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Rewriting history

July 3, 2012

For the third day the Ansar Dine, the Islamist rebels that are now in control of northern Mali, have continued to destroy historic cultural heritage sites in Timbuktu. One of these is the door of the Sidi Yahia mosque from the 15th century. Already, many are likening this to the Taliban’s destruction of the giant 6th-century Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province in 2001.

Sadly, there is nothing new to the destruction of old cultural heritage. Napolean is said to have ordered the destruction of the tip of one of Egypt’s pyramids. And as we are very well aware, men have wiped out entire people to eradicate them from the history of a place: Native Americans in the United States, for example.

At one level, the violence is a show of power. But at it’s basic sense, it means he who has the power to destroy also has the power to rewrite history: dismembering what was to remember it in a way that will be convenient for their rule. It is an attempt to gain legitimacy through collective forgetting of what was to understand the world anew. In a way, the Taliban, when they were destroyed the Bamiyan statues, evoked the very early days of Islamic history, when idols in the Ka’aba were destroyed as a way to mark the end of the Jahaliyaa (period of ignorance). The Taliban wanted to eradicate the history or legitimacy of any people that were not Muslim.

Ansar Dine shows no such biased destruction. They are rewriting into the present their own version of ‘political Islam’.  I dare call it a religous issue. It is very much a political one. But the destruction of a cultural component of Islam’s history, is a loud example of what radical organizations have been doing the past two decades: rewriting Islam’s history for a political end. After all, history is made by those in power.

Hiding behind the skirt of terrorism

June 20, 2012

Max Blumenthal wrote a public farewell to Al Akhbar English, the Beirut-based newspaper that he had joined last year. His good-bye–scathing as it was– is effective. It brings to attention not just the lies journalists write, but also the lies that politicians say that journalists write about:

Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria. Back in 2003, Assad accused the US of deliberately overestimating the strength of Al Qaeda in order to justify its so-called war on terror. “I cannot believe that bin Laden is the person able to outmanoeuvre the entire world,” Assad said at the time. He asked, “Is there really an entity called Al Qaeda? It was in Afghanistan, but is it there anymore?” But now, in a transparent bid for sympathy from the outside world, Assad insists that the Syrian armed opposition is controlled almost entirely by Al Qaeda-like jihadists who have come from abroad to place the country under Islamic control. In his address to the Syrian People’s Assembly on June 3, the dictator tried to hammer the theme home by using the term “terrorists” or “terrorism” a whopping 43 times. That is a full ten times more than George W. Bush during his speech to Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

It’s become irony of ironies that leaders now use the word “terrorism” –a word that was used to evoke fear and describe the loss of innocent lives–to justify atrocities against…innocent lives. After all, post 9/11, the US used the label to grant itself a carte blanche: it bombed other countries, continues drone attacks, targets US citizens and monitors communities within its own borders. In a way, the US and the world has bought into a ‘terrorism-justifies-all’ mentality so much so that a person like Assad, who can’t really hide the year of bloodshed, is claiming he is a victim.

Of course, no one, besides what seems like Assad apologists, believes his claims that Islamic jihadists are the real threat. But, putting the blame on a weakened Al Qaeda unit, or the vague “Islamic jihadists”, points to the mockery that the West has made of a threat that once was real. The fear of violence, the threat of attack, the reality of lives lost — it’s quite real in Syria, but at the hands of the state, not a fringe group.

Luckily, Syria is an easy case to see: there is enough evidence to show that the government perpetrated major attacks. But as we know, the world is never that clean. Syria is falling into civil war, while other countries are already struggling with civil tensions. Who will the US and the international community support against ‘terrorists’?

Mona, misogyny and the Middle East

April 27, 2012

Mona Eltahawy’s article in Foreign Policy this past week started a *serious* buzz in the online world. There’s even a data viz about how the debate around the article has unfolded (check it out!).

I know I’m a little late in adding my two cents to the conversation, but aside from juggling my full-time job, I also just needed time to process her argument—and the surrounding conversation about discrimination against women in the Middle East. At the risk of sounding like I’m copping out, I can’t put myself in the ‘liked it’ or ‘hated it’ camp. Her article immediately resonated with me—it articulated my frustrations and anger so well that I found myself mentally cheering and fist-bumping the air.

