Saturday, April 30, 2011

VIEW: Faisal Shahzad — the (un) true back story

By Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, April 30, 2011

The visiting media (excavation) team who rifled through Faisal Shahzad’s past had hit a brick wall last year. Because he is a naturalised American citizen and the son of a senior Pakistani air force officer, the foreign press must have been just as baffled as their Pakistani counterparts. And since they found little of value in these archaeological expeditions, they gave their terrorist a back story to go with the popular narrative. Putting up the failed Times Square bomber’s upbringing on trial alongside his present probably made it easier to explain this anomaly. If the world they fabricated out of fantasy and myth appeared alien to Pakistanis back home, it is probably because it was.

Faisal, who went through the system without triggering red flags, was depicted as a zombie being drilled in violent Islam and fed anti-western lies as a child, getting in and out of fancy cars followed by a trail of nannies, raised with hate in his heart and murder firmly planted in his subconscious.

To many of us it seemed like they just plopped Mr Shahzad in front of a green screen and ran the standard issue background. But he should not be let off that easy. Fortunately, these fanciful versions can be countered with some cold hard facts. Take for instance the claim that, “Mr Shahzad’s generation grew up in a Pakistan where alcohol had been banned and Islam had been forced into schools and communities as a doctrine and national glue.”

They got the alcohol part right. That is about all.

The New York Times (NYT) asserted that “his school, located on a military base, taught the same rigid curriculum — with an anti-western slant and a strict form of Islamic studies — imposed nationally by General Zia” (‘For Times Sq Suspect, Long Roots of Discontent’, NYT, May 15, 2010).

Wrong again.

It is not just the foreign press that went off course. A week earlier Professor Hoodbhoy had suggested the same thing: “He typifies the young Pakistani who grew up in the shadow of Ziaul Haq’s hate-based education curriculum. The son of a retired air vice marshal, life was easy ...but at some point the toxic schooling and media tutoring must have kicked in” (May 8, 2010).

Had they actually seen this hate-based curriculum/toxic schooling with an anti-western slant and a strict form of Islamic studies in action, they would have been sorely disappointed.

Students ended up believing, among other things, that Pakistan won the 1965 war, that India did not like us very much and the world did. And something about ancient civilisations. Did it have a distinct pro-Pakistan slant? Yes. Did it promote a vicious brand of Islam commonly associated with madrassas? Absolutely not. Besides, Pakistan was fighting a covert war with the allies during Zia’s tenure, so anti-westernism was not an issue. Not then.

‘Outdated, ineffective, insipid, boring’ — there may be a ton of adjectives to describe the educational system but ‘hate-based’ and ‘toxic’ would not be one of them. (These two words do fit the post-9/11 environment though). Several others had gone through the same bland process and come out sane. Faisal’s old neighbours did not see anything for the simple reason that there was nothing to see; ditto for old classmates.

The Pakistan Air Force is known for its liberal outlook and moderate stance and its education system, while not perfect, does reflect these values. The media, on the other hand, was state-controlled till the 1990s and did project a lovely biased view of the world. The 1980s generation was treated to images of innocent Kashmiris getting brutalised by ‘those Indians’. But mostly they watched dignitaries arriving or leaving on a daily basis. It would be years before they would get to see both sides of the coin or be free to challenge the old order.

The same NYT article that ‘demonised’ Faisal’s schooling also touched upon his spoiled brat status. “As the son of a senior military officer, Mr Shahzad was swaddled in privilege, tended to by chauffeurs, servants and armed guards in an insular world made up almost exclusively of military families.”

True. And false!

The world they refer to is insular and in the 1980s and 90s without cell phones and internet it was even more so. That being said, these walls kept politics and fundamentalism from seeping in but did not prevent its inhabitants from reaching out. Not only were they exposed to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, they also held a broader worldview.

And contrary to popular belief, military life is not an all expense paid trip to wonderland. The privileged lifestyle depicted in the newspaper accounts makes it all seem so ‘feudal lordish!’ Military families are not born with silver spoons. These perks come with a price.

