DAWN - Opinion; November 05, 2007

November 05, 2007


Give reason a chance

By A.B. Shahid

RECENTLY, William Dalrymple wrote a critique of Bernard Lewis’s book From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, a collection of 51 essays that he wrote over the years. Many were criticised for their historical inaccuracies.

But, after 9/11, Lewis’s limping reputation soared again. His recent books (What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam) propelling the neo-con philosophy, became bestsellers, and Dick Cheney and Richard Pearle his ardent disciples.

Articles by Lewis appearing in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal began influencing the White House. His ‘doctrine’ linking Al Qaeda with Iraq’s secular Ba’athist regime and the premise that Saddam Hussein’s removal could fulfil a secret wish of the Middle Eastern regimes convinced the administration that US forces would be welcomed by the Iraqis who sought freedom from Saddam. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lewis’s doctrine became US policy.

Dalrymple’s extensive research has convinced him that the neo-con view masterminded by Lewis is flawed because it relies on erroneous assumptions. Dalrymple conclusively establishes that humanity progressed during periods when people of all faiths and races combined their intellect to resolve the riddles humankind has grappled with over the centuries contradicting Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilisations that itself relied on Lewis’s views.

An undeniable truth that Dalrymple revisits is the discovery by historian George Makdisi of the Islamic contribution in the emergence of the first universities in the mediaeval West, showing how terms such as having ‘fellows’ holding a ‘chair’, or students ‘reading’ a subject and obtaining ‘degrees’, as well as practices such as inaugural lectures and academic robes, can all be traced back to Islamic concepts and practices. That the idea of a university in the modern sense — a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects — is as an Arab innovation developed in Cairo, and replicated in Toledo and Baghdad, that later gained world fame for their universities.

Another convincing fact that Makdisi established is that it was in cities bordering the Islamic world — Salemo, Naples, Bologna, Montpellier and Paris — where the first universities in Christendom were established.

The capture of Toledo (capital of Visigothic Spain) by Alfonso VI of Castille was a significant moment in history as also the fact that Gerard of Cremona — a visionary — was appointed canon at the Cathedral of Toledo. In spite of Toledo’s fall, many Muslims chose to stay back including the scholar Ghalib ‘the Mozarab’. Soon Gerard entered into a friendship with Ghalib to translate scientific books from Toledo’s Arabic library that survived the looting after Toledo’s conquest.

During the next 50 years, Ghalib and Gerard translated 88 Arabic works of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and logic, the very branches of learning that underpinned the revival of scholarship in Europe during the 12th century renaissance because the tolerant pluralistic civilisation of Muslim Spain inherited by the Christians encouraged fruitful interaction between scholars of all faiths.

Of particular significance was a group that included Muslim scholars such as Ibn-e-Juljul, who composed a commentary on Dioscorides; a distinguished Jewish physician, Hasday ibn Shaprut; and bishop Recemund, who had earlier served as the last caliph’s ambassador to the court of German Emperor Otto I, and also developed the calendar of Cordoba. This group represented a truly international and inter-denominational gathering of scholars.According to Dalrymple “it was a crucial but sometimes forgotten moment in the development of western civilisation: the revival of mediaeval European learning by a wholesale transfusion of scholarship from the Islamic world”. Neo-cons distort historic realities by belittling the fact that it was through Muslim Spain that basic facets of ‘western’ civilisation passed into Europe that later successes of science relied on.

While Dalrymple has done a commendable job of uncovering distortions of history, and accusations based thereon that neo-cons have spun, what should concern Muslims is the fact that, during the last century, their revered schools of learning lost their focus. Instead of imparting all-around knowledge, they focused only on religion defying the divine command that requires them to acquire knowledge in its widest sense — not just religious.

Ironically, religious scholars failed even in bringing closer the scores of Muslims sects to unite the ummah — the aim the Holy Prophet (PBUH) emphasised in his last sermon. Misguided scholars fuelled dissent that was rooted in myths, and sanctified terrorism as a religious activity ignoring the fact that, in the perception of the world, a terrorist profile would undermine even the just causes pursued by Muslims.

