Friday, March 20, 2009

Wajiha Ahmed: A Second Take on Pakistan's "Long March" Protests

In addition to regular comments to blog posts, I often get emails from readers expressing all manner of opinions. This week, following my recent post at Sepia Mutiny on the protests in Pakistan, I received a note from a graduate student in Boston named Wajiha Ahmed that was intelligent enough to provoke me to spend a little time replying. Wajiha had also, a few days earlier, published an Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (it was written while the protests were just beginning). Wajiha's response to my response was essentially a full-fledged essay. I asked her if she would slightly revise her comments in defense of the Long March protests into something for Sepia Mutiny [and, by extension, this blog], as a sort of one-off guest post. She agreed, and the following is a one-time guest post by Wajiha Ahmed.

The comment Wajiha most objected to was actually made by me in the comments of the original post. I said, "I think there are some people looking at this that are thinking that what is happening is not simply the expression of free speech, but a rather naked attempt at a power-grab by Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif. Given the security crisis in the country, a protest movement like this could be seen as irresponsible." In my first email to Wajiha, I also wrote:

What prompted me to suggest that Sharif was acting irresponsibly was a personal conversation with a friend here in Pennsylvania named [KC], who comes originally from Lahore. [KC] said to me last week that the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in particular left him feeling extremely depressed, since it's beginning to seem that the militants are increasingly coming down out of the hills, and their kind of Islam is increasingly driving the agenda of the country. Given what has happened in Swat and NWFP in the past few months, it may be that the real cultural-political undercurrent that needs to be addressed is the growth of that militancy. Not because of *America's* war on terror, but actually for Pakistan's own internal security and stability.

Below is Wajiha's response to those points.

Guest Post by Wajiha Ahmed

I’m writing this post in response to Sepia Mutiny's reporting on the second Pakistani Long March to restore a deposed independent judiciary and Chief Justice. The sentiment has been that a) it was irresponsible and could have possibly destabilized Pakistan, and b) energy should have instead focused on the ‘real’ problem Pakistan faces: growing ‘sympathy’ for militants. As I see it, however, we just witnessed one of the largest broad-based, secular, non-violent movements for the rule of law and democracy in Pakistan’s history. Of course, one event is not going to change everything. But democracy is not an event, it is a process. Therefore, rather than being reported with cynicism, this important civil disobedience movement should instead have been encouraged and celebrated. In the past year, Pakistanis have successfully forced out a military dictator (Musharraf) AND compelled an authoritarian leader (Zardari) to listen to their voices – a rare, uplifting story in these trying days.

I’ll try to address the above-stated points, starting with the latter.

1) As far as the security situation, Pakistanis will agree that it’s a major problem. Almost half of the worldwide victims of terrorist attacks last year were Pakistani! And of course, the recent attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and the subsequent death of eight Pakistani police officers triggered deep anger, shame, and sadness. While this threat is very real, I think we may have missed a few fundamental points.

First, some media outlets reported that terrorist groups took part in the march – this is false. Militant al-Qaeda and neo-Taliban elements who crossed the border after US-led strikes in Afghanistan are not ‘religious extremists.’ Rather, they are terrorists with an Islamic veneer. Why is this important? Because there is a common misperception that Pakistanis are sympathetic to these so-called militants—but those leaving in militant-occupied areas, whether FATA or SWAT, have left if they have been able to afford to do so. Those who lack the means are living under constant fear. During my time in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore this past summer, I met not a single Pakistani sympathetic to these terrorists –- and rightly so, since they are the ones suffering the most from these attacks.

So why is the perception of popular Pakistani support for terrorism so prevalent?
This belief may be due, in part, to an overall emphasis by policy-makers and media outlets alike, on linking the notion of "Muslim terrorists" or "Islamic violence" with religious and cultural explanations about Islam and Muslim culture, and thereby sidelining political ones. Implicit in this view is that every Muslim has the potential to become an 'extremist' or a terrorist—"moderate" Muslims have chosen to ignore this call to warfare, while 'extremist' Muslims have simply succumbed. A more accurate and responsible explanation of the recently conceived notion of “Islamic violence," however, lies in an analysis of recent historical and political conflicts (see Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim). There are dangers in being unaware of our possible biases – in this case, misinterpreting the Long March, and perhaps even Pakistanis themselves.

