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Two non-fiction books that have impressed me lately

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 1. Tariq Ali, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008)

Yes, I know: Tariq Ali, famous 1968 alumnus and “wild man” of the Left. But even London’s Spectator, hardly famous for Marxist leanings, concedes, while also drawing attention to the book’s very pleasing style:

… Tariq Ali’s universal cynicism might have been oppressive, but in fact his narrative is funny and gossipy, the high points being his own encounters with key players, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir and Indira Gandhi. He believes that the country’s satirists, writers and poets serve as Pakistan’s collective conscience and uses writers and poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Habib Jalib and Ustad Daman to provide the moral compass for his wanderings.

Political turbulence has revived interest in stories from an earlier period of Muslim in the region, Ali says. He relates a 16th-century story that — with some modifications — sums up life in today’s Pakistan with painful accuracy. A man is seriously dissatisfied with a junior magistrate’s decision. The latter, irritated, taunts him to appeal to a senior judge.The man replies, ‘But he’s your brother, he won’t listen to me’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the mufti’. The man replies, ‘But he’s your uncle’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the minister’. The man replies, ‘He’s your grandfather’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the King’. The man replies, ‘Your niece is engaged to him’. The magistrate, livid with anger, says, ‘Go to Hell then’. The man replies, ‘That’s where your esteemed father reigns. He’ll see to it that I get no satisfaction there.’

The government, the political parties, the civil service, the mullahs and the army all have reason to be angry with Tariq Ali and The Duel will outrage as many in Washington as in Islamabad. But Americans should read it for its explanation of why so many in Pakistan hate the US, blaming it for the dire situation in which they now find themselves.

In fact this sprightly romp should be read by anyone who wants real insights into Pakistan. It is as good a primer on Pakistani politics as you will find, with the caveats that it is not the whole story, it is not always accurate and Ali’s prejudices are his own.

Yes, but he makes more sense of this part of the world (including Afghanistan as these stories are inseparable) than most. I see a great love for his subject despite what the Spectator calls cynicism – and indeed cynicism seems to me quite rational in this case.

See also Democracy Now and The Independent. There is also a one hour YouTube and some shorter ones you may access from there.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 2. Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography (2005)

THE biography – a touch presumptuous that! But this is nonetheless a feast of a book which until recently I had just nibbled at for reference purposes. Some say Ackroyd speculates too much, but I find many of the speculations fruitful. It is also very grounded in excellent social history. Here’s a quick taste.

… Of his earthly life there was much less certainty. In the sixteenth century, the mortality of the newly born was high. Nine per cent died within a week of birth, and a further 11 per cent before they were a month old; in the decade of Shakespeare’s own birth there were in Stratford 62.8 average annual baptisms and 42.8 average annual child burials. You had to be tough, or from a relatively prosperous family, to survive the odds. It is likely that Shakespeare had both of these advantages.

Once the dangers of childhood had been surmounted, there was a further difficulty. The average lifespan of an adult male was forty-seven years. Since Shakespeare’s parents were by this standard long-lived, he may have hoped to emulate their example. But he survived only six years beyond the average span. Something had wearied him. Since in London the average life expectancy was only thirty-five years in the more affluent parishes, and twenty-five years in the poorer areas, it may have been the city that killed him. But this roll-call of death had one necessary consequence. Half of the population were under the age of twenty. It was a youthful culture, with all the vigour and ambition of early life. London itself was perpetually young.

The first test of Shakespeare’s own vigour came only three months after his birth. In the parish register of 11 July 1564, beside the record of the burial of a weaver’s young apprentice from the High Street , was written: Hic incipit pestis. Here begins the plague. In a period of six months some 237 residents of Stratford died, more than a tenth of its population; a family of four expired on the same side of Henley Street as the Shakespeares. But the Shakespeares survived. Perhaps the mother and her newborn son escaped to her old family home in the neighbouring hamlet of Wilmcote, and stayed there until the peril had passed. Only those who remained in the town succumbed to the infection.