As early as 2001, Pakistan’s government was advised by a reputed journalist that a wise approach to mollifying the terrorists was not the use of the gun but the conversion of their terrorist nurseries into ‘real’ places of learning by requiring that madressahs teach not just the Quran but all disciplines that children need to acquire to discover the secrets of life, and to perform their role as humane, compassionate, unbiased and productive citizens of society.

It is unfortunate that this advice wasn’t taken seriously when the government had access to the madressahs and the clout to impose on them the true Islamic profile. The cost of this error has been enormous, and we pay it everyday when we bury the victims of terrorism in Waziristan. To dilute the poison Osama and his cronies were spreading a visionary strategy required that we confronted them with an intellectual argument rooted in the essence of our faith and humanism.

Although it may be late to give this strategy a chance, it alone will work, not the gun. The ordinary, ill-informed terrorist — key weapon of the terrorist outfits — must be convinced to adopt the way of the Prophet, which was reason and compassion, not the gun. Leaving this to the traditional maulvis or the so-called ‘moderates’ would be a grave error; the job should be entrusted to intellectuals and researchers that the government despises.

We need a powerful propaganda campaign to establish that forcing religious tenets on others (especially those based on concocted divisive doctrines) is an unforgivable sin. F-16s and gunship helicopters can’t achieve that aim.

Pakistanis at the crossroads

By Touqir Hussain

PAKISTAN may have been at the crossroads for much of its history but now Pakistanis themselves stand at the crossroads. There are a whole lot of social critics, moralists and assorted men of learning who want to see a better Pakistan but they lack empowerment. More importantly, they do not even know in which direction to turn, and with what national vision.

The two commanding forces of change in the last six years, the army and the US, may have some idea of and stake in Pakistan’s future, for whatever purposes, but their agenda is at variance with the national mood. Even if they could bring their agenda in line with public aspirations they have lost credibility and support though they may have the capacity and will to help.

Clearly the 9/11 tragedy and the no less tragic and mindless US response have aroused much anger in Pakistan, and we can assign blame to it for many of our problems. But the fact is that trouble had been brewing in and around Pakistan even before. Pakistan was engulfed by many internal and external tensions, and religion was being invoked to sanctify violence. Unfortunately, the people’s religious sensibilities acted as a barrier to understanding, much less confronting, extremism.

Just when we saw the first signs of awareness that we had been living dangerously and were losing control of ourselves there came the Bush response to 9/11. As Muslims all over faced humiliating times, they started looking up to those who could pay back the West in the same coin. And who could do it better than the extremists? In their eyes, this legitimised extremist causes.

Yet there have been the stirrings of a change of another kind. Globalisation, greater connectivity and the movement of people across the globe, the spread of education, emergence of civil society, intermingling of cultures, the Internet and media revolution, and economic opportunities have made Pakistanis and populations of many other Islamic countries politically active. It has spurred nationalism and aspirations for democracy and progress, especially in Pakistan.

But the religious and democratic waves are not reconciling. There is a furtive sense of national failure, and people ask themselves in despondency ‘who are we’. In this sombre mood, religion serves as an anchor of stability and hope. But so does democracy. No wonder people want both but that is very hard to do. Politics has almost become a jihad. And jihad and the concept of honour have interloped our culture, and any attack on extremism is considered an attack on religion. Anti-Americanism has become a religious obligation.

Islam brought about a great humanitarian and ethical revolution and can still serve as a moral and spiritual force in our strife-torn and morally unjust society that is losing its bearings. But on the contrary, it has become a radicalising force and a focus of surrogate politics, giving strong expression to negativity in our national thinking.

Let us look us at the reaction to the Lal Masjid episode. It is true the government botched up the operation resulting in the death of many innocent people. That was not the way to do it perhaps. But in an atmosphere of charged emotions against the army, the debate on the issue took on the wrong colour. We ended up lionising the unhinged fanatics. Why? Because they stood up to the establishment. And secondly, we thought an attack on them would be tantamount to an attack on religion. That is where a clear moral stand that both sides were wrong would have been critical. But we came to impute innocence to one and evil to the other.

