is there no accountability?

munir a. malik, former president supreme court bar association of pakistan (scba), has been at the forefront of the the judiciary’s confrontation with the pakistani dictatorship.

then there is munir a. malik now, after he was mistreated in jail (and possibly poisoned) and then quickly rushed to the hospital when he suffered renal failure.

flowers for mr malik
who will be accountable?

many lawyers arrested under martial law are still in jail or missing, but now that musharraf has taken off his uniform the world has lost interest.

homegrown terrorism prevention act raises fears of new government crackdown on dissent

attention all dissenters, protesters, anti-war activists, animal rights advocates, environmentalists, and muslims: this bill has already passed the house with flying colors (400 to 6) and is sure to sail through the senate. i found out about it at a rochester against war meeting today.

is human rights a “western” idea?

through the process of organizing a rally asking for democracy and the restoration of justice in pakistan i have come to a new understanding of how “human rights” are viewed by many in the pakistani community. it is astounding to me that those who have immigrated to the united states and enjoy freedom and at least some recourse to a somewhat independent judiciary in their new country, can rationalize that people back home might not need similar freedoms. i am shocked to hear statements such as “many in the community support martial law” or “if musharraf goes the taliban will take over, therefore let him stay”.

how easy it is for us, sitting here in our half-a-million-dollar suburban homes and driving our mercs and oversized SUVs to dismiss a grassroots movement asking for justice and human rights, halfway across the globe in pakistan, where we only go to attend lavish weddings and shop for clothes and jewelry. are we not guilty of the same racism immensely popular with western governments? that human rights and democracy are only good for people with a certain skin color. that in countries like pakistan military dictatorships are more conducive to stability – even if it is always at the cost of human rights. that the people of pakistan cannot be trusted to make their own decisions and therefore decisions must be made for them by the likes of musharraf – kept in power by american military aid and so answerable to america, not the people of pakistan. i guess that we ourselves have bought into the ridiculous idea that human rights are not for us – we can’t handle them.

in the letter we sent to our senators and congressmen (posted 11/21/07) my husband and i talk about the people being sent to jail and house arrested by the pakistani government. we describe the lawyers, retired justices, journalists and activists who have been musharraf’s prime targets as “secular-minded, liberal, tolerant, middle class professionals”. one pakistani found that offensive and asked what we meant by that label. three words: muhammed ali jinnah! the founder of pakistan was a secular-minded, liberal, tolerant, middle class professional so what’s so repugnant about it? why do we translate these words to mean “american sellout”? since when has education, professionalism or tolerance become counter-culture in pakistan? the same man then takes a jab at pakistanis asking for human rights in pakistan by proclaiming that they have “misplaced identities”. since when has religious radicalism, conservatism, intolerance and being either lower class or upper class (as opposed to middle class) been more in line with being pakistani? that’s absolute bullshit.

for those who think that it’s all about american sellouts pandering to the west’s spiel about democracy, watch this documentary by ziad zafar called “missing in pakistan”. a lot of the confrontation between the judiciary and musharraf started with a case filed by amina masood and others demanding that their disappeared husbands and sons be accounted for. shockingly enough, the case was taken up by the supreme court chief justice iftikhar chaudhry. this is when musharraf summarily fired him and the country, led by its legal community, erupted in violent protest. look closely at amina masood’s face – that’s the face of pakistan and that is who we should be siding with. amina masood is a teacher. she is middle class, educated, articulate, strong and in your face. in the west she would be called an activist, a feminist. yet should we turn away from her because she embodies all the great ideals we absurdly attribute to the west? is she an american sellout too?

granted the west’s spiel about democracy, as it applies to less developed countries, is insincere and used to window dress its own selfish economic and political interests, but there is nothing wrong with the ideology itself. there is nothing wrong with human rights, individual freedoms, democracy or justice. people in pakistan know that and they are fighting for it with their lives. we don’t have as much to lose, sitting comfortably on our asses out here in the land of plenty. is simply supporting that struggle from your leather armchair too much to ask?

speech at the rally

thanks to my friend, filmmaker rehema trimiew, who came to the rally on a cold windy sunday, filmed the event and put it on youtube. check out her film sticks and stones.

my speech:

We are here to show our support for the people of Pakistan in their struggle for freedom and democracy.

