Khush Amdeed (Welcome)

Welcome to Chowraha - crossroads!

Chowraha is the crossroads of thoughts, events, opinions and feelings...all that have been shaped by individuals living in an increasingly complex world inter-connected through various means of communications.

This blog is about the crossroads in society - whether it is those of a diaspora community, global media complicating the structure of nations and cultures, or individuals finding parallels in spaces unknown to them.

The above picture is courtesy a much-admired photographer (Ali Khurshid) whose work is a source of inspiration and reaffirms the belief in the complex beauty of this world.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Imran Khan - a dispensable party or a complacent people

In his recent launch of new book, Imran Khan spoke to an auditorium full of supporters and fans at the UCL on what the purpose and message of his book was. Mr. Khan explained that the book dedicated to the youth of Pakistan aimed to unravel the realities behind the world post 9/11.

In a country constantly faced with militant attacks, drone attacks,suicide bombs, target killings and American warnings and threats as we have only most recently witnessed, it is no exaggeration to say that Pakistan is one of the biggest victims of the world post 9/11. The problems faced above and the repercussions to these is both an international affair and of domestic significance too. In the increasingly globalised world thanks to means of communications, trade and media, it would be naive to assume that the two are separate from each other especially in a country sandwiched between India, Afghanistan, Iran and China.

Where do we begin then?

It's only logical we begin at home. How so? It makes sense to first rid our country from the corruption, dishonesty and greed that are trade-mark of it's many times tested politicians. Mr. Khan reiterated that Pakistan's major problem was not terrorism but corruption and dishonesty. The concern over extremism versus liberalism, fundamentalists versus moderate Muslims, secular or non-secular are not the concerns of the masses - these are topics of discussion over "elite dining tables."

Imran Khan speaking at UCL(Sep 2011)
It all sounds good on paper, but can Imran Khan really win or topple votings in the upcoming elections? How will PTI succeed without previous precedence of vote banks?

According to Imran Khan, in Punjab and Sindh, 50% of the registered votes are fraudulent while the percentage is even higher in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Supreme Court has demanded that this be resolved and Imran Khan is hopeful that this will go in his favour. After all, the recent Pew research and Yougov polls indicate that the gap between opinion in his favour versus the support for others is widening.

But who are the people involved in PTI?

The main questions from the audience revolved around Imran Khan's team. George Fulton in his recent article on Imran Khan's popularity did not point out anything extraordinarily different from what people have been saying - is it all about Imran Khan then? It's a one-man show!

PTI rightly points out that what is needed to run a country is an institution, not a party. Perhaps we are convinced that Imran Khan doesn't have a team because PTI does not consist of names notorious for their greed, dishonesty and corruption - it's made of people who are strong institution-builders and who have the right intentions.

Jinnah did the same - he was elitest, representing the masses surroundimg himself with respectable, honest names not corrupt politicians. Jinnah left us too soon but at least he gave us a country - a mammoth task. Should we not have put our trust in him had we known he would have left us or would be unable to ensure a system around him?

We often ask why we cannot replicate an Arab Spring but little faith do we have in others like us, and the ability for us to join hands and step up. Having said that, it took many years of "apparent" lack of faith in change, and complacency in Egypt before Egyptians surprised the world with their power. It's too easy to reject positivity around us and highlight what's wrong but it only takes a gleam of hope to lay our trust in us and bring about a change.

More links:

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Arab Spring: "Hey Mubarak, Nobody Likes You"

Fiza asked me "What are your thoughts on the Arab Spring?"
To be honest, I didn't see it coming. From the students I talked to/debated with at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to the man on the street who sold fruit to me, I didn't see it coming. From the students, I heard bitterness in their voices but never enough anger to start a revolution. After all, you do need a certain amount of anger to fuel yourself to camp out on the streets, risk your life and your loved ones too. Maybe anger is the wrong word, but you do need something inside of you to become part of a revolution. And while I constantly heard Egyptians expressing their unhappiness with the state, they all seemed to have such a defeatist attitude in the end.