The parents, if not the child, suffered fear and trembling. They had already lost two daughters, both of whom had died in earliest infancy, and the care devoted to their first-born son must have been close and intense. Such children tend to be confident and resilient in later life. They feel themselves to be in some sense blessed and protected from the hardships of the world. It is perhaps worth remarking that Shakespeare never contracted the plague that often raged through London. But we can also see the lineaments of that fortunate son in the character of the land from which he came…

See also Looking at Shakespeare, in 3 Different Ways.

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Three thought provokers

These have come my way via Arts & Letters Daily.

1. "The Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan" by Nicholas Schmidle (Foreign Policy March 2009)

After eight years of a White House that often seemed blinkered by the threats posed by Pakistan, the Obama administration seems to grasp the severity of the myriad crises affecting the South Asian state. The media has followed suit and increased its presence and reporting, a trend confirmed by CNN’s decision to set up a bureau in Islamabad last year.

And yet, the uptick in coverage hasn’t necessarily clarified the who’s-doing-what-to-whom confusion in Pakistan. Some commentators continue to confuse the tribal areas with the North-West Frontier Province. And the word lashkars is used to describe all kinds of otherwise cross-purposed groups, some fighting the Taliban, some fighting India, and some fighting Shiites.

I admit, it’s not easy. I lived in Pakistan throughout all of 2006 and 2007 and only came to understand, say, the tribal breakdown in South Waziristan during my final days. So to save you the trouble of having to live in Pakistan for two years to differentiate between the Wazirs and the Mehsuds, the Frontier Corps and the Rangers, I’ve written an “idiot’s guide” that will hopefully clear some things up…

2. "Human Nature" by Mark Dowie (Guernica Magazine May 2009) — in the paradox and unexpected consequences department.

Is modern conservation linked with ethnic cleansing? In an excerpt from his new book, the investigative historian explores the concepts of wilderness and nature, and argues that the removal of aboriginal people from their homeland to create wilderness is a charade.

"One way to guarantee a conversation without a conclusion is to ask a group of people what nature is." —Rebecca Solnit, University of California…

3. "Fear masquerading as tolerance" by Christopher Caldwell (Prospect May 2009).

This article has resonance for Australia, but I suspect our experience with immigration and multiculturalism has been different from Europe’s in significant ways. Nonetheless I add this to paradox and unexpected consequences too.

…The Europe into which immigrants began arriving in the 1950s was reeling in horror from the second world war and preoccupied with building the institutions to forestall any repetition of it. Nato was the most important of these institutions. The EU was the most ambitious. The war supplied European thinkers with all their moral categories and benchmarks. Avoiding another explosion meant purging Europe’s individual countries of nationalism, with ‘‘nationalism’’ understood to include all vestiges of racism, militarism, and cultural chauvinism—but also patriotism, pride, and unseemly competitiveness. The singing of national anthems and the waving of national flags became, in some countries, the province only of skinheads and soccer hooligans.

Prompted by the US, which was addressing its own race problem at the time, and with the threat of communism concentrating their minds, Europeans began to articulate a code of ‘‘European values’’ such as individualism, democracy, freedom, and human rights. These values were never defined with much precision. Yet they seemed to permit social cohesion, and their embrace coincided with 60 years of peace.

Europe was an attractive place for immigrants. But attraction and admiration are not synonyms. The Ottoman empire and China both had a ‘‘power of attraction’’ for westerners in the 19th century. But it was not out of any admiration for their systems of government or their ideals of human rights that Europeans signed treaties with, settled in, and disrupted the national lives of those two countries. It was because they were rich places too weak to look out for themselves.