Civil society in Pakistan is being dismantled by the present dictatorship. Thousands of lawyers, human rights activists, judges and academics have been put under arrest. Hundreds of people who have committed no crime have mysteriously disappeared.

Shameful instances of torture against prominent lawyers have occurred and the government has even arrested the sisters of opposition leaders. Freedom of speech has been curbed and independent media have been shut down.

Martial law has been declared to supposedly fight terrorists yet the government is actually negotiating with them and every day they grow stronger. The laws of the country no longer apply in many places and people have been left to the mercies of the Taliban.

And all this after six years and billions of our tax dollars sent to the Pakistan army in the name of fighting extremism. 

What is happening today in Pakistan is NOT to fight terrorists, NOT to preserve law and order, NOT to make Pakistan or the world safer – it is a naked power grab.

I ask you to send a clear message to your congressmen, senators, the US administration and the whole world: Americans will not stand for what is happening in Pakistan. Human rights violations must be stopped. Those arrested must be released, the constitution must be restored, the judiciary must be restored, the media must be freed, and no more dictatorship.

open letter to our senators and congress people about the crisis in pakistan

To: Ours Senators and Congressional Representatives

Dear Representative,

We are Americans who support freedom and democracy. We are writing to share our concerns with you regarding recent events in Pakistan.

We are greatly disturbed by General Musharraf’s crackdown on civil liberties, decimation of judicial independence, muzzling of the media, indiscriminate arrests and reported torture of lawyers, human rights activists and politicians.

As Americans we cherish the values of civil liberties, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and freedom of association, and when we see these values being trampled on in Pakistan we feel we must speak out. This is especially so since General Musharraf’s continued hold on power and the acts committed by his government are supported in no small part through lavish aid and funding provided by us, the American taxpayers.

We feel that for too long the United States has shirked its responsibility toward promoting freedom and democracy in Pakistan by expedient alliances with a string of unpopular military dictators for short term objectives, while ignoring the long term dangers of such unsavory alliances. The history of our foreign policy is replete with instances of our support for dictators of all stripes coming back to haunt us in the long run. We say that for once America should side with the people of Pakistan, not their oppressors.

We recognize that the United States has great strategic interests in ensuring the stability of Pakistan, especially regarding the specter of the government falling under the influence of radicals and militants. We wish to point out the great irony that in fact General Musharraf’s biggest supporters in the current Pakistani parliament are the very same religious parties that make no secret of their support for the radical militants. On the other hand, the people being oppressed by the General are secular-minded, liberal, tolerant, middle class professionals who would be our best bulwark against the further spread of radical religious ideology in Pakistan.

We hear that General Musharraf is a key ally in our war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, yet we would submit to you that in fact the very survival of General Musharraf in perpetual power is contingent upon the existence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. We are aware of the US Government’s unhappiness at the Pakistani government’s performance in the fight against terrorism. Yet we wonder why no one in our government sees that it is in General Musharraf’s own best interest never to wipe out the terrorists completely, because he knows once that happens there will be no reason for him to continue receiving US support to stay in power.

We support ongoing help given by the US to Pakistan, NOT to buy more F-16 fighters or line the pockets of army generals but to fund programs to rebuild civil society in Pakistan, improve the standard of living particularly in the tribal areas, facilitate education and better healthcare, preserve human rights, and restore true democracy, free media and an independent judiciary.

US involvement in Pakistan must be uncoupled from support for dictators, who we predict will end up as major liabilities and hindrances to our foreign policy goals in Pakistan.

