Saturday, August 25, 2012

Study of Shiasm Required To Read Iranian Mind

Study of Shiasm Required To Read Iranian Mind

                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

When I returned from Teheran after the Ayatullahs had securely entrenched themselves, the New Delhi Bureau Chief of the New York Times asked me with touching innocence: “Who are Shias?” In other words, a foreign correspondent from as respected a publication as NYT did not in the eighties know Shias as a sect distinct from, say, Sunnis. Attitudes based on such a lack of knowledge at the very outset have been aggravated by a diligent denial of diplomatic contact.

However warped the Iranian revolution may seem to some, it must be conceded that all revolutions are accompanied by atleast a degree of idealism. Although it must also be conceded that the revolutions sometimes degenerate – Robespierre after the French revolution, for instance. The “idealism” I refer to (and I must be in a rapidly growing minority on this one) informs what must be a risky conclusion on the nuclear issue. It is no more than a hunch: I am not persuaded that clerical leadership is lying, to its own people since 2006 that it has no weaponization program. Yes, all bets will be off should Iran be attacked.

Just as Judaism, Christianity, Marxism, Islam cannot be understood without reference to the Torah, Bible, Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto and Quran, the Shia mind will remain unintelligible without a perusal of the writings, letters, speeches of Ali, Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law. These have been complied as “Nahjul Balagha” (Peak of Eloquence).

Quite as powerful as Ali’s intellectual persona is a historical event which seers Shia sensibility – Battle of Karbala fought on the banks of the Euphrates in 681AD barely 49 years after the death of Prophet Mohammad. At Karbala, Ali’s second son, Hussain along with 72 members of his family and friends, were cornered on the banks of the river, by the armies of the Omayyid Caliph, Yazid. He sought Hussain’s endorsement for his rule which, Hussain asserted, violated Islam’s basic teachings of truth, harmony and an egalitarian order. Husain, his brother, sons and friends were “martyred”; the ladies, including, the Prophet’s granddaughter, Zainab, were taken prisoners. The tragedy shocked the world which was increasingly becoming conversant with a dynamic new religious movement which, 30 years after Karbala, had crossed the sea from Morocco and established the Andalussian empire in Spain which lasted 800 years.

Later, the Fatamids were to rule, Sicily, Tunisia and Cairo. It is no longer part of contemporary consciousness that Moharram processions in the memory of Hussain’s martyrdom were a regular feature in 9th – 10th century Palermo, capital of Sicily. It is also not remembered that Al Azhar University in Cairo derives from Fatima Zehra, Prophet’s daughter and Ali’s wife.

There is no dispute among Muslims on Ali’s intellectual caliber or Hussain’s martyrdom. The differences centre around the succession which followed the Prophet’s death.

This cursory background is required before we plunge headlong into real or manufactured sectarian strife among Muslims. Acquaintance with facts will discourage those who are already making numerical comparisons of the principal sects. It is a mind boggling exercise if you add the Zaidis in Yemen and Sufis from Sudan to Timbuktu and an endless chain of diversity in unity, to reverse Nehru’s words.

Reverting to Iran, principal influences on the Iranian people and their clergy may provide some clues to their mind set too. Is there, for instance, a difference in Iranian response to external provocation from most nations conditioned by Realpolitic?

How would you expect Iran to reach out to the United States which has by choice never had diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic? The British broke ranks and opened an embassy in Teheran in 1998 when Mohammad Ahmad Khatami was President. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited the country. But Tony Blair was unable to withstand pressure from George W. Bush and relations were snapped again when David Reddaway was rejected by Teheran as London’s ambassador on charges of being a spy.

True the US in its history has never suffered the humiliation it did when Iranians, in the grip of Islamic fervour, held US diplomats hostage in their embassy for 444 days. The Iranian explanation is that they feared a CIA directed coup because the dethroned Shah had been received in Washington with full honours. Memories of the 1953 coup which ousted Prime Minister Mosaddegh had not quite faded by 1979.

Despite diplomatic untouchability that the US practiced with Iran, secret efforts at establishing contacts were not given up. Take, for example, The Iran-Contra affair of the eighties when National Security Adviser Poindexter in secret briefings referred to the Speaker of Iranian Majlis Hashemi Rafsanjani as America’s “high level contact” in Teheran.

