Hand on heart, Blair’s right!

May 27, 2007

“NEVER part with your illusions,” advised Mark Twain. “When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”

I am reminded of the inimitable American and his earthy wisdom every time I hear Bush and Blair, the two illustrious leaders of the coalition of the willing, hold forth on the war on terror and why they are still fighting it.

As his departure day approaches, Blair appears particularly desperate to ‘protect’ his legacy. Like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof, he is hopping from London to Washington to Baghdad to leave a lasting impression that will outlast his successor Brown.

Conservative leader David Cameron is spot on in likening Blair to a fading pop star on a farewell tour. But then Blair has always been a pop star. He has always been there to engage and entertain the media while his friend Bush went about the business of ruling the world.

But if you thought the British leader would shed a tear or two before his departure over the mess in Iraq, think again. In his farewell speech to the Labour party earlier this month, there was no hint of remorse over Iraq: “I did what I thought was right,” said the prime minister with a smirk and without batting an eye.

The next stop was Washington where Bush, ever in awe of his smooth-talking ally from across the Atlantic, rolled out a red carpet for him.

And there he was on the White House lawn defending the indefensible even as Bush watched his friend’s gift of the gab with uninhibited veneration: “We took a decision that we thought was very difficult,” Blair told the almost reverential reporters. “I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision.”

And while you are at it, how could you miss Iraq? There couldn’t be a more appropriate, more picturesque photo opportunity than shaking hands with the boys in Basra. Ah! What perfect way to say adieu to a beautiful war. And what better way to sign off from 10, Downing Street.

Brown will never be able to claim this war as his own. This will only be remembered as his and of course Bush’s war.

So there Blair was in Baghdad shaking hands with Nuri Al-Maliki and Jalal Talabani and grinning into the camera. Again, if simpletons like you and me thought a chastened Blair would perhaps make a mention of making ‘mistakes’ over Iraq, they were in for a disappointment. “I have no regrets about removing Saddam, no,” a smiling Blair told a news conference with Maliki and Talabani.

But this one really takes the cake.

Blasting Iraq’s ‘interfering’ and ‘uncooperative’ neigbhours, the British leader thundered: “The future of Iraq should be determined by Iraqis in accordance with their wishes and it is important that all the neighbouring countries understand and respect that.”

Can you better that? Never mind the bitchy critics like me who wonder if Blair, Bush and other worthy members of the ‘coalition of the willing’ had done the same — that is, respect the wishes of Iraqi people allowing them to determine their own future when they invaded Iraq?

I for one find it difficult to forget the fact that the coalition invaded Iraq to bring down the regime, ignoring all appeals by the United Nations, OIC and Arab League for giving diplomacy a chance to resolve the issue.

Iraq was attacked despite the protestations by the IAEA teams that their inspections had failed to turn up a smoking gun or the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Even the unprecedented peace marches around the world — largest ever to take place before a war — failed to dissuade those who wanted to make an ‘example’ of Iraq for the Arab and Muslim world. And oil, of course! Oil was the big bonus, the real incentive for going to Iraq.

I know the successful politicians like Blair can take any thing in their stride. They wouldn’t allow any inconvenient pangs of their conscience to affect their never-ending reverie. As far as they are concerned, what is happening in Iraq is but a stream of lifeless images, to be observed from a safe distance — from London or Washington.

But it beats me how you could sleep in peace at night when you know that you have sent nearly a million people to their deaths?

Announcing his retirement in Sedgefield, his constituency in northern England, earlier this month, Blair had declared: “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right!”

Is lying to your people, and the rest of the world — hand on heart — that Iraq has the ability to unleash a WMD attack on Britain within ’45 minutes’ and attacking a defenceless nation ‘right’?

According to Britain’s own health journal, Lancet, more than 655,000 Iraqis had died in this war until last year, when this report appeared. Hand on heart, is this the ‘right’ thing to do, Mr Blair?

Okay, even if you give the invaders benefit of the doubt that they genuinely believed Saddam’s Iraq posed a ‘clear and present danger’ to the civilised West, has nothing changed over the past four years?

Now that we know Saddam’s WMD were indeed a figment of the neocon imagination, you would think Iraq’s liberators would squirm in their seats before insisting what they did was the ‘right thing’ to do. The fact that all those hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people — and the US and UK soldiers — died for a lie and continue to die doesn’t seem to have made any difference to the world Blair and Bush inhabit.

