DAWN - Opinion; May 26, 2007

26 May 2007


Another wasted effort

By Tariq Fatemi

HIGH-RANKING representatives of Muslim states got together in Islamabad recently for the 34th meeting of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM). As is the practice, this event takes place every year in different capitals of the member-states with great pomp and ceremony and ends with high-sounding declarations.

In fact, these annual get-togethers are more an exercise in self-projection by the host country while the invitees keep turning up to please the hosts and to gain publicity in their own backyards.

The result of all this is that no one now attaches any importance to the agenda of the conference which keeps expanding so that no one is disappointed and every country can claim that its national interests were protected and promoted. Usually these conferences also provide the hosts with the opportunity to spruce up the capital, apply a fresh coat of paint (literally) and present themselves in a most favourable light.

In this year’s annual jamboree of Islamic foreign ministers in Islamabad, the visiting dignitaries were in for one major surprise. The hosts, too, could never have imagined that their well-thought-out plans would all turn into dust, thanks to their ham-handed handling of the judicial crisis.

I spoke to a number of foreign delegates attending the ICFM and not one person was able to fathom why the regime did what it did. Why undertake an action that was bound to create unprecedented turmoil in the country, especially when everything seemed to be going the government’s way?

What reason could be advanced to explain an act that can only be characterised as wrong and stupid? It appeared as if the regime wished to demonstrate to our visiting brothers that Pakistan was no exception to the malaise that currently afflicts authoritarian Muslim regimes that having run out of steam are no longer able to generate new ideas.

When faced with increasing opposition, they make horrible mistakes that only compound their difficulties and thereby provide people with an opportunity to unleash their bottled-up anger and frustration.

Nevertheless, I gather that the visiting foreign ministers were genuinely amazed at the extent and intensity of the people’s disillusionment with the current political dispensation in Pakistan. They were astounded even more with the manner in which a coalition partner of the government in one of the provinces unleashed a savage crackdown on innocent citizens.

There were other unusual and interesting developments in the conference. At its very outset, the visiting foreign ministers and their delegations were taken by surprise when the president, in his inaugural address, most inexplicably floated the idea of a Muslim force to be inducted in Iraq, under the auspices of the UN, after “foreign interference” had ended.

This proposal also caught our own officials off guard, for it had neither been debated nor discussed in the foreign policy establishment, prior to its launch in the president’s formal address. This episode provided another demonstration of the casualness with which our leaders come out with major initiatives on important and highly complex issues, without due deliberation and discussion.

Admittedly, the idea of a Muslim force for Iraq has been under discussion for many years and was promoted by the US as early as 2004, when it first came to realise the enormity of its task and the increasing global hostility to its illegal adventure.At that time, there were quite a few Muslim countries, including Pakistan, that were highly attracted to this idea, which they felt would endear them to the Bush administration. The US was convinced that even if one Muslim country took the bait, others would follow suit and Washington would then be able to claim that its invasion and occupation of Iraq had finally received the endorsement of the Muslim world.

Fortunately, virtually all the stakeholders in Pakistan, including the foreign office, came out strongly against any involvement in the Iraq imbroglio. For the Pakistani leader to have sprung this idea on his unsuspecting audience, without prior consultations either at home or abroad with other major Muslim countries, was neither politic nor polite.

This was confirmed by the fact that the president’s proposal never got beyond the opening day, and failed to find mention in the declaration issued after the conference had ended. This was both unusual and embarrassing because the hosts are usually able to get much of what they want into the text of the declaration.

The situation in Iraq in the past three years has deteriorated beyond belief. Nothing has been going right for the occupation forces and even the Bush administration, though adept in the art of propaganda and simulation has failed to carry conviction even with many among its party faithful.

Neither elections nor the effort to create a national Iraqi army has been successful in staunching the bloodshed. The result is that the country is in a state of virtual civil war, with sectarian, linguistic and ethnic considerations now the determining factors in the attitude of major personalities there.

Even with the increase in the number of American troops, there is no end to massive sectarian killings or daily attacks on US and coalition forces. American deaths now total close to 3,400 and there is no end to their pain and suffering in sight. No one is counting the Iraqi casualties, though reliable reports speak of numbers as high as nearly three quarters of a million Iraqis dead since the US invasion. There is now the very real possibility of Iraq heading towards a three-way break-up.

I was still reflecting on what afflicted the Muslim world when I found myself travelling to Egypt. It was in the lobby of the century-old Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo, where I happened to read the president’s interview to a visiting group of Egyptian journalists, including the editor of the prestigious Al Ahram.

The Egyptian editors were most courteous but could not help observing that though the general was his usual smooth and articulate self, he appeared totally divorced from reality. The report stated: “the president somewhat over-confidently assured his guests that the challenges facing his vast and varied country can be controlled. But in an ironic twist of events, developments soon after took a sharp and bloody turn for the worse, creating Pakistan’s worst political crisis in 20 years.”

