DAWN - Opinion; April 18, 2007

April 18, 2007


Where is Pakistan headed?

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

IN an interview to CBS last week, President Musharraf maintained that it was not because of the “government’s weakness” that no action had been taken against the two madressahs adjacent to Islamabad’s Lal Masjid so far. On Saturday speaking at the PMA in Kakul, he said that Pakistan was “passing through the worst ever critical moment” and was “facing the two major threats of religious extremism and sectarianism.”

He then added, in an apparent reference to the Lal Masjid stand-off, that the government would have to be careful in the use of force against extremist elements: “We will be rational before using might, as we will have to face our own brothers and sisters.”

In the meanwhile, raiding parties from the Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsa are fanning out into the city shutting down video shops and burning videos not only in the principal markets in Islamabad but also in the suburb of Barakau. Members of the Islamabad police force were kidnapped and held hostage. Conferences are being held on the Lal Masjid premises with extremists from all over the country being allowed to enter without any interference from local authorities.

The Ghazi brothers are issuing ultimatums asking the government to end the illicit sale of liquor in Islamabad or face the consequences of the Jamia Hafsa vigilantes doing it themselves. They have asked for all video shops and brothels in Islamabad to be closed within one month. Courts have been set up in Lal Masjid to dispense Islamic justice in accordance with the Shariah and Sunnah.

The government first chose its minister for religious affairs, Ijazul Haq, to negotiate with the Lal Masjid imams. He promised that the government would rebuild the demolished mosques and make all sorts of other concessions in time. The Ghazi brothers, however, insist that all actions must be completed before the Lal Masjid crisis is brought to an end. The current negotiator Chaudhry Shujaat, snidely referred to in some quarters as the MMA’s “B” team, has also offered a great deal. All this reflects the surrender of state authority.

This is happening when religious leaders of all stripes have condemned the actions of the Ghazi brothers terming them unIslamic and thus offering support to the majority of Pakistanis who want action to be taken to enforce the writ of the state. Few are prepared to share the rationalisation that police action to end the crisis will lead to enormous bloodshed. Non-lethal weapons such as tear-gas and rubber bullets would, it is argued, minimise the extent of injuries. There is no real fear of a more widespread movement given that the general public sees the Lal Masjid fanatics as a disgrace to the religion that they are professedly seeking to protect and promote.

If the stand-off continues, however, there can be a change in public opinion. A poll on a private TV channel a couple of weeks ago showed that of the respondents some 67 per cent were opposed to the actions of the Lal Masjid leaders but a full 30 per cent approved of what they were doing. The latter vote did not reflect conviction but rather frustration with the inability of government to provide security.

It also reflected fear. The reaction of the man in the street is that if this is the coming tide he must learn to adjust and survive as the people of this region have done repeatedly in the face of innumerable invasions. It is a reflection of this reality that the video shop owner in Barakau whose videos were burned by the Lal Masjid vigilantes told the police that he himself had burnt the videos.

In these circumstances, it is almost certain that another poll would show increased support for the Taliban-like activity of the Lal Masjid imams. Dawn’s editor in Islamabad had it exactly right when he described it as “creeping Talibanisation”.

This brings me to the developments with regard to Talibanisation elsewhere, particularly in the NWFP. The situation there is deteriorating with almost equal rapidity as the Taliban extend their reach from the tribal areas. In Peshawar, schools belonging to international chains had to shut down for four days at the end of February when militants issued threats of attacks.

Last year, the militants’ gradual incursions into the district of Tank, adjoining the tribal area of South Waziristan, led to a total collapse of the civil administration there. The police abandoned four out of five major police posts, and nine bank branches in the town of Tank were asked to arrange for their own security. More recently, the principal of a local private school was kidnapped because he refused to stop teaching girls. He has been rescued but the efforts to restore government control have had only spotty success.

In cities like Darra Adam Khel and even in Peshawar the threat of Taliban action has led to the permanent closure of private schools for girls and to pledges by barbers that they will no longer shave beards.

