Thursday, May 07, 2009

VIDEO: US troops handed out Bibles in both Iraq and Afghanistan ...

What's the big deal with a bit of evangelism? Better a Bible than vicious dogs at your testicles, I say.

Except that handing out Bibles confirms all the stereotypes Arabs and Afghans have of Coalition forces occupying the country just to bring Iraq and Afghanistan into the broader "Christian empire". Taliban propagandists will have an even bigger field day than they are already having with US bombardments on US civilians.

Here is the text accompanying this video:

The highest ranking military officer in the United States says it's not the military's position to ever push any specific form of religion, in response to an exclusive Al Jazeera report that showed a group of US soldiers in Afghanistan in possession of Bibles translated into local languages.

The troops discussed giving the Bibles to Afghans as gifts - despite military directives banning soldiers from spreading religion, as Al Jazeera's James Bays reports.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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CRIKEY: Feudalism is the worst form of government there is, except for all the rest ...

We’re living in the age of bailouts, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari knows it. During his recent meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Zardari likened his request for billions of dollars in military and other aid to the US government bailout of AIG.

The implication of this, of course, is that Pakistan is being severely mismanaged in much the same way as bailed out corporations. Many Pakistanis won’t dispute this. Two nights ago during a TV debate on the independent Pakistani cable news channel Aaj TV, there was near-unanimity among pundits (including former leaders of Zardari’s Pakistani People’s Party) that the government has stuffed the whole Taliban thing up. Yet still the Obama administration has no option but to deal with the elected government.

Pakistani villagers, however, do have other options, which the Taliban is taking full advantage of. The New York Times reported last month that the Taliban were:
... engineering a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small
group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants … [T]he militants
organized peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops. The approach
allowed the Taliban to offer economic spoils to people frustrated with lax and
corrupt government even as the militants imposed a strict form of Islam through
terror and intimidation.
Asif Ali Zaradari is scion of Pakistan’s feudal political establishment, as are many in his PPP and in other more secular parties such as Opposition Leader Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. The vast majority of Pakistanis live in villages and certainly are not wealthy land owners. The Taliban could repeat the same strategies in other Pakistani provinces, orchestrating what could become a peasant-based revolution.

However, victory for the Taliban isn’t just as easy as pitting peasants against feudal lords. What many Western observers forget is that the Taliban’s style of Islam is deeply unpopular in a region where the indigenous Muslim culture has had centuries of interaction with (and influence by) other faiths such as Hinduism and Sikhism.

The Taliban’s narrow sectarian agenda worries Shia Muslims, who make up around 20% of Pakistan’s population. The Taliban regard Shias as non-Muslims and have already shown disdain for at least one minority.

Still, the Taliban are only within 100 miles of the Pakistani capital. As Pakistani troops march in, an army of refugees from the Swat Valley are marching in the opposite direction, many headed for refugee camps once occupied by Afghan refugees fleeing Soviet invaders.

First published in Crikey on 7 May 2009.

VIDEO: Just how serious is Obama about ending torture?

The Obama Administration has repeated the mantra of the Bush Administration - that America does not torture. But just how serious is Obama about torture? The following video might provide some clues. Here is the text accompanying the video:

As Barack Obama prepares marks his first 100 days in power, pressure is mounting to hold the administration of George Bush, the former US president, to account for its role in authorising torture.

While it's still unclear whether anyone will be charged, Al Jazeera's Avi Lewis sat down with a panel of experts to find out where the debate over torture now stands.

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PAKISTAN: Talking Taliban around the clock ...

You only need a smattering or Urdu and access to Pakistani cable TV news channels to understand just how worried many Pakistanis are about the Taliban incursions. Government officials surely must be worried about the Taliban's ability to win hearts and minds, especially if this report in the New York Times is anything to go by.

The Taliban have advanced deeper into Pakistan by engineering a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants, according to government officials and analysts here ...

In Swat, accounts from those who have fled now make clear that the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power.

To do so, the militants organized peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops, the residents, government officials and analysts said.

