Category Archives: politics

howard zinn on “american empire”

as i screen my film “the muslims i know” on more and more campuses, and engage with students on how to solve the problems of the world, my mantra has become more and more clear-cut. we must aspire to try something new in the face of fear and hostility, use human development to connect with people rather than bomb those we suspect of being different, fall back on our common humanity when in doubt and not give in to indiscriminate violence. that same message is echoed beautifully by the end of this video – “a people’s history of american empire by howard zinn”:

arundhati roy on mumbai attacks

here is a video i just saw courtesy of my friend polly miller. i agree with the first part of the analysis – pakistani intelligence agencies and other ragtag radical groups that use the brand name of the taliban or al-qaeda are now operating as independent agents and are no longer under the control of the pakistani government. how else can we explain the high level of terrorist activity within pakistan itself – for example a similar attack on the islamabad marriott hotel that killed close to 60 people and injured hundreds more. the extremists have taken over swat and parts of peshawar, removing the pakistani flag from government buildings and replacing it with their own.

the second part of the video is a conversation with arundhati roy. i am a big fan.

here it is:

“the pakistan test” by nicholas kristof

here is an excellent article by nicholas kristof, the new york times, november 22, 2008:

Barack Obama’s most difficult international test in the next year will very likely be here in Pakistan. A country with 170 million people and up to 60 nuclear weapons may be collapsing.

Reporting in Pakistan is scarier than it has ever been. The major city of Peshawar is now controlled in part by the Taliban, and this month alone in the area an American aid worker was shot dead, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped, a Japanese journalist shot and American humvees stolen from a NATO convoy to Afghanistan.

I’ve been coming to Pakistan for 26 years, ever since I hid on the tops of buses to sneak into tribal areas as a backpacking university student, and I’ve never found Pakistanis so gloomy. Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart. I’m not quite that pessimistic, but it’s very likely that the next major terror attack in the West is being planned by extremists here in Pakistan.

“There is real fear about the future,” notes Ahmed Rashid, whose excellent new book on Pakistan and Afghanistan is appropriately titled “Descent Into Chaos.”

The United States has squandered more than $10 billion on Pakistan since 9/11, and Pakistani intelligence agencies seem to have rerouted some of that to Taliban extremists. American forces periodically strike militants in the tribal areas, but people from those areas overwhelmingly tell me that these strikes just antagonize tribal leaders and make them more supportive of the Taliban.

One man described seeing Pashtuns in tribal areas throwing rocks in helpless frustration at the American aircraft flying overhead.

President Asif Ali Zardari seems overwhelmed by the challenges and locked in the past. Incredibly, he has just chosen for his new cabinet two men who would fit fine in a Taliban government.

One new cabinet member, Israr Ullah Zehri, defended the torture-murder of five women and girls who were buried alive (three girls wanted to choose their own husbands, and two women tried to protect them). “These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them,” Mr. Zehri said of the practice of burying independent-minded girls alive.

Then there is Pakistan’s new education minister, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered him arrested for allegedly heading a local council that decided to solve a feud by taking five little girls and marrying them to men in an enemy clan. The girls were between the ages of 2 and 5, according to Samar Minallah, a Pakistani anthropologist who investigated the case (Mr. Bijarani has denied involvement).

While there are no easy solutions for the interlinked catastrophes unfolding in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are several useful steps that we in the West can take to reduce the risk of the region turning into the next Somalia.

First, we should slow the financial flow to Pakistan’s government and military. If the government wants to stop the Talibanization of Pakistan, its greatest need isn’t money but the political will to stop sheltering Taliban leaders in the city of Quetta.

Second, we should cut tariffs on Pakistani agricultural and manufactured products to boost the economy and provide jobs. We should also support China on its planned export-processing zone to create manufacturing jobs in Pakistan.

Third, we should push much harder for a peace deal in Kashmir — including far more pressure on India — because Kashmir grievances empower Pakistani militants.

Fourth, let’s focus on education. One reason the country is such a mess today is that half of all Pakistanis are illiterate.

In the southern Punjab a couple of days ago, I dropped in on a rural elementary school where only one teacher had bothered to show up that day. He was teaching the entire student body under a tree, in part because the school doesn’t have desks for the first three grades.

One happy note: I visited a school run by a California-based aid group, Developments in Literacy, which represents a successful American effort to fight extremism. DIL is financed largely by Pakistani-Americans trying to “give back,” and it runs 150 schools in rural Pakistan, teaching girls in particular.

Tauseef Hyat, the Islamabad-based executive director of DIL, notes that originally the plan was to operate just primary schools, but then a group of 11-year-old girls threatened to go on hunger strike unless DIL helped them continue their education in high school. Ms. Hyat caved, and some of those girls are now studying to become doctors.

Mr. Obama should make his first presidential trip to Pakistan — and stop at a DIL school to remind Pakistan’s army and elites that their greatest enemy isn’t India but illiteracy.

further comments by kristof on the response to his article:

My Sunday column is from Pakistan, which is a mess. A scary mess, particularly in Peshawar and the tribal areas. Some Americans have pinned their hopes on President Zardari and the new army commander, General Kayani, but I don’t see much reason for hope there. As I note in the column, Zardari just chose a cabinet member who believes that burying girls alive is an honorable tradition, and another who believes in seizing little girls and handing them over to enemy clans as a way of resolving feuds. As for General Kayani, don’t forget that he headed the I.S.I. intelligence agency as it was busy protecting and supporting the Taliban.

