Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Flying Tips

Being a frequent flyer I thought it would be useful to share tips that I have picked up on. Lots of people who are or look like they are from the Middle East or South Asia are often stopped at airports across North America and Europe for extra security checks. These checks have become standard after 9/11 but more recently security measures are tightening up even further with the introduction of full body scanners at airports. There was a lot of noise in the parliament about how this is a violation of human rights and that Pakistanis do not deserve to be the victims of such discriminatory measures. However Faisal Shahzad came along and like so many idiots before him, gave the West even more reason to haul me into the back room when I fly back in to the US.

For the time being, Egyptians, Indians, and anyone who looks like their uncle’s second cousin’s son-in-law is brown is going to be stopped will continue to be stopped and harassed in airports in the West. I being a six foot four twenty something Pakistani stick out like a sore thumb at airports and have often been asked ‘Sir could you come with us please, we would like to ask you a few questions.’ Now there are two things I and any other person in this situation could do. Either I could stand there and protest my innocence, pointing out I am a college student simply seeking an education and refuse to fall victim to such blatantly racists practices. Or, I could make everyone’s life easier by co-operating with the immigration officer. So far, I have always chosen the latter during the numerous times I have had to go through extra security checks, and because of it always have a very comfortable time travelling the world. If you would like to enjoy yourself like I do while up in the air, here are a few suggestions:

1.Never get frustrated. As irritating as it may be to be singled out for special treatment, the person cross-examining you has to deal with hundreds of annoyed innocent people like you every day. It is therefore in your best interest to not piss off a probably at this point agitated immigration officer.

2.Arrive early. Between the time you check in and the time you board a million things can happen. You might have over packed your suitcases and have to transfer weight between luggage. You might get to the wrong terminal by accident. Whatever the issue might be, the extra hour or so spent in the airport to be on the safe side is well worth the peace of mind.

3.Avoid JFK/Newark while flying internationally. Everybody from the TSA personnel to the immigration officers is absolutely obnoxious. Instead, I have been flying in and out of Chicago the last couple of years and quite surprisingly have never been sent for extra checking at O’Hare, lovely people up here in the Midwest!

4.Bring your entertainment. Relying entirely on the inflight entertainment system can be risky as the system could crash or the headphone jack in your seat might not work (both things that have happened to me). Being stuck without a plan B for 18 hours will make it a very long flight indeed.

5.Don’t set the metal detectors of. Now this is not a problem in Detroit airport where it happens so often it’s almost expected. I once saw a man walking through the metal detectors in only his boxers and still managing to set the metal detector off. However, in all other airports setting of the metal detectors is annoying, and it draws attention to you, something you want to avoid anyway. Just remember to take off your belt, bling, etc and you are all clear.

6.If you cannot sleep well on airplanes, don’t try and sleep deprive yourself to be extra tired on the aircraft to make it easier to sleep, it doesn’t work. Also the meals are not particularly filling up in the air, so a hearty meal before boarding is also a good idea.

7.Lastly, if your flight is on August 7th don’t show up to the airport on the August 8th. Not exactly my best moment… Flying internationally is fun and exciting, you just need to avoid getting worked up during security checks.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Blurred Border

During the post graduation flurry of goodbyes from a lot of close friends, one particular encounter really resonated with me. One of my good friends’ who is originally from India told me ‘Shazil I have spent 4 years here and one thing I learned is that there is no difference between Indians and Pakistanis’. When I got home later that night and started to reflect on the validity of that statement it quickly became apparent that indeed Pakistanis and Indians have more things in common than not. After all, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists among many faiths lived together for centuries in the sub-continent, and the result is the intermixing of many cultures. In Pakistani weddings a lot of Indians influences can be observed that did originate from religion but rather from just Muslims living alongside Hindus for so long.

That brings me to my next point. The similarities between Pakistanis and Indians make for an interesting case study on the effect of religion on personalities. Islam and Hinduism are two different religions in many respects, in one religion a cow is worshiped while in the other it is sacrificed on Eid every year in celebration. In contrast, Islam and Judaism have a lot more in common than Islam and Hinduism, yet it is the Muslim and Hindu that will get along better than the Muslim and Jew. This is not to say that Jews are at fault for this, but between Muslims and Hindus in the subcontinent what prevails in the similarity in language, culture, food and opinions.

