The first rays of dawn breaks through the night sky, and the silence is broken by the Muezzin’s call to the faithful, his melodious voice fills the reddish sky with the glory of the Lord.

A few moments later, a seeming avalanche of voices emanates forth, and the solitary Muezzin’s enchanting call is replaced by an intangible mass of sounds – what began as a powerful, melodious tune simmered down to a plethora of screams from competing Muezzins.

And this is my metaphor for Karachi’s social fabric, one that is so beautiful, but has been tarnished, tattered and stained with the competing interests of its social divisions.

My time spent in Karachi has been one of much reflection; a fascinating exploration of its culture and its social fabric.

Travelling from the Jinnah International Airport, one immediately notices lamp posts and walls draped in flags of the many political parties that have been founded here. Political graffiti and symbolism is found all along its walls, hurling insults at rivals and proclaiming their superiority.

Karachi is a mishmash of ethnicities and religious sects, an uneasy confederation that so aptly describes this country – all of Pakistan is represented here, in a gigantic 13 million strong metropolis.

As we drive, I see dark, empty, dust-ridden lanes without street lights, beggars thronging along every traffic signal and witness people living in gigantic slums, reminiscent of the favelas of Rio, or perhaps more accurately those of Bombay as shown in Slumdog Millionare.

Karachi’s society is an enigma – the epitome of contrasts. Its people mired in decades of ethnic and political violence, currently being fanned by the flames of radicalism, perpetuated by the foreign policies of the many countries, ideologies and organisations that have been sucked into the quagmire of this ‘War on terror’, and the government’s lack of introspection and externally-focussed policies.

Politics is an ever-brewing storm in this city, fuelled mostly by the competing interests of the many ethnicities that make up this city – it is a fragile and fractionated society, divided extensively on ethnic, sectarian, political and class lines. The past few months have seen the continued assassinations of political party workers, numerous conspiracies chiefly involving the majority Mohajers (immigrants from India) and the Pushtoon from the troubled North-West of the country. Much like the fault-lines in Europe and the United States where a lot of opposition has been voiced over immigration, here rural and ethnic immigration is strongly controversial – and deadly.

From the troubled Pushtoon-dominated Sohrab Goth to the Mohajer-base of Nazimabad, ethnic strife and violence permeates across most of Karachi.

Nevertheless, I can testify that most people are sickened by the political and sectarian motives of the party leaders, it is devastating to watch how much suffering these people have to undergo – from death and oppression internally, to the condemning eyes of those abroad. They are stuck in an unenviable plane of confusion and suffering

Karachi is also an architectural maze, a testament to its history and its rich heritage. The buildings of the British Raj still stand strong across the ‘old’ town, from Cantonment, the garrison of the British army, to Saddar, the old market; one will find iconic sandstone buildings amidst old black-yellow 1950s Japanese taxis, and food vendors furiously fanning spicy street food. Colourful buses and Rickshaws jostle with each other to control the streets and proud motifs and quotes, along with colourful traditional art reflect the individuality of each vehicle – this is by all means, a nation of art.

Contrasting the past, modern bungalows and shopping malls line Defence, the bastion of the elite; here, I am introduced to the literati of Pakistan, Ivy League and Russell Group-educated men and women earnestly wanting to make a difference.

Rock musicians, coffee shops and cafes line the streets of this secluded, Westernised part of the city– a shocking oasis in this deeply conservative country.

If Pakistan was stable, I can assure you, Karachi is a fascinating city to visit, and its people are interesting to watch even from a distance.

Many underground concerts and private beach parties light up the nights in this metropolis – at least in the backyards of the elite.

Over the past month, I have witnessed the plight of Pakistan after its devastating floods, but what has absolutely shocked me is the amazing philanthropy of its people – students from local universities thronged by cars for hours in the baking sun, collecting monetary donations – tents have sprung up as numerous as Karachi’s beggars, collecting food and clothes supplies – the common citizen has risen to the cause, the hearts of Sindhis, Balochis, Punjabis, Mohajers, Pushtuns all beat together for the plight of their countrymen.

This is precisely why I find Karachi, and Pakistanis such an enigma – a nation filled with internal strife and fractionated on so many fault-lines can come across in such unison. One merely wishes that such unity can last, but the myriad of problems and challenges this country faces, along with the powerful vested interests of all parties involved in this nation have kept it a divisive one.

Karachi is a kaleidoscope, a city of the faithful, the rabid, the drunkard and the political – a city where all kinds of individuals are found, where many flags flutter and many are burned under the star and crescent.

Towards the end of the Azaan, the intangible sounds and screams of the competing Muezzins taper away, and the solitary, unadulterated call to prayer is once again heard, and thus, as the sun starts to rise, the final moments of the Azaan captivates you once again, and ushers in the footsteps of the faithful.

I travelled from Karachi, the economic hub of the country, to Thatta. Thatta is on the River Indus, and was recently spared by the devastating floods that wrecked the nation.

As we neared the city, I noticed small tents dotted across the sparse desert that separates the two cities. It was there that I witnessed the human devastation of the flood victims. There were literally throngs of people begging for money and food. Women and children with dirty, tattered clothes, thronged by passing vehicles.

Regardless of what we read, or even see on televisions. Encountering these people gave a distinct ‘human’ quality. A picture may speak a thousand words, but when you see suffering in front of you; words are transcended. Such abject poverty and suffering is horrible to watch.

These people were the real inhabitants of Pakistan – with colourful clothes, in vapid contrast to the New-age Islamist movement that throngs the North and the urban centres; their traditions live on. But these people have been neglected for too long by the corrupt Ruling Elite.

Here is an excerpt from a fantastic critique of Pakistan’s ‘elite’ – the Military, and the Government.

Our intelligence agencies are filled with God-fearing, truly moralistic Muslims. Tracking the corrupt activities of national players, politicians and the bureaucracy is not really on their agenda because, being true Muslims, they believe that these matters are between individuals and God

Read on, here: http://www.wichaar.com/news/294/ARTICLE/21806/2010-09-08.html

The following is an article from a Pakistani journalist, Mahir Ali – a sharp critique of American foreign policy.

The war in Afghanistan can be justified as moral revenge for the September 11 attacks, but the combination of those horrific acts of terrorism, and the decade of war in the region have not only caused the cancer of Islamic radicalism to metastasise, penetrating throughout the Muslim world and rallied thousands of Muslims to join the extremist ideology of Al-Qaeda et al  – but have also caused a startling rise in anti-Islamic sentiment across the Western world. A situation far worse than post-9/11.

A Pandora box seems to have opened with the unholy communion of terrorism and war, merely exacerbating the situation.

It is hardly surprising that the primary victims of what the world knows as the Vietnam War employ a different nomenclature for that conflict. The Vietnamese, quite logically, call it the American War.

That it’s not generally known as such is partly a measure of the global cultural hegemony of the United States. But there is more to it than that. The fact is that far too many of the aggressor state’s citizens, including a sizeable proportion of those who viewed it as a travesty, were inclined to see it, first and foremost, as an American tragedy.

Granted, the end of the war was presaged when even American military veterans began participating in rallies where the flag of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front freely fluttered and Ho Chi Minh was lionised in speeches and slogans. Yet there cannot be much doubt that the 50,000 or so American fatalities in the war contributed disproportionately to the angst of antiwar activists.

Of course there were — and are — honourable exceptions, but it was not unusual for the 60 times as many Vietnamese deaths to be viewed as little more than an unfortunate statistic.

In the aftermath of the American defeat in Vietnam, a great many US policymakers were preoccupied with the task of overcoming the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ — which could be summed up as the fear that the late 20th century’s premier imperial power would be less hubristic on the international stage in the wake of its humiliation in Indochina. This despite the fact that there was no letup in covert interventions, from Angola and Afghanistan to Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador, through the 1980s.

It is possible, of course, that memories of Vietnam had something to do with George Bush’s decision not to conquer Baghdad in 1991. But it’s arguably more important to note that the American war in Iraq effectively dates back to that year, rather than to the renewal of all-out hostilities in 2003 under the son of Bush.

(It’s all very well to mock the hereditary leadership of North Korea — a level of Stalinism which may even have shocked Stalin — but who can seriously doubt that Bush the Younger was an incomparably greater abomination for the world at large than Kim the Second?)

The US and its primary ally, Britain, never entirely stopped bombing Iraq during that interregnum, and the sanctions they imposed caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Infants were among the primary victims of this policy. That the conditions imposed by the so-called “international community” also led Saddam Hussein to abandon his nuclear ambitions mattered little in the end.

That Saddam had previously perpetrated mass murder against Iraqi citizens wasn’t a key issue in 2002-03 — possibly because his capabilities in that department involved American connivance. The excuse was that he must not get a chance to use his weapons of mass destruction against the US or any of its allies. Weapons he didn’t have at the time, and couldn’t have put together without many years of effort.

Small wonder, then, that this line of argument is nowadays rarely deployed even by the neoconservatives who provided the ideological impetus for the aggression. That hasn’t deterred Tony Blair, however, from spouting it during interviews promoting his autobiography. If Saddam hadn’t been toppled, he contends, Iraq may at some point have re-initiated its nuclear programme.

This is an absurd line of conjecture: it is, inter alia, equally conceivable that Saddam would have been overthrown by his own people before he had a chance to do any such thing; besides, even if Iraq had succeeded in manufacturing a small number of crude versions of what Britain and Israel and Pakistan and India and France and Russia and the US have in their arsenals, would it really have mattered very much?

Would he have dared to lob one of his toys in Israel’s direction, for instance, at the more or less inevitable cost of self-obliteration? Saddam was a tyrant, but he was no suicide bomber.

The odious Mr Blair does not stop at self-justification for volunteering as a servitor to George W. Bush: he seriously believes that if Iran cannot be deterred from going nuclear, it too must be attacked.

Perhaps we ought to be grateful that President Barack Obama, in last week’s lame Oval Office speech announcing the end of American combat operations in Iraq, offered no overt indication of aggressive intent against Iran. Perhaps it was inevitable that the commander-in-chief would hail the ‘heroism’ of his nation’s armed forces. Given the dire straits in which he finds himself domestically, it is hardly surprising that American war crimes went unmentioned.

It’s difficult not to be perturbed, on the other hand, by the reservations being voiced by some of his critics on the left. “What was so grievously missing from Obama’s address,” Frank Rich writes in The New York Times, “was any feeling for what has happened to our country during the seven-and-a-half-year war whose ‘end’ he was marking.” No, Frank: a far more grievous omission was any sense of what the people of Iraq have suffered.

It is, no doubt, a tragedy that 4,400 American lives have been wasted in Iraq, to say nothing of the thousands more casualties in terms of permanent disability and mental trauma. But the cost on the Iraqi side, in every department, has been infinitely larger. And it is in that respect that the absence of remorse is all the more painful.

With nearly 50,000 combat-ready troops and nearly 100 active military bases, the American involvement in Iraq is nowhere near an end. It could go on for decades. And then, of course, there is Afghanistan: Obama’s even more clueless about how to get out of that quicksand. And in the extremely unlikely event of America emerging from either of these conflicts with its imperial pretensions intact within the foreseeable future, who is to say its profound follies won’t be repeated all over again in a different battlefield?

Source: http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/columnists/mahir-ali-american-wars-without-end-890

The perils of Islam

“Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians…and (all) who believe in God and the last day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”  The Holy Quran, 2:62

The above is my philosophy on religion – do good, and a fair God shall reward you, regardless of what your faith is.

The Quran is an enigmatic book, and is arguably among the most powerful pieces of literature in the world – for its words have inspired empires, laws and carved out one of the greatest religions on earth. Some find solace and peace in its words, others have adopted it as a moral code, and some have undoubtedly used it to justify their nefarious and political designs. Arguably, all those who adhere to any faith or ideology take it to be true, for such is the nature of humans.

This blog post is an attempt to dispel many of the issues surrounding the religion of Islam, for I am also sickened by the actions of Muslims, their blatant unrelenting ignorance when it comes to understanding the history of the Quran, and the religion of Islam. I am equally repulsed at those who so vehemently demonize the religion, translating the actions of a rabid Muslim clergy vis a vis terrorism, stoning to death et al, as within the folds of Islam, as justified by God.

It seems that both non-Muslims and Muslims are confused when it comes to Islam.

I cannot deliberate on each and every controversial issue within Islam, but I invite you to study the history of this religion. What you observe about ‘Islam’, the extremism, the sexism and the violence that permeates across the Muslim world is in many ways influenced by centuries of puritanical teachings by the Islamic clergy that is accepted as ‘truth’, and a politico-social response to the changing tides of the world.

To understand why this religion has become so absurdly rigid, intolerant and violent – with its ‘terrifying’ shariah, its harsh punishments and its victimisation of women and minorities, one must explore the history of the religion, and try to understand the forces that have shaped and fractionated the Muslim community.

The root of radical Islam is in politics, and the religion has been made into a powerful tool to influence the masses

Islam is not one religion, it is a confederation of many different sects and ideologies, one God, many theories. The birth of radical Islam was perhaps a response to medieval wars, from the Crusades to the Mongols – indeed, it was a tool used to justify Islamic expansion, a most powerful driving force.

Thus, scholars like Ibn Taymiyah et al, troubled by the destruction of war and the suffering of the Muslim populace, as well as what they saw as irreligious decadence, wrote volumes of jurisprudence and their understanding of the Quran to return Islam to it’s ‘pure’ form. This is the process through which Ijtihad, a most powerful tool in modernising Islam was abandoned, and the laws of Islam were set in stone – unchanged for the past 1000 or so years. This is  the opinion of the Salafis and the Wahabbis that Islam is a religion set in stone, a religion that cannot be re-interpreted for modern times. Thus, countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan aim to make society unchanging. The Saudis fund the Madrassahs in Pakistan, and are systematically attempting to subdue the more moderate Barelvi and Sufi movements. The intolerance one sees today, is the communion of oil wealth and puritanical religious zeal.

It is a tale of sadness, where a religion which had humble beginnings, a force for change in the Arab world, an inspiration for thinkers such as Avicenna, Omar Khayyam, Rumi et al, an inspiration for a civilisation that brought the world out of the dark ages, bringing forth advancements in Medicine and Mathematics, Architecture and Engineering, Politics and Philosophy, has become a religion of rituals, of politics. A sick joke of intolerance and violence.

Today, it is illiteracy, grinding poverty, a lack of appreciation for Islamic history and the foreign policies of all involved in this War on Terror that is propagating this new, political Islam. As Muslims are persecuted in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, the allure of extremism will attract even more of the disenchanted. As more Western troops are killed in these war zones, Islamophobic and Xenophobic tendencies will increase, and in the midst, Islam will be misunderstood by all.

The shariah and much of what we perceive as Islam, is almost entirely derived from culture and social values. The niqab, a face veil warn by the Byzantine aristocracy was adopted by certain Muslim women, and indeed much of what we see, the beards, the clothes, the habits – are Bedouin rather than Muslim.

I can only stress that we need to educate ourselves when dealing with such controversial issues, to broaden our perspectives and look at both sides of the equation.

Religion is a topic that has been oft-debated. The battles between atheists and theists rages on, philosophical questions pertaining to the existence of God, from Occam’s Razor to the problem of evil have perplexed many minds. Regardless of your take on religion, it cannot be denied that its enigmatic properties have mystified and inspired us since time immemorial. Religion is the parent of morality, a powerful tool to some, and a necessary code for others.

My childhood, and much of my teenage life was spent in Karachi, Pakistan. A city of mosques and religious symbolism – from the many verses that are painted lovingly on apartment and residential walls, to the many television stations that are dedicated to Islamic thought and ideology, religion is a way of life here.

What is absolutely surprising is how fractionated people’s views on religion are, and how this is translated on the social and personal level. Here, I relate to you three distinct stories of Muslims I have encountered.

  • The Asian Tsunami, 2004

The devastating Asian tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India in 2004 was truly a devastating tragedy. Many lives were lost, whole villages were swept away – the haunting images of those powerful waves are imprinted in my memory. A few friends and I immediately started a fund-raising campaign in my neighbourhood. This was an experience that has made me very passionate about disaster relief and volunteering, and we received a very good response from our neighbours in the area.