At a personal level, I found little sign of change when I applied for my visa. The old president, Pervez Musharraf, detested me and at times denied me visas, but usually grudgingly granted them. I figured that the new government, which had always cheered my criticisms of Musharraf, would be no problem. But it took months and months to get one; my visa finally arrived on the very day I was leaving on the trip, and then it was only good for Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad (although nobody seemed to pay attention to that in Pakistan). When I applied to the president’s office by email for an interview with Zardari, the press secretary tried to forward my message to someone named Khalid whom he asked something like: Isn’t this guy Kristof blacklisted? Unfortunately, instead of hitting “forward” on his blackberry, he hit “reply,” so it came right back to me.

The larger challenge is that the Pakistani military still prepares itself for fighting India, when the country’s greatest threat is poverty, illiteracy and extremism in the west. And Pakistani elites are not typically very concerned with ordinary citizens (the former Supreme Court chief, still barred from power, was an important exception, yet the lawyers’ movement never received adequate U.S. support), so the state education system is a disaster.

In the column, I lay out some suggestions for how the U.S. might help, such as cutting tariffs to encourage jobs and manufacturing industries. I also cite Developments in Literacy, a wonderful group trying to educate girls in rural areas, as an example of what we need more of — do check out their website (it’s also an example of Pakistani elites tackling poverty, in a way that we need much more of). And I’ve previously written about the extraordinary work of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea. I’d welcome your thoughts, particularly from Pakistanis, about other steps for the future.

(An Update: Many Indian readers are taking me to task over my suggestion that the U.S. put more pressure on Kashmir. Let me clarify that this is not just to “appease” Pakistan, but because India’s own behavior in Kashmir has often been shameful. Paying more attention to Kashmir and to human rights violations (in both Kashmirs) is not only geopolitically correct, but it’s also the right thing to do. Incidentally, I heard on this trip that Islamabad is now again allowing more Pakistani militants to infiltrate across the border into Indian Kashmir, which, if true, is a disaster that will aggravate Pakistani-Indian tensions and focus attention away from issues like education.)

proud to be american!

november 4th 2008 will go down in history as the day when america reasserted its leadership role in the world, by living up to its promise and showcasing the full force of democracy. a door was opened and we leapt into the future – a future unencumbered by skin color and genealogy and energized by youth and diversity. the differences between what had been and what could be were clear. you just had to look at the crowd that booed mccain’s concession speech and that which was assembled at grant park – we were saying no to racism and small-minded, parochial nationalism by making it irrelevant.

but this is no time to rest on our laurels. harry belafonte said it best on tavis smiley and i quote:

“well, i think of all the people in this country who have earned the right to celebrate, none have earned that right more than the african american community. however, it is not a standalone community, and i think that we have been here before. when slavery was overthrown in the great civil war and we went into the post-civil war period and elected black officials to our congress and our senate, it was not too long after that that we introduced 100 years of apartheid – the cruelest and the most oppressive segregation system known to the world was introduced, and lingered.

we’ve had other occasions when at the end of the second world war, when we all came back with a great sense of hope for america’s future and the fact that we’d defeated fascism and that white supremacy should have no place in the mix of civil society, we went into this period of mccarthyism and emmett till and all the violence and all of the pain and oppression that evoked the need and the hope for a dr king, who came to service.

so i think that although we’ve earned the right to celebrate and we should celebrate, i think we must also understand that we’ve been here before, and now is the time when we are most required to be vigilant and most required to stay the course, because this thing that we have just achieved could be easily taken away from us.

[…] america has always been in a place of great dichotomy. the very inception of this nation, founded by the founding fathers – what a magnificent document they wrote in the creating of the constitution. how ironic that the very same men who wrote that constitution and spoke so passionately about democracy and governance should have been the very same men who were the holders of slaves and who supported the slave tradition.

it was a split in our character, in our personality, in our morality. and all through the years, america’s shown this duplicity, has shown this double standard. i think we’re still the same america with the potential to go wrong very much in our midst. it is up to us to learn from that history and to know that we have another opportunity knocking at our door to turn this country around and to make the world the place the world very much wants to be.”

let’s stay the course this time and live up to our full potential!

musharraf goes bye bye and why that’s a good thing

it is a fine day when the people of a country are able to oust a military dictator through sheer gumption and tenacity – congratulations to the people of pakistan on this unprecedented achievement. i am no fan of asif ali zardari (or of his late wife benazir bhutto or of his soon to be coronated son bilawal) but i applaud the lawyers, journalists and activists of pakistan who stood up to musharraf’s disregard for the law, forced him to hold elections, enabled elected political parties to think impeachment and finally got rid of musharraf in direct defiance of the u.s. government’s plans for pakistan. well done!

some americans, but more surprisingly, many pakistanis (who are not lawyers, journalists, activists or sometimes even residents of pakistan) take issue with the concept of democracy as it applies to pakistan. many of their questions and fears are expressed in an interview i saw on pbs several weeks ago. filmmaker sabiha sumar was interviewed by david brancaccio on NOW about her film “dinner with the president“.

in a prime example of insipid, armchair journalism and of lazy paraphrasing rather than incisive questioning, brancaccio lets sumar pass off her misguided personal impressions and inaccurate statements of fact as unchallenged truth. in her interview, sumar said some things that made sense (e.g. the u.s. should stop interfering in pakistan) but much of what she declared with complete confidence was ridiculous. here are some of sumar’s problems with democracy in pakistan:

(i have used excerpts from an article called “pakistan’s politics and the urban middle class” written by an anonymous contributor to the blog pakistaniat.com to address some of sumar’s issues with democracy – in italics)

1) pakistan is feudal. the business class hardly has any say. there’s not one political party in pakistan that represents the interests of the business class.
nawaz sharif, head of the pakistan muslim league (one of the strongest political parties in pakistan) was elected prime minister twice. his father established the ittefaq foundry in 1939, now the ittefaq group, which happens to be one of the largest business conglomerates in pakistan.

