Posted by: ourvoicestogether | December 28, 2007

Pakistan – Life after Benazir Bhutto

Those who play with fire know very well that at some point in time, they will be ‘scarred’ and hence fall a prey to their somewhat ‘passionate’ activity. No one knew this fact of life better than the late Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who succumbed to an assassin’s bullet on December 27, 2007. Ms. Bhutto had a history of living dangerously and perhaps pushed her luck a bit too far.

In the murky waters of Pakistan politics, Ms. Bhutto played with fire and stood up, for almost three decades, to various elements and role players that were an anti-thesis of the socialist/democratic roots of her background, education and the political party that she inherited from her father, the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Fighting one military regime after the other, and having been forced into exile on several occasions, this ‘Daughter of the East’ met her end in the most vicious and inhumane manner.

To say that it was all expected might not be untrue. Right from the day she came back from exile last October, someone, somewhere, was out to ‘get her’. Pakistan politics is a can of worms, the stakes are high, power is god, making aggressive political moves and scoring points is a sign of craftiness and intellect. Security of life is an unknown commodity. One lives there by the roll of the dice. Yes, the country is a gambler’s den! It’s a ‘glorified tribal area’. The powers that be rule with precision and incredible symmetry. No dissent is tolerated. Ms. Bhutto was a resistance – she had to exit the scene, sooner rather than later.

The lady leaves behind a rough legacy. Whereas she possessed all the charisma, the charms and the demeanors that made her the darling of the crowds, she couldn’t make it to the ‘major league’ on the two occasions that she was elected as the prime minister. Her tenures were sloppy and she handled power in a rather amateur manner.

Yes, she was a woman, and, yes, she was respected and recognized for her courage and bravery to lead a conservative Muslim nation, she lacked the enlightened tactfulness of a first-class head of government. She fell a victim of the shallowness of the political ethos and the restricted framework within which she was allowed to govern, thanks to certain constitutional amendments and the mistrust of the army generals in the political process.

Who killed Ms. Bhutto? It may be an ‘impossible adventure’ to provide a precise answer but she did have plenty of enemies! For one, the religious fanatics hated her. Taliban, al-Qaeda, the religious political outfits, all had a grudge against her. Although at one point, her government was instrumental in aiding the Afghan Taliban, she was seen as an enigma by the bearded and the turbaned. The very fact that she belonged to the ‘wrong gender’, her existence as a political leader was not acceptable.

One did come across reports that al-Qaeda had directly threatened her early this year if she dared to come back to Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban called for suicide bombings in a blatant manner to wipe her off the political spectrum.

The Bhuttos and the military Establishment had age-old issues. Ms. Bhutto’s father had ridiculed the Pakistani army publicly a number of times back in the 70s when things did not work out well in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Constitutionally, he reduced the armed forces to next to nothing and tried to make peace with archenemy India.

The Bhuttos are from down south, Sindh province. The Pakistani army is predominantly from northern provinces of Punjab and NWFP. Moreover, the army suspects the loyalties of the people of Sindh and considers them anti-federation/anti-state. The Bhuttos have always walked on thin ice when it comes to dealing with the men in uniform. Zulfiqar was ousted and eventually sentenced to death by a general, Zia-ul-Haq and Benazir was never let to settle down during her two stints as prime minister.

Ms. Bhutto was a high-maintenance phenomenon for the army, a ‘revolutionary’ who probably could turn into an uncontrollable menace if given a free hand. Due to this level of skepticism, it took a good two years for the Establishment to let President Musharraf ‘talk politics’ with Ms. Bhutto. Those talks culminated in some kind of an agreement, the contents of which were never made public, thereby paving the way for her comeback to Pakistan.

Granted that everything is up in the air as far as evidence (or lack of it) is concerned, and granted too that I am not trying to develop a thesis here, but I did come across a comment on the Times of London website from a reader that said, “I know its fashionable today to blame everything on al-Qaeda, however, in this (Ms. Bhutto’s assassination) I think President Musharraf and his regime had something to do with it…”

Could Musharraf have gotten Ms. Bhutto killed? Was she adding to his insecurities? Did he feel threatened by the prospect of her becoming the prime minister and, therefore, turn into a pain in the neck?

Musharraf is a lucky man. He was a diehard supporter of the jihadis not long ago. 9/11 resulted in a remarkable turnaround of fortunes for him. From an introvert despot, he got the opportunity to become a trusted ally of the most powerful and the most influential country in the world. He’s played his game well on the domestic front and bulldozed each and every roadblock in his way. Ms. Bhutto’s presence was perhaps a bitter pill to swallow and had she been elected as prime minister, maintaining authority and command respect may not have been possible for him or the military institutions including the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) anymore.

This does not, in any way, imply that Musharraf is the one to doubt. It may be fashionable to blame everything and anything on the fanatics these days, but it is reasonable to comprehend that the mullahs have an interest to destabilize Pakistan. They are, after all, against the country’s support in the war against terrorism.

Who killed Ms. Bhutto is an open-ended question to which we will probably never be able to find an answer. However, thinking in terms of the bigger picture, what now? Where do we go from here?

Let’s face it that Ms. Bhutto with all her flaws and faults was a national leader, if not a national hero. One can safely fear that in the coming few days and weeks there will be mass-scale civil unrest in Pakistan. Firstly, it would be appropriate to postpone the general elections due to be held on January 08, 2008. As it is, the credibility of the entire election process is being seen by all and sundry with a lot of suspicion. As a mark of respect for a national leader, it may not be a bad strategy to come up with a date anytime in the future.

Secondly, Ms. Bhutto’s party, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has a strong powerbase in interior Sindh. It remains to be seen if the Sindhi nationalist/separatist elements will join hands with the antagonized and outraged PPP leadership and create a situation whereby the very integration of Pakistan may be jeopardized. Sindh, for all intents and purposes, serves as the country’s ‘supply-line’. All major seaports are located in the province.

A lot of nightmarish possibilities come to one’s mind when one thinks about the enormous power of the crazy religious fundamentalists. 57 suicide bomb attacks, including the one in Ms. Bhutto’s rally on December 27, have taken place in almost 52 weeks of the year 2007. This works out to be more than one suicide attack per week.

There is constant strife in the northern areas. There appears to be lack of effort to curb the fundamentalist tendencies on the part of the state machinery.

Two things are possible in this regard:

  • One, that Musharraf and the military top brass don’t care and hence just likes to sit pretty, watching people dying, left, right and center. The quest is to preserve and prolong their own rule and that is about all they worry.
  • The other possibility is that the major role players are involved in this brutal exercise of fundamentalism. The money/arms and ammunition channeled to Pakistan to counter terrorism is perhaps being used to encourage militancy.

Many who care have suggested that the Western countries must check and watch carefully where the money is being spent and who uses the weapons. This is not to doubt the credentials or the sense of judgment of the donors/aid givers, but, knowing the Pakistan system and how the intelligence agencies operate, it is fair to say that if the money is going toward helping the crazies, it is high time that Islamabad should be checked with an iron hand.

It is sincerely hoped that, for once, the people of Pakistan realize that extremism is crushing the very spirit of the country and hence the fundamentalists should be driven out for good. A certain degree of awareness is required to rise against the odds. It can be confidently expected that the public is fully capable of effecting a change, if equipped with the right kind of leadership.

The extension of this apprehension is the question mark about the Pakistani nuclear program. Is it in secure hands? What if the mullahs take over the controls of the nuclear installations? What if the ground realities change one day and what if chaos and mayhem breaks out with the crazies tearing apart the security mechanism of the nuclear program? We certainly need to pay attention and devote some energy and resources trying to figure out this issue.

What could hurt the most is a mutiny in the military ranks. Understood that the armed forces are a well-knit, disciplined unit, what cannot and should not, however, be counted out is the fact that there are elements sympathetic to the superfluous and distorted principles of Islam. Waging a ‘holy war’ in the name of religion is something the soldiers may not refrain from doing.

Not that Ms. Bhutto was the best choice or the right choice, but her death will certainly create a deeper crisis of leadership in Pakistan. The greatest misfortune of that country is lack of a committed and dedicated leadership. The offshoot of this crisis has been, over the years, wrong decisions taken both by the uniformed and the political leadership and those decisions are biting the nation in the rear end now. The irony is that the same faces are still in power!

The other major political figure, Nawaz Sharif, could turn out to be a beneficiary under the given set of circumstances. In fact, given his background, being a yes-man of the Establishment, he can be an ideal fit. However, he represents the ultra-right and is by no means a moderate.

Musharraf’s strategy of isolating the major political forces for several years has resulted in the draconic situation that we see in Pakistan today. The monster of fundamentalism has left the country and its people paralyzed and doomed.

Pakistan is miles and miles away from the Establishment of a civil society. The involvement of toxic Islam has only polluted the environment and has taken the nation away from any prospects of prosperity and a healthy future for the generations to come. There seems to be no way out.

