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.

“Crush the Taliban to Save Pakistan”: Coverage of the Peshawar Massacre

Apologies, but I’ve been too distracted by the Peshawar attacks and by grading to write the posts I promised to write on the psychiatric medications symposium. I promise to get to that soon. (I have a lamentable tendency to promise multi-part posts and not deliver on them, but I’m making it a New Year’s resolution to do otherwise.) Meanwhile, Peshawar it is.

There’s been some good commentary on Peshawar, much—though not all–of it by Pakistanis. I linked to some of this commentary in a previous post. Here’s some more–a lot more.

Here’s a good symposium in The New York Times—C. Christine Fair, Ahsan Butt, Musharraf Zaidi, and Pir Zubair Shah. The discussion, however, is misdescribed by the Times as a “debate.” In fact, the four contributors mostly agree with one another; no one says anything particularly controversial or new. It’s still worth reading, however, since much of what they say is true. Irfan Husain makes similar points at Dawn (Karachi) in “The Poison Within.” But the best single piece of analysis I’ve seen is this short piece in The Friday Times (Lahore) by Najam Sethi, “Deja Vu?” If you read just one thing about Peshawar, read that.

There’s been a loud and predictable outcry in Pakistan against the Taliban for the attacks. Among the more eloquent condemnations or lamentations I read were Maria Amir’s “Time to Confront the Taliban in Our Midst,” in Dawn, Pervez Hoodbhoy’s “It Wasn’t the Final Atrocity”  (also in Dawn), and Asma Jehangir’s “Pakistan’s Rulers Must Show an Honest Resolve to Fight Terrorismin the London Guardian.

Nadeem Paracha’s brand of humor is probably an acquired taste, but I found his “Anatomy of an Apologist” (in Dawn) both grimly accurate and screamingly funny.

A few things I’ve read strike me as worth reading on diagnostic grounds for the muddled thinking they involve. This well-meaning piece by Imtiaz Gul (Friday Times) is a perfect example. Much of what Gul says is perfectly sensible, but I had to shake my head at this passage:

A Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) revenge strike was expected since the army launched the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan on June 15. As the army focused increasingly on Waziristan and the Khyber region and exuded triumphant confidence, the TTP carried out the lethal attack last month at the India-Pakistan border, killing at least 60 people watching a flag-lowering ceremony. The month of Muharram passed relatively peacefully, prompting many of us to empirically conclude that the graph of violent acts had come down considerably.

But as it turned out with the Peshawar mayhem, the TTP, though badly bruised by the combination of the Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the CIA-led drone campaign which saw about a dozen strikes between mid June and early this month, had something else up its sleeves.

What Gul describes as an “empirical conclusion” is actually a blatant non-sequitur. The army launches an anti-Taliban operation; the Taliban strike back in November. A month passes, and Gul thinks: “Well, that’s that! They won’t attack again!” Then they attack again, and he concludes: “If the events of the last weeks were an indication the Peshawar attack was in the making ever since.” So which is it—did he expect them to attack, or did their attack come as a surprise after what he thought was a downward trend in attacks by them? Gul’s simultaneous presence on both sides of that question strikes me as representative of a deeply-rooted confusion in the Pakistani intelligentsia—caught between commonsense and wishful thinking.

For an even deeper muddle, I’d suggesting reading “Pakistan’s New Warriors Against the Taliban” and “Peshawar School Attack Indicts Pakistan’s Misplaced Priorities,” by Rafia Zakaria in Al Jazeera AmericaI have a lot of respect for Zakaria’s intellect and for her activism on other issues, but here her claims really border on the preposterous. The “new warriors against the Taliban” turn out to be Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri–names that will be meaningless to non-Pakistani readers, but will strike many (most?) Pakistan-knowledgeable readers as an inadvertent joke rather than a serious suggestion. (See below for discussion of Imran Khan.)

The second article of Zakaria’s articles claims, offhandedly, that the Peshwar attack proves that military options won’t work against the Taliban; hence we should dispense with them. That claim is a textbook case of ignoratio elenchi: a single successful attack by the Taliban cannot prove that military options against the Taliban are a failure; after all, the failure to use military options against the Taliban might lead to even more successful attacks by the Taliban. As Zakaria herself concedes, no policy is foolproof, so it makes no sense to seize on a single event as conclusive evidence of the failure of a policy. In saying that drone attacks “have done little to diminish the Taliban’s capacity to carry out such operations,” she flouts both common sense and systematic empirical evidence to the contrary. There is no conclusive evidence either way, but the existing evidence suggests that drone strikes are the best of the available options. I can’t really do justice to Zakaria’s argument as a whole right now, but some of what I say in the combox of my last post (in response to Matt Faherty et al) is relevant to Zakaria’s arguments as well.