The EU was not dreamt up with immigrants in mind, but it wound up setting the rules under which they were welcomed. Postwar Europe was built on an intolerance of intolerance—a mindset that has been praised as anti-racism and anti-fascism, and ridiculed as political correctness. Our interest here is neither to defend it as common sense nor reject it as claptrap. It is to understand, first, what Europe was thinking when it welcomed immigrants in such numbers—something it would not have done at any previous moment in history—and, second, what grounds Europe had for dealing with newcomers in the often naive and overindulgent way it did…

 

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Supplement to “Some non-fiction read recently”

See also Some non-fiction read recently: 2a, Some non-fiction read recently 2b – the personal component, Some non-fiction read recently 2c – tentative conclusions, Some non-fiction read recently: 1.

Two relevant posts have just appeared on 3 Quarks Daily: I want my country back by Sehar Tariq; and INSIDE THE TALIBAN’S ‘GRAVE ERROR’.

The first is, as a comment there notes, heartbreaking.

When there is no hope, no optimism, no security, no justice, no education, no progress, no culture – there is no Pakistan. Maybe it is because I am the grandchild of immigrants who was raised on stories of hope, patriotism and sacrifice that even in this misery I cannot forget that Pakistan was created to protect the lives, property, culture and future of the Muslims of the Subcontinent. It was not established to be a safe haven for terrorists. We fought so that we could protect the culture of the Muslims of the Subcontinent, not so that we could import the culture of Saudi Arabia. Our ancestors laid down their lives so that the Muslims of the Subcontinent – both men and women – could live in a land free of prejudice, not so that they could be subjected to violent discrimination of the basis of sect and gender.

The second states:

"The Taliban finally made a grave error," said Javed Siddiq, editor of the influential Urdu language daily Nawa-e-Waqt.  "Once they challenged Pakistan’s constitution as un-Islamic, Islamic scholars and the Pakistani people no longer saw them as the self-styled defenders of Islam against western infidels – but infidels themselves who want to dismantle the Pakistani state." Siddiq said that challenging the constitution was a wrong step and believes it has backfired. Pakistan’s constitution was carefully forged by a board of Islamic scholars in 1973 – every tenet was crafted to make sure it conformed to the principals of Islam. "Now, all the different sects of the Sunni and Shiite, the religious scholars, the army, the politicians and every Pakistani is against the Taliban," Siddiq said. "They have lost." The Taliban were quick to sense their blunder and the resulting sea change in the country. "The expansion into Buner was the turning point," said Siddiq.

On Jason Burke, whose Al-Qaeda: the true story of radical Islam I so praised in Some non-fiction read recently 2c – tentative conclusions, see a good substitute for those who don’t have the book: Worldview highlights: Jason Burke.

 

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Two thought-provoking articles from the SMH

1. On Pakistan

Paul McGeough: Warning that Pakistan is in danger of collapse within months.

PAKISTAN could collapse within months, one of the more influential counter-insurgency voices in Washington says.

The warning comes as the US scrambles to redeploy its military forces and diplomats in an attempt to stem rising violence and anarchy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now,” said David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer who was a specialist adviser for the Bush administration and is now a consultant to the Obama White House.

“You just can’t say that you’re not going to worry about al-Qaeda taking control of Pakistan and its nukes,” he said…

At least that, depressing as it is, will be demonstrated one way or another in a very short time.

Browse through Foreign Affairs: for example Obama’s War — Redefining Victory in Afghanistan and Pakistan or What’s the Problem with Pakistan?

A couple of varied related articles: Musharraf’s Support Shrinks, Even As More Pakistanis Reject Terrorism… and the U.S. (PEW 2007); ‘Pakistan has lost war against terrorism’: Imran Khan (April 2009); Poverty in Pakistan, Terrorism, and the IMF; China, Pakistan, and Terrorism — from Foreign Policy in Focus November 2008.

2. Paul Sheehan on Climate Change

Paul Sheehan has been converted to the sceptic side by his reading of Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth.

What I am about to write questions much of what I have written in this space, in numerous columns, over the past five years. Perhaps what I have written can withstand this questioning. Perhaps not. The greater question is, am I – and you – capable of questioning our own orthodoxies and intellectual habits? Let’s see.