I remember arguing with one AUC student proclaiming that change is possible, that with hope anything can be possible. I was obviously reeking of typical American idealistic values. I probably could have just worn a sign around my neck saying "YES WE CAN" or "FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY WILL RULE" It would have had the same effect as my words did on this AUCian. He was convinced that Egypt would never change because its people were so entrenched in its corrupt system. He thought the only way for anything to change would be through one person, a leader who rises up to fight for the common good of the people. Even if that meant fighting against them. In the middle of our debate, he just looked at me with slight disgust and said something along the lines of "You have your Obama."

And with those words, everything became clear. He was right. Here in the U.S. we did have our Obama. It was perfect. We had endured 8 long years of hell (well for a lot of us. I won't speak for all) and all of a sudden, someone new came along and swept us off our feet. He gave riveting speeches on hope, change and how there actually was a light at the end of the tunnel. Honestly, it felt like we were in one of those inspiring movies. Finally, someone was there to tell us everything was going to be ok.
Yet here we are....a divided nation drowning in debt, fumbling to keep up with the rest of the world in terms of education and healthcare, still trying to get out of our own wars, and still terrorized by hatred stemming from all around us. Both domestic and foreign.
However, that is a tangent thought, which is already being discussed in every other news outlet across the U.S.

Going back to Egypt, I said that I didn't see it coming. Not that I didn't see any change coming at all, but I didn't think it would come in this raw form of a revolution. And although everything seems to be in chaos, I am glad that at least the system has been uprooted. Imagine having to live in a state where the police are not there to protect you, where you can't believe your own media because they aren't allowed to say anything that goes against the government. Imagine living under that for 30 years.

These revolutions are not only standing up to the corrupt Arab dictators, but also to North America and Western Europe. The revolutions are proof that the people (in this case Arabs) know what they want. And they don't want to wage a war or Islamic jihad on the so-called infidels around the world. And they certainly do not all want to pledge allegiance to terrorists. They just want their basic rights. The right to live freely and without fear of punishment from an unjust regime. Is it really too much to ask your own government for a stable economy, jobs, to be treated with respect and dignity? After all, the duty of a government is to take care of the nation and its people. Somehow Arab governments have simply assumed in recent decades that their job is to maintain order. However, they seem to confuse the word "maintain" with "silence." All fingers definitely pointing right now to Bashar al-Assad's Ramadan massacre against his own Syrians.

I believe that for Egypt, desperate times called for desperate measures and it was time to go out into the streets. Egyptians were realizing that they cannot simply wait and ask nicely anymore. However, now that they have seized what rightfully belongs to them, it remains to be seen how it will all be handled. Will Egypt decide to turn completely secular? Or perhaps religious parties may take the majority in their parliament? How long will the military be in charge?

The most incredible part about Egypt's revolution was watching how Egyptians from all walks of life were coming together to take ownership of their country. And they did with respect for each other. I was completely moved by pictures I saw of Egyptians sweeping the streets with their brooms during the revolution. People were camping out laughing and talking under the threat of tear gas, looting and other violence. Even though they knew they were potentially risking their lives for this cause, Egyptians stood together. They set up neighborhood watches and protected each other, no matter what background or religion they came from. This was a revolution for Egypt. Not Muslims or Christians or any political parties. For Egypt.

These days, we can only wait and see...and hope for the best for Egypt and the Middle East's future. But at least now we can say that something in the Arab world has certainly changed

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Post Bin Laden: A Neo - War on Terrorism

Monday morning, last day of bank holiday weekend, and I was sleeping in late when a message from a friend in Egypt woke me up - "Osama bin Laden is dead" it read.  Being my mother's daughter, any such news on TV and my first reaction is to run to the TV and staye glued to it for the next several hours, if not the next few days, flicking between news channels and hearing every political analysis possible.

My first reaction? I thought Osama bin Laden died a few years ago! The next slightly saner reaction? Pakistan is screwed now! But the more and more I think about it, the conspiracy theorist within me continues to stare back at me saying "The war on terrorism is so not might just be the beginning!"