If the Bush administration is guilty of initiating this unjust and unreasonable war on Iraq, Blair’s Britain is responsible for aiding and executing it.

As former president Jimmy Carter has argued, it’s almost certain that the US wouldn’t have gone to war on its own, if Britain hadn’t joined the invasion. No wonder Carter describes Blair’s support for Bush as, “Abominable. Loyal. Blind. Subservient.”

The honourable members of the coalition may be too vain to own up their guilt. But can they really escape the consequences of their crimes against humanity?

There is undeniable evidence to suggest that some sort of divine justice has already come into play. All those responsible for or associated with this most unjust of all wars have begun paying for their crimes.

Pentagon chief Don Rumsfeld, who had dismissed Abu Ghraib and other crimes against Iraqi people shrugging off, “stuff happens,” is out in the cold despite Bush’s best efforts to save him.

Ditto his lieutenant and fellow architect of Iraq disaster Paul Wolfowitz. The White House picked up Wolfie to head the World Bank ignoring all protests from human rights groups. He had to go equally ignominiously last week, albeit for different reasons — for mistaking the World Bank to be his love nest.

Even secretary of state Colin Powell, who was not part of the neocon inner circle and is said to have opposed the invasion, is paying for his now infamous argument before the UN calling for the war.

And CIA chief George Tenet, who sat next to Powell in the UN even as he claimed to have ‘credible’ evidence that Iraq posed a clear threat to the civilised world, is gone with the wind too.

Scooter Libby, the chief of staff of Vice President Dick Cheney and another high profile member of the neocon brigade, is currently facing a long prison sentence for his role in CIA leak case.

And Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, King George’s most cavalier knight, is going to be history soon too. The only remaining dramatis personae on history’s stage are Bush and Cheney, the original players of this absurd play. As Shakespeare tells us in Julius Caesar, “the fault, Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

If one player after another is falling from grace in the tragedy called Iraq, the fault is not in their stars, but in themselves.

Although the jury is still out on this administration, which Carter terms as the most unpopular in US history, this president already holds the unique record of the first White House occupant with the lowest ever popularity ratings.

But it’s not history’s verdict that Iraqi people — fighting for survival every single day, every single minute — are interested in. All they are asking and waiting for is justice — justice for those who have denied them justice.

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


Jinnah’s dream

May 25, 2007

View from Dubai


20 May 2007

SOME of my closest friends and colleagues are from Pakistan. Which is hardly surprising in a multicultural melting pot like Dubai where you get to meet and work with some of the best and brightest people from around the world.

We Indians and Pakistanis share a unique, emotional relationship that is not easy to understand for the rest of the world. There are hundreds of thousands of families who have their loved ones on both sides of the divide.

Hundreds of families in Hyderabad Deccan, where I come from, have ties beyond the border. I have no relatives on Pakistani side. But someone close to my heart — closer than blood relations — prides herself on being a Pakistani.

It’s little surprising then that millions of Indian and Pakistani families are affected by political and social upheavals on the either side of the line drawn by Sir Henry McMahon.

So if Indian Muslims closely follow developments in Pakistan, they are only being human. And this isn’t limited to Muslims. There are thousands of Hindu and Sikh families who care for what goes on in what was once their homeland or the land of their ancestors.

This occasional expression of concern doesn’t make us in any way unfaithful to India, as our Shiva Sena and RSS friends in India suggest.

I don’t want to get into a Partition debate here. Pakistan is a reality and all of us, whether we like it or not, have to accept it as such.

We Indian Muslims love our motherland, as much as anyone else. But we do not hate Pakistan, if that’s what our saffron friends want. And we would like the country that was created in the name of Islam and Muslims to prosper and do well as a modern state that stands for all that is celebrated by Islam and humanity: Peace, truth, justice, equality and freedom.

Unfortunately, what has been going on in Pakistan over the past few weeks and months does little to promote the ideals and objectives of the architects of the “land of the pure”.

I know my Pakistani friends wouldn’t like this — especially coming this as it does from an Indian Muslim. But as a friend and well wisher of their country, one has to say this.

The manner in which the Chief Justice episode has unfolded and been handled is most shocking, to say the least. But what has been really embarrassing to all Pakistanis and Muslims in general is the absurd drama that followed the suspension of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Soon after the CJ’s sack, writing in these columns I had commented that by taking on the judiciary, Musharraf might have made the biggest blunder of his political career.

