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.”

It’s Time to Get Real: Obama is Wrong

Anyone who knows me is aware that I’ve been cautiously optimistic about President Obama for a long time.  Like many, I was devastated by the Israeli attacks on Gaza last winter and I was also extremely disappointed with Obama for not holding the Israeli government accountable.  “He’s not the president yet,” many would say, including some Muslim friends of mine.  I wanted to believe they were right, so I kept my frustration sidelined.  I’ll wait and see what happens after his inauguration, I told myself.  After 8 years of war, profiling of Muslims and Arabs, and rising Islamophobia, who wouldn’t like to believe there is hope for our nation?

After Obama swore into office, I was pleased when I heard his proposal to shut down Guantanamo bay.  I admit it was nice to see an American president reaching out to Muslim-Americans, Muslim majority countries, giving a speech in Turkey, in Cairo, and addressing Iran, all whilst demonstrating an appreciative understanding of Islam.  He cited the Qur’an, the Persian poet Sa’di, and a Turkish proverb that says, “You cannot put out fire with flames.”  He revealed that he had Muslims in his family and then wished Muslims worldwide a blessed Ramadan.  Although I did not fully support Obama at this point since I was still skeptical and, at times, very critical (especially for not highlighting the war crimes in Gaza), I was privately hoping that my uncertainty was wrong.  Maybe this is for real, I thought.  Maybe real change is on the horizon.

But my hopes quickly changed when Obama ordered drone attacks in Pakistan.  As I wrote in my previous post, the senseless drone attacks during Obama’s first 99 days in office amounted to well over 150 deaths.   Drone attacks have continued to the current month of December, claiming the lives of many innocent civilians.  In fact, as Pakistani author and political commentator Tariq Ali points out, on the very day that an Iranian woman, Neda Soltani, was murdered during the election protests in Iran, a U.S. drone killed 60 people in Pakistan, mostly women and children.  The death of Soltani drew international attention and became an iconic image of resistance against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, while nothing was mentioned about Pakistan.

The loss of one human life is one too many, but based on this contrast of media attention, it reveals a remarkably cruel prejudice that, seemingly, victims in Muslim majority countries are only worth reporting when they are killed by their own people.  Informing people about American atrocities sends the “wrong message” about the Obama administration’s agenda.  Similar to how Bush convinced citizens to support his war in Iraq, Obama cannot win support for advancing his war in Afghanistan if Americans know that innocent people are being killed by U.S. attacks.

When Obama officially announced escalating American troops in Afghanistan, I could not, for the life of me, understand why some liberals, democrats, and my fellow Muslims were still supporting him.  If George W. Bush was giving the same speech and deploying another tide of soldiers into the region, all of us would be flipping out.  It’s different this time, though.  Obama is not Bush, and he has reached out to Muslims in a way that no other American president has.  The majority of Muslim-Americans voted for him and a lot even campaigned for his presidency.  Perhaps people don’t want to admit they’re wrong, or perhaps they don’t want to criticize his policies because, quite simply, they like him.  I know there are a lot of Muslims and non-Muslims alike who are just as conflicted as I was and want to believe Obama is doing the right thing

But let’s get real: his foreign policy is terribly flawed and only calling for disaster.  You don’t “sweet talk” other Muslim majority countries, cite Qur’anic verses, quote Persian poets and Turkish proverbs, and then advocate for war/military occupation in another Muslim majority country.  You don’t exclude the word “terrorism” in a speech addressed to Cairo, but then use it again in the U.S. to reinforce the alarmist and manipulative rhetoric that “terrorism” can only be carried out by militants or extremists who self-identify as Muslim.  This duplicity is designed to simultaneously win the allegiance of Muslims (especially in Arab countries) and many Republicans who want the President to show some backbone in the war against “Islamic terrorism.”

But what happened to our anti-war stance?  “You cannot put out fire with flames,” goes the Turkish proverb Obama cited, so how does increasing violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan result in peace?  What’s astonishing to me is how so many people (who identified as “anti-war”) are now advocating for war in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a disturbingly similar way supporters of the previous administration did!  Remember when you would argue with the pro-Bush crowd about Iraq and they would simply say, “Well, we’re protecting America from terrorists”?  The same argument is being made about Afghanistan by liberals, democrats, and Muslims alike.  It just shocks me at how oblivious many people are about this.

The sad part is that the “terrorism” argument is used as simplistic justification for their support of the Afghan war because, frankly, they tend to know very little to nothing about Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Let’s start off by saying the majority of Afghans and Pakistanis are anti-Taliban, anti-extremism, and anti-Western military occupation.  However, lies such as “Afghans/Pakistanis prefer the Taliban” are being perpetuated in a familiar alarmist fashion.  Where does this information come from and why is it being used to cover up real atrocities committed by the Obama administration?  Last week, about a hundred Afghans protested against Obama’s policies when U.S. special forces killed 12 people in the village.  In May of 2009, an American airstrike mistakenly attacked the village of Bala Baluk and killed over 147 people and resulted in even more anti-American sentiments from Afghan civilians.  How many more of these “mistakes” can the U.S. afford to make?  Why do we behave as if there won’t be any retaliation from the civilians, especially those who lost their family members and Loved ones?  Doesn’t common sense tell us that people don’t forget about these horrible war crimes?

Malalai Joya, an Afghan politician and activist who is often called “the bravest woman in Afghanistan,” is a vehemently outspoken critic of Afghan warlords and the presence of NATO troops in her country.  She highlights on the lies spread about Afghanistan, as well as the major flaws in Obama’s new strategy:

Almost eight years after the Taliban regime was toppled, our hopes for a truly democratic and independent Afghanistan have been betrayed by the continued domination of fundamentalists and by a brutal occupation that ultimately serves only American strategic interests in the region.

You must understand that the government headed by Hamid Karzai is full of warlords and extremists who are brothers in creed of the Taliban. Many of these men committed terrible crimes against the Afghan people during the civil war of the 1990sThe fact that I was kicked out of office while brutal warlords enjoyed immunity from prosecution for their crimes should tell you all you need to know about the “democracy” backed by Nato troops.

Furthermore, she adds that Obama’s war in Afghanistan and expansion into Pakistan is simply adding more fuel to the fire and is no different from Bush’s policies.  Afghan victims of abuse and rape find no justice when the people in power are corrupt themselves, but don’t count on the Obama administration to acknowledge this problem.  After all, the Afghan government allows NATO troops to occupy the country and the U.S. wants to maintain that kind of alliance.

Despite this information, I’ve seen many, including fellow Muslims, speak so insensitively about Afghanistan and Pakistan, as if the people there are complicit and responsible for the turmoil they’re in!  This is insulting and essentially transforms the victim into the perpetrator.  Pakistan, for instance, is accused of being “the most dangerous country in the world,” which only creates the image of a nation rampant with terrorism.  However, very little is said that the majority of Pakistanis hate the Taliban.  Polls and surveys have consistently found that the majority of Pakistanis consider the U.S. the greatest threat to their country.  This statistic is rarely reported and no one seems to care.

Tariq Ali asserts another significant point:  The situation in Pakistan today is directly linked to the war in Afghanistan.  Speaking as a Pakistani, I don’t ever remember a time when my family was frightened about visiting Pakistan or worried about their Loved ones because of bomb blasts and attacks.  Even after 9/11, my family and I would visit Pakistan and did not have to worry about our safety in the way people do now.  I have relatives who were only five blocks away from a bomb blast in Lahore and I once stayed at the Marriott hotel that was bombed in Islamabad last September.  Many, including some of my Pakistani acquaintances, simply utter profanities about these extremists, which is perfectly appropriate, but I’ve noticed that people overlook the root cause of this problem.  After 9/11, Pakistan was forced into military cooperation, not only because Bush gave Pakistan the “you’re either with us or against us” ultimatum, but also because Richard Armitage, the former U.S. deputy secretary of state, threatened to “blow Pakistan back to the stone age.” No doubt the Pakistani military is not without blame, but its operations against the Taliban and other militant groups only make the Pakistani government look complicit with U.S. war crimes.  Similar to the Afghan government, the Pakistani government is reeking with corruption and its unpopular president, Asif Zardari, permits the U.S. drone attacks.  All of this is causing the war in Afghanistan to spill into Pakistan.

