benazir’s assassination – william dalrymple and tariq ali’s excellent articles

Pakistan’s flawed and feudal princess
It’s wrong for the West simply to mourn Benazir Bhutto as a martyred democrat, says this acclaimed south Asia expert. Her legacy is far murkier and more complex
William Dalrymple
Sunday December 30, 2007, The Observer

One of Benazir Bhutto’s more dubious legacies to Pakistan is the Prime Minister’s house in the middle of Islamabad. The building is a giddy, pseudo-Mexican ranch house with white walls and a red tile roof. There is nothing remotely Islamic about the building which, as my minder said when I went there to interview the then Prime Minister Bhutto, was ‘PM’s own design’. Inside, it was the same story. Crystal chandeliers dangled sometimes two or three to a room; oils of sunflowers and tumbling kittens that would have looked at home on the Hyde Park railings hung below garishly gilt cornices.

The place felt as though it might be the weekend retreat of a particularly flamboyant Latin-American industrialist, but, in fact, it could have been anywhere. Had you been shown pictures of the place on one of those TV game-shows where you are taken around a house and then have to guess who lives there, you may have awarded this hacienda to virtually anyone except, perhaps, to the Prime Minister of an impoverished Islamic republic situated next door to Iran.
Which is, of course, exactly why the West always had a soft spot for Benazir Bhutto. Her neighbouring heads of state may have been figures as unpredictable and potentially alarming as President Ahmadinejad of Iran and a clutch of opium-trading Afghan warlords, but Bhutto has always seemed reassuringly familiar to Western governments – one of us. She spoke English fluently because it was her first language. She had an English governess, went to a convent run by Irish nuns and rounded off her education with degrees from Harvard and Oxford.

‘London is like a second home for me,’ she once told me. ‘I know London well. I know where the theatres are, I know where the shops are, I know where the hairdressers are. I love to browse through Harrods and WH Smith in Sloane Square. I know all my favourite ice cream parlours. I used to particularly love going to the one at Marble Arch: Baskin Robbins. Sometimes, I used to drive all the way up from Oxford just for an ice cream and then drive back again. That was my idea of sin.’
It was difficult to imagine any of her neighbouring heads of state, even India’s earnest Sikh economist, Manmohan Singh, talking like this.
For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto wasn’t was possibly more attractive even than what she was. She wasn’t a religious fundamentalist, she didn’t have a beard, she didn’t organise rallies where everyone shouts: ‘Death to America’ and she didn’t issue fatwas against Booker-winning authors, even though Salman Rushdie ridiculed her as the Virgin Ironpants in his novel Shame.

However, the very reasons that made the West love Benazir Bhutto are the same that gave many Pakistanis second thoughts. Her English might have been fluent, but you couldn’t say the same about her Urdu which she spoke like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently, but ungrammatically. Her Sindhi was even worse; apart from a few imperatives, she was completely at sea.

English friends who knew Benazir at Oxford remember a bubbly babe who drove to lectures in a yellow MG, wintered in Gstaad and who to used to talk of the thrill of walking through Cannes with her hunky younger brother and being ‘the centre of envy; wherever Shahnawaz went, women would be bowled over’.

This Benazir, known to her friends as Bibi or Pinky, adored royal biographies and slushy romances: in her old Karachi bedroom, I found stacks of well-thumbed Mills and Boons including An Affair to Forget, Sweet Imposter and two copies of The Butterfly and the Baron. This same Benazir also had a weakness for dodgy Seventies easy listening – ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ was apparently at the top of her playlist. This is also the Benazir who had an enviable line in red-rimmed fashion specs and who went weak at the sight of marrons glace.

But there was something much more majestic, even imperial, about the Benazir I met when she was Prime Minister. She walked and talked in a deliberately measured and regal manner and frequently used the royal ‘we’. At my interview, she took a full three minutes to float down the 100 yards of lawns separating the Prime Minister’s house from the chairs where I had been told to wait for her. There followed an interlude when Benazir found the sun was not shining in quite the way she wanted it to. ‘The sun is in the wrong direction,’ she announced. Her hair was arranged in a sort of baroque beehive topped by a white gauze dupatta. The whole painted vision reminded me of one of those aristocratic Roman princesses in Caligula.