In Malakand, Mullah Fazalullah, a son-in-law of the leader of the TNSM (Tehrik-i-Nifaz Sharia Malakand), who sent thousands to Afghanistan to fight and perish for the Taliban in the battle against America in 2001, is now busy riding through the area delivering Taliban edicts through a megaphone.

In Parachinar, Kurram Agency’s principal town, sectarian strife that became a feature during the Afghan jihad has now taken a new and uglier turn with the army having to be called in to quell the strife which took more than 50 lives and involved the use of heavy weapons by both sides.

The one notable exception, and an exception that can perhaps prove to be a turning point, is the successful effort to get the tribal leaders in Waziristan to act against the Uzbek militants who had set up their own fiefdoms in the area and had vowed to wage a battle against the “infidel” Pakistan army. According to President Musharraf, some 300 Uzbek militants were killed in a purging operation.

The latest agreement signed by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribal leaders, under strong prompting by Mullah Nazir, requires the imposition of collective punishment for all those sheltering or supporting Uzbek or other foreign militants. It asks the government to assume once again the responsibility for maintenance of law and order and the safety of roads, telephone and electricity and requests government officials who had fled the area to return and resume their functions. This agreement, if implemented and duplicated in other tribal agencies, could turn the situation around after some time.

For many commentators and observers of the scene the optimism generated by this agreement is tempered by the fact that Mullah Nazir was at least in the past a Taliban leader who had pledged fealty to Mullah Omar and repeatedly offered his support to efforts to oust foreign troops from Afghanistan. Has the leopard changed his spots? One hopes he has. The government has now acknowledged that it has assisted him. It is probable that US intelligence agencies either directly or through Pakistani intermediaries have done likewise.

The president has expressed the hope that the North Waziristan tribes will also take action against the Uzbeks and will sign a similar agreement. Clearly, he is hoping that with a series of such agreements the writ of the government will be re-established throughout the area. Resolute action must be taken if this is to happen. First, there has to be a greater effort to stop the funding that continues to reach the Taliban and their sympathisers from external sources, primarily Arab philanthropists. Second, faster action must be taken to implement development projects worth Rs124 billion that according to the Fata secretariat are said to be in the works for the area. It is only economic development and wider avenues of employment that will reduce the lure of extremism.

Whatever needs to be done in the tribal area must be done quickly, but in the meanwhile, there must also be action elsewhere to combat the creeping Talibanisation. Cynics in Pakistan and abroad say that the ruling elite believes that US largesse and political support would be available only if signs of Talibanisation in Pakistan serve to reinforce American concerns.

It is true that President Bush is not a fount of wisdom. He has advisers, however, who will tell him that his friend and ally President Musharraf has the means to resolve the Lal Masjid crisis. He will be told that this will create no political crisis since all political parties and religious figures have condemned the antics of the Lal Masjid imams. He will then be forced to conclude that Musharraf is playing games to divert attention from the judicial crisis and the growing demand for opening up political space for mainstream parties.

The Americans are convinced that economic development may be the answer to Talibanisation in the tribal areas. They may even buy the idea that as long as the tribal maliks can keep the mullah in check the mainstream political parties need not displace them. They have pledged assistance of 750 million dollars over a five-year period for this purpose.

They are equally convinced, however, that elsewhere in Pakistan only the mainstream political parties can provide an antidote to Talibanisation of society that is being fostered in equal measure by the frustration reflected in the judicial crisis and the ham-handed actions of the Americans in other Muslim countries.

The American reaction apart, what is the path on which President Musharraf wants to set Pakistan? On the one hand, he says that extremism and sectarianism represent the greatest danger to Pakistan. On the other, he does nothing to combat such an obvious manifestation as the Lal Masjid. He promised in January 2002 that the madressahs would be regulated. Five years down the road, the registration still awaits completion. Why? Is it because as the cynics say he wants to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds?

President Musharraf has said that he prides himself on being both a man of action and one who recognises reality. It was this recognition that led him to accept unreservedly a role in the global war on terrorism. Recognising the reality created by the inept handling of the judicial and the Lal Masjid crises would force him to the conclusion that even less so now than in September 2001 can he afford to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. He has to abandon the hares and find a new running partner in hunting with the hounds.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Whither National Art Gallery?

