Saturday, February 11, 2006

The quest for Justice

"Beneath the rage in the Mideast" in Sunday's New York Times is a great piece of insightful journalism. Michael Slackman gets to the heart of the problem when he cites the lack of justice, accountability and even rudimentary control over their lives as the primary reason that has the Muslim world ablaze. These conditions are in great measure responsible for the sustained rise of Islamists.

Western governments, due to a complex web of geopolitical and economic reasons, are simply unable and unwilling to do the right thing consistently. When they step in selectively for reasons that often seem dictated by their own immediate interests, they fail to win over anybody. In addition, thugocracies in the Muslim world channel the internal anger at the 'infidels' amplifying grievances real and imagined. That many of these unpopular, incompetent and oppressive regimes have leaders who are ostensibly "moderates" and allies in the western eyes only serves to discredit the very ideas that the West needs to promote (rule of law, tolerance etc.). Musharraf, Hosni Mubarak, the kingdoms of the middle east are the worst possible emissaries of western values when they themselves have cynically held on to power by hook or crook and have delivered nothing to their populations by way of institutions.

For the West to eventually win, what is simple-mindedly called, the "war on terror", its not just the promotion of freedom and democracy that is important; the West has to be seen as a friend of common Muslims not their corrupt dictators.

Excerpts from Michael Slackman's article:

"It has reached to the point where Egyptians do not feel entitled to anything, and all they want is justice," said Ibrahim Aslan, a leading Egyptian writer. "Across history, in literature, Egyptian peasants asked for justice, not for freedom or democracy. Just justice. Social justice."

Islamists promise not just piety, but an end to corruption and misrule. That challenge helps explain the eagerness of established governments to pursuethe conflict over the Danish cartoons — to increase their own credibility on religious issues and resist the Islamists' rising popularity.

The sinking of the ferry is a case study of this dynamic. More than 1,000 people drowned. By Friday, more than 600 bodies had not been recovered. At least 1,000 people continued to stand vigil on the streets outside a hospital along the Red Sea. It had taken more than seven hours to launch a rescue operation. Worried relatives had been greeted at the banks of the Red Sea by riot police who beat them back. For days, people sat on the street, under the sun, waiting for any information. And the state-run media tried to turn the whole matter into a public relations victory for President Hosni Mubarak."

Ayaz Amir in Dawn under the heading "Denmark: Wrong Target" makes a similar argument. The first half of his column reflects a confused view on the issues of free speech but the second half makes some pertinent points about the wretchedness of the status quo in the Islamic world and why the U.S. ultimately cannot afford to be serious about its "freedom and democracy" rhetoric. It costs too much in the short and medium term.


"Why is there such a gulf between rulers and ruled in the Muslim world? Because both exist on different planes, rulers for the most part acting as US stooges, the masses yearning for some form of redemption. No wonder, when given the chance, the masses strike a blow against the status quo, voting for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or for Hamas in the Palestinian occupied territories.

Nothing is more fragile or more rotten in the world of Islam than the status quo. The Americans should never press their luck with democracy in the Muslim world because if democracy arrives — something on which I am not betting — American influence will go out of the door. The necessary condition for American hegemony over Muslim oil is Muslim autocracy. One serves the other."

Friday, February 10, 2006

Reactions to the cartoons - continued

Michael Kinsley in his "The Ayatollah Joke Book" basically gets it right in today's Slate. Again, as a born Muslim I find the cartoons offensive, gratuitously provocative and motivated by far less noble intentions than the defense of free speech (instigating racial hatred among its base intentions). But the principle of free expression in the West needs to be defended clearly and forcefully. The grotesque idea of cartoons of Hitler and Ann Frank in bed together (which I have not seen) shows the intellectual and emotional immaturity of the reaction but also goes to show that the West ultimately does tolerate free expression. Despite the deeply offensive nature of both the Hitler cartoon and an Iranian newpaper's shameful contest to prolong this tawdry episode, I don't see many Jews burning Iranian embassies and baying for Muslim blood.