2) democracy is born of a certain struggle in society. in pakistan, we don’t have a very developed, industrial base. it’s really a feudal country.
i will go back to barsamian’s analysis of how a latin american model of sustaining and working with the military has led to the stunted development or in many cases the deterioration of civic institutions. the military is the source of the problem, not a solution. as far as the oft-repeated accusation of being “feudal”, here’s the beef:

Quite often, the middle class critique of Pakistan’s politics is based on rejecting its “feudal” nature. Urban professionals tend to describe any rural politician who owns some land as ‘feudal’, which is incorrect. Feudalism refers to a system of land tenure that creates reciprocal obligations upon Lord and Vassal. It exists in parts of Pakistan but in many cases, those described as feudals in Pakistani political discourse are simply influential landowners who succeed in politics by acting as intermediaries between poor peasants and the overbearing (and in many cases ‘external’) state machinery. Thus, the landed gentry of Sindh and Punjab do not “own” their peasants or sharecroppers. They earn their loyalty by creating a parallel system of dealing on behalf of “natives” with the civil service, police and military that usually comes from outside the local area. […] It is interesting that even non-feudal rural politicians are identified by urban professionals mistakenly as “feudals.” Thus, Tehmina Daulatana who ran a school in Lahore before entering politics is identified through her relationship with the erstwhile Punjab Chief Minister and Ambassador to London rather than as an educator. Nisar Khuhro, a humble self-made lawyer from Larkana who studied in England on scholarship, is often confused with the feudal Khuhros because of the same last name. No one recalls that the Chaudhries of Gujrat and their rivals the Pagganwalas and Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar are not feudals but industrialists. The original feudals from Gujrat district, the Nawabzada family, has long been marginalized in politics.

3) the idea of democracy is quite alien to pakistan.
actually, only when the u.s. is engaged with pakistan on some level – because of america’s need to deal with and lavish money on the pakistani military exclusively. when america was not interested, for example after the end of the cold war and before the inauguration of the war on terror – democracy flourished in pakistan. it wasn’t all that pretty to start with but then there is an inherent messiness that accompanies democracy everywhere in the world. the democratic process can only be somewhat tidied up through practice, not abstinence. look at the last two elections in america – both less than kosher. does that mean that we should root for a military coup?

4) ballot box democracy is really about legitimizing feudal rule through the ballot box, which is a very dangerous idea.
Many of the famous feudal names have been marginalized since independence but the myth of feudal dominance endures. Among those wiped out electorally (except for occasional inclusion in caretaker cabinets by the army): Khuhros of Larkana, Tiwanas of Sargodha, Daulatanas of Vehari, the Qazi Fazlullah family of Sindh, the Gardezis of Multan, the Nawabs of Qasur and the Mamdots of Ferozpur/Lahore. […] Reform of the feudal structure in Pakistan is important and desirable. It is equally important to stop using it as an excuse to put off democracy in Pakistan, which unfortunately urban professional supporters of military rule have consistently done since 1958. If India, Sri Lanka and the US can evolve democracies with political dynasties so can Pakistan. Reform of land tenure and feudalism can be part of the democratic process, not something that must precede democracy. The remaining feudals would lose influence over time and after successive (and honest) elections. Considering that successive military regimes have failed to accomplish it, quite clearly a non-democratic approach to ending feudalism has not worked.

also, isn’t the political system in america set up to legitimize corporate rule? same difference! and aren’t people pressured to vote a certain way by their church or synagogue? how informed is the average american voter and therefore how independent, how well-thought out and how transformative is his or her vote?

5) there has been a triumvirate which has been dealing with pakistani politics all along – the feudals, the army and the mullahs. after musharraf took over, he started banning jihadi organizations.
just to refresh everyone’s memory – who created the taliban in the first place? the isi – pakistan’s military intelligence. when? during general zia ul haq’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. how can the army disengage from the monster it thought up? musharraf is well-known to have negotiated with radical elements. their very existence ensured his own power and the leverage he enjoyed with the u.s. how else could stick-wielding ninjas take over the red mosque in the middle of islamabad, the nation’s capital, kidnapping policemen, amassing weapons and harassing the populace at will for months on end? musharraf had to finally grapple with the problem when some chinese were abducted and china got miffed. since the situation had been allowed to grow out of hand, the final confrontation was unnecessarily bloody. yet musharraf emerged as a hero, especially in the eyes of an american government eager for a good show to justify the millions of dollars it pours into the pakistani military.

6) musharraf is a very democratic-minded person even though he is uniform. that really doesn’t make any difference because his policies, his actions really show him to be very democratic.
even if we make a huge leap of faith and decide that a dictator who came into power thru a military coup and removed an elected prime minister from office, can somehow be democratic, are human rights violations the laudable actions sumar speaks of? is declaring a state of emergency, firing the supreme court and refusing to resign in the face of massive street protests a sign of being democratically-minded? this leads us to sumar’s most egregious assertion:

7) we have to see this whole crisis of the judiciary in the context of the fact that in pakistan, the judiciary is really not as independent as you would imagine a judiciary in america. it’s still very feudal minded. and it was very much against the modernization that musharraf was part of.

this is simply delusional. here is the real story on why the supreme court was fired. three points of contention between musharraf and chief justice iftikhar chaudhry and his supreme court:

(1) instances of “enforced disappearances”, or extrajudicial detentions and extraditions: many of the “disappeared” later resurfaced in guantanamo. these were not terrorists but activists and journalists who were a thorn in musharraf’s side, or sometimes just people with beards. at the behest of families looking for their disappeared husbands and sons, the chief justice ordered all “missing” persons to be produced by the government. investigations ensued. musharraf was cornered. so much for musharraf’s democratic policies! check out this terrific documentary by ziad zafar called “missing in pakistan“. this film, and not sumar’s vapid ode to musharraf, should have been shown on pbs, except that “missing in pakistan” does not fit washington’s promotion of musharraf as a “good guy” fighting terrorism.