By Zubeida Mustafa

PAKISTAN has a rich art heritage. Masters such as Chughtai, Sadequain, Shakir Ali, and others are recognised internationally. But the misfortune of this country has been that visual art has not enjoyed the public appreciation it merits for the simple reason that it does not have the exposure art must have if people are to understand and derive pleasure from it – and be able to distinguish good art from bad.

It was, therefore, a matter of great satisfaction when all art forms gained recognition under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. To promote them, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) was established in 1972 under the renowned poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. To ensure that they received equal attention two divisions were set up in the PNCA – one for performing arts and the other for visual arts.

The mandate of the PNCA’s visual art division was to organise national and international exhibitions of celebrated artists. But intriguingly, it did not even have a gallery to display works of art. Hence art lovers heaved a sigh of relief when they learnt that Pakistan was to have a National Art Gallery (NAG) in Islamabad which would serve as a repository of the works of the great Pakistani masters. Contemporary artists would also have a place to exhibit their works giving them more exposure.

The gallery had been in the making for nearly 16 years but it was only in April 2005 that NAG received the final nod from the government and work started in full swing on the Rs456 million project. Completed late last year, it was to be inaugurated by the president on March 26. But the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip occurred when the formal inauguration was suddenly put off.

This may not have been such a disaster but for the fact that at the same time the word went round that NAG was being renamed the National Centre for Creative Art and the PNCA’s emphasis was to shift to performing arts – where the money lies and which happens to be the area of expertise of Mr Naeem Tahir, the director-general of the PNCA.

When contacted by this writer, Mr Tahir vehemently denied that a change of name had been announced. He was bitter that a non-issue was being made into an issue to whip up a controversy and charged the visual artists of being ungrateful. They should have got together and “thanked the Almighty Allah” that this project had now been completed. He claimed credit for it.

He, however, failed to appreciate the concerns of the artists, terming them to be “imaginary”. The very next day after he had spoken to me complaining that journalists had not contacted him to get his point of view, he faxed me an interview he had given to another newspaper. In the interview, he admits that he has proposed the establishment of a Centre for Creative Arts and the artists were confusing it with NAG.

This leaves one wondering what is cooking in Islamabad. Ijazul Hasan, a renowned artist and member of the governing council of the PNCA, confirmed that no announcement about a change of name had been made. But he added that the grapevine had been buzzing and he had made it categorically clear in a meeting of the governing body that no change of name would be brooked.

Besides the curators, artists and others involved in the preparations for the aborted launch – Saleema Hashmi and Niilofer Farrukh to name two – are convinced that the concept of NAG is under threat from Mr Tahir. It is a characteristic case of whose word should be believed.

But there is incriminating evidence against Mr Naeem Tahir and it is surprising that he shows no desire to reassure the artists who fear that the visual art gallery is in danger of being sidelined. As though the controversy that has been raging were not enough, the director general proceeded to allow the ISPR the use of the auditorium in NAG for a variety show on April 11.

Saleema Hashmi, one of the curators, who says she is ‘aghast’ at what is happening, fears that at this rate, the four honour galleries will be converted into rehearsal rooms if the auditorium is used preponderantly for performances. Without saying whether this is happening or not, Ijazul Hasan warns of “encroachments” which are inevitable “if you leave your house unlocked”, he remarks.

A paper, which Mr Naeem Tahir faxed to me titled “The National Art Gallery Complex”, speaks of a “national cultural complex of which the national art gallery will be the first building to be completed”. It is also to have an ‘amphitheatre’ spread over 12,000 square feet. According to the chart given, 64 per cent of the space in the gallery (90,000 square feet) will be reserved for displaying exhibits.

The main concern of the artists as articulated by Saleema and Ijaz is that the identity of the National Art Gallery should be preserved and its sanctity as a repository of contemporary art be upheld. A reasonable demand by all means. Towards that end an autonomous management comprising visual art professionals must be established immediately. The posts of executive director and director visual arts were advertised more than two months ago – albeit only in Islamabad papers -- but no appointments have been made so far.

