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October 19, 2007

Benazir Bhutto returns to Pakistan and faces bomb attacks.

Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan this week. Scenes on the road from the Karachi airport in her home province of Sind were initially scenes of jubilation, important for Bhutto’s credibility. Shortly after midnight, in a part of the road where the street lighting was not functioning, Bhutto was attacked in two related bombing incidents. The carnage was severe with over 130 killed including, according to the BBC many of her personal bodyguards as well as some leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Benazir Bhutto was adequately protected by her armored vehicle. Who is Benazir Bhutto and why is she the target of terrorist attacks?

Benazir Bhutto comes from a distinguished family. Her father who had been Prime Minister was hanged by General Zia ul-Haq. In Pakistan such actions carry a long train of potential consequences. Bhutto has twice been Prime Minister of Pakistan and was the first woman to be elected to leadership in a recently independent Muslim country. Bhutto was excluded form government twice as a result of allegations of corruption. She exiled her self for eight years in the Gulf, just before the coup launched by (now President) Musharraf, but recently negotiated her return to an increasingly troubled Pakistan.

Bhutto is a tough politician and knew before she returned that militant groups, whom she opposes, had threatened to attack her. Bhutto is against what she has called the ‘cowards of Al-Qaeda’ and others ‘terrorists’ who were ‘trying to take over my country’. Bhutto is a secularist in political terms, interested essentially in the restoration of democracy to Pakistan. She believes that it is only the restoration of democratic politics that will start the process of improving conditions in the country. Bhutto is pro-American (she was educated in Pakistan in mission schools and then in the United States where she studied first at Radcliffe college and then at Harvard) and seeks for a moderate Pakistan.

The political ‘deal’ that allowed her to return is complex. President Musharraf’s hold on power has been in considerable difficulties. In the border regions with Afghanistan militants support Al-Qaeda. Lawyers have been upset by his attempt to rid himself of the country’s Chief Justice earlier in the year. Opposition to Musharraf by lawyers has been very strong in the North-West Frontier Province. Musharraf seems to be recovering some of his grip as he has just been appointed for another five years in office provided that the Supreme Court thinks that he was eligible to stand. Bhutto has returned with corruption charges dropped and with a promise to cooperate with the government and work towards fair elections. According to the Economist newspaper, the deal is not yet fully agreed.

No group has yet claimed responsibility. International support for Bhutto has been sympathetic and quick. According to the BBC, the Prime Minister of Australia (John Howard) pointed the finger at ‘al-Qaeda’ though added that it was too early in the day to be certain. The United States has said that ‘extremists’ will not be permitted to stop the democratic process in Pakistan. It is clear that Pakistan has entered a new phase with respect to concerns about its stability and political future. Both Bhutto and Musharraf are going to need to exhibit extreme care in how they handle their political life separately and together over the next dangerous few weeks. For the sake of stability they will need to contrive a deal frm enough to ensure order and flexible enough to ensure fair elections.

October 11, 2007

Letter from Muslim Religious Leaders to Christian Religious Leaders.

On the occasion of Eid, al-Fatir 1428 A.H. / October 13th 2007 CE (the end of Ramadan) a group of significant Muslim Religious leaders, scholars and people of political significance within the Islamic world, sent a letter to the leaders of the Christian world including the Pope, the leaders of the various orthodox communities and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Head of the Anglican Communion world-wide). Common Era is the way in which a common system of dating, based essentially on the approximate birth of Christ, is acceptable to other religions. A.H. in Latin is anno Hegirae and is the source of dating in the Muslim world. It refers to Muhammad’s move from Mecca to Medina. The letter is long, including signatories it runs to twenty-nine or so printed pages. What does it say and how does it say it?

This is a remarkable document for it consists of a considered and forceful statement— textually based in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Scriptures and the Koran— of the common ground between (in particular) Christianity and Islam. It insists that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (Jesus is a significant prophet in Islam). It is entitled ‘A Common World Between Us' . The two clear points of contact are the commandment to love God and the commandment with respect to ‘love of the neighbour’. Each of the designated commandments is described in the terms in which they are states in the Koran and in the Bible. In addition there is a Koranic call to ’come to a common world’, here interpreted as the need for the two great world religions to share an understanding and a set of related practices that will exhibit peace and love of neighbour in the context of a globalized world.