The ‘solution’ to the militancy problem most probably involves a regional effort to resolve the war in Afghanistan (see Rashid and Rubin’s article in Foreign Affairs) and a concerted effort inside Pakistan to reclaim militant-ridden areas. I won’t even try to pretend to have an answer to this dilemma-- counterinsurgency is extremely difficult.

Second, many have pointed out that the involvement (probably opportunistic) of the JI and other right-of-center elements like the PML-N ‘prove’ that the Long March really wasn’t a liberal movement but one that incorporates ‘militant’ elements. But Pakistani religious parties (JI, JUI) are more similar to some factions of the BJP or Shiv Sena in India than they are to any militant terrorists in FATA and Swat. And just to emphasis, they have never received more than 14% of the vote and lost the 2008 elections.

Also, the PML-N is not a religious party. Yes, it is right-of-center and sometimes panders to religious conservatives, but so does the BJP in India. So does the Republican Party in the US. While Sharif has steadfastly supported the Lawyer’s Movement, personally, I think he needs to prove that he isn’t merely being opportunistic -- but that’s up to the Pakistani people to decide. Since they quickly saw through Zardari, I’ll opt to trust their judgment.

Finally, and most importantly, we can’t forget that this movement is really about the vast majority who took part in the Long March -- lawyers, human rights activists, students, and concerned citizens who risked personal injury and incarceration to stand up for justice. My friend, Ammar, who took part in the now famous GPO chowk protest recalls:

As the police started shelling tear-gas indiscriminately, many activists started falling unconscious. A man who must have been in his 70s started yelling to the fleeing crowd (which included me as I could no longer breathe) that this was not a time to run but to fight... We resisted the police for over two hours, pushing them back many times...
The most memorable part of the evening for me was when Aitzaz Ahsan [prominent leader of the Lawyer’s Movement] defiantly entered the High Court building despite orders for his house arrest and the police officers stood in line to salute him. This meant a complete victory for the movement ...
On one side, [what we witnessed] represented despair, state brutality and police repression. On the other, it reflected hope, resistance, and the passions and dreams of many Pakistanis. We had won not because of the generosity of the country's leadership, but because of the countless sacrifices of lawyers and activists for the past 2 years with 15th March 2009 becoming the grand finale in Lahore.
[Ammar Ali Jan's complete account of his experience has been posted here]

Ammar’s words speak for themselves.

2) Now we move-on to the point that the Long March was somehow irresponsible.

If similar terrorist attacks occurred in another country, we would not ask its citizens to halt all activity for fear of ‘instability.’ The Lawyers Movement initiated the second march because Zardari broke the promises he made after the first one. If we agree that Zardari’s actions are undemocratic, then why are protests to demand accountability irresponsible? To be sure, Pakistani politicians rely on 'micro rationality' – a short-term view of political behavior – instead of 'macro rationality.’ This tendency is partly an outgrowth of a structural reality: prolonged military rule (for more, read Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc or Ayesha Jalal’s Democracy and Authoritarianism). The political system is authoritarian, and the Long March fought to change to this very tendency of the system.

The Lawyers/Civil Society movement has another responsible and important goal -- reasserting and ensuring civilian control. For decades, Pakistan’s army and its powerful ISI intelligence agency defined domestic priorities. They prioritized the defense budget over badly needed infrastructure and education reform. They leveraged militant groups for their rivalries with India. They supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many of these same groups are the ones wreaking havoc in Pakistan today. Mitigating the power of the military is directly related to making sure that Pakistan’s establishment never supports militants again. I was thrilled that during this Long March, the military did not intervene or attempt to take control.

Pakistanis now know that the next time they are dissatisfied with anything, they can use civil disobedience to demand justice. Pakistan’s burgeoning news media revolution -- dozens of independent 24-hour news channels have opened up recently -- has further ensured sustained awareness.

Now that the judges have been restored, many have valid concerns about Zardari, Sharif’s intentions, and the future of Pakistan. I am sure most Pakistanis do as well. While the Movement is no magic bullet, it is an important step towards increasing the likelihood that Pakistan’s government will start to address problems of poverty, education reform, and democracy. I wish the Movement and its supporters best of luck -– they have an important struggle ahead of them. The movement is for democracy not a movement of violence.