Some Pakistanis have refused to condemn the attacks altogether. Notable among them is Zakaria’s hero Imran Khan, who is misdescribed as “condemning” the attacks in this statement (You Tube video, in Urdu). What he says in the statement is little more than a well-crafted contribution to the art of prevarication. He offers his condolences to the bereaved, tells us that he has postponed his own political activities for later in deference to the collective need for mourning, tells us that he’s on his way to Peshawar to seek more “details” before saying anything substantive, and then offers a very vague criticism of “whoever” might have committed this dastardly deed (“jis nay yeh kiyah“). As everyone by now knows, the Pakistani Taliban have taken responsibility for the shooting: though Khan speaks of the nation standing together in unity, what “everyone” knows seems to exclude Khan himself. I am not sure how Rafia Zakaria’s proposed “warrior against the Taliban” can deserve the description she gives him if he can’t even manage to condemn the Taliban for having engaged in a massacre of 130-odd children (not the Taliban’s first massacre, by the way, and not their last: just another massacre that “Taliban Khan” has failed to ascribe to the Taliban and failed to condemn under that description, while insisting on negotiations with them and ignoring the past history of failed negotiations with them).

Another Taliban-apologetic-seeming figure is Maulana Abdul Aziz, the imam of the notorious Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad who, when asked to condemn the attacks on a television talk show, refused to do so. Here’s the video (in Urdu). (Note: I had some technical difficulties in watching it all the way through. It breaks up a lot.)

Like Imran Khan, Maulana Abdul Aziz mostly engages in uncontroversial offerings of condolences, then changes the subject to the sins of Pervez Musharraf, then finally admits that the massacre “shouldn’t have” happened. There’s no disputing that it shouldn’t have happened, but saying that neither answers the question he was asked nor amounts to an authentic condemnation of the act. I admire the acuity and persistence of the show’s hostess, Nadia Mirza, who three times asks Abdul Aziz exactly the right question to ask under the circumstances: Does Maulana Abdul Aziz sahib intend, morally speaking, to equate the military’s campaign against the Taliban with the Taliban’s campaign against Pakistan? There’s nothing more clarifying than an answer–or a non-answer–to the right question asked in the right way. What we get here is a non-answer which licenses the inference that Abdul Aziz’s implicit answer is at least a yes: he at least equates the two things and may well regard the Taliban’s campaign as more justified than the government’s. Incidentally, Maulana Abdul Aziz can be very adamant about giving and demanding straight answers when it suits him to do so. (The preceding link goes to a You Tube debate in Urdu.) So we shouldn’t assume that he’s habitually too wordy to get to the point on the massacre.

There has been a popular uprising of sorts against Maulana Abdul Aziz and against the Lal Masjid as an institution. As an imam, Maulana Abdul Aziz is on the government’s payroll, and ordinary Pakistanis justifiably want him off of it. I agree with that, but I have to say that I find some aspects of the anti-Lal Masjid backlash a problematic and ill-conceived misplacement of priorities. It’s true that the “clerisy” has apologized for the Taliban and for terrorism. That’s evil, but it can’t legitimately (or efficaciously) be fought by anti-hate speech regulation, which is what many activists are now calling for. Pakistan needs more free speech, not less. Unless they’re making specific threats, the immorality of the “clerisy” ought to be brought into the open, and exposed to the light of day–not suppressed, repressed, and driven underground. Mill’s argument in chapter 2 of “On Liberty” is pertinent here. I wonder if anyone has ever translated it into Urdu.

Actually, what needs exposure and discussion is the connection between mosque and state in Pakistan, not a campaign of retaliatory anti-blasphemy laws, whether religious or secular. (Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration is pertinent here. Urdu translation, anyone?) A suggestion for inquiry: think about how Pakistan resembles Israel, and look at the trouble that Israelis have brought on themselves by insisting on the Jewish character of “the Jewish state.” Another suggestion for inquiry: think about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and how such an amendment might work for or fit into Pakistan’s constitution. It might not, but it’s more worth discussing than the viability of anti-hate-speech legislation targeting the mullahs.

