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Oh joy. The president of Pakistan, the country on the so-called frontline of the war on terror, apparently sacrifices a black goat almost everyday to ward off the “evil eye”. If you were wondering why Pakistan’s such a mess, this may begin to answer your question.

To be fair, the subcontinent is a superstitious/spiritual place, and the existence of the “evil eye” is accepted by many educated Pakistanis and Indians. But seriously?–like, effing, seriously?

In an expected move, the French National Assembly’s commission on the burqa–“Mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national“–yesterday recommended banning the burqa in public places. The commission’s appalling conclusion undermines religious freedom and the principles of liberal democracy in France. After the referendum banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland, this is the second such blow dealt to religious freedom in Europe. It is part of a disturbing trend to suppress from public view Islamic symbols, and to justify such limits on religious displays by explaining that Islamic extremism threatens European democracy. The proponents of the ban argue, quite paradoxically, that to protect vital liberties it is necessary to curb some other liberties.

In this instance, the burqa—a black garment that covers the entirety of the body and the face, with a slit left open for the eyes, and worn by some but few Muslim women—threatens freedom for two reasons. Those for the ban believe the burqa undermines the equality between women and men because it restricts a woman’s ability to move freely and to participate fully in society. The burqa also represents a certain intolerant, extremist Islamist ideology that runs counter to liberal democracy. Caroline Fourest, a French journalist and a loud critic of Islamism, describes accepting the burqa as tantamount to tolerating the intolerant. Islamic extremists reject our society, so we should reject them, she argues.

These are legitimate concerns. For many Muslim women, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the burqa represents oppression. It is forced upon them. Even in Muslim families and communities in the West some women are compelled by threat of force to wear the burqa. But banning the burqa will not alone protect these women. Instead, it distracts public attention away from the real struggles of immigrant and Muslim women in the West, who confront domestic violence, forced marriages, and fewer economic opportunities. It confuses the symptom for the disease.

The other criticism of the burqa arises from its association with fundamentalist and extremist Islam. Firstly, the proponents of the ban assume that a woman wearing the burqa subscribes to a violent, extreme Islam. That’s a foolish assumption that is mostly never true. Even if it were true, what gives the government the right to restrict an individual’s free speech and religious freedom? The point of living in a liberal democracy is that such liberties are protected. However egregious our views and speech, they are considered our legitimate rights. The burqa and Islamist ideas may offend us, but that isn’t reason enough to ban them. Anarchists reject what our corporate, bourgeois pseudo-democracy stands for, but they enjoy its fullest protections. The irony and beauty of liberal democracy is that it tolerates opposition to itself—and I hope none of the irony is lost on anarchists and Islamists.

A ban on the burqa also restricts the rights of free, practicing Muslim women to live their lives as they choose. Would we stop a woman who feels that she must wear a purple hat out of personal conviction—no matter how grotesque it looks—from wearing that hat? The burqa is just that: an article of clothing. It may symbolize religious obligation to a private citizen, but it should only be black cloth to the state. The National Assembly’s commission actually argued that the burqa was not a theological requirement, and thus was not legitimately protected as religious expression. Not only has the French parliament proposed obstructing a Muslim woman’s right to wear the burqa, but it has bizarrely become a theological authority. It’s not the Assemblée Nationale anymore; it’s the Majlis-e-shura. The state can’t decide what constitutes a legitimate religious belief because it doesn’t have the credentials or the authority. More importantly, we consider religious freedom at its core an individual right—the right of an individual to believe whatever he chooses. The ultimate victim of this misguided assault on Islamic symbols in Europe is liberal democracy. A ban on the burqa would erode the right of individuals to live freely and would certainly further alienate Muslims in the West. The supporters of a ban fail to understand the nature of liberty. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In that same vein, the loss of religious liberty for one spells the loss of liberty for all.

Update:

Caroline Fourest writes: “Peut-on, pour autant, tout régler par l’interdit ? C’est là que le débat devient plus complexe. Il est possible d’interdire un signe religieux inégalitaire à l’école publique, au nom de sa vocation émancipatrice. Ainsi que dans les services publics et les lieux représentant la République, à cause de cette symbolique. Mais dans la rue ? Ici, le choix d’un individu – fût-il aliénant – prime.” While she believes the burqa is a slight to gender equality, she also disagrees with an outright ban on it in public spaces, except when a person represents or works for the state, because such a ban would limit a woman’s individual choice.

Watch/listen to Daniyal Noorani’s Find Heaven.

Pankaj Mishra, reviewing William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, wonders “why did Jaswant Singh suddenly become so protective about a syncretic culture [when he tried to defend Jinnah’s legacy] that his own hardline party has done much to undermine?”

Singh was trying to defend a millennia-old pluralist India.

Mishra writes: “The public definition of the “self”, even in liberal nation-states, is parasitic on the existence of an excluded, preferably dangerous, “other”. But few nationalist hatreds in India and Pakistan survive the discovery that the much-demonised “other” is an aspect of one’s own personality, who not only has identical preferences in food, movies, sports, poetry and music, but also a similar worldview: one that can accommodate the eccentric and irregular in life – all that modern societies rigorously organised for production and profit would seem to have discarded over the last two centuries of industrial capitalism.”