I've put in bold some of the points I thought might be particularly key in Wajiha's statement.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

And Then They Came For Lasantha Wickramatunge

Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge was assassinated in broad daylight outside of Colombo last week. SAJA has a helpful round-up of coverage of the event, including some background on Wickramatunge's journalistic record. What stands out is the fact that he has been a consistent dissenting voice in Sri Lankan politics, sharply criticizing the previous government for years. In recent years he had also become a critic of the new government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he had earlier supported. Indeed, Wickramatunge and Rajapaska were until recently rather close friends.

Wickramatunge's assassination is widely believed to have been carried out by forces allied with the government, if not directly sponsored by the government itself. His memorial service, which took place yesterday in Colombo, was attended by thousands of people (see a Flickr photostream of the event here).

This past Sunday, the Sunday Leader, the Sri Lankan newspaper founded by Wickramatunge and his brother, carried a posthumous editorial authored by Wickramatunge himself. It's called, "And Then They Came For Me," and it's written with the understanding that it would only be printed in the event of the author's assassination.

It's a moving statement, which ought to be read by anyone who doubts whether freedom of the press or freedom of speech is, after all, an essential right. Wickramatunge begins by asserting his primary goal as a journalist over the fifteen years he had worked with this newspaper:

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper. (a link)

Though Wickramatunge had been a critic of the government's prosecution of the ongoing war against the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka, he was by no means an apologist for the LTTE (indeed, if I am reading his name correctly, he is ethnically Sinhalese, not Tamil).

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall. (link)

There's more that I could quote, but perhaps I should just encourage readers to read the editorial themselves.

It's a remarkable statement in many ways, not least because its author seemingly knew what was coming, but continued doing what he was doing all the same. (Bravely or foolishly.) But even more than that, despite the extremity of the situation in which Wickramatunge wrote this editorial, his voice remains calm and reasonable. There is no melodrama there, just a passionate commitment to the journalistic mission of always aspiring to speak the truth, even if no one wants to hear it.

I do not know whether Wickramatunge was right or not when he argued, in the passage I quoted above, that the current military actions in northern Sri Lanka are doomed to failure. Indeed, part of me hopes he is wrong, and that this really is the end of the road for Prabakaran and the LTTE army.

But history and logic suggests that in fact Wickramatunge is likely to be exactly right: you cannot win over the hearts of minds of an enemy in a civil conflict by brutalizing them. Any lasting peace will have to be consensual and negotiated, involving the disarming of the LTTE, but also concessions from the government. (Northern Ireland is the model to try and emulate, I think.)

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Recycling While Brown

Given what happened last week in Virginia, the events described in this post might seem trivial, but I feel quite strongly that they are not. What's at issue is a fundamental question of civil rights -- the right to live one's life without being harrassed, investigated, or needlessly spied on.

The Indian-American poet Kazim Ali teaches at Shippensburg University, which is a little west of Harrisburg, PA.

On his website (and at Inside Higher Ed), Ali recently posted an account of being detained for "suspicious" behavior. The behavior in question? Recycling. He was doing nothing other than dropping off a stack of printouts of poems to be recycled when someone from the campus ROTC called the police:

A young man from ROTC was watching me as I got into my car and drove away. I thought he was looking at my car which has black flower decals and sometimes inspires strange looks. I later discovered that I, in my dark skin, am sometimes not even a person to the people who look at me. Instead, in spite of my peacefulness, my committed opposition to all aggression and war, I am a threat by my very existence, a threat just living in the world as a Muslim body.

Upon my departure, he called the local police department and told them a man of Middle Eastern descent driving a heavily decaled white Beetle with out of state plates and no campus parking sticker had just placed a box next to the trash can. My car has New York plates, but he got the rest of it wrong. I have two stickers on my car. One is my highly visible faculty parking sticker and the other, which I just don't have the heart to take off these days, says "Kerry/Edwards: For a Stronger America."

Because of my recycling the bomb squad came, the state police came. Because of my recycling buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred, and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us safe. [...]

