New Age Islam Edit Bureau
January 11th, 2016
Syrian peace, utopia, humanity and reality
By Shah Rukh Hashmi
The Saudi Arabia-Iran stand-off — what next?
By Munawar Mirza
Free speech should be cherished, not abused
By Ephraim Mirvis
Goodbye comrade, goodbye Aslam Azhar
By Muhammad Akbar Notezai
It has been four decades since Russia fought in Afghanistan. Intervention in Syria is the first such military engagement by Moscow in post-Soviet times
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has passed two major resolutions, primarily on a mechanism for peace in Syria and also to dismantle, disrupt and destroy Islamic State (IS). Trans-national terrorists, rebel groups, regional actors and global players all are involved in the country’s civil war and the gravity of the situation has undermined several attempts for peace so far. The UNSC’s resolutions 2249 and 2254 are the most influential and significant moves, which are well debated and prophesied for peace in the region, but owing to the ground realities, I visualise the situation as otherwise.
The UNSC’s accelerated moves are fuelled by a series of events pertaining to Syria both directly or indirectly. The catalysts for the UNSC’s advanced approach are Russia’s decision to rescue the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria in October, the carnage of the attacks in Paris in mid-November and Turkey’s downing of the Russian Su-24 fighter plane in the last week of November. Perhaps most important is the growing public opinion in Syria and the Middle East about Russia as a guarantor for peace and a stabilising force in the region.
Notable realist Hans J Morgenthau argues that politics as an autonomous driving force for statecraft utilises ethics or moral principles to achieve political objectives; ethics and morality are not objectives. Similar are the views of his predecessor in the field such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Chanakya and primordial Roman and Greek thinkers. If this is so, then why are we witnessing a sudden wake up call of the UNSC and back-to-back resolutions, while it paid lip service to the mass killings of 250,000 and millions of displaced Syrian people both internally and externally?
Neither Russia nor the US is moved by the human catastrophe in Syria. Emotions, ethics and morality are of the least concern to statehood. Interestingly, the masses believe these moral principles are applicable in international politics. Presumably, it is neither wrong nor unjustified to visualise an international system and network of actors that practice foreign policy in compliance with settled and agreed upon rules, norms and values based on ethics and morals. People are, however, simply unaware of the fact that states do not have emotion. Indeed, as mentioned above, space for emotions in statehood does not exist.
It has been four decades since Russia fought in Afghanistan. Intervention in Syria is the first such military engagement by Moscow in post-Soviet times. It is pertinent to analyse Russia’s motives, intentions and objectives in Syria. The Kremlin offers a prime explanation of its objectives in Syria saying that its entrance into the conflict is to restrict and root out IS, and prevent its domino effect in Central Asia, which is believed to be a special zone of post-Soviet Russian interests. Moreover, IS’ success would empower extremist ideologies and their alleged links to Chechen separatists. So, to nip this evil in the bud is in Russia’s national interest.
Contrary to this, western scholars criticise these explanations and, given the objectives of Russian intervention in Syria, tend to believe that Russia wants to change the focus of the global panorama from Ukraine. If this assumption is true, Moscow has succeeded in this campaign. Ukraine is mentioned less now and Syria has replaced the global fora. Having bitter experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US refrained from intervening effectively in Libya and Syria. This has negated the myth of the global hegemon’s reputation to commit to world peace and security. Annoyed by Russia’s unilateral intervention in favour of the Assad regime in Syria, the Paris attack allowed the west and the US to reassess their policies on the Syrian conflict. France hastily made a decision and started attacking IS, perhaps to pacify its people’s resentment.
Followed by the UNSC Resolution 2249, the UK, too, jumped into the conflict zone and started bombing IS. The resolution declared IS the source of an “unprecedented” threat to international peace and security, and called the member states to take “all necessary measures” to prevent and destroy it, and its capacity to wreak violence and commit acts of terrorism. Thus, the US and its allies are on one side, and Russia and the Assad regime are on the other, all fighting in Syria, presumably for different goals.
One might not disagree that Russia escaped the international row over its involvement in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by involving itself in Syria. At the same time, one must accept the west’s and UNSC’s back-to-back resolutions as credit-seeking diplomatic moves aimed at increasing the popularity of Russia in Syria, and to negate the resonance of the failures of western solutions to the conflict. It can be argued that the UNSC resolutions are not possible without Russia’s vote, yet it does not nullify the logic of consequence to take such resolutions in such an efficient manner.