After spends three years in the United States a lot of my best friends are Indian, and when we all get together it seems like all of us are on the same frequency, it doesn’t matter whether you are from Bombay or Lahore. The only thing really that drives a wedge in between us are Pakistan India cricket matches, and even then we all watch them side by side and manage to stay friends after the match! My overwhelmingly positive interactions with my friends from across the border have caused me to reanalyze Gandhi’s stance on India. It is well publicized that he was against the creation of Pakistan as he believed Muslims could peacefully coexist with all other factions of society in India. Perhaps there was more to his thinking than we were taught in Pak Studies in O’Levels. Currently there are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan, but of course I have no clue about their plight and how they are treated in India, and what the situation would have been with no Pakistan every being created. There are political problems that would have accompanied not having a separate country for Muslims, how would the representation in the parliament be decided, could Muslims trust or be trusted at a time of heightened tensions in 1947. Casting all that aside, Gandhi was right about something, Muslims, Hindus and all the rest can live together in peace and harmony. Whether the political environment would have allowed that harmony in 1947 is another question.

Politics continues to drive a wedge in between two nations with so much to offer to each other. Saturday’s Asia Cup cricket match was a very rare encounter in between cricket’s two most captivating sides to watch. Mistrust on the issues of the Bombay bombings on 26/11 continues to pull back diplomatic ties in between Pakistan and India, though there have been signs of improvement as of late. Most people in Pakistan don’t get the opportunity to interact with Indians like we at college have been blessed with. Cricket series give this opportunity to the increasingly skeptic public of both nations to meet and find out just exactly how much they are alike. To alleviate the growing tensions in the sub-continent, both governments need to endeavor to facilitate more interactions through sports, universities, intellectual competitions, etc. This may be an oversimplification of a long standing problem, but maybe all Pakistanis and Indians need to do to trust each is just sit down for a cup of chai and a round of rung.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Americans Commit Suicide, Too..."

In local metropolitan news in Pakistan, there's been a noticeable rise in instances of suicides amongst poorer families. Most of these instances are correlated with rising poverty and growing financial problems for low-income earners. There was this one, for instance, as reported by The News:
”A rickshaw driver along with three daughters and a wife took toxic pills due to financial problems, Geo News reported on Wednesday.

Rickshaw driver Akbar Ali’s brother told media that Akbar, resident of Shahpur Kanjran area was depressed due to poverty and last night along with wife and three daughters took toxic pills.“

Dawn, in today's newspaper, reported possible explanations for the collective suicide:

"During a visit to the area last week by this writer, Akbar’s relatives and neighbours reluctantly conceded that he was finding it hard to pay the lease for the three-wheeler that he had got from a local bank on a 20 per cent interest.

That loan may have been weighing heavy on his mind when he and his wife apparently took poison and one or both of them pushed it down the throat of three of their six children last week. The father and the three children passed away while the mother is still being treated at Jinnah Hospital."

And the heart-wrenching conditions in Akbar's community:

"With tears welling in his eyes, a rickshaw driver living in Shahpur tells this writer that he has limited resources and finds it impossible to manage his household budget. Another rickshaw driver standing close-by exclaims that his children are his only asset, but he is finding it hard to educate them in the current circumstances."

Sadly, none of this even remotely surprising. Changes in fiscal policy and much-publicized government schemes have, at best, merely served as discursive balms for inadequate access to small loans and rising inflation levels. Most low-income earners in Lahore markets report no savings, rely almost wholly on the under-par public education system for children, and seek small loans from relatives or friends. Efforts to widen access of microfinance facilities and poverty reduction schemes have had limited success.

But to make things worse, here's what the government's information minister said on the subject:

"Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira on Friday has advised poor families, which cannot take care of their children, to hand them over to Baitul Maal instead of killing them."

Audaciously, he went on to say this:

"Kaira admitted that the federal and provincial governments cannot control poverty and unemployment.

He said it was not right to criticize the government over suicides due to financial difficulties and inflation because people living in financially stable countries, like the U.S., also commit suicide."