One particular event, did, however have leave a lasting impression in me. We approached a house inhabited by very staunch Muslims. When we rang the doorbell, a man sporting a thick beard answered. We informed him that we wanted donations for the tsunami victims in Sri Lanka (we were working with the Sri Lankan embassy), whether they were clothes, food, medicines or money. His reply shocked me,

I’m sorry, but we only give to Muslims. Sri Lanka is not a Muslim country and thus it is not permissible for me to donate.

We thanked the gentleman for his time, and walked away, dejected. My non-Muslim friends were deeply offended, and I was thoroughly shocked, for charity was a central tenet of my faith. Did God really care about the religious identity of the needy?

Most Muslims are not so conservative, but I never imagined a family so staunchly religious, openly preaching the religion at the local mosque and holding many religious functions and events, would deny people some clothes because of their apparent religion.

  • The Turks

My visit to Turkey was an eye-opener. With a 99% Muslim population, I expected the country to be like the Middle East, instead, it was like any other European country. Istanbul is a fascinating city, it’s mosques and bridges delight the eye, and so do its nightclubs and its nightlife. This is a country where many Muslims consume alcohol, something forbidden according to most Islamic scholars. The secular spirit of this country is reflected in its people, where many adhere to the Islamic code of morality, but are free to do as they please, wear as they please – once a haven for the ‘heretical’ Sufi dervishes, a place that so eloquently reflects the grandeur of the Ottomans and the modernist spirit of the Turkish republic.

I remember speaking to a young Turkish man outside a restaurant, sipping beer and smoking a marlboro cigarette. We started off a conversation on our respective countries, and I gave a glowing review of the beautiful city of Istanbul. I then asked him what he thought about alcohol and Islam. He said:

Sir, I drink, and I am Muslim. I love my religion because it gives me inner peace. I don’t think alcohol is a sin, unless you become an alcoholic, the Quran has three verses on alcohol, God banned the flesh of swine in one sweeping statement, but alcohol is left ambiguous, to be avoided but not explicitly forbidden.

I am sick of these self-righteous oafs who come to our country and criticise our way of life. We are a just people, we don’t stone people, we don’t kill others because of their beliefs and we are not feared by the rest of the world. They have made my religion into a sick joke, nothing about the heart, just a set of rules.

The Turks are among the friendliest people I have encountered. When we went for Hajj in 2002, we were lost in the myriad of tents in Mina. We walked for hours, and exhausted, we sat near the Turkish encampment. A young Turkish man invited the 5 of us to his tent, gave us water and dates and sheltered us from the heat by switching on the Air Conditioner. We thanked the man profusely, for he also guided us to our section of the maze.

I cannot paint the Turkish people with one colour, there are many who follow orthodox Islam, and others who follow a more liberal form of it – for some things like alcohol, smoking et al are merely health choices, and the purpose of religion is to be a good person, others view religion as inflexible and absolute. The debate within the Muslim world rages on.

  • The Bearded Stranger

Back in Karachi, I encountered an austere looking man, with strict eyes, a long flowing beard and a winning frown. He was quite intimidating. At that point in time, my car had stalled, and I was lumbered on a busy street with lots of people watching me as I tried to get the car to work. The bearded man comes to me and started to push the car towards the side of the road.  After a few minutes of working furiously on the car, he told me it was ready to go. I pulled out a Rs.500/= note, which he refused to take. He told me:

It’s all right sir, your car had a very minor fault, get it serviced instead. I merely wished to help, and I don’t want to take any haraam (illegal) earnings.

Religion is a fascinating enigma, a force that has shaped history and morality. I have, in this metropolis encountered drunken fundamentalists, bearded saints, liberal secularists and righteous agnostics. A kaleidoscope of all ideologies.

Religion may be the opiate of the masses, it certainly inspires many people to do both unspeakable horrors and show enormous kindness. A drug, if it can be called as such, that can heal, as well as intoxicate the soul.

The world is truly fascinating.