View from Dubai: Time to look East

March 30, 2007

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

WASN’T it the British politician, Benjamin Disraeli, who argued that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in the world of diplomacy, only permanent interests? The late British prime minister should know. For there is no other nation that has practised the mantra with greater success and panache than the British.

Watching Saudi Arabia roll out the red carpet for President Putin of Russia last week, I was reminded of England’s first Jewish prime minister and his earthy wisdom. King Abdullah canonised the former KGB chief and martial art expert as a ‘man of peace and justice.’ Nothing wrong with that, of course. Except Saudi Arabia happens to be a staunch ally of the United States and this is the first ever visit by a Russian leader to the home of Islam.

Saudi Arabia refused to have diplomatic relations with Russia or the late Soviet Union for its treatment of the large Muslim population in the country and neighbouring Central Asian republics. It was not long ago that Saudi Arabia had supported and encouraged the decade-long resistance against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Without doubt, the Afghan jihad, actively supported by both Saudi Arabia and America, played a critical role in bringing down the Soviet empire. But things are changing now. And how.

Clearly both Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the world’s largest oil producing nations, are in a hurry to make up for the last time. So it was no coincidence that just ahead of his visit to the Middle East, Putin unveiled a blistering attack on the US leadership accusing it of inflaming the Middle East and undermining world peace with its clumsy handling of Iraq. Don’t be surprised if Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab-Muslim world and oil producing nations, today is seeking defence cooperation with Russia. Moscow will also launch six telecommunication and remote sensing satellites for Saudi Arabia later this year. But what really takes the cake in this budding relationship is Putin’s offer to help Saudi Arabia develop nuclear energy. What is going on? The world is changing folks. That’s what is going on. And about time too. The Arab and Muslim world has depended for far too long on its traditional allies in the West. And what has it got in return? Only contempt and wanton indifference to their concerns and problems.

In fact, most of those concerns and problems are a legacy of our Western friends who through their long association with and colonisation of the Middle East have transformed the cradle of the world civilisation into the battleground of big powers. I hate going on and on about the Palestinian dispossession and how it makes the Middle East and greater Muslim world politically and psychologically volatile. It’s an undeniable reality though that the continuing suffering of Palestinian people remains the single source of Muslim anger and growing extremism around the world. The Arabs and Muslims find it hard to ignore the fact that colonial powers played a decisive role in driving the Palestinians out of their homeland to gift it to the Jews, a people historically persecuted across the Christian Europe.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shockingly politically incorrect as he may sound, has really got a point when he demands to know why should the Palestinians and Muslim world pay for the wrongs committed by the West.It’s hardly a state secret how the victors of the World War I and II divided the greater Middle East among themselves over the last century. Winston Churchill of Britain is said to have drawn up the map of the new Middle East on a breakfast napkin at the Yalta summit of 1945 with FD Roosevelt of United States and Joseph Stalin of Soviet Union. The Arab and Muslim world continues to pay a daily price for that mutilation at the crossroads of history on a daily basis. From the ever-festering Palestine-Israel conflict to Lebanon civil war to the current mess in Iraq, which one of our problems is not the legacy of the big powers?

The Arab and Muslims have got nothing but condescension and derision from the West for their genuine friendship and fawning admiration. The least the Arabs could have got was a note of acknowledgment, if not gratitude, for the critical role their oil has played in the West’s —indeed the world’s —economic progress and development. Instead all they’ve got is relentless exploitation and old- fashioned conspiracies.In fact, it was this mindset that originally forced the Saudis and Iranians to sever their economic ties with the manipulative British in the beginning of the last century and reach out to the new world power, America, in the first place. The two oil producing neighbours had got sick and tired of sheer dishonesty and the games played by British oil companies in their dealings with the simple and uninitiated leaders of the two countries. Unfortunately, the Arabs’ experience with Uncle Sam despite their uninhibited admiration for all that America stands for —or once did —has been equally disappointing. The Arab regimes’ political, emotional and strategic dependence on the US over the past half a century or so has only made this relationship all the more complex and frustrating. This has encouraged and emboldened the US to take its Arab allies for granted while constantly appeasing their bete noire Israel.Which is why the Arab and Muslim world needs to make some bold and strategic decisions and choices, and soon, to introduce a much-needed equilibrium in their relationship with the world powers. The Middle East has to gradually and decisively curtail its hopeless dependence on the West in general and US in particular. This is in their mutual interest and necessary for the long-term health of their relationship. The world is undergoing dramatic changes. And as our friend Tom Friedman of the New York Times insists, it is not a flat world anymore. It will not forever remain a US-controlled and West-dominated world. The new Russia under comrade Putin with its new money to splurge has not only got its old, superpower confidence back, but it is keen to play a more assertive role on the world stage. On the other hand, the emergence of new Asian players like China and India with their incredibly-fast booming economies and rich human resources has forced the whole world to sit up and take notice.