Ijazul Hasan also insists on the enhancement of the budget for acquisition of works of art. Initially it was one million rupees which is peanuts considering that one Chughtai can cost five million rupees. Ijaz has managed to get it boosted to 10 million rupees. But he is not certain if the finance ministry will sanction this sum.

With the formal opening put off indefinitely and the exhibits having been obtained on lease for three months after which they must be returned, it is difficult to be very optimistic about the fate of the gallery. Given the furore, which could have been avoided if the director general had acted wisely, a new problem is looming large on the art horizon: a split between the visual arts and the performing arts communities.

The visual artists are desperately trying to avert that. Polarisation would harm both genres. Saleema Hashmi fears that if the auditorium of NAG is used in a big way for performances, the artistes will never get the national theatre that has been promised them while visual arts will be robbed of the space that was their due.

To prison for education

By Hafizur Rahman

THERE are various ways of getting educated or acquiring some kind of education. Most people go to school to start with. Some of them find their way to college or university. Some drop out, develop wrong habits and end up in jail. This, according to the latest information from behind the bars, is the best way to earn a degree, or, if you are unlettered, to learn to read and write.

And this is what a delegation of foreign jurists discovered when it visited a central jail in Punjab some time ago. Why they thought of visiting one of our jails was not explained. Maybe because our protocol boys were keen to show the visitors from abroad the only place in the country where complete discipline and law and order prevail. Or maybe the idea was to impress the foreign jurists with the good behaviour of our convicts.

I mean to say if the convicts and criminals of the country are so well-mannered and devoted to education, how much law-abiding and disciplined the citizens outside the prison walls must be. No?

Of course these are conjectures born out of my incorrigible sense of the ridiculous. I suppose I must devote more time to reading serious literature so that I don’t get funny ideas, which I now do by going through newspapers and reading the daily statements of politicians and government leaders. Returning to the convicts, the plain fact is that the head of the central jail made out a convincing case before the foreign jurists about the benefits of getting educated in prison, and a qualitatively better education at that.

The report did not make headlines, but one Urdu columnist did express the view that now perhaps the only way to raise the percentage of literacy in Pakistan, and simultaneously reduce the birth-rate, would be to have more and more people behind the bars.

It is good that the news about the jurists’ visit and the Urdu columnist’s remarks were not widely read otherwise there would have been a rush by young men, disillusioned by the examination system and the “booti mafia,” to storm prison gates and demand admission in order to be properly educated.

In case you don’t know, the booti mafia maintains organised gangs of crooks and crooked teachers and education officials in Punjab who enable students copy in exams for a consideration, and release advance copies of question papers among the needy.The foreign jurists were told that so far 80,000 inmates of jails in the province had acquired education of one kind or other, and that 62 of them had actually passed the M.A. examination in various subjects.

Now I understand why social workers are always calling for reforms in the jail system. At this rate our penitentiaries will soon turn into schools and colleges – and maybe even universities – and by the time the next jurists’ delegation comes to Pakistan we may have nothing to show by way of penal institutions. Don’t you think that prisons should remain prisons?

Anyway it’s a strange coincidence that people like me who never got a degree used to consider school and college life as imprisonment, and yearned for the time when the harsh control of parental discipline would be lifted and we would be free to choose whatever we wanted to do – whether to go to jail or to America. That I went to neither of the two can only be explained as lack of enterprise on my part.

But I did become literate as you can see. Otherwise I would not be writing this column every week. I am entirely self-taught because, unlike the thousands mentioned by the jail officer, I managed to acquire education without passing a single day under his tutelage.

Long ago my colleagues in the information department prevailed upon me to join the Jamia Sharqia in Lahore’s Gowalmandi area so that I could take the Munshi Fazil exam in Persian, and after passing a paper in English only, become a B.A. of the Punjab University. In those days this method was called graduating via Bhatinda, named after a loop line of the North Western Railway, now in Indian Punjab. In the Jamia Sharqia we sat on rush mats and read Persian from a venerable maulvi sahib, with the only ceiling fan in the room revolving over his head. It was a hot summer.

Then one day, another friend and well-wisher, persuaded me to give up the attempt. “Your only distinction in this herd,” he said, “is that you are not a B.A. Why do you want to lose it?”

