DAWN - Opinion; June 13, 2007

June 13, 2007


Ferment in Muslim world

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

THE examples of Muslims killing Muslims that were contained in the partial survey of the Muslim world in my last article are dwarfed by the current carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bloodletting there flows from and gives added impetus to extremism and sectarianism. Moreover, the ethnic differences that had been suppressed or accommodated in the past have now become a particularly violent part of the political mix.

In Iraq, the Americans have now come close to completing the “troop surge” that President George Bush feels will enable the coalition forces to bring peace to Iraq. The results, however, are dismal and disheartening. According to a chart that appeared in the New York Times, there were 150,000 American troops in Iraq and this was the same number that they had in Iraq in May 2003 (by mid-June another 8,000 troops will be deployed in Baghdad bringing the total American strength to 158,000).The Iraqi security forces, which were non-existent in May 2003, numbered 349,000 in May 2007. Despite this massive security presence, the number of attacks on coalition forces had risen from 50 in May 2003 to 4,200 in May 2007. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths in May 2003 was 500, while in May 2007 it had risen to 2,750.

The Americans have had some success in parts of the Sunni triangle. Many tribes disgusted with the excesses of the Iraqi Al Qaeda have decided to join hands with the Americans in eliminating Al Qaeda elements. Many who have joined the Americans are those who fought them in the past. The American commanders on the ground have no illusions about the durability of the alliance with tribals who say that they hate the Americans but at this time hate Al Qaeda even more.The Shia-dominated Iraqi government is not happy at the thought of Sunnis being armed and assisted by the Americans because they believe, quite rightly, that eventually these arms will be turned against the Shias who are being accused by the Sunnis of continuing to be engaged in sectarian cleansing in Baghdad where large swathes of hitherto mixed neighbourhoods now have no Sunni presence.

The Americans maintain that 80 per cent of the insurgents are “reconcilable” and can be persuaded to lay down their arms. American commanders have been authorised to negotiate agreements with such groups. It is the American hope that such reconciliation at the local level will eventually translate into reconciliation at the national level.

There appears, however, to be little progress at the national level on reaching agreements on a new oil law that would give the Sunnis a fair share of the oil revenues of the country or on the law that would modify the “debaathification” programme currently in force and allow the Sunnis to return to their jobs in the public sector.

There is even less progress on making the necessary changes in the constitution. Under these circumstances, a durable reconciliation even at the local level appears to be a forlorn hope

By the end of 2007, the constitution requires that there be a referendum to make oil-rich Kirkuk a Kurdish city and for parts of the Nineveh province to join Iraqi Kurdistan after the Kurds dislocated from this area are brought back. The Sunnis are bound to resist and currently this resistance is taking the form of massive attacks on the Kurds in Mosul, traditionally a mixed Sunni-Kurd-Christian city, and the evacuation from there of more than 70,000 Kurds. This current wave of sectarian strife is exacerbating divisions and will obviously influence the prospects for reconciliation in the rest of the country.

As was expected, President Bush has been successful in getting funding for his troops in Iraq and for the surge without setting a timetable for the American withdrawal. Instead, there is the idea that there will be benchmarks for the Iraqi government that if not met could lead to a reduction in the level of American support. The Democrats in having to accept this compromise have suffered politically.

The latest polls show that the approval rating for the Democrat-led Congress has fallen precipitously. In the meanwhile, the latest count shows that 3,494 American servicemen had died in Iraq by early June and some 25,830 had been wounded. For both reasons, the clamour for withdrawal from Iraq is going to grow. There are some in Washington who, despite this, believe that not only will Bush succeed in maintaining a strong military presence in Iraq till the end of his term but that thereafter he will be able to secure support for its maintenance albeit at a reduced level along the lines of the American troop presence in South Korea.

This appears unlikely. What is much more likely is that the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad will meet none of the benchmarks on reconciliation, the insurgency aided by Iraq’s Sunni neighbours will intensify and the Democrats will, under these circumstances, be able to press for and secure a quick American withdrawal.

The best that can then be expected is the continuation of a civil war in which extremists on both sides will be the lead players. They will appeal for and secure assistance from their co-religionists in their neighbourhood and in the wider Muslim world even though these neighbours may not share their extremist views.

