The Secular Theocracy of Bangladesh

Source: EPA/npr.org

Source: EPA/npr.org

The future of democracy in Bangladesh is in serious jeopardy.

The machete attacks on secular, atheist and progressive bloggers and academics have become a norm.

Anyone speaking their mind about their worldview, as well as criticizing religious groups for their ignorance and obscurantism can consider themselves to be the next target.

It feels like just yesterday when I wrote about the brutal killing of Avijit Roy. Since then, dozens more have lost their lives including Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman, Niloy Neel, Nazimuddin Samad and more recently Professor Rezaul Kerim Siddique. The list goes on.

The latest occurrence was Bangladesh’s very own Charlie Hebdo, if you will. The killings of Xulhaz Mannan, Editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine Roopban, and that of the openly gay actor Tanoy Mojumdar, only occurring within a week of Professor Siddique’s murder, are particularly significant.

Unlike earlier attacks, this killing has been claimed by the Islamic State itself for the “unIslamic” sexual orientation of the offenders.

This is probably the first sign of the presence of Islamic State in Bangladesh, which is no surprise considering there are no ideological boundaries to this group. The presence of Islamic State in Bangladesh is obviously being denied by the Bangladesh authorities, considering the terrible optics that it involves.

I wonder what went on in the minds of the slain as they were witnessing the murder of fellow citizens who stood for free speech. I wonder what is going on in the minds of those who are alive and standing up for free speech in Bangladesh, as they see this menace get out of hand.

Using the word martyr is cheap. But these people were really brave and resisted life-threatening odds. Who knew what was going on around them, but instead of shutting up, they stuck to their positions. Walked the walk.

It’s easy to talk about freedom of speech, it’s an entirely different matter to live it. It surely is not easy. Especially in a world where it is easy and acceptable to use violence to silence people.

Secular bloggers and journalists in Pakistan have been enjoying relative safety considering the carnage in Bangladesh. Probably because they largely stick to the English language as a medium and preach to the choir, like myself. If confronted with a threat, most of us are not just likely to shut up, but to hide away for good.

Such a possibility is not entirely remote. Islamists are known for engaging in brotherly behavior, and they might very easily replicate the actions of their Bangladeshi brethren before you would expect.

With their repeated attacks on people who offend Islam, the Islamists have found an effective way to silence dissenters, apostates and critics. They have been carrying out these attacks with impunity, from Paris to Bangladesh, because they know that they will eventually get off the hook. Most commentators would gladly blame such groups for distorting their ideology than addressing the venom in the ideology itself.

In Pakistan, the liberal elements have always believed that the separation of Bangladesh was on a principled stance which included the demands of a secular constitution. Also, as a reaction to rights usurpation, a stolen election and injustices at the hands of the West Pakistan establishment.

However, despite escaping the theocratic leanings of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is disheartening to see Bangladesh lose its way in terms of building a more tolerant, free and open society. Probably becoming even worse than Pakistan.

And the incumbent Bangladeshi government, which sadly borders more on the lines of authoritarianism and fascist nationalism instead of being a liberal regime, is not exactly helping the cause.

Not only are liberal circles outraged at the inaction of the government to counter the attacks, the recent statements of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina criticizing the bloggers for attacking Islam have only added insult to injury. While I do not doubt the government’s commitment to purge Bangladesh of extremism and recognize the challenges to take the necessary action, these are surely not encouraging signs.

The Islamist groups, the traditional nemeses of the secular leader, have ironically welcomed her statement against antithetical and faithless elements. While her statement seems like the product of the pragmatism of any politician in a Muslim majority country, it apologizes nauseatingly for the murderers and blames the victim. Basically, the same old reason why Islamists get off the hook every time.

The situation does not make the secular and liberal elements in Bangladesh too hopeful about their government, which apparently seemed tough on Islamists with all the JI death sentences but is not willing to protect freedom of speech. When it comes to apostasy and blasphemy, even Sheikh Hasina would not dare confront the Islamists. Perhaps wisely so, or it could possibly make the religiously conservative population go out of control.

But some of her critics have other problems with the history of the government of the ruling Awami League.

Considering the violence that erupted after the calls of the boycott of the polls by the opposition Bangladesh National Party, they have been blaming deaths such as that of Avijit Roy on the rival party so instead of the Islamist terrorists. The Prime Minister is still maintaining that stance. Not that the leading opposition party has any better thoughts to offer on the killings, being an ally of Islamist parties itself, citing “absence of justice” as the age-old reason.

Just like the rest of the subcontinent, violence and intimidation are not unheard of in Bangladeshi politics. The last elections were a clear instance to prove that point. Some bloggers have even reported to be threatened for criticizing the government, which probably gives you some insight into how deep this problem runs.

There is no wonder why citizens with secular and liberal are growing more frustrated by their government for not blaming and cracking down on the Islamist militants for the killings.

Whether the threats to bloggers and journalists originate from Islamist extremists or secular political groups, the only losers are freedom of speech, democracy and the people of Bangladesh.

However, the Bangladeshi government should at least admit the presence of Islamist groups in the country and must take decisive action against theocratic activity. When it comes to Islamist groups, proactive action is justified in order to control more attacks on non-violent political commentators and journalists.

1971 worked. Perhaps secular Bangladesh should consider starting another movement for liberation from authoritarianism and theocracy.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

The Irresponsible Legislators

Source: Irfan Mahmood/APP/Pakistan Today

Source: Irfan Mahmood/APP/Pakistan Today

Even though an overwhelming percentage of the population in Pakistan turn up at the voting booth, most of them would not take the parliament seriously. But why should they if the legislators themselves do not take their job seriously?

The Cybercrime Bill was recently passed in the National Assembly, but according to reports in the media, only 32 members were present in the house.

How the bill was even passed with this sort of roll call is incomprehensible. Odds are that most of the MPs would not have even read the bill. Utterly shameful.

This is probably not the first time that we have seen voting patterns dictated by the party leadership. We have witnessed the entire parliament voting unanimously on significant constitutional amendments. But perhaps that’s because the discipline in our political parties is exemplary.

In any case, should such absenteeism be tolerated?

But what to do with a legislature, whose leader, the Prime Minister himself would hardly visit the house once or twice a year. After all, the executive is the legislator-in-chief of the system, isn’t he?

But honestly, I don’t blame the Prime Minister or the respective Chief Ministers for that. The work of the executive office is completely different from that of the Speaker or the Chairman Senate.

The parliamentary system is inefficient in combining the executive office with the legislature. I seriously don’t think that the Prime Minister or the respective Chief Ministers have the time to bother themselves with the business of the legislature. However, they should have the time to at least answer to the body.

This is why I think the administrative branch should be separate from the legislative branch, as in the Presidential system. But this is not necessarily to assert that the parliamentary system does not work well. However, we know for a fact that our current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is not one who fits well in the legislature. He would rather be left alone to administer the affairs of the state with his handpicked cabinet.

One way or the other, we will always have a legislature and since people vote to hire legislators in the general election, it is time we should pay more attention to appraising their performance as well.

This is why the public must have access to a parliamentary performance scorecard, to at least help our passive-aggressive urban ideologues to get an idea of what their elected members are up to.

FAFEN is a great institute, which is already doing a great deal of work in this regard, but not a lot of people pay attention to their work. I highly recommend subscribing to their mailing list to get an insight into the daily proceedings of the federal and provincial legislatures.

However, I am not sure that the contribution of a non-profit with limited resources is enough to inform millions of Pakistanis. It is surely insufficient to reach out to a considerable number of the urban population anyway.

This is why the media could possibly work to provide this information to voters. If continuous programming about it sounds too boring, it’s easy to produce the legislative report card and voting record on issues near the general elections. At least that could help generate some anti-incumbency votes. Only this way can our legislators stop taking their jobs for granted.

As for the terrible house rules, the legislature needs to do a much better job in terms of guarding the rights of the citizens through serious legislative deliberation. But on the other hand, they would probably not be able to vote on anything if they keep on waiting for a reasonable quorum.