The subject of this column is not small. It is a book entitled Heaven And Earth, which will be published tomorrow. It has been written by one of Australia’s foremost Earth scientists, Professor Ian Plimer. He is a confronting sort of individual, polite but gruff, courteous but combative. He can write extremely well, and Heaven And Earth is a brilliantly argued book by someone not intimidated by hostile majorities or intellectual fashions.

The book’s 500 pages and 230,000 words and 2311 footnotes are the product of 40 years’ research and a depth and breadth of scholarship. As Plimer writes: “An understanding of climate requires an amalgamation of astronomy, solar physics, geology, geochronology, geochemistry, sedimentology, tectonics, palaeontology, palaeoecology, glaciology, climatology, meteorology, oceanography, ecology, archaeology and history.”…

Plimer does not dispute the dramatic flux of climate change – and this column is not about Australia’s water debate – but he fundamentally disputes most of the assumptions and projections being made about the current causes, mostly led by atmospheric scientists, who have a different perspective on time. “It is little wonder that catastrophist views of the future of the planet fall on fertile pastures. The history of time shows us that depopulation, social disruption, extinctions, disease and catastrophic droughts take place in cold times … and life blossoms and economies boom in warm times. Planet Earth is dynamic. It always changes and evolves. It is currently in an ice age.”…

The setting up by the UN of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 gave an opportunity to make global warming the main theme of environmental groups. “The IPCC process is related to environmental activism, politics and opportunism. It is unrelated to science. Current zeal around human-induced climate change is comparable to the certainty professed by Creationists or religious fundamentalists.”

Ian Plimer is not some isolated gadfly. He is a prize-winning scientist and professor. The back cover of Heaven And Earth carries a glowing endorsement from the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, who now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Numerous rigorous scientists have joined Plimer in dissenting from the prevailing orthodoxy.

Heaven and Earth is an evidence-based attack on conformity and orthodoxy, including my own, and a reminder to respect informed dissent and beware of ideology subverting evidence.

Indeed there is such a thing as ideology subverting evidence; the Lysenko affair is the archetypal case.

…Lysenko rose to dominance at a 1948 conference in Russia where he delivered a passionate address denouncing Mendelian thought as “reactionary and decadent” and declared such thinkers to be “enemies of the Soviet people” (Gardner 1957). He also announced that his speech had been approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Scientists either groveled, writing public letters confessing the errors of their way and the righteousness of the wisdom of the Party, or they were dismissed. Some were sent to labor camps. Some were never heard from again.

Under Lysenko’s guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology. Lysenko’s methods were not condemned by the Soviet scientific community until 1965, more than a decade after Stalin’s death…

But I bristle at the implication that this phenomenon is only a left phenomenon, bizarre as the Lysenko affair undoubtedly was. Some of my current reading, as you will see later this week, illustrates a similar tendency from the Right. That the Right is “objective” and “realistic” is as much a delusion as that Marxism is “scientific”.

As for the Plimer argument, see my earlier post Miranda and Piers in duet after “Quadrant” dinner…. Further, see this post and the long comment thread: Are geologists different?

Of course against Sheehan’s rather naive page and footnote count and the even more naive “He is a prize-winning scientist and professor” I offer an even more impressive scientist — Lord May of Oxford, also a professor and indeed former President of the Royal Society.

But of course this is no more an argument in itself than Sheehan’s statement of the same kind was.

See my sidebar note on this topic for further reading.

 

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One-time pride of Journalspace – John Birmingham’s “Cheeseburger Gothic”

Australian writer John Birmingham was one of the highlights of Journalspace before the great crash. He has reappeared on the new Journalspace at Cheeseburger Gothic, but so far it is a blog of brief notes sometimes pointing to his other venues. You may like to look at his take on the Lahore Cricket fiasco/tragedy: Cricket attack rewrites the rules.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a brave prediction. The attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Pakistan was not carried out by militant Presbyterians.