Does Resolution 2249 significantly impact IS and other rebel groups? The answer to this is not hopeful. In asymmetrical conflicts, carpet-bombing is not very successful, as seen by the failure of this method against the Vietcong in the Vietnam War, nor did it help substantially in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. IS, however, claims to be a state by exercising certain attributes of a state. Yet, unlike any nation-state, its formal structure is rather informal and different enough to be rendered dysfunctional by aerial bombing.
Consequently, it is not safe to assume that terrorist attacks like those in Paris, the Sinai and Beirut are less likely in future. Coming to the most recent development, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, which endorses a road map for peace in Syria and sets a timetable for talks in early January. Peace talks between the Syrian government and members of opposition groups would be facilitated by the UN and would cover the outlines for a nationwide ceasefire to begin as soon as the parties concerned take initial steps towards a political transition. Endorsement of the Geneva Communiqué and the Vienna statements in pursuit of the communiqué’s implementation as the basis for a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political transition to end the conflict appears optimistic.
The question then is not about the text for peace or the UN calling for such measures, but rather how it will be implemented. Russia criticised the resolution as an externally imposed solution to the Syrian problem. To appease Russia and the Assad regime’s apprehensions, the resolution does not deprive them of participating UN-facilitated peace talks or in future elections. Similarly, it is naïve to consider a nationwide ceasefire, assuming IS and other rebels are party to the peace talks and opt for a ceasefire within six months. Enforcement of Resolution 2249 is at cross-purposes to Resolution 2254, as it is naïve to ignore IS in the Syrian peace process.
Although human advancement in technology has experienced rapid change, the modus operandi to solve conflicts is more or less a decades’ long process, as in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. The many actors and their pursuits for divergent objectives is the central obstacle to de-escalate the conflict. Unanimous resolutions exist but the reality on the ground is different. Even if Resolution 2254 is successfully implemented it needs a minimum of six months for peace talks and a further one-and-a-half years for elections. Thus, if things remain in control and the optimum level of settled goals is achieved, the Syrian people will be witnessing elections by the mid of 2017. Meanwhile, in 2016, the post-development agenda will be focused on UN bodies.
Shah Rukh Hashmi is a PhD (International Relations) scholar at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University, China
The writer is an analyst on international affairs and heads the department of Media Studies at Bahria University, Karachi
Anybody studying the architecture of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East should not be surprised at Saudi Arabia announcing the severing of diplomatic relations with Iran in the aftermath of the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by violent protestors, who were demonstrating against the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. In a domino effect, Gulf countries and Saudi allies broke off or downgraded their relations with Tehran, including Kuwait, the UAE and even Sudan. The Muslim world can ill-afford any further escalation in a turbulent region already riven with civil wars, terrorism and sectarian clashes. In Syria alone, over 250,000 people have been killed and over 10 million have turned refugees in civil strife since February 2011.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two main rivals for regional supremacy in the Middle East. Both are oil-rich countries. Both have authoritarian systems of governance. They also have a claim to the leadership of the two main Muslim sects. However, all these similarities have not been able to steer them any closer; the last, in fact, resulting in giving impetus to sectarian divide, which has now grown to such a proportion that it has torn apart the entire Middle East.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have their roots both in geography and history, but the present discord has more recent dimensions. Saudi Arabia, together with its Arab partners, has been explicit in its suspicion of Iran and accuses it of meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states right from the time of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Many Arab states are furious at Tehran’s direct military, political and financial support to Assad’s regime in Syria. They have taken exception to the manner in which Iran gained strength in Iraq through its proxies after Saddam Hussein’s fall from power.
Iran, on the other hand, blames Saudi Arabia for promoting sectarian divide in Muslim states, specifically in the Middle East where the latter wields great leverage. Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has roundly condemned the execution of Sheikh Nimr. President Hassan Rouhani ordered the arrest of protestors responsible for the attack on the Saudi mission in Tehran, but also condemned the execution of the religious scholar.
Non-state actors supported by both Iran and Arab states have played havoc with inter-state relations in the region. Militant groups of various sectarian hues have become so powerful that they have rendered regular state forces ineffective, dictating terms and coercing states to view everything through their ideological glasses. Syria, Iraq and Yemen are classic examples of states where no law exists.
Another major irritant in Arab-Iran relations is the nuclear deal struck between Iran and the big powers. Arab states have always felt uneasy about its outcome and have been suspicious about Iran’s intentions. Tehran has insisted that its nuclear programme is a peaceful one. However, the dilemma that the deal has produced is that while some mutual trust has been established between Iran and the US, a total lack of confidence has also emerged between Iran and the Arab states, as well as between the US and Arab states, which now fear that a new balance of power is emerging, with Iran at its centre.