The approach allowed the Taliban to offer economic spoils to people frustrated with lax and corrupt government even as the militants imposed a strict form of Islam through terror and intimidation.

“This was a bloody revolution in Swat,” said a senior Pakistani official who oversees Swat, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the Taliban. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the established order of Pakistan.”

The Taliban’s ability to exploit class divisions adds a new dimension to the insurgency and is raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal.
The government in Islamabad is seen as representing more of the feudal economic status quo. One can hardly expect the Pakistan Peoples' Party government to do much about land reform when the PPP is dominated by wealthy land owners. Even the Predident Asif Ali Zardari comes from a land owning family.

Successive Pakistani governments have since failed to provide land reform and even the most basic forms of education and health care. Avenues to advancement for the vast majority of rural poor do not exist.
But why would people turn to the Taliban for social justice? After all, they know that the Taliban will close down girls' schools and stop women from going into the marketplace. The Taliban are also notoriously anti-Shia, and will close down many traditional Sufi shrines that play an important role in the indigenous folk Islam.

Mahboob Mahmood, a Pakistani-American lawyer and former classmate of President Obama’s, said, “The people of Pakistan are psychologically ready for a revolution.”

Sunni militancy is taking advantage of deep class divisions that have long festered in Pakistan, he said. “The militants, for their part, are promising more than just proscriptions on music and schooling,” he said. “They are also promising Islamic justice, effective government and economic redistribution.”
The strange thing is that at the last Pakistani elections people in Swat, like in so many places in the "tribal areas", refused to vote for religious parties. Instead they opted for secular parties.

Some nights back, I saw a TV debate on Aaj TV in which Pakistani analysts were questioning the Pakistan Army's ability to defeat the Taliban. It's impossible to overstate the impact that the takeover of Swat has had on the country. Swat may be among the "tribal areas", but it is still only within 100 miles of Pakistan's capital Islamabad.

VIDEO: A victim of extraordinary rendition speaks out ...

Here is the text accompanying the video from AlJazeera English concerning the extraordinary rendition of Canadian citizen Maher Arar.

Maher Arar is the most well-known victim of the Bush administration's notorious
policy of extraordinary rendition. In an exclusive interview, Arar talked to
Josh Rushing.

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MEDIA/VIDEO: Are American print newspapers dying?

Here is the text accompanying this video from Al-Jazeera English.

US newspapers are battling to survive amid a recession and changing technologies that are leaving even the best known titles struggling.

John Terrett went to Roanoke in the state of Virginia to find out how one newspaper is managing to stay afloat in stormy times.

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PAKISTAN: More on the culture of religious pluralism in areas now held by the Taliban ...

There is a popularly-held notion in some Australian media sectors that the people in areas now ruled by the Taliban are somehow less cultured and more intolerant than people in other parts of the country. It's as if anyone who comes from the same ethnic background as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leadership - anyone from a Pushtu-speaking tribe - must share the Taliban's intolerance.

Yoginder Sikand is an Indian writer and commentator who has written extensively on South Asian Islam. He notes that North Indians, including those from Punjab and the from the Pushtun regions, share much of their religious heritage with non-Muslims. Sikand provides numerous instances of this shared heritage during his travels across Pakistan.

'Numerous Punjabi Sufi saints, whose works are still immensely popular, are known for their breath of vision, seeing God's light in every particle of the universe, in the mosque as well as the temple', says Saeeda Diep, my host in Lahore. She takes me to the shrine of Madho Lal Husain in downtown Lahore, a unique Sufi dargah that houses the graves of two male lovers, Madho, a Hindu, and Husain, a Muslim, who were so close that they are today remembered by a single name. She waxes eloquent about the unconventional love relationship between the two that angered the pundits and mullahs but won the hearts of the masses.

This is the folk religious culture of Pakistan, which borrows from various Indian faiths including Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. The special role Sikhism plays to this day among Punjabi Muslims is well known, as Sikand discovers when he meets of Sufi Muslim.