We are presented with doomsday scenarios of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling in the hands of radical Islamists if the present military dictatorship comes to an end. These are fanciful ideas dreamed up by think tank types who live in a fantasy world. In fact quite the opposite is true. The army in Pakistan is capable of guarding the sovereignty of the country, fighting extremists, and protecting its strategic assets, if only its tasks could be refocused on purely military matters rather than having it permanently embroiled in ensuring the survival in power of an unpopular dictator.

We wish to ask you, our government and representatives, to please stop being afraid to engage with the people of Pakistan. They deserve more credit than is generally given them for their ability to elect their leaders democratically. The religious and fundamentalist parties have historically never received more than three percent of the popular vote in any free election in Pakistan. It is only under General Musharraf’s rule that they hold the second biggest share of seats in Pakistan’s parliament, because he needs them to maintain his hold on power and has systematically excluded popular political parties that represent the hopes and aspirations of the Pakistani masses.

We wish our government to deliver a clear ultimatum to the Pakistani establishment that our ongoing support for them is not open ended but is contingent upon the restoration of Pakistan’s constitution, an end to martial law, complete freedom of the media, holding of truly open and fair elections, and an end to all military dictatorships.

Above all, we wish to have the judges who bravely stood up to tyranny and dictatorship in Pakistan released and returned to their jobs, for we are all very proud of them. Notable among lawyers and judges who have been placed behind bars are Mr. Aitezaz Ahsan (Barrister and co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan), Mr. Muneer A. Malik (President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association), Mr. Ali Ahmed Kurd (former Vice-Chairman of the Pakistan Bar Council), and Justice (Retired) Tariq Mahmood. Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (recent recipient of Harvard Law School’s Medal of Freedom) is still under house arrest.

We look forward to a strong, democratic and progressive Pakistan.

Thank you.

Your Constituents

rally for pakistan

democracy for all!

rally to show solidarity with movement for justice in pakistan

the rally to support justice and democracy in pakistan was a success last sunday, nov 18. about 50 people turned up. it was a diverse group of people from local activists to religious and interfaith groups, from lawyers to teachers and students, from pakistani americans to americans with no ties to pakistan. it was heartening to see that human rights matter to so many. there was plenty of media coverage. here is the article in the democrat and chronicle.

this is the speech i made, as main organizer and spokesperson for the rally:

“we are here to show our support for the people of pakistan in their struggle for freedom and democracy. civil society in pakistan is being dismantled by the present dictatorship. thousands of lawyers, human rights activists, judges and academics have been put under arrest. hundreds of people who have committed no crime have mysteriously disappeared. shameful instances of torture against prominent lawyers have occurred and the government has even arrested the sisters of opposition leaders. freedom of speech has been curbed and independent media have been shut down.

martial law has been declared to supposedly fight terrorists yet the government is actually negotiating with them and every day they grow stronger. and all this after six years and billions of our tax dollars sent to the pakistan army in the name of fighting extremism. obviously, this strategy is not working.

what is happening today in pakistan is NOT to fight terrorists, NOT to preserve law and order, NOT to make pakistan or the world safer – it is a naked power grab. i ask you to send a clear message to your congressmen, senators, the u.s. administration and the whole world: americans will not stand for what is happening in pakistan. human rights violations must be stopped. those arrested must be released, the constitution must be restored, the judiciary must be restored, the media must be freed, and no more dictatorship.”




thanks to usman for these great pictures!

americans for justice in pakistan, rally on sun nov 18, 2-3.30pm, 12 corners in brighton

Rally to Support Restoration of Judiciary and Civil Liberties in Pakistan
Date: Sunday November 18, 2007
Time: 2.00pm – 3.30pm
Place: Twelve Corners in Brighton
Contact: Mara Ahmed







pakistani lawyers rally for the return of law
student protest in lahore

RIT screening

the first part of my documentary “the muslims i know” was screened at the carlson auditorium, at rit, today. it was exciting to see the first 30 minutes of my film on screen. it was also interesting to see the audience’s reaction to it. it all went well. i got a lot of questions from the audience and some feedback from malcolm spaull, howard lester and other rit film faculty. i was extremely pleased by the interest the film generated and the many comments that continued after the screening, when many of the students and some faculty approached me to talk about it. people liked the lahore collage i had put together to show the vibrance and beauty of my hometown. they also liked the muslims i had interviewed and with whom they felt a connection – the connection was different for different people but it was definitely there.