Victory is like an opium you get addicted to. The death of bin Laden is a symbolic victory as many are calling it, but it is a huge symbolic victory which makes his enemies feel more addicted to winning, and definitely invokes a stronger self-belief in their method of struggle against him and his allies. What's the message? The 10 years of war on terrorism seem to have been well-spent! (Although in reality, it took 10 years of billions of dollars spent across the world, an ugly war in Afghanistan and a falsely waged war in Iraq, operations after operations and thousands of deaths around the world every year to find one Osama bin Laden on May 2nd 2011).

There's a huge debate on whether this is a set-back for Al-Qaeda or not? Some claim this is de-moralizing news for the terrorists while others claim that Osama was a mere symbol, and Al-Qaeda had moved on and will continue. There is a huge relief in the fact that "the Arab awakening" as it is being called, had already proven that Al-Qaeda had weakened. The Arab youth has shown that an "Al-Qaeda inspired jihadist revolution" is not what is needed, when people power without arms can topple Pharoahs like Mubarak.

Some time ago to my blog post on Egyptian success at toppling Mubarak's regime, someone had left a comment asking whether I believed it was as simple as people power or whether there were "outside" hands involved in fueling the Arab awakening. Was this a set-up for the Arab world? I must be a strange combination of a conspiracy theorist and an optimist but I still strongly believe in the power of people and in the purity of the intentions and actions that led to "the Arab Spring" which is still flourishing. Any thing to rid the likes of the heartless, authoritarian rulers like Mubaraks and Qaddafis cannot be any thing but a happy revolution for me.

But I cannot ignore the way the world is shaping in 2011 and to me it almost embarks the launch of a new era. What better timing could fate have chosen for Bin Laden when the Arab world is so involved in its own revolutions and mayhem, and when Pakistan does not have a proud face anymore to say any thing. Afghanistan is just relieved that its not involved in this story. The timing is just perfect!  

My google alerts set on Egypt, every day send at least a few articles and blog posts that focus on the rise of Muslim Brotherhood and "the likes" in the "Islamists", "hard-lined", "right-wing", "extremists" at the same time - all words that do not exactly connote any positivity thesedays. Since the death of Osama bin Laden, there have been ominous maps being shared and discussed on channels ranging from BBC and CNN to AlJazeera and Geo all showing countries where Al-Qaeda is active - Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and never to forget Pakistan. Pakistan is an epoch story in itself - if it knew where Osama was, it has obviously pretended to be an ally while aiding terrorism, hence doomed! If it did not know where Osama was, that's a seriously faulty army and intelligence, hence not believable and so doomed! But what's common between the rest? Algeria and Yemen and to a certain degree Saudi Arabia have all been impacted by the Arab revolutions.

Sure, Ayman Al-Zawahiri is Egyptian but that's where the story ends. Where the story picks up for me is with the alarm bells these sort of statements accompanying Egypt's involvement in the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. "If Cairo’s desire for a more ‘independent’ foreign policy translates into warmer ties with terrorists, America’s own long-standing support for the Egyptian military may eventually need to be reconsidered," wrote the neoconservative Wall Street Journal Tuesday in an editorial that called Egypt’s latest moves "an unsettling preview of what could emerge" from the so-called "Arab Spring". The Egyptian Foreign Minister has announced that within the next 10 days the border between Palestine and Egypt will be opened, first time since Mubarak's fall. There are already analysts saying this is worrying for the US that does not want to see warmer relations between Palestinian "terrorists" and Muslim Brotherhood.

One world less of Ben Ali was fine. Mubarak going away was undoubtedly great! But a whole big Arab region devoid of ugly but nevertheless extremely strong (and strong-headed) leaders like the Qaddafis, Assads and Mubaraks (not to mention Saddam although he seems out of the "Arab Spring" symmetry here) is also a world with a huge vaccum. 

As Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani political analyst pointed out on Al-Jazeera today, and I would like to expand on - the Arab protests cannot be seen to be a complete tangent from the world we knew with "Al-Qaedas" around. It took 10 years of the world swinging between war on terror, Taliban and Al-Qaedas to prepare a field where the revolutions took place. Human mind and humanity in general does not work in independent steps unaffected by the world and its trends around them. According to Gul, Al-Qaeda's message was or perhaps still is in their perceptions a fight for "justice" against the "powerful" which to me easily reads as the so-called "Arab Awakening".