For deeper analysis, I’d recommend reading the work of Ahmed Rashid. You probably couldn’t go wrong by hanging on every word Rashid writes about Pakistan, but I’ve found his recent work for the New York Review of Books and the Financial Times particularly enlightening. It’s all good stuff, but I’d particularly recommend “Pakistan Must Unleash the Military Against the Militants,” “Pakistan’s Offensive Against Militants Is Right,” “A Different Pakistan,” and “The Motives Behind the Taliban’s Brutal Attack” (all accessed via the preceding link). Much of this functions as a riposte to those, like Rafia Zakaria, who think that the Taliban can somehow be handled by non-military means.

I disagree with Rashid, however, that the military means in question should be American. Rashid’s long to-do lists for the American government-in-South-and-Central-Asia are an unwitting description of the mechanics of imperialism. As I’ve suggested elsewhere (in response to another enthusiastic partisan of imperialistic to-do lists), it’s time for the U.S. to ratchet back its imperial involvement abroad, and at a minimum, to get the hell out of South-Central Asia–as our good president promised us when we elected him back in 2008.

Though he’s not nearly as well known as Rashid, my friend Khalil Ahmad of the libertarian Alternative Solutions Institute in Lahore has a similar take in this piece, “Hopeless in Pakistan,” sans Rashid’s problematic neo-imperialist prescriptions for the United States.

Meanwhile, it’s time for Afghans and Pakistanis to take ownership of their own war against the Taliban (possibly with the help of Indians), and time for us Americans to patch together our own country–a country whose health care system is a disaster, whose criminal justice system now regularly leads to riots, whose higher education system is a bit of a shambles, which hasn’t managed to come to terms with illegal immigration, and which faces a cybersecurity threat not from the Taliban but from North Korea. In other words, it’s time to put the specter of 9/11 behind us and move on to resolving the actual problems we face. There’s no contradiction involved in saying that, and in wanting the government of Pakistan to prevail in battle over the Taliban.

To bring things back to the present, read these two pieces in this morning’s New York Times, “Pakistan’s Old Curse,” and “Pakistani Forces Kill Dozens of Militants.” As memories of the massacre inevitably fade, these two articles indicate where the action will be in the future.

Postscript, January 8, 2015: Here’s a nice tribute to the victims, via Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Zehra Nigah, by my cousin Fawad Zakariya. It’s from his blog, “Moments of Tranquility” (the blog is in English, but this post is largely for the Urdu-competent). I was stunned to discover from the exchange in Fawad’s combox that You Tube is banned in Pakistan.

Newsflash: Pakistani Taliban Kill Lots of Innocent Children (Sardonic Edition)

Here are my three favorite commentaries on the Pakistani Taliban’s recent attack on a school in Peshawar:

KABUL: The Afghan Taliban have condemned a raid on a school in Peshawar that left 141 dead in the country’s bloodiest ever terror attack, saying killing innocent children was against Islam.

Survivors said militants gunned down children as young as 12 during the eight-hour onslaught in Peshawar, which the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) said was revenge for the ongoing North Waziristan operation.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has always condemned the killing of children and innocent people at every juncture,” the Afghan Taliban, which often target civilians, said in a statement released late Tuesday.

“The intentional killing of innocent people, women and children goes against the principles of Islam and every Islamic government and movement must adhere to this fundamental essence.”

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the official name of the Taliban) expresses its condolences over the incident and mourns with the families of killed children.”

The Afghan Taliban are a jihadist group loosely affiliated to the Pakistan Taliban, with both pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar.

That’s from “Afghan Taliban Condemn Peshawar School Attack,” in Karachi’s Dawn.

Here’s another great one, for those who know a bit about Pakistani politics. It’s from Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf political party.

“I have never seen an atrocity like this in my entire life…I cannot even comprehend how someone could kill children like this,” he said.

“If someone killed my children like this, I would seek to avenge it as well,” Imran said.

Yes, terrorist attacks are really unprecedented for the Pakistani Taliban. I mean, who ever heard of the Pakistani Taliban killing innocent people? In Pakistan, no less? Has Imran sahib informed the Royal Society?

Then there’s this gem:

Obama terrorizes and murders innocent Pakistani citizens.

That’s supposed to be a commentary on drone warfare against the Pakistani Taliban. I’ve italicized the word of interest. Here is what I find interesting about it.

