Monday, January 31, 2011

Esposito and Lalwani on the plight of Christian minorities

A recent article in the Huffington Post by John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani on the threat to the wellbeing of Christian minorities in the Middle East and Central/South Asia is so significant that I reproduce it here. [Click on the title above for a direct link to the original article.] RLC
Christians Under Siege: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism in the Muslim World
by John L. Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani

Conflicts and killings from Africa to Southeast Asia have brought into sharp relief the significant threat to religious minorities in some Muslim societies. While constitutionally entitled in many countries to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, religious minorities in the Muslim world increasingly fear the erosion of their rights -- and with good reason. Interreligious and inter-communal tensions have flared up not only in Egypt and Malaysia but also in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. Conflicts have varied from acts of discrimination, to forms of violence escalating to murder, to the destruction of villages and mosques.

Majorities of Muslims and Christians embrace religious diversity. However, a significant minority of hard-line conservative, fundamentalist, and militant Muslims -- like their counterparts in Christianity and Judaism -- are not pluralistic, but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes toward other faiths and even fellow believers with whom they disagree. As recent events in Egypt and Pakistan illustrated, these myopic religious worldviews can turn ugly.

The Coptic Christian community in Egypt is an ancient faith group whose presence in Egypt predates the coming of Islam. Relations between Copts and Muslims in society had generally been good. However, in recent decades, extremists have targeted Copts and the government. While the government has addressed their status as a security issue, it has failed to respond to the desire of Egypt's Christian Copts for full equality of citizenship: equal treatment with regard to building their churches; appointment into top positions, and non-discriminatory policies.

In the past year, extremists have again targeted Coptic Christians. In the town of Nag Hamadi in southern Egypt, seven people were killed when gunmen sprayed automatic fire into a crowd of churchgoers after a Coptic New Year's eve midnight mass on Jan. 7, 2010. Officials believed the attack was in retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man. But in December 2010, Egyptians were shocked when Muslim militants slaughtered 25 and injured another 100 Coptic Christian worshipers in Alexandria on New Year's Eve.

The magnitude of the atrocity triggered an unprecedented public outcry. Egyptian government officials, Muslim religious leaders, the media, and civil society moved quickly to condemn the attacks. Islamic leaders and groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Sheik of al-Azhar (Egypt's highest religious authority) and the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, along with the Coptic Pope Shenouda III, all came out with strong condemnatory statements and calls for Egyptian unity. Across the country Egyptians rallied to the defense of the Coptic community, its freedoms and its security. Thousands of Muslims turned out at Coptic Christmas eve mass services on Jan 6, 2011 around the country for candle light vigils and to serve as human shields and protect Coptic churches as they celebrated their Christmas. In Pakistan the assassination of a major politician who opposed its blasphemy law and its aftermath signaled any even more critical and worrisome threat.

A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of four was sentenced to death on charges of insulting Islam, in a case stemming from a village dispute. This case is not an isolated incident; allegations of blasphemy against the Prophet or desecration of the Quran have often been used against Christians in local disputes.

Asia Bibi, believed to be the first woman sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy law, strongly denied the charges and requested a presidential pardon. In November 2010 the Lahore High Court in Pakistan barred President Asif Ali Zardari from issuing a pardon. The issue resurrected calls in Pakistan and internationally for the recall of the blasphemy law. The violent reactions of militant religious leaders and mosque preachers triggered the assassination of Salmaan Taseer -- the governor of Punjab and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law -- by one of his bodyguards who shot him 27 times on 4 January 2011. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, admitted that he was influenced by the fiery sermons of militant preachers who had denounced Taseer. According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, an internationally recognized expert on Sout Asian politics:

Taseer's death has unleashed the mad dogs of hell, inspiring the minority of fanatics to go to any lengths to destroy the democratic, secular and moderate Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We Pakistanis are at the edge of a precipice and as a consequence the stability of the entire region is at risk. Not a single registered mullah in the city of Lahore with its 13 million people was willing to read Taseer's funeral prayers, because they were too scared to do so. Five hundred lawyers have signed up to defend Taseer's killer Mumtaz Qadri, but Taseer's wife cannot find a single criminal lawyer to prosecute him. It is hard to see which judge is even likely to pursue the case to its obvious conclusion.

Shockingly, the assassin has been greeted as a celebrity and hero. The extent of extremist influence, its power to turn out large street demonstrations and to intimidate liberal reformers could be seen in mass street rallies like that in Karachi where more than 40,000 people took to the streets in his support. At the same time, a notable number of more mainstream as well as militant religious leaders were quick to come out against repeal of the blasphemy law and the government has been quick to retreat, declaring it would never amend the law. The deafening silence of marginalized liberals and reformers, who fear to speak out, and political parties has been testimony of the extent to which extremists have been able to threaten and intimidate, target, issue death threats and kill. This is nothing new. Two of Pakistan's prominent reformist Islamic scholars and popular television preachers, Dr. Tahir al-Qadri and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, have been forced in recent years to flee the country and live in exile in Canada and Malaysia.

Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri authored a 600 page fatwa, an exhaustive study of what the Quran and Islamic sources have to say about the use of violence, terrorism, suicide bombing. Qadri categorically and unequivocally rejects all acts of illegitimate violence, terrorism and every act of suicide bombing against all human beings, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. He also distances himself from all, whether fellow prominent religious leaders or Muslim youth, who have the potential to be radicalized, who would seek to justify and excuse suicide bombing and terrorism for any reason.

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, who fled to Malaysia last year after police foiled a plot to bomb his Lahore home has publicly opposed the blasphemy laws since the assassination of Salmaan Taseer. Like al-Qadri's condemnation of terrorism and suicide bombings, Ghamidi attacks the blasphemy law on religious grounds, maintaining it has no foundation in either the Qur'an or the Hadith -- the sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

Religious tolerance and equality of citizenship remain fragile both in secular Muslim countries and in self-styled Islamic states. Mainstream Muslim religious and political leaders and the media need to not only condemn religious extremism and terrorism, as many have done nationally and internationally, but also speak out against those mainstream religious leaders and others who continue to advocate religious exclusivist theologies or doctrines and their implementation in law and society.