Despite my enthusiasm, I recognize there are many serious holes in her arguments, and in her narrative. For one, Eltahawy intentionally isolated me—and many would-be supporters—by framing discrimination against women as an Arab problem. It’s not. Of course, women in the Middle East are often the point of much discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, precisely because there are legitimate differences. Rape, virginity tests, chronic sexual harassment, discriminatory citizenship laws and the like are serious problems.

But such problems do not exist just in the Middle East. In fact, the Global Gender Gap report that Eltahawy cites as evidence of prevalent discrimination in the region also ranks Pakistan (a non-Arab country) 133 and Chad at 134. India—neither majority Muslim nor an under-developed country—is ranked 113. In fact, unlike Pakistan or Egypt or Yemen, the country enjoys robust GDP growth and relatively high literacy rates. But, despite its rising status, the country still faces a huge gap between the rights of men and those of women. And women in India, similar to those in Egypt, face rampant sexual harassment—in fact, Delhi too has a female-only metro car.

But, as Ayesha Kazmi points out in her excellent blog post, when Eltahawy framed this as an ‘Arab problem’, she isolated women across the globe who feel like ‘second-class citizens’. I have been sexually harrassed in Cairo and in Beirut. I have felt helpless at the plight of women in my home country in Pakistan. And while Mona Eltahawy is afraid of Prince Nayef coming into power in Saudi Arabia, I’m afraid of the Pakistani Taliban wielding more authority in country. And up until a month ago, I was afraid of Rick Santorum becoming president of the United States (ok, perhaps an irrational fear). Men taking over the domain of women’s public and private freedoms is frightening anywhere—not just in the Arab world.

Second, by isolating men as ‘them’, Eltahawy dismisses, or at least fails to acknowledge, a crucial point: men have to be part of the process of reform, as does the state. In fact, how she frames misogyny confuses possible solutions. Take her description of Saudi Arabia, for example:  “The kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to its double-whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.” She simultaneously faults Islam, false moral authority and an economic-political system for perpetuating misogyny in the country. In fact, I agree with her assessment that Saudi’s oil wealth and it’s self appointed moral and economic authority has created a repressive culture. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia handed out money to its citizens—try biting the hands that feed you.

But we shouldn’t conflate all forms of misogyny under one banner. What’s unfortunate about the Middle East is that it bears the cursed mix of false moral authority by being the birthplace of Islam, rentier economies, biased political systems and a patriarchal society. But each has its problems, and each its solutions.

Instead, let’s focus on the political and economic systems that depersonalize women’s discrimination. Let’s focus on divorce, citizenship and criminal laws that are vague and arbitrary. Let’s start by framing women’s relationship to the state: assume that women are citizens of the state—as they should be, that they enjoy the rights of the state—as they should enjoy, and from that, call out those persons—judges, politicians, army—that violate that relationship between a citizen and the state, violate that trust, violate those rights.

If in today’s world we assume that governments and institutions should provide the rights of citizens, let’s call into question those men and women who are not willing to give women fair treatment, or at the least respect their basic rights. Samira Ibrahim, the young Egyptian activist, is taking such steps by taking military personnel to court for conducting ‘virginity tests’. If those political and economic institutions are not offering those basic rights to all citizens, and are inherently biased against some groups, then all citizens (men, women, minorities) need to question their purpose. And that is the role of men, women and governments.

Weaving in the ‘subjugation’ and ‘oppression’ of Islam in her article does a disservice to the main and crucial points Eltahawy’s makes about the political and economic systems that reinforce discrimination against women. Once again, the conversation about women and the “misognynistic God” in the Middle East gets muddled with veiling, Islam, sexuality and so forth. In fact, one of the first critiques of Eltahawy’s article went on for half a page about the images of the “naked niqabi” on FP’s article—only to say, “I digress”. That’s precisely the problem. We digress. We need to question women’s rights within Islam, but questions about women’s clothing are tangential to conversations about their political and economic rights.

