Saturday, May 26, 2012

VIEW: The National Anthem Conundrum

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, May 26, 2012

By Afrah Jamal

The headline in a local daily about alleged disdain of Karachi’s elite schools for the national anthem was framed to trigger a firestorm of protests. The outrage came right on cue. A small group of enlightened souls recently gathered to mull over the national anthem controversy over tea and cookies did not look too worried about this blatant attempt to reinterpret the patriotism handbook.

Some educational institutions may have already bidden adieu to an established tradition but the latest fracas over the disappearing practice of singing the anthem could be an opportunity, for some, to reassess a tired, old arrangement. No one denies the importance of the Qaumi Tarana ; no one would dare, in such an emotionally charged environment. However, they are conflicted over the exact manner it can best serve the nation in its present day crisis mode.

The anthem may be non-negotiable. And in a land split across cultural, ethnic, religious lines, its unifying call holds deep significance. But there is also a resentment at the lack of decorum seen at anthem recitals. There is despair at having grown up on a diet heavy on patriotism only to hold requiem for common values, justice, integrity and honour. And following close on the heels of these tragic sentiments comes determination to not fritter away the core message in our haste to conform to some projected ideal of patriotism.

According to some unofficial research, anthems are not necessarily required singing in morning assemblies in other parts of the world; anthems or anthem pledges however, are part of daily life in many. Pride should be instilled from an early age for it to take root. That being said that day the suggested overhaul plans had a more circuitous route to achieve patriotism in mind. People at the discussion felt strongly that teaching morality 101 was as important as bursting into a cheery song at the crack of dawn. They wanted the meaning of the anthem to be part of the curriculum. They agreed that the lyrics of Blessed be the Sacred Land are more than words to be recited on a daily basis or music that should be blared at the start or end of every movie.


Many schools reportedly have no assemblies and therefore no anthems. An identity crisis is brewing. A nation plotted with a certain vision in mind that finds the fabric of its secular design altered and its benign ideology slowly crushed under the weight of a terrifying new order cannot afford to jettison the surviving symbols of national cohesion. But it also cannot keep pretending that the surrounding rifts can be fixed by activating a few well placed symbols every now and then. The practice of a flag hoisted days before August 14 and taken down the next year in tatters does not exactly scream patriotism. Such a wedge cannot be miraculously cured by holding record-breaking titles for the most number of people singing anthems in Karachi. But it is nice to see them try for the Guinness Book.

According to Ahmed Rashid’s new book Pakistan on the Brink, “the absence of a shared national identity that transcends ethnicity, tribe, religion and language is a lingering problem for Pakistan.” There are those that view the anthem as a handy little gauge for patriotism and those that point out the futility of singing verses every morning without connecting with its essence. Some perfectly patriotic specimens admitted to never having sung the words in their childhood. Those that did cannot deny the indelible mark left on them. And many believe their children, like them can survive without their daily dose of patriotism. Others cannot imagine compromising on the one thing that keeps them forever tethered to 180 million of their kind. The idea of losing this connection altogether may not be acceptable but singing is just one part of the equation.

The authorities brimming with indignation at the slight to the ‘national identity’ recommended taking action against the villains of the piece, and they must be back in their cubbyholes by now, pleased at having averted a major national crisis. Since then schools deemed challenging the established order have been served with notices. The anthem got clemency. But celebrations are premature. The anthem has become mandatory in a place where education system is, for all intent and purposes, optional. The anthem debate rages in the backdrop of some frightening statistics. The same book dedicated to laying down Pakistan’s mounting problems also cites a survey claiming that half the school going children do not go to school and Pakistan has the lowest literacy rate in South Asia. It is 57 percent. Compare that to the figure cited from 1947, which was 52 percent.


An entire generation is growing up without having witnessed inspiring spectacles like defence day festivities to commemorate the 1965 heroes and Republic Day parades held on 23rd of March. Barricades and barbed wires are their reality. At the end of the day, they might need something more substantial and more lasting to hold on in a land where assassinating precious ideals is the norm.

The anthem is not an anachronism that can be dispensed with over time. The flag is not a pretty symbol of state dusted off once a year; these are constants that make those sacrifices made in the name of God and country worthwhile. And relying on simple minded decrees to churn out the perfect patriot is naïve, without attending to the neglected building blocks. And while it would be unwise to judge patriotism by anthem count alone, finding ways to incorporate these iconic symbols of national identity in the curriculum along with a weekly recital could help foster pride in future generations.