One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my description--a Middle Eastern man driving a white beetle with out of state plates--and knew immediately they were talking about me and realized that the box must have been manuscripts I was discarding. She approached them and told them I was a professor on the faculty there. Immediately the campus police officer said, "What country is he from?"

"What country is he from?!" she yelled, indignant. (link)

I've had just about enough of these incidents. Don't the campus police at Shippensburg U. have a minimum criterion for "suspicious"? Was it necessary to call the state police and the bomb squad? A faculty member dropping off a box of papers by a recycling bin at a semi-rural university simply ought not to have to deal with this kind of nonsense. It's just insane.

It must have been a harrowing experience, but fortunately it ended without further incident, and Ali was released.

The University wrote a statement to Ali following this incident, but Kazim Ali isn't at all satisfied with it, presumably because the university wouldn't want to acknowledge that Ali's race was a factor in an incident where his civil rights may have been violated:

The university's bizarrely minimal statement lets everyone know that the "suspicious package" beside the trashcan ended up being, indeed, trash. It goes on to say, "We appreciate your cooperation during the incident and remind everyone that safety is a joint effort by all members of the campus community."

What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall--who was watched, noted, and reported, all in a days work? Today we gave in willingly and whole-heartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police one another and report on one another. Such behaviors exist most strongly in closed and undemocratic and fascist societies.

The university report does not mention the root cause of the alarm. That package became "suspicious" because of who was holding it, who put it down, who drove away. Me.

It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone. It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled. (link)

"Fascism" is a strong word, but sometimes you need to go there. Perhaps the key difference is, at least here the police have to adhere to basic concepts of due process. In a truly fascist society, none of that would apply. (We could, of course, debate matters such as Guantanamo Bay, CIA secret detention facilities, the practice of "rendition," and the currently blurry line between "interrogation techniques" and torture. None of those practices by themselves make the U.S. a "fascist" society, but they do call into question the nature of American democracy.)

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Samjhauta" Thwarted: Another Senseless, Horrible Bombing

It's difficult to know what to say sometimes after terrorist attacks like the recent bombing of the Samjhauta Express. 68 innocent people lost their lives -- and for what? If it turns out to be an attack planned by Kashmiri militants or other Islamists, this kind of attack seems particularly bizarre, as it appears that the majority of the people who died were in fact Pakistanis. (If another motive or ideological agenda was behind the attack, it's not as if it would be any better.) And needless to say, if this follows the pattern of some other recent terrorist attacks in India, it's entirely possible -- likely, even -- that weeks will go by without any satisfactory answers appearing. (I'm perfectly happy to be proven wrong if this turns out not to be true.)

Here are some of the issues I've seen people discussing with regards to this attack:

  • At Outlook, there is an interesting article that describes in depth the general lack of security on the Samjhauta Express train. Hopefully, both governments are going to seriously revamp this.

  • A big question that people are asking is, were the doors locked from the inside, preventing people who survived the original explosions from escaping the two burning cars? Some witnesses have claimed they were, but India has denied it. At Bharat-Rakshak, however, I came across a commenter who has a good explanation for why this might have been done:

    In north India, when travelling overight, train compartments are usually locked from inside to prevent entry of people who do not have reservations in that compartment. The TT opens them at stations to allow entry only the passengers that belong to that compartment.

    With intense heat, the locked door latches must have jammed. It is difficult to open these latches even otherwise. Women and kids have to ask other passengers to help then open the door.

    The windows in trains are barred to prevent 'chain snatching' and other types of burglaries. (link)

    Those sound like good reasons, but I hope after this tragedy officials are thinking about possible failsafe mechanisms, so nothing like this happens again.

  • Sketches have been released of the suspects. They were apparently speaking the "local Hindi language." That doesn't tell us much, however.

  • What was the explosive used? The bombs are being described as IEDs with kerosene and other "low intensity" fuels -- in other words, not RDX or other material obtained through transnational networks. These sound like materials that are very easily available, but still incredibly deadly for people in a confined space. A witness at the BBC mentions that the explosions did not force the conductor to stop the train right away -- indeed, he may not have known about them until several minutes after the fires started.

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