there is still a lot of work ahead of me if i want to get the film ready by february 2008 for the highfalls film festival, but during the last 11 weeks at rit (in cat ashworth’s documentary workshop class) i have gone from 30 hours of unedited footage and transformed that hodge podge into a story. cat’s input and help have been invaluable to me. not only is she an astute filmmaker but she is incredibly generous with her time and all the resources at her disposal. it has been a very hectic, sleep-deprived but also a wonderfully productive 11 weeks.

clip from “the muslims i know” coming soon…

whose children are these?

last thursday i saw theresa thanjan’s “whose children are these?” at the u of r. it is a documentary about how post 9/11 domestic national security measures have affected the lives of three muslim teenagers. the film focuses on one such program, special registration, which required male non-citizens (as young as 16) from 25 countries, to register with the department of justice. under this program, 83,000 muslim men got registered, 14,000 were deported, yet not one terrorist was found. the deportations were on account of immigration status violations, even if these constituted minor snafus.

the film follows the trials and tribulations of 3 teenagers. as we become better acquainted with them we are moved by their experiences. navila’s father is kept in a detention center for almost a year, then deported to bangladesh. all of a sudden, she becomes the father figure in her family. “i am tired”, she says later in the film, “i just want my dad back”. sarfaraz, a basketball-crazed new yorker who has already lost both his parents, is on the point of being deported to pakistan. at the last minute media attention and activism save him from being sent to a country he knows absolutely nothing about. hager, who wears the hijab, is confronted by strangers on the subway. a man calls her an arab bastard before making a quick exit. she responds to this racism by becoming an activist and educating people.

the film sheds some light on a subject that has been completely ignored by mainstream media and tells the stories of people who are lost in the deafening noise surrounding terrorism and fear. it is an admirable effort to delve into that which is not kosher by today’s standards – muslim communities in america.

what was even more heart-breaking was what many young muslim students had to tell theresa after the screening. they thanked her for making the film and for telling a small part of their stories. they talked about being held up at jfk airport every time they enter the u.s. for 6-8 hours and being harrassed in sadistic ways. they talked about being sent to a detention center in upstate ny, where they were kept for 3 weeks in spite of legal representation and without any accusation of being linked to terrorism. i found it difficult to hold back my tears. it is one thing to look at statistics and read stories in the paper. it is another to hear first hand accounts of racial profiling and the open-ended (and totally legal) persecution of communities across america. it is all the more painful and terrifying if the people being persecuted look like you and pray like you…

whose children are these?

“doubt” at geva theatre

i’ve been interested in this play ever since playwright john patrick shanley’s interview on npr. i followed the play’s fortunes off broadway and read the reviews. cherry jones won widespread accolades. all in all, the play didn’t do too badly – it won the 2004 pulitzer prize, the tony award and every critics’ award. unfortunately, i still hadn’t seen it.

imagine my joy when i found out that “doubt” was coming to geva theatre. my husband had his own doubts – the last (and only) time he had been to geva was to see a vapid “camelot”. we had just moved to rochester from the nyc area and were sorely underwhelmed by the lackluster staging of this larger-than-life arthurian legend. long story short, my husband had vowed never to return to geva.

however, i could figure that this 3-character play was going to be a completely different affair – not a big stage production, but rather a study in character acting. i bought 2 tickets and we went to see the play last weekend. it was terrific.