Just doesn't get it, does he?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The 'Gaza Fad' & Pakistan's Irrelevance

For a long time now, I’ve been meaning to write something on the flotilla crisis. But much has already been said and almost every aspect of the diplomatic impasse has been analyzed. Turkey’s role and the direction Turkish foreign policy may take as a partial result was, for example, explored by Umair here. So I’ll shift the focus to Pakistan and it's relationship with Israel in general:

Little has been said on the subject though there seems to be a sharp disconnect between two views amongst Pakistanis:

1. Given Pakistan’s immediate and long-term problems, the MidEast crisis should be irrelevant to our discourse and low on our list of priorities.
2. The Palestinians deserve backing by Muslim states because (a) they are Muslims oppressed by a non-Muslim state, and/or (b) because the crisis has led to systematic crimes and injustice without due regard for human life.

In my opinion, (b) may be plausible but the idea that a Muslim life is worth more than the life of a non-Muslim is rather flimsy and uncomfortable. In any case, the situation in Darfur, by comparison, also involves Muslims and is arguable worse than the Gaza dilemma in terms of the extremity of conflict. Yet it plays second fiddle to our concern with the Palestinian conflict.

Taking this approach, the first view seems quite attractive. Pakistan’s immediate concerns are numerous: armed conflict along the Western border, another military operation imminent, massive displacement, rising poverty levels and continued political instability and insurgencies.

Yet, through all of this, Gaza remains the preferred international crisis for many Pakistanis. It could be that the fad is an expression of concern and/or injured Muslim identity and/or a convenient moral stance.

Now I’m not suggesting that the Palestinian plight is unwarranted; indeed, Israel’s stance has, I believe, been unnecessarily forceful, at times unethical and even unlawful by rules that govern war. So while the Middle East crisis should not be totally absent from our conscience, the fact is that there is strife across the globe, most of which Pakistanis tend to ignore by comparison. There is, of course, conflict and/or strife in Myanmar, Yemen, Georgia and, most recently, Kyrgyzstan. There are, on top of that, crises across Sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti, besides Afghanistan and Iraq.

Criticism of Pakistan’s response is harsh. The Pakistani state’s response to these crises, in turn, has been adequate thus far. Pakistan remains, for example, one of the top contributors to NATO forces and has a strong presence in Africa, particularly in Sudan and Somalia. On the other hand, of course, it remains silent-lipped on the issue of Omar Al-Bashir’s indictment as ruled by the International Criminal Court.

The Stance:
But the Palestinian issue is different, too, from a political standpoint. Pakistan refuses to formally recognize the state of Israel. Despite this, Pakistani and Israeli intelligence have allegedly collaborated in the past, particularly during the covert Cold War-era operation against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The Results:
Instead, here’s what Pakistan’s lack of formal relationship with Israel achieves:
(a) adds fuel to Israel’s strong claim that it is being cornered by Muslims states,
(b) increases the propensity of strong relations between two unfriendly states in India and Israel,
(c) consequently encourages wild conspiracy theories involving Zionist and Hindu designs on Pakistan,
(d) lowers public opinion on Pakistan abroad even further, particularly in Western states sympathetic to Israel’s policies.

The Options:
At present, Pakistan could:
(a) introduce or support U.N. resolutions calling attention to the Palestinian crisis,
(b) encourage Pakistani policy experts to contribute to independent fact-finding missions, replicating Hina Jilani's role in the Goldstone Report,
(c) theoretically pressurize its MidEast allies to alter their stance to Israel or communicate its concern for Palestine through diplomatic channels,
(d) recognize the state of Israel formally at a time when the political atmosphere with respect to Israel is calmer (Musharraf termed it “political suicide,” and while he may be overestimating the public’s response, it’s improbable that the move would go down well with Pakistan’s allies and most political parties).
(e) Alternatively, encourage a détente by establishing informal communication with Israel, as they did in 2005. In doing so, Pakistan could strengthen its role as a liaison for the Israelis in the absence of the Turks while attaining for itself more leverage as an international arbiter and, for those who subscribe to the idea of a Muslim collective, a strong spokesman for the Muslim world.

In the ideal situation, Pakistan’s continued refusal to recognize Israel formally should serve as a strong indication of its disapproval of Israel’s stance on Palestine. As it stands, it’s not much of a statement. It’s a hopeless stance: for almost all practical purposes, Pakistan — or, for that matter, Pakistani opinion — remains largely irrelevant.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Musharraf Comeback?