The worst case scenario — the disintegration of Iraq — will lead to even more horrible consequences in so far as the stability of the region and the growth of extremism and sectarian and ethnic differences is concerned.

In Afghanistan, the American and coalition forces can claim to be doing a little better if only in a negative sense. The expected Taliban offensive has not materialised and the Americans have had some success in targeting Taliban leaders, most notably Mullah Dadullah. Recent Taliban statements that a new massive offensive is to be launched can perhaps be dismissed as no more than empty talk.

In a positive sense, however, little has been achieved. The development effort is going nowhere. The reconstruction of the Kajaki dam, the objective of the large-scale coalition offensive in Helmand province, remains a distant prospect. The opium trade continues to flourish. The Karzai government grows weaker by the day while the erstwhile Northern Alliance, a motley collection of unsavoury warlords, is now moving in.

The formation of the National Front which is clearly an opposition group but includes leading members of Hamid Karzai’s government; the demonstrations arranged by Uzbek warlord Gen Dostum against the Pashtun governor in Uzbek-dominated Shibergan; former defence minister Fahim’s recent interview claiming that Karzai would not last for a week after the withdrawal of foreign troops and alleging that Karzai’s government was not representative of all tribes in Afghanistan; and, most recently, the attempted assassination of Karzai in a Pashtun-dominated area all point to a decisive deterioration in Afghanistan. It is a deterioration which will bring to the boil once again the ethnic and sectarian differences that were the bane of Afghanistan during the civil war and Taliban rule.

From Pakistan’s perspective there will be the perception that once again the traditional role of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan is being undermined to the detriment of their interests and the interests of their Pashtun brothers in Pakistan.

In Iran, the principal focus has been on the nuclear issue and the apprehension that the Americans may use military means to eliminate this perceived menace. Also, there is the role that the regime has allegedly been playing in fomenting strife in Iraq and in Afghanistan. What has been less carefully watched is the extent to which internal elements, helped by externally financed agent provocateurs, have fanned opposition to the regime and brought ethnic and sectarian differences in that country to the fore.The Sunnis in Iranian Balochistan are said to be in revolt, there is unrest in the largely Arab population in Ahwaz and Iranian Kurdistan remains in ferment, aided no doubt by developments in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As the Iranian government seeks to cope with these internal fissures and continues at the same time to play a role in the Iraqi political game, there will be an exacerbation in the wider Muslim world of the Shia-Sunni divide as an overlay to and perhaps a negation of the sympathy for Iran’s defiance of the western world. In Pakistan, this will be of particular significance because of the role Iran is deemed to have played in accentuating if not creating our sectarian divide

What impact will these developments have in Pakistan? We have been fed — particularly in the last three decades — on a diet of pan-Islamism having primacy over Pakistan’s national interests and purpose. We have seen the deliberate distortion of the rationale for the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia. We have had a deliberate effort to foster the adoption of an intolerant dogmatic version of Islam directly opposed to the true, tolerant and moderate Islam that was practised in South Asia and most parts of the Muslim world. Against this background, these developments are not helpful from our perspective.

The need of the hour is, to borrow a rather well-worn phrase, a two-pronged approach. The first or external prong is to insulate ourselves from the difficulties in Afghanistan and in the neighbouring province of Iranian Seistan and Balochistan. We must use such limited influence as we do have to persuade the Americans, the Iraqis and Iraq’s neighbours to find the compromises that are necessary to hold Iraq together and to quell the flames of civil war in that country. We must be clear in our opposition to any attempt to break up Iraq and should be prepared, if required, to provide material assistance to international efforts in that direction. We must do what we can to bring to an end the raging conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine where Muslims are killing Muslims.

The second and more important prong is internal. Wise, resolute and popular leadership must be provided to guide the frustration of our people into constructive channels and to prevent its exploitation by vested interests. How can we bring to the fore the leadership we need to quell the rising tide of extremism? How can we give it the necessary muscle that may be needed? There is no simple answer, but it is time for the intelligentsia to give it serious thought and recommend what can be done.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

The poor have no choices

By Zubeida Mustafa

WHILE the Pakistan government goes to extraordinary lengths to laud its economic performance, economists have correctly pointed out the growing inequities that have been spawned by President Musharraf’s policies. (See Akbar Zaidi’s “Eight years of missed opportunities” in Dawn of June 10, 2007.)