The Arab and Muslim world would ignore these historic changes at its own cost. It has to break free of its American and Western fixation. The Arab countries must not only diversify their economies from oil and gas but also reach out to new and more dependable allies and friends in nations such as Russia, China and India. It is time to look East. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries have already taken some tentative steps in this direction.

King Abdullah’s very first foreign visit after taking over as the leader of the world’s largest oil producing nation took him to China and India last year. Saudi Arabia has already clinched some major energy cooperation deals with China and is planning to build a major storage-refinery facility in the country. This is encouraging. But as the leader of the Arab-Islamic world, Saudi Arabia will have to do more to make its foreign policy less US-centric. And others in the neighbourhood must follow suit. They must evolve a foreign policy that is more nuanced and balanced, in tune with the phenomenal changes that are taking place around them. This is the least they can do to salvage their dignity and independence. Never again must the Arabs and Muslims put all their eggs in one basket. That’s not good diplomacy. And it’s risky too. They must do everything possible to cut their dependence on big players altogether and look inwards for solutions to their problems. The Makkah peace summit of the last week that brought peace to the Palestinian Territories —and the Taif peace accord before that, in 1989, put an end to the civil war in Lebanon —have demonstrated that the Arabs and Muslims are capable of solving their own problems. They only have to try.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at aijaz@khaleejtimes.com


View from Dubai: The Kashmir Knot

March 30, 2007

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

YOU know the world has changed to apocalyptic proportions when you have India and Pakistan agreeing on something. The tragedy that hit cross-border Samjhauta Express, run between India and Pakistan, this week of course was a desperate and cowardly act of terror.

Innocent people have once again paid with their lives as they got caught in a conflict that had nothing to do with them. However, if there is a silver lining to this appalling tragedy, it is the neighbours’ unity in the face of the common challenge confronting them. For a change, the South Asian neighbours have not blamed each other for the attack but have come together to take on the spectre that threatens them both. Not a small feat for the sub-continent twins who for over six decades have lived in a permanent state of conflict with occasional bursts of peace and good-neighbourly bonhomie.This is heartening for the millions of ordinary people like me who would like India and Pakistan to strike genuine peace and bring down the wall of distrust built by a conspiracy of history and geography. It’s this divide that doesn’t allow the two countries and their billion plus population to realise their infinite potential.

And it’s this unfinished business of their shared past that keeps coming back to haunt India and Pakistan from time to time — just as it has done in the terrible attack on Samjhauta Express. Seeing the two entire compartments with their passengers reduced to a charred nothingness and their wailing and devastated survivors, you wonder what the terrorists have after all achieved by all this. All they have managed to do is score another, if rather fine point, over their respective enemies. And they have driven home the message that this is what happens if you do not engage us and pay attention to our demands. For now, it is not clear who did it though. The usual suspects are Kashmiri groups.

But since most of those killed in the Samjhauta tragedy happen to be Pakistani families returning home, theories are also doing the rounds about some shadowy Hindu groups being behind the attack. It’s been pointed out that as in Malegaon blasts in Maharashtra last year, the majority of the victims in this attack happen to be Muslim. But does it really matter who targeted who and whether those at the receiving end were Muslims or Hindus, Christians or Jews? All victims are innocent — unless they are directly responsible and paying for the injustice and suffering they have caused others. So if the utterly helpless and persecuted Palestinians blow themselves up in Jewish settlements built on the land usurped and snatched from them, you understand — if not justify — the desperate action. You don’t have to be a suicide bomber to know how it feels when your home has been taken over by a thug armed to the teeth and then you and your loved ones are abused daily in front of the whole world. Yes, you do understand the infinite helplessness that drives young boys and girls hardly in their teens over the edge. But, how could you explain the targeting of innocents and young children who didn’t even know why they had to die a painful death on that ill-fated train to Pakistan? It was heart-rending to watch parents recount how they saw their children burn to death and could do nothing. Again, how would anyone justify the mindless bombing of the local train network in Mumbai last year that ended the lives of 174 people going to work? Indeed, all those who died in 9/11 or 7/7 terror attacks, or for that matter most terror victims, had nothing to do with the conflicts or issues that ostensibly drove their tormentors. Yet they ended up paying with their lives for the sins and crimes they had never committed. It is so unfair and unreasonable. But then logic and reason cannot always explain the complexities of geopolitics. But wait. Don’t we really know why those innocents on the train to Pakistan had to die? Utterly despicable and deplorable as this act of terror had been, it is not difficult to identify the factors that made this outrage possible and motives of those behind it. I know I am not being entirely ingenious in saying this. But as is the case in all spheres of life, the cause and effect go together in the world of terror too. And when you talk of cause and effect, you cannot ignore the historical reality that the self-serving politicians of India and Pakistan have allowed the Kashmir question, the so-called unfinished business of the Partition, hang fire for so long — for nearly six decades. The Kashmir conflict has not only poisoned the close relationship between the South Asian neighbours but has also prevented the two countries and their people from moving on and progress with the rest of the world. India and Pakistan, despite their impressive growth in recent times, are home to some of the world’s poorest and economically deprived communities.

