Dawn Editorial 29 October 2019

In panic mode

JUI-F CHIEF Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi march may not be as visible to Pakistanis in general as some other protest advances on Islamabad have been, but the government is quite aware of the approaching storm.
Clearly, it doesn’t like what it is seeing, and is panicking. In the last few days, it has taken steps that have betrayed serious concerns on its part. Two of the JUI-F chief’s most prominent aides, Mufti Kifayatullah and Hafiz Hamdullah, have been forcibly removed from the chessboard just as the protesters were digging in their heels for what could turn out to be a tense war of nerves.
The challenger must be given his due. The maulana, with all the reminders about his compromises for power from recent history heaped on him, looked quite composed at the far end of the campaign. But the same could not be said about the prime minister’s team. Perhaps the government is driven by the ideals of maintaining a two-pronged strategy: keeping a firm front against the protesters even when a dialogue had been opened with the march’s organisers. The way that policy has been applied speaks volumes for an administration that is wary and insecure.
Hafiz Hamdullah is a former senator and ex-provincial minister. He has suddenly been discovered to have faked his identity, and has been declared an alien. The move has been lambasted and deserves yet more condemnation.
Not only does it target a firebrand right-wing politician with a proven ability to provoke outrage, it is also an innovation that takes the tendency to declare political opponents as foreign agents to a new level altogether. Now all one needs to do is to declare that a particular person is not a Pakistani national and order television channels to not host this alien. But under what law is a question that the authorities appear to have little time to answer in these times when they are faced with the menacing hordes marching on the capital.
The government has promised that the marchers will be allowed to proceed up to the outer posts of Islamabad, but then it falls on the old and trusted Maintenance of Public Order law to detain Mufti Kifayatullah in Haripur jail. His crime? He was wooing people to take part in the same march that the government has allowed the JUI-F to organise.
Those who have watched the protests in the country over the years can tell the Imran Khan government that opposition politics is akin to a game of cards. The administration has to keep a straight face and go about its business in an ostensibly routine manner. Any expression of emotion, any act that can be construed as a reflection of the tensions inside could give a player away. Panic in the official ranks is what keeps the opposition coming at them.
Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019


Baghdadi’s end

ABU Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy ‘caliph’ of the self-styled Islamic State group, has reportedly died in an American raid in Syria, near the Turkish border. President Donald Trump triumphantly announced this on Sunday, recalling the gory details of Baghdadi’s final hours. Apparently chased by American troops, the notorious Iraqi militant met his end after detonating a suicide jacket; reportedly three of his children died with him. On the face of it, this is a symbolic blow to IS, and while a host of states, mostly American allies, have hailed the operation, others remain circumspect. For example, Russia, which has a military presence in the region where Baghdadi was killed, has expressed doubt, with one Russian general saying they had no information on the operation, while a senior parliamentarian in Moscow said that “last respects have been paid to al-Baghdadi at least five times in the past”. Iran, which has been affected by IS violence and helped Iraq push back the militant group, has also reacted with caution, with one minister calling Baghdadi “your [America’s] creature”. But if the American version is taken at face value, this would spell the end of a man responsible for an orgy of violence that swept through the Middle East from the rise of IS in 2014, with the ‘caliphate’ capturing large swathes of Iraq and Syria, including the city of Mosul. Moreover, militants inspired by the IS ‘brand’ carried out acts of terrorism in different parts of the world, responding to the call of a man who expropriated Islamic symbols and led an apocalyptic cult that was only defeated through the efforts of various states.
While Baghdadi may be dead, the militancy he inspired certainly lives on, and states around the world, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia, must remain alert to new terrorism threats. It has been commonly seen that though militant groups suffer a blow after the death of charismatic leaders — Osama bin Laden in Al Qaeda’s case, Mullah Omar in that of the Afghan Taliban — their ideology lives on and often, if the infrastructure of terrorism is not uprooted, they can evolve into more ferocious outfits. For example, the Islamic State of Iraq, the forebear of IS, grew out of Al Qaeda. Therefore, the challenge now is to counter those inspired by Baghdadi, such as the IS Khorasan ‘chapter’ active in Afghanistan, before they can regroup and spread havoc.
Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019


Attack on artistic freedom

THE public opening of the Karachi Biennale 2019 on Sunday was marred by controversy when unknown men forced the partial closure of one of the installations at Frere Hall. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The ‘offending’ exhibit by Adeela Suleman was a requiem for the hundreds of victims of alleged ‘encounter specialist’ Rao Anwar. Evidently, the disgraced former SSP still enjoys the support and protection of certain quarters capable of acting secretly and with impunity. Instead, the evening ended with a hapless KMC official attempting to defend the indefensible before a press conference held by members of civil society in protest. Worse still, by yesterday morning, the rest of the exhibit had been vandalised. Later that evening, the KB19 team released a craven statement distancing itself from the artwork.
Among the feeble excuses made by some against this exhibit’s display is that it tarnished Pakistan’s and its law enforcement’s image. But it was this fiasco and the events which inspired the artwork that do actual damage to our credibility. Such claims are premised on the notion that art should be milquetoast and apolitical — unless, of course, its politics are nationalistic. What happened at Frere Hall is a chilling illustration of how insecure the powerful are of their own populace, the desperate lengths to which they will go to police them, and the surrender and collusion of the country’s elites in the face of such pressures. The organisers should recall that trying to delink art and politics invariably backfires, as recent controversies involving Contemporary Istanbul and the Whitney Biennial have shown. The relentless assaults on artistic and academic freedom in Pakistan by depoliticising and controlling all areas of knowledge and cultural production must be resisted. Politics is not a crime; free expression is a constitutional right. Now that the KB19 team has spoken, those responsible for this blatant censorship and vandalism must reveal themselves. Citizens have a direct stake in public art, and are owed an official explanation.
Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019


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