“Both Gandhi’s syncretism and the loyalty to pan-Indian and local gods that Dalrymple describes seem to reveal that the self in Indian culture – whether individual or collective – is not something clearly defined or enclosed. The sharp disjunctions and separations – between self and others, us and them, the secular and the religious – that define identities in even the most liberal and multicultural Western nation-states rarely occur here. Indeed, this idea of the self makes space for what other more modern societies, which require clean-cut identities, would isolate and stigmatise as the fearful “other” – an irrepressible spirit of accommodation and fellow-feeling that occasionally overcomes even hardline nationalist politicians like Jaswant Singh.”

I’m currently reading a report produced by the Capstone seminar on Identity Politics, Intelligence and Security in Canada at the University of Ottawa in 2008-2009. The report, written by graduate students, was the culmination of a graduate seminar that included participants from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s spooks. The entirety of the report, titled “Canada in 2020: Identity Politics and Security
Future Scenarios”, is available on CSIS’s website.

It examines four future scenarios that could confront Canada. It’s the product of interesting, and sometimes outlandish, imaginings. Here’s a gem:

When Pakistan collapses in 2016 and the United States, plunged into an economic crisis, cannot intervene, India drafts an economic rescue plan for Pakistan aimed at imposing its authority over the country and the entire region. The plan advocates a greater integration of the Indian and Pakistani economies and the appointment of pro-Indian politicians to senior positions within the Pakistani government administration. In Canada, a number of Pakistani citizens opposed to the rescue plan have been aggressive towards Indians. Fundamentalist feelings have flared up, opening the door to terrorist organizations and the recruitment of new members.

Oh boy. I definitely think the collapse of Pakistan is plausible but it would take a serious development to precipitate such an outcome.

If Iran is the Soviet Union of Islamism, then the protesters in Iran challenging Ayatollah Khameini are the Lech Walesas of liberal democracy with the “potential to unleash a true Islamic Reformation.” A starry-eyed Robert Kaplan compares, in his latest dispatch, the Green Revolution to Solidarity in Poland, arguing that the Middle East and the Islamic world would be transformed by a successful democratic revolution in Iran. He calls upon President Obama to Reaganly appeal to liberty and democracy to usher in this great Islamic glasnost. This unbridled optimism about the inevitability and the pro-Western consequences of the Green Revolution is, however, misplaced. The revolution, like any historical event, is not inevitable; inevitability is imposed in hindsight and we in the present can never know. But more crucially, his assertion that a “democratic and Shiite would tip the balance against the Sunni Wahabi extremism” ignores a very plausible but opposite result–a democratic Iran would only exacerbate sectarian tensions in the Middle East and would fan the flames of Sunni extremism.

The Cold War incontrovertibly animates our thinking of foreign policy. We reach for Cold War metaphors reflexively, comparing the war in Iraq to Vietnam, Nato in Afghanistan to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror (or, euphemistically, Overseas Contingency Operations) to the Cold War itself. While historical analogies provide the premises for foreign policy debates, and much needed rhetorical flourish to them, it’s wiser to use them sparingly. Kaplan’s juxtaposition of 21st century Islamic Iran to 20th century Communist Poland commits the folly of relying on analogy rather than a cool, dispassionate assessment of modern Iran.

Stephen Walt cautions against regime change in Iran as a panacea for the precarious relations between Iran (and the Islamic world) and the West, writing that “we should not assume that far-reaching political change in Iran would eliminate all sources of conflict between Iran and the United States (or the West).” He reminds us that a democratically-elected Iran would have more, not less, legitimacy to pursue a nuclear weapons program, a fact that would further destabilize the Middle East. A more confident Iran would only accelerate tensions between the Gulf Arab states, Israel, and Iran. A liberal democratic Iran would become an open target for Sunni extremists, who could legitimize their opposition by painting Iran as a Western tool (even if it wasn’t one). Another reason for caution is that a democratic Iran would not necessarily resemble a secular liberal Valhalla. Remember, the protesters were shouting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great). Shiite doctrine and Islam undoubtedly influence Iranian public opinion, and to many in Iran, politics and religion remain inextricable. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but this possibility should force us to reconsider the notion that a great wave of secularization would accompany democracy in the Islamic world should a reformation happen.

I do agree with Kaplan that President Obama should support liberal democracy in his rhetoric and policies–regardless of the Green Revolution. But Obama is no Reagan, and Mousavi is no Gorbachev.

I returned from Pakistan last week, and I’m still trying to sort through my impressions from the trip. The mood was somber. The recent spate of bombings in Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi have struck a far deeper nerve than the violence in the Northwest Frontier ever had. Pakistan’s urban middle and upper class now palpably confronts the chaos and extremism tearing at the seams of the state. No matter how much they wish the Taliban problem away, it now stares them in the face. And because there are no easy answers, despair reigns. Out of this despair and horror, Pakistanis understandably want it all over–get the military out of the tribal areas, stop fighting the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Disturbingly, though, this catharsis is transforming into argument.

