Friday, February 24, 2017

Carnage At Qalandar Shrine: The Shia, Sunni, Sufi Triangle

Carnage At Qalandar Shrine: The Shia, Sunni, Sufi Triangle
                                                                                                 Saeed Naqvi

Audiences in their hundreds of thousands across the subcontinent will remember Reshma with her flashing eyes and haunting, gypsy voice singing “Dama dum mast qalandar”. Well, that’s the Dhamaal signature tune. It was the punchline of this song which had become controversial when President Zia ul Haq set Pakistani Islam on a course of Arabization in the 80s in order to wrench it away from the syncretic Islam which hundreds of Sufi schools had established in India since the 13th century. “If Iran imbibes Indian culture, it will still remain Iran, but if Pakistan retains Indian traditions, it will over time become India.” That was the General’s warped reasoning.

The suicide attack on the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in Sindh, which killed nearly 100 devotees last week, is unlikely to dampen the Dhamaal spirit, the ecstatic dance performed in the shrine’s courtyard at dusk every Thursday to the magical rhythm of drums. Nazir Akbarabadi has a brilliant poem on “haal” or trance. It describes perfectly the transcendent dance at Dhamaal. Terrorism is too feeble an instrument to kill the idea.

The punchline of the Mast Qalandar song is “Ali da pehla number” which means “Ali is first”. This, unfortunately, touches on the principal point of difference between Shias and Sunnis. Shias believe that the prophet’s son-in-law, Ali should have been the first inheritor of the Prophet’s worldly and spiritual responsibilities, the Caliphate. Sunnis accept what actually happened: the Prophet’s senior companion, Abu Bakr Siddiq became the first Caliph of Islam.

To avoid further controversies, the punchline was amended. It became “Ali dum dum de andar”, or Ali is in every breath.

The two sects cite different traditions to advance their claims. The Shias point to the episode of Ghadir Khumm. Returning from his last Haj, the prophet stopped at an elevated spot in Ghadir, held Ali by the hand and announced to the congregation that they must respect Ali’s primacy after the Prophet’s death.

While creating Qawwali as a devotional form of music, Amir Khusro dressed up this episode as a compulsory Qaul or declaration of faith to be sung at the start of every Qawwali session. Google Qawwali and search “Mun Kunto Maula, Fahaza Ali Maula”, (Roughly translated it means: he who considers me his spiritual and temporal leader must accord the same status to Ali).

It is an open and shut case, claim the Shias. The prophet had publicly passed the baton to Ali.

Sunnis advance their claim differently: when the Prophet was fatally ill, he asked his companion Abu Bakr to lead the Friday prayers.

Why are Shia-Sunni differences being explained in the context of an attack on the Sindh Sufi shrine? Because in popular perception there is a lack of clarity on the Shia, Sunni, Sufi triangle.

Sufi saints were all of Sunni origin as are the overwhelming majority of devotees at their shrines. There will be a sizeable number of Hindu and a sprinkling of others.

If most of those in attendance at shrines like Shahbaz Qalandar are Sunnis why would Jihadist Salafis, who are also Sunni, kill them so brutally. Islamic State claimed “credit” for the carnage in Sindh. The IS, let it be clarified, is an amalgam of Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood, offshoots of Al Qaeda, Jabhat al Nusra and dispossessed Baathists from Iraq now standing on a militant, Sunni platform because post Saddam Hussain Baghdad is largely in Shia hands. In other words each component of IS may have different emphases but together they form a critical mass.

The harsh Salafi disapproval, even visceral hatred for Sufis, can be explained in broad terms: the Sufi incorporation of music, dance, local customs into their practice of Islam. Also, their acceptance of people of all faiths, castes, their general Catholicism, contrast sharply from the arid austerities of the Salafis. But this does not fully explain the intensity of their anger. This is focused on the personality of Ali who is the centerpiece of Sufi ritual.

Ali, as I have mentioned earlier, is the main point of contention between Shias and Sunnis. After the coming of the Ayatullahs in Iran, the Arab-Ajam, Saudi-Iranian antipathies began to determine the geo-politics of the Arab world.