The December 27 event will leave an indelible mark on Pakistan’s history. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has possibly heralded an end of the Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan politics. Ms. Bhutto is a loss to the nation in a way that she was endowed with a solid educational background coupled with the ability to orchestrate public opinion and unite the masses. One fact, however, remains indisputable – Pakistan is a mystery that has baffled even the best of political analysts! There is never a dull day in that nation’s life and making any predictions is can turn out to be nothing but a sheer exercise in futility!

–Ahson Saeed Hasan

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | December 25, 2007

Does anyone care about the ‘pit of fire’?

Religious fanaticism and sectarian intolerance is a curse for any religion, peace and amity. It is a virus that breeds hate and promotes revenge and contempt for fellow beings. It eats away and corrodes minds, retards ability to think clearly and rationally.

This is exactly what the religion of Islam and its followers are going through at this time. Recent events in Pakistan around the time of the holy festival of Id-ul-Azha, have proven beyond doubt that the beast of terrorism is alive and kicking with the government helpless to put an end to the relentless onslaught of extremists.

How does one explain the murderous acts of religious zealots whose frenzy for murder starts with hurling abuses at other faiths and sects, killing one another’s so-called self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ and often culminates in gunning down defenseless worshippers within and outside the places of worship? Unchecked fanaticism gone amuck has endangered the Muslim social fabric, and the entire dynamics of the Islamic world is hostage to religious bigots and preachers of hate and anarchy.

If there is violence in any society, there is something basically wrong with it. And since there is a lot of intra-Muslim violence in countries that claim to be ‘citadels of Islam’ such as Pakistan, it is obviously a very disturbing sign. Indicating that not ‘something’ but much is wrong with the society that shouts Islamic slogans from rooftops and violates them on the streets may be the appropriate way to describe the situation.

For the life of me, I never understood, when I was living in Pakistan, the rationale of having on average three to four mosques within a mile’s radius in the bigger towns of the country. That would mean that many types of mullahs spitting hatred against rival sects and religions at least five times a day! Why would the government provide an opportunity to the devilish, arbitrary and judgmental crazies the opportunity to spread negativity always remained a mystery to my mind!

Violence as a creed, according to Islamic theory and jurisprudence is repugnant to the religion. Muslim scholars like to believe that Islam is a religion anchored in peace and rejects violence as an arbiter in human affairs. Instead, it is said, Islam lays stress on the free and unhindered use of human volition and free will in choosing the course of action. God says there is no compulsion in religion.

All this sounds fantastic. However, I have a problem and that problem is to question the basics of certain issues intrinsically connected with human life. My question vis-à-vis Islam is that if God says that there is no compulsion in religion, then how can man impose anything through the barrel of the gun and suicide bombings? That would be unIslamic, isn’t it? And that would mean defying the forces of nature and God Himself.

Unfortunately, this is what the votaries of violence in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world are doing today: They do not show their real face and hide behind the smoke screen of extremist slogans. Violence spawned by religious extremism and fanaticism is posing some very real threats to the Muslim societies where they wish to live in peace.

If one goes by the book, within the Muslim society it creates, Islam wants to eliminate all traces of violence. It actually establishes a society of free and equal believers who are inspired by the common objective of serving their Lord and Master to the best of their capabilities. This society of free and equal believers is bound with the unbreakable ties of Islamic brotherhood (Ukhuwah), which means a Muslim is the brother of a Muslim. For him coming into the fold of Islam means accepting the inviolability of this Ukhuwah and the brotherly ties born of it.

In the Koran, God says: “And hold fast all together by the covenant of God and be not disunited. And remember the favor of God on you, when you were enemies then He united your hearts; so by His favor you became brethren. And you were on the brink of a pit of fire, but He saved you from it.” (Aal-e-Imran: 102)

These ‘brothers’ seem to be pushing it a bit too far. In the name of ‘Islamic brotherhood’, prejudice and hatred and ‘judgementalism’ are being introduced, thereby making a mockery of the underlying principles of faith.

I remember vividly, once again in Pakistan, the days when ‘sinners’ like myself wouldn’t fast or attend the Friday worshipping being harassed by folks although they would backbite, talk nonsense about other faiths and yet ‘practice’ the religion. I used to wonder if they were wasting their time or perhaps making a fool of God! Little did they know that doing good, and doing the right things in life was all God wanted from them. They would often remind me of the pit of fire. Little did they know that their parochial and judgmental approach was in itself an indication of their own lack of faith.

Those who preach hatred and violence cannot be the promoters of Islamic unity and brotherhood. The preachers and practitioners of violence are in a way opposed to all that which the faith stands for. As is the case with any other religion, faith stands for love, tolerance and compassion.

Once again, reads the Koran: “God has endeared the faith to you and made it seemly in your hearts. And He has made unbelief and transgression and disobedience hateful to you.” (Hujurat: 7).

Not if the reverse of what God enjoins happens and Muslims in a society give the impression that they are not enamored of faith and that it implies, it would clearly mean that they are standing on the brink of the pit of fire as so graphically described by the Koran. It appears that God is not generous anymore or is simply fed up with the wretched practices of the self-proclaimed torchbearers and ‘protectors’ of the religion!

In a Muslim society in a country like, for instance, Pakistan, one can see that pit of fire and even feel the heat of the flames leaping outside that pit. It is a pit of fire created by the champions of violence and hatred. This includes all and sundry, politicians, the military, and those who have instigated and sponsored religious extremism.

Politically, the Muslim nations today are a rotten and a decadent lot, standing precariously on the brink of the pit of fire. The Muslims have fallen a prey to the evils of lack of patience, understanding, and absence of a thought process and reconciliation, failing blatantly to keep up with the modern times. Being, as they are, a weak and an amorphous lot, the Muslims seem to be fading into nothingness, having no weight in the comity of nations.

Strange are the ways of history though. With respect to Pakistan, about 60 odd years ago, an exception to the general rot appeared on the South Asian subcontinent. Back in the early half of the 20th century, the Muslims made some incredibly spectacular efforts and launched the struggle for the achievement of a homeland for the Muslims of India.

Ironically this struggle for independence was led by a truly secular gentleman by the name of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a thoroughbred moderate who had hardly ever stepped into a place of Muslim worship!

Pakistan, a country where the hell of extremism has broken lose in the recent years, would not have been a possibility had different schools of Islamic jurisprudence been allowed to initiate the debate as to which fiqh (sect) would reign supreme in the projected homeland of the Muslims of the subcontinent. The entire struggle would have, undoubtedly, crumbled like a house of cards.

But that did not happen, simply because the narrow-minded bigots were not allowed to have a free hand unlike the last three decades or so when vicious autocrats and foreign money have played a key role in promoting sectarian violence in Pakistan. The country has become a killing field and armed fanatics have been given a general license to kill.

It is all the more tragic that violence has been promoted in the land that is claimed to have been created in the name of religion that is based on peace. Nobody seems to love faith; everybody loves the ‘good things’ in life. It is an agonizing, non-virtuous duel of faith versus material gains. There is cutthroat competition. No holds are barred. The Islamic concept of Ukhuwah has been thrown overboard. The society is riddled with hatred. Violence reigns supreme. Is this the society of ‘Islamic’ Pakistan for which thousands died at the time of independence and millions suffer from all kinds of persecution? The basic premise of the establishment of a tolerant society has been shattered.

Even though the people may not want to fall in the proverbial pit of fire, but they are on the brink of it. I come across statements and comments of the general populace in the media. The people seem to be shuddering with fear. Who will save them and how? Surely they cannot be saved by those who, through their creed of violence, are out to undermine and negate the very foundation of a confident, tolerant and peaceful society. Saviors are not made of the stuff the Islamic bigots are made of.

One thing is clear: Fire-eating monsters cannot preach the gospel of life. It is high time that people in Muslim societies knew who stands for what. Who wants to destroy them and who would like to save them?

I like the idea of being optimistic but I am beginning to feel that Pakistan in particular and the Muslim society in general have little or no opportunity left to salvage the situation. I am not sure if any effort is being made to avoid making a catastrophe out of an embarrassment but it appears that the war against the terror masters in Pakistan is not being fought in the right earnest. The preceding decade has shown that all roads to the terrorist roadmap lead to Pakistan. The amount of money that has been literally ‘gifted’ to the Musharraf regime by the Western world to tackle terrorism hasn’t really made an impact or provided the desired results. Instead heroes like Daniel Pearl and thousands of innocent souls like him have met unceremonious ends to their lives.

The murder of man by man, they say, is as old as the human race itself but the sort of mass scale activity that has gripped Pakistan has been nothing but a persistently gruesome phenomenon, that can only force one to suggest that it is time reflect and take stock of the situation.

Someone in Pakistan needs to talk of a common destiny and a shared fate, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the world. Someone needs to show the Pakistanis that a decaying ethos is not what the country was created for. Someone needs to tell the people that they need to purge the country of the notorious elements and that it is a Divine opportunity to throw the devils of extremism out of the system once and for all. They cannot keep on dancing to the same old tune day in and day out.