This Benazir was a very different figure from that remembered by her Oxford contemporaries. This one was renowned throughout Islamabad for chairing 12-hour cabinet meetings and for surviving on four hours’ sleep. This was the Benazir who continued campaigning after the suicide bomber attacked her convoy the very day of her return to Pakistan in October, and who blithely disregarded the mortal threat to her life in order to continue fighting. This other Benazir Bhutto, in other words, was fearless, sometimes heroically so, and as hard as nails.

More than anything, perhaps, Benazir was a feudal princess with the aristocratic sense of entitlement that came with owning great tracts of the country and the Western-leaning tastes that such a background tends to give. It was this that gave her the sophisticated gloss and the feudal grit that distinguished her political style. In this, she was typical of many Pakistani politicians. Real democracy has never thrived in Pakistan, in part because landowning remains the principle social base from which politicians emerge.

The educated middle class is in Pakistan still largely excluded from the political process. As a result, in many of the more backward parts of Pakistan, the feudal landowner expects his people to vote for his chosen candidate. As writer Ahmed Rashid put it: ‘In some constituencies, if the feudals put up their dog as a candidate, that dog would get elected with 99 per cent of the vote.’

Today, Benazir is being hailed as a martyr for freedom and democracy, but far from being a natural democrat, in many ways, Benazir was the person who brought Pakistan’s strange variety of democracy, really a form of ‘elective feudalism’, into disrepute and who helped fuel the current, apparently unstoppable, growth of the Islamists. For Bhutto was no Aung San Suu Kyi. During her first 20-month premiership, astonishingly, she failed to pass a single piece of major legislation. Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world’s worst records of custodial deaths, killings and torture.

Within her party, she declared herself the lifetime president of the PPP and refused to let her brother Murtaza challenge her. When he persisted in doing so, he ended up shot dead in highly suspicious circumstances outside the family home. Murtaza’s wife Ghinwa and his daughter Fatima, as well as Benazir’s mother, all firmly believed that Benazir gave the order to have him killed.

As recently as the autumn, Benazir did and said nothing to stop President Musharraf ordering the US and UK-brokered ‘rendition’ of her rival, Nawaz Sharif, to Saudi Arabia and so remove from the election her most formidable rival. Many of her supporters regarded her deal with Musharraf as a betrayal of all her party stood for.
Behind Pakistan’s endless swings between military government and democracy lies a surprising continuity of elitist interests: to some extent, Pakistan’s industrial, military and landowning classes are all interrelated and they look after each other. They do not, however, do much to look after the poor. The government education system barely functions in Pakistan and for the poor, justice is almost impossible to come by. According to political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa: ‘Both the military and the political parties have all failed to create an environment where the poor can get what they need from the state. So the poor have begun to look to alternatives for justice. In the long term, flaws in the system will create more room for the fundamentalists.’

In the West, many right-wing commentators on the Islamic world tend to see the march of political Islam as the triumph of an anti-liberal and irrational ‘Islamo-fascism’. Yet much of the success of the Islamists in countries such as Pakistan comes from the Islamists’ ability to portray themselves as champions of social justice, fighting people such as Benazir Bhutto from the Islamic elite that rules most of the Muslim world from Karachi to Beirut, Ramallah and Cairo.

This elite the Islamists successfully depict as rich, corrupt, decadent and Westernised. Benazir had a reputation for massive corruption. During her government, the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International named Pakistan one of the three most corrupt countries in the world.

Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari, widely known as ‘Mr 10 Per Cent’, faced allegations of plundering the country. Charges were filed in Pakistan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States to investigate their various bank accounts.

When I interviewed Abdul Rashid Ghazi in the Islamabad Red Mosque shortly before his death in the storming of the complex in July, he kept returning to the issue of social justice: ‘We want our rulers to be honest people,’ he said. ‘But now the rulers are living a life of luxury while thousands of innocent children have empty stomachs and can’t even get basic necessities.’ This is the reason for the rise of the Islamists in Pakistan and why so many people support them: they are the only force capable of taking on the country’s landowners and their military cousins.