Democracy is a fragile process, particularly in a country such as Pakistan where a good number has still not accepted the idea wholeheartedly.

Of course, the guardians of democracy are not helping its case much for the people.

 

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Time to Start Rejecting Mosques

Source: AP/Dawn

Source: AP/Dawn

Think about it. Why should we continue to support a group that is actively destroying our homes, cities, public infrastructure, lives and livelihood?

Why should we continue to support a group that is pitting brother against brother, citizen against citizen and promoting discrimination?

So let’s start rejecting their mosques, their sermons and their processions and give peace and love a chance. And if you cannot do without praying, at least stop funding them or donating to them.

Can we promise ourselves to hold back our charity whenever asked for a donation for a mosque?

There is no need to expect any different from them. You are not going to hear anything peaceful and sane out of these pulpits. All love that they reserve is for the Prophet, which always spells out as trouble for the sinful human beings living in the immediate vicinity of these utterances.

It is the students of these seminaries of hate and ignorance which bred enough hate to render a young man heartless enough to kill innocent Christian women and children. The same mosques have indoctrinated enough toxic hate in the hearts of millions in the name of love for the Prophet to call for killings and destroy public and private property.

The heartbreaking tragedy striking the helpless citizens of Lahore is nothing new from the enemies of this country. However, the disgusting display by the Sunni Tehreek, which should be declared a terrorist organization, and affiliated criminals in Islamabad on March 27 is an eye-opener to all. It has not happened for the first time and probably not for the last time, but the sheer audacity and absurdity with which completely unreasonable demands are made are unacceptable.

To add insult to injury, the Sunni Tehreek is distancing from the violence it unleashed on the capital and making the lives of its citizens miserable. Things get even better with their hideously ignorant and criminal demands it has put forth by gracefully offering to negotiate with the helpless government, whose leniency in letting these criminals wreak havoc is unforgivably disheartening and disappointing.

They are asking the government to glorify a convicted criminal and to give them a carte blanche to murder whoever they want in the name of the love of the Prophet. Not only does this challenge the highest courts of the state, but any standard of humanity and moral decency.

The fearlessness of these groups that is born out of never ever being questioned must be eliminated with an iron fist.

Why should we continue to be hostage to the mullahs who are hostile to our country, our law and our lives?

This is why we need to reject attendance in mosques.

There is a reason why I am saying this.

Personally, I have always considered mosques pulpits of hate and ignorance. However, religion is a necessity in a society like Pakistan, and if you deny that, odds are you don’t understand its makeup. Religion is closely linked with rites of passage and personal and social events such as birth, marriage and death.

Nevertheless, the more people continue to pray in mosques and listen to their hateful, blackmailing sermons, the more they are going to be under the influence. It is the constant exposure to the mosque and the sermon of the hateful mullah that has induced the tolerance of the liberties taken by religious extremists.

Liberals are busy trying to create a new Islam, particularly in the West, trying to fight extremism in their own way. While I wish them well, the realities of the faith in Muslim majority states are far from their utopian cherry picking and eloquent apologies. Therefore, perhaps aversion from the poisonous words of the cleric and religious scholar is a start to purge the venom.

So let the mullahs hear this message of rejection of their hateful mosques loud and clear.

At least until they can prove they are otherwise.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Cuba: The Best of Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy

Source: Fox Business

Source: Fox Business

President Barack Obama has just made history.

He just became the first President to land in Cuba since the 1959 communist revolution.

He is a historic President on many accounts, but he has been particularly instrumental in turning the US foreign policy from a century of proactive hawkish interventionism. Some would argue that he is betraying the legacy of the ideals of his party’s foreign policy giants in the past, while in the view of others, he is actually acting in their tradition.

So what if his vision has left the Middle East in a cesspool? You can’t possibly be right about everything.

People around the world have been upset at the aggressive US intervention in the affairs of other nations since World War II. Others have been horrified by the Bush doctrine of preemptive strike. But probably the most terrible part of the US foreign policy has been reinforcing the isolation of a country that has pretty much imposed that on itself. Cuba.

It would have made sense during the years of Cuban missile crisis. It does not make an iota of sense ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

President Obama may have something in common with President Ronald Reagan in this regard. He helped the Soviet Union cave in by talking to them, contrary to the apocalyptic expectations from him. President Obama believes in doing the same with his adversaries.

There is one thing the isolation and protectionism of socialist economics and communism abhor. Freedom.

See how India and China have blossomed since introducing their close, protected, suffocating markets to the possibilities of free trade. Now the world is finding hard to compete with them.

Which is what both the parties have been getting wrong for a long time about Cuba, while knowing it all along, especially and ironically, President Reagan during the Cold War years. But let’s call it the Fidel Castro effect. He had a knack of boiling American blood, but once he is out of the way, things have become much easier to proceed in this direction.

Because believing in the principle of freedom requires acting on it, not just making inflammatory statements in a largely inconsequential legislature, at least in this regard. Why should anyone among the conservatives blame President Obama for taking action? Especially on a principle they so strongly believe in. Economic liberalism.

Yes, President Obama is right on Cuba and expatriate Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are dead wrong pursuing the age old ignorant policy of the not-so-principled opposition to restoring relations with Cuba.

You beat obscurantism, protectionism and restrictions with more freedom, not responding with the same approach.

Let’s welcome Cuba to freedom again.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Why the Enemies of Islamic State Outside America Should Root for a Republican President in 2016

Source: Daily The Nation

Source: Daily The Nation

Do you believe that the votes of American citizens matter in shaping the future of the world?

Do you also happen to believe that the United States has been following a disastrous foreign policy over the years, creating more chaos than good?

If yes, then chances are that you must blame the 2003 invasion of Iraq for destabilizing the Middle East.

I do too, and that is why I think people sharing these beliefs, and those who want to destroy the Islamic State should root for a Republican President in 2016.

We don’t just need a hawk in the White House, call the candidate a neo-conservative, if you like, but one who is interested in completely eliminating ISIL and one who believes in establishing a permanent ground force in Iraq. I very much wish Hillary Clinton would be that candidate, but the sort of focus and commitment that you can expect from candidates on the Republican side.

I also believe that it has been the foreign policy of President Obama which has led to the current chaos that Iraq and Syria are in. Ever since the rise of ISIL, we have seen President Obama rejecting and belittling the threat has only made matters worse, and only recently he has taken stricter military action.

President Obama relies mostly on air power and drone warfare for his war strategy. Just as his presidency was a reaction to the war overdose during the term of George W. Bush, he probably is allergic to the idea of deploying ground troops as an occupying force.

At this point in history, the world needs the moral leadership of the United States to get rid of this horrific state of affairs in the Middle East. A lot of US citizens assert why the United States should be a part of a regional sectarian conflict. They are right. The United States does not have to be the sole participant of dealing with ISIL, but it must lead the world to that goal. However, that requires a leader that could rally the world around the cause as George W. Bush did during his term.

The world is prepared to take on ISIL, even including Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite their clash of interest in terms of the balance of power in Iraq and Syria. The problem is that the lives of the people of the Middle East cannot be left at the mercy of terrible authoritarian regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, who both have a record of backing terrorist or militant groups for their own political advantage.

Now that Iraq and Syria have reached this state, long term NATO forces must occupy these states in order to ensure the stability required by the citizens migrating to other parts of the world. This is why Western forces have been stationed in high risk regions such as South Korea. The need for such forces is far greater in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan than anywhere else. Such relative stability has been brought in Afghanistan and Iraq was relatively stable as well when George W. Bush left office.

I only wish the Democratic Party had brought more ideas about fighting ISIL in this race. Both the candidates have expressed commitment to fight ISIL, but the issue is given very low priority in the Democratic forum of ideas and is barely even discussed. Sadly, Hillary Clinton’s election would simply mean the continuation of the foreign policy of President Obama for at least 4 more years. If Bernie Sanders win, who knows what the US foreign policy would be. The stakes are too high for any such choices.

Quite frankly, if it were not the issue of foreign policy and ISIL, I would hardly see any reason for someone outside the US to have their interests attached with a candidate. Particularly at a time when a more aggressive US intervention in the Middle East is the need of the hour and one that involves ground occupation. I am sure that the people and leaders of the rest of the world, including Europe and the Middle East, would be watching the 2016 race with similar concerns.

There used to be a time when the Democratic Presidents used to initiate military action abroad, from FDR and Harry Truman to JFK and LBJ. Not that I miss the Democrats being the internationalist hawks, which they still are, but the approach of the political parties have changed since then. Especially since the war overdose of Bush 43 Presidency and President Obama’s allergy to troops on the ground as a reaction.

While most people would like President Obama’s approach, the world cannot afford it. At least, the Middle East cannot afford it any longer. A President with more assertive military leadership and one who seriously believes in destroying ISIL is needed to bring the Middle East back to order.

I know how some people are worried about the immoral and dangerous prospects of a conservative Republican President, but the only immoral and dangerous force that I see in the world is the Islamic State. And the closer the next President is to George W. Bush in approach, the better are the odds of eliminating it.

Let’s get rid of the Islamic State first. Then we can return to our lovefest with the Democratic candidates.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

I Almost Hoisted the Indian Flag Too

Source: AFP/Indranil Mukherjee

Source: AFP/Indranil Mukherjee

A few weeks ago, a curious headline caught my eye. There is a good reason why I really related to the unfortunate individual caught in the whirlpool of insane politics of rivalry between neighbors India and Pakistan. Just like Umar Draz, the arrested fan in Okara is taken by the brilliant drives of Virat Kohli, the brilliant batting of Sachin Tendulkar mesmerized me throughout my teenage years.

However, when you are surrounded by bigots and compulsive nationalist haters, you would never be able to freely express yourself. But sports fans are a different breed. They are out of control. What’s the point in supporting a sports team or an athlete, if you are not showing off and challenging and trash-talking your opponents?

This is precisely what poor Umar Draz had done, and this is precisely what I almost did on a few occasions when Sachin Tendulkar played. Of course, I failed to share the jubilation with my fellow countrymen when Sachin missed his century in the 2003 World Cup game against Pakistan, or failed to steer his team to victory in the Chennai test, or even when Shoaib Akhtar knocked his middle stump out in the Eden Gardens. Alright, I must confess, I did take some pleasure in that memorable dismissal. But great players are even dismissed in a stylish manner.

Let us agree for the sake of argument that hoisting the Indian flag is a deeply immoral wrong. Just like waving the Pakistani flag is considered a crime in Indian occupied Kashmir. Even then, Umar Draz was merely waving the flag of the cricket team he was supporting, which happened to be India. The Kohli posters in his room prove that he is a genuine fan. I blame the format of international cricket for his innocuous act to be taken as one of rebellion and defiance of the state. If you are rooting for your favorite cricket team, you would look like rooting for another country, possibly an enemy.

However, Umar Draz is living in far more comfortable times than my days of following Sachin’s career. If he had given a thought to it, he could also have expressed himself by displaying the flags and colors of the Royal Challengers Bangalore, though the difficulty of accessing the franchise merchandise in Pakistan should also be taken into account.

During the 90s and 2000s, Sachin Tendulkar was not a part of any such team, and therefore I had no choice but to take pleasure in his many tons helping India cruise to victory. In Umar’s defense, he is free to choose to support India over the Royal Challengers Bangalore. Who knows? Maybe he hates the colors and the ridiculous commercialized franchise name.

Since then I have learned that playing cricket with India is a far more political affair than our sport-loving minds could comprehend. Of late, I have even discovered that probably it is not even worth the trouble. But does that prevent you from following the sport you love and express your love for your favorite players across the border? I still enjoy watching the IPL games every now and then.

And in my overzealousness, I almost hoisted the Indian flag for Sachin too. But thank God I didn’t. Though I should be able to whenever I want.

Considering the shocking case of the arrest of Umar Draz, I wonder what would have happened to me. Would I have seen the inside of a filthy cell like Umar Draz for such a harmless act and had my public record ruined for life? Where is our most basic sense of human decency?