While there is little possibility of a direct immediate military confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh, the new UN-sponsored road map for resolving the Syrian crisis is in danger of becoming the most serious fatality of the Saudi-Iran stand-off. The road map had emerged after painstaking efforts of several years and is backed by all big powers. It is now important that the international community ensures that the road map stays on track at all costs.
Our world is fast becoming polarised. On one side there is a growing number of people who believe that faith can only be a force for negativity in the world and on the other, there is a growing number of people who believe that their faith is best expressed by heinous acts of violence
The name of Voltaire rings out across the continent as tributes are paid to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France one year ago. The senseless brutality of lives taken, supposedly in the name of God, raised a whole host of questions about free speech and the right to offend.
“In the spirit of Voltaire, free speech must be defended to the death” has been the rallying cry. Free speech is broadly accepted as a fundamental right and, where people pay for it with their lives, the rest of the world must stand together to collectively challenge those who believe that violence is an appropriate or acceptable response to a cartoon that they find offensive.
It is disturbing, however, to see the speed with which some tend to rush to the second element of Voltaire’s famous defence of free speech, often at the expense of the first. He disapproved of what was said, before defending the right to say it. The right to voice that disapproval is one which, I fear, has been chased out of the popular discourse in recent years, particularly where faith communities are concerned.
It is not unusual for me to come across cartoons, which I find offensive. They are most often images which invoke the Holocaust or Nazi imagery as a quite gratuitous way of berating the Jewish community or the State of Israel, and invariably used in the knowledge that using such imagery will inflict the greatest amount of pain and anguish upon a Jewish audience. Needless to say, I find them objectionable, but I am comforted that most fair-minded people agree that the appropriate response to such cartoons is to forcefully and unequivocally condemn them. They recognise that there is certainly no virtue in causing such immense pain to others.
Having seen the commemorative front cover of Charlie Hebdo, which marks the first anniversary of the murders by depicting an image of ‘God’ as the perpetrator of evil who is “still out there”, I am left without any such comfort.
The journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo have a legal (but not moral) right to deeply offend every person in the world who believes in God by characterising Him as a murderer, if they so wish. But they do so understanding entirely just how insulting to millions of people that notion is. So let us not believe for a moment that their contribution is virtuous or worthy of praise.
Our world is fast becoming polarised. On one side there is a growing number of people who believe that faith can only be a force for negativity in the world and on the other, there is a growing number of people who believe that their faith is best expressed by heinous acts of violence. Neither view is correct but anything that pushes yet more people towards one of those positions is a part of the problem and not a part of the solution.
Tragically, Charlie Hebdo, through promoting a ‘them and us’ dynamic, are succeeding only in creating more tension and resentment. Editor Laurent Sourisseau, who drew the cartoon, insisted in his accompanying editorial that they would not yield to people who “wanted to see us in the Hell they believe in because we had blasphemed” and he went on to defiantly declare that “the convictions of atheists and secular thinkers can move more mountains than the faith of believers.” These sound like sentiments of a man who has dug his trench and believes he is at war with those who believe in God. Just one year on from such horrific attacks, I can well understand why Mr Sourisseau may feel that he is at war, but speaking as a person of faith, I would much rather work alongside him to move mountains than compete over who can move more of them.
Voltaire also wrote, “May all men remember that they are brothers... If the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not hate each other, let us not tear each other apart when we are at peace.” I would suggest that the most positive contribution that Charlie Hebdo can make, rather than gratuitously courting controversy and actively seeking to offend, is to find opportunities to help build bridges between people and celebrate all that which unites us.
Free speech may be a right, but only by using it as a force for good in the world, do we make it a virtue.
A version of this article appeared in The Telegraph on January 8
Muhammad Akbar Notezai
I vividly remember the energy Aslam radiated. His house was no less than a campaign headquarters. People would converge from all over the country. If there were anybody devoted to harnessing the power of culture for the empowerment of working people, it was he
The Golden Jubilee of Progressive Writers’ Association in 1985 was being celebrated and Dastak, the literal “Knock” had knocked down the city of Karachi. It was a house full for the play The Life of Galileo at the Rio auditorium in Karachi. Everybody who mattered in the intellectual circles of Karachi was there. Brecht’s lines echoed and struck chords with the audience. I would go everyday to watch the performance. It had to be the second or third performance as the play was halfway through when I saw young Aireb coming towards my seat. He whispered in my ear. “Dad wants you,” he said. I asked him where and he told me, “backstage”. I left my seat as the play progressed. As I went inside, Aslam spotted me and said, “Murtaza” in his theatrical voice. “The guy to play a minor role has not showed up tonight so you have to do the role,” he said. As I acknowledged Aslam, he said, “Take off these clothes and put those on,” as he pointed towards a pair of rickety blue jeans and a worn out shirt. Before I could overcome my shock, he told me what I was supposed to do. “Stay here, grab these slaughtered ducks and as you hear this cue, enter the stage, say this line, hand me over the ducks and off you go back.” “How can I do this Aslam? I have never acted,” I said. “You will do it now,” he said. This is how he made an actor out of me in no time. He was a factory churning out talent all his life.