This is why in all recent elections, the Islamist parties have hugely increased their share of the vote, why they now already control both the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan and why it is they who are most likely to gain from the current crisis.

Benazir Bhutto was a courageous, secular and liberal woman. But sadness at the demise of this courageous fighter should not mask the fact that as a pro-Western feudal leader who did little for the poor, she was as much a central part of Pakistan’s problems as the solution to them.

William Dalrymple’s latest book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, published by Bloomsbury, recently won the Duff Cooper Prize for History

My heart bleeds for Pakistan. It deserves better than this grotesque feudal charade

By Tariq Ali, Pakistan-born writer, broadcaster and commentator
31 December 2007, The Independent

Six hours before she was executed, Mary, Queen of Scots wrote to her brother-in-law, Henry III of France: “…As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him.” The year was 1587.

On 30 December 2007, a conclave of feudal potentates gathered in the home of the slain Benazir Bhutto to hear her last will and testament being read out and its contents subsequently announced to the world media. Where Mary was tentative, her modern-day equivalent left no room for doubt. She could certainly answer for her son.

A triumvirate consisting of her husband, Asif Zardari (one of the most venal and discredited politicians in the country and still facing corruption charges in three European courts) and two ciphers will run the party till Benazir’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal, comes of age. He will then become chairperson-for-life and, no doubt, pass it on to his children. The fact that this is now official does not make it any less grotesque. The Pakistan People’s Party is being treated as a family heirloom, a property to be disposed of at the will of its leader.

Nothing more, nothing less. Poor Pakistan. Poor People’s Party supporters. Both deserve better than this disgusting, medieval charade.
Benazir’s last decision was in the same autocratic mode as its predecessors, an approach that would cost her – tragically – her own life. Had she heeded the advice of some party leaders and not agreed to the Washington-brokered deal with Pervez Musharraf or, even later, decided to boycott his parliamentary election she might still have been alive. Her last gift to the country does not augur well for its future.

How can Western-backed politicians be taken seriously if they treat their party as a fiefdom and their supporters as serfs, while their courtiers abroad mouth sycophantic niceties concerning the young prince and his future.

That most of the PPP inner circle consists of spineless timeservers leading frustrated and melancholy lives is no excuse. All this could be transformed if inner-party democracy was implemented. There is a tiny layer of incorruptible and principled politicians inside the party, but they have been sidelined. Dynastic politics is a sign of weakness, not strength. Benazir was fond of comparing her family to the Kennedys, but chose to ignore that the Democratic Party, despite an addiction to big money, was not the instrument of any one family.

The issue of democracy is enormously important in a country that has been governed by the military for over half of its life. Pakistan is not a “failed state” in the sense of the Congo or Rwanda. It is a dysfunctional state and has been in this situation for almost four decades.

At the heart of this dysfunctionality is the domination by the army and each period of military rule has made things worse. It is this that has prevented political stability and the emergence of stable institutions. Here the US bears direct responsibility, since it has always regarded the military as the only institution it can do business with and, unfortunately, still does so. This is the rock that has focused choppy waters into a headlong torrent.

The military’s weaknesses are well known and have been amply documented. But the politicians are not in a position to cast stones. After all, Mr Musharraf did not pioneer the assault on the judiciary so conveniently overlooked by the US Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, and the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. The first attack on the Supreme Court was mounted by Nawaz Sharif’s goons who physically assaulted judges because they were angered by a decision that ran counter to their master’s interests when he was prime minister.

Some of us had hoped that, with her death, the People’s Party might start a new chapter. After all, one of its main leaders, Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Bar Association, played a heroic role in the popular movement against the dismissal of the chief justice. Mr Ahsan was arrested during the emergency and kept in solitary confinement. He is still under house arrest in Lahore. Had Benazir been capable of thinking beyond family and faction she should have appointed him chairperson pending elections within the party. No such luck.

