities for giving in to them.

Nor is there much cause for pride in the performance of the hostages, who are apparently trained to resist a ruthless enemy but, in some cases, have surrendered to Rupert Murdoch even faster than they gave in to their Iranian interrogators. Not even the hostages' families can be exempted; last week they were anxious relatives undergoing a cruel ordeal, but now they have dried their tears and grabbed a slice of the loot.

It's important to understand the changed culture in which the modern military now operates. Many traditional military assumptions are unsustainable in a world in which service personnel are volunteers with human rights and mobile telephones. In many ways, this is a change to be welcomed: there is no way that first world war commanders could have sent a generation to be slaughtered on the Western Front if our great-grandfathers had been blogging each night from Picardy.

Nevertheless, the MoD's original concession of a "right" to sell one's story was a corrosive precedent, as well as deeply offensive to many service families.

But it was also the latest step in the process by which defence policy has become increasingly constrained by democracy, law and human rights and in which the general staff's capacity to make war as it sees fit - certainly to fight a politically controversial elective war such as that in Iraq - has been subverted not so much by disobedient squaddies as by squaddies' families with access to lawyers, Max Clifford and the media.

It is no good wringing one's hands and saying that ours has regrettably become the kind of society in which things like this must now be expected to happen.

We can do better than that - which is why an inquiry into the wider issues (rather than the one announced last night) could be helpful in drawing a line.

Faye Turney and Arthur Batchelor have not behaved well, but it would be hypocritical to single them out for criticism when Sir Christopher Meyer did the same thing when he retired as British ambassador in Washington or when Alastair Campbell is poised to do the same thing with his diaries of the Blair years.

The challenge is to re-establish rules that work - and then to be prepared to enforce them. This means enforcing them not just on soldiers and sailors but on publishers and journalists, civil servants and politicians. It involves standing up to the claim that there is a public interest in the media publishing everything it can get its hands on at any time.

There have to be secrets and there have to be no-publicity rules to protect them either absolutely, as there still are for secret-service personnel, or for reasonable periods of time, as is still nominally the case for civil servants and ministers. Ultimately the reason for such rules is the same - because the system will fall apart if they are not applied. Our defence forces cannot function if their personnel are free not just to take the Queen's shilling but Mr Murdoch's too.

—The Guardian, London

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007