Muslim-Americans Getting It Wrong on Pakistan

In no way do I support the Pakistani court’s decision to ban its citizens from accessing Facebook and YouTube. As many of you know, restrictions were put into effect after Pakistani officials learned about an idiotic, Islamophobic event on Facebook called “Draw Muhammad Day.” As much as I strongly oppose the event and find it clearly driven by hate and ignorance, I believe the Facebook ban is not only nonsensical and counterproductive, but also an insult to the Pakistani people, implying that millions of citizens would flock to the group and participate if the site is not prohibited. Without a doubt, the blockade of Facebook and YouTube represents the government’s religious insecurity and mistrust of its own people.

However, what puzzles me further is how Muslim-Americans, especially those of Pakistani descent, resort to simplified generalizations and misrepresentations of Paksitan and its citizens. I do not know Arsalan Iftikhar personally, but I have always respected his efforts to speak out against Islamophobia and distortions of Muslim-Americans. Whether on CNN or Fox News and talking to right-wing bullies like Bill O’Reilly, Mr. Iftikhar’s work certainly calls for respect and appreciation.

But I must challenge the comments he made about Pakistan in his latest piece on the CNN opinion page. Mr. Iftikhar paints a harsh picture of Pakistan in the very first sentence:

For a country that has produced five military dictators in 60 years, mourned the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and struggles continually against its own militant extremists who have killed thousands in their own nation, Pakistan has absolutely picked the wrong fight by banning Facebook and YouTube because of an idiotic virtual campaign called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

Mr. Iftikhar went further to argue that the country did not live up to its name, pointing out that the word “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure” when translated from Urdu. “There has been nothing pure,” he writes, “about the downward sociopolitical spiral of this nuclear-armed, Third World fledgling democracy of 172 million people over the last several years.” He cites former US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, who describes the region as terrorized by extremists. Mr. Iftikhar closes with the following:

Instead of conjuring up stupid controversies like the recent bans of Facebook and YouTube because of some silly drawings, the 172 million citizens of Pakistan should focus their political attention and economic resources on educating their women, improving their rule of law system and truly understanding the repercussions that come with ominously naming your country the “land of the pure.”

I will not dispute the social, political, and economic struggles that confront Pakistan. Indeed, they are real. However, what surprises and appalls me is that there is not a single mentioning of the U.S. intervening, exploiting, and attacking Pakistan. Mr. Iftikhar’s article is titled “Pakistan should ban extremism, not Facebook,” but he does not address the root of the extremism. He only touches upon the symptoms of a larger problem. Yes, Pakistan has an unfortunate history of military dictators and while it is important to hold those leaders accountable for their criminal actions, it is also crucial to acknowledge that the US largely supported and funded those dictatorships.

When the United States was hell-bent on fighting Communism, the government subsidized General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s most ruthless military dictator, who was trained in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later stationed in Jordan to train soldiers during the Black September operations, which resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths and causalities. The US-Pakistan alliance monetarily and militarily aided the Mujahedeen resistance movement in Afghanistan against Soviet invasion. Not only were extremists and militant groups supplied with US weapons and trained by the CIA, but the jihadi manuals were also printed in Nebraska.

I have repeatedly pointed this out in previous posts, but after September 11th, then President Pervez Musharraf was given an ultimatum from George W. Bush: “You’re either with us or against us.” Pakistani British author Tariq Ali has also emphasized on this next point: former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage threatened to “blow Pakistan back to the stone age.” Pakistan’s cooperation with the US, as well as fighting in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) has resulted in violent antagonism towards Pakistan from tribal groups, militants and extremists.

In other words, the war in Afghanistan is spilling into Pakistan. The invading Taliban groups view the Pakistani government as complicit with US war crimes, not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and Palestine as well. This has resulted in devastating attacks on Pakistan, which has caused so much suffering on the Pakistani people themselves – Sufi shrines being destroyed in Peshawar, the bombing of girl’s schools, sporadic bombings in Peshawar, Lahore and other parts of the country, etc.