The result almost certainly will be a split in the party sooner rather than later. Mr Zardari was loathed by many activists and held responsible for his wife’s downfall. Once emotions have subsided, the horror of the succession will hit the many traditional PPP followers except for its most reactionary segment: bandwagon careerists desperate to make a fortune.

All this could have been avoided, but the deadly angel who guided her when she was alive was, alas, not too concerned with democracy. And now he is in effect leader of the party.

Meanwhile there is a country in crisis. Having succeeded in saving his own political skin by imposing a state of emergency, Mr Musharraf still lacks legitimacy. Even a rigged election is no longer possible on 8 January despite the stern admonitions of President George Bush and his unconvincing Downing Street adjutant. What is clear is that the official consensus on who killed Benazir is breaking down, except on BBC television. It has now been made public that, when Benazir asked the US for a Karzai-style phalanx of privately contracted former US Marine bodyguards, the suggestion was contemptuously rejected by the Pakistan government, which saw it as a breach of sovereignty.

Now both Hillary Clinton and Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are pinning the convict’s badge on Mr Musharraf and not al-Qa’ida for the murder, a sure sign that sections of the US establishment are thinking of dumping the President.

Their problem is that, with Benazir dead, the only other alternative for them is General Ashraf Kiyani, head of the army. Nawaz Sharif is seen as a Saudi poodle and hence unreliable, though, given the US-Saudi alliance, poor Mr Sharif is puzzled as to why this should be the case. For his part, he is ready to do Washiongton’s bidding but would prefer the Saudi King rather than Mr Musharraf to be the imperial message-boy.

A solution to the crisis is available. This would require Mr Musharraf’s replacement by a less contentious figure, an all-party government of unity to prepare the basis for genuine elections within six months, and the reinstatement of the sacked Supreme Court judges to investigate Benazir’s murder without fear or favour. It would be a start.

benazir bhuttothe bhutto dynasty

another response to hirsi ali

here’s a good response to hirsi ali, by jill, on her blog “feministe”:

Where are all the moderate Muslims?
Posted by Jill @ 10:31 am

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an op/ed up in the Times about “Islam’s silent moderates,” arguing that if Islam is really a religion of goodness then moderates should be pushing that vision, and simultaneously insisting that Islam can’t be a good religion and so there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. I have a lot of respect for Hirsi Ali — she’s a smart, brave woman, and she certainly has valid personal reasons for disliking Islam. But what bothers me about this op/ed, and other op/eds like it, is that the argument is circular and unfair, and it holds Islam and Muslims to a standard that other mainstream religious groups are exempt from. For example, she starts the op/ed out with this passage from the Quran:

The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with 100 stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. (Koran 24:2)

and eventually uses it to make the point that:

If moderate Muslims believe there should be no compassion shown to the girl from Qatif, then what exactly makes them so moderate?

Selecting one section from a centuries-old religious text and then drawing the conclusion that most followers of that religion follow that text to the word is ridiculous. There are certainly a lot of religious people who do claim to follow the exact word of their religious text, but they’re usually either lying or ignorant. Religion may be the province of God, but how we live religion every day is entirely man-made. Men recorded the word of God onto paper. Even way back then, human beings selected which sections of religious law they wanted to live by; today, we still pick and choose. Notions of human rights and justice have evolved, and along with it, so has our religious understanding. To claim that every single passage in the Quran or the Bible is somehow “proof” of its moderate followers’ mindset is incredibly dishonest. You’d be better suited to see which passages the followers pick and choose themselves — that’s a whole lot more telling. And I guarantee that just as Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee would pick very different Bible verses than I would to explain my faith, Muslim extremists would pick very different Quranic verses than your average, moderate Muslim person.

Hirsi Ali focuses on the horrendous rape punishment leveled at “the Qatif girl” in Saudi Arabia to make the point that moderate Muslims aren’t actually moderate. She writes:

It is often said that Islam has been “hijacked” by a small extremist group of radical fundamentalists. The vast majority of Muslims are said to be moderates.

But where are the moderates? Where are the Muslim voices raised over the terrible injustice of incidents like these? How many Muslims are willing to stand up and say, in the case of the girl from Qatif, that this manner of justice is appalling, brutal and bigoted — and that no matter who said it was the right thing to do, and how long ago it was said, this should no longer be done?