Suppose that the U.S. packed up its drones tomorrow and left South Asia for good. What does the author think should happen next? Broadly speaking, there are only two options. Either the Pakistani military fights the Taliban or not.

(1) Suppose they fight the Taliban. Suppose they choose to do so by means of the least destructive method available to them– drones. (Actually, drones are not quite ‘available’ to Pakistan right now, but imagine that they were.) Suppose that these drones kill “innocent Pakistani civilians” as a side-effect of the attempt to fight the Taliban. Would Nawaz Sharif then be as guilty of “murder” as Obama has been alleged to be? Or do you have to be an American drone operator to satisfy that description?

(2) Suppose that the Pakistani military chooses not to fight the Taliban, on the grounds that doing so would lead to the deaths of “innocent Pakistani civilians” (as it surely would). Suppose that the Taliban then murder Pakistanis civilians with impunity for the next seven or eight years, as they’ve done for the last eight. In fact, imagine that the Taliban ratchet up their killings on the grounds that it’s easier to kill people when the army that’s supposed to be protecting them refuses to do so. Would the author be willing to accept those consequences as an implication of his fastidious strictures on drone warfare?

While I’m on this subject, let me ask one last set of questions. The Taliban are non-state actors–a kind of terrorist NGO. They are, in other words, de facto anarchists. According to anarchist theory, “the state” lacks legitimacy. So imagine we decide to  get rid of it.

Now imagine, further, that “we” are Pakistanis. (Yes, I realize that my thought-experiment is starting to strain credulity at this point.) Let’s imagine, then, that “we” Pakistanis abolish the Pakistani state tomorrow. I assume that the Taliban would not be deterred from further depredations by this act.

So here is my question, intended for anarcho-capitalists: In what sense would Pakistanis be better off without a state than with one in facing the Taliban? And how should they do it? Whatever the method, it must meet two specifications: (1) it must not involve the assistance of a state, and (2) it must not lead to the deaths of any innocent third-parties. In this season of miracles, that surely can’t be too much to ask.

Postscript, December 18, 2014: More coverage of Peshawar. A poignant passage from a story from this morning’s New York Times, “Horror Paralyzes Pakistan After Methodical Slaughter“:

Some mourners expressed frustration at the apparent impotence of their own security forces. “What is this army for?” shouted one man at the city’s main Lady Reading hospital, where he had come to collect the body of his grandson.

“Where are their atom bombs and airplanes now?” he said. “They were of no use if they cannot protect us from death in our daily lives.”

Better questions could scarcely be asked, and truer words could scarcely be uttered. But we’re talking about armed forces that have begun every war they’ve fought, and lost every war they’ve begun: they’re guilty of genocide (East Pakistan, 1971) and willing to start nuclear war with India over uninhabitable chunks of ice (Siachen Glacier), but incapable of grasping the fact that their deals with the devil have surrendered the entire northwest of the country to totalitarian psychopaths bent on mass murder in the name of God. Pakistanis should never forget that the partition of the subcontinent was intended to give the Muslims of the subcontinent a safe haven from religious persecution by Hindus. Somehow, it never occurred to them that “they” might persecute “themselves.” Call it another grim chapter in the annals of that supposedly impossible phenomenon–“reverse discrimination.”

Meanwhile, from the same article:

Back at the deserted Army Public School, snipers perched on the rooftops, watching for a potential follow-up attack. In the nearby tribal belt, the Pakistani Army mounted fresh airstrikes.

Were they merely “fresh airstrikes” or were they mass murder? Would they have been mass murder if carried out by drones more precise than the airstrikes? I renew the question.

I find it interesting that in the English language press, at any rate, a lot of Pakistani commentary has taken the form of anguished questions. This column by Sameer Khosa in Lahore’s Nation consists of almost nothing but questions until this passage at the end:

Let us finally put an end to the criminally dishonest nature of our conversation on the Taliban, and on the national security challenge as a whole. Because now, we have seen its cost and it is unbearable.

Carry these children in your heart always. Let their innocence be the antidote to the lies that are peddled to us. Let their curiosity about the world remind us to ask anyone who has a one-sentence-long solution to this problem how they propose it will end. Let us fight in their name. Let their gravestones say: tell us now that this is not our war. Tell us now that this is not personal.