In those days (this was in the fifties) despite the Islamic injunction to go to any lengths, even going to China, to acquire learning, nobody thought of going to China to acquire learning, nobody thought of going to prison to get a degree, for the academic prize was freely provided by colleges all over the country. You only had to get admitted into one, and that was no problem.

Believe it or not. On the other hand, prisons were prisons and not part-time academies, and any convict thinking of getting educated there would have been sent to the other jail – the madhouse.

The other day a niece of mine put her little son to school. He is three years old and joined what is called the Play Group. Her husband paid Rs10,000 for the privilege for just one term, including something called security. I wonder where he got the money from. My college fee used to be the princely sum of seven rupees, not to forget two rupees per month as library subscription.

The little one’s parents have never said so, but I’m sure they must be thinking what kind of education it was that it cost only nine rupees a month, and that if I couldn’t become a graduate at even such a cheap price, there must have been something terribly wrong with me.

Thank God they don’t read this column. If they came to know of the education facilities in the central jails, they would have me sent there. For, nobody wants a non-graduate great-uncle these days!

Celebrity culture

"I THINK we're moving from this period when celebrity matters, when people have become famous for being famous," an optimistic Gordon Brown says in his interview in the Guardian. "I've somehow got more faith in the essential decency of the British people – that they want to talk about big and important issues in a way that does justice to them."

Well, as a celebrity from an earlier era might mutter, he would say that, wouldn't he? Plainly this most serious of politicians has good reason to flatter the electorate with their own seriousness, especially when he can extract from it a bit of a chisel at the next-door neighbour.

Self-interested or not, though, the chancellor has a point. There are limits to celebrity culture, and the general outrage over the navy's decision to take cash for interviews may perhaps have revealed them. Celebrity is a kind of rip-off of fame, the sort of thing Primark does to catwalk fashion. Like Primark, it can be a welcome relief from the pompous and the weighty. But it cannot escape its baggage of vacuity.

Mr Brown cites the growth of literary festivals and book groups as proof of the public appetite for something tougher to chew on. There is also the strong, if unfocused, concern over climate change and world poverty, the great anti-war march or even the passionate if sometimes unmannerly involvement of internet bloggers. There are plenty of subjects that voters take very seriously indeed. It is the politicians that they find harder to treat with respect.

It is one of the great contradictions of the past 10 years that a government so apparently serious about its purpose in power, led by one of the great communicators of the modern age, should have so devalued the currency of political persuasion. Politicians, desperate to find ways of engaging voters who are no longer motivated by fear or class interest, looked around at what did interest people, or at least the media, and came up with the slick presentation of the celebrity business.

Like most good ideas, it needed to be used sparingly. The deliberate search for novelty and a good story line, for something sparky to say, sooner or later risks losing both voters' attention and their respect. It is striking that Tony Blair's (brilliant) Catherine Tate sketch has had nearly half a million hits on YouTube. Fancy a politician, even the prime minister, arousing such interest. But then look at his personal approval ratings.

Perhaps the message of all those people who managed to vote to make sure that Shilpa Shetty won Big Brother but who will not be turning out in next month's elections is not that politics needs to be more like celebrity television but that Big Brother is at its most interesting when it gets involved in issues that are normally left to politicians. Celebrity is a necessary element of politics, but it certainly will not create lasting success on its own.

It is hard to be heard without a little glamour, a sense of excitement in the atmosphere -- and Mr Brown knows it. Like all politicians, he is searching for points of connection, the ability to convince people that he is enough like everyone else to understand normal hopes and fears. What he seems to be aiming for is a reappropriation of seriousness. He wants to rescue it from the curse of dullness, and establish it as a basic political virtue, something linked to honesty, openness and integrity. But to do this he will have to do more than simply praise serious values and intellectual debate: he will have to show that he is prepared to engage.

Mr Brown could make a good start by being serious himself about explaining his agenda in power, and serious about contributing to the debate about Labour's next 10 years. There are many people who have become tired of the easy soundbite - the political ready meal that is fine until you look at the list of ingredients.

—The Guardian, London

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007