An end at last?

THE Lal Masjid drama was not fully over when these lines were written, but at least 16 people had been killed and countless injured in a bloody confrontation that could have been avoided if common sense had prevailed. The Lal Masjid high command and the government both must answer certain questions. First the chiefs of the Lal Masjid rebellion: in what way have the brothers Rasheed and Ghazi advanced the cause of Islam which was supposed to be the aim behind the ‘government’ and the ‘court’ they had set up in the sacred precincts of the mosque? Does Islam approve of crime — raids on homes, kidnapping, attacks on shops and defiance of the law of the land — to enforce Sharia? Did the raid by girl commandos on the home of a woman of presumed ill repute abolish prostitution throughout the country? Is asking young boys and girls to take the law into their own hands the best way of teaching them Islam and making them good Muslims? Did not the Holy Prophet (PBUH) say that the best Muslim was one from whose hands and tongues other Muslims were safe? Did the self-deluded clerics of the Lal Masjid conform to this Hadith? Did it not occur to them that no government — Islamic or otherwise, democratic or dictatorial, civilian or military — would tolerate the defiance of its writ for long and that sooner or later the government was bound to act, especially after the nationals of a friendly country like China had been kidnapped?

Now the government. If it had to bare its teeth, should it have waited for six long months to do so? Were not the Lal Masjid militants encouraged in their criminality by the government’s kowtowing to the religious right? Did not the invitation to the Imam of Kaaba and the help sought from him for defusing the Lal Masjid crisis betray the government’s will to act? Should foreign help be sought for solving domestic problems, no matter how grave? The government must also let the people know about the role of the secret agencies in this case and their incompetence, if not complicity in the affair. Why did the law enforcement agencies fail to prevent the smuggling of arms and stocks of fuel into the mosque? Why were not non-lethal methods — like cutting off supplies and sequestering the mosque — adopted to tire out the brainwashed lot inside?

The Lal Masjid drama has not yet come to an end, though the denouement seems to have begun. But one thing is clear: the government must not offer more talks. Such a move will be misunderstood and encourage the misguided clerics. The Lal Masjid brothers are guilty of blackmail, murder, vandalism, trespass and kidnapping. If they surrender or are captured alive, they must be given the benefit of a fair trial in an open court. The crimes they have committed are a blot on the fair names of the ulema. That is not how the great ulema produced by South Asia — Shah Waliullah, Maulana Maudoodi, Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi, Shabbir Ahmad Usmani and others — ever asked their followers to behave. Regrettably, the government found itself isolated because neither the MMA leadership nor the secular parties categorically condemned the Lal Masjid brigade. It is now for the Pakistani people to decide whether they want the kind of Islam that Iqbal and Jinnah stood for or the intolerant, obscurantist brand being preached and practised by bigoted semi-literates.

Steel Mills’ privatisation

IN a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled in June last year that the sale of Pakistan Steel to a tripartite Russian-Saudi-Pakistani consortium was conducted in “indecent haste”, lacked transparency and did not reflect the mills’ true worth. Doubts were cast on the manner in which Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, Russia, was allowed to join the consortium on the day of the bidding, as well as the prequalification of Arif Habib Securities, the Pakistani arm of the syndicate. Earlier, it was alleged by independent observers that Arif Habib Securities — a top brokerage accused of manipulating the stock market crash of 2005 and said to be well connected to the top echelons of the executive branch — was merely a front for an unidentified fourth party. A former PS chairman had claimed at the time that the mills were worth more in “scrap” than the paltry $362 million privatisation deal struck by the government.

The Supreme Court had also ordered the government to refer PS’s privatisation back to the Council of Common Interest, which subsequently reaffirmed the sale in August 2006. Now, some 11 months later, the minister for privatisation has confirmed that the process will soon begin anew as per the guidelines — aimed largely at ensuring transparency — laid down by the apex court. The question is, why sell PS now when it is finally in the black after decades of gross inefficiency? In a remarkable turnaround, PS is said to be running at nearly 85 per cent of installed capacity and turning over a healthy profit. At the same time, eight billion rupees of public money has been earmarked for a comprehensive repair and maintenance programme. The government, for its part, is quick to point out that only profitable concerns attract buyers, and the prime minister has long insisted that the state has no business being engaged in commercial activity. While this may be true of advanced capitalist countries, it does not necessarily apply to a Third World state where a case can be made for keeping strategic industries in the public sector. In such cases, the profitability or otherwise of a public concern cannot be the decisive consideration.