The likes of Imran Khan have repeatedly called for negotiations with the Taliban. Although Imran Khan represents somewhat of a fringe–his party and ideas aren’t taken too seriously–his logic has appeal. I’ve heard some very smart Pakistanis, both in Pakistan and the diaspora, decry the Pakistani military’s operations in Swat and Waziristan. And rightfully so: a million have been internally displaced; houses destroyed; lives ruined; and innocent lives lost. But these concerns about the humanitarian toll, though very important, aren’t justification enough to halt the military’s operation. More significantly, militarily confronting the Pakistani Taliban is justified.

Various Pakistani English-language columnists and various other Pakistani liberals have outright supported the American drone strikes and the Pakistani army’s counterinsurgency. They, like I, argue that the Taliban are killing innocents and challenging the writ of the state. Underlying these refrains is a fear that the insurgents and terrorists want to roll back modernity itself and transform the Pakistani state into a purely Islamic state–which is actually a stated goal of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

The Islamic right in Pakistan and a few Pakistani nationalists have crudely labeled columnist Irfan Husain and physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy–who are staunch secular liberals–“native informers,” who as stooges of the West, unjustly vilify Islam as “irrational” and advocate a Manichean, if not neoconservative, worldview. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a sociologist and a critic of the pro-military camp, argues that Husain, Hoodbhoy, and their ilk suffer from “the cast of mind that sees political problems as military ones, and deems force as the sole means of resolving them.” They are, in his words, “brown sahibs” who senselessly call for blood. The name-calling and biting rhetoric aside, which only serve to remind us that the anti-war camp relies more on pathos than analysis, the critique in this instance is unfounded. He assumes that there is a viable political solution to the mess in the tribal areas. He sounds like Imran Khan. And he’s dead wrong. My riposte to every critique against military action in the tribal areas is this: do you have an alternative? The onus is on the anti-war camp to tell us why a political solution would work when it never has, and quite frankly never can. When prodded with this simple question, most people in Pakistan recite the blameAmericaforAlQaedaandtheTaliban story. Then they recount a selective history, pointing out that America created the Mujahideen but failing to recognize that the Pakistani state cultivated the modern entity called the Taliban. History is interesting but it seldom gives answers. The other fantasy the Islamic right, Pakistani nationalists, and most Pakistanis harbour is that the country can actually defy the United States. Their main solution is to stop ‘fighting America’s war.” Geewhiz, that’d be nice. Telling the world’s hegemon to fuck off– whose aid literally props up the crumbling Pakistani economy–sounds like a fantastic idea!

Simply put, Pakistani liberals, by demanding a proper response to the Taliban, are defending a certain vision of Pakistan–one that’s secular, progressive, and no longer a pariah. The Islamic right, the anti-war folk, and their supporters, on the other hand, offer no realistic solution.

When Chairman Mao said “let a thousand flowers bloom,” he heralded an era of purges and persecution. When General Musharraf said “let a thousand TV channels bloom”–to create a free press–he augured an era of paranoia, amplified on a national scale on television screens across Pakistan, fueling an already barmy press and populous.

There are now countless news channels, and with them, countless new exponents of conspiracy theories and jingoism. For the past few days, Pakistan’s press has not been reporting or investigating the insurgency their country faces, but is instead focused on a few remarks the Indian army chief, General Kapoor, made during a seminar. The general’s crime? Musings about a contingency military plan to fight a two-front low intensity war with Pakistan and China. In Pakistan, these few remarks are being treated as the blueprint for a hegemonic Indian military strategy. Tellingly, however, no one else in the region cares–even China doesn’t a give a hoot.

It takes an awfully narcissistic mind to construe brainstorming as provocations. Narcissism is defined as “a psychological condition characterized by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy, and unconscious deficits in self-esteem.” Pakistanis, in this case and in all others, believe that “they”–the Indians, the Americans, the Jews, the boogeyman–are out to get ’em. That’s how a private comment in a seminar fuels the talking head punditry and their irrational banter. Even the liberal English-language Dawn News gave way too much coverage to a pointless issue. InFocus with Kamran Yousaf hosted a panel of four, including nuclear scientist Pervez Hoodbhoy, (retd) Lt. Gen. Masood, Indian (retd) General Banerjee, and international security analyst–and director general of paranoia–Maria Sultan. While Gen. Banerjee explained (and pleaded) that Pakistanis shouldn’t read too much into these statements, a jingoistic Maria Sultan demanded that the Pakistani military respond with some form of mobilization. The host, Kamran Yousaf, kept being provocative–asking why is India being aggressive? How should Pakistan respond?–but never asking if it’s even worth it to care.

This is just one example. A quick flip through the channels reveals you to a world of fulminating self-appointed analysts. Nadeem Paracha’s latest column in Dawn mocks the BMMs, as he calls them. It’s funny and worth a read.

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