Monday, April 30, 2012

Will The Dead Be Cremated As Part of Europe’s Austerity?

Will The Dead Be Cremated As Part of Europe’s Austerity?

                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

The conversation, that evening, took a macabre turn on how European austerity was beginning to affect the ancient custom of burying the dead. This reminded me of a story.

Peter Duval Smith was famous among journalists in the 60s and 70s for the creative work he had done in launching the BBC radio talks programmes. Covering the Vietnam War for London’s Daily Telegraph, he was among the first journalists to have got hooked on opium. The addiction got the better of him. One day he choked on his own vomit and died.

A question arose as to what should be done with the body. The Saigon Press Corps fell into deep thought. The editor, when informed of his correspondent’s death, asked for the cost involved in sending the body to London. The cost, it turned out, was prohibitive.

For economy of words and a singular absence of sentimentality, the editor’s instructions are a classic: “cremate body locally: dispatch ashes”.

In the Czech Republic this is a serious debate. In Prague, the capital of the most representative of what Ronald Rumsfeld called “new Europe”, burial is turning out to be expensive. Purchase of land, cost of coffin, marble, grave digging, bricks and cement – it all adds upto quite a packet.

Cremation, by contrast, is simple matter. Place the body in the incinerator and it’s all over. Collect the ashes if you like.

I suppose the clergy will, at some stage, have to sanctify the proposal.

Would the discontinuance of an ancient custom have costs in after life?

In Prague the issue has come out in the open but it is of relevance to most urban societies including ours. Pressure on Urban land will result in pressure on graveyards which in turn will bring into focus the inevitability of bodies being piled on bodies, a sort of horizontal arrangement. It could become a high pitched religion vs secularism debate. Surely there will be a Muslim angle to the discourse since Muslim too are buried.

Inevitably, the conversation drifted to the fashionable theme in recent years: Islamic fundamentalism. The obsession, I said, has obscured the growing phenomena of all religions digging their heels in on the fundamentals.

Some years ago, a diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, sought an urgent transfer become India’s capital city did not have the facilities for his wife to fulfill ritual obligations of her faith. Her religion required her to dip in a fresh water pond during her monthly periods. She was taken to the Bhadkal Lake in Haryana but it was found inadequate. They left Indian in double quick time.

Another, Jewish friend, a high powered journalists who traveled with me to Godhra during the pogrom of 2002, refused to eat in my house because “your kosher is not like our kosher – we have to say a specific prayer before any meat can be declared kosher.”

An orthodox Jew brought his own chopping block to the fish shop in New Delhi’s INA market! His solemnity in adhering to the ritual was harmless even amusing.

These somewhat disjointed bits of religious exclusiveness link up nicely with a chapter I have been reading in Madeleine Albright’s the Mighty and the Almighty: “the holocaust may have been the tipping point in US support for Israel’s statehood, but American policy has its roots in the Balfour Declaration – that there is indeed a promised land and that Israelites were the recipients of the promise.” Many Americans are convinced on the basis of numerous biblical passages that Jesus will return to earth only when Solomon’s temple is rebuilt and the climactic war between good and evil, described in the book of Revelation, is fought.

But Christopher Hitchen’s description of what happened at Bagram air base takes the cake. Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, Chief of the United States Military Chaplains in Afghanistan, tells his audience, all in military uniform: “The Special Forces guys, they hunt men, basically. We do the same things, as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them in the Kingdom.”

That is Chaplain Hensley’s understanding of the US mission in Afghanistan. Hunt them for the Kingdom of God! What more can the Afghans ask for?

# # # # # #

Saturday, April 21, 2012

After Attacks, Afghan Endgame Seems More Of A Mirage

After Attacks, Afghan Endgame Seems More Of A Mirage

                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

Do the latest attacks by the Taleban on government buildings, western embassies and military bases across four provinces bear some resemblance to the dramatic attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel in June last year? In fact the intercontinental attack was probably more telegenic – blazing flames, billowing smoke. Let us also not forget last September’s attack on the US embassy, then, as now, directed from construction blocks.

In these instances the message from Haqqani network based in Pakistan’s north-west was: look we’re still around. Dare you script scenarios for Taleban being in the power structure without us?

The earlier attack linked up with the arrest in Karachi in February 2010 of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taleban commander who led the Quetta Shura and directed operations from Pakistan. The arrest was ordered because Baradar was engaged in conversations with the CIA which Pakistani intelligence chanced upon. In other words, neither the CIA nor Baradar had kept Islamabad in the loop on the talks which could have a bearing on the future power structure in Kabul. This has been something of an anathema for the Pakistan establishment.

And now talks with Taleban have been launched in Qatar, not quite Pakistan’s preferred rendezvous. Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai is huddled with US officials on the Strategic Document where the fine print is being read carefully by the skeptics on what, for instance, is the understanding on “night raids” to be carried out by Afghans with US troops playing a support role.