While the South Asian giants love to strut their stuff and their powerful arsenal including nuclear weapons, a vast majority of their people remain without access to basics such as housing, clean water, electricity, health and education. India has higher levels of malnourished children than Sub-Saharan Africa, a Unicef report this week said. Imagine what a critical difference all those resources — in trillions of dollars — spent on financing the South Asian delusions of military grandeur can make to their people. But the real victims of the India-Pakistan conflict have been the Kashmiri people. They have already paid an incalculable price for owning one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. Impossibly caught in the battle of nerves and egos of the sub-continent giants, the Kashmiris are forever hanging in a political and psychological limbo, like those condemned souls in Dante’s Purgatory, eternally waiting for their deliverance.Unfortunately, both India and Pakistan have been far from reasonable and fair in dealing with Kashmiri people and their legitimate concerns and aspirations. Pakistan has over the years successfully used and exploited the Kashmir question. While the Pak establishment claims to espouse the cause of Kashmiri people, it has indeed been more interested in serving its own interests and scoring diplomatic brownie points over India. If you don’t know what I am talking about, just look at the pathetic state of affairs in Pakistani Kashmir. The so-called Azad Kashmir is as poor and underdeveloped as its Indian counterpart, if not more. On the other hand, the Indian establishment goes on defensive the instant the K word is uttered, shutting out all discussion and dialogue on the issue. It is not prepared to acknowledge or accept the suggestion that there may be trouble in the paradise. As an Indian, I do understand why we are all so touchy about Kashmir and continue to tiptoe around the issue. After all, Kashmir has been the much-celebrated jewel in India’s crown. But how long Kashmiris have to suffer and sacrifice themselves at the altar of vain pride and patriotism? The South Asian neighbours’ inability or unwillingness to resolve the Kashmir tangle and address the genuine aspirations and concerns of Kashmiri people has already taken the region to three disastrous wars. The Kashmiris remain imprisoned and separated from their loved ones in their own land. South Asia’s Berlin wall, the so-called Line of Control, has literally divided thousands of Kashmiri families on either side of the geographical divide. If you’ve ever been to Jammu and Kashmir like I have been, you would see what I mean. The breathtakingly beautiful state has been turned into a large military camp with most of India’s forces being stationed in Jammu and Kashmir. Nearly a hundred thousand people have died over the past decade and half in the insurgency that has been actively supported by Pakistan. Hundreds more have died in staged encounters, as in the case of Abdul Rehman Paddar, a carpenter and father of five from Anantnag who was shot dead as a ‘foreign militant’ by a fellow Kashmiri cop in a hurry to scale the carrier ladder. Is it any wonder then the Kashmiri youths continue to take to extremism? And is it any surprise if terror continues to stalk the India-Pakistan ties? Genuine peace and progress will elude the sub-continent as long as Kashmir remains without peace. India and Pakistan have to confront their past to look to their future. And that is not possible without talking the K word — with complete honesty and without beating about the bush.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at aijaz@khaleejtimes.com


View from Dubai: Here’s why they love and hate US

March 30, 2007

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

A QUESTION in response to a question can often be the answer. This is what I realised when Major-General William B. Caldwell, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Effects and spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq, visited the Khaleej Times earlier this week with a team of high ranking US officials.

The US officials were ostensibly on a mission to win the ‘hearts and minds’ in the Middle East and Muslim world by reaching out to the media and telling their side of the story. When asked what the US proposed to do to reach out to the alienated Arab and Muslim world, Major-General Caldwell in turn asked me what I thought the US should do to win over the Muslims.