Critical is the implementation of reforms in religious thought, in law, and in society to ensure equality of citizenship. Both Muslim and Christian religious leaders will need to work more closely on religious and curricula reforms for madrasas, seminaries, schools, and universities and utilize mass media, the internet, and other avenues of popular culture. Failure to do so will not only feeds the growth of religious extremism but also contributes to the mentality of sectors of mainstream society, the estimated 500 to 800 lawyers, who offered to represent the self-confessed killer, and the physicians, teachers, police and others who have also publicly supported him.

The plight of Christians and other minorities in some Muslim countries in the face of a significant and dangerous minority of religious extremists and the failures of political and religious leaders threatens both the safety and security of religious minorities and the very fabric of Muslim societies.

Prof. John L. Esposito, author of The Future of Islam, is University Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Egyptian Movement: A Worrisome Analogue to the Iranian Revolution

There is a similarity between the uprising against Mubarak in Egypt and the uprising against the Shah of Iran in 1978. Riots led to looting and in the process people gained access to weapons, so that weapons of all kinds were brought out on the streets. Vigilantes began to search now officials of the Shah's government and many were executed on the spot whether or not they had really been loyal to the regime. Prisons were opened and criminals of all kinds came out, to become involved in the mayhem. It was a true revolution in the sense of being a broadly supported rebellion that sought fundamental change in the system of rule.

The result was a movement that could have gone in various directions. Azar Nafisi says that when she was teaching at a university in Tehran various groups -- communists, democrats, Islamists of various sorts -- were promoting their ideas and their publications to the students. In was only gradually that it became known that Khomeini and his colleagues in the clergy were intolerant and in fact committed to removing any group that could constitute a rival threat. Eventually some of those who had supported Khomeini and had brought him to prominence -- especially the young progressive Iranians in Paris who had circulated his sermons and introduced him to the press -- were removed, even executed, because they became opposed to the brutal policies of the new regime of clerics established by Khomeini.

We are currently observing a similar movement in Egypt. The riots, the weapons, the criminals released from prison, frighted officials fleeing with their families -- these indicate a volatile situation that could go anywhere.

Who will rise to dominance in such a situation? It will take not only an assertive personality but an organization to back him -- the Iranian clergy was virtually the only organization ignored by the Shah's government and thus the only organization capable of quickly congealing into a viable administrative institution for Iran. So what organization in Egypt could accomplish such a feat? Would the Muslim Brethren be able to do it? If so, the future for the people of Egypt cannot be as bright as the excited demonstrators imagine.

If Mubarak flees, which we hope for, there is still the question of how a new regime will take form. What we know from the Iranian story is that the resulting system of governance could be even more brutal than the one that was displaced by an authentic popular revolutionary movement.

Friday, January 28, 2011

American duplicity in the Middle East could be dangerous

American double-sided diplomacy in the Middle East can be dangerous

The American government policy in the Arab world has a double aspect that may be catching up with it. On one hand the official policy is to support democracy and representative government; this poses the Americans against the regimes in the Arab world where authentic representation scarcely exists. On the other hand, the Americans have a working relationship with the current dictators in the Arab world, so they are reluctant for these regimes to change. It is no secret that if there were honest elections in the Middle East none of those elected would be pro-American; in fact, one would have to be anti-American to get elected. So the American interest in the Middle East, despite the high-minded claims, is for the regimes in place to remain in power. By simply encouraging "all sides" to resolve their differences peacefully the American government is displaying its support for ruthless leaders in the Middle East -- their responses to the demonstrations will display how ruthless they are.

This is a dangerous game. When Jimmy Carter was elected he was much admired by the young people of Iran because he initiated a policy of what he called "human rights." The Shah regime had become broadly despised for its repressive policies and they hoped for Carter's support against the Shah. But Carter went to Iran and claimed that the Shah was his friend, alienating the young people, indeed people from all elements of the society, from him. They turned against Carter, despised him. And when students took over the American Embassy they refused to release their hostages until Jimmy Carter was out of office. The Iranians believed they had driven Carter from office.

By claiming that all sides in the demonstrations in the Middle East should sit down and talk the American government may be losing whatever respect it still has in the Middle East.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Islamists never generated such public movements as these.

I wonder what the demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Albania mean to the Islamist leaders -- Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, especially. These demonstrations have an appearance of spontaneity that the Islamist demonstrations in various places never had. In those demonstrations the core among the activists were the students of religious figures -- this was the element that could be counted on to help the movement. But here we have demonstrations that appear to arise from a broad sense of distress among the abused populations of these countries, and they are animated by ideals very different from the call to return to a strict practice of Islam. In fact, the Islamists never generated such broad based expressions of public outrage, even though admittedly they did represent the frustrations of many. These populations have suffered for so long under repressive regimes that any expression of public outrage was accepted and in many cases, supported by the public. But there is good reason to suppose that even then it was not religious concerns that motivated the popularity of Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamists. It was instead an authentic quest for relief, for recognition as human beings by rulerships that could not bear to be questioned.

Lawrence Wright says in the Looming Tower [p 49] that in the 1980s the the Egyptian Islamists believed that the assassination of Sadat and other key officials would unleash "a popular uprising against secular authority all over the country." It never happened. And it was this disappointment that led the Islamist theorists to decide that the Egyptian people, and indeed Muslims everywhere, were so infused with the decadent values of the West that they were hopelessly delusioned. Only extreme measures could save the Muslim world from its decay into the moral depravity of the West.

What must they be thinking now? A popular uprising now taking place, and not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere. But the moral animus of these demonstrations is not Islam but the demand for democracy. The secular -- that is, the non-religious -- ideals that drive these movements are too evident to be ignored.