To contextualize Pervez Musharraf’s recently announced ambition to return to politics, I recalled a conversation I once had with a laborer. This was back in 2006, the peak of Musharraf’s reign, if you will. I asked the man what he thought of the President, especially in contrast with his rivals, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. He replied ‘As a Sindhi I love Benazir because she is a Sindhi. My Punjabi friends love Nawaz Sharif, because he is Punjabi. Musharraf is neither. He isn’t even Pathan or Baloch. Why would anybody love him?’

It is telling that more than 60 years since its inception, Pakistan’s polity is so ethnically defined. More crucially, the conversation presents the inherent flaw in Musharraf and other military rulers: their inability in developing a constituency outside the feudal-industrial-political elite.

This lack of grassroots support explains why the political stability, institutional development and socioeconomic progress of his early years were so easily forgotten in the rash hubris of his decline. Musharraf’s legacy in present day Pakistan is of a repressive dictator who assassinated his political opponents, abrogated the Consitution and sold the country to the US.

That despite this reputation, he wishes to return to the country’s political arena represents either audacity or idiocy, depending on how one looks at it. The media obviously believes the latter, neatly exhibited by Salman Masood’s article in the Express Tribune, asking the General not to return:

"There is hardly any political space for Musharraf. Any form of a comeback in such a treacherous and inhospitable landscape would be no less than a miracle…And time is not on the general’s side either. He already seems like a relic of the past."

Masood and the rest of Pakistan’s media have a point about Musharraf’s alleged sins. Most of them are indefensible. In most civilized societies such sins would merit punishment of the highest order. But Pakistan is not one of those societies, for two reasons.

One, the transient nature of public opinion. This is a country that celebrated Nawaz Sharif’s exile by dancing and distributing sweets, and then welcomed him back 8 years later with, you guessed it, dancing and by distributing sweets.

Second, unaccountability and lawlessness, especially for the elite. This results in a history of unconceivable political developments. For evidence look no further than the occupant of the country's highest office. I speak for a 160 million people, when I say that Zardari's Presidency was unfathomable even in our wildest dreams.

This is not to discount the gargantuan challenge Musharraf will face. It will still require the most outlandish of political efforts. A revengeful judiciary, a besieged political class and an increasingly dangerous terrorist network will gun for his head. There will be lawsuits, security threats and a barrage of criticism from the television networks.

Such a fractious environment will test the strongest of mettles. Impossible though, this task is not. Broadly speaking, it comes down to four factors swinging in his favor. In them lie his hopes of averting trial for treason, convincing a skeptical public of his sincerity and wading the treacherous political waters.

  1. The Army. The keys to Musharraf’s past, present and future lie at the GHQ. His aforementioned lack of public support makes this even more pertinent. Under General Kayani, the Army has strayed clear of the political arena. But that is Kayani’s policy and he will retire sooner rather than later. History suggests that the Army’s political policies shift with its chiefs, which is what Musharraf will be counting on. He may even have an interest in the current race to be COAS. Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, third in line, was his former spy chief and close confidante.
  2. Saudi Arabia. Since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan hasn’t had a single leader who did not rely on either the US and/or Saudi Arabia for power. The legacy of his proximity with George Bush will make any association with the US poisonous. That is where the Saudis come in. Musharraf is said to have already courted their support, cultivating a close relationship with the royal family. This was exhibited by a very public show of supportduring a time when there were calls for his trial in Pakistan last year. A foreign backer of the Saudis caliber will strengthen his credentials both inside and outside the country.
  3. The PMLQ. It may be maligned and unpopular, but it is still the second largest party in the Punjab, and the only plausible alternative to the Sharifs. National politics in Pakistan starts and ends in the Punjab. For any semblance of political relevance, Musharraf will need a strong presence in the province. He will be encouraged by a flurry of meetings with many of the party’s legislators, but the kingmakers remain the Chaudhries of Gujrat. Despite their problems, they remain a potent political force, and can provide Musharraf with the resources and acumen to succeed.
  4. The media. It is ironic that the media loathes the man who was responsible for its independence. By his own admission, Musharraf discounted their influence during the lawyers’ movement and his demise. It is hence imperative to win them over. Here, there is a precedent. In 1998, the Nawaz Sharif government launched a censorship and financial attack on the Jang Group, owners of Geo TV, to curb their persistent criticism of his corruption and mis-governance. However, a decade later, they not only embraced his political agenda, but contributed to his elevation to the zenith of the country’s politics. Sharif’s spin masters and undoubtedly his billions had much to do with this. Musharraf would do well to take note.