This is not the Upper East Side. Life in the armed forces is generally perceived to be a joyride for families but while it may end on a high note it certainly does not begin with one. I cannot deny the chauffeurs, servants and armed guards. They come with the house, but only for the top echelon. No doubt the final stretch is comfortable but these people have paid their dues off camera.

Yet none of this had any bearing on the events of May 1, 2010. Faisal, who is currently serving a life sentence, spent more than a decade in the US. When he turned, it was in spite of, not because of his sheltered background and American education. He represents the new face of terrorism.

Images Courtesy of: http://www.pasadenaisd.org/MediaProductions/stack%20of%20textbooks.jpg

Saturday, April 23, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, April 23, 2011

Reviewed By Afrah Jamal
By Daniel Domscheit-Berg with Tina Klopp

A leaked video, allegedly of ‘the most dangerous man in the world’ on the dance floor is doing rounds on the internet these days.

As Assange himself will tell you,“Nothing is sacred anymore.”

Those who picture WikiLeaks — the whistle-blowing website — as an impregnable fortress with Julian Assange its modern day warrior casually brandishing incendiary matter will also find Julian’s accomplice busily stripping away its veneer of invincibility and with that, its founder’s credibility.

The duo is known for upsetting the global applecart of secrets and lies and if the truth is ‘out there’, it is because of one Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg who put it there. From secret US military intelligence documents and diplomatic cables to contents of Sarah Palin’s private emails and handbooks from Guantanamo Bay, first American fraternity and Scientology, Assange & co are in the business of making governments squirm.

Now the hermitically sealed universe of WikiLeaks (WL) (initially composed of two men and one server), like the material it publishes, is no longer classified. But Assange, a gifted hacker, known outlaw and notorious whistleblower, who is central to the WL plot, serves more as a human piƱata in a new tell-all book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

This is a story of two people who believed in the same principles of transparency but had very different ideas of how to go about it. On one side stands Julian who “had a discerning eye for material that could be used to exert political influence”. On the other is his estranged partner, who shows how WLwas acting irresponsibly, playing a risky game with sources’ truth and supporters’ donations."

Daniel, who broke away from the WL orbit to form OpenLeaks.org, which he insists is not a publishing platform or a rival to WL, but an equal contender offering secure submission, where the sources choose the recipients, was unceremoniously dismissed and charged with “disloyalty, insubordination and destabilisation in times of crises”. Switching into full disclosure mode, he prepares to take down his partner as he recounts their tragicomic escapades in the backdrop of their unravelling partnership.

Inside WikiLeaks invites the world to witness Assange’s crucifixion alongside Daniel’s coronation as the shiny new king of his own kingdom. ‘The world’s most dangerous website’, where the magic happened amid childish bickering and duelling ideologies, is scary to behold.

The writer offers useful insights detailing the level of security taken to ensure the anonymity of the source and submissions; “sources remained untraceable even for the WikiLeaks team-mates”. They are coupled with titbits about their modus operandi, how they gave accounts to someone who was not interested in handling finances or chat rooms to those not concerned with personally influencing public opinion, etc. There were times when they tricked the people who wanted documents removed into authenticating them instead. Any evidence of ownership voluntarily given also ended up on the site next to the offending document. Informants did not fear lawsuits but WL welcomed them, he gleefully notes.

His initial impressions of Julian are kinder: “I knew he cared as little as I did that we could have earned far more money selling our talents to businesses.” The goodwill does not last long: “It was easy sharing our lack of success but hard for Julian to allow success to be credited to both.” Some of Daniel’s criticism stems from the fact that WL became a global political player ending the pledge to be neutral which, he stresses, was their most important principle. Julian, “who mentally transformed innocent plane passengers into State Department spies”, evolves as a caricature of a villain. “The rumours that he was being followed originated from his overactive imagination,” he declares, “giving him the aura of someone in dire peril, increasing the collective anticipation of every leak.”

His partner’s personal and professional conduct is called into question on numerous occasions. At one point he wonders if WL has become a religious cult where the guru is beyond question and there was no room for internal critique. He also admits that both of them were guided by Google searches and a gut feeling for authenticating documents. Mistakes were rare, but he hastens to add that he can think of none for which he alone was to blame. Daniel later sabotaged the WL operation by taking away its submissions platform. His defence: “Children shouldn’t play with guns.”