It is common knowledge that in the 2004 elections Rafsanjani was the West’s favoured candidate, a fact authenticated by Christiane Amanpour’s much advertised interview with him, totally ignoring the other candidate, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. In 2009, West’s support for Mir Hussain Mousavi (also backed by Rafsanjani) was equally open.

A person who would know a great deal about the undercurrents in US-Iran non-relations is Zalmay Khalilzad. He was posted to Kabul as ambassador during the US occupation post 9/11. Part of his mandate was to keep the Iranians on board.

He was rewarded by being posted to the Green Zone in Baghdad where, again, Iranian influence had to be managed. Khalilzad outlined a fairly comprehensive agenda to be taken up with Teheran. But the neo cons in Washington (of whom he was once a part) rapped him on the knuckles. Washington would only discuss the nuclear issue, he was told. Teheran backed off.

And now, as the non aligned congregate in Teheran, there just may be a chance for both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Egypt’s Mohammad Morsi to do something, possibly form a group which can narrow the distance between Washington and Teheran.

Do backroom work now. Although time for its fruition may only come after the US elections in November.

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mecca Summit: Peace Initiative Or One-Upmanship

Mecca Summit: Peace Initiative Or One-Upmanship

                                                                                      Saeed Naqvi

At the emergency OIC summit in Mecca, Iran’s President Ahmedinejad, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s foreign Policy Adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, President’s senior adviser Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi, Head of Presidential office Esfandiar Rahim Mashaee, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi were all present.

Did King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia host such a high powered Iranian delegation simply to hand them an insult in a gold salver: that the OIC seeks Syria’s suspension? There are two other tepid resolutions supporting Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar and Palestinians.

Sheikhdoms, monarchies (with open western support) have worked themselves to a frenzy over Syria but Saudi Arabia cannot allow itself the luxury of blind rage. It has a leadership position and its stakes in the West Asia game are much higher. Since the death of successive Crown Princes Sultan bin Abdel Aziz in October 2011 and Naef bin Abdel Aziz in June 2012, intimations of mortality are knocking at the doors of a series of prospective successors. King Abdullah himself was in hospital in Europe when the Arab Spring disturbed his convalescence. In February 2011 he returned and took charge.

He faces dissensions at home. There have been unconfirmed reports that Saudi Spy Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been assassinated. In the absence of any official Saudi confirmation or denial, speculation and innuendo are rife. Former Chief of India’s External intelligence Agency and Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Vikram Sood says: “What must have stunned the Saudi government into silence was not just that Bandar was killed but that the Syrians had the reach to strike deep in Saudi Arabia.”

Also, there is growing restiveness in the kingdom’s oil bearing and predominantly Shia eastern province. Demonstrations have also been reported from Riyadh.

The Western media has been predicting the fall of Bashar al Assad for the past year. An externally induced civil war is on the cards but the collapse of the regime has not materialized. And for obvious reasons. Americans had to occupy Iraq for a decade before bringing about the messy change that is on show now. Syria is a mirror image of the Iraqi power structure prior to American occupation. Why would Syria then collapse by the exertions of well equipped mercenaries and proxies however much of a space they may have made in some Sunni hearts?

None of this is to suggest that the Saudis are about to throw in the towel.

What is quite possible is that a point of divergence may have been reached between the West and the Arabs who have so far coordinated policy on Syria. Ofcourse some in Washington may still be of the view that regime change in Damascus would be a nice trophy to gift President Obama on the eve of his re election. This would also keep the TV cameras away from Afghanistan where the news is bleak and the promised return of troops is not taking place.

To please some in the West, a possible result may already have been achieved in West Asia: quarrelling Muslim Societies, too self absorbed to worry about Israel or Palestine. But a prolonged sectarian strife may not be entirely to Saudi Arabia’s liking. It has its own oil rich Eastern province to worry about. Dammam, the centre of this province, is directly linked by a 37 km causeway to the troubled Kingdom of Bahrain with its 80 percent Shia population in revolt against the Sunni King. Bahrain is home to the United States 5th fleet and a holiday resort for the Saudis tired of their own institutionalized austerities.

Any evaluation of Shia politics in the region would be flawed until it takes into account the considerable influence that the holy city of Najaf exerts on Baghdad, Teheran, the Hezbullah and the majority of Bahrainis.

For several years the whispered demand in Najaf has been to end the “repression” of Bahrain’s Shias.