The Islamist movement is not dead, but other ideals are being promoted and it looks like they have more authenticity and power to represent the public frustration than many of us expected. I surmise that the Islamists are astonished.

The continuing question is, how will these movements be harnessed into structural changes of the sort that so many crave? The Iranian Revolution was as authentic a public movement as has ever happened -- rich, poor, educated, illiterate, all were opposed to the Shah -- but as the new regime took form it became evident that the movement had been co-opted by a ruthless element [not all] of the clergy. Let us hope and pray for something better in these cases.

The new idiom of popular frustration: Democracy

Behind many of the movements in the Middle East is simple repression. Many have suffered for generations under regimes that were never elected and would not be elected if the ordinary people got a chance to collectively select their preferred leaders. This is why the various movements -- demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen -- are not unlike the Islamist movement. In a way, what we see today is evidence that the Islamist appeal no longer appears to be the most salient idiom of public frustration. Consider the following, from Al Jazeera.
The 'bin Laden' of marginalisation
The real terror eating away at the Arab world is socio-economic marginalisation. by Larbi Sadiki 14 Jan 2011

Conventional wisdom has it that 'terror' in the Arab world is monopolised by al-Qaeda in its various incarnations. There may be some truth in this.

However, this is a limited viewpoint. Regimes in countries like Tunisia and Algeria have been arming and training security apparatuses to fight Osama bin Laden. But they were caught unawares by the 'bin Laden within': the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region's population.

The winds of uncertainty blowing in the Arab west - the Maghreb - threaten to blow eastwards towards the Levant as the marginalised issue the fatalistic scream of despair to be given freedom and bread or death.
[for more click on the title above]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Steve LeVine's doubts about the future prosperity of Afghanistan

Steve LeVine [The Oil and the Glory, January 25, 2011] has a valuable report on Afghanistan: to indicate how much has changed among the Taliban and to raise questions about the future potential of Afghanistan as a flourishing nexus of trade between Central Asia and India and the rest of the world. I still believe the potential exists but only in the distant future. His problem is with the policy proposals currently being made in order to encourage the development of the roads [and pipelines? cell phone masts?] that would link Inner Asia with South Asia. Whether he is right or wrong is less interesting to me than the discussion about the current issues, which seem to be always shifting, taking on new nuances. See The deadly risk of romance on the Silk Road

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Radio Free Europe's attempt to reach the Pashto speaking world

Journalism is one of the most dangerous professions on the planet, but one of the most important. Here is a link RFE's project to report on affairs to the Pashto audience in "The world's deadliest country for the press."
[Click on the title for the link, or directly link to this site:.]

Monday, January 24, 2011

Popular movements in Tunisia, Albania, Jordan, Yemen -- elsewhere?

WE can be hopeful that the new signs of restiveness will lead to the formation of authentic democracies but I wonder if they were in the end turn out that way. The Iranian Revolution was genuinely authentic, one of the few real revolutions in history, and yet was eventually appropriated by the more radical elements of the Shiite clergy [one of the few national organization capable of organizing an administration]. The result was a regime more repressive than the Shah's. So I am dubious while being hopeful. Without a population educated enough and savvy enough to develop a workable system of popular suffrage that protects the rights of those who lose as well as those who win it won't happen. Too easy for the bullies to take over. If it can happen anywhere in the Middle East Tunisia may be the place.

Some helpful recent statements:

On the rising signs of restive populations in Tunisia, Albania, Jordan, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere, see:
ARAB WORLD: Protests in Algeria and Yemen draw inspiration from Tunisia uprising
by Meris Lutz [LA Times blog "Babylon & Beyond"

On the significance of the uprising in Tunisia see Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, here on
Tunisia's 'Jasmine Revolution' Could Quickly Wither
Sunday, 23 Jan 2011

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A New Web Site on Central Asian Affairs

I am not alone, I think, in feeling overwhelmed at the flood of information on the web. At the same time I feel a need to track what is going on in the world.
How does anyone keep up to date who espouses the notion that modern anthropology should address real issues in our own time?
It seems fair to accept the notion -- formulated by cultural evolutionists like Leslie White a long time ago -- that the world is changing at an ever rising rate: Every new invention provides a basis for other inventions, sometimes a plethora of new ones, some of them inducing new social relations and new possibilities for imagination and creativity. So the pace of change may be geometric.
Whatever the principle, the reality seems to be demonstrating it: The pace of change is outstripping my own ability even to pretend knowledge of what is going on. As I tell my students, whenever I finally think I understand what is going on in the world I'm out of date.
So the problem is acute, keeping aware of what is going on.
Recently I have teamed up with Jaleh Fazelian of the Washington Univerity library to set up web sites to back up my courses. For the Central Asia course she has provided a kind of "home" site for many ways to track developments in Central Asia. There is so much there -- links to recent articles, blogs, basice sources -- that it is at least one place to start in trying to follow affairs as they develop in Central Asia, one of those places whose importance to the world generally is rising [again, I think, geometrically].
Click on the title above to see her site. []

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mullah Omar's Heart Attack: True? And what of it?

Hmm. If the Pakistanis deny anything that seems no longer to be reason to believe it. Too many times they have played a double game, so for some of us there is no credibility left. So Haqqani's denial that Mullah Omar had a heart attack gives us no information. We cannot know it was not true. But as we know, without him the Taliban activity will still go on. RLC

Report: Pakistani spy agency rushed Mullah Omar to hospital
By Jeff Stein The Washington Post

Mullah Omar, the elusive, one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban, had a heart attack Jan. 7 and was treated for several days in a Karachi hospital with the help of Pakistan's spy agency, according to a private intelligence network run by former CIA, State Department and military officers.

The intelligence network, operating under the auspices of a private company, "The Eclipse Group," said its source was a physician in the Karachi hospital, which was not identified in the report, who said he saw Omar struggling to recover from an operation to put a stent in his heart.