(2) the sale of pakistan’s mammoth steel mill: pakistan’s only steel mill was being privatized by musharraf and his citibank-trained prime minister shaukat aziz. the supreme court refused to ratify the sale contract when it was discovered that huge kickbacks were involved and pakistan steel was being sold way below its market valuation.

(3) chaudhy had made the case that musharraf would not be able to contest the upcoming elections as he could not be chief of army and president simultaneously.

so if we can say anything about pakistan’s judiciary, it is this: the judiciary is more independent, more concerned with the rights of citizens and more brazen about standing up to the government (a military regime no less) than the american supreme court can ever be. that’s why the chief justice has become a hero of the people.

if you ask me to go back to the tribal areas, i think i’d be very hesitant. because, today, the government is actually working together with islamic extremists.

sumar blames the recently elected govt for the advance of the taliban in the north western frontier province of pakistan. the elected govt hasn’t really had time to establish new policies and begin to see results. the taliban had already started their takeover. in fact the northern region of swat had already been lost to the taliban during mush’s rule – the pakistani flag having been audaciously replaced by the taliban flag. mush’s military rule also saw the beginning of suicide bombings – something alien to pakistan before this time.

encouragement is being given to islamic extremists by politicians saying, “let’s have a dialogue. let’s not fight.” they’re really emboldened by this because they know that politicians can’t survive without their support.

first of all neither can the military, because of its incestuous relationship with the extremists. secondly, it has to be understood that a war against a specific group like al-qaeda was first expanded to include the taliban and then the entire pushtoon population. the pushtoons live both in pakistan and afghanistan. they make up most of the north western frontier province of pakistan. all of them are obviously not “extremists”. they have their own culture. they are a very proud and independent people. they have always enjoyed autocratic rule, even during 200 years of british rule in the sub-continent. having the pakistani army killing pakistani citizens indiscriminately, under the command of a foreign power that understands little to nothing about that part of the world, is probably not a good way to go. but the proof is in the pudding. this has been mush’s strategy since 2001 (for 7 long years). has it worked? have we marginalized the radicals? have we been able to garner the good will of the pushtoon people in order to isolate a few violent elements? and how has it been for the pakistan army: unprecedented losses, demoralization, massive defections from its ranks. and what about the resulting suicide bombings – in peshawar of course but also in lahore, in islamabad. musharraf has started a civil war. just imagine what would happen if the american army attacked the state of ny, killing american citizens randomly under a military strategy drafted by pakistan…

i don’t see any role for america in trying to bring values of freedom or individual rights to any other country because it’s just not your business to do that. it’s for each country to decide for itself how it wants to find its own way towards more freedom. and i think that’s a process, and every country has to go through it.

agreed, but how can that process evolve if civil society is permanently choked by dictatorships. the army’s penetration in pakistan’s civic life is quite astounding. mush went farther than previous military dictators. he replaced pakistan’s bureaucracy (a constant in the country’s eventful history) with military personnel. this had never been done before. the civil services academy, the national institute of public administration, and pakistan’s administrative staff college were all brought under the military. this kind of parasitic takeover is not conducive to building strong civil institutions which can then produce a struggle for freedom and democracy from within.

sure america can’t help, but neither can their proxy army-wallas!

david barsamian on pakistan

on july 1st amy goodman interviewed journalist and author david barsamian about the situation in pakistan. barsamian’s comments were simple, spot on, lucid. much is made of pakistan in western media but most of the analysis is either theoretical/ivory-tower or just plain cuckoo. this was the first time i heard something that made sense to me. here are some excerpts from the interview:

1) on pakistan’s relationship with the united states. i have always felt a particular kind of kinship to latin america. now i know why – barsamian’s analysis is brilliant:

“It was the classic Latin American model, now applied to South Asia. Historically, the U.S. has always aligned itself with the military in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean, and now this was being expanded globally, and specifically, to Pakistan. What this has meant to Pakistan as a country is that the military has been highly privileged—it has been foreground because of U.S. attention and intention. It has been lavishly supplied with money and with arms, and at the same time this has created real fissures in civil society, which has not developed along so-called normal lines, whatever that might be.”

2) on how the disproportionate building up of pakistan’s army has affected pakistani society:

“It’s quite astonishing to learn and to know that the penetration of the Pakistani army as an economic institution into all facets of life in that country is truly breathtaking, from banks, from strip malls, from housing estates. There are 22 feudal families that have a great deal of land in the country and I make this quip, quoting the great American philosopher Yogi Berra, that if you want to understand Pakistan, 50% of the country is controlled by these 22 feudal families, and the other 90% is controlled by the military.

Billions of dollars have gone into Pakistan, but the Pakistani people have not seen any of that money. It has all gone into the military sector. And so, again, this has created enormous imbalances inside the country and a huge amount of resentment toward the United States.”

3) on what we are now fighting in afghanistan and increasingly in pakistan, and how it all came about:

“The Taliban students were actually created by the Pakistani ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, probably the most powerful and secretive organization operating inside of Pakistan. This is all an outgrowth, incidentally–again the context and background, which is so sorely missing in most reporting–of the great jihad of the 1980s, when the U.S. brought militants from all over the Islamic world. I remember one Pakistani telling me once that he saw planeloads and planeloads of these jihadis being brought in from Yemen, from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, from Algeria, to fight against the Soviet Union. Actions have consequences. Many of the Taliban today, and Al-Qaeda as well, are not just the actual members from that period, but their sons and grandsons are now fighting.”