If one is to really believe and be convinced what the religion of Islam really stands for, the Muslims must make efforts to put theory into practice and salvage whatever is left, anchored in the true values of faith that center on loving humanity and preaching a much politer religion. It seems that only sincere adherence to faith can save those who are about to fall in the pit of fire.

— Ahson Saeed Hasan

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | December 24, 2007

Washington Times Publishes Opinion Piece on Citizen Diplomacy

The Washington Times has published our Citizen Diplomacy op-ed, co-written with the National Council of International VisitorsI really can’t think of a better way to greet a new year than to look for bridges to understanding, foster dialogue, and represent ourselves as global citizens.

In Washington, it is a season of packing. Not just gifts for the holidays, but suitcases. Karen Hughes is packing this month to head back to Texas, another official resigning before the end of the administration.

As with the resignations of both of her predecessors, the nation is losing yet another undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs when our nation’s image abroad continues to decline precipitously, and the distaste, and sometimes outright hatred, toward our nation is a festering threat to the security of our country.

Mrs. Hughes’ tenure at the State Department has been marked by a public focus on positive portrayal of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds and an internal focus on getting the State Department bureaucracy to understand and indeed embrace public diplomacy. Unfortunately for our nation, these goals are elusive.Her resignation announcement prompted the predictable articles — report cards on her performance.Most were critical. All cited escalating antipathy for America among traditional allies as well as foes.

When will we realize that reversing these dangerous trends is not a one-person job? In fact, unless exponentially more American citizens appreciate their own responsibilities for U.S. public diplomacy, no undersecretary — no matter how talented or well-connected — will make real progress.

At no point in history has our national security depended as much on our ability to be a respected and integral part of the world community. Nor has our nation’s credibility ever been so low around the globe. Global public opinion polling continuously finds that the Bush administration’s policies and actions are the lightning rod for public opposition worldwide. Polls also indicate that underlying suspicions of the United States will not be erased with the coming change in administrations or with clever government public-relations campaigns.

The challenge of public diplomacy is not government packaging of unpopular policies for international audiences; rather, it is presenting the fuller context of our nation so that unpopular policies and policy disagreements do not become indictments of our people or our future trustworthiness, and definitely not justifications or excuses for condoning terrorist acts.

Government packaging cannot do what ordinary citizens can do: build understanding and mutual respect, irrespective of the person in the undersecretary for public diplomacy’s chair, or even in the Oval Office. Mrs. Hughes conveyed this when she stated: “We must empower our most important international asset: individual American citizens.” Citizen diplomacy is the concept that, in a vibrant democracy, the individual citizen has the right — even the responsibility — to help shape U.S. foreign affairs. Citizen diplomats are people who recognize that by reaching out to people around the globe, we can make the world a better, safer, more compassionate place, one handshake at a time.

For many years public opinion polling has consistently shown that the rest of the world views Americans as hardworking but also arrogant, greedy, violent and loud. People around the globe want the United States to do more to help solve the world’s problems. They feel left out of the benefits of business expansion worldwide. They feel trampled by America’s overwhelming presence and they want us to listen to them.

How do we change these increasingly lethal negative perceptions of our nation? By utilizing our nation’s core strengths — generosity, entrepreneurship, volunteerism, diversity of religions, ethnicities, cultures and countries of origin — to build relationships one person at a time.

Citizen diplomacy consists of ordinary folks reaching out internationally — not in the service of a government campaign, but with private- and public-sector support for their own efforts.It involves engaging communities abroad honestly, respectfully acknowledging human differences and appreciating common human aspirations. It involves building trust and understanding one person at a time. Citizen diplomacy includes inviting foreign visitors into our homes, schools and offices. Itwelcomes learning about other cultures, countries and religions. Citizen diplomacy strengthens our communities, our nation and our international relations.

Whether we are students befriending an international scholar in a college classroom, business representatives who take the time to learn about the customs and protocol of another nation or athletes welcoming a foreign teammate, we can make a difference.

So while we lose another undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs in Washington, we gain a new citizen diplomat in Texas. We welcome Citizen Diplomat Karen Hughes.

We hope she will focus attention on and participate in various citizen diplomacy organizations hard at work in her home state known for its expansiveness and hospitality. We hope she will choose to host international visitors or foreign students at her home, foster global service, build international business ties, support contributions to global scholarship and science or counterterrorism through international exchange. As a private citizen, she can make a difference.

Marianne Scott, a former Foreign Service officer, is executive director of Our Voices Together — a network started by September 11 families and friends.

Sherry Mueller is president of the National Council of International Visitors, which promotes excellence in citizen diplomacy.

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | December 17, 2007

Iran: Putting the people first

Amongst the bad boys of the world, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps tops the list. Variously described as ‘the post-modernist plasticine’, ‘Tehran tyrant’, ‘an impulsive buffoon’, the individual lacks in charisma and character one usually associates with world leaders.

Being a bundle of contradictions, he seems to suffer from symptoms of schizophrenia, lacking in power and strength of moral ethics and possessing a ridiculously reckless bent of mind.

A remnant of an ultra-rightwing movement that swept away the Shah back in the late 70s, Ahmadinejad has is possibly not suited for modern statehood politics. His raw and bashful demeanors speak of the curtness with which he preaches the unrealistic and incredibly outdated dogmas.

As a nation the Iranians traditionally and predominantly follow the Shia faith, a relatively moderate and milder version of the religion of Islam. However, with someone like the current president sitting at the helm of affairs, his extreme views regarding other religions and nations have only stigmatized Iran and its political standing in global politics.

As it is, the 1979 Mullah takeover and the subsequent enforcement of Shariah have had a devastating effect on Iran’s image. Ahmadinejad’s arrival on the scene has only added to the stress and the environment of discomfort that existed beforehand.

Having said that, here’s what the problem is. Due to the fact that the fundamentalist Islamic leadership of Iran has in the past and allegedly continues to patronize and harbor extremists and due also to the fact that Iran, according to many, has an alive and kicking nuclear program with aggressive designs against it’s neighbors, the country has endured harsh military and economic sanctions that have brutally paralyzed any prospects of prosperity and welfare for the general populace.

Iran has a rich culture. It’s a centuries old civilization that has a proud past. The Western world has had tremendously strong socio-political relations with the country. Those relations turned sour and nasty when the Ayatollah seized power by influencing nuts like Ahmadinejad and instigating a popular uprising against the ruler of the day. Whereas the fascist Mullahs have destroyed the heritage and history, Iranians, as a nation still remain steadfast and stable.

The people of Iran deserve a better deal, to say the least. Even though their leadership is nothing but a cacophony of sounds, the Western world needs to lend a helping hand to the millions who are suffering under the tyranny of the worst form of dictatorship seen in modern times.

I come across folks who matter in Washington saying that the only way out of the Iran quagmire is to carry out an Iraq-like military operation. I’ve heard people saying that there is no need to talk peace and friendship with Iran. Given Tehran’s track record, all these proposals are legitimate and hold water.

War is a sad occurrence and brings with it pain and anguish. It erodes human trust and blows away any prospects of reconciliation. Before we decide to battle it out with Iran, we must endeavor to understand a few minor points.

If I may submit, the first thought that comes to mind is that they may be neighbors but Iran is much different from Iraq. The ground realities are absolutely not similar. What may have helped bulldozing Saddam’s power structures was perhaps the disunity and distortedness within the Iraqi body politic. This may not be the case with Iran.

For all intents and purposes, Iran’s nuclear program could be just a psychological ploy that Ahmadinejad may be using to dare the Western powers to launch an attack thereby making him the focus of attention. As mentioned earlier, the guy appears to have serious issues.

May be the world needs to pay closer attention to Mohamed ElBaradei of the IAEA or look at the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) findings in a positive light.

Harboring extremists? This may be neutralized by employing effective intelligence measures, negotiating with allies in the Persian Gulf region for support to check militancy that originates with Iran’s assistance.

Understood that US policy is threatened when the survival of its allies is jeopardized, or when there is an economic challenge, or when there is a nuclear threat.

Understood also that Israel is the chief ally of the United States in Middle East and protecting Israel’s sovereignty is a major concern of Washington’s policy. On the other hand, Iran is a potential threat for Israel and any threat to Isreali interests is a direct hit on US interests.

However, one may submit that the US cannot afford to open up too many fronts and carry on with a number of wars at the same time. The economy has suffered major blows over the years, and thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq thousands of soldiers have lost their lives on duty. Signs of US economy improving are remote and whereas we would like to continue with the role of the ‘world policeman’, yet, we cannot afford to neglect the needs of our own people.

What can be done under the given set of circumstances vis-à-vis Iran?

Granted that the Iranian leadership is not the best in the world to deal with but beyond the cloak of skepticism, the Western powers, especially the United States, with all its resources can possibly work toward certain goals to avoid a military conflict.

Iran has had some saner elements in the corridors of power. Two names that readily come to mind are Hashmi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, both former presidents who did make worthwhile contributions, despite tough resistance from the ‘spiritual leadership’, to introduce moderation and showed willingness to think in terms of guiding the Iranian society toward a prudent and rational course.