I mumbled something to the effect the US should bridge the gulf by initiating a genuinely free and frank dialogue with the Islamic world addressing each other’s concerns. Caldwell agreed with me pointing out that his very inability to answer my question underscored the seriousness of the problem. A great deal has been said and written about the yawning gulf that exists between the West, especially the US and Muslim world. It’s hardly a secret that while the ruling classes in the Muslim world revel in their proximity to the US, the same cannot be said of the majority of ordinary people. In fact, of late the commotion in Muslim street over America’s far from popular policies in the Middle East has grown alarmingly. Yet our American friends appear genuinely surprised every time there is a pointed expression of anger against the US policies and actions. They ask themselves: “Why do they hate us?” But is it that hard to figure why the world’s 1.8 billion Arabs and Muslim have some serious issues with the reigning superpower that has invaded and occupied at least two Muslim countries and could be planning to attack on a third? It’s not only America’s unquestioning support to the apartheid state of Israel and its persecution of the Palestinians that agitates the Muslim world. The superpower’s historical political and economic exploitation of the Middle East and its attempts to redraw the map of the region after the World War II have been at the heart of this alienation. A recent survey by the University of Maryland and Zogby International found that 78 per cent of Arabs have an unfavourable view of the US. At least 72 per cent of them see the US as the biggest ‘state threat.’ Another poll in 40 Muslim countries by Gallup’s Centre for Muslim Studies reveals that 52 per cent of Iranians have an unfavourable view of the Big Satan. That’s hardly a surprise, given the US-Iran conflict. But this antipathy towards Uncle Sam is significantly lower than that recorded in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — all three close US allies. Two third of Jordanians and Pakistanis and a staggering 79 per cent of Saudis have a negative view of their so-called friend and ally. But remember, this disillusionment with the Americans is not limited to the Muslim world. Anti-Americanism as a movement in Europe and around the world has survived the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold war. Way back in 1993, a State Department study found that a whopping 83 per cent of the British had a favourable opinion of their cousins across the Atlantic. This support has drastically dwindled in recent times. Most Britons, polled by Pew Global Attitudes Project, today see the US presence in the Middle East and its ‘war on terror’ as a bigger threat to world peace than Iran or North Korea! It should be a real source of concern to the Americans that this view is widely shared by respondents in France, Spain, Russia, India, China and throughout the Middle East. Clearly, what unites the world today is hatred of America the Almighty. But like I said, should these findings really come as a surprise to the Americans? Remarkably, few of them seem to realise that it is the casually callous policies — especially, foreign policy — of their successive governments that make them the world’s most despised nation. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. According to the same Gallup poll that I’ve cited above, most Arabs and Muslims also admire America for many of its positive qualities and features. For example, an overwhelming majority of Muslims admires American technology, its democracy and political freedom among many other things. According to this poll, all Muslims want is ‘more respect’ from America! Clearly, it is a complex, love-hate relationship. From my own personal experience as a Muslim who grew up admiring all things American, I understand how my fellow believers the world over feel about America. My introduction to America began early in life with westerns and thrillers by lovable writers such as Oliver Strange and James Hadley Chase, who rubbed shoulders with the best in Urdu classics in my father’s library, back home in India. This adolescent affair with America developed into a heady passion when I went to university. And it was my fawning fascination for Amriika — as we call it back home — that made me choose American literature as an elective in MA English. I never regretted that decision — to be in the enriching company of Frost, Whitman, Hemingway and many others. Over the years, this bond with America has only strengthened with my philistine fondness for Hollywood and exposure to US democracy and civil liberties icons. Like fellow Muslims everywhere, I still love and admire America and all that it stands for and represents — or once did. I admire its democratic values, its love of liberty and personal freedom and respect for the rule of law and human rights — notwithstanding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But what really makes the American way of life so attractive to us Muslims — from the edge of Africa to the end of Asia — is its celebration of honesty, fair play and hard work. If you are confident, hard working and enterprising, American dream can embrace you as its own. Which is why the rags-to-riches stories are so common in the New World. And this is why it remains the favourite destination of dream chasers everywhere. From actor-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sabeer Bhatia of Hotmail, in our own lifetime there have been numerous examples of immigrants scaling dizzying heights to become a part of the great American dream. It’s this side of America that conquers hearts and minds everywhere — in the Muslim world and elsewhere. Indeed, there is a great deal that the Muslims have in common with America. We share an unshakable faith in God, justice, honesty, freedom and humanity.It is such a shame then that such a huge gulf between the US and the Muslims and between the West and Islam should exist. How do we bridge this divide? The only way to end the rift is by trying to understand what has caused this in the first place. If the Americans — the US establishment, to be more precise — are indeed keen to bridge the divide preventing the coming clash of civilistions, they must start by showing some respect to Arabs and Muslims. It’s only when you respect the other side that you pay attention to their point of view. Bush is wrong to suggest Muslims hate America and the West because we abhor their ‘way of life.’ We do not hate America or grudge Western way of life. It’s your life after all and you have the right to live it the way you want. As the Quran puts it, “To you be your Way, And to me mine.” The trouble starts only when you try to force your way upon ours. Also, ordinary Muslims like me find it hard to accept that a nation that inspired by the ideals of freedom, democracy, dignity and justice can support a state that is rooted in injustice, oppression and tyranny.

