Monday, February 13, 2006

Making Geography - History!

An Anonymous comment to my article: Dived We Stand… [see link on sidebar] suggests that Bangladesh is not the cause of the lethargy that exists in SAARC. Bangladesh is bullied by India and therefore is helpless.

In my defence I believe this comment proves my point quite strongly. Think of it, doesn't it?

It is in Bangladesh's interest to stand up to "Big Bro"! By shunning from that great responsibility the only country loosing out is ours.

Prof Yunus in his speech at the Daily Star 15th Anniversary program (widely published) makes an emphatic plea for Bangladesh to engage with its two giant neighbours - India and China!

While there are many points in that speech that I don't agree to (my critic to the speech coming soon), I think he is right to declare that by playing an increasing strong role in the region we can only benefit.

After all we must keep two things in mind:

Firstly as President Clinton famously said “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” Our economic future is intertwined with that off India. Ours is to find how we can benefit from the testosterone-fuelled economy of India Inc.

And secondly, the only way to defeat a bully (if you are inferring that is what India is to us) is to respond to it.

Unfortunately leaders (and general public) in both countries misunderstand each other’s motivations. And no one is clarifying it. A big PR failure, me thinks! End of the day if we can respect each other’s sovereignty (and I don’t mean only the territorial ones) we can find areas of mutual co-operation. And that my friend will be the dawn of a beautiful day!

To paraphrase a famous quip “It is difficult to make Geography – History!”

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Convert Muslims - to Islam!

"If any religion had the chance of ruling over England, nay Europe within the next hundred years, it could be Islam."

"I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence which can make itself appeal to every age.

I have studied him - the wonderful man and in my opinion far from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the Savior of Humanity."

"I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness:

I have prophesied about the faith of Muhammad that it would be acceptable to the Europe of tomorrow as it is beginning to be acceptable to the Europe of today."

Sir George Bernard Shaw in 'The Genuine Islam,' Vol. 1, No. 8, 1936

[Thanks to Taj Hashmi for bringing it to my notice]

Did Sir George possess a crystal ball? Of course the growth Islam in Europe is happening more because of migration than conversion. But why is that so? Is it that Islam does not have the appeal? Is it that it does not sit in harmony with “western” attitudes? Well from the little that I know [& I must confess I do know little!] Islam provides quite a balanced approach to life. It has much to offer any person and if nothing else, some reasons to appreciate its basic tenants.

I see the actual reason for conversion failing, from the point of view of my advertising shoes. We have not created enough positive brand awareness and experience. Some radical elements in the religion have hijacked our identity and we, the liberal Muslims, have sat back and allowed it. Because we hide behind the pretext that religion is beyond debate, we have ourselves started believing Islam is irrelevant in today’s context. Without conversations, without discussion, without dissent, without critique how do we better understand such a metaphysical concept like religion? Our religion will not crumble because someone has questioned why or has drawn some pictures! It will only grow stronger because we will be able to understand and explain rationally the wealth that the Quran has in its pages.

Talking of cartoons: to follow up on what I had written [see Freedom To... below. I came across a wonderful piece in the February 5th’s edition of the New Age titled Does the right of freedom of speech justify printing the Danish cartoons? [originally published in the The Guardian – click on the this post’s headline to take you to the piece]

Both authors basically agree that the cartoons are in bad taste and are provocative. While I tend to agree with Philip Hensher’s “Yes” argument I thought the points (and specific examples) put forward by Gary Younge were thought provoking. He sums up his argument with a gem of a quote from Steve Biko, ”Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked.”

While burning opponents buildings [let alone those under diplomatic sanctuary] sacrilege and should not be condoned; I am sure such a feeling went through the minds of many Muslims across the globe.

Before I go a small request. Let us be more tolerant of dissent, for from it we can only learn and be stronger.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Freedom To Say No : Prophet of Doom

Freedom is a wonderful thing. Freedom of thought; freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom of desire; freedom to say yes or no! What happens when two freedoms collide?