It is one’s understanding that these two gentlemen are still around and pretty much active in politics. It may not be a bad idea to approach them and use them as resources to reach out to individuals inside Iran who want a change and who would like to come forward to assist in the creation of a liberal and moderate Iran.

Since war is not the answer, the US must make appropriate gestures. Continuation and possible hardening of sanctions does not seem to be working. Not long ago, I read an interesting analysis by an Iranian scholar who suggested that the US should consider tackling with Iran on the following lines:

  • Support and defend human rights, establish contact and help all existing civil society bodies and trade unions within Iran (for instance, the doctors and lawyers guilds).
  • Encourage creation of new NGOs for the promotion of civil society.
  • Support women’s movements, ethnic and religious minorities and the youth, given the fact that the social requirement of all these groups is becoming increasingly more politicized with each passing day.
  • Promotion of activities by such organizations as the ‘International Center for Non-Violent Conflict’ for enhanced training of the Iranian youth and others in order to encourage their more effective participation in a national resistance movement.
  • A public diplomacy campaign to demonstrate functional democratic models to the Iranian people and the initiation of a public awareness campaign to counter the claim of the Mullahs that democratic societies are godless.
  • Translation and publication of recently written books and articles on the subject of democracy and human rights, with particular emphasis on writings that concern transition from authoritarian states to democracy.
  • Support for the convening of seminars and other gatherings for discussion of such topics as new trends in Islamic thought that have the potential for helping to find new remedies for such modern day scourges as religious extremism and terrorism.
  • Support for freedom of speech and freedom of press and the rights of all Iranian journalists in conjunction with general support for the overall rights of the Iranian people.
  • The projection of the idea that in democratic governments it is the people who are empowered to choose their leaders and their democratically elected representative to legislate laws and that the exercise of these rights in no way contradict people religious beliefs.

These are extremely pertinent and down to earth suggestions and submissions. Needless to say, if taken or committed to, these steps can potentially stop the process of marginalization of the Iranian people.

I read recently that Iran is on the verge of a most dangerous crisis that if not checked, could plunge both Iran and the region into a state of acute crisis and instability. Looking from another standpoint, Iran can potentially plunge the entire Middle East into a grave crisis if the Ahmadinejad stays on.

Chances of peace and reconciliation, persecution of minorities, threat to Israel’s security is linger on if channels of communication are not opened with the appropriate parties. Engagement is the key.

The truth of the matter is that once a detachment is made from pursuing an aggressive policy, it may not be that difficult for Washington to effect a change in Iran. Changing the course is a hard choice to make at this time. However, the dividends and returns are rich if the US is able to create goodwill amongst the right kind of people and groups. Most of all, the people of Iran stand in dire need of a well-deserved change and a break from shackles of the Mullahs. It is time to return the Land of Norooz to people of Iran!

–Ahson Saeed Hasan

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | December 11, 2007

Middle East Peace Process – Getting The Perceptions Right

I know and I understand that the recent Annapolis peace summit did not turn out to be a great success. I am also cognizant of the fact that many have blamed President George Bush for waiting too long to take any constructive initiative in the Middle East and that he used this particular summit just to make his ‘resume look good’.

Having said that, it appears that the Middle East peace process is perhaps never going to advance any further if left to the whims and wishes of the politicians and certain interest groups that may apparently stand for peace but are actually afraid to take any bold measures in that direction. What has transpired is a failure of such meetings and summits held for a region that is regarded as perhaps the one of the most explosive regions in the world.

Despite these ‘understandable hiccups’ and fruitless junkets, there are perhaps still some bodies and individuals that genuinely yearn for reconciliation and better understanding of issues. I was pleasantly surprised to read an article written by Bassem Eid, founder and director the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group based in east Jerusalem.

Titled as ‘It need not be a clash’, and published recently, Eid has talked about certain extremely pertinent issues and perceptions that subvert chances of finding common grounds and thereby work on getting rid of the glitches within the structural framework.

Although I am not too enlightened vis-à-vis the writer’s background, I must say that I am rather impressed by the analysis and his expression of desire to achieve peace in the region.

Eid writes:

In recent years, the relationship between the Arab world and the West has been framed in terms of a fundamental conflict of interests, values and goals. The West, with its capitalist markets and liberal cultural standards, is viewed as being the antithesis of the Arab world, with its conservative social values and centrally-overseen markets.

Eid believes that the differences between Western-style capitalism and Middle-Eastern style socialism are exaggerated. He in fact points out to some similarities between the two, such as the one that involves the strict protection of state sovereignty.

Eid mentions Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (first articulated in the early 90s) theory according to which it is believed that there is an increasing danger and threat of violence arising between countries and cultures that base their tradition on religious faith and dogma.

The writer, in the context of the discussion, challenges the theory and argues that ‘the ideologies of the Western and Arab states are not mutually exclusive, nor are they doomed to play out Huntington’s theoretical model. As the late Edward Said argued in his “Clash of Ignorance” essay in 2002, Huntington’s line demonstrates that the most pressing problem of Arab-Western relations is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash of mistaken perceptions.’

Eid argues that in the realm of foreign policy:

perceptions always play a key role in negotiations between powers. For example, nations tend to perceive their own actions as “necessary” and “defensive,” while viewing the actions of other nations as “unnecessary” and “belligerent.” And this is the foundation of Arab-Western misconceptions. It is the magnitude of the Jihad vs. McWorld question, namely border-crossing capitalism versus splintering factionalism, as Benjamin Barber termed it in his 2003 book, which sets the relationship between West and Arabia apart.

‘Thus mistaken perceptions’, according to Eid, ‘encompass every area of life, including the economic, political, cultural and social realms’.

Eid extends his argument further and brings in the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ phenomenon. The writer is convinced that it is this very struggle that leaves the West in a perpetual state of apprehension and fear. Ignorance of the Middle Eastern way of life coupled with the absence of a balanced exchange of information has resulted in the greater misunderstandings and distortion of perceptions on both sides of the divide.

Here’s what I think is the most important part of Eid’s article:

Perception is key. In the Arabic-speaking world, there are groups which take a radical stance, and consider themselves in a clash against Western civilization. There are also radicals in the West who view the Arab states as a violent enemy. However, there are those on both sides who are able to identify their own misconceptions and who strive to work toward a greater level of understanding. In this sense, often the characterization of Arab-Western relations depends on the leadership of the nations involved, and their perceptions as influenced by history and the media.

And the last few words are full of hope and light: The opportunity for cooperation does exist. As human beings, Arabs and Westerners share bonds that can transcend cultural, economic, or religious differences, the challenge is to look beyond the initial rejection of an opinion or idea and try to understand what motivates the other side. In this way, clashes can become misunderstandings, and in time misunderstandings can be transformed into partnerships.

Idealistic as all this may sound, it appears that there are saner elements in the Arab world who think on the ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ lines, are willing to step away from the beaten track and are honestly interested in ‘fixing’ the problem.

One cannot but agree with Bassem Eid that perceptions are paramount and they are vital in creating the ‘grudnorms’ and views, thereby translating and orchestrating into policies that make or break the eventual network of links and ties that exist amongst nations.

Talking about perceptions, I would hasten to add my two cents! I remember that in the days and weeks that followed the 9/11 attacks, I felt, like millions around the world, absolutely disgusted about the fact that in the name of religion a certain group of people would kill and maim thousands of innocent souls who had come out of their homes to earn livelihood. It shattered my internal peace and negatively impacted my creative ability to grasp the realization that mankind can stoop to such a level of atrocious behavior.

As it was, I had little or no religious beliefs anyway beforehand, my faith in God’s existence and His will to do good for humanity was somewhat precipitating. Having experienced the passing away of both my parents that same year did not really help matters. In fact, I felt even more miserable.

In this condition of frustration and sorrow I met an elderly religious Jewish gentleman, named Kriss, who was always willing to ‘talk it out’ with me. We would converse for hours together and I would appreciate listening to his stories of commonsense and his brilliant hold of political history. Slowly and gradually, Kriss made me walk back to the path of faith and change my views about God and His ways. I would never forget Kriss’s words when he said that ‘religion may be what we make or mould but faith is what is eternal’.

Today, several years later, Kriss is my elder, my mentor and perhaps one of a handful number of people who I can trust for advice and guidance. Long story short, my lack of information, experience and the failure to ‘connect’ were throwing me off literally into some kind of a narrow tunnel that lead me absolutely nowhere. Kriss held my hand and gave me back my faith in life and its Creator.

Carol is another individual who has shown me how to probe and dig deep into situations to find the good and the positive and to bridge the gap between reality and fiction. The lady’s resoluteness and focus to lend a helping hand to those in need is a lesson for those who get ‘distracted’ by worldly matters. Having known her for years now, I can write countless number of pages with respect to her deeds in the most testing times of our lives. She is a torchbearer of patience, perseverance and a superb perception-builder.

The bottom-line is that perception holds the key. Bassem Eid’s conception that those involved in the Middle East muddle need to learn and communicate well makes excellent sense. If politicians have failed, the people can always introduce the much the needed energy and impetus necessary to make the peace process work.