Come 1986, we gathered again at Mansoor Saeed’s house to select the play for the centenary celebration of May Day. St. Joan of the Stockyards by Brecht was selected. “Murtaza will play the leading role of Pierpont Mauler, the Chicago meatpacking tycoon,” Aslam declared. From the accidental ducks debut in Galileo to the lead role — quite a promotion. But everybody agreed as we all trusted his ability to direct.
Aslam was a born leader who could decide in a matter of moments and lead. During our May Day centenary celebration play, he picked a locked out factory as the backdrop in the Sher Shah site area of Karachi. Hundreds of workers gathered to watch our play that hot summer evening. The makeshift stage was in the centre and we had to improvise our moves to perform in a way so that we could address our audience on all four sides. In the middle of the play the lights went out. For a moment we all panicked. Aslam, who had the great talent to project his voice clearly without a public address system, came on stage and announced that we should not worry, as the play would resume. He pulled his car to face the stage and turned the headlights of his beetle Volkswagen on. The play was back on.
It was 1984 when I first saw Aslam Azhar at Mansoor Saeed’s home on Tariq road. Mansoor was with his wife Abida, son Ahmar and Sania, a little schoolgirl, who would be one of the finest actresses later. He was with his wife Nasreen Azhar and two sons Usama and Arieb and, of course, the daughter Umaima. Later, I met his mother, a Christian woman who kept her faith to the last day she breathed. I met them all one by one but for sure Aslam was the centre of this family. Everybody revolved around him or so it seemed. Yes, I was an undeclared member of his family. This is how I called Nasreen Mamma just like his other children and will continue to do so till I die.
Vibrant, vivacious, dynamic and full of vigour and vitality, that would be Aslam most of his life.
Those were the tough days of Zia’s regime, which Aslam would call ‘Ziaulyakh’. I vividly remember the energy Aslam radiated. His house was no less than a campaign headquarters. People would converge from all over the country. If there were anybody devoted to harnessing the power of culture for the empowerment of working people, it was he.
I still remember the warmth of the people’s passion on the streets of Karachi after the 1988 elections giving a clear lead to the PPP, the party led by young Benazir Bhutto. People were celebrating, chanting slogans and singing on the streets of Karachi. As usual, we were busy doing our plays. After every performance we would converge at Aslam’s house for the drinks, the nihari, warm conversations and the cracking of jokes. We were all high with our passion to make a difference.
It was on one of these nights when we all sat in Aslam’s house that the phone rang. It was Prime Minister (PM) Benazir’s military secretary on the line. A brief phonecall and Aslam hung up the phone and announced, “PM Benazir wants me to head radio and television.” We all wondered how Aslam had answered. Before we could ask he said he had told him that he would consult his family and get back to the PM. “You are my family and I am consulting you,” he announced. We all told him to accept the offer. It was a great opportunity after 11 years of military rule and who could be a better person than Aslam, the Marconi of Pakistan Television? We all missed Aslam in Karachi but were happy to see him make a difference, and difference he did make.
Despite the important positions he would assume now and then, a true humanist and humble man he remained all his life. I still remember calling him from Karachi as he was the chairman of both the PTV and Radio Pakistan. I told him that I wanted to visit Islamabad. “What flight are you coming on?” is all he asked. As I came out of the airport door, lo and behold, Aslam stood there. To my shock, when I asked him why he came, his answer was, “I would never ever forget. I do not send my drivers to pick up my friends. I do it myself.”
My heart aches today that we as a state did not appreciate what he did for this country during his life. I still feel the pain when I think about when, as the general director of Radio Pakistan I persuaded President Zardari to give him the highest civil award for his great contribution. He obliged but the baboos of the ministry of information screwed it up and downgraded it to the equivalent of an award he had already gotten way back in 1968. The proud man declined it and stayed put.
Honesty, integrity, creativity and standing by the wretched of the earth literally defined him. He revealed to us the secret of happiness through his life. He practiced what he preached. Standing by the poor, marginalised and weak made him rich and strong.
With Aslam gone, we all mourn his loss. At a personal level I feel orphaned and do miss my mentor, my teacher, my friend and my comrade, all rolled into one. Goodbye comrade
Muhammad Akbar Notezai was the general director of Radio Pakistan
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