Eltahawy brought up a crucial point of conversation—and it worked. It reignited a discussion that needs to be at the forefront of change in many places. But by using the Bush-era tropes about ‘the Greater Middle East” vs “The west” to parallel “Arab men versus Arab women” (“Why do they hate us?”), she made it clear that this too is a war with no end.

The reason I bring the title up at all is because semantics do matter, in how we approach the topic at hand, how we discuss it, and how we move toward a resolution. But hate, and an “us versus them” mentality is how Eltahawy chose to frame her narrative. And that is where her arguments become another shout into the wind—in a world where there are already so many wars—real and ideological.

By claiming that they—men, women, the region at large—inherently hate women,  Eltahawy implies that hope for change is lost, which Eltahawy has not given any indication is true. In fact, she has been at the forefront of the fight for peace, for revolution, for change. Clearly she believes there is opportunity and need for women’s rights to be recognized in a new state.

I don’t think strong institutions and laws are the only solution – in fact, social change is necessary to change our frame our mind about women – and for that, I commend Mona Eltahawy for bringing to light disturbing mentalities about women. But what institutions can do is insist upon an acceptance of very basic rights for those that are repeatedly oppressed—and that should happen not just for women, but minorities as well. The Arab Spring demanded equality, representation and dignity for each individual—it demanded a revolution, not a war.

Zardari: Making the impossible, possible

December 28, 2011

I don’t agree with Asif Zardari often (hardly ever), but I couldn’t deny that a small part of me did a whoop!  when he sent a plain message to the Pakistani army: democracy over military coup. Ever since the “memogate” scandal, in which Hussain Haqqani was accused of sending a memo to former US military chief Mike Mullen, asking him to help the Pakistani government in light of a potential military coup, fears over the army stepping in have been abuzz. It didn’t help that Zardari left the country for medical treatment, only to cause further rumors on the mill that he had gone. But he came back, and he chose the fourth anniversary of his wife Benazir Bhutto’s death to make a statement: I’m here to stay. Zing! (Of course, the Catch-22 of this is that “I’m” , though supposed to mean ‘democracy’, can very well mean the Bhutto dynasty…sigh)

I don’t think the PPP has been particularly effective in responding to the aftermaths of the flood, dealing with the violence in Karchi, Pakistan’s declining regional power, or general life–from education to electricity to food stock. And, it’s plain to see that the pro-democracy stance is self-serving–both Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto couldn’t help but tout PPP’s role in promoting democracy. But, if Pakistan continues its vicious cycle of military-then civilian-then military government, it will only serve to further isolate the country from its regional neighbors–and fall behind in history. Besides Iran, which seems to fall deeper into totalitarian rule, Pakistan’s Muslims neighbors in the Middle East are rejecting old rules (and rulers) of power. Of course the Arab Spring has turned cold, and the transition for Tunisia and Egypt into a ‘free democracy’ has hardly been accomplished. But, the tune that has powered the revolutions, and continues to do so, is demand for equality and power of the people. That will resonate for generations.

Of course, as I mentioned before, I don’t agree with Zardari often, and his claim about democracy being possible in Pakistan was all I could support. It is clear that when he says something like “When the Parliament talks to me, I listen, because this is a democracy” and “The supreme court is not under me–I wish it was, but it isn’t”, that ‘democracy’ is a buzzword for Zardari — something to use in the face of the army that will get him props from the international powers-that-be. Institutions are not what make democracy–they certainly help give structure to the political system–but they are nothing without debate and pluralism in the public sphere. But, that is what the Bhutto dynasty is afraid of–of public debate that may question their power. Zardari told politicians (with a straight face–not kidding!) that there is no need to go on TV. News programs should not invite politicians for debate, because that weakens democracy for future generations. Sadly, stifling voices is a theme that may continue in the PPP. In his op-ed in The Express Tribune, son Bilawal Bhutto recalled his mother and urged Pakistanis to turn to ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’. In today’s world, when ‘revolution’ is synonymous with people’s power and voices of the repressed, rejecting revolution–in whatever form–is almost rejecting actual change. I wonder how then Misters Zardari and Bhutto plan on “doing the art of the impossible” and creating a democracy in Pakistan.