The country is facing three urgent national priorities — democratisation and end of the army-dominated political process; a crusade against extremism; and refashioning our alliance with the US to rectify the imbalance in benefits and costs. They are all worthy objectives and we should not express our support to one by opposing the other.

Pakistan can, but will not, change on its own. We need a relationship with the US that is mutually beneficial and respectful of each other’s interests and concerns. In order to have such normal relations we need to have governance in Pakistan that arises from among the people and does not represent the interests of one particular class or institution. We must know what it takes to get there: literacy, social change to bring about a just society, a renewed look at our national identity and the place of religion in our society, the health of our federation and the role of the army — above all, the observance of constitutional rule.

Criticism of US policies is valid and a degree of anti-Americanism is understandable but this focus on the oppressor/victim syndrome and America as the source of all our ills is harmful. It is taking the focus away from owning responsibility for our problems. It makes us vulnerable to extremist thoughts.

Democracy is fine and we must have it because without it we are jeopardising our long-term stability. But it faces serious roadblocks and threats — a regressive social structure, a predatory elite, an ambitious army and extremism. But let us not bank on democracy as a magic bullet against extremism for the simple reason that the quality of democracy that will be effective against it will not arrive early or easily. That is a separate struggle and it will not succeed without combating extremism as our leading priority. If the extremists succeed we all fail. So let us fight them with whatever means we can marshal and whoever we can get to help us in the fight.

We do not have to demonise the army to become democratic. I am not favouring an army/civilian alliance. Such an alliance in our system will become another name for army rule. We must have free, fair and inclusive elections but must be mindful of the limitations of the democracy that may emerge.

Last but not least we must have a mature attitude to our great religion. We need it but should not be obsessed by it. We should shed an attitude that defines or judges all our national issues through the lens of religion. We should defuse our nagging doubts as to whether we are religious enough. Such doubts force us to lean on an extreme version of Islam to attain certainty and reassurance.

Nor should we be negative about religion. Negativity is already expressing itself as a reaction against religion through enlightened moderation that may incite a class conflict in the country along cultural and religious lines. It could tragically multiply our national challenges.

The writer teaches at Georgetown and University of Virginia.

Some strategic errors

By Shahid Scheik

FOR those who believed that Ms Bhutto’s return would promote national reconciliation and calm the political temperature, there has been a rude awakening. The gap between the promise and the reality of her return is occasioned by certain strategic errors, the first being the policy of confronting the ruling Muslim League.

The charge that the attack on Ms Bhutto’s procession was master-minded by ‘remnants of the Ziaul Haq regime’ and the barrage of return invective from the PML-Q suggests there is little possibility that a meaningful working relationship can develop between the PPP and the civil and military authorities with whom the party negotiated amnesty and terms of return to power. Indeed, the Zia-Bhutto polarisation of the 1980s has little relevance for today’s Pakistan; any rekindling of this feud can only result in strengthening undemocratic forces and drawing a new generation into old confrontations, without, in any way, advancing political stability.

Of course, the strategy of involving key government functionaries as abettors of terrorism, an issue on which Gen Musharraf is very much on the defensive in his management of external relations, may well be designed to sever the PML-Q’s existing links with the army and to place the US-backed PPP as the military’s principal power-sharing partner. Such an approach, however, overlooks the fact that a significant portion of the national political space is now occupied by others such as the MMA, the MQM and the Baloch nationalists, not to mention the extremists, who, despite a narrow political agenda, are able to use their electoral and supra-political abilities to wield disproportionate influence on national affairs.

Many of Gen Musharraf’s governance problems arise from his unsuccessful attempts to balance the demands of these actors within overall national policy objectives without at the same time aggravating the increasingly intrusive foreign policy concerns of Pakistan’s allies and neighbours.