Even if he recruits all the above, Musharraf would face a formidable opponent. He will also be standing against history, which has proven that no military ruler has ever returned to power in any manner, let alone as a shalwar-kurta dressed politician. But it is in this same history, specifically its idiosyncrasies, lies his best hope. The verdict on the Musharraf comeback? Improbable yes, impossible no.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Karzai and Pakistan

Few leaders face the sort of ire in Islamabad as Hamid Karzai does. The Afghan President routinely blames Pakistan for his country’s violence. The Pakistanis see this as a case of self-acquittal and label him America’s, and more damagingly, India’s stooge. Matters reached a new low in 2008 when Karzai accused Pakistan of orchestrating an assassination attempt against him.

Which makes the recent air of conciliation between the two sides all the more puzzling. According to a report published in the Guardian yesterday:
"President Hamid Karzai has lost faith in the US strategy in Afghanistan and is increasingly looking to Pakistan to end the insurgency, according to those close to Afghanistan's former head of intelligence services."
The analysis is derived from the recent resignations of Afghanistan’s two security chiefs - Amrullah Saleh, the director of intelligence, and Hanif Atmar, the interior minister. Both men were perceived to be close to the United States. The official reasoning for the resignation was their failure to protect the recently concluded peace jirga from a brazen attack by Taliban insurgents. Most analysts however see the departures as part of the complex calculus to decide Afghanistan's future; where the US looks increasingly set to quit, leaving the door open for regional players like Pakistan, Iran and India to negotiate a future setup that preserves their interest. According to Washington Post editor David Ignatius:
“Saleh, the intelligence chief, is a particular antagonist of Pakistan’s feared Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, known as the ISI. “He is hated by ISI,” says one official bluntly. Some ISI officials regard Saleh as an Indian agent, though they present no evidence to support that claim.
The groundwork for Saleh's departure it appears came during a crucial moot last week. Ignatius continues:
"A final factor bolstering the idea that Karzai is tilting toward Islamabad is the recent visit to Kabul by General Pervez Kiyani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army, accompanied by Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of ISI. They are said to have met with Karzai in late May, after the Afghan president’s visit to Washington but before the June 2 opening of the jirga."
The resignations hence point towards a broader, unofficial agreement between Karzai and Pakistan. Elizabeth Rubin at Foreign Policy speculates at the details of the pact:
"The Pakistani's second condition (following the closure of the Indian consulates) was the removal of Amrullah Saleh as Intel Chief (whom they saw as anti-Pakistani)"
If true, this can be recognized as a major strategic coup for Pakistan. It is common knowledge that it holds two of the key assets in the Afghan war endgame: Mullah Omar’s faction of the Taliban, and Sirajuddin Haqqani’s network in Eastern Afghanistan. The addition of Karzai to this camp represents a near monopoly over Afghan political-militant factions. While the US retains the dominant voice in any future settlement, it puts Pakistan in a position of strength against its regional rivals.

How Pakistan leverages this coup to institute peace once NATO forces depart, remains to be seen. In theory it would rise as a statesman and broker an agreement between the sides. In reality this would be near impossible. These factions have been in battle for a good two decades, and the concept of settling such a feud has no precedent in Afghanistan’s history. Complicating matters will the US, which is mistrusted by all the groups, and which will have its own vision of the country's future.

Ultimately, the Karzai agreement will be a test of the maturity of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The last time it found itself in this position, Pakistan ended up creating the Taliban. It was a mistake that still haunts the country.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I Suck at Predictions but..

This is what I think/hope will happen!

Why Argentina? Because they can do this..

..and while this might be a bit of a problem..

..when you've got something like this on the field.. can fancy your chances!