"While I was not personally in the operating theater," the physician reported, "my evaluation based on what I have heard and seeing the patient in the hospital is that Mullah Omar had a cardiac catheter complication resulting in either bleeding or a small cerebral vascular incident, or both."

U.S. officials said they could not immediately verify the report.

"No one on this end has heard this," said a U.S. official from Kabul. "It doesn't mean it's not true -- we just have no information to confirm or dispute these facts."

A spokesman at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said the report "had no basis whatsoever."

"Sometimes intelligence tips received by professionals turn out to be wrong. The story about Mullah Omar falls under that category. You might recall a similar story from 2001 about Osama bin Laden receiving dialysis treatment that turned out to be incorrect, and the fabrication of those who wanted to give Pakistan a bad name."

Haqqani added, "Pakistani intelligence, military and law enforcement personnel continue to hunt down wanted Al-Qaeda and Taliban figures and will apprehend anyone if and when we have hard intelligence, which is very different from speculation circulated by contractors." The report said Omar was "rushed" to the hospital on Jan. 7 by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

"The ISI rushed him to a hospital in Karachi, where he was given heparin [an anticoagulant] and operated on," the Eclipse report said. "After 3-4 days of post-operative care in the hospital, he was released to the ISI and ordered to take absolute bed rest when at home for at least several days."

The physician who was the source for the report said that, "After the operation, there seemed to be some brain damage with Mullah Omar having slurred speech."
"His post hospital course is consistent with this type of outcome," the physician added. "Three-four days in hospital is consistent with cardiac catheterization and or cardiac stent placement. Bed rest and aphasia [difficulty speaking] post-catheterization could be from a bleeding complication." Citing a separate source in the Quetta shura, the Taliban governing council on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, the Eclipse report said "Mullah Omar is continuing to improve and his speech is clearing."

It also said the ISI was keeping the Quetta shura "informed" about Omar's recovery at "an ISI 'guest house' in Karachi under ISI guard."

The Eclipse Group is run by Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, a former head of the CIA's Latin American operations who was the first chief of the CIA's counterterrorism center; Kim Stevens, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Bolivia and Italy; and Brad A. Patty, a civilian advisor to the U.S. Army's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team in Iraq from 2007 to 2009.

The Eclipse Group's reports are available "by invitation only" on its Web site, Stevens said.

By all appearances, the Eclipse network is the just the latest iteration of a shadowy, Pentagon-backed operation that began contracting with former CIA and military operatives to supply intelligence in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. Amid adverse publicity last year, the Pentagon supposedly cut off its funding.

Stevens declined to discuss The Eclipse Group's financing, except to say it has "no DoD clients."

"Our customer list is proprietary information, but it is more than 20 and less than 50, including several European intelligence services," he added.

Note: Based on information from The Eclipse Group, Brad A. Patty was incorrectly described at first as a U.S. Army Special Forces

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Another Chernobyl?

The Telegraph [1/18/11] has an article by Con Coughlin on the worries of the Russians about possible breakdown of the nuclear processing plants owing to the effect of the Stuxnet virus that is supposed to have slowed down Iran's production of a nuclear weapon. The headline, "Russia warns of ‘Iranian Chernobyl'," is reason to wonder. Nuclear fallout from the Bushehr computer system, located on the Gulf, could shut down the oil tanker traffic -- and thus create another disaster for the energy-consuming industrial world.
[Click on the title for a link to the whole article.]
Stuxnet virus attack: Russia warns of ‘Iranian Chernobyl'
By Con Coughlin 5:23PM GMT 16 Jan 2011

Russian nuclear officials have warned of another Chernobyl-style nuclear disaster at Iran's controversial Bushehr reactor because of the damage caused by the Stuxnet virus, according to the latest Western intelligence reports.

Russian nuclear scientists have raised serious concerns about the extensive damage caused to Bushehr's computer systems by the mysterious Stuxnet virus

Russian nuclear scientists are providing technical assistance to Iran's attempts activate the country's first nuclear power plant at the Gulf port. ... [more]

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Melting Pot Response in the Tucson Shooting

On the News Hour, from Mark Sheilds, an observation by Alan Ginsberg:

"This week, we saw a white, Catholic, Republican federal judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic woman, member of Congress, who was his friend and was Jewish. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American college student, who saved her, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon. ...And then it was all eulogized and explained by our African-American president. ...

"[I]n a tragic event, that's a remarkable statement about the country."

[Click on the title for a direct link to the source site.]

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Tunisian Threat

Ian Black, Middle East editor for the Guardian, has an interesting report on the threat that the Tunisian riots can be to other regimes in the Arab world. Tunisia unrest a wake-up call for the region: Bloody street clashes in Tunis trigger fears of a domino effect that could shake other authoritarian states

Even so, I wonder. The demonstrations, so widespread, could easily turn into looting and rioting that other repressive states can use to justify their repressive measures. We certainly hope that these developments will induce social changes in the Middle East that will allow open debate and popular suffrage.

But repressive regimes have persisted for generations for a reason, and that reason has not changed: These are regimes that, if truly threatened, are willing to take extreme measures, including torture and illegal searches and seizures of persons and property.

In fact, it is significant that the Tunisian dictator in the end backed off. Will the others do so also?

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Guardian on Salmaan Taseer and Aasia Bibi

The Guardian has a report on how the death of Salmaan Taseer and the accusations of Aasia Bibi relate. Like so many other reports from Pakistan, the story is ominous. It explains in more detail why the more liberal minded Pakistanis are beginning to lose hope of turning the country around and are thinking they no longer belong there. [See also: aasia-bibi-salmaan-taseer-assassination "Pakistan supporters fear for safety of Aasia Bibi after Taseer killing Christian woman is on death row under blasphemy laws that Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer had condemned before his assassination"]

The following is by Declan Walsh from the Guardian Saturday Jan 8, 2011. [click on the title for a direct link to the source]

Salmaan Taseer, Aasia Bibi and Pakistan's struggle with extremism
In the home village of the Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, there was little sympathy for the politician who was assassinated for supporting her.