Images courtesy of: http://ak.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/450148/preview/stock-footage-pakistan-flag-animation.jpg
http://www.sialtv.com/images/2011/08/World-Record-Most-People-Singing-Pakistan-National-Anthem.jpg
http://i44.tinypic.com/2rnxwee.jpg

Saturday, May 5, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West


Published by Daily Times / 5 May 2012

When characters in a modernised version of Sherlock Holmes make a passing reference to Karachi — they only have Daniel Pearl in mind. When the ISI agents are featured on TV shows — it is because they can stand in for the US’s favourite Cold War foes.

Such imagery goes well with the popular narrative doing the global rounds. A widening gulf between Islam and the West, the oscillating nature of the Pak-US relationship, and the alarming levels of toxicity within, is a source of concern and confusion. Now, it is the subject of a book. At the launch of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West, veteran columnist Irfan Husain briefly touched upon these incongruities. In the book, he delves deeper into a cheerless terrain where reason has been cast adrift and paranoia is king.

Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West meticulously sifts through centuries of suspicion and decades of scorched earth left behind by Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan to chisel a narrative capable of piercing through the veil of obfuscation that hangs over Islam, the West and Pakistan.

The writer opines, “For tactical but shortsighted reasons, America has ended up on the wrong side of history.” He takes on the changing dynamics of this relationship in a multi-pronged study. It explores the genesis of a brimming hostility against the US, and the skewed perceptions that rule the West in the backdrop of glaring contradictions, rife in Pakistani society, blinded by its hate for its ally and strangely unwilling to accord the same courtesy to militants that have declared war on its cities. An instance of this poisoned relationship can be seen when a single drone strike from the US can trigger a firestorm of protests in Pakistan; the silence is deafening at the slaughter of Pakistani soldiers or citizens at the hands of local extremists.

To clear up some simple misunderstandings responsible for this worldwide breach, he revisits the reasons that led to the estrangement following a trail of flawed logic now accepted as gospel in the Islamic world, throwing in an analysis of factors that fuel the jihadi fire.

At the launch, Husain revealed how the inhabitants of “drones ground zero” do not condemn drone strikes and the further one goes from the tribal areas, the more outrage they generate. His book wonders why neither government has made any effort to explain to Pakistanis and to the outside world “why drone attacks are necessary and effective”.

Husain traces different strands feeding this narrative of hate, of intolerance, of deep-seated prejudices on both sides of the divide. How the Takfiri ideology that glorifies suicide bombings and can justify wholesale murder continues to be “a rallying cry for global jihad”. How cyberspace has emerged as a battleground where the voices of extremism are amplified to ensnare the Fort Hood Shooters, Faisal Shahzads or Umer Farouks (the failed Chicago airline bomber) of this world. The low intensity battle is going on in a virtual world that he says most are unaware of. Or the sad reality that critics of militancy or extremism often find themselves being “written off as Uncle Toms.”

Those wondering how peace-loving religions end up as recruitment tools for terrorists will find answers in 'License to Kill'. The Takfiri ideology, Husain notes, must be an indispensable justification for terrorists, but then consoles that it is hardly something taught in schools or homes. He further observes, “despite the thousands of websites seeking volunteers and funds for the jihad, only a handful of Muslims have paid much attention.”

According to Husain, “The shift to a greater public display of Islamic schools and dogma that has taken place in Muslim societies in recent years has given extremism greater acceptability among moderates. As a result, there is less public condemnation of Islamic terrorism and threatening speech than there ought to be.” His reading of this denial is that Islamic terrorism poses a greater threat to Muslim countries than the West. He also observes that the US and its allies have made “little effort — in public at least — to drain the extremist swamp of its Wahabi/Salafi/Takfiri content”.

This is Husain’s first book. It does a fair job of cataloguing the reasons that place Muslims at the top of the most hated list of a West, in the crosshairs of a select few. At the same time, it challenges some basic assumptions. That in fact the number of Muslims actually arrested for planning or carrying out acts of terror in the US stood at 21 in 2010. Or that 40 percent of all known terror plots had been thwarted through information provided by Muslims. Yet, Muslims, according to the writer, now find themselves being viewed by the West as “intolerant, violent, humourless people with alien, unattractive values and traditions who refuse to blend in.

Irfan Husain admits that this book would have ended on a pessimistic note, but for the Arab Spring. Despite the ominous sounding title, Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West fashions a palliative for global hysteria while challenging the myths spread at the altars of hatred.