And Chaudhry, I had the audacity to argue, might end up accomplishing what powerful politicians Benazir and Nawaz Sharif have tried and failed: That is, stop the Musharraf juggernaut.

Well, Musharraf is far from gone. But after what happened in Karachi, obviously with the blessings of the powers that be, no leader can survive long in power — even if he has the powerful military establishment behind him.

I doubt if the Generals waiting in line behind Musharraf would back their top gun in total defiance of the unprecedented public anger and frustration.

After the 24-hour long march from Islamabad to Lahore during which Chaudhry was mobbed like a rock star and welcomed with rose petals, drums and firecrackers along the way, no general or politician with any sense of self-preservation would find it easy to stand alongside the regime.

What began as an initiative seeking justice for the chief justice has turned into a powerful, nationwide movement for the restoration of democracy and against all that this regime has come to symbolise.

And I have an uneasy feeling that the cheap show of muscle and plain hooliganism in Karachi, organised by a party that claims to champion the cause of Mohajirs (migrants from India), may have driven the last nail in the regime’s coffin.

The spectacle of young men lying on the streets like dead flies all over the city making Karachi look like a war zone has repulsed and disgusted many diehard supporters of the MQM.

This shocking display of lawlessness has dramatically eroded Musharraf’s support base in and outside Pakistan. Many in the Muslim world and elsewhere were once drawn to the General for the manner in which he constantly rose to meet the challenging situations — from the ever-tumultuous relations with India to the impossible pressure from the United States.

We in India respected him for his bold approach to improving relations with the old and uneasy neighbour and making genuine progress on the issue of Kashmir.

If thousands of Indians and Pakistanis are freely moving across the border including the Line of Control in Kashmir, the credit should go to Musharraf.

I particularly liked his initiative for dialogue between the West and Muslim world. Acting as a bridge between the two worlds, the General put across the idea of Enlightened Moderation calling on both Muslims and the West to address each other’s concerns for a better and peaceful world.

Watching Musharraf address a poorly-attended public rally in Islamabad last week, in response to Chaudhry’s Karachi rally, I wondered whatever happened to that thinking, sensitive leader who once seemed to have his finger on the public pulse.

For the tough talking man in salwar kameez, who constantly waved his arms and jutted out his chin like a Punjabi movie hero, wasn’t the Musharraf we all knew.

This Musharraf was different from the one who won hearts and minds in most trying circumstances wherever he went — from New Delhi to Washington to United Nations.

What happened? Was this Musharraf or unchallenged power speaking? Perhaps, the General has come to convince himself that he is essential to the future and survival of Pakistan.

This is unfortunate considering Musharraf didn’t take power by force like others. It was thrust on him, as Shakespeare would put it.

This is a familiar phenomenon across the Muslim world. The old and corrupt power structures built and perpetuated by colonial powers continue to make good governance and democracy an impossible dream.

This is all the more tragic in the case of Pakistan. The architects of this utopia intended it to be a citadel of Islam and a modern, progressive and model Islamic state.

I can’t help recalling the incredible sacrifices made by the proponents of Pakistan and their followers. Believing in those ideals, millions of people gave up the land of their ancestors and everything in it to call themselves the citizens of Pakistan in 1947.

At least, a million people died on both sides in what was to be the biggest and bloodiest migration in human history. As Qurratulain Haider portrayed in her seminal novel, Aag Ka Darya, travelling to this ‘promised land’ was indeed like crossing a mighty river of fire.

So whatever happened to Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s dream? Unfortunately, after Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, Pakistan did not get the leaders who really understood or identified with the lofty ideals of the country they were chosen to lead.

And the country that was created on the basis of a democratic mandate — the legislatures of Muslim-majority provinces in undivided India voted for Pakistan — has not seen democracy — real democracy, that is. In its short history of 60 years, Pakistan has been ruled for at least three decades by the army.

The result has been the acute political and institutional instability that continues to rock the country from time to time.

While India had veterans like Nehru, Azad and Patel to lead from the front and build a united, strong new India, Pakistan lost Quaid-e-Azam and Liaqat Ali Khan within a couple of years of each other.

Well, this brief history may help you make sense of upheavals in Pakistan. But this cannot be an excuse for Pakistani leaders to take their people for granted and play around with national institutions.

Imagine what a democratic, modern and peaceful Pakistan with its infinite natural and human resources and strategic location can do to help the Muslim world. Remember it’s the only Muslim country that possesses nuclear weapons and boasts a powerful, world-class army. Not only a peaceful, moderate and forward-looking Pakistan can be a source of inspiration and guidance to the rest of the Muslim world, but it can also help restore the battered image of Islam and its besieged followers.

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

Inside Europe

May 25, 2007

View from Dubai


What is El Emara? asks my Belarusian friend and journalist with a beatific smile that never seems to touch his deep-set, sad blue eyes. Andrej Dynko has had a far from pleasant experience in his native Belarus. He had to spend some time in his country’s notorious prisons for hurling too many uncomfortable questions at the powers that be. That hasn’t stopped him from coming up with more questions though.

We are taking a late evening stroll along the sleepy boulevard next to our hotel in Brussels. It’s half past eight. Yet the sun doesn’t appear to have gone home. There is so much light it looks as if it’s still 5 in the evening. And there’s a reinvigorating nip in the pleasantly caressing, fragrant air. Having spent the past couple of weeks back home in a typical Indian summer, it is refreshing to be in Brussels.

The city is home to the headquarters of the European Union, the powerful economic club of 27 nations and the world’s biggest free trade zone. Dynko, who edits a political weekly Nasha Niva, is visiting Brussels like me in connection with EU’s Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize ceremony. He obviously thinks coming from the Middle East I could have the answer to his query.

Unfortunately, yours truly is as familiar with the glory of Arabic language as Bush had been with Musharraf and Vajpayee before his election by the US Supreme Court.

Which is a real disgrace. Having lived and worked in Dubai for years, one should be ashamed of oneself if one’s familiarity with the Arabs and their rich language and culture doesn’t go beyond the regulation shawarma, sheesha, desert safaris and a mindless emphasis on ‘khallas’ and ‘maafi mushkil’.

The trouble is, you may live and work in the UAE for years without ever really bothering or requiring to learn the local language. Which is what most expatriates from India, Pakistan and the West do. They live, work and move often all their lives in the limited spheres of their communities, without ever trying to understand the host country or society.

This says something about this great country and its amazing people, especially their tradition of tolerance and respect towards guests and guest workers. Returning to Brussels, I told Dynko that El Emara was perhaps an improvisation on Amara, a common Arab and Muslim female name. And in this Brussels neighbourhood, from where the EU parliament and headquarters are only a stone’s throw away, you come across hundreds of Arab and Muslim sounding names of cafes, shops and fast food joints.

Watching roadside cafes with animatedly chatting North African Arabs enjoying their steaming Turkish coffee or kebab, you would think you have stepped back in time or landed in Cairo or Casablanca thanks to your pilot’s error of judgment. Indian and Pakistani takeaways greet you as soon as you step out of Brussels’ Midi Station, where our high speed train had taken us, promising you ‘Islamic’ food. My apprehensions about ‘halal’ food had been clearly far from justified. Unlike the rest of Europe, this great city steeped in history and tradition somehow managed to escape the destruction of the two World Wars thanks to Belgian leaders’ clever diplomacy and business sense.

Having been repeatedly invaded by almost all its big neighbours, especially by the French, the Belgians have over the centuries mastered the fine art of diplomacy and political tightrope walking.

Which is perhaps why Brussels has for over the past century or so remained the economic and political hub of Europe. The birth and success of the European Community and later the EU have only ensured and emphasised this unchallenged preeminence of Brussels.

Not for nothing Brussels is considered Europe’s heart. And the large Arab and Muslim community in Belgium, especially in Brussels, is working hard to win it over. There are more than 200,000 Muslims in Brussels alone, a city of one million people who appear to be remarkably at peace with themselves and their incredibly serene city.

From flight and train attendants of North African descent to hotel receptionists of South Asian origin, the Muslims are everywhere. And there are plenty of headscarves too.

If you thought the 9/11 events and Bush’s war on Muslims have forced the believers to lie low or recede to the margins of European society, think again.

Far from retiring to the oblivion of their ghettos, Arabs and Muslims form a healthy part of the mainstream and host societies in this part of the world. At the same time, they are comfortable with their religious and cultural identity.