President Obama, who frequently criticized the US for supporting Musharraf during the presidential campaign, is not only financially backing President Asif Zardari – a man who is reviled by the majority of Pakistanis – but also escalating troops in Afghanistan and carrying out deadly drone operations in Pakistani tribal areas. In fact, it was reported by Pakistan’s Dawn Media Group that over 700 civilians were killed by drone attacks since Obama took office in 2009. According to PressTV, an estimated 300 people (and counting) have been killed in 42 drone attacks in 2010. Not to state the obvious, but that is a lot of people! Zardari and Hamid Karzai of neighboring Afghanistan both welcome Obama’s policies in advancing the Afghan war and continuing the drone attacks, respectively.

Yet it seems that President Obama receives little to no criticism from Muslim-Americans, specifically those who are in Washington or work in civil rights organizations. I often hear peculiar arguments that seek to justify his policies. There are those who even question the number of casualties from the drone attacks (to which author and activist Jeremy Scahill has refuted). Others have argued that leaflets were sent to those areas, so all of the Pakistani civilians should just leave. Funny, because I never heard such excuses when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in December-January of 2008-2009.

The reality is that human rights violations still occur under Obama’s administration – in Iraq, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. In February, US soldiers raided an Afghan home and killed three innocent women – two of whom were pregnant – and then tried to hide the evidence by digging the bullets out of the dead bodies. Earlier this month, 20 people were killed in another drone attack in Pakistan. With such injustice, how does one expect there to be no violent backlash or retaliation at all? Do people easily forget the murders of their Loved ones?

It would be inaccurate to say extremism and corruption does not exist among certain Pakistani religious leaders and politicians, but excluding US attacks and military operations in the region would be just as misguided. As Tariq Ali has stated in several of his talks, the US presence in Afghanistan is not the solution, it is part of the problem and it is having a disastrous impact on Pakistan. Drone assaults on tribal areas only generates a culture of revenge, intensifies the violence, and endangers the lives of Pakistanis, as well as Americans (see: Time Square).

Extremism does not manifest out of thin air. Ignoring the US as a key factor is a misrepresentation of facts and simplifies the radicalization of extremists and militant groups (similar to how Bush advocates used to say, “They hate us because we’re free”).

Not all of the 172 million Pakistani citizens support the ban on Facebook and YouTube. I would argue that the vast majority of Pakistanis object to it – and I base this on the nation-wide demonstrations that helped reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, as well as the gathering of over one hundred thousand people who observed the 250th anniversary of the divinely inspired 17th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah. Though I doubt Mr. Iftikhar was implying that 172 million Pakistanis weren’t doing anything about educating women and improving their ruling systems, I think it was unfair that he didn’t mention their efforts.

As for Pakistan not living up to its name, “Land of the Pure,” I cannot really disagree with Arsalan Iftikhar. However, I must ask: which country is, if any? Which country in the world is the shining example of justice and liberty for all? Sure, there is enough to criticize about the “Land of the Pure,” but let’s not dismiss the facts, the US-Pakistan relationships, the dynamics of power, and the deadly repercussions of military intervention and exploitation.

And surely, that turns our attention to the problems we have here in the “Land of the Free.”

Reza Aslan to US: Leave Us Alone

This is a recent clip from CNN where Reza Aslan schools Alexander Benard on whether or not Barack Obama should be more outspoken about the current situation in Iran. Sometimes, I’m amazed that people like Alexander Benard can appear on television. Earlier in the clip, you see John McCain expressing his support for the Iranian protesters and acting like the Iranian people respect him. This is the same man who was singing “Bomb Iran” during his presidential campaign! Does he really think that people will forget that?

Alexander Benard states that the President of the United States speaks on behalf of the world. Says who? Did American Presidents all of a sudden become Presidents of the world? Isn’t this reinforcing the notion that America is a bully nation that goes around policing other states? The US has no credibility in Iran anymore; the people don’t forget the CIA-backed coup in 1953 when a democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossedegh, was ousted for the sake of re-installing the pro-western Shah. The Shah’s dictatorship only led to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni and the subsequent Islamic revolution. And we all know in recent times how the Bush administration has been very hostile towards the current regime in Iran.

People like Alexander Benard need to get over their western savior complex and pay attention for once. I’m glad Reza Aslan shut him down and schooled him on a country that Benard doesn’t know anything about. All one needs to do is use their common sense: If the United States mingles with this situation, Ahmadinejad will use it to his advantage and it’s going to get very ugly. Look at Pakistan, for example. The Taliban invasion of Pakistan is retaliatory to the Pakistani military, which was forced into the region by the US. The Taliban accuse the Pakistani government (and anyone else who doesn’t agree with their radical ideology) of being complicit with the war crimes of the US. Ahmadinejad will do the same thing if the US interferes; he will associate Mousavi with the west and it will seriously create potential for increased violence.