it’s the writing that hits you first. it has a sharpness and sparkle that’s very new york. it’s witty and profound all at once. i found the subject matter very thought-provoking – not just its reality-based depiction of scandal in the inner sanctum of a closed, rigidly hierarchical system such as the catholic church, but on a broader level, the yin and yang between doubt and certitude and the values society or religion ascribes to each. when does certitude become fanaticism? when does doubt become moral ambiguity? these are important questions to ask in today’s world.

sean patrick reilly gives a nuanced performance, undulating dangerously between the roles of charismatic, hands-on, accessible priest before his congregation; self-important, bullying man when locked in a power struggle; and perhaps morally tepid, unrepentant child molester in private life?

but it’s judith delgado who steals the show. she is a powerhouse of wit and obstinate determination. we hate and admire her. there are no cracks in her shield of arrogant conviction until the very end of the play, when we are reminded of the dangers of absolute certainty, untempered by doubt.

doubt poster

the reluctant fundamentalist

here is a great interview with writer mohsin hamid about his new book, “the reluctant fundamentalist”. hamid was born in pakistan, educated in america and now lives in london. two things that jumped out at me when i heard him on npr’s fresh air:

1) his book is based on a monologue between a princeton-educated pakistani man and a mysterious american who runs into him at a cafe in lahore. the reason he decided to write the novel in his pakistani protagonist’s voice is on account of the staggering silence imposed on muslims by western media. he was playing with the idea of looking at the world not through dialogue with others, but based on a one-sided conversation.

2) hamid talks about how he is not viewed with as much suspicion in england as he is in america. he attributes this fear to american media which have made it their mission to alarm people by telling them that they will die in a terrorist attack. he then puts it in perspective. 3,000 people died on september 11. 42,000 americans die each year in car crashes. yet we do not fear getting into a car. i would like to add this. we have accepted domestic spying, extraordinary renditions, torture, guantanamo, unprovoked wars, blackwater, halliburton, injustice, corruption and the defilement of our name around the world for the sake of feeling safer and less likely to die in a terrorist attack. if saving american lives is what we are talking about (and not oil-money) it would be much more effective, cheaper and straightforward to enforce a national speed limit of 5 miles per hour!

mohsin hamid

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.

mara verheyden-hilliard &

mara verheyden-hilliard is a civil rights attorney and co-founder of the partnership for civil justice. she is also on the steering committee of the international group ANSWER (act now to stop the war and end racism), the main organizers of the september 15, 2007 anti-war mass protest in washington dc. this woman is amazing. not only is she extraordinarily intelligent and articulate but her weltanschauung has a moral rectitude rarely found today. after all, i believe that we are living at a time when information-fixing and therefore thought-control have reached a new pinnacle. it is already a struggle to see past the smoke and mirrors but then to be able to stand up for what you believe in, even if that is considered “fringe” and unpopular, and to work tirelessly to change things for the better – that to me is the mark of an outstanding human being.

here’s an interview mara did back in 2003 for npr’s fresh air. she talks about her involvement in anti-war demonstrations on the eve of the american invasion of iraq. this interview is a big slap in the face of the theory that npr is somehow liberal. terry gross is as establishment as anyone else, she certainly has her own agenda, which she pushes aggressively to the detriment of her job as host and interviewer.

this is an article mara wrote for, june 3, 2006 – it’s called “the logic of war crimes in a criminal war“.

one of the points mara makes is not to get distracted by elections – if you look at the history of our country, no worthwhile, groundbreaking change was ever effected through the election of the right politicians. what we need instead are grassroots movements that mobilize people to come out in unison and decry the war as well as other racist government policies. this is the only way to force politicians, whether they be republican or democrat, to take account of what we think and what we want, we the people they are supposed to serve!