The PPP, which during its three earlier terms in government has shown a marked aversion to accommodating any divergent viewpoints, is known to have serious differences on major issues with all of these actors and it is difficult to visualise that Ms Bhutto, handicapped by the party’s mindset, can succeed in an area where Gen Musharraf, despite full army backing, has failed.

A second strategic error is the disregard by the People’s Party of the important aspects of demographics, economic compulsions and culture change in civil society. Pakistan’s youthful voters, more politically sophisticated due to the outreach provided by satellite television, look for corresponding sophistication from their political leadership.The saga of the Chief Justice’s suspension has shown that people take a stand on issues, not personalities, and it was a disappointment for many that the PPP launched its electoral return not through a dynamic manifesto but via a personality cult-based mass demonstration that showed scant respect for the pursuit of normal civic life and economic activity.

Granted that Ms Bhutto, in the wake of her controversial agreement with Gen Musharraf, needed to demonstrate, both to doubters within her party and to opponents, that the core of PPP supporters and workers remained loyal to her person. Nevertheless, the choice of street power as the medium for her message remains questionable, and not just from the security perspective.

In the first place, since it remains unclear whether the crowds that welcomed Ms Bhutto view her as a supporter or opponent of Gen Musharraf, other parties may be tempted to similarly test the field, leading to intolerable dislocation of public life.

Secondly, it is well known that recent mass rallies have not yielded positive results, the one organised for Gen Musharraf on May 12 in Islamabad sullying rather than enhancing his political stature and the bloody standoff in Karachi the same day neither advancing the reputation of the MQM nor of those that planned to generate a mass turnout in support of the Chief Justice.

The greater disappointment and confusion emanates from the PPP’s response to the attack on Ms Bhutto’s procession, the party steadfast in its view that the bombing was an attack to derail the upcoming elections and that it was not the work of terrorists linked to religious extremism. Both assessments are questionable and an answer may be found in the fact that the attack was targeted pointedly at Ms Bhutto’s heavily-protected vehicle, rather than elsewhere along the procession where the poorly-guarded, packed-to-capacity crowds presented a far greater casualty probability.

The attempt on Ms Bhutto’s life may, in fact, be a continuation of the chain of attacks directed at high-profile targets that have included the president, the prime minister, the corps commander in Karachi, the federal interior minister, the US consulate in Karachi, defence ministry personnel in the vicinity of GHQ Rawalpindi, commandos within an army base in Tarbela, the residence of the chairman joint chiefs of staff committee and, most recently, air force personnel outside an airbase in Sargodha. If there is a connection, it is that they are all maximum-security sites, and the prominent personalities targeted are perceived as promoters of the US position on external and internal Pakistani issues relating to terrorism.

While such attacks demonstrate the ability and resources of the perpetrators to penetrate our most secure installations, they do not indicate any aversion to democracy or the election process. What they do achieve is the generation of reactions that work to the advantage of the terrorists, such as further curtailment of direct contact of high-level policymakers with independent persons, increasing their reliance on second- and third-hand memoranda as their principal sources of information.

Widening of external security and the forced closure of business establishments and major transport arteries result in magnifying in the public mind the territorial spread, numerical strength and penetrative ability of the terrorists.

Viewed against this backdrop, Ms Bhutto’s call for increased security measures for political leaders is likely to heighten the public sense of insecurity and aggravate the siege mentality already created by the terrorists. Inviting western experts to augment internal security will increase the polarisation with the extremists without solving the problem, because these experts, efficient in their home territories, have no success to their credit in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, despite full cooperation from the occupying powers for use even of extra-legal procedures to identify and bring the culprits to justice.

While sympathising with the outrage felt by Ms Bhutto, it has to be said that the solution to achieving peaceful political activity does not lie in the increase of security around political leaders but in destroying the terrorist cells. This is not likely to happen overnight; neither are the terrorists likely to curtail their sabotage simply because the military is poised to change its civilian camouflage.

The value propositions that Ms Bhutto brings are her personal charisma, the PPP’s horizontal and vertical voter outreach and the party’s liberal outlook as the bastion of civilian support to anti-terrorist measures. Ms Bhutto’s plan to vanquish all her political opponents before she extends that support may prove to be counter-productive for her party and deadly for the body politic.