I’m sure you already know where I am heading. The recent controversy over some cartoon published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. [].

Having seen the cartoons [click on the headline of this piece to take yourself to an archive of the same] I see no issues with it. Anyone should have the freedom to say what they think is right or wrong. I might not agree with what one says but as Mark Twain had said “I will defend your right to say it till the end.”

My religion, my belief, my Allah, my principals, my prophet is stronger and more entranced in my heart than any image a cartoonist can draw. What Mr. Rushdie or some cartoonist says does not change anything for me. And at one level I guess it strengthens it.

The paper has given a reply [ ]. Burning down Danish Embassy is uncalled for.

Jyllands-Posten has also made a mistake! They have not realized the sentiments of the Muslim world. After more than 5 years of being told that they are terrorists Muslims have reached the breaking point. Believe it or not they are feeling as if they are the victims. I would presume quite like Japanese- Americans after Pearl Harbor attacks! And an “insult” to the Prophet is the worst of humiliation that a Muslim can take.

Jyllands-Posten of course has the right to publish the cartoons. Should they have done so? No, I say. I may have the right to color my hair shocking pink. But should I? Engage in debate about the current state of religion, question its roots and its tenants. But was it necessary to blasphemously lampoon the prophet? The Pandora’s Box once opened cannot be closed. Hurt a person and the wound takes a lifetime to heal.

Sometimes saying nothing is more impactful than proving our might!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Divided We Stand, United We Fall

Despite what the SAARC leaders had to say while surrounded by flowers from Thailand we do not share a common view or a common goal for our region. Matter of fact the nations of SAARC are divided by a common history!

More often then not there is a belief that because we have lived in these lands for eons we have a bond. But should we not explore this shared history? First the only thing that binds most of the region together is Empress Victoria! Before the English came and “united” us under the Raj we were feuding kingdoms at each other’s throats. The English soon figured it out and used it to their advantage to keep us in fighting and then using their ability to influence decision to divide and rule us for 200 years! They did a blimey good job. What Akbar or Chandragupta Murya could not do the Clive and Curzon did. It put the Punjabis and Tamalians, the Assamese and Malayalam, the Muslims and the Hindus together under one flag, under one uniform civil code.

I had lived in India for five years in the early 90s. First in South India and then in Delhi. My biggest lesson learnt from that stint is that India is not a homogenous nation. Far from it actually. The southerner does not speak the same tongue as a northerner. A westerner does not look anything like some one from the northeast. Their cultures are different, their food are different, their values are different and their expectations from life are different. Take a Sylheti and some one from Khulna and multiply the difference between them by a 1000 and you are still not close to the difference between a Naga and a Kashmiri! Now if we throw in the other 6 (or shall I say 7 to include Afghanistan?) countries with their own variance, what a melting pot we have! How can this group ever have a common standing?

I know it is just about now I will hear the story about the American Pilgrims or the success of the EU! I have a two-word answer – Paris riots! Frankly the EU is a grouping of Christian nations, who on an even economic footing decided to bring their economies closer. Initially it was never envisaged as a political union. Hey even now the French President meets with the German Chancellor before the EU summits begin to plan on how they will take on the British or Spanish PM! Now that nations of Eastern Europe have joined the club let us wait and see how that turns out. My own prediction is that EU’s political future (not its economic one mind you) has a turbulent road ahead. And what is with this two-steps forward and two-steps back on Turkey’s membership? It is okay to have the Muslims defending you (NATO) but not sharing your prosperity!

The US you say? Well true the general belief is that they have managed to bring together their diverse population into the so-called melting pot, but I say that is just PR spin. First of all the cultures that have been bought together are the European immigrants who unlike us currently residing in South Asia, had gone forth with the intention of leaving behind prosecution and poverty of the Old World. They took it on to themselves to build a new nation dedicated to live, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now take a closer look. What about the “Red” Indians? And the African American or Asian American or Indian Americans or the Latinos? If they were so united why do they have different tags? All the Americans have in common is the fabled “Dream” of being richer than the Wolfozki, Robertson, Martinez or Subramaniam living next door!