Aasia Bibi isn't at home. Children play at the blue gate of her modest home in Itanwali, a sleepy Punjabi village. Bibi, the woman at the heart of Pakistan's blasphemy furore – which triggered the murder of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer last week – is in jail, desperately praying that she won't be executed. Her neighbours are hoping she will be.
"Why hasn't she been killed yet?" said Maafia Bibi , a 20-year-old woman standing at the gate of the house next door. Her eyes glitter behind a scarf that covered her face. "You journalists keep coming here asking questions but the issue is resolved. Why has she not been hanged?"
Maafia was one of a group of about four women who accused Bibi, also known as Aasia Noreen, who is Christian, of insulting the prophet Muhammad during a row in a field 18 months ago. But she will not specify what Bibi actually said, because to repeat the words would itself be blasphemy. And so Bibi was sentenced to hang on mere hearsay – a Kafkaesque twist that seems to bother few in Itanwali, a village 30 miles outside Lahore.
A few streets away Maulvi Muhammad Saalim is preparing for Friday prayers. The 31-year-old mullah, a curly-bearded man with darting, kohl-rimmed eyes and woolly waistcoat, played a central role in marshalling the blasphemy charge. When a court sentenced Bibi to death last November – the first woman in Pakistan's history – he "wept with joy", he says. "We had been worried the court would award a lesser sentence. So the entire village celebrated."
The young cleric excuses himself: it is time for Friday prayers. Padding across the marble floor in his socks, he plugs in a crackly speaker, and issues a droning call that rings out across the village. A madrasa student shoos a stray goat out of the mosque courtyard. Villagers wrapped in wool blankets shuffle in.
Judging by the sermon it is not Christianity that was preoccupying Saalim this Friday. For 30 minutes he rails against the evils of drinking, gambling, kite flying, pigeon-racing, cards and, oddly enough, insurance. "All of these are the work of the devil," he says, before launching into a fresh recitation.
Saalim was born in 1979, just as General Zia ul-Haq, the dictator many blame for Pakistan's radicalising wave, was hitting his stride. Saalim reflects the influences of his generation. He hails from Bahawalnagar, close to Zia's home. He studied for eight years in Pakistan's "madrasa belt", close to the city of Multan. Now he is imparting his learning to another 150 students in his own madrasa, which follows the strict Deobandi tradition. "It is the way of God," he says.
Optimism is difficult in Pakistan, a country prone to misfortune that judders from one crisis to another. After the events of recent days, however, it seems that what matters is not whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. What matters is who poured the water.
A row over a glass of water is at the root of the case against the 46-year-old Christian mother of five. And it is indirectly the reason why a rogue policeman killed Taseer outside a trendy Islamabad café last Tuesday, plunging the country into a fresh torment.
The argument started on a hot summer's day in June 2009 as Aasia Bibi picked falsa berries – a purple fruit used to make squash – with her Muslim neighbours. She brought them water to drink; they refused to touch her glass because she was a Christian. A vicious row ensued, although what was exactly said remains a matter of contention.
Bibi's accusers say she flung vile insults at Islam and the prophet Muhammad. "She got very annoyed," recalls Maafia. "But it was normal. We could not drink from that glass. She is Christian, we are Muslim, and there is a vast difference between the two. We are a superior religion."
Bibi's supporters say she used no religious slander, and was resisting pressure to convert to Islam. "She said those women used to badger her to convert to Islam. And one day she just got fed up with it," says Shehrbano Taseer, 21-year-old daughter of the slain governor, who has visited Bibi in jail.
After Bibi's conviction last November, the case seized the attention of Taseer, the outspoken governor of Punjab. Outraging conservatives, he visited Bibi in jail along with his wife, Aamna, and his daughter. He posed for photos, offered warm support, and promised a presidential pardon. He spoke on high authority – President Asif Ali Zardari told Taseer he was "completely behind him", a reliable source said.
The bold intercession had been prompted by Taseer's daughter. During a family holiday at the Punjab government's winter residence in Murree, a hill resort above Islamabad, Shehrbano had alerted her father to Bibi's plight through her Twitter feed. "He took the phone, read the tweets, and sat and thought about it for several hours. Then he said we should do something," she recalls.
He was playing with fire. Religious leaders were outraged at Taseer's description of the blasphemy statute as a "black law". Protesters torched the governor's effigy outside his sweeping residence in central Lahore. A radical cleric in Peshawar's oldest mosque offered a 500,000 rupee (£3,800) reward to anyone who killed Bibi. Then last Tuesday Taseer's guard, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, turned his weapon on his boss and pumped him with bullets.
The killing has rocked Pakistan more than any event since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. And the unseemly public reaction has laid bare an ugly seam of Pakistani society, suggesting a country in the grip of a rash Islamic fervour.
Last Wednesday 500 clerics from the mainstream Barelvi sect, who had previously criticised the Taliban, forbade their followers from offering condolences to Taseer's family. Another religious group has planned a rally in Karachi tomorrow to protest against law reform. Posters for the rally singled out Sherry Rehman, a brave ruling party MP who shared Taseer's outspoken views, for criticism. One preacher in the city has already dubbed her Wajib ul Qatil by one preacher – "deserving of death". Fears that she could follow Taseer hardly seem overstated.