I’m really fed up with these groups who suddenly “care” about Iran, when only a few months ago, they were pounding the war drum against them. I don’t understand how they can shamelessly appear on television and have the “guts” to talk about Iran. I heartily agree with Aslan. This is something that needs to be left to the Iranian people.

Senseless Drone Attacks on Pakistan: Obama’s Real Science-Fiction War

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Yesterday, June 24th, over 80 people were killed after a U.S. drone fired missiles at the funeral of a suspected commander of the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan.  Pakistani officials reported that the Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, escaped the attack while the majority of those killed were civilians.  Al-Jazeera English reports the following:

Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Islamabad, said: “There are reports that Mehsud himself was at the congregational prayer and escaped the attack.

However, we are told that a number of people present at that particular moment were [also] killed. There were unconfirmed reports that the death toll is much higher because a number of the bodies are badly mutilated.

However, Qari Hussain, a close associate of Mehsud, denied reports that Mehsud had a close call and said many of the dead were civilians.

“Baitullah Mehsud was at a secret place at the time of the American missile attack, and the attack killed only five of our colleagues, and the remaining 45 slain men were villagers,” he told The Associated Press news agency.

There is some dispute over the causality numbers — some say over 45, some say over 65, some say over 80 — but does the exact number really matter when we’re (1) talking about human life and (2) what has now become a frequent routine sweep for U.S. drone attacks in the region?  Since President Obama’s inauguration in January, he has authorized regular attacks from unmanned U.S. predator drones on Pakistan, which has amounted to over 150 people.  As Jeremy Scahill writes in his article, Obama’s Undeclared War Against Pakistan Continues, Despite His Attempt to Downplay It,” that “Since 2006, U.S. drone strikes have killed 687 people (as of April). That amounts to about 38 deaths a month just from drone attacks.”

Last weekend, Obama sat down with Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, and stated that the U.S. has “no intention of sending US troops into Pakistan.”  He also mentioned that he knows how to cook some Pakistani dishes like qeema and daal, and expressed his appreciation for Urdu poetry.  Are these comments meant to soften the reality of U.S. operations inside of Pakistan?  Although Obama denies U.S. military presence in Pakistan, The New York Times reported the following in February:

American Special Operations troops based in Afghanistan have also carried out a number of operations into Pakistan’s tribal areas since early September, when a commando raid that killed a number of militants was publicly condemned by Pakistani officials. According to a senior American military official, the commando missions since September have been primarily to gather intelligence.

The drones are remotely-piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) which have been used a great deal in Iraq and Afghanistan.  What doesn’t seem to be discussed is that there is a lot of racism and ethnocentrism embedded in these drone strikes.  As Scahill comments, “the only difference between using these attack drones and using actual US soldiers on the ground is that the soldiers are living beings. These drones sanitize war and reduce the US death toll while still unleashing military hell disproportionately on civilians.”  In other words, the drone attacks tell us that human life is only important if it is American. When innocent Pakistanis are killed, all the Obama administration can say is they “regret it” because they have that privilege.

We’ve all seen it before in science fiction films and novels.  Robot armies and unmanned vehicles are deployed by nations with disproportionate military power (namely the United States) to protect their own civilians, but never showing the same concern for human beings in other countries.  Eventually, what happens is the machines take over and end up waging an indiscriminate war against all of humanity.  Remember Skynet from the Terminator series:  Cyborgs and machines built initially to protect Americans against “foreign threats” develop a system/mind of their own and become humanity’s worse enemy.  No, I am not suggesting that machines are going to take over the world in such dramatic fashion, but metaphorically, it’s already happening and right now, it’s benefiting the military superpower.  Imagine what would happen if another nation used these same drones to attack a town in the United States?  How would the U.S. react to that?

First, there were spears, then swords, then arrows, then catapults, then gunpowder, then rifles, then canons, then automatic weapons, then fighter aircraft, then missiles, then the atom bomb, and now we have unmanned aerial vehicles.  What’s next?  Android soldiers?  As much as we can appreciate human innovation and technological advancement in things like the internet and telecommunication, why is that most of our government spending is invested in military technology?  Think about all the things we could be doing with that money instead of killing other human beings.  Think about all the people we could feed, shelter, and educate.  Most of us living in the west take our privilege for granted and don’t realize that we have a privilege to pursue our dreams and ambitions.  Others, like the 3 million people displaced in Swat, have other priorities in their lives before they can even worry about anything else.