Not surprisingly, the general chose to dismiss the judicial crisis as nothing more than “agitation by some lawyers, not all”. The Egyptians were, of course, not taken in by these claims, as evident from the columns written by them, on their return. They were convinced that either the president was taking them for nincompoops or was confirming the impression of some that he was devoid of reality.

Earlier, the president’s interview by Talat Hussain on Aaj TV was a painful reminder of the wisdom of the well-known adage that warns of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Not only was the general’s defence of the indefensible pathetic, it further confirmed how unaware he is of the remarkable transformation the country has gone through since that fateful day in March, when the Chief Justice was confronted by the regime’s most powerful personalities, in all the glory that their starched stiff uniforms could bestow on them.

While it was amusing to hear the president state that his stature was now so high in the world that people came to him for advice and counsel, it was worrying to hear him claim that he was now in a position to “teach” all the doubting Thomases, what was right or wrong about the current situation in Afghanistan.

Anyway, coming back to the ICFM, it said all the right things and expressed support for causes dear to the Muslims. Although it was dedicated to promoting peace, progress and harmony in the Muslim world, no one was there to tell the hosts that these concepts are alien to the rulers of many Muslim countries which continue to be ruled by oppressive regimes that are not interested in genuine progress or harmony.

The Islamabad ICFM was a reminder of the ills afflicting the Muslim world. Though Muslims are spread across the world, represent one-fifth of humanity and possess 70 per cent of the world’s energy resources and 40 per cent of the globe’s raw materials, they control neither their political nor economic destinies.

There are many reasons for these faults and shortcomings. The lack of education is one reason that comes to mind immediately. The failure to establish institutions is another. But the one reason universally acknowledged is the absence of genuine, representative and pluralistic democracy. It is this shortcoming that has permitted the rulers of Muslim states to deny the people their rights, whether of free speech, free association or free assembly.

This explains why the Muslim world happens to have the largest number and variety of authoritarian, non-representative regimes, whether these are civilian or military.

There is a tendency among some Muslim scholars and political scientists to either blame the West for this state of affairs or to moan the lack of interest and commitment in western governments to promoting democracy in Muslim countries. This, however, betrays ignorance and naivety.

The West does believe in genuine, representative democracy and respect for human rights but for itself and for its own citizens. It is neither in its interests nor is it its responsibility to give Muslim countries democracy, the way it doles out economic aid.

Many a retired western official has admitted that it is so very much easier to deal with a single individual in a developing world rather than with institutions, especially if the latter happen to be representative. In such a situation, it is wrong of us to expect deliverance from our current predicament by the West.

We have to do this ourselves through our own efforts. If, in the course of this struggle, sacrifices have to be made, so be it. It is the blood of the martyrs that is the cement that holds the nation together and makes it appreciate the true meaning of rights and responsibilities.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Mixing religion with politics

By Kuldip Nayar


THE Sikhs are a brave and courageous community but easily excitable. Transparent as their community is, it does not nourish a grievance. It ventilates it whenever and wherever it feels hurt. But it is too emotional.

What has happened in Punjab in India over the last few days reflects the same trait of pouring one’s heart out and getting square with those who hurt the community. Its anger is like a flood which breaks all the banks and even the dykes.

Take the case of Dera Sacha Sauda, a monastery of sorts, where thousands of people, particularly those belonging to low castes, throng to in order to meditate or listen to its chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh who purposely named himself so to convey the message of pluralism. Yet he donned robes like those of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of the Sikhs, and even imitated him in distributing ‘amrit’ — one can call it ‘sherbet-i-hayat’ (syrup of life).

In fact, he went beyond that by inserting an advertisement to publicise his reception where he was shown in flowing robes with a plume pinned on his turban like Guru Gobind Singh. This instigated a large number of Sikhs. Several thousands came out on the streets with unsheathed swords and there was a clash in which state buses and some buildings were set on fire. There was vandalism and destruction.

No doubt, the Dera chief is to blame for the violence. But the Punjab government sat back and did nothing for the first two days. Is it because the Dera chief had issued an edict to his followers during the recent state election to vote for the Congress? His behaviour, particularly the advertisement, has given life to militants and hardliners who had been lying low for the last decade or so. They took law and order into their own hands and the Akali Dal-led government became a mute spectator.

The Akal Takht came into action. It is the highest spiritual and temporal seat of the Sikhs and acts like the government and issues ultimatums. Had the state government taken timely action against those who went about unchecked, particularly in the countryside, things would not have reached the pass they did. While the state was in the throes of one of its worst crises, the government waited for word to come from the political affairs committee of the party.

The Dera chief could have doused the fire if he had gone to the public to say that he never meant to present himself as Guru Gobind Singh. The Dera later issued a press release to express regret. But it was too little, too late. An apology would have been in order.

I do not know why the Dera chief was adamant on not issuing an apology. The Pope did it when he realised that some of his words had hurt the Muslims. We, living in the land of Mahatma Gandhi, should never have any hesitation in saying “sorry”, especially when we find that we have, wittingly or unwittingly, hurt some people.