Update: If the Argentines had any more incentive to win:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Making Sense of Turkey's Anger

Of all the geopolitical repercussions from the Flotilla Massacre, I think the stance taken by Turkey is the most compelling to look at. This is partly because the Turks have always been well-versed in the art of diplomacy, avoiding hostility at every turn. Of late, they even buried their long standing enmity with the Armenians, a rivalry that makes India-Pakistan look like a schoolyard tussle. Which is why the anger over the Flotilla is particularly surprising. The American press has clearly been caught off guard, as this perplexing New York Times editorial suggests. It is important however to look at this from a wider lens, because I feel Turkey’s stance is likely to have far-reaching implications on the region and its politics.

Historically, the country has subscribed to American foreign policy - opposing the Soviet Union during the Cold War, supporting George W. Bush's War on Terror, establishing a civil-military relationship with Israel and refusing to support Iran's nuclear ambitions. This was in line with its secular founder’s desire to be a part of the West, further manifested by its conscious distance from the Muslim world and courtship of the European Union.

That history seems to have turned, and in intriguing manner that. It is not the anger that Turkey displayed at Israel in the post-Flotilla era, but the nature and intensity that is significant. Among the things Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated include accusing Israel of “state murder”, warning it of “unspecified consequences” if the blockade of Gaza is not ended, and describing Hamas as "a resisting group struggling for its own land". President Abdullah Gul went even further saying, “Turkey will never forgive this attack.” These are strong statements, and they follow a chain of words that began last year when Erdogan stormed out of a World Economic Forum debate describing Israel's Gaza offensive as "crimes against humanity”.

These tensions come on the back of moves by Turkey to assert itself in the Muslim world. It has engaged with Syria, a country isolated on the international front. It has worked to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan to the negotiating table. Most importantly it has thwarted the West’s assault on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, opposing sanctions and the military option using its position on the Security Council and ties with Tehran.

Several analysts have described this shift a result of the futility of Turkey’s EU ambitions and its realization that the Middle East better serves its economic aspirations. But this theoretical explanation ignores the changing political landscape of the country. After eight years in power, the Islamic minded government appears to have dealt a decisive blow to the previously dominant secular establishment, which encompasses the military, judiciary and media. The arrest of a group of generals accused of plotting a coup earlier this year served as a signature move for this victory. The removal of a major obstacle to its agenda has allowed the government to move ahead with more confidence on the foreign front. By design or fortune, it has assumed the role of the statesman of the Muslim world.

The big question is what this means in the regional context. At least in the Middle East, the days of the US-Turkey partnership are over. On Iran and Palestine, the defining issues of the region, the two countries are rapidly moving apart. This is a blow to the US in particular, because Turkey with its secular outlook and NATO status was as ideal a Muslim ally could be. With Europe appearing wary of adventurism, China and Russia nurturing long standing grudges, the US suddenly finds itself bereft of strong geostrategic allies.

The US’s Muslim allies will feel vulnerable as well. The Turkish admonishment of Israel has earnt it heroic status on the Muslim street. This is unlikely to sit well with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan – all of whom have traded foreign policy independence for American security and economic assistance. Populations in these countries are rabidly anti-American, rivaling in emotion only the reverence their leaders have for Washington. Their people will inevitably cite Turkey as a model for what their state stance should be, further discrediting the government in public. This will prove dangerous when the Afghan war endgame, Gaza imbroglio and the Iran nuclear issue reach their climax, because it might require these countries to choose between domestic and international compulsions.

Turkey’s move is major in both its timing and impact. Whether it serves as a catalyst to a new future remains to be seen.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Channeling our Emotions

Pakistanis are known for getting riled up on a variety of different issues. Burning effigies of everyone from Bob Woolmer to George W. Bush have lit up the night sky. Most recently the masses made it out on to the streets with protests against ‘Draw Muhammad Day’. The cause was undoubtedly spot on, it was a deplorable idea to try and deliberately insult Muslims worldwide. However, the level of intensity of the response is debatable, the country seemed to come to a grinding halt, Youtube and Facebook were banned, and it caused a huge uproar in the media, local and international. So much so that 20 people died in Karachi in yet another mindless attack, but people barely batted an eye-lid on that story. We as a nation have the passion and drive to tackle any issue at hand, we just need to channel our emotions towards better causes.

The Facebook banning is not the only controversy in Pakistan to be centered around depictions of the Holy Prophet. The Danish cartoon fiasco from a couple of years ago also caused a similar raucous in Pakistan. Protestors marched down Mall Road, burning everything from Danish flags to carts left on the side of the road. Shops were trashed, and in one incident witnessed on Geo Television, a young moron had brought a gun to the protest and was firing into the air randomly. The amount of damage done on Mall Road was considerable, and the poor man who relies on his donkey cart for his daily wage was left unemployed. In an already ailing economy, broken windows were the last thing local businesses wanted to deal with.

A similar incident occured this past December during Muharram. At a jalous procession on Ashura a bombing killed about 25 people and injured close to a 100. Instead of fleeing in fear the gathering mob turned violent, torching the city and incurring huge damages. Now again, these people had an axe to grind for a legitimate reason, but they responded in the worst possible manner for themselves and for their country. Not only did they put their own lives at risk by going on the rampage, the mob also severely damaged local shops, damages that might have put people out of business and out of work.

Something must be noted here though. It took great courage for Shi’ias to congregate this past Muharram. The Taliban have been more active than ever and Shi’ias have been a constant target for such fundamentalists over the years. It took a different type of courage to stay out on the streets after the bombings occurred, but it was the overwhelming anger of the mob that became the story. The potential to respond in the right was there, Shi’ias were not deterred from going out on the streets. Therefore already one of the objectives of these fundamentalists has failed. However, the ensuing chaos is exactly what the suicide bombers wanted. In retrospect, if the crowd had stayed out on the streets and continued to honor one of the great sacrifices in Islamic history, that would have been a much better way of nullifying the aims of the Taliban.

There are many more cases of public displays of outrage that started because of a legitimate reason but ended up nasty (Inzy’s house getting shattered after the 2003 World Cup is another good example). These poor choices of judgment overshadow the instances when peaceful public protests are carried out in the right spirit. A great example of this comes from one of the most controversial circumstances in all of Pakistan’s history. The Lal Masjid fiasco is said to have been the root of many of Pakistan’s current problems. Back when the fundos had complete control over the mosque and the army was scratching its head looking for solutions, MQM arranged a rally against the Lal Masjid clerics. The streets of Karachi were filled with thousands of people who had peacefully come out to protest against the Lal Masjid mentality, saying that it was a disgrace. Another good example is the long march that lawyers organized to reinstate a free judiciary finally did work.

When a country is faced with a crippling economic situation coupled with the worst security threat in its history, emotions will run high and tempers will flare. These emotions can be our biggest strength as a nation, they just need to be harnessed in the right way and in the right manner. Peaceful public protests are our right as a democracy, but the issues we protest need to be given more thought. Protesting against ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ as stated before is a just cause, but the time and effort being put into protesting against a company based halfway across the world to get them to shut down one group is pretty high. With the same time and effort, people could be out on the streets protesting against the violation of human rights that the Taliban has been carrying out ever since its occupation in Pakistan. What we need to be doing is making it clear that attacking people in mosques and hospitals is not only unimaginably inhumane, it will not be tolerated. With a little bit of redirection, we could take a huge step forward.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Umair: Introduction

I grew up as a voracious reader, but never a writer. This was because of a lack of confidence and ability. The former because I never thought I would be as good as those I read, and the latter because, well, I was never really a good writer. The University of Michigan changed both those things. Somewhere along the 60-odd papers I wrote in 3 years, I acquired the coherence to articulate my opinions. The Blue Rickshaw is hence a fitting tribute to those years, a tangible product of an outstanding education. As a Pakistani it will be impossible to not talk about the myriad of issues afflicting the country, but in a personal capacity I would want to talk about more. If my reading sources are any indication, it would make an eclectic series of posts for sure.

Finally, a bit about my favorite rickshaw memory. One not-so-fine morning, back in junior school, my school van decided not to pick me up. Both my cars were in use, and hence I found myself facing the prospect of going to school in a noisy rickshaw. It didn’t help that I went to an elite school in Karachi, where kids couldn’t fathom travel in anything other than a luxury sedan. So I arrived in front of the school gate, red faced and stumbling, facing a bunch of wide-eyed kids who looked at me as if I were an alien. Silly as it may sound, it was one of the more embarrassing moments of my childhood. Back then I thought ‘why did this happen to me’ today I know why it did.