In this churning, Israel and Saudi Arabia have, overtime, become strategic partners. Partly as a result of Saudi clout in the region, the Palestinian issue has lost saliency: Shia-Sunni was promoted as the fundamental faultline. At a recent lecture in Oslo, Henry Kissinger said it in so many words: the defining issue in the Arab world is not Palestinian homeland but the Shia-Sunni conflict.

If the West, Israel and Saudi Arabia are on the same page on what is increasingly being described as the central faultline in the Arab world, namely the Shia-Sunni divide, what does one make of the Sunni Salafi suicide bomber, sometimes wearing the IS cap, on a relentless spree of murder and mayhem? On whose side is the West? It must be added, in parenthesis, that no suicide bomber has ever been identified as a Shia. Mysteriously, this fact has never been highlighted by the western media, currently under severe pressure to arrest its plummeting credibility.

In the Indian sub continent, the Shia, Sunni, Sufi triangle has its own dynamics. From the Delhi Sultanate right upto the last Moghul, rulers had Central Asian antecedents with a sprinkling of Persian, Shia elite in key positions.

This may have been one enabling factor for most the regional Muslim dynasties being Shia Bahmani Sultanate, Sharqi, Berar, Bidar, Qutub Shahi, Adil Shahi, Awadh Nawabi, Najafi Nawabs of Bengal, Nawab of Murshidabad and Rampur.

All these came under the cultural influence of Iran which has an abiding respect for its Zoroastrian past. Shias of the subcontinent, like the Parsis, celebrate Navroz, the Persian New Year.

The catchment areas of these Kingdoms and Nawabis were fertile ground for Sufi schools to take root. In Awadh Holi, Basant, Diwali, Krishna, Radha, Rama were incorporated into Sufi songs. Mohsin Kakorvi’s celebration of the Prophet’s birthday invokes Ganga, Jamuna and Krishna. Maulana Hasrat Mohani belonged to a school which respected Krishna as God’s messenger. His numerous poems on Radha and Krishna are high points of Sufi mysticism. All Urdu poets are of a Sufi bent. There is not a single line in the annals of Urdu poetry supportive of the hapless Mullah.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Excessive Aversion To Russia: Western Intelligence May Be Exposed

Excessive Aversion To Russia: Western Intelligence May Be Exposed
                                                                                      Saeed Naqvi

Why Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn had to leave within 23 days of being appointed to the post will remain something of a whodunit.

Equally puzzling is the extraordinary lengths to which the Washington Establishment particularly the Intelligence community, with the media in tow, are going to muddy the waters for any possible rapprochement with Moscow.

It is elementary that Washington, Moscow and Beijing, the three points on the global strategic triangle would, over the coming years, exert themselves to keep the other two points as far away from each other as possible.

In this regard the advantage at present is clearly not with Washington. The level of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing increased substantially this week: a six nation summit on Afghanistan was hosted in Moscow on Wednesday. Tehran, New Delhi and Kabul also participated. This was an advance on an earlier meeting last month when on Moscow, Beijing, Pakistan floated the idea, much to Kabul’s chagrin, that Taleban should be enlisted to fight the Islamic state which threatened all of central Asia, the Russian Caucasus and Xinjiang.

At his press conference, Trump described the Islamic State as “a cancer” which is spreading far and wide. Surely there is a case for a Washington-Moscow dialogue?

Even otherwise, for Washington to stabilize the strategic triangle to its advantage, some goodwill with Moscow would be required. Why, then, this frenetic group action to block moves with Moscow?

The problem may well be in Syria where Russia is heavily involved. Also, Iraq, Libya, Yemen are all theatres where Western (and not just American) Intelligence agencies have been playing dubious roles. I have repeatedly written about former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, being chastised in the British Parliament for unauthorized action in Libya. His running spat on that score with his army Chief, Gen. David Richards has been chronicled in detail.