For all that, there is less religion behind the blasphemy furore than meets the eye. Critics say the law is, often as not, used as a tool of coercion against vulnerable minorities, or to settle petty disputes, or both. Typically, disputes culminate in one man claiming that his enemy burned pages from the Qur'an – even though it is a mystery why anyone would choose to do so in a religion-obsessed country such as Pakistan. Many victims of the blasphemy law, in fact, are Muslim.
When Christians are targeted, the motivation is often an ancient subcontinental prejudice . Christians have traditionally worked as cleaners and sweepers; many Muslims still consider them "unclean". "This whole business about religion is just a decoy, a smokescreen," said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. "It's often a case of simple caste prejudice."
In Itanwali, a rich agricultural village surrounded by swaying fields of sugar cane, wheat and vegetables, nourished by a British-era canal, villagers have traditionally voted for the Pakistan People's Party, of which governor Taseer was a staunch member. But there is little sympathy in the wake of his death.
"We feel sad," says village elder Chaudhry Muhammad Tufail, after Friday prayers. He betrays a faint smile; the crowd gathered behind in the mosque courtyard snigger. With 18 acres of land and a job as lumbardar – the man who controls land deeds and access to water – Tufail is one the most powerful men in Itanwali. He played a key role in driving the blasphemy charges against Aasia Bibi.
Her supporters say the two had had a bitter prior dispute. "There was an argument over water, and she said that his buffalo were eating the fodder for her goats," says Shehzad Kamran, a Christian preacher who has visited her in jail.
Tufail denies there had been any problem. "The law has taken its course," he says firmly.
The problem is exacerbated by militancy. At Itanwali's brick kiln, labourers toil under a towering chimney spewing black smoke. Several say that Lashkar e-Taiba – the militant group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks – and Sipah e-Sahaba, a vicious sectarian militant outfit, were active in the area. Christian aid workers, speaking anonymously, say that attacks on Christians – including the Gojra attack that killed eight people in 2009 – have been orchestrated by such groups.
In death Taseer has been deified as the fountainhead of liberal Pakistan. The reality was more complex. Sharp, brash and undiplomatic, Taseer was a political bruiser who devoted much of his energies as governor to frustrating his old political enemies, the Sharif family, in Lahore. Although an instinctive liberal, he had also taken a job under the military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. And in person he could be profane and brusque as well as charming.
But he was unafraid to take a principled stand against the froth-mouthed mullahs and their violent supporters – a rare quality in Pakistani politics. "He was a larger than life figure, with all the faults and qualities of any human being," said writer Ahmed Rashid. "But during his last stint in politics he took up human-rights issues in a way he had never done before. I think he matured a lot."
Discrimination is nothing new to Pakistan's Christian minority; vicious attacks in small Punjabi towns have heightened the sense of isolation. But since the death of Taseer – their most prominent defender –they feel more imperilled than ever. At a Lahore safe house, a family described how the blasphemy law had ruined their lives. Yusuf Masih and his wife Suria have been on bail since last July, when a local mullah had them charged with blasphemy. Their crime was to have put scrap plastic sheeting on the roof of their outdoor toilet, to keep out the rain. Unknown to them, the sheet contained a religious verse. "We had no idea," says Masih, a stubble-chinned cook who cannot read or write.
As they await trail they live on the run, flitting between the homes of relatives and a safehouse provided by a Christian charity. They desperately hope they will be acquitted. But like almost all blasphemy victims, there is no question of returning home. When they ventured back two weeks ago to collect a few belongings, they found the place ransacked. "They took everything," says Masih.
Aasia Bibi is unlikely to face the hangman's noose. No blasphemy convict has ever been hanged in Pakistan. In fact many blasphemy prosecutions are overturned by the appeal courts, which are to some degree immune to the pressures of the mob that afflict local benches. Usually the judges simply find that there's no evidence to support the case. But that doesn't mean there's no danger.
Up to 40 people have been killed by vigilantes, including policemen, according to human-rights workers. Not only the accused are at risk. In 1997 a High Court judge, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was assassinated after acquitting three people in a high-profile case. Then last week Taseer became the first politician to pay the price.
Among liberals, outrage at the manner of his death has been matched only by despondency at the public reaction. The megaphone stridency of Pakistan's right wing has met a pathetic political response. Terrified of being on the "wrong" side of the blasphemy debate, opposition parties bleated words of soft condemnation after Taseer's death on Tuesday. His own colleagues were hardly better. On 30 December the government announced it would not repeal the blasphemy law; days later interior minister Rehman Malik announced that he would personally shoot anyone found guilty of blasphemy.
Liberals were disgusted at the sight of lawyers showering Taseer's killer with rose petals as he was bundled out of court. "They stink of hatred," tweeted commentator Nadeem Farooq Paracha. But the voices of protest seem to be in the minority, as right-wing mullahs and the media cast a long and dark shadow. It is hard to know what qualifies as hate speech in Pakistan any more.
Bibi's chances of freedom are remote. Legal experts say her appeal may not come to court for years. "These cases often go on for a decade," says Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. At any rate, she might be safer in jail.
At the Itanwali mosque, Maulvi Saalim predicts that Bibi would be killed if she were freed. "A passionate Muslim would reach her and kill her," he says.
Would he do the job himself? "There are good Muslims everywhere," he responds with a shrug. "Anything can happen."