And what kind of reaction are these drone attacks going to create from Pakistanis?  How does this benefit Pakistan’s attitudes towards the United States?  Pulse Media has an excellent post which includes Democracy Now’s interview with Imran Khan, a very outspoken activist and critic of both, the Pakistani government and U.S. foreign policy.  Here’s an important excerpt:

AMY GOODMAN: Imran Khan, you were in Washington at the time that US lawmakers voted for funding the expanded war in Afghanistan. The US is planning a massive diplomatic presence in Pakistan. I think President Obama asked something like three-quarters of a billion dollars, $736 million, to build a new US embassy, as well as permanent housing for US officials in Islamabad. What is the effect of this? And what is the effect of the expanded war in Afghanistan on Pakistan?

IMRAN KHAN: Well, there was no terrorism in Pakistan, we had no suicide bombing in Pakistan, ’til Pakistan sent its troops on—under pressure from the US. Musharraf, General Musharraf, capitulated under the pressure and sent Pakistani troops into the tribal area and Waziristan. So it was that that resulted in what was the new phenomenon: the Pakistani Taliban. We had no militant Taliban in Pakistan, until we got in—we were forced into this US war on terror by a military dictator, not by the people of Pakistan. And people never owned this war. People always thought that this is not our war, and quite rightly, because we did not have any terrorism in Pakistan, as subsequently grew.

The more operations we did, the more reaction came. And suddenly, as now, we have thirty Taliban groups. I mean, these groups call themselves Taliban, but basically these are radicalized people, these are extremists. And extremism is growing in Pakistan, the more we are being engulfed in this war, which is based in, basically, Afghanistan. So, as long as the US troops are in Afghanistan, I’m afraid there’s no peace in Pakistan either, because the tribal areas are basically—there’s no border there, so the Pashtuns are split between—on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we have, you know, this movement across the border. And, you know, to send a—think that the Pakistan army is going to stop it—I think Pakistan army itself is going to be stuck in this quagmire, the same as the US in Afghanistan.

Imran Khan makes a crucial point that I always find myself making when I discuss how the current crisis in Pakistan evolved.  Following the attacks of September 11th, George W. Bush gave countries like Pakistan an ultimatum, “you’re either with us or against us.”  In that respect, Pakistan was pigeon-holed into military cooperation with the United States and as a result of fighting Taliban and militant forces in the North West Frontier Province, hostility and antagonism towards the Pakistani government increased.  The Taliban forces have invaded Pakistan, not because this was something rooted in their ideology, but because the Taliban consider the Pakistani government complicit with the war crimes of the United States.

President Obama, who has criticized U.S. foreign policy in other countries, oddly does not enlighten Americans about the current struggles in Paksitan.  He does not seem to worry about the inevitable backlash from the Taliban, militants, or even the civilians who just lost their Loved ones.  If Obama is willing to engage in diplomatic relations with other Muslim countries like Iran and Palestine, then why isn’t the same true for Pakistan and Afghanistan?  The President assured Pakistanis that their country’s sovereignty will not be violated, but the truth of the matter is that the drone strikes are violating their sovereignty.  So what is Obama’s purpose in Pakistan?  Jeremy Scahill reveals some disturbing facts about America’s plans in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

It is clear—and has been for a long time— that the Obama administration is radically expanding the US war in Afghanistan deeply into Pakistan. Whether it is through US military trainers (that’s what they were called in Vietnam too), drone attacks or commando raids inside the country, the US is militarily entrenched in Pakistan. It makes Obama’s comment that “[W]e have no intention of sending US troops into Pakistan” simply unbelievable.

For a sense of how significant US operations are and will continue to be for years and years to come, just look at the US plan to build an almost $1 billion massive US “embassy” in Islamabad, which is reportedly modeled after the imperial city they call a US embassy in Baghdad. As we know very clearly from Iraq, such a complex will result in an immediate surge in the deployment of US soldiers, mercenaries and other contractors.

Are you enjoying your qeema and daal, Mr. President?