Shame on us. Time to make a little change in the penal code.

Originally published in The Nation blogs.

The Right to Gambling and Online Paid Skilled Gaming

Source; profootballspot.com

Source; profootballspot.com

It is always a bad idea to invite the government into the areas of the internet where it is absent to prevent the abuse of regulation. However, avenues that are already eliminated by the government with decades-old theocratic legislation require a corrective intervention. Online gambling and skilled gaming are one such area.

If you are a fan of fantasy sports or are even fond of gambling your hard earned income every now and then, you would have a hard time pursuing such recreational activities in Pakistan. At least at a legal concern or on the internet, unless it happens to be a government sanctioned prize bond scheme or a race course.

Currently, The Prevention of Gambling Act 1977 governs and prohibits such activities in Pakistan with various penalties. The provincial versions of the law were enacted in 1978, while The Public Gambling Act of 1867 under the British law, which it was largely based on, was repealed in Islamabad and Punjab later.

Now there is a good reason why online gambling is banned in many countries. Gambling can be highly addictive and could expose citizens’ capital to great risk of loss.

Nevertheless, despite the risks and dangers involved, it is better to leave it to the citizens to decide about their morals and the disposal of their savings. The best trade-off between freedom and order remains in softening of the Gambling Act to decriminalize and legalize such activity.

There is no doubt that the government should protect citizens from fraudulent practices, eliminate money laundering and prevent organized crime to dominate such activities. This is why legalization of such activities not only offers safe and legal channels for citizens for such recreation due to regulation, but could also help generate considerable public revenue.

Just like every other “moral” issue in Pakistan, you cannot help but notice that the ban on gambling is not without its due share of contradictions, or even hypocrisy. Without going into the embarrassing reasons why, most of us are aware that horse racing is legally protected in Pakistan. Let’s just say that our bureaucracy and feudal class would always make an exception for their lifestyles.

However, thanks to the outdated laws governing anything remotely close to gambling within the boundaries of Pakistan, citizens indulging in the vice are not safe from harassment from the state. This also impacts the online space as betting websites would not open their operations to Pakistan, or even if they do, making transparent financial transactions to such entities would only land you in legal trouble.

Normally, I would hardly advocate the action of legislators as a much needed solution, but repealing is as much their job as enacting new laws. Especially in this case, when the laws in place are such terrible sweeping bans that take away the breathing space from the citizens. If law enforcement authorities were to target civilians, they would even charge citizens under the suspicion of gambling on the possession of dice and cards under the current draconian laws. Countries such as the United Kingdom have modernized their local gambling laws to provide for online gambling. It is about time the rest of the world followed suit.

Prohibiting gambling is one thing, since it is so evil. The taboo against it even sweeps skilled gaming involving financial transactions under the label. Even state attorneys in the United States are insisting on it in the wake of the latest controversies pertaining to insider trading among leading fantasy sports companies. However, bans in states such as New York sound more like prohibiting trading of a commodity due to an instance of financial fraud.

Any sports fan remotely familiar with the activity would know that fantasy sports, while dependent on actual results, rewards calculated risks and the knowledge of the sport. Fans not being able to participate in such paid skilled gaming due to local gambling bans is simply unfortunate.

Pakistani fans, like those in the rest of the civilized world, should be no exceptions when it comes to online skilled gaming. While local fans may not be enthusiastic about NFL or MBL odds, they sure take a keen interest in EPL and cricket related leagues. With the advent of Pakistan Super League, Pakistani cricket fans would be missing a legal means to put their money on their favorite franchises.

The bottom line is that there is no reason why an adult Pakistani should not have access to gambling and skilled gaming, online or offline, whenever they want to entertain themselves. The access to gambling and paid skilled gaming could possibly be considered as a right to the citizens, and when done responsibly can really prove to be a joyful activity.

We have a choice of being blindly morally uptight as usual, or actually make it safer and legal for the citizens to enjoy paid skilled gaming, if not gambling.

A version of the post was published in The Nation blogs.
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