And it’s a proud and assertive Islam that continues to spread its wings, constantly conquering new territory in what is considered the citadel of Christian Europe. The Muslims, after Christians, are already the largest religious community and Islam is the fastest growing faith across Europe. No wonder Pope Benedict XVI is getting increasingly concerned over the changing religious profile of the continent and his flock.

But whether Europeans love or hate Muslims, they are there to stay and the hosts can do little about it. Besides, if the Muslims and other immigrants continue to pour into Europe in droves looking for jobs and a better life, the aging Europe too needs the young arrivals.

Not only the continent is not getting any younger, constantly falling birth rates in the indigenous, Caucasian populations pose a serious challenge to the continent’s future. The immigrants fill this vacuum. So this is a mutually benefiting, win-win relationship.

But it would be a disservice to countries like Belgium if you don’t recognize the fact that they have gone out of their way to welcome the never-ending stream of visitors.

Although Belgium doesn’t have an awfully good record in Africa in its colonies like Congo, it hasn’t been bad to Arab and Muslim immigrants. It wooed hundreds of thousands of North African Arabs and Muslims after the World War II to work in its coalmines.

The present generation of Arabs and Muslims in Belgium are mostly the children of those miners. Significantly, instead of forcing their own culture and ethos on the new arrivals, the Belgians have allowed them to live and flourish in their own space retaining their distinct identity.

It’s this approach to integration that is at the heart of the EU experiment.

As a result, the modern Belgian Arabs and Muslims are equally at ease with both Arabic, the language of their forefathers, and Flemish, the language of the country of their choice. So contrary to what Kipling warned, the East and West not only meet in modern Europe but also appear to be enjoying the encounter.

And just as the large expatriate community in the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries has played a decisive role in building their host countries, Arabs and Muslims can proudly claim they have a stake in the progress and development of Europe, especially states like Belgium, France and Germany, the original architects of EU. If Belgium and France are home to Arabs, Germany hosts a huge community of Turkish Muslims.

It’s often noted with regret by Muslim historians that Europe would have been part of Muslim world if only the Turks had persisted in their siege of Vienna in the 16th century. The powerful Ottoman army had swept through the Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor to reach Vienna by 1529. The long siege of Vienna, the gateway to Europe, however failed to open the way for Islam. The Turks returned in 1683, under the leadership of Mustafa Pasha, to knock at the gate of Vienna once again.

The second attempt too failed to succeed despite the perseverance and huge losses suffered by the Turks. The Muslim armies were faced with an impregnable wall of resistance largely built by the Pope Innocent XI. The Pope managed to unite the Christian Europe against the ‘infidels’ in the name of God and the survival of Christendom.

As a result, the Muslim armies were forced to retreat from Vienna once again. The Ottoman tide turned at the Gates of Vienna and receded gradually, beginning its long withdrawal through the Balkans and Greece into Asia Minor over the next two centuries.

But, you know, history has an annoying habit of repeating itself. For what the Turks failed to accomplish four centuries ago — conquer Europe — by force appears possible today. The Muslims are winning Europe, not by force as the Ottoman Caliphate had repeatedly sought to do and failed. The once all-white, all-Christian continent is being changed from within.

The Europe that steeled itself against the onslaught of invading Turkish armies four centuries ago is opening itself to the soft power of Islam. The continent that once proudly stood its ground in the face of the legendary Muslim firepower has submitted itself to Islam’s power of persuasion. Never underestimate the power of faith.

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

Top EU award for Aijaz Zaka Syed

May 25, 2007

Top EU award for Aijaz Zaka Syed

By a staff reporter

7 May 2007

DUBAI — European Union Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel on Thursday presented the Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize for the Middle East to Khaleej Times journalist and columnist Aijaz Zaka Syed at a grand ceremony at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Syed, originally from India, had been selected for the prestigious European media award for his article on the humanitarian situation in Sudan’s Darfur region that had appeared in Khaleej Times’ Opinion section (Disgrace of Darfur, Oct 31).

Presenting the prize to Syed, Commissioner Michel said that democracy and the freedom of the Press are essential to development and progress.

Speaking on the occasion, Syed called for the Arab and Muslim world to play a more effective role in ending the conflict in Darfur.

He cautioned that reckless interference by big powers would only exacerbate the situation. Only conciliatory efforts by the Arab and Muslim nations can bring peace to Darfur, he stressed. The Natali prize commemorates Lorenzo Natali, a former European Commissioner for Development and a fervent defender of human rights and democracy.