4) on how pakistan’s baluchistan province is being used by the u.s. to launch terrorist activities in iran – a revelation to me but apparently a story pakistani newspapers have covered for a long time:

“Pakistan has a long border with Iran in Baluchistan. When I was in Iran last year, formations across the border from Pakistan blew up a bus, killing more than 20 Iranians. There has been in Pakistani Baluchistan a longstanding resistance to control in Islamabad. There has been an independence movement there. Many have reported, and I think with credibility, that the U.S. has been funding groups inside of Baluchistan to cross over into Iran, to create incidents and destabilize the regime in Tehran. Pakistanis have a very close affinity with Iran, and any U.S. military action on Iran, I think, will again produce an enormous amount of resentment and already fuel what is called anti-American hatred. It is a little more subtle and complicated than that.”

5) on benazir bhutto and what her prime ministership would have meant:

“Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1991 and then a second term from 1993 to 1996. Both of her terms were marked by an enormous amount of corruption, particularly involving her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is now the titular head of the Pakistan Peoples Party. One of the internal problems in Pakistan is that the political parties have basically been family-run businesses. They have not really existed as part of a much larger organization, and this is exemplified by Benazir Bhutto, who declared herself chairperson for life. When she was assassinated on the 27th of December in 2007, in her will, she bequeathed the party to her son. Until her son matures–he is now 20 years old–the party will be run by Asif Ali Zardari. So Pakistan has had a deeply problematic political system, again, from its very origins. The military has had primacy within the political system. It has been very influential.

One of the things that Benazir Bhutto agreed to in a deal brokered by the Americans for her to return to Pakistan—you will recall she was in exile for eight or nine years—one of the components of that was Benazir Bhutto was going to allow U.S. troops to openly operate inside of Pakistan. They had been doing so clandestinely for a number of years, particularly in the contested so-called tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. Now the war is coming closer to Peshawar, which is a city of 3 million. It’s the capital of the northwest frontier province. There’s a garrison of some 50,000-60,000 Pakistani troops there. But the Pakistani military, large segments of it, have no stomach for this fight. They are highly demoralized.”

you can listen to the entire interview at democracynow.org
also check out barsamian’s alternative radio website.

david barsamian

the hedonists of power

my friend nancy o’donnell sent me this article. it speaks of how skeptical we should be of the media, at all times but especially when we are at war with an intractable enemy like terror. the article also echoes a fear of mine. although i voted for obama in the primaries (mostly on account of his wife) i don’t hold much hope for things to change if he gets elected (in spite of the campaign slogan). in fact, some of the activism that has come to the fore in the wake of bush’s illicit rule might wither away without good cause.

The Hedonists of Power
By Chris Hedges (from Thruthdig.com)

Washington has become Versailles. We are ruled, entertained and informed by courtiers. The popular media are courtiers. The Democrats, like the Republicans, are courtiers. Our pundits and experts are courtiers. We are captivated by the hollow stagecraft of political theater as we are ruthlessly stripped of power. It is smoke and mirrors, tricks and con games. We are being had.

The past week was a good one if you were a courtier. We were instructed by the high priests on television over the past few days to mourn a Sunday morning talk show host, who made $5 million a year and who gave a platform to the powerful and the famous so they could spin, equivocate and lie to the nation. We were repeatedly told by these television courtiers, people like Tom Brokaw and Wolf Blitzer, that this talk show host was one of our nation’s greatest journalists, as if sitting in a studio, putting on makeup and chatting with Dick Cheney or George W. Bush have much to do with journalism.

No journalist makes $5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that acting as a conduit, or a stenographer, for the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike real journalists. Ask Seymour Hersh and Amy Goodman how often Bush or Cheney has invited them to dinner at the White House or offered them an interview.

All governments lie, as I.F. Stone pointed out, and it is the job of the journalist to do the hard, tedious reporting to shine a light on these lies. It is the job of courtiers, those on television playing the role of journalists, to feed off the scraps tossed to them by the powerful and never question the system. In the slang of the profession, these television courtiers are “throats.” These courtiers, including the late Tim Russert, never gave a voice to credible critics in the buildup to the war against Iraq. They were too busy playing their roles as red-blooded American patriots. They never fought back in their public forums against the steady erosion of our civil liberties and the trashing of our Constitution. These courtiers blindly accept the administration’s current propaganda to justify an attack on Iran. They parrot this propaganda. They dare not defy the corporate state. The corporations that employ them make them famous and rich. It is their Faustian pact. No class of courtiers, from the eunuchs behind Manchus in the 19th century to the Baghdad caliphs of the Abbasid caliphate, has ever transformed itself into a responsible elite. Courtiers are hedonists of power.

Our Versailles was busy this past week. The Democrats passed the FISA bill, which provides immunity for the telecoms that cooperated with the National Security Agency’s illegal surveillance over the past six years. This bill, which when signed means we will never know the extent of the Bush White House’s violation of our civil liberties, is expected to be adopted by the Senate. Barack Obama has promised to sign it in the name of national security. The bill gives the U.S. government a license to eavesdrop on our phone calls and e-mails. It demolishes our right to privacy. It endangers the work of journalists, human rights workers, crusading lawyers and whistle-blowers who attempt to expose abuses the government seeks to hide. These private communications can be stored indefinitely and disseminated, not just to the U.S. government but to other governments as well. The bill, once signed into law, will make it possible for those in power to identify and silence anyone who dares to make public information that defies the official narrative.

Being a courtier, and Obama is one of the best, requires agility and eloquence. The most talented of them can be lauded as persuasive actors. They entertain us. They make us feel good. They convince us they are our friends. We would like to have dinner with them. They are the smiley faces of a corporate state that has hijacked the government and is raping the nation. When the corporations make their iron demands, these courtiers drop to their knees, whether to placate the telecommunications companies that fund their campaigns and want to be protected from lawsuits, or to permit oil and gas companies to rake in obscene profits and keep in place the vast subsidies of corporate welfare doled out by the state.