British Intelligence is therefore quite as nervous as its American counterpart on what Trump, unbriefed on all their hokey-pokey, might end up unearthing. Marine General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned a Congressional hearing that “sharing intelligence with Syria would be unwise”.

Can the US and Russia cooperate in Syria to combat jihadists without sharing intelligence? There’s the rub. Russians muscled their way into Syria on the ostensible understanding that they would jointly fight terrorist groups like Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State.

This was easier said than done. The Syrian cauldron was bubbling over with militants of all shapes and sizes. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s Special Representative in Damascus during the earlier phase of the conflict, listed “64 different groups” fighting the Syrian government.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, UK, France and the US poured in men, money and arms for rebels, both mercenary as well as Syrians. In Afghanistan the manufacture of Jihadist Islam was more orderly; in Syria it was a potpourri of every conceivable variety of jihadists, trained and guided by western intelligence.

Since the agencies and the media had more or less lined up behind Hillary Clinton during the campaign, no credence was given to Trump’s allegation that “Obama and Clinton helped create the ISIS”. It may be easy to dismiss Trump considering the non figure he has been reduced to now. But what does one make of President Barack Obama’s interview to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in August 2014? Asked why he did not nip ISIS in the bud when it first reared its head, Obama replied “that would have taken the pressure off (Iraqi Premier) Nouri al Maliki”. So, at one stage, IS was an asset.

Nouri al Maliki was in bad odour with the Americans because he had refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with the US. This would have left the considerable US presence in Iraq exposed. Moreover, Maliki’s overtly pro Shia policies angered the otherwise secular former Baathists to reinvent themselves as militant Sunnis. Their militancy was sharpened by “elements” from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These were off shoots of Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The admission by Obama was not very different from the offer made in July 2013 by Prince Bandar bin Sultan to Putin in the Kremlin: have a terror free Winter Olympics at Sochi, but help us replace Bashar al Assad.

So, when Trump thumps the table, “I shall bomb the shit out of the terrorists”, the statement sends shivers down many spines in Riyadh, Doha, Ankara, Washington, London and Paris: each one of these capitals have either “assets” or finger prints all over Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. No real coordination with Moscow is possible on key West Asian theatres without exposing a great deal.

To bring the wheel full circle, US ambassador to Damascus (2011 to 2014) Robert Stephen Ford is slowly brought into focus on CNN’s Christiane Amanpur show. It is about him that a former US diplomat to the Arab World, Lionel Edward Peck wrote: “I have been dismayed by the accolades and support given to Ambassador Ford, our man in – and now out of Syria, for stepping well out of the traditional and appropriate role of a diplomat and actively encouraging the revolt/insurrection/sectarian strife/outside meddling, call it what you will. It is easy to imagine the US reaction if an ambassador from anywhere were to engage in even distantly related activities here. I fear my country remains somewhat more than merely insensitive, and is sliding into plain rampant and offensive arrogance”.

On the CNN show Ford was predictable. “There is no quick fix to the Syrian tragedy”, he said. Too many details have to be sorted out.

The only tangible foreign affairs story from the White House emerged during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s joint press conference with Trump. “We are very old friends” declared Netanyahu and warmly greeted Jared Kushner, son in law and adviser to the President. Kushner is Jewish and has known Netanyahu. This personal detail does put a certain spin on the Syrian story.

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Kejriwal’s Punjab Victory Will Alter Course Of Indian Politics

Kejriwal’s Punjab Victory Will Alter Course Of Indian Politics
                                                                                 Saeed Naqvi

The emerging consensus that there is a wave in favour of AAP in Punjab is terrible news for the BJP and Congress, not because they will have lost the election but because the road ahead will become that much more difficult.

The image of Narendra Modi, after reversals in this round of election, will have lost sheen irretrievably. The euphoria his victory in May 2014 general elections had generated should have begun to evaporate after two successive AAP victories in Delhi in December 2013 and February 2015, the RJD-JDU victory in Bihar followed by BJP defeats in the 2016 assembly elections in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry. These did not appear to demoralize him. But defeat in key states in the current round will create internal restiveness and aggravate the political effects of demonetisation.