Ripe in its democracy, the situation can easily be "manipulated" by "Islamists" and "sympathizers" of terrorists. Will it then take long to show that the revolution was certainly backed not by outsiders but the conniving little insiders - it can't be that difficult. Algeria has seen Islamists in the past just like Turkey is the most secular Muslim nation in the world run by an "Islamic" party. Vulnerable as this region is, it will need to be saved from hard-liners and why would the powerful ones not come to aid?

Do I want to doubt the Arab awakening? No, definitely not. Do I want to see others taking advantage of the Arab revolutions? A louder no! But can I help not notice a strong and scary trend? Hmm not really!

...And the conspiracy theorist within me lives on...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What Egypt Taught Me: People plus Media is equal to Power

As I sit here breathless in London, flicking channels between Al Jazeera English, BBC, CNN and France 24, in anxiety and excitement to see what Hosni Mubarak will announce within the hour, I cant help but realize what the last 14 days with Egypt has taught me. It's been a rush of emotions, for me in the last few hours, a non-Egyptian, feeling in one with the Egyptians standing on Tahrir Square, and all the revolutionaries around the world. I have been going to work every day but keeping my browser tabs open to Twitter, Al Jazeera English Live stream and BBC live stream following closely what the youth in Cairo and Alexandria were achieving by the mere power of their unity and patience.

Power of People

Hundreds of people sacrificed their lives in this struggle but it only strengthened the resolve of the activists from Maidan Tahrir (Liberation Square). Noam Chomsky has spoken about people power being a power to reckon with, that when united can confront the political-economic powers of the world combined. Egyptians demonstrated in their country the essential ingredients of " people power" - a combination of unity, faith and discipline - essential ingredients for success in any country as pointed out by Muhammad Ali Jinnah during the movement for the creation of Pakistan.

Wael Ghonem and April 6th Movement activists demonstrated how it was not a spur of the moment reaction that Egyptian youth undertook but an intelligent coming together of plans, strategies and its execution. The queues outside Tahrir Square were a sight of immense strength, the patience of protestors camping at Tahrir square sharing celebrations, foods, and keeping their struggle a peaceful one was immensely exciting.

This power of the people can not only be seen to bring down authoritarian regimes like Tunisia and Egypt but also international powers like USA, China, France, and UK repeatedly wording out their commitment to allow Egyptians to draw out their own history. Media too has been manipulated by people power. The images on State TV in Egypt throughout the revolting period were a mellowed down version of the protests, editorial policies that showed things were under the government's control. Now, half an hour before Mubarak makes his appearance live, State television is showing the same images of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians celebrating their near victory as any other independent channel.

Power of People Using "Media"

What these last two weeks have also taught me is the power of people when they embrace all tools available to them to express their opinions. Technology has played a huge role in the roll-out of events in Egypt. Wael Ghonim in an interview to an international channel confessed that it was months of preparation over internet that galvanized the revolutionaries.

Despite Egypt censoring internet providers for almost a week in Egypt since January 25th the power of global communication thanks to the presence of internet technology defeated the Mubarak regime on this front too. At this point in time, matters are so different that there is even free wireless setup at Tahrir square for the hundreds of thousands of civilians to make use of. Al Jazeera English tweeted its news throughout this internet black out, being re-tweeted by internet activists from around the world and spreading the word throughout the world. Journalists from within Egypt spoke to colleagues and friends outside of Egypt over telephone, who in return tweeted on their behalf.

At this moment, when television channels from around the world are showing the scenes from Egypt at their prime, I cannot help but notice that I am blogging on my laptop, following tweets on the side, Whatsapping on iphone with my friend in Egypt, watching Al Jazeera and BBC on TV and noticing the crowds of people waving their country's flags and chanting slogans and singing songs in anticipation for what looks like the victory of people power! 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Operation: Tunisia Cyberwar