What has disconcerted me is the role of the Akal Takht. It supplanted the state government. Calling a bandh (strike) was none of its business. This is the job of political parties. The Akalis should have done it if they had felt the need. Bandh is a political term, not a religious one. India, particularly Punjab, has suffered in the past because the Akal Takht has mixed religion with politics. It has been once again found doing that. Ordering the closure of deras is the government’s job, not that of the Akal Takht. These are not religious issues.

The Sikh faith in ‘miri’ and ‘piri’ is interpreted wrongly in today’s context, and politics is mixed with religion. When Guru Hargobind Sahib, in adumbrating the concept, rationalised the joining of politics with religion, his purpose was to instil the sentiments of social service among his followers. He wanted the Sikhs to pay attention to the lowest in the land.

No doubt, the Sikhs are far ahead in this field as compared to other communities. Still, their contribution is not in proportion to the wealth at their command. Why can’t the community channel money to productive avenues so as to absorb the lakhs of unemployed Sikhs who are prone to drugs? One cause for the last militancy in Punjab was the unemployment of Sikh youth.

The situation has not improved. I do not understand why every time there is trouble in Punjab, some elements collect in London to raise the demand for Khalistan, a separate state. This happened last week as well. And, as usual, two Muslim MPs of Pakistani origin were there to denounce India.

Pakistan has its own troubles and they emanate from the same malady: mixing religion with politics. Take the case of Lal Masjid in Islamabad which has become a centre of fundamentalists trying to dictate to the Pakistan government.

The Sikhs, by and large, have come to accept provincial autonomy like the rest of the Indians. But the problem with the Sikh community is that it tends to mix religion with politics. It is not opposed to secularism but it overemphasises the religious identity. Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of the Sikh religion, preached pluralism and put together the sayings of Hindu, Muslim and other saints in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book.

It is pluralism the Sikhs should be pursuing and upholding, not religious jingoism. When they get carried away by passions, as has been seen again and again, they exhibit a trait which only impairs the community’s image.

I wonder if the Dera Sacha Sauda incident is the beginning of the era of the Giani Zail Singh type of politics. Then the Congress found the extremist Bhindranwale and lionised him to fight against the Akalis. Things went beyond control and the result was disastrous. The army attacked the Golden Temple where Bhindranwale had tried to build a state within a state and Sikh guards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

This retaliation led to another fiendish kind of reprisal: the killing of innocent Sikhs in broad daylight, 3,000 in Delhi alone. What is called the Sikh problem got more aggravated. The elevation of Manmohan Singh as prime minister has solved it to a large extent and that Mrs Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, has brought this about has made all the difference.

The tendency all over the world is to mix religion with politics. Turkey is a brave exception where people marched through the streets to show their support for secularism. I wish such a thing could happen in what was once the Indian subcontinent, now divided into three nations, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The region’s forte is pluralism.

The writer is a leading columnist based in New Delhi.

The storm over immigration

THE virulence and breadth of opposition to the American Senate’s immigration bill has kicked up a dust storm of dogma that has obscured the real stakes and potential of the legislation.

Critics on the right howl that the bill offers "amnesty" to 12 million illegal immigrants who in fact would face a long, onerous path to earned citizenship. But those critics are loath to acknowledge that deporting 12 million people, including droves of workers on whom the American economy relies, is economically suicidal, pragmatically unfeasible and morally repellent.

Critics on the left decry the bill's convoluted system for dealing with future guest workers, without recognizing that it would leave them no worse off than they would be under the admittedly dysfunctional status quo. What critics on all sides overlook, in shrilly focusing on the bill's deficiencies, is that its defeat would leave this country with an immigration dilemma that is growing rapidly and is poisoning political discourse in states and localities from coast to coast.

A clunky compromise, the Senate immigration bill weighs in at well over 300 pages and is more easily dealt with by sound bites ("Amnesty!") than by analysis. There is no denying that it is full of flaws and that it would establish some rules and procedures that may not work (measures such as kicking out guest workers for a year between three two-year stints of employment and expecting them to stay out), and others that are simply mean-spirited (such as requiring illegal immigrants already here to leave the country and re-enter in order to "reboot" and legalize their status). Many of the bill's segments and provisions could benefit from debate, scrutiny and revision.

But those who cite the offending sections and insist on the bill's defeat must explain how that would leave the country in a better posture. The practical effect of a defeat would be to leave the country without any resolution to the current non-system of immigration for at least two more years, and possibly for much longer -- an outcome the American public clearly doesn't want.

For years there has been hand-wringing over the death of bipartisanship in Washington politics and over the rise of the politics of uncompromising ideology. In the Senate immigration bill, there is a glimpse of what bipartisanship looks like in the real world -- an ungainly, imperfect hybrid that goes some distance toward tightening border security, clearing the backlog of visa applications, and providing a future for 12 million immigrants already in this country, including many who have been here since childhood. The wiser course is to work for improvements, not to sound the death knell for legislation that holds the promise of a better future.

––The Washington Post

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007