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.

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