Thursday, January 06, 2011

A lesson of Salman Taseer's Murder: Authentic belief is too dangerous to be borne

Taseer's murder was merely one episode in a familiar pattern of minority abuse in Pakistan. There have been many attacks on Shias and Ahmedis and Sufi shrines in Pakistan, but in this case the attack was implicitly against Christians. Taseer's mistake was to stand up for a helpless Christian woman. Aasia Bibi has been accused, not convicted, of insulting Muhammad, a crime considered worthy of death according to Pakistan's blasphemy law. As a Christian she belongs to a community that in Pakistan is small and very poor.

But Taseer's murder will affect the country at large as well as the Christian community, which of course has reason to be terrified. The murder will cost the ordinary citizens of the country plenty, for now no one will dare to say what they truly believe. Fear reigns.

For many Pakistanis the killing was in fact no crime. The religious establishment seems to consider Taseer's activities and declarations in support of Aasia Bibi worthy of death even without a trial. They have transformed Taseer's murderer into a hero. According to Reuters [1/5/2011]
Five hundred moderate Pakistani religious scholars have warned that anyone who expresses grief over the assassination of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer, who opposed the country’s blasphemy law, could suffer the same fate.
A threat against public grieving, a warning against authentic outrage, by "moderate" religious scholars.

The breadth of support for killing Taseer extended even to his other guards, who were aware of Qadri's plans to kill him and had agreed in advance not to stop him as he pumped more than two dozen bullets into Taseer's body.

The viewpoint that Christians are a threat to society -- which was implicitly challenged by Taseer's defense of Aasia Bibi -- is familiar in neighboring countries. In the last few weeks a number of Afghan Christians have been put in prison on spurious grounds. One person in Mazar-i Sharif has been warned to recant his faith or otherwise be condemned to death. Others in Kabul await a similar verdict. Likewise in Iran Christians have in the last few weeks been rooted out of their homes at night and carried off to prison without explicit charges. Some have been beaten [according to sources close to their families -- but as is well known, the Iranian government has treated their own dissenting mullahs no better.]

What could could be the danger that such folks constitute to their societies? What risk to society was entailed in Taseer's defense of Aasia Bibi? Apparently the presumptions of a democratic society have yet to become ensconced in the public imagination; such ideas are unfamiliar and apparently threatening. The idea that minorities need to be protected, that authentic beliefs can be allowed, that different points of view have a right to be heard, or at least tolerated, appears to be alien in these societies. No, not alien: dangerous, dangerous enough to deserve capital punishment.

In the western world where these issues were hashed out in previous generations we take the right to belief and opinion for granted. The reality is that in the hashing out process -- even in the western world -- folks suffered for the right to believe and practice what they believed. Innocent people were brutalized, wars were fought, careers ruined, families destroyed. It is easy for us to suppose that our perspectives are natural. They are not: they were created in social contexts that were initially threatened by such notions. The right to authentic belief had to be thought up, formulated, proposed, defended in societies that could not countenance a world without enforced conformity. And so people suffered on all sides of the issue. [See Dec 12 note, "Another Accusation of Blasphemy"

The freedom to assert what you honestly think, what you sincerely believe, was never exactly free. It was costly and therefore should be considered precious -- how precious has been demonstrated before our eyes in Pakistan. We are all diminished when a human being cannot be allowed to raise authentic questions, hold personal views about moral and spiritual issues, or practice their own forms of worship, or insist on the right of minorities to be treated honorably.

So what price will Pakistan pay for the murder of Salmon Taseer? Plenty. The loss of authentic debate in public affairs with cost in due process, in effective administration, and in investment. Now it is clear to everyone in Pakistan, displayed before the eyes of the world: minority views, minority opinions, are a threat to the social order, so threatening as to be worthy of death, even open murder on the street. In such a place who will dare to be authentic? Only those like Salmon Taseer who are ready to give up their lives.
1/20/2011 [A correction on the above]
My friend and former colleague, Dr Kathie Laird, who has been following Pakistan affairs for some years, wrote a note to correct my statement about Aasia Bibi. Thanks, Kathie.

I think she has, in fact, been convicted.

>Per Jinnah Institute (etc.): Aasia Bibi, a Christian labourer and mother of five, sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law by a court in the Nankana Sahib district of Punjab was to be hanged on November 8 2010.

>Per PPP-affiliated site: President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday stayed the execution of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy. The woman, Aasia Bibi, was given the death sentence by an additional sessions judge in Nankana Sahib district a week ago on charges of committing blasphemy.


Grief for a brave leader, and for the people of Pakistan

For years I have been thinking that things can't get worse in Pakistan -- and then they get worse. It is still getting worse. I have been without words, or at least words that I wanted to put on paper for all the world to see, as the country seems to have fallen ever more deeply into a seemingly inescapable morass. I can only pray for God to have mercy upon this country. May they find a way to resolve their many conflicts and issues of confusion and contestation. Several new articles on the situation there are appearing today. [For instance, the fine article in the Wall Street Journal by SADANAND DHUME.] Below is a statement by Mohammed Hanif in the Guardian that says so much that needs to be said.

How Pakistan responded to Salmaan Taseer's assassination
Many in Pakistan felt that the governor's critique of blasphemy laws made his death, if not justifiable, understandable – and others went even further