In Lahore I also meet Pir Syed Chan Shah Qadri, the custodian of the shrine of the sixteenth century Sufi Hazrat Miyan Mir. The saint was the spiritual preceptor of Dara Shikoh, son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, a renowned mystic in his own right. Dara was the first to translate the Upanishads [ed: Hindu scriptures] into Persian and sought to draw parallels between Hindu and Islamic mysticism and thereby bring Hindus and Muslims closer together. Hazrat Miyan Mir was no less of an ecumenist, the Pir tells me. In recognition of his spiritual stature, he was invited by Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh guru, to lay the foundation stone of the Harminder Sahib or Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most holy shrine of the Sikhs. The Pir informs me that many Punjabi Muslims still look upon Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, as a great mystic in the Sufi tradition.

Pushtun (also known as Pathan) Muslims also have a special relationship with Sikhs which has strong historical roots in the Sikh faith and extends to times when Sikhs were persecuted by Indian Muslim kings.

In Syed Chan Shah's home I am introduced to Zahoor Ahmad Khan, seventh generation descendant of two Pathan brothers Ghani Khan and Nabi Khan. When Gobind Singh, the last guru of the Sikhs, was pursued by Aurangzeb's forces, he was sheltered by the brothers. They disguised him as a Muslim saint, the Pir of Ucch Sharif, and, carrying him in a palanquin, they slipped through the Mughal lines. In gratitude, Khan tells me, the Guru presented them with a letter written in his own hand, announcing that, as Khan says, 'Whoever among my followers loves and protects these two brothers loves me, too'. In recognition of the service rendered to the Guru by the brothers, Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh kingdom in Punjab, granted their descendants a large estate in Mandara, a village in present-day Indian Punjab. The family resided in the estate till 1947, when, during the Partition riots, they fled to Pakistan. 'When the whole of Punjab was burning, when Hindus and Sikhs in western Punjab and Muslims in eastern Punjab were being massacred and driven out of their homes, the Sikhs of Mandara pleaded with my father and other relatives not to leave. But we had to, so terrible was the situation then', says Zahoor Khan, who was a young lad of fifteen when he came to Pakistan. Last year he went back to his village for the first time since he and his family had left it, at the invitation of a Sikh organization that seeks to revive and preserve the memory of the two Pathan friends of Guru Gobind Singh. 'I was given an enthusiastic welcome when I arrived in Mandara. The whole village came out to greet me', says Khan, his eyes brimming with tears.
In fact, many Muslims revere the Sikh gurus, amongst them the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak.

Also present during our conversation is Naim Tahir, a middle-aged, soft-spoken man, who introduces himself as a descendant of Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak's closest companion, a Muslim of the Mirasi caste. Tahir tells me about the relationship between his ancestor and Guru Nanak. Both Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana were born in the village of Talwandi, and grew up together as friends. 'Bhai Mardana had a melodious voice and used to play the rabab', and 'when Guru Nanak began his spiritual mission of bringing Hindus and Muslims together in common worship of the one God and denouncing caste and social inequalities, Bhai Mardana joined him. Together they traveled together to various Hindu and Muslim holy places, including even Mecca and Medina. Guru Nanak would compose his mystical verses or shabad and Bhai Mardana would sing them while playing the rabab'.

Tahir tells me that his family tradition of singing the verses of Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus has been carried down through the generations. 'Yes, we are Muslims,' he says, 'but there is nothing in the teachings of Guru Nanak that is incompatible with Islam. In fact there are many verses in the Guru Granth Sahib written by Muslim Sufis, including the well-known Chishti saint Baba Farid'. Tahir confesses to know little else about Bhai Mardana, other than the fact that after Guru Nanak died he traveled to Afghanistan and is buried somewhere there. 'You should speak to my father Ashiq Ali Bhai Lal about this', he advises. 'He has even sung shabads in the Golden Temple and is regularly invited to sing in gurudwaras and gurumandirs, Sindhi Hindu shrines dedicated to the Sikh gurus, in different places in Pakistan'.
This is the reality of religious coexistence on the ground in Pakistan and has been the case in this region of the sub-Continent for centuries. The Taliban represent an historical and theological aberration.