Perhaps a civilian government that is not run by political dynasty is a start.

Peace to strive for

December 24, 2011

I finally read Christopher Hitchens’ “A War to Be Proud Of” — an article that was repeatedly mentioned by those both revering and criticizing Hitchens after his death. I was never particularly a big Hitchens fan. I found him to be arrogant and often times simplistic in his view of the world (his coined-term ‘Islamofascism’ — later repeated by George W. Bush during his presidency–annoyed me to no end). But even still, Hitchens was a smart writer, and though I may not have agreed with him, he convinced me he did have a point. I was hoping to find that understanding in his piece defending the Iraq War — what could convince our leaders to bomb a country with such zeal?

I didn’t find an answer to that question. At least not one that convinced me. But, what I did find was a narrative that had become so entrenched in the American psyche that an intelligent man like Hitchens believed we were at war against terror, and that war had to be fought at all cost.

“The peaceniks love to ask: When and where will it all end? The answer is easy: It will end with the surrender or defeat of one of the contending parties. Should I add that I am certain which party that ought to be? Defeat is just about imaginable, though the mathematics and the algebra tell heavily against the holy warriors. Surrender to such a foe, after only four years of combat, is not even worthy of consideration.”

Hitchens, of course, believed that the cost of war — monetary and even human — was a necessary investment in order to rid the world of terrorists that threatened the existence of a western civilization. For the time being, I’m going to ignore the assumption that terrorism breeds in a vacuum and that force will only serve to eliminate terrorists. I want to focus instead on the cost that Hitchens and many others today — five years after he wrote the article — don’t take into account: the cost to our ideals. It is no secret that the United States hasn’t upholded the canons of the democracy, freedom and equality of all. But, what has been part of the country’s ability to survive civil war and internal tensions is the belief that we are atleast moving towards those ideals.

In a time of war, those ideals are compromised — put on a high shelf for later use, because in a time of war, security trumps freedom; fear trumps equality; preservation trumps democracy. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11–even when Muslims in the US were arrested or bugged–that mentality was understandable. But, ten years later, after calculating what we have gained or haven’t gained, we must ask what type of future we want. At what point do we decide war is over? When do we reach a ‘normal’ state of being as a society and actually practice democracy, preserve freedom and strive for equality?

Because at some point, these ideals stopped being under threat by an external enemy but rather ourselves. In ten years of seeing the world through tinted glasses of terrorism, we have compromised justice , autonomy and security for Americans. In the past ten years, we have imprisoned hundreds of innocent men in Guantanamo Bay and prisons across the country–without due process. In the past ten years, forces like the NYPD have morphed into an autonomous entity fighting a ‘terrorist threat’. “Experts” are brought into reaffirm gross misunderstandings and stereotypes of ‘radical’ Muslims–synonomous with terrorists. The NYPD has used undercover cops to infiltrate mosques, community restaurants, Muslim student organizations — and have even tried to convince Muslims of engaging in a terrorist plot against the US , as they did with Tarek Mehanna (more below). Unfortunately, the NYPD has become so engrossed in an ironically ‘holier than thou’ mentality — not surprising in a country that puts more emphasis on security and policing than freedom — that it has affected the larger community as a whole. The department regularly stops, frisks and arrests people of color without reason. As one victim of frequent stops noted:

“After the third incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen.”

Last week, Tarek Mehanna was found guilty by a federal jury of conspiring to support Al Qaeda. The evidence prosecutors used against him was that he wrote about  and voiced his opinions against US policies, voiced sympathy for Bin Laden, and translated a document about jihad. Though unfortunate, Mehanna’s actions were not dangerous, nor did they lead to deaths. He was an Islamic intellectual, and had reason — and right — to translate a document, or voice his opinions against US policies. The ultimate irony here is that while Tarek Mehanna–a Muslim US citizen– can be sentenced to life in prison for disagreeing with US waged wars, Christopher Hitchens–who expressed some gratitude for 9/11– is lauded for supporting the mantra: war! war! war!:

I am one of those who believe, uncynically, that Osama bin Laden did us all a service (and holy war a great disservice) by his mad decision to assault the American homeland four years ago.

At some level, though 9/11 is seen as the ‘turning point’ of the new world order, it no longer matters. What matters–what drives ambition– is the state of war itself. I often wonder, if we had not gone into war with Iraq (or Pakistan, or Somalia), would we still have a Guantanamo today? Would we have Tarek Mehanna trials? Would we have an NYPD that targets ‘suspects’ according to religion and skin color? Would we as a country have been actually OK with a black president? Because, one thing that this “war on terror” do in the past ten years, is allow people to sync the word ‘terrorism’ with what makes them afraid. It has allowed us to legitimize our prejudices and racisms.

It doesn’t matter that the Iraq War is ‘officially over’. The line between war and peace has blurred. So, I don’t wish Hitchens had been alive to see the official end of the Iraq War. But, I do wish he was alive to have read this account by a US Marine who was part of the siege of Fallujah in 2004 that left thousands of civilians dead. There’s no glory in this war–and it often leaves Americans questioning what it is that the US stands for.

Blaming the victims — article in Foreign Policy

August 9, 2011

The Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin left me shocked, but that was soon compounded by the reports I was hearing about it. At first, news channels were covering the facts, but soon, as with any developing story, the questions of who and why paved the way for speculation, stereotypes and biases. This was one of the most stark cases that reaffirmed to me that we are living in a post-9/11 world. I wrote about it for Foreign Policy here.

AJE’s story-telling

February 16, 2011

The day before Hosni Mubarak (finally) stepped down, Al Jazeera English anchor Adrian Finnigan praised correspondent Ayman Moheldeen for his neutral reporting over the past 16 days, and then asked how Moheldeen felt about the events as an Egyptian. Moheldeen, of course, responded by keeping up his journalist face, saying that he recognized that Egypt is going through a difficult time. But he let go of that, ever so briefly, to admit that he was excited about the turn of events.

It wasn’t an eventful moment, nor did Moheldeen point out anything profound. But this conversation is precisely why we need more cable news coverage such as AJE in the US. Unlike Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, AJE distinguishes between reporting and opinion. And it reports through observations and facts rather than heated conversations among politicians, anchors and experts. While reporting can tell one story, opinion can provide value by highlighting larger sentiments on the ground, and recognizing them as such. God knows how many times media stories in the US have been driven, created and expanded, by sentiments of some rather than actual facts.

But most importantly, AJE acknowledges — and  embraces — that its star reporter during the Egypt protests has a vested interest in the events, that he probably not unbiased. It does not prevent him from reporting facts and observations fairly, but it does hint at the multiple narratives that drive every story. Indeed, what modern journalism should recognize is that “objectivity” is a misplaced and overrated goal of story-telling in the media. Nancy Franklin brings up this very point in the New Yorker when discussing Anderson Cooper’s coverage of Egypt after he returned from his brutal beating:

Some people I know were offended by the attention that CNN’s Anderson Cooper got when he was roughed up while reporting in Cairo. Cooper didn’t exactly ask for that attention; but that experience, and the eye-opening spectacle in the streets, clearly altered him. Cooper returned to the States irate, delivering his reports with too much fire about Mubarak’s dictatorship. I don’t mean he lost “objectivity,” since I think holding that up as an ideal is wrongheaded; it’s the wrong word, and the wrong concept. Truth is what we should want from journalists.

Often, objectivity is seen as synonymous to truth in journalism. It is not. This misinterpretation was perhaps most apparent during the Gaza War of winter 2008-2009, when a disproportionate number of Palestinians to Israelis were killed. Yet, most US news networks covered the events as if attacks were being carried out proportionately on both sides, as a way to be “objective.” In attempts to be unbiased, news anchors reported the “heavy” death toll incurred by both sides. Ironically, in an attempt to appear objective, they skewed the truth. What AJE did was report that in fact, Palestinians were being badly beaten during the war, that they were without food, water, aid and shelter. Al Jazeera certainly has its biases and weaknesses, but it is still more nuanced and smarter than other news networks. Because what it does do is show that both sides of conflicts have emotions, have different interests and have their own narrative, and that most importantly, the hurt and fear is not on just one side. Emotion in journalism is important, as long as it’s telling a story.