Note: This was originally posted on "Project: Carousel" a student led online community working under the auspices of The Centre for Media and Film Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
Any form of speech used for pulling communities together to criticize a government or ruling group’s action has historically met with tightening of laws, suppression of freedom and unjust actions at the hands of the rulers. Growing tensions in Tunisia over the dissatisfaction of Tunisians over poverty and soaring unemployment coupled with the unproportional wealth of the ruling elite in their country are increasingly catching much needed attention but perhaps still not as much as is necessary. Only very recently has the international world begun to take notice of the disturbances in Tunisia and it could be thanks to the cyber world ensuring the protests make it to the eyes of the outside world.
Anti-goverment protests triggered after  young unemployed university graduate named Mohammed Bouazizia set himself alight in frustration on December 17, 2010. He died while being treated in a hospital near Tunis, the capital, on January 5, according to family members.  Since then scores of others who were part of the protests against poor living conditions and policies that favor the elite of the country have either been lost their lives at the hands of government forces. The president of the country Ben Ali has been in power for the last 30 years and many resent the wealth that the ruling family owns in comparison to the living conditions for the people of the country.
Not surprisingly, the government has managed to clamp down media activities covering the protests and defaming the ruling party. That should not be a difficult task considering even private television channels are owned by members or friends of the ruling family. Online efforts by activists are meeting ugly fate too. Government agents are hacking activists’ networks and tracking down citizen journalists. Most video-sharing sites are being censored now in Tunisia along with news websites like Nawaat, Al Jazeera Arabic, and, even Al Jazeera English.  Tunisian activists set up “Tunileaks” on the model of Wikileaks which was banned immediately by the authorities. Index on Censorship has discovered that independent journalists in Tunisia including print and television ones as well as online citizen journalists are routinely tracked down and persecuted.
But what Tunisia is seeing is a pulling-together of a counter-cyber war parallel to the battle being fought by Tunisian citizens in the offline-world in the villages and towns.  Bloggers, website owners and online activists are finding ways to break proxies and launch their online campaigns for freedom of speech in Tunisia. Foreign hackers, dubbed “hacktivists” and functioning under the banner name of “Anonymous” are reacting to government online actions by sabotaging the state’s own sites.
#Sidibouzid has become the Twitter tag attached to the voices of the protectors. Dedicated twitter users are tweeting as and when things happen being the first ones to announce names of protestors who die at the hands of the troops. “Weddady” tweeted saying he has been an activist for 20 yrs but has not witnessed anything like whats happening in Tunisia before. On Facebook too, Tunisians continue to share videos of victims’ funerals, protests and mistreatment at the hands of government troops.
Social media in this context not only becomes a perfect alternative space when traditional media is clamped down but also a vital right-hand to traditional media as well as the actual movement underway. I do not agree with opinion-holders that social networks can have limited impact on change in Tunisia. Whether the online activists within Tunisia are well-connected or not, the tweeting, re-tweeting, posting and sharing of posts is what traditional media from outside of Tunisia’s borders relies on when home television channels and print medium are censored by the government.
CNN’s Octavia Nasr considers that despite the fact that the internet is longer and more broadly established in Tunisia than in most Arab countries, its online activists are not so well personally connected.  On the other hand though, what we are already seeing is Algerian online activists using Facebook, Twitter and blogs to draw paralles between their struggles and that of Tunisians’ although both are undergoing trouble at home due to different reasons. The ability for social media to win supporters outside of imaginable borders is what makes it a tough opponent. Tourism industry in Tunisia can easily be hampered by the word of mouth effect of social media. Given what we saw earlier in 2010 in Iran and now what tremendous strength Tunisians are showing online, it is important to realize that social media is not just an alternative medium but an un-ignorable tool that goes hand in hand with all forms of media to function well.
It is ironic that in today’s world besides the ever growing presence of media, lives lost over hatred and bigotry make greater spectacle but hundreds of thousands lives lost due to hunger and poverty are often forgotten. It takes a young, university graduate to give up his precious life for others to speak up and it probably takes still a lot more before the news makes it even bigger in global media.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

(Re)-considering Pakistan: Salman Taseer, Blasphemy and People

The extremely sad assassination of Salman Taseer has shocked Pakistanis throughout the world and is a shrewd reminder of how Pakistan’s state of affairs have reached a point that not a day goes by without a disturbing news. Living outside of Pakistan, I am trying as quickly as possible to hover all the details, and reactions about the tragic death of a well-renowned governor of the country.