Rape victims cry for justice

OVER six months after their brutal rapes, Kainat Soomro, 13, and Nasima Labano, 16, are still awaiting justice. Each girl’s story is horrific: raped at tender ages (one was paraded naked in her village), they have yet to recover from the trauma which has been made worse by the fact that their cases are proceeding at a snail’s pace. Both crimes occurred in villages in Sindh but the families have been living in Karachi, afraid of returning to their homes as the alleged perpetrators’ families continue to threaten them. In Karachi, the families say they have all but been abandoned by the government that promised to look after them and are being cared for by NGOs. Her family says that Kainat has developed kidney problems because she has been on prolonged hunger strikes. For some time now, the families have been asking that their cases be transferred to Karachi for security reasons; they renewed this demand on Tuesday in an appeal to the Sindh High Court. This seems a valid request, for these poor girls and their families cannot afford to travel back and forth for court hearings, especially because their lives are at risk. It would be good if their requests were granted and the trials expedited so that the ends of justice can be met.

Their cases raise the question as to whether anything has changed since the Women’s Protection Bill was passed late last year. It was supposed to bring relief to female victims of crime, and, with strict punishments for rape, one would have thought that it would at least act as a deterrent. Sadly, crimes against women continue as before — which makes it necessary for the government to ensure speedy justice in rape cases. Only then will men realise that rape is a serious offence with equally serious consequences.

Rushdie and the British establishment

By Dr Moeed Pirzada

THE debate whether the British government should have awarded a knighthood to Salman Rushdie seems to be dominated in these columns and in Britain by two sets of equally dangerous hypocrites.

The first set comprises the “faint-hearted cowards”, who say that they have not read the ‘Satanic Verses’ or its offending chapters, but nevertheless consider themselves competent to give opinions on the subject.

Then, there are those “innocent believers” in the West’s professed freedom of expression who consider one naïve or an idiot or both to believe that the controversial author was awarded purely on the basis of his literary achievements. Both approaches end up missing the underlying political message of the British establishment.

In reality, the British political establishment has moved full circle since the original controversy in 1989. What it did then was out of political necessity. It had to move to defend Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression just like it would have moved to defend another author or artist under similar circumstances. But what it has done now, 18 years later, is unwarranted provocation in pursuit of political expediency. We need to understand why.

‘Satanic Verses’ and the storm that followed represented a genuine inability of the worlds of Islam and the West to understand the other. It was a quintessential clash of civilisations before Samuel Huntington got to adorn this theme with his own peculiarly American mumbo-jumbo and a set of prejudices for foreign affairs.

Muslims in Britain — who first sparked the controversy — and elsewhere were stunned by what they saw as ridicule and derision of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). It was not necessarily the dark character of Mahound, or the interpretation of the three controversial verses, or Rushdie’s undisguised contempt for Islam as a great religion or even a human concept; it was the sheer manner and style in which Rushdie went about using the character of the poet Baal and the prostitutes to heap dirt and scorn on the Prophet of Islam.

But the British media, literary world and political establishment were equally taken aback by the raw emotions they witnessed on the streets lit by the bonfires of the ‘Satanic Verses’. The ferocity of these reactions in response to what they could understand merely as a book, a work of fiction, a collection of hilarious allegories and allusions, by an audacious author who tried portraying the Prophet in unflattering terms, as The Economist recently puts it, was shocking.

The unfortunate fatwa issued by the late Imam Khomeini, an important scholar of Islam in his day, literally paraded the Muslim mind’s total inability to understand or respect post-modern sensibilities. To many in the West, it only confirmed the true nature of the threat posed by Islam and the Muslims.

Whether we like it or not, the fact is that from Karachi to Cairo, from Beijing to London we live in a world conceived, created and fashioned by the West. This is not a geographical construct any more. It may be changing in ways here and there but the yardstick to measure actions and reactions, good and bad, essentially remains western. From this mindset if Martin Scorsese’s, “The Last Temptation of Christ” could be digested or tolerated, then what was so special about ‘Satanic Verses’?

In the British mindset, Rushdie’s magical realism and his liberties with the Prophet could be understood in the long and respected tradition of a Dickens, or D.H. Lawrence, or even Russell. The important distinction that these authors (like filmmaker Martin Scorsese) commented on societies they lived in, and despite provoking resistance from clergy or conservatives could find support from other sections of society, was totally lost.

Intellectuals in the West could never understand, or come close to appreciating on a deeper level why Rushdie’s allusions were so traumatic for ordinary Muslims and their sense of identity. But the hyper-intelligent author of ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘Shame’, had grown up in a Muslim culture; his works displayed a deep understanding of cultural nuances, and it would be difficult to argue that he could not have fathomed the response.