No democracy without transparency

By Prof Syed Jamaluddin Naqvi

HEARING a set of guidelines by amicus curiae Khalid Anwar for dealing with demonstrations and protests, the Chief Justice observed that the deployment of police in plain clothes was illegal. He and Khalid Anwar were emphasising transparency in governance, without which all pretensions of democracy would be null. If sovereignty lies with the people they have the right to full knowledge.

The reference here is not to the daily blasts, the ‘Hatora’ group’s killings, political murders and many other such acts that lead to deaths that have never been demystified. Here we are interested in government moves over the years and which have been at odds with their stated purpose. The fact is that the state and society have been on a collision course from day one in Pakistan, and the mismatch continues.

The 1954 general elections were held only in East Pakistan. It was not intended to hold polls in other provinces. The idea was to probe whether that wing could be controlled or not. With the ruling party bagging only three per cent of the seats, the incoming dictator, General Ayub Khan, shelved the country’s general elections scheduled for 1958, imposed martial law and abrogated the constitution.

Earlier, to pave the way for the 1956 constitution the formula of parity had been evolved to balance the eastern wing with all the provinces of the west that were herded into One Unit. Since that did not work, the said provinces were restored, the new province of Balochistan was created and the eastern wing was shot out of the country.

There was no transparency in the government’s moves all along. People were left guessing. When General Ayub Khan stepped down, he did not hand over the power to the speaker as envisaged in his own constitution. Rather, he entrusted it to the next military chief General Yahya Khan, who completed the circle by unleashing genocide in what was then East Pakistan.

One may feel sad at the tragedy of Bangladesh and the weakening of Pakistan, but the fact remains that the split did not weaken the military elite of Pakistan. It was further strengthened. A civilian was inducted as the chief martial law administrator and was allowed to remain in power while the army regrouped. Once that was done in half a dozen years, he was ousted and hanged and General Ziaul Haq ruled the roost. The people of Pakistan were merely spectators during these momentous events.The same political game is being played in Pakistan today. What was supposed to be a deal (its contents are not known) has been declared ‘dheel’ by the PML-Q. Benazir Bhutto got a rousing welcome in a rally marred by carnage. Ms Bhutto has always been a brilliant opposition leader. In spite of her rhetoric about the awam, she preferred to keep details of her engagements with the government private. She should have allowed the generals to monopolise such secrecy.

The government can afford a liberal stance. All the basic chips are in place. The plan for a troika comprising the president, the army (sub-institution of the executive) and the prime minister has been worked out. The judiciary is being cowed by the threat of martial law/emergency. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has advised the government of Pakistan to stop intimidating the Supreme Court.

Any government inducted by the elections will have to work in the ambit of the troika, overseen by the National Security Council as the supremacy of the military has always been assured. The US can go along with the arrangement if its concerns regarding the prime minister and the war against terror are honoured. The European Union demands more transparency but all it can do is deny Pakistan some trade benefits.

The present set-up, even after general elections will be: power equation=army chief+0+0. Ms Bhutto is in an ideal position to break this vicious cycle of scheming and lay open her cards before the people of Pakistan.

A new generation is coming of age in Pakistan that has not only seen the work atrophy of the Musharraf regime but also the virulence of the lawyers’ movement. The Chief Justice was not a man known to the people. What has inspired them are the principles that the movement spearheaded. These included the break-up of the military/judiciary nexus, the rule of law, the end of the doctrine of necessity, the restoration of the democratic process, the subordination of the military to elected civilian authority, restoration of fundamental rights and holding the government accountable to the people.

The transparency of a government and its accountability to the people lead to social security. What the people need are better health and education facilities, safe drinking water, a viable sewerage system, a check on skyrocketing prices and the recovery of missing persons. The lawyers’ movement has activated the plurality of the classes.

Transparency is what distinguishes democracy from its rivals. Leaders who wish to command the people’s confidence should let undisputed credibility be their distinctive character separating them from their non-civilian rivals.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007