Assange, as the villain of the piece does not disappoint; he is the cad who takes Daniel’s Ovaltine and half his food. He is also a petty troublemaker, a superior ass, a nightmare guest, a charlatan suffering from foot in mouth disorder “with a free and easy relationship with the truth. And, as Mr Schmitt (the unfortunate feline) will testify, definitely not a cat person. The litany of charges covers everything under the sun from Julian’s philandering ways and financial irregularities to his miserly tendencies. Daniel, as the victim/saviour takes the halo and most of the credit.

As an origins story, it delivers the requisite thrills and chills, from the first appearance of stress fractures till the final break. And while their first homegrown leak may have been Julian’s fault (when he inadvertently exposed 106 donor names), the final one that comes from a former insider leaves a lot of scorched earth in its wake.

Publisher Jonathan Cape; 304 pages; Rs 950
Available at Liberty Books

Saturday, April 9, 2011

MAGAZINE REVIEW: Introducing ‘Aye Karachi’ - Karachi’s first quarterly bilingual city guide and features magazine

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, April 09, 2011

By Afrah Jamal

T2F may be a popular hunt but it was not easy to find; not without a GPS enabled phone, a knowledgeable Karachiwala or both to lead the way, which is ironic, since that day, it was to be the venue for the launch of a “city guide and features magazine”.

‘Aye Karachi,’ a brainchild of Rumana Husain, has been five years in the making. ‘Aye’ is not a nautical term (as in ‘Aye Aye Capn’) but an Urdu word formed by combining the letter Alif with a Yay (‘O’ in English); this means that the region’s first quarterly, bilingual city guide and features magazine has nothing to do with pirates and everything to do with Karachi.

Described as a quarterly portrait of the city, ‘Aye Karachi’ is more than a city guide – and serves to fill a void that few realised even existed. This need was first identified by Rumana when she noticed that while major cities of the world boasted of their own magazines, the commercial hub of Pakistan was forced to make do without any. She set out to correct this oversight with an ambitious project which is Karachi-centric, bilingual (Urdu and English) and most importantly – free!

Karachi – a sprawling metropolis with its frantic pace of development and multi-ethnic sensibilities continues to astound (and, in some cases confound). It pulsates with a vitality that is exhilarating, if a little overwhelming. Keeping up with the changing dynamics of this magnificent city means composing a symphony which can hit multiple chords while staying true to an overarching vision.

That vision has been brought to life by a powerhouse team that includes Founder/Editor Rumana Husain, who already heads ‘NuktaArt’ (a biannual, contemporary art magazine as its co-founder / Senior Editor), Amra Alam (SUNTRA magazine Chief Editor) and Shammi Jameel Hussain (Advertisement Coordinator) without whom – Rumana admitted, this would have remained just a concept. Amra Alam (Co-Editor), who has penned numerous award-winning children’s books and collaborated with her sister (Imrana Maqsood) to write 15 serials for different TV channels, is in charge of the Urdu part of the magazine.

The team insists that this decision to pay homage to the metropolis with a publication that strives to be accessible to everyone does not threaten to knock existing players off their perch. Au contraire, ‘Aye Karachi’ is set to be distributed in places “where people are likely to congregate, like banks, prominent hospitals & clinics, salons, cafes, hotels, gyms clubs, airport and all public and private libraries, including educational institutions.”

In the inaugural issue, a substantial section has been devoted to listings – bookshops, health/beauty centres, Wi-Fi hot spots, travel agencies, eateries and a compilation of websites specific to Karachi. Rumana adds that the lists will be continually updated in future editions based on feedback received. The remaining sections cover heritage, personality, eating out, sports, technology, entertainment, street fashion, fiction, events etc.

In 2010, Rumana Husain’s coffee table book ‘Karachiwala – a subcontinent within a city’, endeavoured to capture Karachi’s diversity and now with ‘Aye Karachi’ comes the opportunity to expand the narrative even further.