For the Congress, AAP’s further rise spells an existential danger. Its inability to reclaim lost ground in the Northern states will begin to look like a pitiable reality, exactly as the visage of the Gandhi-Nehru parivar will. Holding onto Akhilesh Yadav’s coat tails in UP will carry neither Rahul nor the Congress very far.

That Priyanka Gandhi may give the party a helping hand at a critical juncture is a hope some peripheral Congress leaders nurse. If her behavior were anything to go by, she is by some accounts, in indifferent health and cannot focus even on Rahul and Sonia Gandhi’s constituencies, Amethi and Rae Bareli, which have been assigned to her for safe keeping. But she clearly has a tremendous sense of survival. There were fears during the 2014 general elections that these seats would be swept away in the Modi wave. That her mother and brother may not be in the next Parliament was an unnerving prospect. She stiffened her sinews and in two weeks of campaigning ensured success for her sibling and her mother. She has talent but, apparently, is short on stamina.

There are several reasons for the Congress’s expected defeat. Among the reasons is the habitual delay in naming the Chief Ministerial candidate. Amrinder Singh was projected as CM far too late in the day.

Congressmen murmur but never actually say that the Congress President will not project anybody who might have the potential of eclipsing the family, particularly Rahul. I am not implying Amrinder specifically but there are instances.

I have always maintained that in 2014 Delhi Chief Minister Sheilah Dikshit may well have come up trumps in the state had the party High Command by hint or gesture talked of her in Prime Ministerial terms. Remember the state victory would have been her fourth in a row. Her late husband had been a popular IAS officer; she had been a minister in the Prime Minister’s office.

Instead of these credentials being advertised, something that would have enthused the cadres, the High Command demonstrated hostile indifference. Dikshit lost. That was the beginning of Kejriwal and AAP.

It is now ofcourse too late in the day for any movement towards fulfillment of Sonia Gandhi’s dream of crowning Rahul as Prime Minister. What future for the party Vice President who is now playing second fiddle to Akhilesh in Lucknow?

During the Panchmarhi conclave of the Congress in September 1998, senior leaders Kamal Nath, Arjun Singh and Jitendra Prasad had refused to see the writing on the wall: they had shot down a proposal that the Congress must seek alliances for survival.

“No” they said “we must recover the social base lost to the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.” By what feat was this goal to be achieved?

Chandrajit Yadav and Rajesh Pilot (Sachin Pilot’s father) cried themselves hoarse: “in the present circumstances, there is no alternative to alliances.”

What irony, then, that 18 years after Sonia Gandhi shot down alliances at the Panchmarhi conclave, an alliance has been forged in UP precisely with a party which was anathema to party leaders who are even today part of the Sonia coterie.

The BJP and the Congress would not have been in the state of funk in which they are today had they defeated each other in the contest. As the third force called AAP rises from Delhi to Punjab, making inroads in Goa too, the demoralization of the congress in states like Rajasthan will become palpable as results start coming on March 11.

Corporates, comfortable with alternating between Congress and the BJP will now have to find new ways of placing their bets.

In anticipation of the Punjab results, Kejriwal has already immersed himself in the Delhi Corporation elections due in two months.

What must cause considerable disquiet to the Modi-Amit Shah duet is AAP targeting Gujarat. To make matters worse Hardik Patel, the Patidar icon, is already positioning himself in that state as a Shiva Sena leader.

Despite the chaos attending demonetization, Modi was able to prove one thing: he could make the country stand outside its banks without any leader being able to ignite a revolt. Things will change now. The momentum behind Kejriwal and Akhilesh will make Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad and others look like a muscular array of regional forces. Where Rahul fits into this arrangement only time will tell.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hints Of New World Order Must Await Tillerson-Lavrov Meeting

Hints Of New World Order Must Await Tillerson-Lavrov Meeting
                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi

Pundits in Washington are beginning to hope for continuity in US foreign policy under Donald Trump. For their optimism, they are falling back on hints from the new administration.