This Isn’t Just About Cricket

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Scoring 51 runs from 34 balls and taking two important wickets, Shahid Afridi (pictured above) led Pakistan into their second-consecutive Twenty20 World Cup final after a marvelous all-around performance against the favored South Africa team on Thursday, June 18th.  Cricket commentators and analysts are calling this a “fairy tale” story for Pakistan, a country that has been facing immense adversity from the Taliban invasion, U.S. drone attacks, and negative media coverage.  The stunning performance and incredible display of teamwork from the Pakistani cricket team has shone a positive light in the hearts of millions of Pakistanis worldwide, showing the world that there is more to their country than just politics and turmoil.

After the victory, former test captain Moin Khan told Reuters, “Cricket has always been a big binding force in our country and the team’s success in the World Cup has helped lift the spirits of the people.  The last few months have been very hard for the people and many of us carry psychological scars of the innocent lives lost in these terrorist attacks. But for now we have something to celebrate and look forward to.”

Indeed, the last few months have been very difficult for Pakistan, and many Pakistanis who live outside of the country, like myself, feel heartbroken not only because of the Taliban invasion or the bombings in Lahore and Peshawar, but also because there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Pakistan and its people.  It’s wonderful when people are able to share and celebrate their culture, but lately, it’s been difficult to speak about my culture without having to deal with questions about terrorism, the Taliban, or even Osama bin Laden.  Being Muslim, the “Islam and terrorism” association is something I’ve been dealing with since 9/11, but now, since I feel more connected with Pakistan, the negative perceptions have worsened.

Unfortunately, most non-Pakistanis, especially in the west, have a very vague and limited understanding of what the country is actually going through.  The general impression seems to be that Pakistan is unstable and that a war is brewing between radical militants (like the Taliban) and the Pakistani government.  The Pakistani public, however, are left out of the picture.  Rather than pointing out that the majority of Pakistanis are very anti-Taliban, most of mainstream media is filled with Islamophobic rhetoric and a lot of misinformation, especially regarding whether or not the Pakistani government has been cooperating militarily with the United States (the fact that Pakistan has lost more civilians and soldiers than the United States in fighting insurgents doesn’t ever seem to be mentioned by the mainstream media or even the Obama administration).  Neglecting the voice that represents the majority of Pakistan is really irresponsible journalism and it’s one of the reasons why so many western stereotypes and misconceptions persist about Pakistanis.

The reason why the latest news about Pakistan’s cricket team is so significant is because cricket receives a lot of media attention in Europe, Africa, South Asia, and Australia, and the fact that Pakistan has reached the final during a time when its country is enduring so many struggles is remarkable alone.  It not only breaks stereotypes, but also helps restore some dignity and respect to Pakistan’s tarnished image.  It’s unfortunate that cricket hardly receives any media attention in the United States (since it doesn’t have a team), but perhaps a victory for Pakistan in the final would inspire (at least some) media coverage of it, considering that the Pakistani athletes have promised to donate their earnings to displaced people in the North West Frontier Province.

As many Pakistanis know, cricket is not just another sport.  It’s almost like the country’s second religion.  When I watched Pakistan defeat South Africa yesterday, I saw Pakistanis rejoicing in the crowd, young boys and girls with Pakistani flags painted on their cheeks and waving their green banners, people of all ages dancing and cheering into video cameras more jubilantly than I’ve probably ever seen them before  — these are the images of Pakistanis that I am familiar with.  Although most of the Pakistanis in the crowd were British citizens, I believe that all Pakistanis, no matter where in the world, knew exactly why they were cheering.  It wasn’t just about cricket.  It was about something more than that.  It was about inspiring hope, answering to the critics who said Pakistan’s reputation was destroyed after the attacks on the Sri Lanka cricket team, and showing the world that Pakistan has a place in the world where the majority of its citizens want stability and peace in their country.

I don’t think I’ve ever been this emotional while watching a cricket game.  Whether it’s Shahid Afridi’s gritty and competitive attitude on the pitch, or Pakistanis marching in the streets to reinstate the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, or even large demonstrations against the Taliban, it all reveals that despite the problems that confront the country, the Pakistani people have heart and are not the “enemies” as western media often depicts them.  It is something they deserve appreciation and respect for.  May Allah keep Pakistan safe from both internal and external forces that only want to destroy it.  Ameen.

Good luck on Sunday, Pakistan!  In the meantime, enjoy the clip below from Pakistan’s recent victory over South Africa: