Asma Jahangir, RIP

Just happened on news of the untimely death of Asma Jahangir, the Pakistani human rights activist–a familiar face in Pakistan, but essentially unknown in the United States: telling, somehow, that we all know Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winner who fled Pakistan, but tend not to know Jahangir, the unsung hero who made the choice to remain. The vocabulary of “heroism” is probably overused, but genuinely applies here.

Pakistan_Obit_Jehangir_14836.jpg-c0b71.jpg (480×319)

The truth is, though I followed Jahangir’s work in a sporadic way, and admired her from afar–in part because a cousin of mine worked for her organization–her death shocks me into the realization of how little I know the details. But I guess it also gives me the impetus to learn. I’ll use this space for the best material I encounter on her life and work.

One Little Victory

Most of the news we’ve recently been hearing about immigration in the United States has been bad, but every now and then a bit of good news emerges. Here’s an instance of the latter.

About a year ago, a journalist told me the story of a young Pakistani immigrant in a terrible situation, asking me to write a letter of support that might help her get out of it. I contacted the person in question, heard her out, sat down to write her a letter of support, and sent it off to her lawyer. A few weeks ago, the woman told me that her application to remain in the United States had been accepted, and the orders to deport her had been lifted. With her permission, I’ve reproduced the letter I wrote for her, one of several she used to make her case to the immigration authorities. In the interests of privacy, I’ve changed her name. 

As I see it, the case demonstrates the complexity (or alternatively, the vacuity) of the idea of “following the law” in immigration cases. Absent a substantive, non-positivist conception of justice, the prescription to “follow the law” is as consistent with deporting an immigrant as it is with allowing her to stay. Introduce a substantive conception of justice, and you introduce the considerations that give the law meaning, while giving legal decisions their point. Justice obviously demanded allowing Sarah Ibrahim to stay in the United States, and thankfully, the law allowed it as well. So it appears that she’ll stay. I’m happy to have made a small contribution to the outcome.  Continue reading

From West Philly to Gulshan-e-Iqbal and Back

I was in Philadelphia this weekend, visiting with my friends Sinan and Amy. Sinan was my ‘handler’ at Al Quds University this past summer and the time before; he handles the logistics there that I can’t. Amy is a nice Midwestern gal from Texas (go figure). They met a few years ago in Bethlehem, Sinan’s home town, recently emigrated to Philadelphia, got an apartment, got married, and settled in. They cooked me (well, really Sinan cooked us) a sumptuous dinner of maqluba followed by Palestinian coffee and pastries. We had dessert on a couch in front of a window that looks west and frames West Philadelphia. The window lets out onto a big ledge with just enough room for the two of them to sip wine and watch the sunset.

Continue reading

Blasphemy in Pakistan: If You Listen to Fools…

Breaking news of a series of arson attacks on Ahmadi Muslims in the city of Jhelum, Pakistan on grounds of “blasphemy.” From Pakistan’s Dawn:

JHELUM: An enraged mob set a Ahmadi place of worship on fire in Punjab’s Jhelum district on Saturday, following Friday night’s arson attack on a factory.

The place of worship was located in the Kala Gujran area of Jhelum, which was under guard of local police forces.

The mob managed to break through the police cordon which was established to safeguard the Ahmadi places of worship, following Friday night’s unrest.

Police had to resort to baton charging and tear gassing the protesters in order to bring the situation under control, but were unable to do so. The mob resorted to pelting stones at the police personnel.

The incidents were a result of rumours circulated earlier in Jhelum district which levelled blasphemy allegations on the owner and workers of the factory.

According to Pakistan’s Express News (in Urdu), Jhelum is now under control, but it sure took awhile. If you want to see what anarchic mob violence looks like up close–a micro-level picture of the descent from Locke’s State of Nature to the State of War–have a look at this video.

No cops anywhere. No firefighters en route. Just an unbridled mob drunk on theological liquor, screaming their minds out in coarse Punjabi. I understand the language but most of what they’re saying is unintelligible, and even when I can make out the words, I have no idea what they’re talking about until 1:00, when they sound the “takbir,” the equivalent of a hallelujah. Almost two minutes into the video, and they’re still doggedly at it, committing arson in a leisurely fashion, with no fear whatsoever that anyone will stop them. They were right not to feel fear: no one did stop them. As the Dawn story makes clear, when the police came, they arrested the victims.

Last time I was in Pakistan, on my last night there, a bunch of us Khawajas had dinner at the home of a cousin of mine who’s a well known politician in Pakistan, and a qualified defender of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. It was a wonderful send-off for me, but we ended up having a riotous argument about the blasphemy law over biryani and shami kebabs, most of us arguing against the in-principle legitimacy of such a law, but a minority at the table defending it.  My politician cousin (and gracious host) agreed that the law had been tragically abused, but insisted that some such law had to be retained in Pakistan, albeit enforced in a narrower and more impartial way. The rest of us argued that the reformist gambit was a lost and pointless cause. I wonder if this event will induce Pakistanis (including Pakistani politicians, and particularly including the ones related to me) to rethink their naive, dogmatic attachment to that cause. Maybe it’s time for some push-back from Pakistan’s American sponsors as well. (While we’re on this subject, how about a little pressure on Pakistan to lift its legalized anathematization of Ahmadis?)

That said, the issue here isn’t just a matter of the blasphemy law but of the rule of law. As far as I’m concerned, the video above is a perfectly accurate depiction of a state of anarchy. I know that anarchists will object to that characterization, but though I’m familiar with the objections, I don’t accept them. The Jhelum attacks are a paradigmatic instance of life under a state that is too weak to uphold the rule of law. The remedy seems obvious: retain the state, but strengthen its commitment to the rule of law. The remedy is not to ratchet back the state and aim (or hope or pray) for some “market-based” solution, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Part of the problem is that it’s not clear what it means, much less how it’s supposed to work.

To complete the thought in the title…

Postscript. Just to give PoT readers a taste of the mentality involved, here’s an exchange in Urdu on YouTube between commentators discussing the YouTube video I inserted above.

Kabhi Quran parha hai ? Pata hai usme Kia likha hai
The first writer, Kamz Khan, writes: “What was done here is absolutely right; they should have burned the infidel owner in the very same flames.”
The second writer, Hasan Ahmad, responds: “Have you ever read the Qur’an? Do you have any idea what’s in it?”
Postscript, November 22, 2015: This is a useful backgrounder on the Pakistan Supreme Court’s position on the blasphemy law, taking roughly the sort of position I ascribed to my cousin in the original post (call it “theocratic reformism” or “theocratic constitutionalism”). The article was written a few weeks before the Jhelum incident. The Qur’anic verses cited in the article are 2.83, 2.94 (Surah Nisa’a), and 49.6 (Surah Hujuraat). Note the frightening ambiguity of this passage:
Thirdly, “any call for reform of the law regarding the offence of blasphemy ought not to be understood as a call for doing away with that law and it ought to be understood as a call for introducing adequate safeguards against malicious application or misuse of that law”, is the Supreme Court’s clear answer to the flawed argument that criticising the manmade blasphemy law is blasphemy.
Contrary to the author’s apparent re-assurances, the claim he makes here at least leaves open the possibility that root and branch rejection of the blasphemy law is itself blasphemy. I find it unfortunate that a Visiting Fellow in Political Science at LSE could write such stuff. Shouldn’t it be legally actionable “blasphemy” to defend such a position in a secular-liberal country like Great Britain? Mercifully, it isn’t–not yet, anyway. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry on “Blasphemy Law in Pakistan.”)
It’s worth noting, incidentally, that Pakistani newspapers are (legally) obliged to refer to Ahmadi mosques as “places of worship” rather than as mosques or masjids. Since Ahmadis have been declared “non-Muslim” by Pakistani law, it’s against the law to refer to their “places of worship” in a manner that implies that those “places of worship” are Muslim places of worship. (Read the text in the preceding hyperlink to get a sense of the surreal, totalitarian character of the law, Ordinance XX.) I was gratified to see The New York Times refer to the place in question straightforwardly as a mosque.
Postscript, December 17, 2015: More useful background, care of The Friday Times blog (Lahore).

(More) Unintended Lessons from Pakistan: Water, Theocracy, and Planning

This is a brilliant piece on the Ramadan-related deaths in Karachi, now numbering around 1,000.

Karachi is known for killing its residents, but weather had never been its weapon of choice.

Besides illuminating the politics of water, Hanif manages to clarify two further issues: the lethal irrationality of the idea of an Islamic State empowered to dictate what people can eat and drink and when, and the unintended consequences of the absence of centralized urban planning in a rapidly-developing “Third World” city.

The first point ought to be an object lesson to those who think that an Islamic State was or is needed on the Indian subcontinent to keep the Muslims of the subcontinent safe from a “Hindu Raj”: there’s no Hindu Raj in Pakistan and yet Muslims are dying by the droves in Karachi, but not in Delhi, Agra, or Lucknow. Faisal Devji’s discussion of the logic of Pakistani nationalism (and the comparison back to Zionism) is brilliant:

The second point ought to be an object lesson to those under Hayek’s spell and in the grips of the belief that centralized government planning is a discredited socialist idea that “we” can easily dispense with:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.

How does Hayek know that? The claim is an instance of the very knowledge whose existence he denies: it’s a generalization involving a series of integrated claims, offered about rational economic orders and their epistemic determinants as such, not a series of dispersed bits of “frequently contradictory” claims possessed by separate individuals. In any case, Hayek never considers the possibility that there are times when an agent or entity needs to integrate the dispersed bits of knowledge that others possess, since knowledge in its integrated form sometimes has greater practical value than knowledge in dispersed and disintegrated form. What if riparian law is one of them?

Without government protection of the water supply, there’s not a natural drop of water to drink, and without government “planning,” there’s no government protection of the water supply. Even if you wanted to privatize all the water in Pakistan, you’d need to do it under the rule of law, ensuring at a minimum that the privatized water was safe to drink. And that would require reliance on the dreaded activity, “planning.” In addition, Pakistan has water disputes with India, disputes that require bilateral negotiations for their resolution–which requires yet more government planning.

I suppose you could wish this all away by invoking the hopes and dreams of “ideal theory,” but ideal theory has to make some contact with actually-existing reality in order to make a claim on our credence. As it stands, a great deal of it does neither.

Postcards from Abu Dis (6): Lost and Found in Translation

My political philosophy class is now deep into Book I of Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle is tough going in any language, but he’s a linguistic obstacle course if you’re going from Attic Greek to English to Arabic and back again. Every technical word in the Aristotelian lexicon requires a special explanation that threatens to run aground on the reefs of some linguistic-conceptual-cultural misunderstanding.

Just consider the first passage of the text:

Since we see that every city (polis) is some some sort of partnership (koinonia), and that every partnership is constituted for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what is held to be good), it is clear that all partnerships aim at some good, and that the partnership that is most authoritative (kurios) of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political partnership. (1252a1-5, tr. Carnes Lord)

Since every what is some sort of what, and is what for the sake of some good, what is it that’s supposed to be clear?

Mission Nearly Impossible: Try explaining this, one clause at a time, in English via Arabic translation to 30 hungry, dehydrated, and nicotine/caffeine-deprived students fasting for Ramadan. Then listen to the Arabic translation via your weak, misremembered college Arabic of thirty years ago in search of any red flags in the translation, and hope you can catch them without losing your place or pushing your translators over the edge.

So: Is our students learning? Na’am, inshallah (“yes, if God wills it”)

I have two translators in the room, Sinan and Hadi, each of whom helps the other when one of them has trouble. They’ve have used the Arabic medina for “polis/city,” jamia for “koinonia/partnership,” and the adjectival form of “hukm” for “kurios/authoritative.” To add to the complexity, I prefer “association” to Carnes Lord’s use of “partnership.”

Sahih? (“Got that?”)

We spent most of the class explicating the Aristotelian idea of the polis/city, which had to be distinguished from “nation” (dawla), “country” (balad), “state” (also dawla), and “empire” (imbira’turia, obviously just an Arabization of “empire”). To avoid confusion, I decided to avoid “city-state” (medinat ad-daula) for polis, and decided to stick with “city,” adding a special explanation to the effect that an Aristotelian “city” isn’t a city in the modern sense–or even a city in the Palestinian sense. Medinat ad-daula is an intelligible phrase in Arabic, but I’m inclined to think that it would sound to students’ ears like an unintelligible paradox, prompting the predictable question:

Professor, how can a city be a state?

Well, it can’t, but “city-state” is not meant to suggest that a polis is a species of state; “city-state” is a term of art, and we already have too many of those floating around.

There is no easy way (that I know of) for distinguishing nations from states in Arabic (the same word translates both words), so it’s easy on purely linguistic grounds for Arabic speakers to think that every nation either is or requires a state, and vice versa.

Interestingly, I have a hunch that the average educated American–who has a working knowledge of American history but lacks a working knowledge of non-American nationalisms–might also have trouble seeing the distinction between “nation” and “state.” But I think that the latter difficulty arises from totally different sources than the Arabic-speakers’ difficulty. Both Arabs and Americans identify “nation” with “state,” but each has different conceptions of both concepts. In other words, they agree in identifying them, but disagree about what they’re identifying.

For Arabs, I think a “nation” is an ethnicity, and every ethnicity requires (or has the right to) a state. For Americans, by contrast, “nation” is to be identified with “state,” simply because the two words are synonyms; neither “nation” nor “state” is to be identified with any given ethnicity. Despite Woodrow Wilson’s inclusion of self-determination in the Fourteen Points, Americans have trouble grasping, much less sympathizing with, the idea of ethno-national self-determination. It sounds unAmerican. (Strictly speaking, the phrase “self-determination” doesn’t appear in the Fourteen Points, but a commitment to national self-determination is implicit in the second paragraph of the document.)

After giving what I think is the standard account of the nature of the polis in Aristotle, we talked about its possible exemplifications or approximations in the modern world.

To focus the conversation, I described the U.S. today as a counter-exemplification of the Aristotelian polis: in other words, I suggested that the U.S. provides a good (democratic) contrast to what Aristotle took the polis to be. In the U.S., we prize the freedom to do as we please with lives that we regard as essentially our own; we resent the idea that the nation has, or can dictate a single purpose to us, and have a very thin conception of “the common good” in the form of “the public interest,” which is sometimes (but pretty rarely) invoked to justify this or that policy, and plays little role in everyday political thought, discourse, or practice. Is that a controversial thing to say? Maybe, but it seems fairly obvious to me.

There didn’t turn out to be any literal exemplifications of the polis in the modern world. Among the closer approximations I came up with–and I know this is controversial–were Israel and Pakistan. Granted, both Israel and Pakistan are states, and as I’ve already said, the polis is not a state at all but a city. Further, being states, both Israel and Pakistan are much bigger than the political unit that Aristotle had in mind in his account of the polis. Given all of that, both Israel and Pakistan are obliged to rely on the use of force in a way that I don’t think is characteristic of an Aristotelian polis; put another way, each achieves an approximation (or illusion?) of being an Aristotelian koinonia by using the instrument of law to enforce a common conception of virtue in the service of a common good. Those are, I realize, large differences that distinguish both Israel and Pakistan from the Aristotelian polis.

But I still think that there’s something to the comparison. My point was that Israel and Pakistan each self-consciously conceives of itself as a political koinonia–a political association–with a common end, and a substantive conception of the common good. Citizenship in both countries is defined by allegiance to this robust conception (or supposedly robust conception) of the common good–the conception being supplied in the Israeli case by the idea of a Jewish State, and in the Pakistani case by the idea of an Islamic one. Each regime has a conception of virtue and the common good that it tries to inculcate through a public system of education, with the aim of getting citizens to identify their good with the state by identifying with its conception of virtue. And each is unapologetic about relying on the state to do so.

I have a feeling that my students were a little perturbed at hearing Aristotle compared with Israeli Zionism in one breath, and Israeli Zionism compared with Pakistani nationalism in the next. When I taught in Pakistan in 2012, students there were equally perturbed when I compared Pakistan with Israel. I guess all that’s left is to teach the same material in Israel, and I’ll have covered all of the relevant national bases.

Anyway, that’s when I decided to drop the real bomb. Neither Israel nor Pakistan is a good approximation of a polis, I suggested; they’re both too big and diverse to fit the bill. And both face the problem of how to deal with minority populations–a problem with no analogue in the case of an Aristotelian polis.

If you really want a good approximation of this polis, I suggested, you need to think smaller, and think of something closer by. I asked them if they could figure out what I meant. “Palestine?” someone asked. “No,” I said. “Just think of an Orthodox Israeli settlement.”

For a second, the class looked at me in blank incomprehension. But then, I think, they got it. I won’t elaborate, but I actually think that that comparison really does work: at some level, Israeli settlements really are like Aristotelian poleis. The biggest problem with the comparison is that the West Bank settlements are tied to Israel, which is a nation-state, and Israel is itself supported by the United States, which is a nation-state verging on an empire. But if you abstract the normative ideal of a Jewish settlement from its practical or logistical ties to Israel and the U.S., I’d say that settlements–which have a municipal governing structure–are a contemporary approximation of the Aristotelian polis. 

Incidentally, when I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, Alasdair MacIntyre used to use the example of the New England Town System as a “modern” approximation to the polis, but I no longer remember whether he was making a historical point about the structure of that system in colonial times, or making reference to the version of the system that exists today.

An unexpected linguistic stumbling block: At one point, I made passing reference to the “conceptual connection” between one thing and another, and both translators were momentarily stumped. It belatedly occurred to me that “conceptual connection” is a metaphor–possibly a dead metaphor, but still, idiomatically speaking a metaphor for purposes of translation. If you put the English word “connection” into Google’s translation device, you get 17 possibilities in Arabic, ranging over personal connections, computer-related connections, connections involving transportation hubs, and so on. If you put in “conceptual connection,” you get ittisal al maffahimi.

It sounds pretty impressive, but is it the right translation? Allah hu’ alim. God only knows. Let’s hope God’s Arabic is better than mine.

Postscript: An interesting paper I happened to encounter on this topic, Marco Allegra, “Citizenship in Palestine: A Fractured Geography,” Citizenship Studies 13:6 (2009).

On a more polemical note, consider Amos Oz’s claims, as described in a piece by Zachary Lockman:

Oz, in his wartime article for the New York Times, goes on at length about the romantic, idealistic and humanitarian character of the early Zionist settlers. They were pragmatic, politically aware, supremely self-analytical and egalitarian all at once, these men and women who by day drained the swamps of Palestine (to cite a popular Zionist image) and by night argued about social, political and ethical issues. The pre-state Jewish yishuv was not entirely idyllic, to be sure; there were some conflicts between the Labor Zionist leadership and the right-wing dissidents led by Begin. Despite this, Oz asserts, in many respects Israel was by 1948 “on its way to becoming a twentieth-century version of an Aristotelian Greek polis, characterized by the highest degree of individual involvement in public affairs.”

The Oz piece is Amos Oz, “Has Israel Altered Its Visions,” New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1982. For some reason, I haven’t been able to locate it in the Times’s archive.

Pakistan’s Occupied Territories: The Country Itself

I thought I’d interrupt the “All Israel/Palestine, all the time” posts with a classic from the “Pakistan embarrasses itself yet again in front of the whole world” genre. From a headline as accurate as it is designed to provoke laughter: “Pakistan Warns Aid Groups to Follow Unspecified Rules.”

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After the police shut down the offices of a major Western aid group, Pakistan’s interior minister warned Friday that other foreign organizations operating in Pakistan faced greater scrutiny and the possibility of expulsion if they failed to adhere to unspecified rules and laws.

“We do not want to impose a ban on any N.G.O., but they will have to respect the code of conduct,” said the minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, referring to nongovernmental organizations.

A day earlier, Pakistani officials abruptly sealed the Islamabad offices of the Save the Children, which has operated in Pakistan for 35 years, for what were described as “anti-Pakistan” activities. The group was given 15 days to wind down its operations.

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Khan said Pakistan’s intelligence agencies had reported “irregularities” among other aid groups working in Pakistan, although he did not name them or the laws they had broken.

If you read the rest of the article, the “unspecified rules” become clear, and end up reducing to one rule: using one’s brain, for purposes of one’s own, without government permission.

Same story from Karachi’s Dawn. An even better story with a particularly revealing headline: “Pakistan Will Not Allow NGOs Working Against the National Interest.” The video embedded in the preceding article (in Urdu), features a press conference with the Federal Interior Minister, and makes plain how the Government of Pakistan conceives of “the national interest”: if you’re an NGO, it dictates where you’re allowed to work as a condition of your being allowed to operate at all, and if it finds you working in a different party of the country, you’ve violated the “national interest” regardless of what you’re doing or why you’re there, simply because the government panics at the very idea that NGOs might have freedom to act independently of the “agenda” of the government.

Time to haul out the red herrings:

The interior minister named the United States, Israel and India as countries supporting the illegal activities of NGOs in Pakistan.

Putting aside the total implausibility of the claim, the proper question should be: so what? We haven’t been told what the NGOs have been doing that’s so harmful to Pakistan in the first place. So what if the U.S, Israel, and India are supporting those activities? If they’re such enemies of Pakistan, you’d expect them to be doing something more harmful than generating the civil society that the government itself has failed to provide or facilitate. If this is how Pakistan’s enemies treat Pakistan, maybe the time has come to turn the country over to them. It might be an improvement.

Doesn’t this story just prove that all of Pakistan is a set of “occupied territories”? Despite my objections to the Israeli occupation, it bothers me that Association for Asian American Studies wants to boycott Israel but not Pakistan. Maybe the argument is that a wholesale boycott of Pakistan would be unproductive. It probably would be. But if a wholesale boycott is inappropriate for Pakistan, why is it appropriate for Israel? If a partial boycott of Israel is justifiable, why not select a package of targets to boycott in Pakistan?

Meanwhile, the provision of safe water is Pakistan’s newest challenge.  Recall, however, that water flows downhill. Let’s hope it’s legal to follow the stream where it leads.