When the infection of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt reached Bahrain, there was some confusion in the ranks of the demonstrators, Shias and Sunnis, who at first had even mounted photographs of Mahatma Gandhi to guide their peaceful protest.

Last year a road map towards a shared future was hammered out between US envoy Jeffrey Feltman, Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa and a young Shia leader much admired in Najaf, Sheikh Ali Salman.

This threatened the power of Prime Minister Khalifa Ibn Salman al Khalifa who happens to be the King’s brother. By this time the Prime Minister’s friend and hardline Saudi, Crown Prince Naef was in control in Riyadh. He ordered Armoured Personnel Carriers to rumble down the causeway linking Dammam to Bahrain, inaugurating a phase of endless demonstrations and brutal police repression.

That is why there has to be more to the presence of a high powered delegation from Iran (everybody except the Supreme leader himself) than the statements that have been put out in the public domain.

Is the Feltman plan or something like it being revived in Bahrain? And is something similar being planned for Syria? Remember, the hard line Prince Naef is not around and King Abdullah, emotionally drained, has always been known to be pragmatic. The proposed centre in Riyadh for dialogue between Muslim sects is a conciliatory step. As is Bahrain’s decision to reinstate its ambassador to Teheran.

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Jingoistic Ads At Olympics In Absence of Indian Stars

Jingoistic Ads At Olympics In Absence of Indian Stars

                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

The other day, watching Olympics on TV, fear possessed me: I was seeing double. The screen was covered with Chinese, American and Japanese athletes, in that order, flashing their gold, silver and bronze. But in the blink of an eye, the image changed and the screen was filled with the face of an Indian anchor, well groomed and earnest. “Aaj Uncha hai hamara sar, gaurav se” (Our heads are high with pride.)

Pride for what? I asked myself. Had the producers of the programme presented by the anchor fallen back on the simple trick: If you can’t beat them, join them. Or was it some sort of transcendental generosity, a priceless capacity to share the joy of others.

I willingly suspended disbelief because that morning I had read a mean minded report by one Jere Longman on page one of the International Herald Tribune.

He was reporting on the sensational feat of the 16 year old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen.

Professionalism demanded a thunderous applause from sports scribes across the globe. But the headline given to Longman’s disgraceful report, takes ones breath away:
“Ye Shiwen, 16, Shatters World Record But Specter Of Doping Casts Shadow.” And there is no official doping allegation even by a long shot.

Longman fishes all around the stadium for expert views to endorse his prejudice. In the process he asks Michael Phelps, one of the greatest swimmers of all times. Phelps’ response was proper: “She almost outswam me. We were all pretty shocked. It’s pretty impressive that she went that fast.”

Not satisfied, Longman ends up with John Leonard, an American who is executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association.

Ye’s performance was “disturbing”, Leonard said. Hitler’s attitude towards Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was put down to racism. How does one explain Longman and Leonard’s attitude towards Ye Shiwen?

At the other end of the scale, how does one explain the Indian anchor ecstatic at the performance of non Indian athletes? This, it turns out, was a huge misunderstanding on my part. The image on TV had jumped rather abruptly from the Olympics arena to the Indian anchor who was not ecstatic at “non-Indian” medal winners. He was talking of Indian athletes but he was putting a cheerful spin on poor performances, even on a woman high jumper who came 29th in a list of 32, and the hockey team which came last. His refrain was “how well have Indians fought”. That most of the Indian contingent were below the halfway a mark in the rankings list did not matter.

It was sad enough to see anchors across all channels celebrate four medals (not one gold) but it was downright embarrassing having prime time TV blaring the hollow chant:
“Is baar tiranga London
mein phaeraayenge!
Jai Hind.” (Tricolor will cover the skies over London)

Imagine, slogans of this character on 24X7 channels, stoking nationalism on false expectations. Oh the despair that would follow!

The secret was always known to the ad agencies that London Olympics would have combined viewership on ESPN, Star and Doordarshan of over 100 million. Compared to the Rs.7.6 crores (1.37 million dollars) that Doordarshan earned from ads during the Beijing Olympic, the broadcaster has already sold in excess of R.17 crores (3.07 million dollars).

It is interesting to compare the cost of, say, 10 second slots for Olympics and international cricketing events. For cricket the cost is Rs.10 Lakhs (18,000 dollars) per 10 seconds, whereas comparable Olympic slots are for Rs.20,000 (360 dollars).