Some excerpts:

"Meanwhile, whatever point these European Muslims were making with their cartoon of Hitler and Anne Frank is more or less disproved by their very exercise. No one tried to stop them from putting the cartoon on the Web. The notion that jokes about Anne Frank are beyond the pale is provably false. "

"Of course it is not Western values that are trampling freedom of expression: It is the ayatollah's own values, combined with the threat of violence. The other problem with his little joke about double standards, and with the whole supposedly mordant comparison between denying the Holocaust and portraying the prophet, is that the offended Muslims do not want a world where people are free to do both. They don't even want a world where people are not free to do either, which would at least be consistent. They want a world where you may not portray the Prophet Mohammed (even flatteringly, slaying infidels or whatnot) but you may deny the Holocaust all day long."
Also, here's a reasoned view (from behind a subscription firewall) from the other side. I don't wholly agree with Mr. Sethi because the self-censorship examples he provides are not a justification for curbing speech. They should be fought against even in the West. However, he is right that Muslims have become an easy target since 9/11 and the most acceptable overt prejudice in the West today is against Muslims. Ridiculous statements that people like Franklin Graham and General Boykin have made in the U.S. such as calling Islam a wicked religion would bring massive official denunciations (and sackings) if made against the Jewish people. Najam Sethi in the Friday Times in his editorial "Dangerous divides" writes:

"What, we might ask, is the status of the notion of “freedom of expression” when Western journalists are blithely “embedded” with invading imperial armies and truth is the biggest casualty? What about “freedom of expression” when self-censorship is applied to enshrine new notions of “political correctness”, as for example in not describing blacks as “niggers”, or Jews as “Shylocks”? What about “freedom of expression” when the law of defamation is slapped on publications which unfairly taint someone’s reputation? What about “freedom of expression” when entrenched notions of “The Holocaust” are challenged and challengers are accused of anti-Semitism, as would doubtless happen if a rabbi had been shown in the cartooninstead of Prophet Mohammad? How can they say that their “freedom of expression” is curtailed if they are asked to desist from demonizing the Prophet of Islam when it is not curtailed by the defamation of a lay Westerner? Since when and under what law has “freedom of expression” become an absolute and sacred right regardless of responsibility, truth and the fundamental rights of other peoples? Nor do we need to reproduce the offending cartoons to determine whether it is right to print them or not under the guise of “freedom of expression”, as some newspapers have argued, when we can describe the nature of the offence (as we have done here) perfectly adequately in words and leave it at that."

"If all this is clear enough, what is the “freedom of expression” fig leaf all about? The answer must lie in what is meant to be conveyed by the cartoons. In brief, the cartoons depict the Prophet of Islam as a “terrorist” (his turban is shaped like a missile), like Osama bin Laden, meaning thereby that the 1.5 billion followers of Prophet Mohammad are also terrorists against whose “religious civilization” an unremitting war must be waged by a “secular civilization”. "

"Equally, it must be admitted that the violent reaction of the Muslims all over the world has been unfortunate. It is one thing to protest the word and quite another to burn down embassies and threaten to kill people. Once again the image on television screens feeds into the stereotype of modern day Islamic terrorism and plays into the hands of its agents-provacateur."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Lahore - City of Sin and Splendor

S. Asad Raza's essay on Lahore in posted on their site on Monday, February 6th:

Dispatches: Lahore

Lahore is perhaps the most underappreciated city in the world. The widespread ignorance of the charms of such a beautiful, complicated, and historically important city is sad, though unsurprising, given Western conceptions of the Muslim world - India has droves of tourists, while Pakistan has virtually none. Most of its natives, and most Pakistanis generally, rightly regard it as their country's most cultured metropolis, but even this acclaim does not go far enough. Lahore is the conservatory of a lost world whose traces have been largely erased from more touristic destinations, like Delhi and Agra - I will come to the reasons for this below. The world in general has few cities that interweave so seamlessly a great vitality today (the city is about the twenty-fifth largest on the globe) with an unbroken and luxurious history (spanning the last two millennia). Only in Lahore do you find the sepulcher of the legendary Anarkali, the star-crossed dancing girl buried alive for her love of the young prince Selim (the film Mughal-e-Azam is a version), inside the dusty Archives of the Punjab Secretariat, which was a mosque that the British whitewashed, and is now decorated with portraits of British colonial governors. Layers and layers: it's that kind of place.

Beyond its Mughal grandeur, landscaped gardens, and Sufi shrines, beyond its dense bazaars, colonial museums and Parisian boulevards, beyond its kebabs, nihari (shank stew) and sarson ka saag with makai ke roti (mustard greens with cornbread roti), beyond the G.T. road, the insane rickshaw driving and Kipling's cannon Zamzama, there is a part of Lahore that I believe is one of the most culturally important districts in Asia: the Walled City. To cross the threshold of any of the gates of its unbreached walls is to cross into a truly unique zone. There is simply no other city anywhere that has preserved the mixture of influences that produced the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries' great cultural flowering in this part of the world. In Fatepur Sikri (near Agra), you can see an abandoned capital that records the intermingling of Muslim, Hindu, mystical, secular, imperial and local influences that were synthesized during the reign of Akbar, the greatest Mughal. In Lahore, you can see what that intermingling actually looked like, rather than merely its reflection in elevated architecture. Traverse the walled city from one gate to another, get lost, and find your way back out. It's an experience of incredible density and richness.

There are also moments of great solitude to be found amidst the clamor. Wazir Khan's Masjid might be the most beautiful mosque in the world (Wazir Khan was a friend and trusted ally of the emperor Shah Jahan, and shared his love of building - the hamaam, or baths, he built on the palace grounds are also worth a look). To find it isn't so easy: you must notice an unmarked little stone gateway off to the side of a cacophonous street full of utensil bazaars and giant steaming woks of milk for tea. To enter the mosque of Wazir Khan after that fray is to enter a heterotopia, an "other space" as moving as there is. The noise dies away and a thousand pigeons flocking from side to side of the courtyard animate some sixteenth-century spirit. It's a haunted, benevolent place. Then back out towards children clinging five to a Vespa, their dads weaving desperately between knife sellers and kebab wallahs, dodging donkeys and low-hanging arches.

Another religio-cultural influence that Lahore possesses in greater quantities than any other city is that of Sufism. The mystical sect of Islam is commemorated with hundreds, maybe thousands, of shrines to Sufi saints, many of which are difficult to find. One nestles just outside the colonial-era King Edward Medical College, which resembles a sort of hot-weather Hogwarts. These shrines, in any case, are fascinating to see if one's experience of Muslim culture is limited. They are a proof of the mutiplicities of Islam and a rebuke to the repulsiveness of any orthodoxy that wishes to curb their crazily blissful peacefulness. The Sufi, of course, are also responsible for qawwalimusic, and Lahore is full of qawwali performances. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the famous Pakistani vocalist, was a Punjabi, and at the shrines you imbibe something of the flavor of the intoxicating gentleness that defined him.

The capital of Punjab, Lahore was strategically important for many of India's rulers, becoming under the Mughals an imperial city and gateway to Afghanistan and the frontier. The most lasting mark of Mughal rule is the imposing Badshai Masjid, an enormous mosque built by Auranzeb (the son and imprisoner of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal) with an adjoining fort and extensive gardens. There is also a Sikh temple sitting next door - the sight of Sikhs openly coming to and from a place of worship inside Pakistan is a heartening one. You can eat the aforementioned Punjabi mustard greens and cornbread roti from little shacks right outside the Shahi Qila's walls. And I highly recommend that you do. Here you'll also find Coocoo's, a famous old restaurant decorated with portraits of the women who ply these streets at night. It never seems to be serving food, but eating in Lahore is a humbler thing anyway. The nihari shops at the walled city gates are worth braving (disregard cowardly gastroenterologists): shank meat buried in embers, simmered overnight and topped with fresh ginger, chilies, coriander and lime juice is about as good as eating can get. The chicken karhais of Lahore, cooked to order with pieces of stringy, tasty chicken and served with the best naan, are also, for me, a pinnacle of gastronomy, expressing Punjabi zest directly and eloquently. These are, after all, the people who invented bhangra.

Funnily enough, the reason for the unique preservation of Lahore's walled city is largely luck. Certainly equivalent districts existed in other cultural capitals of North India, most notably in Delhi and Lucknow, the two centers of the high culture of Urdu poetry. Sadly, both cities' inner districts were razed completely in 1857, as payback for the Revolt against British rule. Lahore remained untouched. What the British did by burning down those cities but leaving the great Mughal structures was something roughly like destroying London except for the Tower and St. Paul's: the trademark "high" points of the city survived but none of the textures of its lived reality, the influences that suffuse a city's culture, its streets. In Lahore, by contrast, you can see what tourists can only imagine at the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal: the dense, complex, and still vital operations of an inner city bursting with markets, shrines, mosques, food, dancing girls, riotous children. That's what makes Lahore different: its history is sometimes worn on its sleeve and sometimes hidden within, but never is it advertised or reified. It's lived.

Having grown up in Lahore, Asad Raza's beautiful evocation of that wonderful city is enchanting. My gratitude to him for enabling a walk down memory lane and giving this unique city another articulate voice.

On my visit to Lahore last year, I visited Masjid Wazir Khan inside Delhi darwaza and can't improve on his description of its peaceful beauty. Also visited the Faqirkhana museum inside Bhati darwaza. It is a shame how infrequently I visited the walled city while growing up in Lahore even though my Phuphi lived inside Lohari darwaza. Whenever we went to see her, my father would park our red Volkswagen near Naimat Kada and we would walk into the androon shehr. I still remember a feeling of entering another world of people who looked different and seemed more frantic, houses and shops that looked like they had been built for Lilliputians.

I find it heartening that Lahore is being rediscovered by its many natives who live there or have left for foreign shores and more is being written about the city in and outside Pakistan. Yasmeen Lari's Heritage Guide on Lahore is a treasure (with maps drawn by the author) and she deserves rich tribute for exploring the "layers upon layers" of Lahore so systematically. Bapsi Sidhwa has just edited an anthology of writings on Lahore called Beloved City (to be published outside Pakistan as the "City of Sin and Splendor"). Pran Neville's memoir of pre-partition Lahore is also a valuable read about aspects of the city that have vanished (including his recollection of a performance by K.L Sehgal). There are some interesting new works in Urdu as well including a well researched book on Lahore's historic cemetery Miani Sahib and the leading lights of the city who are buried there. I think the book is called "Lahore ke Mashaheer". Another interesting book is Chishti's book on "Lahore ki Zaaten aur un ki Rasoomaat". Perhaps, on another occassion I will put on this blog a list of books on Lahore I have been able to discover over the last couple of years.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Muslim reaction to Danish cartoons - Rage against impotence

The Muslim reaction to the provocative cartoons published in Denmark has reached absurd levels. From this reaction one would think that the biggest problem in the world plaguing Muslims is a few ill-conceived cartoons published in an insignificant newspaper in an insignificant backwater of Europe. The New York Times today has a somewhat nuanced story about what is increasingly sounding like a dialogue of the deaf.

As a secular humanist and a cultural Muslim this has been a sad and dispiriting episode. Beyond the merits and deficiencies of the arguments on the various sides, to me, this widespread Muslim reaction is a rage of the impotent, powerless and humiliated.

This is a muddle-headed response of a civilization whose glory days are in the distant past but whose children are still raised with the conviction of the superiority of their belief system. For all the verbal emphasis on the greater importance of the after-life, the adherents ultimately also desire the benevolence of God in the here and now. However, in its bones the Muslim world knows that in every possible way Western societies have won the worldly battle. The West has delivered freedom and prosperity for its citizens. In contrast, a vast majority of Muslims continue to live in oppressive and desperate conditions. This cognitive dissonance mixed with the historic memory of the real and perceived injustices meted out to them by an assertive, confident and expanding western civilization since the 18th century are key contributors to the current state of Muslim impetuousness.

Obviously it is true that the billion plus Muslims are not a monolithic whole and there are vast differences amongst them but for all the talk about marginalized Muslim moderates, ultimately what we have here is a clash of civilizations. I believe that a majority of Muslims in the world (including in the West) are in varying degrees hostile to the West's values on moral and political grounds and this clash will continue to dominate the headlines for years and decades to come. The reaction to the cartoons just demonstrates that the cognitive dissonance in the Muslim mind is leading it toward destructive nihilism. There will be lot more rage and violence before the beginnings of a new order.

But what is to be done? The Economist is spot on in its editorial this week called "The one thing Bush got right" . Ultimately constitutional democracy is the only path which slowly, tortuously and by fits and starts will eventually chart the path toward a more stable Muslim world. My problem with the administration is that their approach has been neither consistent nor nearly energetic enough. Pakistan and Egypt are the glaring examples where the US is making a mistake by siding with unpopular but friendly strongmen, weakening the countries' political structure. This is bound to backfire. Behind the reluctance to spread the democratic message has been the concern about Islamists taking over but unless these societies are given an opportunity to grow up the current dynamic will continue to prevail. Muslim societies need to take responsibility for governing themselves and have a right to make their own mistakes so they can evolve more mature polities (even if it entails some short and medium term costs for the West) . In this context I do not necessarily despair about the election of Hamas. Given sufficient time and freedom to make their own choices but being held accountable for them (as David Brooks would say), the Muslim world will eventually find its footing. The spread of constitutional democracy in the Muslim world is the only long term antidote to its current virulence.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Pankaj Mishra and self-reflection in a rising India

I always eagerly await Pankaj Mishra's essays in the New York Review of Books. His writing is crisp, his style and substance unerringly fair-minded and his worldview broad and mature even as it is firmly rooted in India. His three part article on Kashmir (first, second, third) back in the fall of 2000 is a superb work of clear-headed but empathetic journalism and helped me understand more about that heartbreaking conflict and its human costs than the millions of words that have been spilt by the media outlets in India, Pakistan and abroad. I have not yet had a chance to read any of his books (An End to Suffering; The Romantics; Butter Chicken in Ludhiana) but if they reflect anything like his sensibility as a reviewer they will not be a disappointment.

In contrast to the writings of Mishra, reading Indian newspapers is a deeply disappointing experience if, like me, you believe that India's emergence as a mature economic power will be a boon for South Asia. As seen through the prism of India's newpapers, any early signs of mature and thoughtful self-reflection within India's elite is sadly absent. There is a fairly vibrant civil society in India and one would expect to see more Indian intellectuals who can hold the mirror to society, question revered historic shibboleths and try to understand the future of India as a nation. Indian intellectuals abroad are increasingly doing this. Ashis Nandy, Gyanendra Pandey and Ashutosh Varshney have done good work on partition and its human and psychological impact. Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati are also engaged in a serious conversation about India's future but thinking coming out of India is still largely triumphalist rhetoric. My hope is that this will change over the next few years as India becomes more comfortable with its new status as a world power. If that turns out to be untrue and India follows a more virulently nationalistic path, the world in general and South Asia in particular will be the loser.

Memories of old Bollywood

Khalid Hasan in the Friday Times remembers Nargis, the great Indian actress of the 40's and 50's (full article behind Friday Times' subscription firewall). Khalid Hasan's reminiscenses about film, music, poetry and South Asian personalities and institutions are unfailingly interesting. In a culture where the genre of memoir is so impoverished, his articles are a worthy effort at preserving the memory of many bhoole bisre log.

Some excerpts:

Sunil Dutt buried her, as she had willed, next to her mother Jaddan Bai in Bombay. Her grave bears the name she was given at birth: Kaniz Fatima. Her great friend in Bombay, Qurratulain Hyder, wrote to me after Nargis died: “Yes, Nargis has left us all immeasurably sad. She was a part of the time of our growing up, a time that is itself now mythological. Her old movies, when one watches them on television now, look quite amateurish, but how romantic they seemed then! She moved ahead in life with tremendous grace and dignity. And when she died, she died as a major national figure. She was a fascinating woman who had no hang-ups about her mother’s origins. In fact, the last time she met me, I recall her telling me that her mother was such an independent woman that once when the Nawab of Rampur, who was celebrating his birthday, asked her to dance on a takht-e-rawaan , a platform that moves with a ceremonial procession, she refused. She was a great admirer of her mother and it was her desire that she should lie next to her and among those who stood silently praying as she was being lowered to earth was Sunil Dutt.”

Sunil Dutt, who came from Jhelum, died last year.

Saadat Hasan Manto, recalling his meeting with Nargis in 1946, writes: “There was something very playful and innocent about her. She would blow her nose every few minutes as if she suffered from a permanent cold. This was captured in Barsaat as one of her endearing traits.” He also writes about the two younger sisters of his wife Safia, who while on a visit to Bombay, befriended Nargis. One of the sisters is Zakia, the late Hamid Jalal’s wife and Shahid and Ayesha Jalal’s mother. I asked Zakia Jalal some years ago what she remembered of Nargis. This is what she wrote back: “You have asked me about our meetings with Nargis. I can only tell you that when we saw her first picture Taqdeer, my sister Rafia and I just fell in love with her. The public reaction was that she would not make it to the top because of her looks. People said that she had a long face. Anyway, we sisters were dying to talk to her. We dared not ask Bhai Saadat to get her telephone number for us. We asked Agha Khalish Kaashmiri for it and he got it for us. We called her and we just clicked. We told her that it was difficult for us to visit her, so it would be nice if she could come. She agreed and the very next day, she came to Safia Apa’s house with her mother Jaddan Bai. There was nothing more exciting for us, but that very day, Bhai Saadat decided to come home early. We were terrified but he was very nice to Jaddan Bai and they got along very well.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Of pit bulls and profiling

Malcolm Gladwell has the seeds of a new "Tipping Point" and "Blink" like book in his latest New Yorker article. The piece explains how individuals and organizations rely on generalizations to make decisions and how this process is necessary but fraught with difficulties. Picking the right categories for generalizations is critical to the success of the outcome.

Some excerpts:

"A doctor could, with some statistical support, generalize about men of a certain age and weight. But what if generalizing from other traits—such as high blood pressure, family history, and smoking—saved more lives? Behind each generalization is a choice of what factors to leave in and what factors to leave out, and those choices can prove surprisingly complicated. After the attack on Jayden Clairoux, the Ontario government chose to make a generalization about pit bulls. But it could also have chosen to generalize about powerful dogs, or about the kinds of people who own powerful dogs, or about small children, or about back-yard fences—or, indeed, about any number of other things to do with dogs and people and places. How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?"

"Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or trait—overweight middle-aged men to heart-attack risk, young men to bad driving. But, for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about. “You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly went on. “Look at the 9/11 hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to look like they were part of the American dream. These are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.”"