There is a small chance it was the work of Tamil Tigers, but only a very small chance. If the Tigers wanted to target the national heroes of their enemy, it would be much easier do so at home, rather than go through the logistically tortuous process of moving dozens of trained insurgents and their equipment thousands of miles away into an alien and hostile environment, where their very presence would arouse immediate suspicion.

No, I think we can probably rush to judgment in this case and blame our old friends the beardy nutters.

This attack will have the immediate effect of further isolating Pakistan and its people from the outside world. Sri Lanka were the last, best hope of the Pakistani Cricket Board, the only serious cricket playing nation still willing to tour in the face of repeated warnings from security experts that such an attack was inevitable…

See also my own post Pakistan: Sri Lanka Cricket team attacked below.

And a note on my Google Reader

My little stable of blogs was very active overnight. I have added a record 31 new posts this morning to Neil’s shared items. That’s almost four pages in the Reader!

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2009 in blogging, Cricket, current affairs, other blogs, South Asian

 

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Pakistan: Sri Lanka Cricket team attacked

However you read it, this is a bad business. It is still unclear who did what or why. What is clear is that violent people in the long run do enormous harm to others – obviously – and most often do harm to their own cause. We simply do not yet know what cause is involved here. As Lateline put it:

SALLY SARA: It’s the first time that international cricketers have been directly targeted in a terrorist attack, and it’s expected to signal a halt to any further cricket series in Pakistan.
HASHAN TILLAKARATNE, FORMER SRI LANKAN CAPTAIN: Yes, because we all knew that they are so many insecurity concerns in Pakistan. I don’t know why we want to send a cricket team to Pakistan. So, as cricketers, it’s a very bad situation and we are sad about the whole thing.
SALLY SARA: The attack has also increased pressure on Pakistan to take action against terrorists within its own borders – a message which India delivered with an added sense of urgency.
VISHNU PRAKASH, INDIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN: Terrorists based in Pakistan are a threat to the entire world. It is in Pakistan’s own interest to take urgent, meaningful and decisive steps to dismantle the terror infrastructure once and for all.
SALLY SARA: The latest bloodshed has highlighted to instability and insecurity in Pakistan and its implications are expected to extend well beyond the cricket field. Sally Sara, Lateline.

Mr Prakash is jumping to conclusions. He is not alone, and we could do with less of that. Someone needs to bang a few heads together at government level on the sub-continent, and someone needs (among other things) to deliver a just solution in Kashmir, just for starters. The tragedy of partition continues, to the cost of all.*

I looked in on The Pakistani Spectator – which really is just a group blog – to see what reactions I could find there. Some are commendable: see the lead story.

On Tuesday morning, our revered Cricketing friends from Sri Lanka were attacked in Lahore, leaving the whole nation embarrassed, shocked and with our heads shaken in disbelief. With the approval of the Colombo Government, SL team decided to tour Pakistan despite security fears and they courageously defied the advice by other Cricketing nations. India was more vocal against the tour by SL team. Due to our security lapse, Tuesday shooting has helped in vindication of theri stance and has resulted in  closing doors of international Cricket in Pakistan for many years to come – the worst set back to game in its history.

Political differences, ideological distances or social restlessness, no doubt, has created chaos in our country but no such incident has taken place in our history where a sports caravan has been attacked so cowardly. Hats off to those jawans who laid their lives in a combat aimed at saving lives of the guest team.

There are many voices in Pakistan pointing fingers to India for master-minding this attack which has jeopardized the Pakistan Cricket future beyond repair. There may be ‘some’ credence in such allegations as India has emerged beneficiary of the situation in the backdrop of the acrimonious environment prevalent between two neighbours. But this drumbeat is simply out of place because we ourselves need to do some soul searching and have to admit that our security measures were insufficient…

Too true, and it is a shame about some of the other stories: Sri Lankan Cricket Team Attacked : India Behind Terrorism?  and Lahore Attack On Sri Lankan cricket team – Is It Inside Job? especially. Highly bloody unlikely, I’d say. More rational are Pakistan achieves yet another milestone – The Lahore Chapter and Who Dunnit ? Liberty Attack on Sri Lankan Team.