Americans have, in spells, been hated in Afghanistan, but over the years other hate objects had come into focus – Pakistan, for instance. But the burning of the Quran at the Bagram base, Marines urinating on dead Afghans, posing for pictures with mangled bodies, the gruesome murder in Kandahar of 16 people mostly women and children by “a group of US servicemen” according to the Chief of Operations of the Afghan National Army, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi – all these have raised Anti Americanism to fever pitch. Americans insist only one serviceman was involved in the mindless massacre. In other words negotiating anything with Americans in an atmosphere of feverish Anti Americanism depletes whatever goodwill President Karzai has.

In these circumstances, Karzai has to prepare himself for the high table at the NATO summit on May 20 to 21, focused on Afghanistan. President Obama is determined to show the Chicago Meet as his successful management of the withdrawal process from Afghanistan. But how? Drawdown, reduce, withdraw are terms being used for what the US will do with its troops in Afghanistan. I doubt if a cogent withdrawal strategy can be given shape in a month when the Summit is due. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan, leave alone Pakistan, is in total disrepair.

The irony is that in a region of such noisy anti Americanism, there is no regime which is actually interested in the US departing from Afghanistan, whatever the public postures.

President Karzai would have difficulty surviving in Kabul without US protection.

Iran would be happy to watch the Americans embroiled in crises and not, with pruned numbers, comfortable and settled in their bases. Would Pakistan like to lose its “frontline” status with the US depending on supply routes through its territory and those billions of dollars. On current showing, relations between Washington and Islamabad are hopelessly bad. Can they sort out the rules of engagement, a prohibition in unilateral military action which includes drone attack?

Russians too have tossed their hat in the ring. They are willing to open up Lenin’s birth place, Ulyanovsk, as a supply base for the Americans so that they remain pinned down in Afghanistan and end poppy cultivation in Helmand because Russia has become not just a transit route for drugs but also an end consumer. This could also be the Russian olive branch to the US for balance of power because Moscow probably feels uncomfortable playing second fiddle when Moscow and Beijing move in concert as at the UN recently.

Yes, there will be some withdrawal agenda discussed in Chicago but the real policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan will only be delineated when the new administration takes charge in Washington in November.

# # # # # #

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cool Syria To Focus On Afghanistan In Chicago

Cool Syria To Focus On Afghanistan In Chicago
                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

Let me jump the gun on the global pundits. The great charge on Damascus is about to be called off, sorry toned down.

Why is the Syrian story taking this turn? For several reasons.

There is a tide in the affairs of nations. This tide, for good or bad, was speedily taken at a flood in Libya primarily by the French and the British, egged on by Qatar and Riyadh. The Americans came late but Hillary Clinton will be remembered for her remark in Tripoli. “I came, I saw and he died.” This, when Qaddafi had been murdered in the most ghastly fashion, sodomized by a knife, then shot. Or was he shot first?

Whatever Libya’s future (who cares)? The expedition was launched with lightening speed. NATO, which has sent a punitive bill to Riyadh and Qatar, did a fine job, quite worth the rental.

In the flush of victory at Tripoli, the victorious gang though of replicating it in Damascus. The two situations could not have been more dissimilar.

The ruling cliques in the Arab world hated Qaddafi because he taunted them as poodles of the West. It was this kind of bluster that caused the Saudi King to scream at him across the table at an Arab summit at Sharm el sheikh: “Kalb”, which means dog!

Qaddafi was unique because he was the only point of convergence for Riyadh and Teheran. The Iranians disliked him for two reasons: he competed with them, often upping the ante on the Palestinian issue which the Iranians would rather keep as their monopoly. Above all, the Iranians nursed a grievance on the disappearance of Shia cleric Musa Sadr over Libya in the 80s.

After Ben Ali and Mubarak had fallen and Yemen and Bahrain were in convulsions, king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia returned after medical treatment in Europe and saw an unrecognizably altered neighbourhood. He was furious that Ben Ali and Mubarak had been allowed to go and swore that not a single monarchy or Sheikhdom will be allowed to fall, “peoples power” be damned!

At this stage the Israeli stand was: “since 1973 our border with Syria has been the most peaceful.”

It was Riyadh, now holding Qatar’s had as well, which persuasively developed two plots.

Israel’s Iranian focus will dim unless the Iran, Syria, Hezbullah, Hamas nexus is broken by wrenching Syria away from the quartet.

Secondly, Shias had to be projected as a threat to mobilize the Sunni Arab world on a sectarian plank. Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait all had huge Shia populations. Iraq and Bahrain had overwhelming Shia majorities.

In this theme too there was a Syrian angle. Although the Alawis and Christians formed only 20 percent of the population (the majority being Sunnis), they formed the bulk of the army. In their belief (very tepid belief because primarily they are secular Baathists) they are more like Shias and this has been something of an irritant to the majority Sunnis which occasionally erupts as in Hama in 1982 and stoked elsewhere more recently.

In the absence of a Security Council Resolution, the strategy of lending external support to malcontents in the country has proved time consuming. Also, French, Qatari and Turkish officers have been held well inside Syrian territory, much to the embarrassment Paris, Ankar and Qatar.