Perhaps the fatwa of Imam Khomeini and related security hazards might have outstripped his calculations a little bit; but otherwise the response was that which he could have only expected.

It may not be all that difficult to understand why. Since 1981, when Rushdie won the Booker Prize for ‘Midnight’s Children’, 24 other authors have been awarded the prize. Do we remember their names? Yes. We remember Coetzee for he has won it twice; we remember Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai for they are from South Asia; we remember Michael Ondaatje for we have all watched the lovely film “English Patient”; we may remember Kazuo Ishiguro for ‘The Remains of the Day’ and Margaret Atwood for the ‘The Blind Assassin’. But who else do we remember? How many of them are household names across the world? And do we really think they are as important or brilliant or powerful as Rushdie was?

‘The Satanic Verses’ circus had only one ringmaster and that was Rushdie. We all — and that apart from millions of Muslims, included the powerful western literary communities and the old wily British establishment — were dancing to the tunes set by the insatiable ego trips of one man to ensure that he got a name in history. Mullahs and imams and the furies of the mobs only furthered his cause.

Caught in the storm, the British establishment of the day had no option but to enter the ring to defend the freedom of expression. The author of ‘Midnight’s Children’ was never a blue-eyed boy; protecting him with more than a million pounds of taxpayers money and persuading the Iranian government over the years to distance itself from the fatwa was all in the pursuit of a deeply enshrined principle. Yet 18 years later, the decision to knight Rushdie is laced with intellectual hypocrisy, flawed judgment and narrow political expediency.

The British establishment today is faced with the growing radicalisation of the Muslim youth and the ugly scourge of home-grown terrorism. The identity crisis of youth of mostly Pakistani-origin has proved a fertile ground for Islamisation and is an exaggerated influence of Middle Eastern politics. It is certainly true that the attitudes and belief systems of pockets of Muslim youth represent a serious challenge to the ethos of a post-industrial, post-modern society; but it is also true that the terrorism that has taken place on British soil or that is feared has strong imprints of the war in Iraq.

However an establishment that has long decided that the only way it can make an entry into the international arena is by piggybacking on the American elephant is unable and unwilling to hear this view. Many in the Muslim community like the peer Lord Ahmed and Sir Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain who have often aired this view, have gradually fallen out of favour.

The case of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and its allied organisations is of interest. MCB’s most charismatic and well known leader, Iqbal Sacranie, first rose to prominence during the ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy; his acceptance and later knighthood by the Blair government were signs of a cosy relationship. Till quite recently these organisations were considered so close to the Blair government that many in Muslim communities and on the British left suspected strong links between them and the Home Office.

However, after the Iraq war, especially after the bombings of 7/7, the Blair government felt jilted when these organisations in private meetings and public statements kept on insisting that the radicalisation of Muslim youth and terrorism were being influenced by foreign policy choices and the war in Iraq.

Iraq represents a big taint in British politics. Accepting a link between foreign policy and home-grown terrorism implies accepting the charge of making the homeland unsafe in pursuit of what is at best a questionable foreign adventure. No doubt the Blair government was desperate to hear an acceptable form of the truth.

So overriding has been this concern that spin doctors of the establishment — from the media to policy circles — have persuaded themselves to find alternative explanations for Muslim behaviour and its remedies. Impressed by an America that, despite being the real culprit in the Middle East, has remained immune from home-grown terrorism they have reached the conclusion that the American model of “integration” for the immigrants has proved superior to their erstwhile belief in “multiculturalism”.

Could there be other differences between America and Britain — for instance in terms of history, geography or a fast-paced economy? Or the kind of Muslim immigrants that first arrived at its shores? Political pundits in London have little time or patience for such deeper analyses. The sum total of the mantras which we have been hearing for the last one year is that the Muslims represent a peculiar cultural problem; that they need to do more to fight terrorism; that we need to assert our traditional British values; we need to send out clear signals of who we are, what we stand for, and we need to stop appeasing the Muslims. It is in this changed mindset, this purely narrow political context, that a decision to knight Rushdie has been taken.

Did anyone seriously consider what a flawed and pathetically stupid message it is? It either announces to the Muslims in Britain and the world at large that, according to the British government, it is great to insult your prophet or what you think is an insult is actually great literature; and if you think otherwise, you just don’t understand because you are thick and we know better. What arrogance! And ironically coming from an establishment whose knees wobble at the mere thought of charting a respectable and independent foreign policy.

This only shows the depth of chaos and depravity to which a once proud imperial power has unwittingly allowed itself to sink under the comradeship of Tony Blair.

The writer works as a media analyst in London.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007


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