We cannot differentiate between illusion and reality. We trust courtiers wearing face powder who deceive us in the name of journalism. We trust courtiers in our political parties who promise to fight for our interests and then pass bill after bill to further corporate fraud and abuse. We confuse how we feel about courtiers like Obama and Russert with real information, facts and knowledge. We chant in unison with Obama that we want change, we yell “yes we can,” and then stand dumbly by as he coldly votes away our civil liberties. The Democratic Party, including Obama, continues to fund the war. It refuses to impeach Bush and Cheney. It allows the government to spy on us without warrants or cause. And then it tells us it is our salvation. This is a form of collective domestic abuse. And, as so often happens in the weird pathology of victim and victimizer, we keep coming back for more.

Chris Hedges, who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times, says he will vote for Ralph Nader for president.

1984, the patriot act and eliot spitzer

few know that george orwell’s “1984” is in part a depiction of england circa 1948, when the economy was weak and the british empire was faltering yet newspapers carried upbeat stories of triumph and success. orwell had worked for the bbc and was well-acquainted with censorship. he despised totalitarianism and knew that propaganda forms its very core. “1984” was a warning, a possible metamorphosis of the anglo-saxon state (including both england and the united states). in his book orwell presents some of the ideas embedded in a totalitarian state:

1) war is essential for sustained consumption and the survival of a hierarchical society (check out my post titled “consumption – the path to happiness?”)

2) when war becomes continuous it ceases to exist – it becomes so much background noise (how many times a day do we american taxpayers think about our trillion dollar wars in iraq and afghanistan and a possible upcoming one in iran? how can a war on terror – which is an emotion, not a tangible enemy – ever be concluded?)

3) there is an emotional need to believe that big brother will succeed in the end – generally speaking, dogmatic belief eclipses rational thought

4) the separation between different economic and social classes is maintained: the system of ownership and control of the means of production and distribution by the people collectively, under the supervision of a government, doesn’t ensure equality – it only keeps wealth restricted to the upper class

5) whereas the ruling elite or party members are not allowed a single independent thought and are mentally trained to toe the line through doublethink, the common people or proles are free to think because the system guarantees that they do not have the ability to think!

an important part of living in a state where big brother is watching you, is to lose your individual rights and freedoms and be happy to part with them out of fear or ignorance. the right to privacy is one such individual right and the patriot act has gone a long way to whittle it down.

the spitzer scandal, instead of becoming another prime example of a society that “anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”, should have elicited questions about privacy and the unsettling reach of the long arm of the law. how many of us are talking about how the patriot act was used to get spitzer? do we even know that banks are spying on their own clients by using computer programs to generate “suspicious activity reports”? can we parse the conflict between the right to privacy (a necessity for free, empowered citizens) and the hope, on paper, of possibly catching terrorist money laundering? let’s focus less on the myspace.com profile of spitzer’s paramour and more on how we got here…

for more details on how the patriot act caught spitzer, check out this newsweek story.

elections in pakistan

it’s heartening that the 2008 parliamentary elections were relatively clean, based both on reports by local and foreign observers. no massive rigging and a turnout of 45% – which is impressive considering recent bombings and political assassinations.

what this proves is that the people of pakistan are smart and secular. 61% of the seats were won by secular parties (bhutto’s pakistan people’s party, nawaz sharif’s pakistan muslim league and the northern frontier’s awami national party), only 3% of the vote went to religious parties.

in pakistan’s civil society, there is a real desire for democracy and for negotiated political settlement to end terrorism and militancy. people know that military force is not the answer. political parties want to engage militants and bring them into a participatory democratic process. The question is, will the u.s. government allow this democratic process to flourish or will it continue to work with the pakistan army behind the public’s back and sabotage any long term solutions to the crisis it helped create.

in pakistan, islam needs democracy

my friend pacho lane sent me this excellent article by waleed ziad. he reiterates many of the facts my husband and i tried to explain in our “open letter to our senators and congress people about the crisis in pakistan” (post filed under “activism” dated 11/21/07). here is the article:

in pakistan, islam needs democracy
WHILE it’s good news that secular moderates are expected to dominate Pakistan’s parliamentary elections on Monday, nobody here thinks the voting will spell the end of militant extremism. Democratic leaders have a poor track record in battling militants and offer no convincing remedies. Pakistan’s military will continue to manage the war against the Taliban and its Qaeda allies, while President Pervez Musharraf will remain America’s primary partner. The only long-term solution may lie in the hands of an overlooked natural ally in the war on terrorism: the Pakistani people.

This may come as a surprise to Americans, but the Wahhabist religion professed by the militants is more foreign to most Pakistanis than Karachi’s 21 KFCs. This is true even of the tribal North-West Frontier Province — after all, a 23-foot-tall Buddha that was severely damaged last fall by the Taliban there had stood serenely for a thousand years amid an orthodox Muslim population.

Last month I was in the village of Pakpattan observing the commemoration of the death of a Muslim Sufi saint from the Punjab — a feast of dance, poetry, music and prayer attended by more than a million people. Religious life in Pakistan has traditionally been synonymous with the gentle spirituality of Sufi mysticism, the traditional pluralistic core of Islam. Even in remote rural areas, spiritual life centers not on doctrinaire seminaries but Sufi shrines; recreation revolves around ostentatious wedding parties and Hollywood, Bollywood and the latter’s Urdu counterpart, Lollywood.

So when the Taliban bomb shrines and hair salons, or ban videos and music, it doesn’t go down well. A resident of the Swat region, the site of many recent Taliban incursions, proudly told me last month that scores of citizens in his village had banded together to drive out encroaching militants. Similarly, in the tribal areas, many local village councils, called jirgas, have summoned the Pakistani Army or conducted independent operations against extremists. Virtually all effective negotiations between the army and militants have involved local councils; in 2006, a jirga in the town of Bara expelled two rival clerics who used their town as a battleground.