She comes to the conclusion that Muslims are silent about this. Which is kind of a funny conclusion — who does she think raised the issue in the first place? The New York Times?

The girl’s lawyer is a Saudi Muslim. She has been helped by human rights activists across the Middle East. Her story was promoted by Arab journalists. The case has outraged people around the world, including in Saudi Arabia. If moderate Muslims were actually silent, we would have never heard about this case to begin with.

I’m in the middle of finals and so I don’t have time to do an extensive research project on this either, but here’s what a quick google search turned up:

Ruling Jolts Even Saudis: 200 Lashes for Rape Victim
Arab View — Rape: Who Gets Punished And Who Does Not?
Saudi Jeans blog — The Qatif Girl, Again and Justice and Common Sense
Saudi Gazette – The Agony of Qatif Girl
Progressive Muslima News
Arab News: How Culture is Defined in a Global World
Hafeez Anwar’s Website: Lashing Out at the Media Over the Qatif Girl Case
Khaleej Times Online: Saudi Women Furious at Gang-Rape Ruling
Arab News: Violence Against Women is Still a Problem

That just took me all of 10 minutes. And there are dozens of articles and blog posts that I’ve read this week — including posts from very conservative Muslim writers who often make me want to throw something — that have all expressed disgust and outrage over this verdict. Further, the verdict has started a conversation about reforming the Saudi justice system — and the conversation is happening within Saudi Arabia.

There are a whole lot of problems with the way religion is exercised and carried out on all levels. But it’s the most dangerous when people in power use it to uphold their bigotries and to keep themselves at the top of the food chain. That’s what’s happening here — and moderate people of faith are speaking out against it, and against that power structure. This is not a phenomenon that’s inherent to Islam.

Finally, if we actually want moderate Muslims to feel safe speaking out, we have to can the “Islam is horrible” line. Because the more we say that things like female genital surgeries or punishing rape victims are Islam, the more that violent vision of Islam becomes emboldened and strengthened, and the more difficult it becomes for Muslim people to argue, “Wait a minute, that isn’t Islam as I’ve lived it.” And it’s really not the responsibility of Muslim people to be on the constant defensive in the first place — criticize the radicals, but don’t pin their actions on the millions of people who are horrified by them. And certainly don’t draw hasty conclusions about who is and isn’t speaking out when you haven’t even bothered to listen.

after i read hirsi ali’s article i looked her up on the web. it’s useful to see where a commentator is coming from. what i found is that she is not qualified to make an objective argument about islam and muslims because in her own words “islam is bad” – she is not looking for the truth but propagandizing her own views for the benefit of the ultra-conservative american right – let’s not forget that she lied on her citizenship application in the netherlands and was on the verge of being kicked out of that country when she was given refuge (and a lucrative paycheck) by the right-wing american enterprise institute. 

islam’s silent moderates – if you repeat it often enough…

hitler’s chief propagandist joseph goebbels was a firm believer in the “big lie”. he understood that if you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. and so it goes with the relentless accusations levelled at moderate muslims. to tell you the truth, i’m sick of the label. by identifying ourselves as moderate muslims we fall into the trap of defining ourselves in language designed to reduce us to a stereotype. yet, here i am, a muslim in america, and therefore under constant pressure to explain myself. not only that but i am also accountable for the actions of more than a billion muslims in countries as diverse as saudi arabia, bangladesh and sudan.

a friend of mine sent me an article by ayan hirsi ali, imaginatively titled “islam’s silent moderates” in which she holds the moderates responsible for human rights abuses committed by the saudi, bangladeshi and sudanese governments.

here is what i think of all three cases.