Statesmen like Yitzhak Rabin are no longer amongst us and it seems that those engaged at the highest levels of negotiations are too weak and unassertive to ‘make things happen’. The Middle East quagmire will need a lot many mighty-hearted Kriss’s and the Carol’s to clear the haze and introduce fresh perceptions in the minds of all concerned.

I am sure Bassem Eid is not just a lone voice in the wilderness. There must be many more like him. What we need to do is to pay heed to their message and help perceive matters in an appropriate manner. Perceptions are like an artist’s impression of a painting – they are how well they are presented to the audience and how the audience feels about the message conveyed. If the priorities and the modus operandi are put in order, the perceptional ambiguities can be overcome and peace in the Middle East may no longer be an illusive dream.

–Ahson Saeed Hasan

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | December 4, 2007

International Volunteering Can Create a Safer, Better World

My name is Eric Gardner and I am a board member of Our Voices Together – a network started by 9/11 families and friends who recognize the power individuals can have in countering terrorism through positive, global action.

My brother Jeffrey Brian Gardner was killed at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Jeff worked for the insurance company, Marsh & McLennan. As busy as he was, he always found time to volunteer. He put his fix-it and handicraft skills to good use volunteering for Habitat for Humanity overseas and in Newark, New Jersey.

He spent several vacations in Latin America with Habitat for Humanity’s International Global Village program. When he was murdered on September 11, 2001, he was planning to head back to lead a team of Habitat volunteers in El Salvador.

My family established a scholarship fund to enable college students to volunteer internationally, just as Jeff had. On a small scale, we tried to help those who have the interest and ability to volunteer internationally but who simply lack the financial wherewithal to do so. Now there is legislation in place that can provide this on a large scale.

The Global Service Fellowship Program Act (Senate Bill 1464 and House Bill 3698) has been introduced as part of efforts to confront terrorism, and is part of a comprehensive strategy to broaden and strengthen opportunities to serve our nation through global volunteerism.

Many talented individuals who want to serve their country abroad may not be able to commit to two years of Peace Corps service. The fellowship also strongly supports initiatives to expand volunteer opportunities for talented individuals who may wish to serve but are unable because of economic constraints.

As an organization, Our Voices Together is part of a growing number of people who recognize that, in the fight against terrorism, the contributions of ordinary citizens are critical to creating a safer, more compassionate world.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said:

“if we are to meet the myriad challenges around the world in the coming decades, this country must strengthen other important elements of national power both institutionally and financially …One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications, and more – these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success.”

We all know that Secretary Gates’ list of important elements in national security – economic development, basic services, transparency, and more – are functions of civil society, and the fuel for a healthy civil society is volunteerism.

The Global Service Fellowships legislation certainly recognizes this connection.

The Senate Bill cites research done by Terror Free Tomorrow, an organization in the Our Voices Together network. The House Bill quotes the bipartisan 9/11 Commission recommendation to “rebuild the scholarship, exchange and library programs that reach out to young people and offer them knowledge and hope.”

These are people-to-people or citizen diplomacy initiatives. They include international volunteer programs.

The Global Service Fellowships legislation is timely! Let’s help them understand why our volunteers are one of those national instruments in which we must invest.As I mentioned, I have important personal reasons for supporting this effort. The Jeffrey Brian Gardner Memorial Scholarship has provided overseas opportunities for hundreds of college student volunteers to work side by side with residents of communities in need, building homes, trust, friendships – and hope – just as Jeff had done.

International volunteers, like my brother, provide that source of hope, one person at a time. Let’s make sure Congress knows this too.

–Eric Gardner

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | December 3, 2007

Insult to Injury, Not Islam

When British teacher Gillian Gibbons was jailed in Khartoum, Sudan for allowing her 7-year-old classmates to name a classroom Teddy-bear “Mohammad,” members of the international community protested. While 20 out of 23 of the students voted to name the bear Mohammad – one of the most common names in the Arab world – the Muslims in the area interpreted this as yet another example of the Western vendetta to desecrate and destroy Islam. Gibbons was charged with insulting Islam, arrested, and jailed with the possibility of lashing.

While the rest of the world vehemently protested against this unfair indictment, the Sudanese people protested as well. Hundreds of people in Sudan felt the consequences were too lenient, entered the streets beating drums, armed with clubs and swords, burning pictures of Gibbons and demanding her execution.

Despite the opinion of many Sudanese people, a pardon was issued from the Sudanese President, and Gibbons was released. British authorities had Gibbons moved to a secret location for her safety. She expressed her apologies and disappointment at not being able to return to Sudan, a place where she claimed the Sudanese people had been nothing but kind to her.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “delighted and relieved” that Gibbons was released and that “common sense had prevailed.” But what are the ramifications of this ordeal?

“This case has done quite a bit of damage to how the Sudanese government will be perceived; they have done their country no favors,” said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, the county’s largest Muslim organization.

Sudan has known much tragedy in recent years, particularly in its Darfur region. The Sudanese government is not known for its generosity to its people, nor has it succeeded in stabilizing the region. In fact, contrastingly, the Sudanese government is associated with mass corruption, disorganization and instability. Why would the government prosecute a British school teacher whose intentions were, obviously since she had come to teach in Sudan in the first place, to help. All of this chaos over the name of a teddy-bear while whole chunks of the region are in shambles.

The Sudanese members of Islam have once again portrayed Islam as a culture of paranoid, vengeful people- at great disadvantage to the Islamic Community abroad, who are not in agreement or in support of Sudanese actions.

“This has certainly given ammunition to those who never miss an opportunity to portray Muslims as intolerant,” Bunglawala said. “We only hope that the actions of Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi and the whole British Muslim community can mitigate against the damage done by the Sudanese authorities.”

It would seem that citizens of Sudan would be grateful for anyone who came into Sudan to help – teachers, peace-builders, NGO workers, etc. Sudan’s response to what was clearly not an act attended to offend or upset, greatly diminishes their standing in the world as reasonable, rational people. This only further alienates the Islamic community, and increases anti-Islamic sentiments worldwide.

The UN Peacekeeping Force, while trying to expand in Sudan, has found similar difficulties. Sudan is now rejecting any peacekeeping forces from Scandinavia after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. Riots erupted across the Islamic community, resulting in dozens of deaths.

This kind of behavior and reaction of Muslims is extremely detrimental to inter-religious and interfaith dialogue and understanding – specifically for the people of Sudan who need, at this crucial time, as much support as possible. This oversensitivity, paranoia, and violent tendencies cannot be tolerated by the international community, nor by the Sudanese government.

Brown’s assertion that Gibbons’ freedom was a triumph for “common sense” negatively implicates the people of Islam, and the people of Sudan. The Islamic community worldwide must begin to propagate peace and understanding before it is completely, and unfairly, written off as a people lacking any common sense.

–Jillian Vicinanza

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | November 27, 2007

The Mufti’s Not So Mystical Message!

A dear friend and a well wisher recently wrote this to me:

“I think in the evolution of any religion that all of what is beautiful becomes easily corrupted. Instead of worship of the Almighty, we evolve into worship of the codification, the rituals, the institutions, the demagoguery, the separatism, and sadly, the sense of superiority we think our religion endows. In other words, we begin to worship ourselves. We are the ones we were warned about. And there we begin to descend into everything we thought we hated. Indeed, we represent hatred more than the expression of a loving and merciful God who wishes only that we communicated that love to others. I have long thought that what the Muslim world needed was a Reformation.”

Astoundingly challenging as it may sound, the issue of Islamic fundamentalism is by no means easy to grapple with. It is, for sure, more of a story of hatred than love. Hence when folks who were or still remain a part of the problem start pointing fingers, instead of deliberating upon reforming themselves, one does get a bit rattled with respect to the entire activity.

We all know that when it comes to taking responsibility, the oil rich Arabs tend to adopt hands off policy or, better still, like to stay away from the scene. However, something exceptional happened recently – not that an Arab sheikh took responsibility but actually shifted responsibility from the Saudi kingdom’s involvement in terrorism to some self-created, non-existent characters and role-players.

In early October, the grand mufti (the topmost religious scholar) of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abd Al-‘Aziz bin Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh, announced in the form of a fatwa (religious edict) that the kingdom’s young men were being brainwashed and misled by suspicious elements and that they had fallen into wrong hands, thereby ending up being a part of the fallacious exercise that has come to be known as jihad in the modern day terminology.

Flabbergasted with the comments, I searched for the script of the fatwa to get a sense of what was blurted out by ‘honorable’ mufti. According to MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), the mufti states that setting forth to wage jihad without proper authorization is a serious transgression. The mufti said that youth Saudis who do so are being misled by ‘suspicious elements’ from both the East and the West who are exploiting them for their own aims and causing serious damage to Saudi Arabia, Islam and Muslims.