The problem is, this is what Pakistanis always say after a Taliban atrocity, only to forget it until next year’s atrocity. I’m not criticizing Khosa; I’m criticizing his audience. What he’s saying is undeniably true. So is what these people are saying. And these two.  The problem is that it’s been true for years. Remember what happened in Peshawar last year? It was Malala before that, and the massacre of the Shias of Derra Adam Khel before that, and the Geo TV station before that, and the Bajaur market before that, and the attack on the shrine of Data Ganj Baksh before that, and the one on the Ahmadi mosques in Lahore before that, and the assassination of Benazir before that. How many “before thats” does a rational person need before he figures out “we have a problem, and we have to solve it”? (Here’s a list of TTP attacks.) Unfortunately, what Khurram Hussain is saying is true, too.

Anyway, I can’t help continuing the semi-sardonic theme of the original post. So, a few quotations in that vein:

Khursheed Shah says terrorism is national issue

Speaking to media representatives after attending the MPC, Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah said there is a complete consensus among political parties of the country on the terrorism issue.

He expressed his resolve to stand shoulder to shoulder with the armed forces in their ongoing fight against terror. Shah also urged the media to play a proactive role in eradicating terrorists from the country.

The PPP leader said that even Israeli state does not carry out such atrocities on Palestinians like the terrorist did to young kids yesterday at the school in Peshawar.

That’s from Dawn, “No distinction now between good and bad Taliban: Nawaz.” I mean, if they’re worse than Israelis, then we really have to fight them. Incidentally, the U.S. just normalized relations with Cuba. Any chance of Pakistan doing the same with Israel sometime soon?

I certainly wouldn’t go quite as far as Sherry Rahman does here, but I see her point, and it’s a nice counter-narrative to those handwaving claims one hears about the virginal innocence of the Taliban’s clean-handed apologists and sympathizers:

PESHAWAR: Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Sherry Rehman said Wednesday that if anyone engaged in the apologist narrative when it comes to terrorism and terrorist attacks, they would be considered as terrorists and allies of the terrorists.

Time has come for a decision and anyone who presents justification for acts of terrorism will be regarded as a traitor.

“Whoever is a friend of the terrorists is a traitor,” Rehman said addressing media representatives in Peshawar.

Rehman urged that the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will not remain the victims and instead become those who will lead the war against terrorists.

Of course, taken literally, Rahman’s policy would require locking up large chunks of Pakistan’s judiciary. But I don’t think Rahman quite means what she’s saying–at least not as stated. It’s still the heat of the moment.

I leave you, finally, with a Word Press Editor’s Pick for 2014, written in October by Mehreen Kasana, a Pakistani graduate student at a school in Brooklyn.

On my way to class, I take the Q train to Manhattan and sit down next to an old white man who recoils a noticeable bit. I assume it’s because I smell odd to him, which doesn’t make sense because I took a shower in the morning. Maybe I’m sitting too liberally the way men do on public transit with their legs a mile apart, I think to myself. That also doesn’t apply since I have my legs crossed. After a few seconds of inspecting any potential offence caused, I realize that it has nothing to do with an imaginary odor or physical space but with the keffiyeh around my neck that my friend gifted me (the Palestinian scarf – an apparently controversial piece of cloth). It is an increasingly cold October in NYC. Sam Harris may not have told you but we Muslims need our homeostasis at a healthy level. While our bodies regulate our internal fanatic temperatures to remain stable, sometimes it gets a little too chilly so we pull out those diabolical scarves and wrap them around our diabolical necks and diabolically say, “Holy shit. It is cold today, Abdullah.” To which Abdullah replies, “Wallah. My ass is freezing.”

Reading her, you’d think that the act of wearing a keffiyeh in Brooklyn or Manhattan was a wildly rare and transgressive occurrence. It isn’t. But let me add one more “maybe” to the list: maybe this is the kind of thing that happens occasionally, that the author could very well be imagining, that doesn’t matter much even if it happened, and that is best ignored rather than inflated into the occasion of a self-pitying drama of grievance stretching back to Hiroshima, the Raj, and the Atlantic slave trade.