This gulf between the US and Islam is not impossible to bridge, if the US establishment makes a sincere attempt to understand what really concerns and agitates the Muslims. And I assure my American friends — including well-meaning individuals like Major-General Caldwell — that it’s not that difficult to figure what makes Muslims unhappy with America. Identify and eliminate those causes and Islam and America can join hands to create a better and more peaceful world.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at aijaz@khaleejtimes.com


View from Dubai: Not in our name!

March 30, 2007

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

A SINGLE death is a tragedy, argued Joseph Stalin, but a million a statistic. The late Soviet leader should know. After all, he sent nearly a million people to their deaths, or worse, to their eternal damnation in the cold emptiness of Siberia.

Look at Iraq and Afghanistan. Every new day brings more deaths and suffering to their unfortunate people who have been caught in conflicts that have nothing to do with them. And all those killings are nothing but cold and lifeless statistics in President Bush’s relentless and directionless war on terror. Actually, this is more like the ‘war of terror,’ as the irrepressible Borat puts it in movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Nation of Kazakhstan. But that is not the issue here. What really disturbs me is our deafening silence and collective inaction over the daily bloodletting of Muslims at the hands of their fellow believers across the Muslim world. Recently, a bomber dressed as a health worker blew herself up near a huge crowd of more than 150 people who had gathered for a ceremony to open an emergency ward at the main government hospital in Khost, Afghanistan. Scores of them died. In Iraq, the other front of Washington’s war, another suicide bomber, again a young woman, exploded herself at a college in the midst of unsuspecting students killing at least 40 of them. This week, on March 6, two suicide bombers struck killing at least 120 Shia pilgrims on their way to Karbala. In all these instances, those killed had been innocent bystanders who had had no role to play whatsoever in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Helpless women, children and students with dreams of tomorrow in their gleaming eyes had not taken any part in the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. So why did they die? They were innocent and ordinary people like you and me — or the suicide bombers who took their lives. Why did they have to die?Okay, I get it. We are fighting the neocon imperialism and western aggression. This is a just and noble resistance against foreign occupation. But must innocents die for a just cause? Do right ends justify wrong means? Okay, I can understand if the long-persecuted and defenceless Palestinians turn to desperate measures. After all, they have nothing but their own bodies to fight one of the world’s oldest and most ruthless occupations. I agree that those blowing themselves up in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere may have been driven over the edge by their own suffering or that of their loved ones. But you would think the bombers — apparently victims of injustice themselves — would think twice before victimising and punishing others. Besides, almost always it is not the occupation forces but ordinary people who end up as the victims of these attacks. This doesn’t mean I am one of those US apologists who see some great, uplifting objectives like the promotion of democracy and freedom underpinning America’s wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, I have been part of a growing chorus censuring the US and its disastrous policies in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. First, I do not buy the bunkum that the US wars are inspired by a concern for the people in the greater Middle East or lofty ideals. This is your regulation good, old fashioned imperialism, you see.  Second, no mission — however noble — justifies the targeting of innocents and wasting of nearly a million lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are totally unjust and unreasonable wars and must be resisted on all fronts and in all possible ways. But resistance does not mean you can get away with murder — of innocent, unconcerned and uninvolved people as has been happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am no expert on Islam. But my limited knowledge of the great faith tells me this is no jihad. No sir, it’s anything but. Jihad means a just struggle against evil, injustice and oppression, doesn’t it? What kind of jihad is this in which innocent people are sacrificed with impunity? They have already been victims of foreign aggression. And now they are suffering at the hands of their fellow countrymen.A faith that believes in justice, compassion and accountability for all actions and strictly forbids targeting of innocents, especially in a time of war, cannot sanction such mindless and despicable violence in its name. A religion that celebrates life and all the hope and promise that it offers can have nothing to do with this death cult.  Which is why I find this silence across the Muslim world over these shameful acts of terror by desperate and misguided youths most intriguing. Why are the world’s Muslims silent, for God’s sake? Who are we trying to save? Where are our ulema when we need them? Why don’t we have any fatwas condemning this death cult?I know many in the Middle East and elsewhere see Iraq and Afghanistan as a mess that has been created by America and thus should be cleared by America. Many others want the superpower to bleed itself to death in Iraq, so it does not go after another defenceless country. But as Henry Kissinger, that old warhorse and staunch supporter of the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, pointed out this week, if the US and Iraq’s neighbours do not join hands to stem this conflict, it could spill over to neighbouring countries to reach well beyond the Middle East.The recent summit encounter between King Abdullah and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a positive sign that Saudi Arabia and Iran are beginning to wake up to the clear and present danger stalking the Muslim world. Without doubt, the Sunni-Shia conflict had been sparked by the invaders. But it’s the Muslim world that is paying the price. The sectarian rift now threatens to replicate itself across the Islamic lands — from the Middle East to Africa to Asia.  The Muslim world would pay a far greater price in the time to come if it fails to put an end to this murderous mayhem and bloodletting taking place in the name of Islam.

