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Letter from Pakistan (1)

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: April 16, 2004

The excitement of my trip to the Asian world began when I stepped off Swiss Air for a twenty-minutes stopover at Dubai Airport in United Arab Emirates Republic that sits on the tip of the Arabian world. Greeted by a riot of colour and a subdued Middle Eastern splendor, I luxuriated in the quiet elegance and the gentility of the people. This brief stopover only allowed me to purchase a few books, some CDs and the Gulf News, It also revived my wearied spirit. After an air flight of fourteen hours (we had stopped over in Zurich for three hours) I was ready to encounter Karachi, Pakistan, a part of the world I had not been to.

I had looked forward to going to Pakistan. I had taught Amer Khan at Harvard, wrote him a very strong recommendation when he applied to Oxford University (he spent a year there) and watched his career grow when he began to work at City Bank in Pakistan. Subsequently, he attended Wharton School in Pennsylvania where he received his MBA. Thereafter, no matter what part of the world we roamed, Khan and I remained fast friends. He taught me a lot about the Islamic world. He was the first person to introduce me to Ali Shariati, the revolutionary Iranian scholar and admirer of Frantz Fanon. Khan always greeted me with the mantra: "What are you reading Professor?"

Khan welcomed me when I arrived at Karachi airport about an hour and a half before midnight. The night air was hot, sticky and uncomfortable as the town extended its greetings to me. Khan welcomed me enthusiastically, displaying his usual warmth and ebullience. After his driver placed my luggage at the back of his car, we wounded our way into a town cluttered with vehicles. Khan had warned me about Karachi drivers but then I had come from Port of Spain and Boston where the driving was not that much different. I was not too unnerved. Everyone seemed to be in a hurried journey towards nowhere with not a moment to spare. Life seemed a frantic spasm in an endless quest of urgent absurdity. When Khan deposited at Sind Club, a holdover from English colonialism, I was tired and needed to rest. We chatted briefly before he left for the night.

During the first three days of my visit, I attended various functions to celebrate Khan's wedding. Yet, I was intent on experiencing the city and getting a sense of how these people felt about the West, which meant how they felt about the United States, which meant how they felt about the Iraqi War. After all, President Bush, his men at the State Department and the Pentagon had told us that when the American liberators (or was it invaders?) entered Baghdad they would be garlanded by the Iraqi people who would be constrained to throw flowers at their feet and thank Allah for the wonders of American beneficence.

On the first day of my visit I had learned that twelve Americans were killed. The next day four more was killed. The next day, another eleven soldiers were killed. While we in the West are concerned about how many Americas were killed, the Muslims were concerned more about how many Iraqis are being killed in the name of freedom. At last count, the coalition forces had killed about 13,000 Iraqis. Muslims did not see such wanton murder as freedom. To the Muslims, the American invasion consisted primarily with stealing Middle East oil and imposing their civilization of the Islamic people. Every conversation I had while I was in Pakistan convinced me of the error of American ways.

But this is getting ahead of myself. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and consume as many as I can each day. Op-ed pieces, editorials, letters to the editors, and the prominence they give to news stories tell a lot about what concern the people of a country. Khan had insisted. "Leave the International Herald Tribute alone [It was publish by the New York Times.] They only tell us what the West wants us to think of itself. Read the local newspapers it gives you a good sense of what the people think." Although I read other newspapers, Dawn, the most popular English-speaking newspaper of Karachi, became my entrée into the minds of the Muslim people. On April 30, Ayaz Amir, writing under the byline, "Islamabad Diary," began his article, "In the Likeness of Yazid," with a striking urgency. He asked: "Are we so blind as to miss the symbolism altogether? Fourteen hundred years after Hussein martyrdom in the sands of Karbarla, another epic drama in blood is being enacted on the same land made holy by his sacrifice." Karbala is the spot where Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, and his family, sacrificed their lives for their religion. It is an event which Trinbagonians commemorate each year when we celebrate Hosay. In 1884, many of us were also killed for the right to celebrate this sacred rite.

Hajaf is another city in which the battle for Iraq is taking place. It is also a holy city to Muslims. "Why is Najaf holy? Because there lies buried the great Ali, Caliph of Islam, husband to Fatima (daughter of the Prophet), father of Hassan and Hussein. Not far off is Karbala where Yazid's army put Hussein and his followers to the sword. Every inch of that soil [is] consecrated by blood and washed in emotion."