Bad business indeed. See also an earlier post here: Pakistan on the Brink – Four Corners.

Next day

* I was interested to see Tanvir Ahmed making this same point in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

…A large share of responsibility for the current chaos must be put at the door of Pakistan’s army and its Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. For more than 20 years, the ISI has deliberately and consistently funded a variety of Islamist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group most likely to have co-ordinated the Mumbai bombings. The agency has long seen the jihadists as an ingenious and cost-effective means of controlling Afghanistan (which occurred with the retreat of the Soviets) and bogging down the Indian Army in Kashmir (achieved from the early 1990s).

The results have been disastrous, filling the country with thousands of armed but now largely unemployed jihadists, a plethora of unregulated modern weapons and a host of militant groups. The Islamists have followed their own agendas and have brought their struggle to the streets and into the heart of the country’s politics.

In an amusing twist, Pakistani television channels blamed India’s external intelligence agency for the attack on the cricketers. Geo, a leading news channel, broadcast old footage of the president of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, promising a fitting response to those responsible for terrorist acts in India.

It underscores how the disputed region of Kashmir is again in the shadows of Tuesday’s events in Lahore. It is not in the job description of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but remains critical in establishing any sort of stability in the region…

Pakistan remains the prime manifestation of the sores of partition in a region that is still stinging from post-colonial headaches. It is where ancient identities and conflicts arising from them are being reinterpreted for modern conditions, a kind of Balkans with garam masala.

As its most worrying example, Pakistan, languishes next to its powerful neighbour, its impact upon our world may be just as great, albeit in an entirely different direction.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2009 in Cricket, current affairs, South Asian

 

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Pakistan on the Brink – Four Corners

Those who close all girls’ schools wherever they have the power to do so, who murder all their opposition, favour terror as a weapon, make their God a gun, and are driven by a crazed and extreme version of the worst aspects of the Abrahamic faiths – the Taliban and their supporters. What more can you say? The poor people of Pakistan — a country M visited in 1999-2000 and loved, having met with nothing but hospitality and honesty wherever he went, which included Peshawar and much of the North-West Frontier.

But what a different story today, thanks to Bush’s foreign policy, past neglect of the key significance of Afghanistan/Pakistan – the borders really are notional – and the sideshow that was the invasion of Iraq, even granted that things there are somewhat better.

But it is chilling to realise that whatever one’s hopes of peace the Taliban and company do not want peace, except their own peace – and that is what you just read in the first paragraph. That is not a peace the world can live with, even less the people of Pakistan. And yes I know what a quagmire Afghanistan/Pakistan has been for all who have ventured into it – the British, the Russians, and now NATO, the US, and our own military. Earlier US Cold war policy directed against the dying USSR in Afghanistan nurtured the monsters.

r341525_1554761Before you comment on this post, carefully review the Four Corners program linked to that image.

Before you start rabbiting on in a generalised way about Islam, consider that all the people we see in that program – terrorists, cultists, fanatics, and their victims – are all Muslims. There are indeed Muslims and Muslims. Jihad-watch style reaction does not help.

You don’t have to demonise the Taliban; they do that very successfully themselves. The dilemma — and what a dilemma! – that the program also brought out is that heavy-handed military “solutions” quite often strengthen the Taliban and such groups. Can’t help thinking though that it would be in everyone’s interests if India and Pakistan could bury their differences in the light of the common threat they confront. Nor would a just solution to the Israel/Palestine issue go astray – that being another running sore in the background to all these events.

Glad I just run a blog, and not the world!

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2009 in awful warnings, best viewing 2009, current affairs, Islam, peace, South Asian, terrorism

 

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