Notice, there is total silence from French officials. In the GCC, the Saudis are probably not exerting as much pressure. Otherwise, why would the UAE intercede with Damascus for the release of Qataris.

Lack of progress on the Syrian front has been accompanied by the anti Iranian rhetoric rising to a crescendo. The “attack Iran” chant has one effect on the GCC Sheikhdoms: buy more defensive weapons, at the same time seek back channel peace.

Gradually, it may well be sinking into the Riyadh establishment that continuous TV attention on Syrian protesters could well be the cause of aggravated public anger in Bahrain and oil rich, Shia dominated areas like Qatif in Saudi Arabia.

Turkish Prime Minister Tyyep Erdogan’s recent meetings in Teheran with supreme leader Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad must be seen to be bringing down regional temperatures.

Remember, it is President Barak Obama’s political requirement to have a calm Middle East so that he can keep a steady gaze on Afghanistan the country on which the NATO Summit in Chicago must focus in May in ways that it is useful for his re election in November.

#          #          #          #          #          #         

Friday, April 6, 2012

Best Wishes On Zardari’s Journey To Ajmer

Best Wishes On Zardari’s Journey To Ajmer
                                                                             Saeed Naqvi

At a time when Hafiz Saeed and others of his intolerant ilk appear to be determining the tempo of Pakistan’s Islamic fervor, it is important to note that Asif Zardari’s pilgrimage is to the shrine of Sufi Saint Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti, in Ajmer where devotees have for centuries been both Muslims and non Muslims.

Most people do not know that the famous “langar” or “prasada” cooked for thousands of pilgrims is vegetarian. Also, it does not have ingredients like onions and garlic to which some Hindu sects are averse. The idea is that the “prasada” must be acceptable to all who visit the shrine.

Zardari is not the only Ajmer bound devotee. Numerous leaders from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and numerous Muslim countries generally visit Ajmer or Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia’s shrine in Delhi. His Guru Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki’s shrine in Mehrauli. The “do gaz zameen” or two yards of land that the last Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar yearned for is next to the Mehrauli shrine.

So fertile was the land of India to a compatible spiritual idea that Islam mushroomed across the length and breadth of the country so rapidly because of the Sufis. It was organically a part of both, Sufi influences as well as customs and life styles of the area where this interaction took place.

For instance the Mapillas or the Muslims along the Kerala coastline, retained Arabic as well native Keralite traditions in language, music, marriage customs, food and almost every sphere of life. The best speaker of Malyalam in Kerala Assembly was Mohammad Koya. This at a time when stalwarts like E.M.S. Namboodiripad decorated Kerala’s political landscape.

The edict that the language of Quran, namely Arabic, was the language of God was first challenged in Kerala. It was in Kozhikode that I saw the first copy of a “Malyalam Quran”

It was practical commonsense to make the words of the Quran accessible to those who do not know Arabic. Confining the Quran only to those conversant with Arabic would appear to be restrictive.

The audacious Urdu poet Yaas Yagana Changezi asked the question quite bluntly:
“Samajh mein kuch naheen aata;
Parhey jaaney sey kya haasil?
Namazon mein hain kuch maani
To pardesi Zuban kyon ho?”
(What will you gain by reciting verses you do not understand?
If Namaz-prayer-has any meaning, why should it be in a foreign language?)

In far flung parts of rural India Sufis set up their ashrams, Khankahs or hospices. This enabled them to transmit to the common people what Malthew Arnold called the “high seriousness”, which in this case was distilled from major Sufi thinkers like Ibn Arabi who wrote extensively on the oneness of Being.

Conversations with the Sajjada Nashin of Dewa Sharif, on the outskirts of Lucknow, Hazrat Waris Shah or with Naim Ata Shah of Jais in Rae Bareli are remarkable examples of Sufism simplified for common, sometimes uneducated people.

Asked why he never said his “namaz”, Waris Shah, laughed: “There is no space between me and my God to go down in prayer.” What he was trying to say was simple: He is in me. This must not be misunderstood that he discouraged Namaz. Not at all. The courtyard of Dewa were filled with ramazis at the appropriate hours. Shah Sahib was making a point in his inimitable style.

Naim Ata Shah derived from the 16th century author of Padmavat, Malik Mohammad Jaisi, whose writing is replete with Hindu imagery. There is no Urdu poet who was not influenced by the Sufis. The rapid growth of Islam in India was due to the generous adoption of local cultural motifs and festivals like Holi, Deepawali, Dussehra by the Sufis.

Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, Shah Wali Ullah, right upto the clergy at Darul Uloom, Deoband, have been puritanical, reform movements, attempting to cleanse sub continental Islam of exactly the influences which are at the heart of our composite culture.

These reform movements are active in India and have the patronage of politicians bereft of any aesthetics. But in Pakistan the movements have declared Jehad on the soft Islam, soaked in sub continental Sufism. That is why Asif Zaradari deserves every ones best wishes for his journey to Ajmer.

#          #          #          #          #          #