Below I reproduce excerpts of the fatwa:

“Out of concern for our youth, and in order to give advice to the Muslim imams (heads of mosques) and the Muslim public, I have resolved to issue (the following statement). For several years now, we have been faced (with a phenomenon) of our youth going out from Saudi Arabia with the intention of engaging in jihad for the sake of Allah. These young people are full of enthusiasm and religious zeal, but lack sufficient religious knowledge to be able to discern between truth and falsehood – which is why they succumb to temptation and fall into traps set for them by suspicious elements. They have become a pawn in the hands of foreign apparatuses, which are toying with them in the name of jihad, and are using them to accomplish their own shameful aims and getting what they want by (perpetrating) foul operations that could not be further from the religion.

“This (phenomenon) has reached the point where our youth have become a commodity bought and sold by elements in both the East and the West, with the aim of fulfilling their own objectives and goals – and only Allah knows the extent of the damage that (these operations) are causing Islam and its people.

“In the past, we and others have warned against leaving the country (i.e. Saudi Arabia) for this purpose (i.e. jihad), since the situation was not apparent, the conditions were complicated, and (the sources of authority) were not clear. These young people’s rebellion against their rulers and their ‘ulama, as well as their leaving the country in order to engage in the so-called jihad outside Saudi Arabia, have caused great evil, including the following:

“1. Disobedience of their rulers and causing them harm, which is a grave sin, as the Prophet said: ‘He who obeys an amir – it is as if he obeyed me, and he who does not obey an amir – it is as if he did not obey me’… The evidence for the prohibition on rebelling against a ruler is abundant.

“2. It has been found that many of the young people who left to engage in what they thought to be jihad violated their rightful oath of allegiance (bay’a) to the ruler of this pure country – an oath regarding which there is a consensus among all the figures of authority. (Violating this oath) is forbidden, and is a grave sin…

“3. (These young people) have been easy prey for anyone seeking to corrupt the country and to exploit their (religious) zeal – to the point where they have become walking bombs, killing themselves to accomplish the political and military aims of suspicious elements.

“4. (These young people) have been exploited by outside elements in order to shame this pure country, to inflict damage and suffering upon it, to let its enemies prevail over it, and to justify their greed regarding it. All this is extremely dangerous, because the actions of (these young people) harm the Muslim nation – this damage harms (our) peaceful and serene country (Saudi Arabia). By their actions, (these young people) are weakening the country and its people.”

This fatwa, as various media sources pointed out, comes against the backdrop of the involvement of Saudi nationals in the 9/11 attacks on United States, participation in terrorist operations in Iraq and in the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp incident in Lebanon.

Theoretically, whatever the mufti said makes an excellent reading. In fact, it’s sounds like a lecture in enlightened moderation. However, if one analysis the fatwa, its more or less a case of kettle calling the pot black! Certain words and phrases used by the reverend mufti seem to suit the Saudis better than any other nation on this planet!

The mufti says that the Saudi youth are full of enthusiasm and religious zeal. Point accepted. But, it is one’s understanding that the Saudi educational curriculum teaches nothing but hatred against the non-Muslims. Right from the day a child enters school, there is an emphasis on the downtrodden, parochial concepts of religion dating back to the times when perhaps Islam was still in its initial stages and perhaps also when the Muslims were using oppressive measures to bring people in to the fold of the religion. The very incompatibility of the kingdom’s educational system with the modern times is one huge factor that ‘urges’ its youth to have a go at those who don’t seem to fit their description of Islam.

Who is the mufti referring to as the ‘suspicious elements’ from both the East and the West who are exploiting them (the Saudi youth) in order to accomplish their own aims’? This statement sounds delusional and at crossroads with reality! It’s always been the Saudi keenness to propagate their brand of Islam in various regions of the world. Every Tom, Dick and Harry knows that the Saudi money created the Taliban movement. The country of Pakistan stands destroyed and infested by terrorism today only because of the Saudi involvement. Osama Bin Laden has serious connections with the Saudi royal family. More than 90 percent of those responsible for 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia. Is that not enough to make the mufti scratch his head and ponder about the fact that the kingdom is standing on a rather rickety, in fact, defective edifice? Is it not time yet to reform?

Furthermore, no one country in the West wants to incite terrorism. In fact the West is running for cover from the fundamentalists, who have created havoc in Europe and the United States. The mufti needs to clarify as to what exactly he’s implying by the ‘suspicious elements’.

The mufti says that the Saudi youth have become a pawn in the hands of foreign apparatuses, which are toying with them in the name of jihad, and are using them to accomplish their own shameful aims and getting what they want by (perpetrating) foul operations that could not be further from the religion.

What foreign apparatuses are being referred to here? Trying to locate as to who calls the shots within the Saudi structural framework is an impossible adventure. However, it appears that some ‘higher source’ asked the mufti to issue this fatwa. Of late, there has been an intense public debate vis-à-vis the kingdom’s participation and links to the atrocious terrorist groups. Can such defensive tactics exonerate the Saudi authorities from the acts and omissions committed by its nationals? Hell no!

What the influential figures of the religion of Islam, such as the reverend mufti, need to do is that instead of launching irrational onslaughts against the world at large, they must work for reconciliation. No civilized nation will indulge in contaminating the minds of the Saudi youth, especially at a time when education, economic prosperity and environment are the high priority issues, especially in the West. The 9/11 hijackers were adult, grown up men who were very well of the obnoxiously hideous trickery they were about to commit and hence one doesn’t see any foreign apparatus turning them into some kind pawns referred to by the mufti in his fatwa.

The mufti must advise his rulers, i.e. the Saudi royals to reform their way of conduct, their style of governance, and adopt an open-minded approach toward the ‘less fortunate’ nations. May be, stop meddling in the affairs of poorer Muslim countries engaging themselves in unwholesome pursuits. They need to shun the insecurity of their minds.

Or perhaps, approach religion from a non-political perspective. Mind you, Saudi Arabia is NOT a pure country. It’s human rights record is known to all and sundry. It’s perhaps not even worth discussing the tantalizingly brutal nature of the penal code that is in force in the kingdom. More than anything else, it is a dictatorship of the worst kind where the rulers are free to party and make merry, whereas the ruled are subservient to strict out-dated Shariah laws.

As my friend pointed out that Islam needs Reformation, it will not be bad idea if the Saudis, being the leaders of the Islamic world, take the lead and introduce some much-needed reforms in their own political, educational, judicial and governmental systems. May be human rights friendly laws could be something to think about. Providing respect and freedom to women and minorities can be another area to work on.

Moreover, given the tremendous amount of resources at their disposal, perhaps that Saudis can also think in terms of starting a reformation movement in the Islamic world. Once that movement gains momentum, one is confident that it’ll have positive impact on the disjointed, disgruntled and disoriented Muslim Ummah (community). Make each day a day of reformation!

It’s time that big guns of the Muslim world should open their eyes and look around. They seem to be victims of lack of imagination and infertility of minds. The world has undergone a drastic change from the times when Islam was first introduced as a religion. There is a dire need to bring down the walls of pride and prejudice and extricate the religion from the trenches of darkness.

Muftis, khateebs, imams and like must talk about reformation since that process holds the key to any future prospect of peaceful co-existence amongst different faiths and religions.

Self-reflection and self-criticism are essential. For the love of God and humanity, the rich and the powerful of the Islamic world must rise above themselves and communicate messages of pleasantness, love and tranquility instead of fatwas that may just be nothing but high-sounding nonsense. A sense of conviction is required that can only be achieved with a particular level of certainty and resolve from those who have the courage to make a change and promote a healthy dialogue amongst various nations, religions and communities.

My message to the Saudi mufti and his ‘associates’ is: Turn your heads, peace is beautiful!

–Ahson Saeed Hasan

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | November 21, 2007

Where is Islam going wrong?

At the very outset let me clarify that I am neither a religious scholar nor do I have disciplined knowledge about the Muslim faith. The views expressed in this article are purely based on the perspective that one has developed over the course of past many years. This is by no means a critique of a faith that millions of folks all over the world follow. I have nothing against any individual nor do I intend to annoy, offend or hurt the feelings of anyone from any particular sect/religion.

To begin with, paradoxical and contradictory it may sound, amidst all this opulent irreverence, the Muslims claim that there is a ‘back-to-religion’ movement the world over, even in Scandinavia and the USA – perhaps ‘as a reaction to the unlimited and incessant indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh or maybe as a refuge from the feeling of emptiness it leaves within’.

The followers of Islam also believe that the religion is attracting more adherents compared to other faiths. Interestingly many of the new converts and the ‘not so happy Muslims’ are keen to find out for themselves how the ‘old faithful’ are handling their religious commitments.

What is attracting them to Islam is its claim that ‘it abhors rituals like the ones elaborated by the Catholic Church or the ceremonials adopted by the Brahmin to elevate himself into a superior caste’.

Also, the religion is based on ‘a complete code of life combining the spiritual with the temporal’. But what is offering the greatest attraction to the common folk? To the Afro-Americans in particular is Islam’s stern repudiation and rejection of any distinction of race, color, caste or social standing.

The outsider’s quest for true Islam should induce the followers of the faith to re-examine for themselves and to see if they shall be repelling and driving away the new converts or helping them consolidate their faith. Some tough questions, therefore, need to be answered and a minute soul-searching is called for.

The first point we have to bear in mind is that more mosques do not necessarily mean more Islam, that is to say greater compliance with the Islamic code of life. If that were true, the estimated five-fold increase in the number of mosques across the land since the establishment of a country like Pakistan should have resulted in evidence of more devotion, piety and piousness. But that unfortunately has not happened. If anything, there has been a terrible deterioration in the overall national character, which amongst others includes the curse of religious intolerance, hatred amongst various sects of Muslims, and a virtual nullification of the good and the virtuous.

It is indeed shameful, and the Muslims will have to admit, that today they have more of dishonesty and debauchery, and more of normal failings than ever before. The worst of it is the insensitivity toward other religions and disrespect for those who do not ‘qualify’ to be regarded as Muslims. What we witness, therefore, is an absolute brutal decline/downfall in the fortunes of the Muslims the world over.

The Muslims need to look into the phenomenon more closely without inventing excuses or shifting blame. There undoubtedly are economic forces that are grinding the followers of Islam down to desperation and there also is the communication revolution that provides a vision of a more colorful life in the hereafter, all have contributed to the quandary, to the situation in which the Muslims find themselves today.

Worst of all, the Muslim religious divines, instead of rebuilding/reconstructing the overall Islamic character are busy brainwashing the young for waging Jihad on the Jews and the Christians. My question is: what has Islam done to save the Muslims from this disastrous fate?

The answer is to be found in separating the spiritual from the temporal in flagrant renunciation of one of the basic principles of the Muslim faith, namely that Islam is a complete, ‘indivisible’ code of conduct. The Muslims seem to have split between Christ and Caesar.

It may be heartbreaking to confess but it is nevertheless true that the same man who kneels abjectly before his God in the mosque, pledging himself eternally in truth and honesty, walks over to his business place and violates all those commitments. His adulterates life-giving foodstuffs and life-saving drugs; he cheats on his weights and measures; he mixes inferior qualities of merchandize with superior; doctors his accounts; cooks his bills and so on and so forth.

Furthermore, this state of affairs points to the inadequacy of the sort of religious teaching that induces compliance with its tenets. Learning the Holy Quran by heart or reciting it with fervor is hugely commendable. But the real benefit accrues only from a comprehension of the crux of God’s message. Most khateebs (Muslim religious scholars) in their sermons tend to dwell on the supernatural and the far-fetched, and try to regulate the lives of their followers with stories they think will excite and hold their interest, while others seek to enhance their popularity by arousing sentiments on parochial sectarian/religious issues.

It is difficult to figure out how much of it is prompted by ulterior, materialistic motives. The first fault can possibly be easily remedied by convincing the khateebs that what the Muslim society needs most today is convincing the followers that observance of Haqood-al-Abad (rights of the people) is at least as important as Haqooq-Allah (rights of God), if not more; that is to say, while God might condone missing a prayer or two (out of the five mandatory ones during the course of the day), He will not forgive any wrongs to our fellow human beings, irrespective of their race, creed or religion.

For instance, there is no forgiveness for a shopkeeper who short-changes his customers, for the chemist who sells fake life-saving drugs or the sweetmeat seller whose use of cheap quality oil paralyses half a dozen people for life, or for a contractor who builds a bridge that collapses under a busload of passengers, or a judge who sells justice, or a police official who tortures the innocent, or a farmer who runs his water supply on stolen power supply or tempers with his gas meter.

On a larger scale, suicide bombings are not allowed; taking away innocent lives in the name of God is absolutely a no-go area; crashing planes into buildings and playing havoc with other nation’s integrity in order to ‘teach them a lesson’ is perhaps the most disgusting and intrusive form of recklessness that characterizes modern-day Islam.

The khateebs will be doing a greater service to the society and Islam by driving home these points related to everyday life and, in the meantime, refrain from entertaining their listeners/followers with fascinating stories/tales of ‘another world’.

More than that, their sermons will carry conviction only if people see them practice what they preach. Ironically, they do sermonize equality and brotherhood during the annual Haj (Muslim congregation) sermon, yet, the Saudi royal family has an exclusive enclosure in the Kaaba! Is it hypocrisy or is there something inherently wrong with Islam?

The religious divines who take upon themselves the onus of determining which sect is right and which is wrong or who is a good Muslim and who is a kafir (infidel) are being too presumptuous, rather audacious. The Lord has not entrusted them with any such mission. Frequently their own party is in question; and by defying God’s directive against sitting judgment over faith of fellow Muslims or those from other faiths, to the extent of killing them, they render themselves liable to be treated as any other murderer – a common criminal who deserves no mercy. In fact, they merit divine wrath of dividing the Muslim world.

One does notice that a lot many Muslim countries indulge in sectarian strife at the state level. We would have been sparred of the wrath of the Taliban had the Saudis been not so keen on spreading Wahabism in every nook and corner of the Muslim world. They are a classic example of inciting intra-Muslim dissension and using their oil money to fight their ‘war’ for political and sectarian primacy.

Worst still is the racial bias that, despite the religion’s strict prohibition of any distinction between Muslims (save on the basis of piety), still shows up consistently. The way almost all Arab states lined up with Iraq back in the decade of 1980s in its aggression against Iran profoundly compromised the religion’s claim to be a unifying force that makes no distinction among its followers on the basis of race, color or culture.

There is also a feeling that the Arabs do not take the same measure of interest in overall Islamic causes the Muslim world collectively does on issues that are a primary concern to the Arabs.

Finally, it is flagrant failures of the opulent members of the Muslim world to comply with the basics of the Islamic moral code that is causing deep distress and disillusionment amongst those who can be regarded as the silent minority, who would like. What angers them even more is the pretence of being ‘superior’ Muslims by virtue of the fact that they follow the Islamic practices habitually even though they violate the fundamental tenets of the faith. But for this blatant hypocrisy, a lot more people the world over might have been swarming into the Islamic world.

Despite the change of times, Muslims enjoy unprecedented freedom in the United States to worship and preach their faith. Young Muslims who come here for education worship together as Muslims and not as Shittes or Sunnis, bow, pray, plead and implore forgiveness from their Lord, mix-up with each other without prejudice or discrimination. The fact that most of them are educated and enlightened and act the same way enables them to rise above parochial, sectarian and ethnic interests and work for the betterment of the community as a whole.

As for ‘the politicized Muslims’, things will not improve unless the teachings of the ‘real Islam’ are followed; an Islam without sloganeering against Jews, Hindus, Christians, Shites or Sunnis, an Islam without moral and spiritual corruption, an Islam without guns and grenades, suicide bombings and the ‘grand plans’ to destroy the West; an Islam which grants due respect to any one and every human being; an Islam which provides rights to all individuals irrespective of their color, caste, creed, sect or religion; an Islam that leads by example.

The Muslims need to stop pointing fingers at other religions and take stock of their own situation. They need to learn from other faiths. Respect the ideals for which the followers of those faiths stand for. Preach peace instead of prejudice that ends up in abstract hatred that conveys no sense whatsoever.

The Muslims need to loosen up! Confining the religion to orthodoxy hasn’t got the Muslims anywhere. In fact, so far, it appears that it’s been a campaign, a mad rush for the dark ages!

For some odd reason, the Muslim countries seem to follow their ‘Arab brethren’ and look for a leadership role from the sheikhs. It’s a faulty arrangement. Can there be a separate and distinct leadership that can be created? Can the moderate Muslim countries come forward, take the lead and enlighten the Muslims? May be one day or may be never.

What, however, Islam really needs now is a self-sustaining movement within the enlightened spheres. For starters, taking the route of ijma and ijtehad (religious consultation to keep pace with the changing times) may not be a bad idea. This process of consultation does not necessarily have to be conducted by the bearded and the turbaned but people who wear suits and ties, jeans and khakis can probably take the initiative and thereby end up doing a much better job.

Islam, if it has to survive, needs better leadership. The followers, the sincere ones and not the wretched Al-Qaeda or the Wahabi crowd, have to make hard choices. This is the time to put the house in order. This is the historical opportunity to make amends and seek forgiveness from those who have been hurt, bruised and battered by militant Islam and make a decision, once and for all times to come, that the faith itself is all about universal peace and harmony and free from those draconian hollowness of violence and aggression.

–Ahson Saeed Hasan

Posted by: ourvoicestogether | November 13, 2007

Pakistan – Deciphering The Real From The Unreal

I hear people talking in Washington about the ‘endless supply’ of aid that has been provided to Pakistan since 9/11 with an absence of the accountability factor. This is billions of dollars going into the Pakistani hands with no questions asked for the sake of fighting terrorism.

Now that General Pervez Musharraf has imposed emergency in that country and things are going, sort of, topsy turvy, all concerned are questioning the rationale of giving away cash to a regime that may possibly be channelizing funds toward obnoxious expeditions that could potentially end up giving controls of Pakistan’s nuclear program to religious fanatics.