It was, therefore, like a bolt from the blue to see the Pakistan Economic Survey 2006-07 attempting to prettify the state of poverty in the country by citing a few statistics to paint a somewhat rosier picture.

Needless to say, such number crunching in no way alleviates the pain of poverty for its victims. Perhaps the worst case scenario is one where the distribution of income is so uneven that it creates pockets of affluence in an ocean of poverty. The presence of this concentration of wealth, especially when it is flaunted unashamedly, is a sure recipe for social discontent and violence.

To get round the arguments of their critics, our economic managers have come out with the claim that “consumption inequality” is what really matters and in Pakistan this has increased only marginally from 2001 to 2005. Using this approach, the government tries to absolve itself of the responsibility of not doing enough for poverty reduction.

The Economic Survey admits that income inequity can be most damaging for a country: “High income inequalities act as a drag on the poverty-reducing impact of growth… the actual impact of growth on poverty cannot be realised if the initial distribution of income is fairly skewed. Countries with more equal incomes tend to reduce poverty faster with a given growth rate than countries with more unequal incomes.”

Seen against this backdrop, is it right to dismiss our economic inequalities as marginal and therefore of not much consequence? Is it correct to assess poverty in terms of consumption levels? Even the revelation that in the year 2001, the richest 20 per cent of Pakistanis spent 3.76 times more than the poorest 20 per cent is shocking. In 2005, this ratio went up to 4.15. In fact, in the urban areas, the richest quintile of Pakistan’s population spent more than 12 times than the poorest quintile.

These figures mask the real problems faced by those mired in poverty. Is it strange that an overwhelming majority of the children who die before they reach the age of five are the children of the poor? Is it just a coincidence that those who suffer from gastroenteritis — losing out on working days — and have to be admitted in hospitals are those classified as “extremely poor”, “ultra poor”, and “poor” in the index prepared by our policymakers? Has it ever struck us that because the poor cannot buy bottled water when the rich feed their pets with imported canned food, the former tend to suffer more from intestinal ailments? It is the poor who crowd our hospitals because they fall ill more frequently and need treatment but fail to get it.

It is time our policymakers realised that it is not simply a matter of generating more income for the poor. Of course, that would help but the spiralling inflation neutralises whatever raise in income the poor manage to get. What is more important is that they are provided the basic facilities that they are entitled to as a matter of birthright. The poor should be provided choices so that they can take decisions about important issues in their lives as they deem fit.

Take the case of Shahid, who works as a driver to earn about Rs8,000 a month. He finds it a challenge to make two ends meet. With a family of five (three children and two adults), he frequently takes loans because his household budget consumes his earnings fully — 25 per cent on house rent, 12.5 per cent on transport, 16.25 per cent on two children’s schooling, 41.25 per cent on food and home expenses like laundry, clothes, routine items, and five per cent on miscellaneous items.

One can, in all fairness, ask if Shahid has any choices. Any major illness in the family is catastrophic for his household budget. Off and on his daughters do not attend school because their father fails to pay their fees and the principal asks him not to send his children to school without their fees. The government school in his neighbourhood is so appalling that he would prefer to keep his daughters home rather than send them there.

What is worse is that poverty not only deprives people of choices, it also creates uncertainty and tensions for the future. What if food inflation continues to rise? What if his wife falls ill and he has no money to take her to a doctor? What if strikes disrupt life for a long period? What will he do when it rains and his house is flooded? What if a pickpocket robs him of his money? What if the bus is late in coming and he is late for work again? The list could go on and on. One has to be poor to understand how demeaning poverty can be.

The poor have no financial cushion to absorb the shocks of contingencies such as illness, emergencies and disasters. This creates mental stress for them that may lead to psychosomatic illnesses and even anxiety and depression. If most of the poor have no dreams and motivation, can one really blame them?