It is time for Muslim leaders, ulema and opinion makers to break their silence on this shameless celebration of death. There cannot be a greater sacrilege than attributing such depraved acts to Islam. It’s time for all of us — Arabs and Muslims everywhere — to speak out in one voice: Not in our name, no! Our silence has already killed thousands. It will kill thousands more if we remain tight-lipped. Silence is not an option.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed writes a weekly column on the Middle East and Muslim world affairs in Khaleej Times published from Dubai. He can be reached at aijazsyed@khaleejtimes.com)

Copyright Khaleej Times


View from Dubai: Open letter to President Bush

March 30, 2007


By Zaka Aijaz Syed

Dear Mr President,

IT’S been four years since the Coalition of the Willing led by you invaded Iraq to bring down the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. This war had been necessary, of course.

As you had rightly enlightened us in the Middle East and the Muslim world on the eve of the Invasion, the late Iraqi dictator possessed a fearsome arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction. And the dictator’s deadly weapons that he cleverly kept hidden from the rest of the world including the UN weapon inspectors, threatened America, its Western allies and rest of the world. Your wise friend and trusted ally, Mr Tony Blair, even calculated the time — 45 minutes — it would take the rogue regime in Iraq to strike at peace-loving people of Britain. Moreover, as you had so kindly pointed out to us, the evil regime in Baghdad had close ties with Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and a legion of terror groups around the world — from Palestinian militants to Afghan enemy combatants.  More importantly, it was the former Iraqi regime that had planned and executed the September 11 terror attacks against America. This fact about Saddam’s links to 9/11 terror strikes has of course been conclusively established and proved by your numerous highly skilled and qualified investigation agencies. Which is why it was absolutely critical to invade Iraq and eliminate the clear and present danger facing the West and the civilised world. Four years on, we cannot thank you enough for the priceless gifts of freedom and dignity you have bestowed on the Middle East and Arab and Muslim world. It is thanks to your vision and noble action, Mr President, that Iraq and its people have been liberated from the clutches of the late Baathist regime. It is thanks to the timely intervention by the Coalition of the Willing that Iraqi people today are free and enjoying their freedom and dignity like free people everywhere. Why, they even have a democratically elected government of their own — thanks to you and the free and fair elections your friends and allies have managed to conduct in Iraq. In fact, as you had rightly promised before the Invasion, with its new-found freedom and dignity Iraq has emerged as the inspiring example of hope and promise to the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. No wonder many in the neighbourhood are now pining for and looking forward to similar liberation and freedom at the hands of America the Almighty. Dear Mr President, the people of Iraq and the Middle East will forever remain indebted to you for this yeoman service. Your short-sighted detractors and critics who question this great war of liberation and great humanitarian mission and all that they have achieved do not realise that all lofty missions and accomplishments do demand a little price. So what if some Iraqi people have died as a consequence. The killing of over 655,000 Iraqis is too small a price for the great gifts of democracy and freedom that they have received. So what if a hundred people get killed on a daily basis, caught as they are in the crossfire between the Coalition of the Willing and the insurgents and militias.  So what if some American soldiers and coalition troops have been killed in the war. Four thousand lives of coalition soldiers is an insignificant cost for the noble cause of freedom and democracy.So what if Iraq has been turned into a large battlefield with the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds shedding each other’s blood like a pack of hungry wolves. So what if millions of Iraqis have fled the country, to take refuge in neighbouring states and nearly 100,000 flee their homes daily. So what if some Iraqi girls have been raped and killed before their loved ones. So what if women and children daily get killed as terrorists at checkpoints across Iraq. This is collateral damage. And this happens all the time in all wars. Okay, this may be a bit on higher side in this war. But stuff happens, you see. Happens all the time.   So what if a couple of hundreds of thousands of innocent people have ended up behind bars. So what if hundreds of prisoners at Abu Ghraib have been tortured, electrocuted and physically and mentally abused. After all, all this was necessary to ‘shock and awe’ the terrorists in Iraq and around the world. Who can now ever forget those iconic images of hungry dogs being unleashed on a pile of naked prisoners?  Who can now dare to question and challenge America and its right to rule the world? So what if the whole of Iraq and its once formidable infrastructure and institutions have been destroyed. So what if the people of Iraq, once one of the richest and largest oil producing nations, are craving for the basics such as water, electricity, fuel and security, of course. So what if the Sunni-Shia fratricide in Iraq threatens to replicate itself across the Muslim world, from the heart of the Middle East to the edge of Asia. I understand, Mr President, this collateral cost is nothing considering what the people of Iraq have got in return. The Iraqi people now find themselves free of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. And now they have so much freedom and dignity that they do not know what to do with. Dear Mr President, we cannot thank you and your neocon and Zionist friends enough for turning Iraq around to make it an enduring and shining example for the rest of the world.  More importantly, what you have done in Iraq and for its oppressed people has won hearts and minds around the world. It has especially impressed ordinary Arabs and Muslims like me who grew up admiring America and all that it stands for. It’s hardly surprising then that now oppressed and enslaved people everywhere are dying to be similarly liberated and empowered by America. And tyrants everywhere are afraid, very afraid of what you would do next. They think long and hard before daring to question your worldview. A big thank you to you, Mr President! Long live freedom! Long live democracy! And long live America!