This is a hugely important document in which scholars and educated leaders, (some like the Sultan of Sokoto in Nigeria with significant political roles) of the Islamic world are effectively re-claiming the Islamic tradition of faith, scholarship and enlightenment . Such a call for the public revival of hundreds of years of such scholarship and the re-start of an enlightened dialogue was made here in Duluth by Ahmed Samatar when he addressed the Alworth Institute last April on the subject of 'Muslims and the West in the Age of Globalization'. This is such a document. It is not a sectarian document, nor is it the product of one tradition. Its signatories include a range of Muslim communities including Shias and Sunnis.

The document recognizes the together Muslims and Christians make up more than half of human kind. It makes it clear that ‘If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace’. Within a globalized world, war hurts everyone, the document argues, and ‘our common future is at stake’. And to the warmongers, where-ever they are, they say that we are all at risk ‘if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony’. The targets, within the Muslim community but also elsewhere, are unspoken but the implications are transparent. It is now up to the leaders of Christianity to take up the challenge of inter-faith dialogue that the Pope called for recently.

October 1, 2007

Ahmedinejad, rhetoric and sanctions on Iran

The war of words between the United States and Iran continues. Last week the President of Iran (Mahmoud Ahmedinejad) was locked in conflict with the President of Columbia University. Ahmedinijad’s talk at Columbia was a prologue to his speech at the United Nations. Both events, each with their own elements of drama and farce, nonetheless underscore the fact that a new international consensus on Iran’s nuclear program is being forged. What is substance and what is rhetoric in all of this?

It is easy for people on the west to write of Ahmedinejad as a buffoon. The president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, made an error in launching the attack on him the way that he did. It would have been much better had he simply made a statement that distanced himself from Ahmedinijad’s policies and views but claimed the high-ground in terms of the democratic principles of the United States which encourages debate on issues such as human rights (including the rights of homosexuals). To insult a guest is not appropriate behavior in most countries. Iran is no exception. Even reformist groups in Iran felt that by insulting the President, the legal representative of Iran, Iran itself was insulted. Ahmedinijad may appear foolish but he must be read through Iranian eyes. He is a populist and he knows how his actions will be read where in counts, i.e. amongst his political supporters. By giving him importance in the way that both the New York press (‘The Evil has Landed’) and the President of Columbia has done, his status amongst his political supporters in Iran is thereby increased. Rhetoric is part of the substance and not simply in Iran or with respect to Iranian policy. Media events have political consequences and in this respect, Ahmedinijad is not to be taken as a mere buffoon. For an understanding of the motivation of leaders in Tehran, a greater level of sophistication is required.

What of the UN performance? Ahmedinijad attacked the permanent members of the Security Council. He did so in rhetorical terms that would appeal not only to his supporters in Iran but to similar groups in the Middle East. By identifying the permanent members as ‘arrogant powers’, he is reminding his audience of a history of colonialism and insensitivity. By stating that he would ignore the decisions of the Security Council he is re-asserting Iranian independence. By confirming the relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency he is showing Iran’s willingness to enter into discussions. This is aimed at a domestic audience but also at gathering support from other states that irritate the United States such as Venezuela. He and the power brokers in Tehran know that Iran is now facing the possibility of significant new sanctions. Ahmedinijad knows that the decisions of the Security Council will have weight and will not be ignored (provided it can reach a conclusion). France, a considerable investor in Iran, is pursing the issue of tougher sanctions and is seeking a basis for closer cooperation with the United States. Sarkozey (the French President) has modified the remarks made by his Foreign Minister on the possible use of force. France’s policy, just as Sarkozy first announced it, is essentially one of seeking tougher international sanctions on the understanding that this will help avoid the possibility of a military option being excercised by the United States.

In the United States, the political stance against Iran is hardening. Iran has a legitimate right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It also has near neighbors with nuclear weapons (Israel is suspected of having nuclear weapons and Pakistan has such weapons). Iran has its own fears and concerns that are not simply confined to what the Americans are involved with in Iraq. Ahmedinijad is signaling that Tehran will not give up its national and regional ambitions in a hurry. He is also playing for time. Meanwhile, President Bush is trying to build international agreement that will lead to a new round of sanctions either within the United Nations (China and Russia need to be on board for this to happen) or outside of it.