If the government were to actually attend to its responsibilities, many of Shahid’s anxieties would disappear. If the public sector schools actually started performing — even on an average level — quite a big chunk of the worries that haunt the poor would not be there. If the local government conscientiously saw to the provision of civic amenities, the poor could hope to get low-cost housing, clean water (so that they are not falling ill frequently), sanitation and uninterrupted power supply.

Are all these not important to the poor as to the rich? In fact, they need these facilities more than the rich because they have no choices. The rich have a substantial cushion and can spend their savings to buy bottled water, fix up generators in their homes, send their children to fancy private schools for the elite, and go abroad for treatment if they fall ill. They have plenty of choices. It is the poor who have no choices.

Not the Lahore I knew

By Hafizur Rahman

THE story is apocryphal but like all such stories it is interesting. In any case it sounds authentic. They say that Majha (or Gamma, if you like) belonging to the asli and wadda Lahore of the walled city, was praying in the holiest of holies, the Khana Kaaba. Overwhelmed by the majesty of the moment, he exclaimed, “Ya Allah, my life for your Makkah and Medina.” And then after a pause he added, “But Lahore is Lahore!”

This is how the denizens and lovers of Lahore view their city. So should I, having lived there off and on for long periods. In fact I belong to that city, if anywhere. I missed the first 16 months of its life as the Pride of Pakistan, as I was caught up in the happenings in Junagadh and the birth pangs of Karachi, the capital of the new country.

But I have witnessed all the rest, including the first martial law of 1953 presided over by the unmatched General Azam Khan, the war of 1965, the memorable general election of 1970, the PNA agitation of 1977 and Benazir Bhutto’s conquest of the city in 1986.

I still love Lahore, though much less than before, and that is what this piece is about, written after a recent visit. It was actually inspired (or provoked) by a cloth banner that I saw stretched across The Mall welcoming some foreign guests to “this cultural capital of Pakistan.”

It is still the cultural capital of the country, but I’m afraid it is no longer cultured. The devotees of its leisurely and peaceable style of life are gradually dropping on the way and diverting their attentions, strangely, to the abode of the bureaucracy, Islamabad. And, it is Lahore’s state of being cultured that is diminishing every day.

The special physical features of Lahore are still there. The number of gardens and parks has gone up. The profusion of trees and greenery, the beauty of the winter and the short spring, the absence of high-rise buildings, the wayward traffic, the canal, the tonga (though dying out), the ever-increasing eating places and the variety of delicacies to savour – they are all there. But then, physical features alone do not make a city. Character and personality are imparted to it by those who live in it and the way they live.

There are now a number of things that put you off. I just mentioned its traffic gone haywire. That was always one of its charms, but not mega traffic composed of brand new cars and decrepit old wagons, both indisciplined, and the dust and the petrol fumes. The rush on the roads is maddening, and the biggest victim of this rush is courtesy.

You will ask, in which city is it not? Nowadays there are traffic jams even in small towns like Kabirwala and Baddo Malhi. But what frustrates is the fact that nobody seems to bother about its incidence in Lahore, least of all the local authorities and the traffic police. I may love to live in Lahore and I may love to die in Lahore, but not in a traffic accident on the once lovable Mall.

University towns the world over are known for their atmosphere of learning and the gentle urbanity that comes of scholarship. The biggest loss that Lahore has sustained is that the University of Punjab may as well not be there. It no longer contributes anything to the learning and polish and suavity of the city. The so-called professors profess to deal in knowledge and education, but in behaviour and ethics they have become like petty bureaucrats, and without the ability of the latter to do anything for you.

Once upon a time the citizen of Lahore who stood out from the rest was the student. He was lovingly alive, articulate, well-dressed, given to a healthy interest in politics, and known for his good manners. Alas! That happy picture was painted over long ago by the paints and brushes wielded by some religious bodies of students which are anything but Islamic in decency.

The new ones may have other qualities, though they take pains to hide them. Today’s student is anything but likeable and the credit for this goes to organisations which have transformed innocent young men into senseless and humourless brutes who evoke fear among the public by their brand of youthful religiosity. Others not wanting to be left behind have quickly followed their example, and now the picture has nothing good about it to distinguish it from the bad.

Fear is also generated by the police of Lahore, though not among the criminal class. While Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi is reported to be doing something about it, previously there had been no attempt to try and show off a better brand of policeman in the (cultural) capital than in the rest of the province. The really sharif admi now is the one who is afraid of the police.

This is not an attribute peculiar to Lahore; it’s the same all over Punjab. It is my good fortune that I have never been confronted by dacoits, but something tells me that were I to fall in their clutches, I would be less frightened for my life than if I had the Punjab police around me.

My old bureaucrat friends in the provincial capital were full of gloom. Normally in troubled times the official class tends to obtain undue favours from the ruling regime. My friends may also have been doing that previously, but what appals them now is the lack of respect for rules and regulations on the part of politicians.

The history-minded among them draw a parallel with Sikka-shahi of the early 19th century, and it seems hard for them to believe that some sort of sense may gradually be coming back into the administrative system. The tendency towards autocratic behaviour among the rulers is very much there, and one evil practice eliminated is taken over by a fresh one.

If I regret the adverse change in Lahore’s intellectual and spiritual make-up I do so with some reason. Even if an incorrigible optimist says that I am exaggerating I think he will agree with me that the indefinable mystique that once pervaded this cultural city and which made some people exclaim “Lahore is Lahore” is there no more.

All the president’s men

NICOLAS Sarkozy’s election bandwagon has kept on rolling. After the first round of parliamentary elections on Sunday, the right won 109 seats, while the left only managed one. But that is only the start.

In five days’ time, the presidential bloc could get up to 470 out of a total 577 seats, with the opposition left scrabbling around with one quarter of that number. It is all too possible for the turnout in the second round to be as low as it was in the first, and if that were the case the socialist party risks being marginalised as an effective opposition party for the next five years.

But none of this should detract from the scale of Mr Sarkozy’s political achievement. He has taken the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), a coalition of the notoriously fractious right, and fashioned it into a personal powerbase. Only a year ago, the UMP was toiling under a clapped-out French president and a government which was tentative and unpopular.

Under Mr Sarkozy’s leadership, the UMP undermined a government of which he was still a senior member. In the process it acted like a party challenging a status quo of which it was an essential part. The strategy may defy conventional political logic, but Mr Sarkozy has now used it to achieve stunning election victories. He has given the ruling party of an unpopular presidency a stronger mandate under a popular one. Gordon Brown should take note.

All of this is down to one man. Only Mr Sarkozy seemed to grasp from the outset that this was a four-stage race, and he has never stopped running. He fashioned his first cabinet to include a combination of socialists and centrists, and so attract a broad appeal which has now shattered both the far right and the centrists.

The National Front’s vote plummeted from 10.5 per cent in the presidential elections to 4.2 per cent on Sunday and only one candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine, will make it into the second round. Francois Bayrou’s project of creating a centrist Democratic Movement (Modem) is also in tatters. After defections led by one of his leading stars, Hervé Morin, to the pro-UMP camp, Modem has gone on the blink.

Mr Bayrou is now left with at most three seats in parliament. And this for a man who at one point in the presidential campaign came close to overtaking Mr Sarkozy. Little wonder that there were frantic attempts yesterday to make tactical voting deals between the socialists and what is left of Mr Bayrou’s party.

Mr Sarkozy may be a brilliant tactician, but he has been handed his victory on a plate by the socialist party, on whom one can not be tough enough. After all the campaigning, it still does not know what its message is; four or five senior figures within it all have different ideas about what this should be.

On Monday Ségolène Royal, the defeated presidential candidate, was acting like a party leader by proposing tactical voting deals with Mr Bayrou. And yet her partner François Hollande, who is still party leader, appeared to be more hesitant. With the next party congress taking place in the autumn of 2008, the temptation will be to take no decisions and to let everything slide further.

There is every chance that the party will continue to do nothing to reform itself. Against an opponent as focused as Mr Sarkozy, internal division is a luxury that no opposition party can afford and it ill serves the French left which needs vision and leadership.

––The Guardian, London

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007