Yours truly,

An ardent admirer of America. 

Aijaz Zaka Syed writes a weekly column on the Middle East and Muslim world affairs in Khaleej Times published from Dubai. He can be reached at aijazsyed@khaleejtimes.com

Copyright Khaleej Times


View from Dubai — Blast from the Past

March 29, 2007

Blast from the Past

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

WHAT is it with us in the Muslim world? What explains our indifference or, worse, casual contempt for institutions that are held in deference by the rest of the world? Just look at how the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court is being treated — like a two-bit thug!

Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been summarily sacked and confined to his residence. His crime? He has been accused of ‘misusing authority’? Accused by who? By a little known lawyer who has accused the top judge of using his official position to get his son a police job.

The dismissal of Justice Chaudhry may have come as a shock to the uninitiated like me who are not inured to the daily shock-and-awe of Pakistani politics. However, as far as the people of Pakistan are concerned, this is not something new. In fact, they have seen worse over the past six decades in their eventful history. Would such a thing be possible in a mature democracy, say, like the United States? Coming from India, I know for sure that such highhandedness on the part of executive is unthinkable in the world’s largest democracy. Not only does the Indian judiciary take pride in its independence, it continues to exert its healthy influence over other branches of the state from time to time. Let alone taking on the courts, executive and legislature in India revere and seek guidance from the judiciary. This is perhaps why India is hailed as a successful democracy whereas its separated-at-birth twin, Pakistan, continues to fight daily existential battles sixty years after its creation. I don’t know and I don’t care if there’s any truth in the accusations hurled at the chief justice. For it is not for you and me or for that matter for President Pervez Musharraf to sit in judgment on the top judge of Pakistan’s highest court. This doesn’t mean the judiciary is above the law. The law will judge the judges too, if they ever take liberties with it. But there are ways of holding the judiciary to account in all countries in accordance with their constitutions. I am sure Pakistan’s constitution too must have built-in mechanisms to deal with such an eventuality.Constitutional propriety is the last thing on Pakistani politicians’ minds. We haven’t still forgotten how nine years ago, Pervez Musharraf was unceremoniously divested of his position as the army chief by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The current president, who had been in Sri Lanka at the time, was not even allowed to return to the country. The General’s plane was not allowed to land even though it was dangerously low on fuel. We all know how the army stepped in to rescue its top gun and send Nawaz Sharif into exile. The rest, as they say, is history.A bright and young politician with bright new ideas, Sharif’s excessive hunger for power proved to be the tragic flaw all heroes are condemned with. He played recklessly with the country’s institutional framework, hiring a new army chief here, firing a chief justice there. In fact, the current army chief and president Musharraf himself was picked up by Sharif to replace Gen Jahangir Karamat, who had fallen out with the prime minister. Sharif also dismissed the then Supreme Court chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah, with equal arrogance.The prime minister forced Justice Shah out by dividing the Supreme Court judges between two benches, creating an embarrassing situation in which the two benches were ready to condemn each other. It’s a tragedy then Musharraf has drawn no lessons from recent history. In disdainfully dismissing the chief justice as if he were one of his many orderlies, the Generalissimo has ironically chosen to walk in the footsteps of Nawaz Sharif, his former boss and present bete noire. Which is kind of sad. For I have always found Musharraf to be a reasonable man. Unlike many other Muslim leaders, he has managed to strike a rare balance between his beliefs, or rather his people’s beliefs, and demands made on them by political and strategic compulsions in which Pakistan finds itself hopelessly entangled. The doctrine of Enlightened Moderation that the president unveiled last year in his opinion piece, published in Khaleej Times among other newspapers around the world, reveals a sensitive and thinking leader who is not out of sync with the realities and problems of our world, especially those of Muslim world. More importantly, he shares and identifies with the concerns of the so-called Muslim street. Seeking to act as a bridge