In cricket, the viewership is guaranteed. But Hero Motocorp. Tata Docomo, Airtel Digital, BMW, Nivea and Samsung have to invoke patriotism and Nationalism, almost bordering on jingoism, to attract viewers.

That brazen nationalism sells, says something about us as a people.

“A healthy nation is unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again.” George Bernard Shaw’s words are a mirror for us. If we are secure in our nationhood, slogans embellishing the Olympic ads will only amuse us. If we are uncertain as a people, such ads will earn profits for the advertiser and, in a different context, votes for the politician.

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Friday, August 3, 2012

The Heavy Burden Of Defying Conventional Wisdom

The Heavy Burden Of Defying Conventional Wisdom

                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi

Friends of mine, whose opinions I value, have in recent months been critical of my reporting on the Arab Spring or its exact opposite. Why am I always out of sync with conventional wisdom? They ask.

These are sympathetic friends who would like me to share with them the arena of intellectual harmony beneath the over arching canopy of conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom is a comfort zone the parameters of which are set by unidentifiable forces above. Discourse must be conducted within these confines, rather like lanes in an Olympic track event. In Islam, you cross the line to the left and you are a heretic, bear right and you are a renegade. The Quran and the Hadith are the reference points against which deviations are to be recorded.

The world of Persian and Urdu poetry is replete with instances of red lines drawn by the Quran-thumping clergy, being violated with impunity. Sarmad, the Faqir saint of the Aurangzeb era, said “La Ilah” (there is no God) and paused; Ghalib thought a Brahmin’s unshakable faith in his “idol” entitled him to an august seat in paradise; Josh Malihabadi culls Satan’s exhortation to the fallen angels, from Paradise Lost, “awake, arise, or be forever fallen”. Josh says:

“Shaitan-O-Abu Jahel ki
Azmat ki Qasam,
Sau baar Ghulami sē
Baghawat behtar!”

Josh applauds Satan’s courage to revolt even against God in preference to blind, obsequious servility.

The lanes set for the management of discourse on current affairs, particularly international politics, has similar red lines, crossing which exposes you to the charge of being a conspiracy theorist.

Just as in Islam the belief system depends on the Quran and the Hadith, conventional wisdom on current affairs in a globalized world is shaped by the media: CNN, BBC, Al Arabia and Al Jazeera. For print, all the columnists resident in the US and Britain have a free ride on the Op-ed pages of many of our mainstream newspapers, conditioning our minds totally on issues like the developments in West Asia, specifically Syria.

The entire media listed above is, by some of their own admission, part of the western effort (via the reliable agencies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) to unseat Bashar al Assad. Why Israel’s name never appears in the list reminds me of Arzoo Lucknowi’s pithy couplet:

“Marg e aashiq pe farishta
Maut ka badnaam tha;
Woh hansi rokey alag
Baitha tha jiska kaam tha!”
(The Angel of death was publicly chastised for the death of one who stood for love. While he who had actually done the deed controlled his laughter in the shadows.)

To revert to the media’s distortions on Syria, a participant at the seminar screamed. “But Al Jazeera has great credibility.”

Yes, that is why it is all the more disturbing that it has played a Mir Jaffer since Libya. This requires explanation.

The Emir of Qatar, oil rich and independent, was never on the same wavelength as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Even though his Sheikhdom is the headquarters for CENTCOM, he took advantage of the BBC pruning its staff and employed them to launch al Jazeera. It was a thorn in the side of the Bush administration, then involved in Afghanistan and Iraq. So livid was the Pentagon, that Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad were bombed. Scholars like Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, ran media campaigns against Al Jazeera. The network’s credibility rose sky high.

The about turn came when King Abdullah returned from convalescence in Europe to find fellow dictators in Tunis and Cairo gone. People’s power, if not checked, would devour all Monarchies unless “all of us clasp each other’s hands”. That is when Al Jazeera traded its credibility to join the regional Jihad. Because of this summersault, the network has been the most effective tool in Libya and Syria.

“Seeing is believing” is the cliché I got myself attached to early in my journalism. It was far sighted of the Think Tank I work for that it enabled me to travel to Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Israel. That is why I have a view which friends bound exclusively to the western media find disconcerting.

Ghalib said “Travel, so that your narrow vision opens up with the abundance of the spectacle”. As Bobby Taleyarkhan always asked, “Do you get me, Steve?”

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