Emad: Introduction

Rickshaws — blue ones at first, before the CNG-fitted green variety took over — have been central to my experience. From bunks to clandestine meetings, khwaari to emergencies, from Lakshmi Chowk to Walton, Sunderdas Road to Liberty, Defence to Camp Jail, and from Dharampura to the mysterious point beyond the Railway Station where Daewoo buses refuel.

Writing, too, has been important. It would have played an even bigger role if I wasn’t as lazy as I am at beginning a piece. And that, essentially, is my primary motive: if this blog survives a year or two, you may draw conclusions on my resolve. The second motive is this: I’ve been taught for 3 years to think in policy terms — to think solutions but also useless albeit engaging banter disguised as diplomacy. It would be a shame to forget it all. So maybe this blog will provide practice.

As for The Blue Rickshaw, in which the three of us sit quite comfortably, it will always be the truest, most appropriate vehicle for Pakistan. Dirty, unsanitized, polluting and infuriating. But also colourful, raucous and never, ever dull. Seats three but was always secretly meant for an uncomfortable family of six. And with a motto, emblazoned in bright colours on the back, which slyly slips politics into humour — an inside joke that confounds the world.

Who knows what our collective ideology will be? The ramblings of three Pakistanis, when combined, may turn out to be surprisingly useful. I hope.

Watch this space.

Shazil: Introduction

2004 was a great time to be in Pakistan. The Indian cricket team was in Pakistan for the first time that decade in what turned out to be an epic encounter. Indians had made it across the border in masses, especially for the Lahore ODI signifying the improving relations between the two countries that were at an all time high. I remember that game vividly, I went with my cousin and we sat next to a lovely Indian couple. They were having such a great time in the country that they regretted not bringing their daughter, whom they had left behind worrying about the treatment of women in Pakistan, stories which they said were way off the mark. Imran Khan was also at the game, but had refused an invitation to the executive box because of the potential presence of President General Musharraf. At the time Imran Khan’s decision to enjoy the spectacle from the stands was about the extent of opposition to the country’s premier, and vicious politics from all sides seemed to be on the back burner, for the moment. Cricket wasn’t the only thing going right for the country; the Karachi Stock Exchange was amongst the fastest growing stock exchanges in the world, reflecting the healthy shape of the economy. The War on Afghanistan has helped Pakistan’s cause a great deal, the sanctions placed because of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions were lifted and there was a steadily increasing inflow of foreign aid. My uncle chose a great time to get married. For his wedding had people coming in over the world to join in on the happiness.

Fast forward 6 years and the same people wouldn’t come to any wedding if you bought their tickets for them. Pakistan is still in the news, now more so than ever, but for all the wrong reasons. The recent bombing at the Ahmadi mosque in Lahore is just one of about a gazillion things that have gone wrong. The point of this article however, or indeed this blog, is not to dwell on the negative. Skepticism continues to be the main theme of so many prominent journalists in Pakistan. Though we will deal with all issues in Pakistan, it will be done without trying to be skeptical about the future, we are just three guys trying to change Pakistan and the world for the better.

‘The Blue Rickshaw’ was created by the three of us so that we could write about what interests us, and our views and opinions on different matters. Politics will be a common theme of discussion on this blog, but it will not be the only thing. The adventures of the cricket team will be well documented, as will life in Ann Arbor. The title of the blog allows us to link to both Pakistan and our beloved college, Michigan. The colors of the university are maize and blue, with ‘Go Blue’ being the trademark chant for all sports teams here. Rickshaws of course are the standard form of transport across Pakistan, and no matter what automobile you get to ride in, nothing beats the thrill of that first ride in a rickshaw. I must admit Emad came up with the name and full marks to him for it. The name really struck a chord with me though, and for more than the reasons mentioned above. One of my favorite memories from boarding school was getting permission to go out and get dinner outside of the confines of campus. There were six of us from my class at that time, and we were standing on Mall Road in Lahore desperately searching for a rickshaw to get to a restaurant. Finally we found one, but since at the time they were so hard to come by all six of us crammed into that rickshaw. It was the start of an epic night, but that memory also reminds me one of my best friends from boarding school who was a part of that great rickshaw ride. He was recently martyred in a terrorist attack, and now that memory is mixed with the harsh realization of the real issues that our country is facing on a day to day basis.