between the West and Muslim world, the General passionately called for addressing the historical injustices in the Muslim world, especially against Palestinians, to deal with growing extremism around the world. In improving Pakistan’s relations with India too, Musharraf has gone to the extent no other Pakistani leader has ventured before. If Indians and Pakistanis are freely travelling today across the geographical divide and the Line of Control in Kashmir has been opened at five points, the credit should largely go to Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee, of course. Musharraf of course has his share of warts. And there are many ordinary people like me who have serious issues with his unquestioning support for and involvement in Washington’s war on Muslims. This so-called terror war has spilt much innocent blood. The General’s record on democracy and human rights is not irreproachable either. But the people of Pakistan do not really seem to be missing the ‘democratic’ leadership of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. On the whole though, Musharraf hasn’t done badly for himself or Pakistan. His rule or stage-managed ‘democracy’ has been better and certainly cleaner than that of the two ‘elected’ prime ministers. Which is why it’s unfortunate that the General should choose to taint his legacy with this shortsighted attack on judiciary. The violent protests across the country that have brought lawyers, judges and ordinary people out on the streets, leave you in no doubt that Musharraf has for the first time swallowed more than he can chew. Guilty or not, Justice Chaudhry finds himself transformed into a popular hero and man of the masses. When he came to present himself before this circus called Supreme Judicial Council, Justice Chaudhry was mobbed like a rock star by a fawning crowd of lawyers and ordinary people. You don’t have to be a pundit to know it’s not the excessive popularity of the honourable chief justice that is driving the crowds delirious but the boiling anger against the establishment’s highhandedness. Musharraf has presented the directionless and divided opposition, which has been hopelessly trying to corner the General ahead of another election certain to be choreographed by the army once again, with a rare opportunity. Ironically, Justice Chaudhry may end up accomplishing what powerful politicians like Sharif and Bhutto have failed to achieve: that is, drive Musharraf out of power. But Musharraf is not alone in this shameful desecration of institutions. This has been the tradition right from the creation of Pakistan. In fact, why single out Pakistan? This has been the norm, rather than exception, across the Muslim world, from the Middle East to North Africa to Central Asia. The Muslim world continues to suffer the people who had not been chosen as they are elsewhere. Rather, they had been forced on them by the departing colonial masters. And this colonial legacy lives on in the all-pervading corruption, institutional decay and all-round decadence. If the Arabs and Muslims remain stuck in a time warp without democracy, development and freedom while the rest of the world has moved on, we should thank our former colonial masters. Honestly, if it were not for them, we wouldn’t be in this fine mess we are in.And then they accuse Islam and Muslims of being naturally hostile and ill suited to democracy and all that it brings with it. This even as the West continues to patronise and protect its friends and allies who remain the real stumbling block to peace and progress in the Muslim world.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at aijaz@khaleejtimes.com

c. Khaleej Times 2007


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March 28, 2007

Aijaz Zaka Syed pic

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor and columnist of Khaleej Times, the Middle East’s oldest and largest circulated English daily published from Dubai. An award-winning journalist and widely published and read commentator, Aijaz comes from Hyderabad, India and has been with KT for more than seven years now. He writes a weekly column called View from Dubai. The column, which looks at and comments on the world affairs from a Middle Eastern and Arab-Muslim perspective, is published by prominent international dailies like Arab News (Saudi Arabia), Middle East Times (Cairo), Palestine Chronicle (the United States), The Turkish Daily News (now called Hurriyet), Dawn (Pakistan), New Nation (Bangladesh), the Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), Radiance, Etemaad Urdu Daily (Hyderabad, India) and others.

Aijaz received the European Union’s prestigious Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize in 2006 for his writings on the Darfur conflict. Aijaz is married and lives in Dubai. Reading, writing, music and movies are some of his weaknesses or strengths.