See if you have the discipline to make it through the whole thing. Kasana doesn’t want to apologize for Muslim atrocities. That’s fine. I don’t think she should, and have said as much in the past. But try as hard as you can to make coherent sense of her claim that there is no distinction to be made between good and bad Muslims. And feel free to enlist the help of the Mahmood Mamdani article she links to in her post to do so. Yes, I realize that she’s rejecting the “binary opposition” of Good and Bad Muslim within a specific narrative. But at the end of the day, what does she think is left of the ordinary distinction between good and bad Muslims? Should we throw it out? I don’t know a single Muslim who thinks so. Try to make sense of what just happened in Peshawar while ignoring the distinction, and reflect on the results. Hard to do. So why should any non-Muslim apologize for making use of it? No apology, so to speak.

Back home; going postal; some news

I just got back from Nicaragua, and I’m ready to blog.

Now that I’ve recovered a bit from my trip–in other words, now that I’m no longer chained to the bathroom–I’ve been sitting here trying to compare what I observed in Nicaragua with what I’d observed on recent trips to Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories. I haven’t come to any conclusions, but a series of anecdotes about postcards conveys something about the flavor of each place. I swear I’m not making any of it up.

Nicaragua. I had time to kill one day Augusto Sandino International Airport in Managua, so I decided to get some postcards. I went over to a vendor, and asked her, in half-assed Spanish, for five postcards. She gave them to me, I paid for them, and then thought to ask for stamps. She didn’t have any, so I asked my friend and colleague George–who’s Nicaraguan–where I could get some stamps. “What the hell for?” he asked (he speaks American). “To mail some postcards,” I said. “Dude,” he said, “What’s the point? Nicaragua doesn’t have a postal service.”  Oh. A revelation. (Not that this made a difference to my postcard issue, but it turns out that Nicaragua doesn’t have any accurate street addresses, either.)

Stereotype 1: Nicaragua, land of postcards but no postal service.

Pakistan. Compare this to Pakistan, which has an exemplary postal service, care of its erstwhile British colonial overlords. One day I had time to kill at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore, so I went over to a vendor and asked him, in perfectly fluent Urdu, for some postcards. “What are those?” he asked. That’s when my Urdu started to break down.

Irfan: Well, they’re cards with a picture on one side, and blank space on the other, so that you can write on them and mail them to people.

Vendor: What would you want one of those for? Just get a calling card. I have the best prices! Check these out…

I really had no idea how to respond to that, whether in Urdu or in English, so I tried to mumble an excuse and started backing slowly out of the store. The vendor started to panic.

Vendor: I have batteries too! All kinds. You need double A’s? Lithium? Duracell?

Irfan: Thanks, I don’t need batteries.

Vendor: Tea? Coffee? Chicken kebab? When does your flight leave?

Stereotype 2: Pakistan, land of a British-style postal service and pushy vendors, but no postcards.

Israel/Palestine. I ended up having no time to kill at Ben Gurion International Airport. A colleague from Al Quds University Law School had persuaded me to join him and about a dozen people for a jaunt to the Golan Heights the day before my flight was supposed to leave. We left East Jerusalem early in the morning, and headed north to Golan on the understanding that I had to be back in Jerusalem by midnight to catch a taxi to Tel Aviv for a 5 am flight. Security regulations required me to get to the airport by 2 am.

We took a (very) leisurely drive to Golan, spent the day at a water park there (I think it was Kfar Blum), had a (very, very) leisurely six-course barbecue in the park, and then headed (in leisurely fashion) to Lake Tiberias around 8 pm, where we spent a few hours dancing on a very large, loud, DJ-outfitted dance boat full of drunk Russian Jews and hyperactive Israeli Arabs. (Actually, among “us” Palestinians, the men danced. The Arab/Palestinian women sat on the sidelines, clapping, ululating, and urging us on. I’m gratified to say that one of them told me that I “danced like a Palestinian.”) After that, we had a four course dinner on the shores of Lake Tiberias, when around 11 pm–gorged on chicken, fish, watermelon, Turkish coffee, etc.–it began to occur to my hosts that at this rate, I might miss my flight. We then rushed, dangerously and at full speed, down the Tiberias coast. Eventually, we rushed into the West Bank via Jericho (stopping only for ice cream), dropped everyone else off at Abu Dis, then rushed back into Jerusalem past its checkpoint (by this time my tipsy driver was sweating bullets and weaving all over the highway), and got me to my taxi 90 minutes late.

The taxi driver–who was patiently undisturbed about the delay, and either a member of Hamas or a Mossad agent impersonating one–rushed me to Tel Aviv, administering an alarming ideological-theological purity test along the way, but getting me there in record time.

Taxi Driver: Are you Christian or Muslim? [‘Jewish’ or ‘atheist’ were evidently not among the conceivable options.]