as far as the saudi government, human rights abuses there have very little to do with islam and everything to do with the fact that the country is controlled by a single family, the sauds, who keep a tight lid on dissent by using religion to repress and restrain. i have very little tolerance for the saudi government and am more than happy to condemn the many human rights abuses that occur in that country. it is one country in the world where i would flatly refuse to live. even though saudi arabia is the birth place of islam, it is anything but islamic. there is no concept of hereditary rule in islam and saudi arabia (the “arabia of the sauds”) fails that basic test. however, my condemnation, and that of other muslims, cannot be as effective in dissuading the saudis from committing crimes against their own citizens as a few harsh words from the american government (the self-proclaimed policeman of the world). interestingly enough, saudi arabia remains america’s biggest muslim ally in the world – the saudi dictators being best friends with their american counterparts, the bushes. being a pakistani-american muslim, i think that the part of my identity that is most sickened by saudi arabia’s human rights trespasses is the reality that my country openly supports such an illegitimate and brutal government.

as far as the gillian gibbons case, hirsi ali jumped the gun. her op-ed piece was published on december 7, 2007, when gillian gibbons had already been free for 4 days. i won’t get into the ny times sloppy fact checking – that’s a whole other story! what makes hirsi ali’s damning of the moderates even more ironic is that gibbons’s release was secured by moderate muslims. lord ahmed and baroness warsi of the house of lords, successfully lobbied the sudanese government and obtained her early release. check out the story.

apparently british foreign secretary david miliband tried to halt the mission but lord ahmed and baroness warsi defied the foreign office and flew to sudan at their own expense to win gibbons’ release. the foreign office warned them they were doing so at their own risk and that the british government would not bail them out if things went awry.

but can we expect to see an oped piece in the ny times based on this turn of events – a story that turns hirsi ali’s argument on its head? somehow i’m not holding my breath.

hirsi ali’s final accusation against muslims involves taslima nasreen, whom i frankly don’t know much about. it seems that she is being threatened and her freedom of speech is being curbed. i am against any kind of intimidation, from any quarter, which means to control free thought and free speech. what i don’t understand is why should these human rights abuses be more important to me than what is happening in my own country (like the orwellian home-grown terrorism prevention act which makes it convenient to define any form of dissent as a means to incite violence and therefore punishable by law – i posted the details of the act on 12/2/07).

as luck would have it i was browsing through the amnesty international web site a day before i was sent hirsi ali’s article. i am an amnesty international partner of conscience and support their efforts to protect human rights all over the world. the first case hirsi ali talks about was a major story on amnesty’s web site. but there are other stories hirsi ali’s skipped over. many of them involve the u.s. government (destruction of cia interrogation tapes, salim hamdan before a military commission for a second time, guantanamo, lethal injection, illegal detention). in fact, of all the countries cited for human rights infringements on AI’s news/reports page, the united states is mentioned with the most regularity.

definition of propaganda from wikipedia: propaganda presents facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis, or gives loaded messages in order to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented.

i see myself as a human rights advocate and feel equally appalled by all human rights violations, everywhere in the world. for me personally, america and pakistan are the two countries i can most relate to and am most concerned with. you have to only read a few posts on my blog to realize that i am not shy about criticizing human rights abuses by either country. through amnesty international i try to be a force for good in the rest of the world. yet why do i have to defend myself – my integrity, my humanity? why can we not ask the same question of other americans for example? do they constantly condemn and apologize for the unprovoked barbarity in iraq? do they perpetually agitate to end guantanamo? do they raise their voices against torture and illegal detentions? do they regularly campaign for and support equal rights for alaskan and native american women? the list goes on. why do we hold the american people innocent of crimes committed by their government when they, unlike most other people in the world, have the privilege of electing their representatives? let’s remember that george w bush was re-elected after iraq! should we not be asking the question: where are the american moderates? six years after 9/11, why haven’t these well-known, well-documented injustices been stopped?

who decides what crimes, against what victims, perpetrated by which governments are more egregious than others?

anti-communism propaganda

women in america, post 9/11

my friend sarita recently made a connection between the aftermath of 9/11 and women’s rights. i had never thought about that. i had never looked at the fallout from 9/11 and parsed it in terms of gender. being a muslim of pakistani descent, the religious and ethnic aspects of it are obvious and obdurately in my face. but what about the effects of this macho, capitalism-preserving, war-loving, world-domination driven culture on women – not the long-suffering, burqa-clad women of afghanistan, but the quietly marginalized women of america? i was still chewing on this new paradigm, when i stumbled upon a susan faludi interview on democracy now!, in which she talks about her new book, “the terror dream”. i found it fascinating.