When we simply say “they’re terrorists,” we become desensitized to the deaths of Afghans and Pakistanis.  Associating the majority of Afghans and Pakistanis with the extremist groups or the corrupt officials in the government does a great injustice to their struggles.  In March, the Pakistani people marched in the streets and organized rallies in protest to the government’s sacking of their chief justice.  The government eventually caved in and conceded with the people’s demand to reinstate the chief justice.  This was a victory not only for the Pakistani people, but also for everyone who seeks social justice.  Yet why wasn’t this reported widely in the mainstream western media?  Perhaps because it is contradictory to the image that the media wants to promote, i.e. “the most dangerous country in the world” or a “boiling pot” of “terrorism.”

In several debates with fellow Muslims, I’ve been told that the Afghan and Pakistani people “aren’t taking a stand,” so Obama’s military intervention is “justified.”  Again, this does a great disservice to the efforts of Afghans and Pakistanis who are risking their lives in combating violent extremism.  But it does not help when you’re being attacked by both sides:  The Taliban on one hand, and the U.S. military occupation/drone attacks on the other.  If the people of America could not impeach a president for 8 years of his term, then how can we expect the Afghans and Pakistanis to easily overthrow their leaders?  And why do people expect a miraculous change from Obama’s surge?  Tariq Ali cites the previous head of CIA station in Kabul, Graham Fuller, who made the following points about the Afghan war:

1.  It is impossible to police the Afghan-Pakistan border because it extends over thousands of miles and consists of mountainous territory, which makes it impossible to even construct a wall.  I get the feeling that if we could ask Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan why they couldn’t conquer the region, they would say something about the mountains.

2.  People on either side of the border “often belong to the same tribes, often related, speak the same language, and inter-marriage is common.”  When people suffer on one side, allies from the other side cross the border to help out.

3.  “The presence of the U.S. is part of the problem, not the solution.”

Just by examining these points, one gets a glimpse of how complex the conflict is.  Too often, I’ve noticed that people speak about this war as if Afghans and Pakistanis are not suffering.  As Thomas Houlahan reports:  “Pakistan has lost more civilians in the war on terror than the United States; Pakistan has lost more troops killed in fighting insurgents than every foreign contingent in Afghanistan combined. These facts fly in the face of the misinformation bandied about that Pakistan is soft on terror.”

If people truly and genuinely care about the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I believe they should listen to the citizens of those countries instead of arrogantly behaving as if they can speak for them or “know” what’s best for them.  There needs to be a better exit strategy and a stronger effort for diplomacy.  The Angus Reid Global Monitor found that 68% of Afghans think the government should hold talks with the Taliban.  If Obama supports diplomacy with Iraq, Iran, and Palestine, why isn’t the same policy extended in Afghanistan?

I can no longer hold back on my criticism of president Obama and, honestly, I am fed up with people making excuses for him.  Muslims worked so hard to campaign for him and a lot of us put so much faith in him, but we cannot overlook the fact that his policies are only going to tarnish relations with Muslim majority countries even further.  I will not be a fool anymore and listen to the false hope that “over time, Obama will change things” or “after he does such and such, he will take a stand for Palestine and Muslims.”  I do not understand how Obama can get away with advancing war while citing historical figures who symbolize non-violence and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Just like Iraq and Palestine, people do not like being occupied by a foreign invader.  Military intervention and more drone attacks will make matters worse, endanger the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims in many parts of the world, and it will create more enemies.  I don’t need a crystal ball to figure that out.  Recent history (i.e. the last 8 years) says it all.