mara verheyden-hilliard

beyond belief – NYWIFT event at the little

NYWIFT or new york women in film and television’s rochester chapter opened last week with the screening of the documentary “beyond belief” at the little theatre. the film recreates the step by step progression in the story of two 9/11 widows (susan retik and patti quigley) who decide to help afghani women. there are some illuminating moments in the film – the very idea of turning hate into love, of forgiving in order to achieve “post-traumatic growth”, of realizing that we are all connected and that what happens in afghanistan affects us here at home, the concept that all the small, day-to-day decisions we make in our lives cumulatively define who we are in the world, and that our common humanity can transcend even the most striking socio-cultural differences. that’s powerful. the director beth murphy talks about compassion fatigue, a dulled sensitivity to crisis over time. viewers, when faced with a relentless barrage of snapshots showing human suffering all over the world, start to feel helpless and so disengage. this film puts the ball back in our court – instead of feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, we are reminded that every action we take has a ripple effect and can change the course of the world in small but cumulatively potent ways.

as far as the overall documentary, i felt that 9/11 was the star of the film. the grief of the two widows is obviously real and palpable but as patti quigley says herself, she is ready to move beyond her role of 9/11 widow. much has happened since 9/11 – we have invaded afghanistan and killed more afghanis, we have invaded iraq and started a barbaric civil war (more than 655,000 iraqis have died along with thousands of american troops), we have legitimized torture and trampled on basic human rights all around the globe, we have reworked the laws of our country in order to curtain civil liberties, we have discovered that our government is far from being honest and that our media is far from holding it to account. with all the things that have gone horribly wrong since 9/11, shouldn’t we move beyond our role of wounded nation?

i wish that more time had been spent telling the stories of the afghan widows. we only see them as a one-dimensional horde of burqas on cnn. this film could have afforded us a rare glimpse into their lives and suffused them with some depth. there is a little bit of that but not enough. we cannot help but fall in love with some of the afghani women profiled in the film. they are honest and accessible, strong and dignified and possess a calm inner beauty. that’s a face not often seen in the media, a voice not often heard. beth murphy has made a laudable effort to show us another side, let’s hope this is just the beginning.

after watching “beyond belief” the writer june avignone sent me the link to this article she wrote called “the cure we wait for” (sun magazine, march 2003). she talks about 9/11 and compares it to her experience with cancer.

“i am not shocked at all. if anything, i am shocked about how many other people are shocked. i know that there will be a precious moment figurine about all this down the road, perhaps a cute little fireman followed by a sweet, gun-toting marine. and i know america will eat them up, unlike the truth that was there all along, the warnings ignored like a bad dream and hidden behind the correct purchases made at the mall.

and with their shock comes the talk of getting the bad guys; of killing some good to destroy the bad; of using cannons to get the thief who robbed us of innocent lives, and threatens us still; of hitting larger territories to get at the hidden problem and make it go away for good. and the language is so familiar I cannot bear it.

i do not know where all of it is going. i only know that we tell ourselves we have the cure, and we don’t. the thief is inside all of us. and part of the cure, at the very least, lies in knowing that.”

is american naïveté a cop-out?

it is well known in the rest of the world that american media are neither critical nor incisive. this is why americans are often described as being naive. in a way it all makes sense:

(1) americans are the most overworked people in the industrialized world. they have surpassed the likes of japan (by two weeks per year) and germany (by two entire months per year)
(2) american public education is sadly deficient. as the gates have pointed out: “what good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?”
(3) american healthcare has not only left huge segments of the population out in the cold, it is ranked 37th in the world in terms of quality even though our healthcare costs are astronomical – almost double the per-capita cost in canada (yet canada’s life expectancy and infant mortality rates are better than ours).

what do you expect from people who are overworked, under-educated and without decent healthcare? do they have the time or the ability to navigate multiple news sources (some domestic, some international), parse that information and make up their own minds? the capitalistic system is alive and well. the focus is on producing good workers and consumers, not good citizens.

but are we that helpless? is it that easy to infantilize a nation?

john stuart mill believed that people generally get the form of government they deserve – if laws they allow to go unchecked become the tools of despotic powers, they have only their own ignorance or apathy to blame. it is our responsibility, our duty as citizens, to maximize our intellectual potential in order to make the right decisions. how else can a democratic system be truly democratic and embody the voice of the people?

john stuart mill