terrorism – flip side of imperialism?

in his book “the last mughal”, william dalrymple talks about how india went from a london-like, ‘culturally, racially and religiously chutnified’ melting pot where westerners (or so called white mughals) went native and lived in relative racial and religious harmony with local indians during the early days of the east india company, to the arrogance, racism and violence of 19th century raj. he attributes this unfortunate shift to two things:

‘one was the rise of british power: in a few years the british had defeated not only the french, but all their other indian rivals; and, in a manner not unlike the americans after the fall of the berlin wall, the changed balance of power quickly led to undisguised imperial arrogance. no longer was the west prepared to study and learn from the subcontinent; instead, thomas macaulay came to speak for a whole generation of englishmen when he declared that “a single shelf of a good european library was worth the whole native literature of india and arabia”.

the other factor was the ascendancy of evangelical christianity, and the profound change in social, sexual and racial attitudes that this brought about. the wills written by dying east india company servants show that the practice of cohabiting with indian bibis quickly declined: they turn up in one in three wills between 1780 and 1785, but are present in only one in four between 1805 and 1810. by the middle of the century, they have all but disappeared. in half a century, a vibrantly multicultural world refracted back into its component parts; children of mixed race were corralled into what became in effect a new indian caste – the anglo-indians – who were left to run the railways, posts and mines.’

this is how india moved ‘from a huge measure of racial intermixing in the late 18th century to a position of complete racial apartheid by the 1850s’. in his article “the last mughal and a clash of civilizations” (new statesman, october 16, 2006), dalrymple draws a parallel between the forces at work in 19th century british india and those affecting world events today:

‘just like it is today, this process of pulling apart – of failing to talk, listen or trust each other – took place against the background of an increasingly aggressive and self-righteous west, facing ever stiffer islamic resistance to western interference. for, as anyone who has ever studied the story of the rise of the british in india will know well, there is nothing new about the neo-cons. the old game of regime change – of installing puppet regimes, propped up by the west for its own political and economic ends – is one that the british had well mastered by the late 18th century.

by the 1850s, the british had progressed from aggressively removing independent-minded muslim rulers, such as tipu sultan, who refused to bow before the will of the hyperpower, to destabilising and then annexing even the most pliant muslim states. in february 1856, the british unilaterally annexed the prosperous kingdom of avadh (or oudh), using the excuse that the nawab, wajid ali shah, a far-from-belligerent dancer and epicure, was “debauched”.

by this time, other british officials who believed in a “forward” policy of pre-emptive action were nursing plans to abolish (emperor) zafar’s mughal court in delhi, and to impose not just british laws and technology on india, but also british values, in the form of christianity. the missionaries reinforced muslim fears, increasing opposition to british rule and creating a constituency for the rapidly multiplying jihadis. and, in turn, “wahhabi conspiracies” strengthened the conviction of the evangelical christians that a “strong attack” was needed to take on the “muslim fanatics”.’

this became the breeding ground for the great mutiny of 1857 (what we in the sub-continent call the war of independence). the mutiny was disorganized, ruthless and bloody. on september 14, 1857 the british squashed the mutiny and exacted fierce revenge on the local population.

dalrymple continues:

‘today, west and east again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as a religious war. suicide jihadis fight what they see as a defensive action against their christian enemies, and again innocent civilians are slaughtered.

as before, western evangelical christian politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of “incarnate fiends” and simplistically conflate any armed resistance to invasion and occupation with “pure evil”. again, western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved and surprised to be attacked, as they see it, by mindless fanatics.

and yet, as we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalises a people against us, or undermines the moderate aspect of islam, as aggressive western intrusion in the east: the histories of islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. in a curious but very concrete way, the extremists and fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. the venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other.’

last mughal emperor: bahadur shah zafar

peace, propaganda and the promised land

saw this film at the anti-war storefront on monroe avenue, in rochester. being a hyphenated american who moved to the u.s., as an adult, from one of the oldest parts of the world, i was born with a healthy dose of skepticism in my blood. i know that governments lie, that the press can skew reality, that there is such a thing as propaganda. the middle east conflict is a case in point and so is the war in iraq.