There seems to be some disconnect or a conflict vis-à-vis dealing with Musharraf amongst the decision-making circles in Washington. Considering that at the moment the Pakistani system of governance is in shambles, militants are capturing town after town in the north of the country, suicide bombings are rampant, it is rather important to understand that even though Musharraf may appear to be a secular minded commando who likes to speak English and drink beer, from a historical standpoint he’s been instrumental in inciting religion-based insurgency on a consistent basis.

Protagonists of ‘Musharrafism’ contend that, ‘it is hard to identify any single leader whose removal could open up greater dangers’. Jack Rosen of the American Jewish Congress-Council for World Jewry, wrote a piece recently in the Jerusalem Post that summed up the entire Musharraf ‘support structure’ in an extremely lucid manner.

Below are some of the key points of Rosen’s article:

  • The militants in Pakistan are a well-armed and well-financed force that wields considerable influence within many parts of the government and have close ties with the Pakistani military and intelligence services. Musharraf is the one who has been able to control these nefarious tendencies and has checked the flow of assistance from within the government circles to the jihadis. “Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have, for decades, used religious parties for recruits. The ISI, in particular, includes many key figures who have Islamist attachments. Part of their appeal is that the Islamists embrace strong nationalist symbols, positioning themselves as the protectors of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent capability and the champions of securing Kashmir for Pakistan”. Rosen perhaps wants to emphasize that Musharraf’s strong benefit is his all-encompassing hold on non-moderate forces within the Pakistan military dynamics.
  • ‘Musharraf’s commitment toward the war against terrorism is unprecedented. When, after 9/11, the United States put much greater pressure on Pakistan to cut its ties with militant Islam, Musharraf made a momentous decision to join the war on terrorism. But Musharraf’s personal commitment was not shared by many hard-line skeptics within his own army. Many of them doubted that the United States could be trusted as an ally, given the US commitment to India, and did not want to turn against longtime jihadi allies. In addition, the costs of confronting the well-entrenched mujahadeen in the border regions with Afghanistan were daunting.’
  • “This tension within the Pakistani national security establishment still exists today. If Musharraf, the strongest figure in the moderate wing, were removed, it is very possible that this balance would shift to the advantage of the Islamists and forces hostile to the West.” ‘Musharraf’s critics paint a rosy picture of what might happen if Musharraf were removed. But what if they prove wrong, as critics of the Shah of Iran were in 1979 when they predicted that moderate forces would take power after his removal?’

It appears that Musharraf’s ‘presence’ brings with it ‘unlimited rewards’! It is believed that Musharraf is the one responsible for warding off a disastrous head-on confrontation with Pakistan’s nuclear neighbor, India. He has made the situation realistically suitable for engaging the archenemy in a constructive dialogue that has produced rich dividends for the peace process to carry on.

Those who are well-aware of Musharraf’s past are a bit surprised as to the trust that has been placed by the West on a general who could go down as the most misunderstood phenomenon in recent history. Granted that Musharraf did ‘offer’ to extend a helping hand to the US in a few days after 9/11, the fact of the matter is that he did not have any other option but to go along with Washington’s wishes – the commitment to the war on terrorism is a forced one.

The West is putting its money on the wrong horse. Musharraf has been a patron of jihad himself. A background check reveals that Musharraf was ambitious and adventurous right from the early days of his military career. He even caught the eye of the late dictator General Zia back in the 80s by virtue of his keenness to be a part of the Afghan jihad campaign. Musharraf was actively involved in the creation of what came to be known as the Taliban. Still more, the 1999 Kargil campaign was this very general’s brainchild.

The Bush administration is suffering from an acute case of unwarranted gullibleness. By not creating a system of checks and balances with respect to the aid/grants provided to the Pakistani government, Washington has landed itself in a quagmire of sorts. One who understands the Pakistani psyche and it’s history, I wouldn’t be surprised if the unaccounted funds for the war ON terrorism have been diverted toward war FOR terrorism. Does anyone remember the Ojhri Camp carnage of 1988? The Pakistani military is known for ammunition inventory screw ups.

Further, have we ever wondered why these suicide bombers or the kidnappers who take hostages and brutally kill innocent people, why would they all have some connection or the other with Pakistan?

Is Musharraf a protector of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program? Will he never ever handover the nuclear arsenal to the extremists? Given the fragility and brittleness, orchestrated by impulsiveness of the general’s decision-making skills, his greed to hang on to the reins of power, nothing can be ruled out. He might have, prima facie, denounced extremism, yet, he can go to any extreme to protect his rule and shake hands with elements that can guarantee the continuation of his rule. Musharraf is no statesman – he’s, at best, an over-estimated tribal warlord!

Musharraf’s and the West’s best hope for freedom and democracy in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, was a main force behind the creation of the Taliban back in the 1990s. Whereas today Benazir is shouting against extremism, her government was hand in glove with the fundamentalist groups, such as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, when the world was ‘gifted’ with the devils that changed our way of thinking forever.

Musharraf may have contributed toward creating some goodwill with India but it does not imply that it was his ‘steadying influence’ that calmed the explosive situation in the sub-continent. India’s growing economy and that country’s change in priorities meant that they have better issues to deal with! Moreover, the Pakistani military intelligence got ‘distracted’ in the so-called war on terrorism. They say, ‘fund is fundamental’ – the corrupt generals found an ‘alternate outlet’ to make some extra cash, thanks to generous dollar contributions received!

Where do we go from here? What route should Washington ideally adopt in order to resurrect hopes of a stable, secular Pakistan in order to ensure that the scourge of extremism is rooted out for good?

Let’s face it, Musharraf is not going to rule forever. The Bush administrations ‘body language’ suggests that they are willing to work with the general, provided he complies with certain conditions. This effort characterized by utmost tolerance can bite the US bad. Musharraf has exceeded all limits of indecency and his extra-constitutional steps have utterly wrecked the Pakistani system. Anarchy and street bloodshed can erupt anytime. This would provide the terrorists with an opportunity to solidify their stronghold and perhaps indulge in an abrupt activity that could eventually destroy the delicate balance that the US has established.

Washington must stop banking on Musharraf and ensure his removal in a peaceful manner. His exit from the scene will calm down the strife on the streets for now. An ad hoc mechanism, headed perhaps by the deposed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court should ensure that free and fair elections, overseen by organizations such as Amnesty International, are held according to the rule of law.

The military leadership should be engaged in parleys about the future role of the institution in the country’s politics. A commitment should be taken that the army will continue to facilitate the Western forces in the war against terrorism and Al-Qaeda but must not become a party to encouraging extremism or create dissension amongst the military ranks on the basis of religion.

By the same token, money given to the government of Pakistan should be accounted for. Adopting a ‘supervisory role’ vis-à-vis the disbursement of funds and weapons is a must.

The Pakistani nuclear program should be guarded and manned by the US nuclear experts or if that is too much to ask, may be a UN created body may not be a bad idea.

Return the people their freedom and encourage a genuine human rights oriented Pakistan where respect for humanity is right at the top of the list of priorities. The US embassy in Islamabad and consulates in other cities can monitor government high-handedness and excesses.

The US must work for the support for freedom of speech and freedom of Press and the rights of all Pakistani journalists in conjunction with the general support for the overall rights of the people of Pakistan.

Basically check the army and purge the system of self-proclaimed politicians. Benazir Bhutto is a hoax. Pakistan is suffering from an intensive crisis of leadership. Beyond Bhutto is another former two-time Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif – a nincompoop of the highest order!

The political system stands in dire need of a thorough cleansing. The primary task should be to cultivate a leadership that is open-minded enough to accept Western values, facilitate in eliminating extremism, appreciate the US geo-strategic concerns in the area and, in return, establish a socio-economic infrastructure that would ensure prosperity for millions of deprived youth who fall a prey to the fundamentalist brainwashing tactics. This investment done today in this direction would guarantee Pakistan’s stability for many years to come.

One would wonder why would the US do all this? History is witness to the fact that Washington always rushes its emissaries to Pakistan in times when stress levels rise in that part of the world, when Islamabad’s cooperation is needed to break the ice or use that country’s resources to neutralize and nullify anti-US forces. Nixon’s Ping Pong diplomacy, Afghan jihad, and of course, now the war against terrorism are some of the examples that readily come to one’s mind.

The US needs Pakistan and its interests can only be safeguarded if there is peace and stability in the country. A reliable long-term system inclined to be cooperative rather than resist is the solution to the situation. Something like the Marshall Plan for Pakistan may be considered to revamp the infrastructure.

The evolving situation is highly challenging. The US government machinery should come in motion and re-orient itself as soon as possible. No one wants the Islamists to take over the nuclear program; no one wishes to see the turbaned, bearded figures occupying the seats of power.

The task requires courage, to say the least, and a well planned concerted effort that could end oppression and the environment of unconstitutionality. It is time to realize that General Musharraf has served his purpose and the US must move on, for the sake of its own safety and security to a different set of allies in the Pakistani context. The focus should be to get rid of the vulnerable and replace them with those who have the long haul gut.

–Ahson Saeed Hasan

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