Irfan: Muslim. [A bald-faced lie, but the right answer in context.]

Driver: Good.

Driver (after a pause): Are you Shia or Sunni?

Irfan: Sunni.

Driver: Good. The Shia are kaffirun [infidels]. They are fanatics. They will all burn in Hell. I am glad you are a Sunni.

Irfan: So am I.

Driver: Do you know Hassan Nasrallah?

Irfan: Well, I know who he is. [It seemed important here not to equivocate on ‘know’.]

Driver: What is your opinion of him?

Irfan: I don’t like him. He seems like a fanatic.

Driver: Good.

Etc. Repeat for forty-five hair-raising minutes, each ad hoc fatwa condemning more people to death or damnation, and each fatwa getting closer to revealing that I deserved the same fate. By the end of it, I was praying to be detained at an Israeli checkpoint.

Before long, I was detained at an Israeli checkpoint–or, well, a series of them. The first stop was just outside the airport, and took about half an hour. Then I got to the airport itself and was searched yet again. Then I got in line to check my bag, and was approached by an adorable security agent speaking Hebrew-accented English.

Security agent: We have reason to believe that you are bringing a bomb onto this flight.

Irfan (after a long pause): Sorry, what?

Security agent (rolling her eyes, and speaking very slowly, in exasperation): We…have…reaaason…to believe…that you…are bringing a bomb…onto the plane.

Irfan: Well, you might, but I don’t.

I didn’t mean to sound like a smart-ass, but I didn’t know what else to say. I hadn’t put a bomb in my bag (or anywhere else), but I had no way of proving that she had no reason to believe that I was bringing a bomb onto the plane. It just didn’t seem like the time or a place for a critical reasoning lesson on the burden of proof. (Philosophy, I’ve found, is a liability in most situations involving security agents, armed troops, law enforcement officers, or officers of the court.) She didn’t seem to like my answer, so she handed me over to another (very attractive) young lady, who walked me over to Strip Search Guy, who was much less fun than either of them had been.

I won’t bother to summarize the strip search part of my visit to Ben Gurion International Airport. Suffice to say that there was more stripping and searching than dialogue in the Strip Search Room. It also took longer than I thought it would. Who knew that there were that many orifices and surfaces in and on the human body large enough to hide a bomb? I guess by the end of it both Strip Search Guy and I had the answer.

After the strip search, I had to have my bag searched for the fourth or fifth time–once again by a very cute female security agent (a different one). She politely ransacked every millimeter of my bag, asking my permission to undo (and then redo) all of my packages (which I cheerfully gave)–including the bubble wrapped plaques of the Dome of the Rock that I had been cheated into buying by some scam artist in the Arab Quarter named “Ahmad” (what else?) who said that I “owed” it to him, to God, to Palestine, and to my Mom to shell out $200 to buy her (my Mom) a premium Dome of the Rock plaque with a nationalist-approved Quranic verse intended to prove that the Dome of the Rock was and shall forever remain within the exclusive sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority. I can’t believe I fell for it.

Anyway, this whole security process took three hours. By the end of it, the Alitalia airline agent who’d been waiting for me looked both alarmed and relieved when I emerged from security. “We thought you were going to be detained,” she whispered, and ushered me at last onto my plane. I hadn’t changed clothes or taken a shower in almost 24 hours, and was still damp from the Golan water park, with clumps of mud stuck to my socks and shins. I didn’t detonate a bomb, but I stank all the way to Rome, where I finally had the chance to clean up, buy some new clothes, and throw the old ones away. Bottom line: there was no time for postcards at Ben Gurion International Airport.

Stereotype 3: Israel, land of postcards and postal service, both of which are rendered inaccessible for security reasons.

I’m not sure what that all means, but these three anecdotes are the foundation for all of the stereotypes I now have about Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Israel/Palestine.

In other, unrelated news:

1.  Kate, Carrie-Ann and I are on the final edits of Reason Papers 36.1, which will be coming out on Monday the 18th (it clocks in at 223 pages).

2. Within the next few days, I’ll be turning “Policy of Truth” into a group blog. At some point in the near future, I’ll also be putting as much of my writing as I can find (and as is presentable) under the “Writing” tab of the site. Stay tuned.