Look, they say, Israel is being warned to curb settlement construction; Russians must withdraw from Crimea; Iran is on notice: no more missile tests.

If this, indeed, were true then the skirmishes between the Intelligence community and the Trump campaign which continued well into the President’s inauguration, would appear to have been settled in favour of the agencies, the Deep State, with the media in tow.

If the Washington Pundits are anywhere near the truth, it may please them to know they are in company. Syrian President Bashar al Assad declared a week ago that he expected “no change in US policy towards Middle East”.

What then does one make of the allegation which Trump repeated atleast since August, 2016: “Obama and Hillary founded ISIS?” This reporter has written several stories since 2012 about US ambassador in Damascus, Robert Stephen Ford, a great favourite of Hillary Clinton’s, playing an overt role in the Syrian insurgency. Some of it was eye witness account.

More recently, Trump has reiterated that he hopes for friendlier relations with Putin. He looked forward to greater cooperation with Moscow in managing the chaos in West Asia.

Is there a contradiction between this line and the new US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley warning Moscow on Crimea?

These are significant signals but they will be fitted into coordinated policy only after the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, finds his feet in the State Department. Until then even National Security Adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn’s tough statement on Iran must be seen as premature. It may point to some turf fights that will keep the White House abuzz for sometime.

Serious games will begin when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and Tillerson hold their first meeting.

If there is to be anything resembling goodwill between Washington and Moscow, Lavrov will have to acquaint Tillerson with a great deal of what Moscow has been doing recently.

Libya, for instance. Moscow has been coordinating policy with Egypt to control a country with more than one power centre.

On December 20, Foreign Ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Moscow to discuss Syria. The US was managing its transition during this period. The meeting was followed by a joint air campaign by Russia and Turkey against the Islamic State. The summit in Moscow was preceded by the dramatic killing of the Russian ambassador in the Turkish capital, Ankara.

Maronite Christian leader, Michael Aoun’s election as President of Lebanon would not have been possible without Hezbullah’s help. For this development too the credit goes to Syria, Iran and Russia.

Yemen will be a test for the Trump administration. Will he continue to support Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in the Arab World’s poorest country? Who knows, in the interest of American prosperity, he may like to encourage Saudis to spend their last penny buying US arms.

An important meeting, which caught New Delhi on the wrong foot, was the Russia, China, Pakistan conclave in Moscow focused on the future of Afghanistan. National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval’s subsequent visit to Moscow covered this development. He must supervise a new regional strategy before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to St. Petersburg in early June. The Moscow meeting on Afghanistan places a huge question mark on US expenditure in blood and treasure in that country over the past 12 years. Taleban, whom the US has been fighting all these years, are now to be enlisted in the war against the Islamic State and various offshoots of Al Qaeda. Russian Caucasus and Xinjiang are menaced by this, expanding variants of Islamist militancy. Taleban are a regional force spread on two sides of the Durand line. This must be a source of worry for Islamabad. The President of Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has cancelled military exercises with the US. He has held out a hand to Moscow and Beijing.

This is just some of the agenda Tillerson has to prepare himself for. To begin with, he will have to digest the implications of a ban on seven Muslim dominated countries to travel to the US.

Iran being listed among Muslim countries on whom the ban applies, makes no sense unless Trump or those around him are keen to pick a fight with Tehran to please Riyadh and Jerusalem. No act of terrorism in the genre of suicide bombing, has yet been traced to Tehran. Nor does Hezbullah’s unwavering support to the Palestinian cause make it a militant menace. In this devilry, it has Iran’s total backing.

During the campaign, and since, Trump has maintained that he will seek Russian support in “bombing the shit out of Islamic terrorism”. Moscow and Iran are with him on that page, indelicate language notwithstanding.

The contradiction with the Deep State will arise when, in the course of hammering Islamic terrorism, White House does not make allowance for militants who were trained and harboured as a western asset. That will require a case by case bargaining.

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