“peace, propaganda and the promised land” is an excellent documentary that explains the step by step process of filtering information and using a mammoth PR machine to manipulate public opinion. many cannot accept this so-called mind control, especially when it applies to an open, free market society like ours where the unrestricted flow of information forms the very basis of our economic/political system. this too is a mirage. the only difference between american-style minutely researched, consumer-savvy, impeccably packaged, and innocuously dessiminated propaganda and soviet-style, grainy, no frills attached, in your face, badly executed propaganda (much ridiculed during the cold war), is in production values. ours is simply better quality. like a carefully flavored smoothie it goes down easy and feels good once it’s been ingested.

but i will let you decide for yourself. if you’ve never read noam chomsky, robert fisk or alexander cockburn, this documentary might be a true eye opener for you. i found it on youtube.

the film was introduced by judith bello. read more about the post-screening discussion moderated by judith on her blog under “reviewing the presentation and jenin jenin” (aug 11, 2007). she talks about “an individual in attendance who persistently and emphatically interpreted every assertion back into the standard frame of information, the very frame that the film was designed to discredit”. i attribute that to ignorance but also to the staggering power of language – our thoughts and ideas are constrained by the linguistic and therefore conceptual framework we are given. i was reading “weasel words” by john lahr (new yorker, dec 19, 2005) a review of the harold pinter double bill (including “the room” and “celebration”) and some of lahr’s comments jumped out at me. he talks about pinter’s obsession with the “psychological truth that he continued to explore brilliantly for half a century: mankind’s passion for ignorance. blindness, as pinter has dramatized it over the years, is something internal. the habit of not seeing is for his characters a sort of narrative device, an evasion of self-awareness that allows them to sustain their stories of themselves; the very syntax of their speech carries them ever farther from a real understanding of their emotions”.

where are the moderate muslims?

i’ve often been asked why the moderate muslim majority in america is so silent and invisible. there is a two-part answer to that question. first of all, everyday muslims are afraid to raise their voices and be labeled “troublemakers” for going against the grain. in an environment where any anonymous phone call can land you in a tête-à-tête with the CIA, where your house can be arbitrarily ransacked and your personal possessions confiscated, where you can be detained indefinitely for “questioning” without recourse to due legal process and where the FBI can open a file and spy on you to their heart’s content, it’s better to lie low and not provoke anyone. secondly, it’s not easy for muslims to be heard or seen. even if moderate muslims are courageous enough to speak out and voice their opinions (which is something that many have done), you will never know about it. newspapers will not print what they have to say and broadcasting companies will not show you what they look like.

for example, PBS broadcast a series of documentaries under the title “america at a crossroads”. they gave an hour to richard perle, known as the prince of darkness in washington circles, former likud policy adviser, associated with the american enterprise institute and the project for the new american century, an architect of bush’s foreign policy and an ardent supporter of the war in iraq, to this day. they gave an hour to irshad manji, disaffected muslim with no scholarship in religious studies or islam and writer of “the trouble with islam” which can best be described as a collection of personal anecdotes. all in all, 11 documentaries were broadcast by PBS including perle’s “the case for war: in defense of freedom” and manji’s “faith without fear”. other topics included a secret sunni muslim sect, jihad, al-qaeda, terrorism in europe, terrorism in indonesia and the gangs of iraq. in the midst of all this fear mongering there was no place for an alternative voice – a documentary called “islam vs islamists – voices from the muslim center” which was, interestingly enough, funded by tax-dollars (up to $700,000 of them) but dropped by PBS. i’m not sure about the content of this documentary but it seems to me that it would have been a good idea to include the voices of moderate muslim scholars and mainstream american muslims. it’s not that we don’t want to be seen or heard, it’s a question of access. maybe the rest of america out there needs to talk TO us and not just ABOUT us!