There are articles over the net discussing groups that hold the assassin as a hero and others condemning the vileness that is attached with any murder. The incident is a sombre reminder of where Pakistan is coming from, and the direction in which things are leading. For me, it is an episode of bafflement, a reminder that things in the country are no longer wrong or right, they are chaotic and we have ended up in this in a complicated trail of events because of our own short-sightedness and lack of sensitivity.

There are speculations on whether the murderer acted under the instructions of a bigger “extremist” group (I hyphenate that word in this context for no particular reason but to remind myself how I don’t want to get comfortable using it anywhere assuming that it has the same meaning universally). There is even question of a third party incentive involved. What I am interested in however is the ability of a man to act with such conviction over the forthrightness of his action and the response of others supporting it.

I am in no way condoning the act nor claiming to be a religious scholar or even an expert in legal matters. I do believe that it is for the government to decide in an Islamic state on who is to be punished and who is to be redeemed and if people were to take law in their hands there would be anarchy.

The gap between those for blasphemy law and those against it has only widened and the issue remains as black and white between the two sides as before.

In Pakistan, an Islamic state with a Muslim ruler, they still continually take law in their hands and I have trouble understanding why. Is it because our people are too emotional, too zealous? Or is it that they feel they cannot rely on the authorities to take action? If the literary elite, the journalists, the opinion holders on the net and tv believe the blasphemy law is black law but the great majority of the public rejoices the action of the man who opened fire on Salman Taseer then what does it depict of the Pakistani society.

It is only sensible to feel that 26 or 27 bullets to kill someone is not just an act of murder but a form of statement to all those committing or supporting blasphemy in the country. In reality, perhaps, Salman Taseer's murder has probably won him more sympathy, even support than before. However, to the murderer and those who support his view that does not mean any thing and would not change their act next time. The murderer probably did this in all loyalty to his expression of love for the support of Holy Prophet and his faith.

Ever since the war on terrorism our lives have increasingly been entrenched in a conundrum where as time passes by it becomes more and more unclear where the war began and who is the enemy now? When Pakistan chose to ally with those waging the war on terrorism, it alienated it's own vast majority of people who saw more in common with their own people than the "western forces". Their worst fears maximized when drone attacks killed innocent Pakistanis in their villages. The government becomes as distantly cold to them as its ally forces bombarding their homes.

It could be this anguish that leads the common Pakistani to take law in his hands, to demonstrate vengeance. But to leave it entirely on that is over-simplification too.

Blasphemy law has existed for over two decades and reactions over blasphemy and religious minorities have always been rather strange even incorrect. A twitter user popular amongst the local bloggers on Twitter related how his driver asked if Salman Taseer was Qadiani commenting on this is how they think.

But what have the authorities, even private organizations or us the literary or literate elite done to change it? How many bloggers, columnists even vigil holders joined to demand more tangible steps to bridge the gaps between the "masses" and them? Have we tried to speak their language, to take steps that bridge the communication gaps? Perhaps dialogue is better than critique. Perhaps not assuming superiority over the other, we can try and "speak with" them not "speak to" the public.

An answer would be to support causes that promote education. The Citizens Foundation, Zindagi Trust and many other organizations are doing immense work to bridge the gap of education between the privileged and non-privileged. However, mere financial support of such organizations is not enough. An attitude change is required to break our bubble and those of others so that we can breathe the same air. There is a need to step out of our shoes and into others' to see the world through their eyes. Humbling of our thoughts and our opinions of ourselves is required so we can see whether we are looking down at others while talking to them or whether we are actually communicating. This is where dialogue will begin and this is where we will make everyone feel welcomed. When others will feel they have the whole country, the authorities, the powerful, the elite on their side only then will they have trust built in them, only then will they feel safe in their homes, only then will they not depend entirely on their instincts and feel the need to show others their anger by taking the law in their hands.

It may not bring Salman Taseer back and it may not stop all our problems in the immediate tomorrow either but we can at least be on the road to recovery from this mess we have made of our beautiful home.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone