Thursday, December 3, 2009

sigmund freud and swiss minarets

No, the Swiss haven't got any problems with Muslims. Of course they don't mind if they pray. They can build big mosques with, say, huge domes! The issue is not about the public prayer call either, as this has never occurred in Swiss history (forget yodeling here). No, their only problem is with the erection of minarets... I have this vision of Sigmund Freud, up there in heaven, trying his best not to fall off his cloud: " know what?" he laughs. "They....hehehe....they call it 'clash of civilizations' these days..."

Monday, July 6, 2009

pakistan's problems and india

Much is being made these days of Pakistan's newly-found resolve in fighting the Taliban. Wherever he goes, President Zardari is being praised by the same Western leaders who used to believe that Pervez Musharraf was the only man who could save the region from extremism. Now Zardari has taken up this role, and whereas one can certainly see something positive in the way opposition to extremism has been mobilized in the society, doubts must remain about the efficiency of the military "operation" against the Taliban: There is a huge cost in terms of civilian victims, displaced or even killed; the "operation" is taking place without observers, with total impunity for the army to do what they want; and the army doesn't seem to have abandoned its tactics of pitting one tribal leader against the other.

These are old tactics, but is there a new vision and a new policy as far as extremist groups are concerned? For this, one would have to compare the actions against the "Pakistani Taliban" with what Pakistan is doing about other militant groups which haven't turned against Islamabad, but are apparently still seen by some in the establishment there as useful strategic assets internationally: The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) aka Jama'at-ud-Dawa (JuD), which is blamed by India for the Mumbai attacks in November, and the Afghan Taliban, many of whose leaders are reported to have found refuge in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

So far, the situation is far from clear here. A case in point is that Hafiz Saeed, the head of the banned LeT/JuD, had to be released from house arrest because the government had failed to present a case against him. There are strong indications that not much will change unless something happens in the relationship between Pakistan and India. In a perceptive recent analysis for Reuters titled "Can Pakistan take on the Lashkar-e-Taiba?", Myra MacDonald calls it
the Catch 22 of India-Pakistan relations. Without peace, Pakistan may never fully turn against the LeT. And India will not offer peace talks until it does so.
Anyone who has seen the latest UK Channel 4 "Dispatches" documentary on the Mumbai attacks, containing the recordings of intercepted phone conversations between the attackers and their handlers in Pakistan (at least that's the claim in the video -- which seems to have disappeared from youtube due to copyright issues...) will certainly understand why India has difficulties in resuming the dialogue with Pakistan before action is taken against LeT.

But is this Indian position helpful and constructive? In a brilliant speech earlier this year on relations between India and Pakistan, Stephen P. Cohen, one of the leading American experts on the region, was very critical of New Delhi. Some excerpts:
Structurally, the India-Pakistan relationship is toxic. It is a classic case of what I call a “paired minority conflict.” In these situations both sides see themselves as vulnerable, threatened, encircled, and at risk. They have a “minority” or “small power” complex (...)
It is easy to see why Pakistanis have a classic small power complex: they are indeed smaller than India, increasingly less capable, their friends are fickle, and when from time to time Indian politicians and officials concede that Pakistan is a legitimate country, Pakistanis feel even more insecure. But why India? (...) India is groping now for a national identity that would allow it to approach Pakistan with confidence, but there is no consensus on how to mesh India’s identity with that of Pakistan’s. Indians do not know whether they want to play cricket and trade with Pakistan, or whether they want to destroy it. There is still no consensus on talking with Pakistan: sometimes the government and its spokesman claim that they do not want to deal with the generals, but when the generals are out of the limelight, they complain that the civilians are too weak to conclude a deal. The default option seems to be that Pakistan is now someone else’s problem--in this case the United States’. (...) There is also an absence of imaginative strategic thinking in India—most officials and politicians seem to follow the advice of P.V. Narasimha Rao, who said that inaction is always preferable, that time will fix most problems.
This is not about "blaming" India for Pakistan's problems. But I find Cohen's argument highly persuasive that "Rising India has a Pakistan Problem" (the title of his speech), and that it is mainly in India's own interest to overcome the deadlock. India is the stronger one in this pair, why shouldn't it be "confident" and "imaginative"?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

interesting reflections on mumbai attacks

As the only surviving gunman of the Mumbai attacks in November is about to go on trial, I've come across some interesting comments about the attacks on the website of novelist Gregory David Roberts ("Shantaram") who spent many years living in Mumbai. First of all he refuses to refer to the likely attackers as "terrorists", but calls them "jihadists" instead. He explains:
 I use the term Jihadists, rather than the purely Arabic term Jihadi, which is used in Arabic news media and in other Arab forums, because I think it is important that we – meaning all those who want Jihadist attacks to stop, as much as we want the injustices done to Muslims that provoke the attacks to stop – do not provide the attackers with intellectual or emotional support. By using their own term for themselves, we reinforce their sense of their own justice and power. By using the term “terrorist”, we reinforce our own sense of their power over us.
I find this a very compelling argument. Roberts says a major reason for what is called terrorism is that it has worked in many cases:
Many times, individuals and even nations – through their elected representatives – argue that Jihadists will not achieve their aims through these acts of violence. But this response comes from a failure to understand the Jihadists. The fact is, if one of their 3 main objectives is to avenge the injustices done to Muslims around the world, then they don’t expect to survive their attacks, and they don’t make claims or demands. The violence is an end in itself, because the violence done is an act of revenge. If we don’t acknowledge this, and respond to it rationally, we can never stop the mindset that inspires such attacks. Furthermore, if we don’t acknowledge the fact that sometimes, against the best wishes of people of good will, the terror attacks actually provoke the results intended by those who use terror, we’ll never develop a comprehensive, rational, and effective response that eventually stops the attacks. We have to acknowledge that sometimes terror works, because we allow it to work, through our responses.
Roberts argues that Jihadists are not as powerful and well-organized as it might seem to many, and get stronger because of repression and anti-Muslim policies. He has many reasonable things to say about Pakistan and democracy, but in his list of remedies also points out one important issue which is totally neglected in the public debate these days:
Almost all the money that pays for Jihadist attacks comes from Saudi Arabia. This is a historical reality. When the British government created the nation of Saudi Arabia, and created a royal family to rule it, The House of Saud, the Bedouin Wahabbists – who follow an extreme form of Islam, that underpins Jihadism – were recruited to support the weak royal family. In exchange for the support of the warrior Wahabbis, the Saudi royal family agreed to support the Wahabbist Jihad agenda across the world. Almost every Koran carried by a Jihadist is printed in Saudi Arabia, and almost every dollar in their pockets comes from Saudi Arabia. If we want the attacks to reduce, and finally to sop, we have to choke off this supply of money from Saudi Arabia (...)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

the different faces of bollywood

During my recent visit to Mumbai, I was once again intrigued about the contradictions of Bollywood. Mumbai's dream factory has been accused of all kinds of crimes, and in fact a recent cover story in Tehelka magazine presents a very intelligent indictment: Nisha Susan argues that Bollywood movies and other branches of commercial popular culture in India (TV, advertising, the fashion industry) have been streamlining the idea of "who is an Indian?" in such a way that actually the vast majority of the population is excluded from it! According to her observations, backed up by many interviews, especially the female icons of Bollywood are almost exclusively presented as fair-skinned, rich North Indian Hindus from cities. Which is bound to make everyone else wonder why they don't look like them. Susan quotes a hockey player from Jharkhand state who plays for India: 
Sarita Lakra says her childhood years were spent wondering how the movies could always be about happy and beautiful people. Sarita says, “They made me feel little and nonexistent. They still make me feel little.”
Even in South India, where the vast majority of people are dark-skinned, film heroines have to be fair - and people with different looks don't get a chance: The culture industry shows its cruel face. 
And yet, there are lots of creative and critical people in Bollywood. For all kinds of reasons, but mainly because they want to make films - and they actually make some very good ones. Let me mention just two new movies which I saw in India over the last week: "Firaaq" and "Gulaal". Both of them have nothing to do with the clichés of the entertainment industry, and each in its own way, the both are extremely thought-provoking. "Firaaq" by Nandita Das is a story set in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002. It doesn't have song-and-dance sequences and its narrative is rather straightforward, so it comes across more like a European or American movie. Both topic and treatment are challenging for any audience. "Gulaal" by Anurag Kashyap, on the other hand, is about anger, student politics, separatism and love. It's gripping until the last moment, but also a very difficult movie, heavy with allusions, quotes and metaphors, almost like in a stage drama. Its innovative elements include a political mujra, a jester type character and a modern remix of the 1950s "Pyaasaa" hit "Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye". Again, there is no way you can leave the cinema without questions.
Here in Germany, we have the advertising slogan: "Bollywood macht glücklich" - "Bollywood makes you happy". Might be. But Bollywood also makes you think. Bollywood also makes you angry. Bollywood also makes you stupid.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

toilets, but no water

The Indian media widely reported a tragic incident some days ago: A 45-year-old barber died as he was trying to escape from a squad enforcing a ban on open defecation. It is common especially for Indian villagers to relieve themselves in the open, e.g. in the fields or alongside railway tracks. There are simply not enough toilets in the country. As access to sanitation is to be improved as part of the UN millenium goals programme, India has stepped up construction of toilets, and is also trying to enforce their use: Old habits die slowly... Thus, the village council in Supe Road in the western state of Maharashtra introduced fines of up to 1,200 Rupees for anyone caught in the open. And they established the "Good Morning Squad" tasked with catching offenders. Barber Sunil Jadhav was trying to flee from the squad when he had a heart attack.
The "Telegraph" newspaper explains the problem behind the incident:
Jadhav’s village, Supe Road, has public toilets that residents said couldn’t be used because they had no water in summer.
Water shortage is already a severe problem in larger parts of India and is bound to get worse due to population growth. The only real solution can be toilets that don't use water flush, but store and recycle the urine and excrements for producing manure for agriculture or cooking gas. China has already introduced more than a million of these alternative or "ecosan" toilets in areas with water shortage; but in India, taboos and the lack of political will have so far prevented their large-scale introduction. Maybe barber Jadhav's death will lead to a change of mind there...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

anything goes

Pakistan is in huge turmoil again. The lawyers and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif are trying to launch street protests against President Zardari, but the government is beating and arresting demonstrators and shutting down cable TV channels in quite the same way the former military ruler used to do. Now it seems information minister Sherry Rehman has stepped down in protest at the curbs against the media, further weakening Zardari's position. In the meantime, almost everyone from the army to the US and Britain are getting involved and trying to broker a compromise. But is Zardari ready to accept former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry? And to reinstate Nawaz Sharif's PML-N government in the Punjab? Nobody knows, although "The News" put it very nicely in an article detailing all the rumours about back-channel negotiations:
In Pakistan, anything can happen, to anyone, at any time. And that’s the tragedy, and the beauty of it all.

Friday, February 27, 2009

the morale courage conversations with christiane amanpour

A very interesting public conversation about today's journalism last week in New York between Irshad Manji and CNN's Christiane Amanpour... watch here!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

resolution against the taliban?

As Barack Obama turns his attention towards Afghanistan, it is looking more and more uncertain that he can count on any real support from Pakistan in fighting the Taliban. According to many reports, the Pakistani army has all but ceded control of the Swat valley (which is only about 160 kms from Islamabad) to the extremists. And whereas for the first time in months, there is something like a public outcry in Pakistan against Taliban practices such as the closing of all girls' schools, the actions by the government and the army are half-hearted at best. Dawn writes:
The National Assembly on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the ‘ban’ imposed by militants on girls’ education and destruction of schools in Swat. The resolution, moved by Information and Broadcasting Minister Sherry Rehman, called for rebuilding the schools and protecting schoolgoing children. Observers, however, noted that the resolution contained no plan to combat extremists, who have destroyed more than 200 schools so far.

It became clear soon after the Mumbai attacks in India that, once again, something went seriously wrong in Pakistan. Reports came out that the sole surviving terrorist was from Pakistan. The Pakistani daily Dawn's reporters visited the village of Faridkot in Punjab and managed to trace down the family. The paper wrote:
the man who said he was Amir Kasab confirmed to Dawn that the young man whose face had been beamed over the media was his son. For the next few minutes, the fifty-something man of medium build agonized over the reality that took time sinking in, amid sobs complaining about the raw deal the fate had given him and his family.“I was in denial for the first couple of days, saying to myself it could not have been my son,” he told Dawn in the courtyard of his house in Faridkot, a village of about 2,500 people just a few kilometres from Deepalpur on the way to Kasur. “Now I have accepted it.“This is the truth. I have seen the picture in the newspaper. This is my son Ajmal.”

And yet, the Pakistani government continued to obfuscate the matter. A "Washington Post" reporter visiting the village found that every movement was closely monitored by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Why, if they had nothing to hide? When a report by GEO TV confirmed the Dawn story, a politician filed a case against the TV channel for "anti-state activity". Only when it was really no longer possible, the government accepted that Ajmal Kasab was from Pakistan.

So what about the so-called Pakistani "crackdown" on Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, aka Jama'at-ud-Dawa - the extremist groups said to be behind the Mumbai attacks? Just an eyewash again, according to media reports. It is safe to assume that ever since 9/11, the vast majority of the so-called "clampdowns" on extremists in Pakistan were at best symbolic, and often enough those to be "attacked" were warned beforehand. In a recent detailed article about why the US remains worried about Pakistan's nuclear weapons, New York Times reporter David E. Sanger narrates the example how Pakistan's Prime Minister Gillani intended to impress his hosts with the news of an attack against an extremist madrassa when he visited the US last summer:

Though Gilani never knew it, Bush was aware of this gift in advance. The National Security Agency had picked up intercepts indicating that a Pakistani unit warned the leadership of the school about what was coming before carrying out its raid... When the “attack” on the madrassa came, the Pakistani forces grabbed a few guns and hauled away a few teenagers. Sure enough, a few days later Gilani showed up in the Oval Office and conveyed the wonderful news to Bush: the great crackdown on the madrassas had begun. The officials in the room — Bush; his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley; and others — did not want to confront Gilani with the evidence that the school had been warned... Indeed, Gilani may not even have been aware that his gift was a charade: Bush and Hadley may well have known more about the military’s actions than the prime minister himself.

Pakistan's military and political establishment is still playing silly games with the extremists instead of fighting them. Unfortunately, all indications from Swat, the tribal areas and other places are that these tactics have made the Taliban too strong already - and it won't be possible to get rid of them any time soon.

Friday, January 16, 2009

balanced reporting on gaza?

The current war in Gaza raises a couple of tricky questions about "balanced" or "objective" coverage. It has been noted by many observers that the war is being reported differently by the media in different countries. And whereas some certainly have a pro-Palestinian bias, The Independent's Middle East expert Robert Fisk has accused almost the whole Western media of ignoring the real story - which, he argues, is "the dispossession of the Palestinian people". In an article on, media analyst Habib Battah observes that the US mainstream media are "prioritising Israel's version of events while underplaying the views of Palestinian groups". He points out, for example, that US media tend to give equal coverage to Palestinian and Israeli victims although the Palestinian casualties outnumber the Israeli one by a hundred fold:
However, such comparisons were rare because the scripts read by American correspondents often excluded the overall Palestinian death count. By stripping the context, American viewers may have easily assumed a level playing field, rather than a case of disproportionate force... When number of deaths did appear - sometimes as a graphic at the bottom of the screen - it was identified as the number of "people killed" rather than being attributed specifically to Palestinians. No wonder the overwhelmingly asymmetrical bombardment of Gaza has been framed vaguely as "rising tensions in the Middle East" by news anchors.
The coverage appears "balanced" in a certain sense by giving equal coverage to victims on both sides of the conflict - but is it really balanced? Battah poses some simple questions:
If an Israeli woman had lost five daughters in a Palestinian attack, would The Washington Post run an equally sized photograph of a relatively unharmed Palestinian woman, who was merely distraught over Israeli missile fire?...would the paper have ever considered balancing a story about a massive attack on Israelis with an in-depth lead piece on the strategy of Palestinian militants?
Battah exempts CNN International from his criticism, and it might be mentioned that The Washington Post did run an article by former US President Jimmy Carter which was highly critical of Israel's war - but this doesn't invalidate the main points he is raising, nor the criticism by Robert Fisk. Does this mean, then, that one should give up the ideal of being "balanced"? Or rather be more careful about its meaning?
Another important issue related to balanced reporting is the ban on journalists who want to enter Gaza for coverage. As the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel has argued in a very interesting article, this is to some extent counterproductive, as it leaves Palestinian journalists with a monopoly on reporting from Gaza and influencing world opinion. But apparently, the reasoning in Israel was that it would be easy to dismiss such reports by Arabs as "biased", whereas critical coverage by media organizations with a reputation of being "balanced" would be difficult to handle. Which seems to indicate once again that being balanced is important...