A thought on Gaza

I haven’t said very much here of a direct nature about Gaza. That’s partly because I know less about Gaza than I do about the West Bank, and partly because I think there’s less to say about what’s been happening lately in Gaza than what’s been happening for awhile in the West Bank. But abstracting from questions of detail, I think there’s something to say, so I might as well say it. If I’m missing something, and being uncharitable to Hamas, someone can explain that to me, but as things stand, I don’t see any reasons for charity toward them.

I was having a conversation about Gaza the other day with my father and one of my cousins. My father and I are Pakistani-American; my cousin is Pakistani. All three of us have a great deal of sympathy for the cause of Palestinian rights, but none of us has any sympathy for Hamas. We’re all fairly argumentative people, but we quickly came to the following consensus about events in Gaza:

1. It makes no sense for Hamas to be officially at war with Israel and then to complain when Israel blockades Gaza. (And sophistry of this variety doesn’t help.)

2. It makes no sense for Hamas to attack Israel and not expect to be attacked in return.

3. It makes no sense for Hamas to attack Israel’s civilians and then complain to the world about its own civilian casualties at Israeli hands. (On the whole, I agree with the Israeli position that Hamas is using its civilian population as innocent shields, but this is a complex issue that requires separate treatment.)

4. Displays of pro-Hamas sympathy of the kind described in this article should elicit our criticism and rejection, not excuses or encouragement.

5. Finally, there’s a good analogy to be made between what Hamas is doing in Gaza and what the Pakistani Taliban is doing in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal agencies in Pakistan. There’s also a good analogy to be made between what the Israeli government has been forced to do in Gaza and what the Pakistani government has been forced to do in Pakistan’s northwest. The preceding analogies are driven by the sad fact that there’s a good analogy to be made between Hamas and the Taliban.

By the way, the consensus view of the three of us—including my Pakistani cousin, who lives in Pakistan—was that military action (ideally in the form of drone strikes) is the only way to deal with, i.e., defeat, the Pakistani Taliban. I’d like to think that Hamas is somewhat more reasonable than the Pakistani Taliban, and can come to a more reasonable settlement with Israel than the Taliban has mustered with Pakistan. But I wouldn’t bet on it. (Incidentally, could I have written the preceding sentence in Taliban- or Hamas-controlled territory without inviting the Islamic police to arrest me for suborning a violation of sharia? “Betting,” after all, is a paradigmatically unIslamic activity, and as its charter makes clear, Hamas believes that Palestine is to be ruled as an Islamic waqf under sharia. Thanks, but no thanks.)

We didn’t happen to discuss this, but like it or not, there’s a bit of an analogy to be made between Israel and Pakistan. The one is a Jewish state that aspires to be the moral equivalent of a secular republic while insisting, quixotically, on retaining its Jewish character. The other is an Islamic state that aspires to be the moral equivalent of a secular republic while insisting, quixotically, on retaining its Islamic character. Neither state professes to see any contradiction in doing so. Each state found it expedient a few decades back to support the enemy of its enemy—Hamas against Fatah in the case of Israel, and the proto-Taliban mujahidin against the USSR and India in the case of Pakistan. Both now find themselves on the receiving end of the depredations of the theocratic monsters they themselves helped create. Maybe one lesson here is that in the long-run, it doesn’t pay to outsmart oneself like that.

There’s a lesson here for the United States, as well. An interventionist foreign policy has a tendency to induce its practitioners to promote their “interests” abroad by supporting the enemies of their enemies, in the hope that doing so will induce one enemy to destroy the other and enable a kind of defense-in-depth-on-the-cheap. Such policies seem clever until the enemies of one’s enemies become one’s plain old enemies (often in alliance with yesteryear’s enemies, on the premise that those erstwhile enemies can now be treated as friends because they’re the enemies of one’s current enemies). At that point, of course, the policies come to seem irrationally self-defeating. One possible lesson is to stop intervening everywhere, and stop insisting on a conception of one’s  “interests” that requires a defense in depth. Perhaps a non-interventionist policy that seems fairly clever in the here and now might, with the passage of time, retain its aura of cleverness in the future, and save us from a lot of trouble.

PS., For good non-mainstream coverage of the Israel/Palestine dispute, I’d recommend Ibishblog, the blog of Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. I don’t always agree with what he has to say (he probably wouldn’t entirely agree with what I’ve just said above), but this article and this one say things that you might not have expected to hear from a partisan of the Palestinian cause, and aren’t likely to hear in the mainstream press.