Amir contends that the Bush White House and the Cheney/Rumsfeld war machine did not bother to read up on Islamic history when they thought up plans to invade Iraq. In their eagerness to satisfy the triumph of Western imperialism and give Israel more maneuvering room in the Middle East they had forgotten that each society possess its own rhythm and memories, some have longer histories than the United States and prize different things. Did the archeological collections at the Baghdad Museum, some of the richest in the world, possess any meaning to the Americans? Would Americans have reacted in quietude if some of their most important monuments and collections were vandalized without an occupying army raising a hand to stop such sacrilege? Monday, May 3, was Eid Milad-un-Nabi, the birthday of holy Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon him). The streets of Karachi were ablaze with lights, the buildings were decorated accordingly, the green flags, the Islamic symbol of peace and favorite color of the Prophet, were visible everywhere; milads (recitals of praises to the prophets), quirats (recitations of the Koran) and juloos (processions) were taking place all over the town as their leaders gave speeches to commemorate the teaching of their Holy Prophet.

In its editorial, the International News of Karachi, declared that Prophet Mohammed not only brought a new faith to the world "but provided a magnificent example of his own life to emulate for all mankind…[He] stressed that there is no difference of race and colour among Muslims. He taught his followers to be kind to the weak, treat women with love and gentleness, directed to propagate his message to others, avoid differences and schisms among themselves, called to follow the tenets of Islam, be of help to each other in times of difficulties, live like brothers, fulfill resolutions and promises, and respect and protect the property and dignity of Muslims. In fact, he taught how to achieve an exemplary society."

Such affirmations may sound hollow to Western readers so trained (some may say brainwashed) have we become to believe that Islam is a violent religion, a point that Christian leaders in America has made and President Bush augmented when he called these countries "an axis of evil." Muslims certainly do not see themselves in his light. They see the West as having the same belligerent attitudes towards them as they have towards the West. So that if the New York Times replicated the sentiments above as its editorial and changed the words Prophet Mohammed to Jesus, Son of God, there would have been no discernible difference in how the West presented itself to the world. Each civilization, the Islamic and the Christian civilizations, sees itself as the torchbearers of truth.

Earlier that day, I had traveled to Thatta, a town about sixty miles outside of Karachi. I visited the Jamina Mosque that was built in 1644-47 by Shahjahan, the great Mughal emperor who was also responsible for building the Taj Mahal in India. I also visited a burial ground at Makli where a family of saints from Shiraz, Iran who had come to carry on the work of the Prophet, was buried. Then I spent two hours at the bazaars or market place conversing with some of the people there. A large crowd gathered as I enquired about their feelings about the Middle East and other matters. No one trusted the Americans and even Osama Ben Laden was suspect. They believed that he was in league with the Americans. "They could catch him if they wanted to," one young man asserted.

Yet, the dominant sentiments remained. The US has no right in Iraq or the Middle East. Like their counterparts in Iran some years earlier, they, too, feel that the American is the great Satan. Rational, decidedly thoughtful, but forthright. Where I had thought the people would be afraid to speak out no one was unwilling to give his opinion about the Americans and Iraq. They (there were only men around) were not so quick to give their opinions of President General Pervez Musharraf in public.

As we (I was accompanied by a Urooj, a friend of Amer, and his wife) repaired to a restaurant to have a meal (I was not eating since my stomach was in rebellion the night before) I could not help but think what a major miscalculation America had made in entering Iraq without thinking about the complexity of its undertaking in a civilization that was decidedly unlike their own. How could relatively intelligent leaders be so overcome with hubris that they could not see that they were bound to end up holding the nasty end of the pole? With mounting military deaths and reported tortures, another dimension of the American personality is coming to the fore. Sadly, the liberators have become the invaders and the invaders are quickly becoming the barbarians, the appellation of conquerors from another time.

A people as innocent and yes, at times as noble, as the Americans, ought to resist such an evil impulse. They do not deserve such a faith. Ours should not be a clash of civilization but a complementarily of interest. Surely, the dignity of man and the right of people to control their destinies are principles all of us must uphold. Only misguided chauvinism and racial exclusiveness can blind Americans to the evil of its ways. Where are the Lincoln's and the Martin Luther Kings when we need them most?

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