The many militant outfits in the frontier regions are far from a unified popular movement. Rather, they are best characterized as ethnic or sectarian gangs, regularly changing names and loyalties. More often than battling the army, they engage each other in violent turf wars. For many of them — some with only a handful of members — “Taliban” is a convenient brand name that awards them the status of international resistance fighters. It is not uncommon for highway bandits to declare themselves Taliban when stealing tape decks from vehicles.

The Taliban franchise that has battled the army for months in the Swat Valley is held by an outfit whose founder marched thousands of local youths to their death in a campaign in Afghanistan in 2002. Upon returning, he virtually solicited his own arrest by Pakistani authorities to escape the vengeance of the victims’ families. The group is now led by one “Mullah Radio” who, armed with an FM station, preaches that polio vaccinations are a Zionist plot and that the 2005 earthquake was retribution for a sinful existence. A worrisome crank, yes, but hardly Osama bin Laden.

The big problem — as verified by a poll released last month by the United States Institute of Peace — is that while the Pakistani public condemns Talibanism, it is also opposed to the way the war on terrorism has been waged in Pakistan. People are horrified by the thousands of civilian and military casualties and the militants’ retaliatory attacks in major cities. Despite promises, very little money is going toward development, education and other public services in the frontier region’s hot zones. This has led to the belief that this war is for “Busharraf” rather than the Pakistani people.

Naturally, Washington must continue working with Mr. Musharraf’s government against extremism. But we also need a new long-term policy like the one outlined by Senator Joe Biden last fall that would strengthen our natural allies and rebuild faith in the United States at the public level.

This isn’t just wishful thinking. Interestingly, the Musharraf era has heralded a freer press in Pakistan than ever before. Dozens of independent TV channels invariably denounce the Taliban, while educational institutions are challenging the Wahhabist ethos. My conversations with Pakistanis, from people on the street to intellectuals, artists and religious leaders, only confirmed that after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, anti-militant sentiments are at a peak.

This is where the lasting solution lies. As Donya Aziz, a doctor, former member of Parliament and prominent voice in the new generation of female leaders, told me: “Even now, as the public begins to voice its anti-militancy concerns, politicians across the board are seizing the opportunity to incorporate these stands into their political platforms.”

What can America do? Beyond using our influence to push the government to expand democracy and civil society, we need to develop close ties with the jirgas in the violent areas. The locals can inform us of the best ways to infuse civilian aid. (According to Ms. Aziz, “the foremost demand of the tribal representatives had been girls’ schools.”) We should also expand the United States Agency for International Development’s $750 million aid and development package for the federally administered tribal areas.

If next week’s elections are free and fair, it will be an encouraging sign for Pakistan. But as far as Washington is concerned, this should constitute only the first stage of a broader policy intended to make average Pakistanis see the United States as a long-term partner. In the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, American popularity soared as American aid helicopters — widely called “Angels of Mercy” — soared to the rescue. If we can bear in mind that our long-term interests are the same as those of average Pakistanis, the challenges of fighting the militants and rebuilding credibility may not be as daunting as they seem.

Waleed Ziad, an economic consultant, is an associate at the Truman National Security Project.

are there any pakistani leaders after benazir?

many of my american friends have listened patiently to my views on benazir’s dubious political legacy and lamented the absence of any other viable political leaders in pakistan. that’s a staggering statement. in a country of close to a 166 million people you would think that there would be more than just a couple of political figures. and there are. but it sure doesn’t look that way in the dali-esque world of american media conglomerates and their perfectly buffed and sadly vacuous news coverage. it makes for a thrilling media blitz to glorify benazir as the heroine of pakistani democracy and the only chance pakistan’s ever had to get out of its existential doldrums, but is that an accurate assessment? yes, benazir was from harvard and generally more palatable to an american audience and its elected government but even inside her pakistan people’s party (ppp) she was anything but democratic. having enjoyed the less than kosher title of “chairperson for life”, she made sure that after her death, the mantle would be conveniently passed on to her son.

but coming back to alternative leaders in pakistan.

of course there is nawaz sharif of the pakistan muslim league. he has been the democratically elected prime minister of pakistan twice, from 1990-93 and again from 1997-99. his second term ended rather brusquely when he was deposed by general musharraf in a military coup. he was thereafter exiled to saudi arabia and has now resurfaced to contest the upcoming elections in pakistan. the lowdown on nawaz is this: he is a punjabi industrialist and his group of companies, ittefaq industries, did not do too shabbily during his two terms. like benazir’s government there was blatant corruption, but there was also some flirting with islamic law. he tried to make the quran and sunnah the supreme law of the land. although the amendment was passed by the national assemply, it failed in the senate. nawaz was corrupt and given to self-serving talk of islam, but he was a businessman and many will say especially in lahore, that at least he left a tangible legacy. he made lahore beautiful, overhauled the lahore international airport and oversaw the construction of south asia’s longest highway, extending from lahore to islamabad.

then there is imran khan – cricket star, international playboy, oxford university graduate. from marrying jemima goldsmith to successfully establishing a state of the art cancer hospital and research center in pakistan, imran has done it all. in 1996, he founded a political party, pakistan tehreek-e-insaf or movement for justice. although imran is a celebrity and has had his own personal brush with islamic conservatism, the middle class can relate to him. he says it like it is. he talks sense. he supported the legal community’s fight for the return of the rule of law after musharraf declared a state of emergency and has refused to participate in the february 2008 elections due to the continued dismissal of the judiciary. but due to the fact that he is not a major landowner, industrialist, or military man, his political base is nominal. here is an interview with democracy now!’s amy goodman.

there are many seasoned politicians within the ranks of the ppp, for example makhdoom amin fahim, the party’s vice-chairman. a sindhi landlord with a bent for sufism and poetry, his father was one of the founders of the ppp, along with benazir’s father zulfiqar ali bhutto.

aitzaz ahsan also hails from the ppp. barrister-at-law, human rights activist and co-founder of the human rights commission of pakistan, former federal minister and senator, he is currently president of the pakistani supreme court bar association. aitzaz ahsan became a hero in the people’s movement for democracy and freedom which resisted musharraf’s state of emergency. he has been mostly under house arrest since 2007 for acting as deposed supreme court justice iftikhar chaudhry’s defence lawyer and demanding the restoration of the judiciary, after musharraf sacked 60 of the country’s senior most judges. interestingly enough after benazir returned to pakistan and took stock of this grassroots movement for democracy, she dealt with aitzaz ahsan’s popularity by sidelining him rather than truly joining in the fight.

and of course there is the jamaat-e-islami. although most pakistanis vote for centrist parties rather than those on the religious extreme, it has to be pointed out that jamaat-e-islami is one of the few political parties in pakistan which are truly democratically functional. at this time qazi hussain ahmad is the elected president. there is no chairman for life.

benazir’s assassination – my take

we were in puerto vallarta, in the middle of a sunny mexican vacation, when i turned on the tv to check out some spanish programming and found out instead that benazir bhutto had been assassinated. i was shocked. it seemed surreal. of course there had been the deadly bomb blasts in karachi, killing 140 people in a ppp (pakistan people’s party) rally, assembled to welcome her home after 11 years of self-exile. there had been all the threats against her and her insistence on getting better protection from the government. but it still seemed unreal. my friend sue once described benazir bhutto as a rock star – she certainly had the entourage and that dramatic “big production” feel about her. she was also strongly backed by the u.s. it was galling to see her negotiate her party’s “package” with musharraf from the safe confines of the united states, like the exacting ceo of an american multi-national (so much for pakistan’s sovereignty). all of this made her seem untouchable, impervious to danger. yet, there it was. she had been shot. benazir bhutto was gone.

let me start by saying that benazir bhutto was not liked by most pakistanis. she was prime minister twice and both times she disappointed, monumentally. i remember the first time she was elected prime minister in 1988. this was after 11 years of oppression at the hands of general zia ul haq. the country was ready, no desperate, for change. we were suffocating. and benazir seemed to be the answer to our prayers. she was 35 years old. she was a woman. she was well-educated. and yes, she was zulfiqar ali bhutto’s daughter. we were glued to our televisions as she was sworn in – we could hardly contain our joy. democracy was finally working. we the people had elected benazir and we had high hopes for her. this euphoria lasted about a week. as soon as benazir came into power she made it clear that she intended to run pakistan like her ancestral fiefdom, back home in sind. this was her turn to loot the country and no one was going to tell her otherwise. the corruption charges just kept piling up. her husband was her front-man and they were making out like bandits. in 20 months, she went from being the darling of the people to pakistan’s most brazen plunderer. she thought that she had the power and pizazz to pull it off until she was removed from office by the president. she got re-elected in 1993 to be booted out once again in 1996, under similar circumstances. what a waste! what a gargantuan, wretched, miserable waste of an opportunity. this had been her moment in history. she could have changed the nature of pakistan’s military-dominated politics but she squandered every opportunity, twice.

were things going to be different this time around? not a chance. in the minds of many americans, benazir had bravely stood up to musharraf and asked for freedom and democracy. not so. while she had been busy outlining the demands of her executive package and finding mutually beneficial ways of working with musharraf, it was the lawyers, journalists and activists of pakistan who had shown astounding courage and stood up to a military dictator. they were the ones who were putting their lives on the line for the restoration of freedom and justice. when benazir realized that musharraf had no political currency in pakistan she conveniently latched on to this grassroots movement and began to talk the talk. yet the major political parties in pakistan did NOT lend their support to this movement. so while benazir was being portrayed as a righteous, house-arrested, populist heroine of pakistani democracy by american media, her party was not fighting that fight on the ground. the real heroes, lawyers like ali ahmed kurd, tariq mahmood, atizaz ahsan and munir a. malik, were on their own, left to cope valiantly with jail time and torture.

after musharraf sacked the supreme court and appointed his own cronies to legitimize his bid for “elected” head of state, instead of boycotting this sham election and asking for the restoration of the supreme court, benazir was more than happy to participate. these were the so-called elections she was campaigning for when she died. her death has come as a shock to the world but let’s not indulge in a diana-style romanticizing of her life. let’s not compare the bhutto dynasty to the kennedys. let’s not disneyfy her legacy. like william dalrymple has said: “bhutto was no aung san suu kyi”.

although i did not like benazir bhutto and had no confidence in her abilities as a leader or her intentions to govern pakistan in an honest and fair manner, i am deeply disturbed by her assassination. i am mortally afraid that this might have opened a pandora’s box. i do not want the politicians of pakistan to contest elections by having their opponents assassinated. i do not want the people of pakistan to live with the fear of being bumped off for any anti-establishment statement they might make. this is what frightens me – this sense of absolute power concentrated in the corrupt hands of a few. and this is why it is crucial that benazir’s death be investigated in the most meticulous fashion, by an impartial, international team. the perpetrators must be found and held to account. american aid must be contingent upon such an investigation. the stakes are huge. if we want stability in pakistan, and this is the refrain we keep hearing in the media, then we must make it clear that assassinations cannot become a political strategy, our faith in and adherence to realpolitik aside.

benazir’s father’s mausoleum in the village of garhi khuda bakhsh

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.

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