Well one thing that is evident from the top two examples is that a shared economic future can bring nations together into acting in unison. Hence despite years of trouble it is important for a Sikh to join hands with a Bihari to ensure that India is shining! This leads us to extend the logic a bit forward and ask does that make sense for a Bangladeshi hold a Maldivian hand and walk toward the sunrise? Well yes it does. The dynamics of global trade has changed in the last two decades and will change again in the next few years. It is prudent for SAARC nations to find areas where we can compliment each other’s expertise and resources for a common good. And this needs to happen on real terms and not on declarations or charters that our leaders love to take. Look we all benefit. Would it not be great if say we could harness the power generated in hydro dams in Nepal? Or Bhutan could use Dhaka as the transit hub for their tourist industry? Or organic vegetable grown in Meghalaya could be processed in Sylhet and the airport used to send it to restaurants in London? And this list can go on and on.

However it does not go on! Mostly because we cannot trust each other. For example the communication ministry believes that if we join the Asian highway we give the Indian’s transit. First of all how does that matter if we do? (The agreement safeguards against this happening) Secondly do we remember the words “submarine cable”? Do we really want to be left behind? Even our “look east” partners want nothing to do with this! The blame is not only on our conscience, our Indian neighbour thinks that building fencing around our borders will keep the BJP out of making political hay from the immigration issue! They go around not letting our battery manufacturers from entering their markets! These mentality needs to change.

While I think the citizens of SAARC appreciate to a large extent the geopolitical realities that appear to be roadblocks in our path they are less forgiving to the impediments to our economic prosperity. Bangladesh (I can not speak on behalf of our cousins) seems not quite sure of their standing in the world. It seems we do not have clarity in how we take our relationships forward. We have a “Look East” policy, which I believe has some roots in a decade or two old foreign relation journals. It is a Machiavellian attempt for us to counter the influence of India with that of China and the ASEAN (specially Thailand). I think we are a bit na├»ve to think that these nations have our best interest in their mind. While we need to look for newer friends we need to keep two things in mind. You cannot ignore your largest neighbour. Two, and more importantly, your new friends also want to play with your old friend! The Asian Highway example illustrates that quite a bit. All nations from China to Thailand refused to take up the issue. Having the entry from Teknaf instead of Tamabil would have helped Thailand; but they were careful of not getting into an unnecessary banter with India. Using the diplomatic language they have told us to sign up or shut up! At least the foreign ministry has understood that. Will the PMO hear them?

OIC, NAM, Commonwealth, UN, BIMSTEC, G40, SAARC! Are we suffering from an identity crisis? Which one do we put our weight behind? Hey if Afghanistan can become a member of a South Asian grouping why can’t we work towards an ASEAN seat (after all our only other neighbour – Myanmar is already a member despite of international isolation and a weaker economy than ours!)? No, seriously we are busy shuttling around without a clear road map. In the meantime India I believe, has long decided that SAARC has no future. Though they are paying lip service to the movement I think they are pushing forward the more loosely connected BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) as a platform for their international agenda. Everything said and done ASEAN want to trade with Bangladesh but I think the need and desire to help ends there. We cannot afford to see SAARC fail. More than others we need it. Pakistan has the option of being more “Arab” or Mid Eastern. Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives are too closely linked to the Indian reality. Sri Lanka while still having internal issues to resolve have the economic might to “go it alone”. Bangladesh can, if done properly, assume the role of the facilitator and the mediator of this coming together of a significant portion of the world’s population. And use this a stage to make our place in the sun.

Ironically Bangladesh seems to be the biggest reason for the lethargy that exists in the organisation and stops it from going forward. We are wrapped up in an isolationist attitude of late, looking at everyone with the utmost suspicions. It seems there is a view prevailing within the Government and the bureaucracy that everyone is out to get us, to exploit us and dominate us. And this fear is becoming self-prophesising. If we do not learn to play with others soon we will be left out of the game. Let us use SAARC to win for us a few matches in the great global village tournament.