o Mohammed Hanif
o The Guardian, Thursday 6 January 2011

Minutes after the murder of the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province Salmaan Taseer I saw a veteran Urdu columnist on a news channel. He was being what, in breaking news jargon, is called a "presenter's friend". "It is sad of course that this has happened but . . ."
I watched in the desperate hope that he wouldn't go into the ifs and buts of a brutal murder in the middle of Pakistan's capital. By this time we knew that Governor Taseer had been shot dead by a man in police uniform, probably one of his own police guards. The news ticker on screen informed us that the postmortem was under way. Later we would find out that he took 27 bullets. Not a single shot was fired by his security detail. It seemed too early for analysis, but the presenter's friend looked mildly smug, as if he had been mulling over arguments in his head long before the governor was shot. Although it wasn't required, the presenter egged him on. "But you see these are sensitive matters. He should have watched his words. He shouldn't have spoken so carelessly."
What were the late governor's words? I knew about his outspoken stance on the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in a blasphemy case. In a village near Lahore, she served water to some Muslim women who refused to drink it from her glass. (This is quite a common expression of prejudice against lower-caste Christians in Pakistan.) They argued. A couple of days later, the village mullah filed a case saying she had insulted our Prophet.
I knew about his habit of making fun of his political foes, mostly through Twitter. But I still wanted to find out what his exact words were. If a billionaire who is also a governor and enjoys the highest level of security imaginable in Pakistan, can be shot for saying something, it's in everyone's interest to find out what those words were. I mean what if you were to utter those words by mistake?
The presenter chipped in helpfully. "Yes, he did call our blasphemy law a black law." Thoughtfully, the presenter's friend nodded his head in agreement.
Murder solved.
Only last month I had followed another blasphemy case. A pharmaceutical salesman walked into a well respected paediatrician's clinic in the city of Hyderabad and tried to sell him his company's medicines. The good doctor was in a bad mood. He tossed the salesman's visiting card in the bin. The very next day the salesman got together some local religious party activists and got a blasphemy case registered against the doctor.
How did the wily salesman manage to achieve that?
You see, Mohammed was part of salesman's name, as it is with half the male population of this country, including this scribe. So if you toss away a piece of paper with the word Mohammed written on it, you are obviously committing a blasphemy against our beloved Prophet. And there is a law against that in this country, introduced by Pakistan's military dictator and part-architect of the global jihad industry, General Ziaul Haq. The law is popularly known as the Namoos-e-Risalat Act; the law to protect the honour of the Prophet, and there is only one punishment: death by hanging. A number of non-Muslims as well as Muslims have been awarded this punishment, but nobody has actually been hanged yet. Higher courts usually overturn the punishment. In many cases a mob, or motivated gunmen, have carried out the punishment themselves.
Taseer had obviously not committed any blasphemy against the Holy Prophet or any namesake of his. As coverage progresses, politicians and pundits lectured the dead governor about the importance of choosing one's words carefully and respecting the sensitivities of one's fellow Muslims, especially if one lives in a Muslim country. A couple of liberal TV journalists almost stumbled over their words trying to explain that the governor had never committed any act that could be called blasphemous, he had only criticised a law. It is a man-made law, we were reminded by an occasional sensible voice. And the governor only criticised that man-made law, "because no true Muslim," every single politician, journalist, pundit was at pains to point out, "can even think of committing blasphemy against the Holy Prophet." As if it were a proven fact that all non-Muslims have nothing better to do than thinking of devious ways of maligning our Holy Prophet's name. They were careful to add "may peace be upon him" every time the name was mentioned. Some of them offered to sacrifice their own lives to protect the honour of our Holy Prophet.
It sickened me to think that the honour of the Prophet of the second largest religion in the world needed protection from these people. And then it occurred to me that they were actually sending secret signals to any would be killers that said, "Look we speak the same language, we are not blasphemers like that governor guy. We watch our words. We know about the sensitivities of our Muslim brothers. In fact we are as sensitive as you are."
Taseer's body was still in the morgue when I started to find out more about the sensitivities of our people. Whereas most people rushed home and sat glued to their TVs, probably agreeing or disagreeing with those TV presenters, many of those interviewed at random seemed to approve. "Well, murder is wrong, but he did say bad things about our Prophet," one man said. Another claimed that if he had got a chance he would do the same thing. When asked how they knew that Taseer had committed blasphemy, they just shrugged as if saying they just knew. As if they had decided that he just seemed like the kind of guy who would do something like this.
Even before Taseer was given a burial, his killer had become a hero of sorts. Constable Mumtaz Qadri belonged to Punjab's Elite Force, a police force usually deployed to provide security to VIPs. And although he had acted alone, at least some of his colleagues knew that he was planning to assassinate the governor. He had made them promise that they wouldn't shoot him in the act. Hence, after pumping 27 bullets into the governor's body, he calmly handed himself over to his colleagues who had apparently kept their promise. They tied his hands and legs with a nylon rope and took him away. By the evening, Qadri's picture had replaced a thousand profile pictures on Facebook. He was a mujahid, a lion, a true hero of Islam. We wish there were more of him.
Little is known about Qadri at this stage, except that he attended pro-blasphemy law rallies and was considered a bit of a religious nut. His name tells us that he wasn't born into the kind of family where lessons of jihad are served with school meals. Qadris are a subsect of Barelvi Sunni Muslims, who were traditionally more likely to enjoy Qawwali music and distributing rice pudding to celebrate their spirituality. Pakistan has seen so much sectarian strife over the last two decades that no single group is now above the fray. Last year, a wave of suicide bombings across the country targeted Sufi shrines, the places millions of Pakistanis have traditionally preferred to mosques. Now the devotees of these shrines publicly pledge to save them through an armed struggle. But when it comes to the honour of our Holy Prophet the devotees of these shrines and those who consider this whole shrine thing a big bad blasphemy, all come together. And everyone else stays silent or applauds them on Facebook.
So who are these people who lionise the cold-blooded murderer? Your regular kids, really. Some Pakistani bloggers have tried to get these fan pages banned for inciting hate. But as soon as one shuts down, another five crop up. Those who have trawled the profiles of these supporters have said that they have MBA degrees, they follow Premier League football, they love the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Miley Cyrus figures on lots of these pages. And as the Pakistani blogger who blogs under the name Kala Kawa pointed out: "If you go through the profiles of Qadri supporters on Facebook, you'd think Justin Bieber was the cause of extremism in Pakistan."
Many of Taseer's Twitter followers were retweeting his old messages full of courage, humour and, above all, his humanity, his decision to stand with Pakistan's most powerless citizen, a poor non-Muslim woman languishing in a death cell. In one of his messages, he had said that he'd not bow down even if he was the last man standing. Only eight hours before his assassination, he tweeted an Urdu couplet by Shakeel Badayuni featured and translated by a Pakistani media blog Cafe Pyala:
"My resolve is so strong that I do not fear the flames from without
I fear only the radiance of the flowers, that it might burn my garden down."

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Russia and China's New Oil Pipeline, harbinger of the rising importance of Inner Asia

If any development indicates how the world is changing, it is the news that the world's largest producer of oil -- Russia, not Saudi Arabia -- and the world's largest consumer of oil -- China, not the United States -- have been linking up ever more closely. Russia has been shipping oil to China for years, but now a new pipeline has opened linking the two countries ever more closely. The pipeline will pump 300,000 barrels of oil a day into China. And of course we can expect more deals to bring China ever more closely into the energy rich lands of Central Asia.

I keep wondering what Russia's strategic location will mean for the world over the long term. The world's largest oil producer lies strategically situated between the EU on the west, a major consumer of oil in the modern world, and China on the east, the world's largest consumer of oil -- and one that is demanding ever more of it as its economy grows. Whatever we think of Russia, ever more clearly a mafia-state, it has powerful advantages even if the capitalistic world is terrified of its mob-style tactics of governance.