Does Pakistan have a chance at democracy?

Is Pakistan truly a democracy?Nawaz_Pakistan_Thumbnail

In order to answer that question, one has to explore what democracy means.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, democracy is defined as: “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”

So, for Pakistan to truly be a democracy, it 1) has to have supreme power vested in the people, or the majority, and 2) have periodic free elections.

But is that the case? Or is Pakistan actually a bureaucracy, with a few privileged elite running the country and the majority being crushed?

Pakistan was founded in 1947, after independence from the British and partition from India. In the bitter fight over land and resources, landowners in Pakistan hoarded as much land and wealth as possible, trying to preserve their way of life. These landowners would later become involved in the political process of the country and continue to accumulate wealth and power. Pakistan’s legislature is composed of a 100-member Senate and a 342-member National Assembly (or House of Representatives). Most of the representatives of the National Assembly are part of the landowning class. Not only would they control the farmers or poor working class populations of their constituencies through economic subjugation, they would further assert authority by making sure they alone had political power. Never will you hear about a poor farmer in Pakistan’s history who was able to become elected as a minister or state representative. As long as the landowning class flourishes in Pakistan and rises up by stepping on the backs of the poor, how can economic or political equality ever be a possibility?

The landowners or zamindar own hundreds, some even thousands of acres of land, mainly in the states of Punjab and Sindh. While they do little work on the land themselves because of an elitist mentality, their farmers or serfs do backbreaking labor for a few dollars a day. More than half of these farmers are in debt, most of whom have had to borrow money from the landowners themselves. Some spend their entire lives trying to pay back the debt, but dismally low wages and lack of supplementary income prevent these farmers from ever breaking free. Furthermore, as almost all of the farming class is illiterate, they have no other opportunities for progress. The mentality that farmers have no need for a proper education still prevails in Pakistan, with trade and agricultural know-how taking priority over a conventional degree. An added social stigma that they are from the farming class follows them everywhere even if they are educated, making it difficult for them to secure jobs in business, the civil service, or other industries.

Can such a fractured and troubled nation be democratic? The answer is not until the power-hungry landowning class’s power is checked. Not until the zamindar class pays the millions of rupees it owes in taxes. Furthermore, not until the average Pakistani is equipped with political awareness and an education, will they be able to vote for the right candidates to represent them in the government. As long as the literacy rate of Pakistan remains a dismal 56%, how can we expect Pakistanis to vote independently or freely in a fair election?

The people must take matters into their own hands and start with their communities. It is an uphill battle but with dedication and commitment, as well as time, it can be won. There are examples of regular Pakistanis who became inspired to truly build their nation and succeeded in causing positive change.

For such change, most importantly, tax evasion and corruption must be challenged head-on and those responsible must face consequences, no matter how many acres of land they own. It is because the zamindar class believes it is above the law that it is able to buy its way out of every situation. This mindset of entitlement is not exclusive to Pakistanis but it has succeeded in permeating every part of the country’s social structure and must be challenged if democracy is to be attempted. Until poor farmers from villages “owned” by landowners stop being subjugated and told who to vote for, democracy cannot become a reality. There must be an overhaul of this elitist system of government with distribution of power if elections and votes are to have any real meaning.

Until then, democracy will be an ideal, not a reality in Pakistan.


Islam: A Reactionary Religion? US Foreign Policy and the “Muslim World”

Original article:

I would like to start off by stating that there is no excuse and no justification for violence against innocent civilians. I am not here to act as an apologist for violence or criminal behavior of any sort whatsoever. This is an attempt to gain understanding of the supposedly inexplicable and largely violent reaction from so many Muslim countries in response to a badly made film on the internet.

The American Muslim community condemns the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his staff and expresses condolences to their families. Though they may claim it, those who participated in this crime are not true followers of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who taught forgiveness and mercy and lived his life as an example of these lessons. The only purpose of the film, “Innocence of Muslims”, was to incite hatred and violence. Unfortunately, this is exactly the reaction rioters in Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen gave as a response to the film, although many countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, and Afghanistan reacted with largely non-violent protests. Critics argue that the film in question is so terribly made that it should not even have seen the light of day, much less have caused such violence and tragedy. But could the film have been the only reason that so many Muslim countries felt enraged, protested and burned American flags? Or is the underlying answer a little more complicated, and is the truth a little murkier, as it always is?

Why weren’t there such far-reaching riots when Norway published cartoons portraying Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist? Or why aren’t the French embassies in the Middle East being attacked right now as a French magazine has published naked cartoons of the Prophet? Shouldn’t the creators of such disrespectful cartoons have faced the same outrage that the creator of “Innocence of Muslims” faced?

The truth is that much of the so-called “Muslim world” sees, specifically, the US government’s international interests and interventionist foreign policy as counter to the safety and well-being of its people. It sees drone attacks, which are supposed to target extremists as opposed to civilians, but rarely do, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan. It sees the unconditional and unquestionable support the American government gives to Israel in the form of military and financial aid even when Israel commits war crimes and human rights violations against Palestinians. It sees President Obama’s claim that Guantanamo Bay Prison will be shut down and the prisoners – many of whom are kept there without many constitutional rights or any hope of trial – will be released as ignored. It tries to make sense of the decades of baffling support for dictators in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Jordan, and horror of horrors, Libya and Egypt – the two countries which saw the worst protests as a response to the film. It sees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi and Afghan civilians who suffered unspeakable brutality, the destruction of their economy, infrastructure, and national psyche, and the installation of uncertain and shaky governments. Then, as a final straw, they see “Innocence of Muslims”, a trashy, low-budget and downright spiteful attempt at mocking their revered religious figure, their faith and their way of life.

It is not so difficult to believe, then, that countries around the world with Muslim majorities would confuse and conflate this film’s contemptuous message as a partner in crime to the aggressive military action and intervention the American government has utilized as part of its foreign policy. The above-mentioned countries, albeit wrongly, see the US government’s support of anti-Islamic rhetoric as predictable as they have already witnessed said government adopting questionable practices and policies in regards to the “Muslim world”. This is not to promote the rioters’ burning of public property, attacking civilians, or damaging their own infrastructure or to accept this violent response as practical. It is to attempt to understand the history of Middle Eastern-American relations which extends beyond “Innocence of Muslims”, as the film was only a nudge which caused the deck of cards to crumble.


Fear and Loathing in “Homeland”

Original article: Fear and Loathing in “Homeland”

I started watching Homeland, knowing that the high-energy political thriller had won critical acclaim and several Emmys last month. I got hooked right away – pulled in by the fast-paced story, compelling performances, and the unrelenting tension between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” – as they are so aptly called in the show. As a viewer, I could never put my finger on what was coming next, or how the story would shift. However, as an American Muslim and keen observer of international politics, I could not ignore the troubling and reoccurring factual errors about Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East. These manifest in the dialogue and plot, making it difficult to discuss the show without addressing its problematic narrative which required suspension of disbelief about the Muslim community.

Showtime’s runaway hit Homeland focuses on Nicholas Brody and Carrie Mathison, played by Damian Lewis and Claire Danes respectively. Brody is a sergeant in the US Marine Corps – recently returned to his wife and two children in suburban Virginia – who had been stationed in Iraq. During a mission, he was captured by Al-Qaeda and held in an underground torture chamber for eight years. Carrie, a CIA agent who has also worked in Iraq, has received intelligence from an Al-Qaeda member after months of interrogation that an American who has recently returned to the US from Iraq had been “turned.” Carrie suspects Brody is now actively planning a terrorist attack on American soil while working with the head of Al-Qaeda, a Bin Laden-esque figure named Abu Nazir.

Homeland is based on the Israeli TV series Hatufim (Prisoners of War) which was created by Israeli screenwriter, director, and producer Gideon Raff. The series is about a group of Israeli soldiers who are captured as POWs in Lebanon in 2008 and the difficulties they face trying to readjust to civilian life. It is not surprising that the series would be easily adaptable for U.S. audiences as Israel and the U.S. share a similar stance when it comes to Middle Eastern affairs.

In another instance, Beirut is shown as a dusty, medieval bazaar, instead of the bustling metropolitan city it is, where armed militias in jeeps terrorize dilapidated neighborhoods and Hezbollah commanders leave their top-secret battle plans at the kitchen desk. Iraq is shown as a demonic hell-hole where Americans are tortured and killed. Needless to say, any American watching the show will not be inclined to think well of Muslims, much less visit a Middle Eastern country. This type of scene is recycled time and time again in mainstream media portrayals of Muslim-majority countries.

Sure enough, the Israeli series’ influence on Homeland is indubitable. Interestingly, the scenes representing Lebanon and Iraq were shot in Israel. What was even more fascinating was that six supporting actors, who are not of Arab ethnicity, play Arabs in the show. The actor playing a Saudi prince is an Israeli American named Amir Arison. Why was a Saudi actor not hired?

Yusuf Swade, who plays Hasan Ibrahim, Abu Nazir’s bomb-maker, is also Israeli. And what about Abu Nazir, a Palestinian being played by an Iranian actor named Navid Negahban? Raquim Faisel, another Saudi national in the show, is also played by an Iranian, actor Omid Abtahi. Hrach Titizian is of Armenian descent but is playing Danny Galvez, a character of Guatemalan and Lebanese origin. Zuleikha Robinson, who plays Roya Hammad, a Pakistani-British character, is of Burmese-Indian and English descent.

As I researched the characters’ backgrounds, I couldn’t help but question why Arab or Pakistani characters in Homeland are not being played by Arabs or Pakistanis? Wouldn’t it be more authentic, honest, and believable if Arab voices were heard in a show about Arabs? Is it that Arab actors refused to be part of Homeland or that the people behind Homeland purposely chose to not have Arab actors portray significant characters in the show? This could be comparable to actors who are not black playing African Americans on television, which is considered deeply offensive to the African American community today. Or could it be that the Arab American narrative is considered un-American and unpatriotic in popular culture, so much so that we require non-Arabs to tell us what Arabs’ lives are like?

This was not the only problem I have as a fan of Homeland; I also have trouble accepting Carrie and Brody as entirely credible characters.

I enjoy watching them play off of each other as Homeland’s crux is the dynamic between Carrie and Brody. The writers intelligently construct the entire show around a single relationship; to simply call it complicated would be an injustice to the show itself. Lewis plays Brody with a delicious duality, lying without a second thought to Carrie, his wife, his children, and even to himself. He keeps everyone under the dark about where his loyalty truly lies and yet maintains a respectable appearance, wearing a military uniform ironed to perfection. He is vulnerable yet dangerous, a loving father yet a terrible husband, claims to love his country yet actively assists Abu Nazir (who reportedly hates America) undergoes severe emotional and physical trauma, yet does not think twice about inflicting said trauma on others when necessary.

Furthermore, Carrie champions American nationalism with a self-righteousness that is frankly nauseating. She has no problem installing video and audio surveillance in Brody’s home to gather evidence against him, but does not forgive him when he lies to her about his identity.  Her strongest conviction is that she, and only she, must defend America from all threats, internal and external, the foremost threat being Abu Nazir, whose name Claire Danes mispronounces with relish. Keep in mind that this character is a CIA agent, fluent in the Arabic language. As someone who has studied Arabic, it was annoying to hear Carrie speak as if she did not know the pronunciation of Arabic names. Surely, could the show afford an accent coach?

As we find out over the course of the first season, Carrie is volatile and unpredictable. Even after she finds out that Brody has been turned into a “terrorist”, (as he decides to change foreign policy from the inside out through becoming a congressman than through Abu Nazir-like violent revolution) she does not stop loving him. This was a very difficult pill for me to swallow, as I would expect a CIA agent to be a bit more logical. Even after she undergoes self-imposed Electro Convulsive Therapy after an emotional breakdown brought on by Brody’s violent rejection to her “spying” on him based on suspicion that he is a terrorist, she still goes back to working for the CIA. Even after suffering humiliation by her boss, David Estes, she risks her life to go to Beirut to investigate a link between the Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, which might lead to Abu Nazir.

Because according to the show, there is no other choice to save America; there is no one more skilled or more intuitive or even more emotionally stable in the entire Central Intelligence Agency than Carrie Mathison. As a person who is a critical thinker, this is truly difficult to buy.

One cannot help but question whether Carrie is a sadomasochist, who revels in the pain she actively puts herself through in the name of work because of her disorder or whether this is how the creators of Homeland believe CIA agents would be. Even more worrying, however, is the thought that this is how said creators believe CIA agents should be. And if that is truly their belief, are they selling us near-lies in the name of entertainment?

I agree that the premise is fascinating, designed to keep the audience on its toes, with deeply flawed and still likeable characters, uncomfortably involved in each other’s lives. However, as I quickly realized, and as you might have guessed by now, the show is engineered to appeal to a certain demographic, one which does not require much critical thinking or deep understanding of international affairs, instead requiring the audience to stomach giant leaps in implausibility.

For example, Carrie is not alone in the mispronunciation camp; often, Brody mispronounces the Arabic prayers which he learned from Abu Nazir. Surely Abu Nazir knows the correct way to pray in Arabic, considering he has been Muslim much longer than Brody! In one scene, Brody offers salaah with shoes on, which is a huge blooper. It would only take a quick Google search to confirm that Muslims must not wear shoes while praying. This is not to mention that Isa (pronounced Ee-saa), the Arabic name for Jesus is pronounced Ah-i-sa, repeatedly. In the first episode of the second season, Brody’s wife Jessica throws his copy of the English translation of the Quran on the floor, after finding out that Brody has converted to Islam. Aside from the fact that I flinched instinctively at this disrespect, albeit coming from a fictional character, I was taken aback by what Jessica says at this moment and by her sheer disgust at Brody’s new identity.

“This can’t happen. You have a wife, two kids. You’re in the running to become congressman. This can’t happen, you get that right?”

Yes, because being Muslim and an American politician are incongruous, right? You can’t possibly be human or sane if you’ve converted to Islam. I could only wonder what the writers were trying to say in this scene.

Jessica goes on to argue that Brody being Muslim would jeopardize their daughter Dana’s relationship with her boyfriend because, in her view, Dana would be stoned to death for pre-marital sex if she was Muslim. And let’s not get started on how it would affect the kids’ future if anyone found out their father was a Muslim. Jessica is more terrified at Brody’s new-found faith, than hurt that he has lied to her countless times.

This is what truly makes me nervous about Homeland’s premise, not the mispronunciations or the easily avoidable inaccuracies, but that it actively perpetuates Islamophobia. Carrie and Brody’s relationship is built on fear and distrust; both of them represent the “us vs. them” attitude.

Every Muslim character in the show is suspicious at best, a terrorist at worst. None of the Muslims, according to Homeland, can be trusted to run their households, much less run for political office. This propagates further misunderstanding and fear of Muslims in the minds of the audience. Instead of dispelling stereotypes, Homeland promotes them, actively selling Islamophobia in the name of thrill and action.

As a fan of the show, I feel compelled to discuss these inaccuracies and problems. As an American, I feel it both misrepresents Muslims in America and abroad and promotes Islamophobia to audiences worldwide. I hope that in the future, Homeland’s writers and directors prove to be less concerned with gimmicks than with fact. A nuanced, balanced, and fair representation of Muslims would only add credibility to the show and increase viewership. Who knows, maybe more Muslims like me would even like to watch it without having to criticize every episode.

DREAM or Nightmare?

Original article: DREAM or Nightmare?

NOTE: This article was written in June, 2011. As of October 2012, I am legally authorized to work in the US because of President Obama’s executive order to act on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

I am a 21-year-old undocumented University of Illinois at Chicago graduate with a Bachelors degree in English literature. As my career goal is to become a professor, I need to attend graduate school. However, because of my immigration status, I am unable to work legally, apply for financial aid or student loans or federal grants. Therefore, it is virtually impossible for me to continue my education until my immigration status is adjusted and I have become legal. I had pinned my hopes on the DREAM Act which would provide undocumented students of a certain age a pathway for citizenship. My hopes were dashed when the Senate rejected the Act last December. I was back to square one.

Support the DREAM act

As is the case with the families of most undocumented students, my parents worked day and night to earn enough money to pay full tuition and fees so that I may graduate from UIC. I did not receive one cent in aid from any government scholarship, any private grant, or any student loan. I worked equally hard as my classmates and earned straight A’s in all of my English classes, almost to prove to everyone and to myself that I was competent enough to go to school in the U.S. If my parents were not extremely dedicated to their children’s education, and I was not doggedly determined that I finish college, I might not have graduated. I would probably be sitting at home in Chicago wasting away my talents or have seriously considered traveling back to Pakistan, where I am a citizen.

I quickly realized good grades are not enough for Americans to back the DREAM Act. There is widespread hostility against immigrants. They are considered leeches who feed on taxpayers’ dollars and take away jobs, only to go back to their home countries and invest in their own economies.

These ideas are incredibly misguided. Most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are hard-working, proud Americans who raise families and believe in the American ideals of liberty, dignity, and opportunity. Most of them are low-wage, working-class people who need to feed their children and pay the bills like all Americans. Critics of the DREAM Act are quick to point out what immigrants “take” from this country, but why do undocumented individuals’ contributions to this country go unmentioned? Chances are you will see an undocumented student cleaning toilets, picking fruit or flipping burgers, earning less than the minimum wage for years with no hope of a better future.

Has it not occurred to opponents of the DREAM Act that if I was to become a professor one day, which is my life’s dream, I would teach American students at an American university and pay taxes which would ultimately help the economy? Why must I be told “No” when I have worked just as hard as everyone else in my graduating class and have paid UIC four years’ worth of tuition — money which my parents could have used to buy a better home, a nicer car, or saved for retirement? Why must their sacrifices go to waste and my dreams be denied?

The answer is that while the American government is content with exploiting undocumented workers and using them as serfs, it does not want to give them rights. Lawmakers know that even if such an individual acquires a social security number, he or she will pay taxes but never get retirement benefits or social security. They will not be able to drive, or get a state-issued ID or travel outside of the country. Neither will they vote or have any say in electing their mayor or congressman or senator.

So far, the government has continued to turn the DREAM into a nightmare for millions of undocumented people. Ideas like “civil rights”, “liberty”, “justice”, and “freedom” will remain to be merely words to those who are undocumented until they are implemented and made available to us. I urge the Senate, the House of Representatives, and President Obama to back the federal DREAM Act in order to provide undocumented youth who were brought here as children a chance at success – a chance at a normal life.  Let the dream live; do not let it become a nightmare for the millions like me.

CAIR-Chicago Attorneys Help Iranian-American Become Citizen after Years of Delay

Original article:

Massoud Nejad, an Iranian-born American resident, first came to the United States from Iran in 1978 to study at the University of Illinois. He became a permanent resident in 2000 and applied for citizenship in December, 2008.

“My first citizenship interview was in April of 2009 and Christina was with me throughout,” Nejad recalls. The United States Central Immigration Services, or USCIS, told Nejad that he would have to wait four months for the final decision on whether his interview was successful or not. If a candidate passes the Citizenship Test, U.S. law mandates USCIS to naturalize applicants within 120 days.

After waiting for more than a year and never receiving a reply from the USCIS, CAIR-Chicago filed a complaint in federal court requesting that Nejad be naturalized.  The court remanded the case back to USCIS to make a decision, only to result in USCIS denying Nejad’s citizenship application in October 2010.

The main reason given for denial was failure to report an arrest in 1978. Nejad confirmed that he had, in fact, reported the arrest and that the reason was made up as an excuse to further delay his case.

After continuous appeals by CAIR-Chicago to USCIS, the decision was finally reversed in October of 2011, when Nejad, who has been in the U.S. for more than 30 years, was finally granted U.S. citizenship.

Throughout this time, Nejad faced countless judges, was put on probation for five years for being a political activist in Iran, was arrested several times, and harassed by the FBI. Nejad recalls how FBI agents broke into his apartment in 2008 and questioned his wife about his political past.

“I don’t know what I would have done if CAIR-Chicago was not there to help me. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what would have happened to me,” Nejad said.

Litigation Director Vodak appreciated USCIS’s cooperation, “We are glad the USCIS made the right decision of granting Nejad citizenship, even if it took them three years to do it.”

In 2010, 22 Muslims attained citizenship through CAIR-Chicago’s intervention.  In the past four years, 494 such reports have been received by the organization, out of which 317 cases have been solved.


CAIR-Chicago Executive Director Ahmed Rehab speaks at AIC conference on Islam and Muslims in America

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The American Islamic College (AIC) in Chicago held its second conference on Islam and Muslims in America in association with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Sept. 17, 2011. The conference featured Muslim leaders, scholars, and activists from around the nation and the world to discuss issues of relevance to Muslim Americans.

Participants discussed the relationship between American foreign policy and the Muslim world, the implications for democracy as demonstrated by the Arab Spring, Islam in the American context, and the future of Muslims in America and the world community.

The main focus of the conference was Islam and democracy. CAIR-Chicago’s Executive Director, Ahmed Rehab, moderated a panel entitled “Winds of Change in the Muslim World: Implications for Democracy.”  Rehab also gave a speech in line with this theme. The purpose was to explore what is now known as the “Arab Spring” and its importance for the Arab countries striving for democracy.

Dina Rehab, AIC’s administrator and former CAIR-Chicago Outreach Coordinator said “As an academic institution, we feel it is our primary responsibility to educate the public on issues that relate to Islam and Muslims in America. The AIC conference provides a unique platform for speakers and guests to participate in these very real discussions.”

The event was a success, and brought together many prominent leaders from the interfaith community. “We heard a lot of very positive feedback this year,” Ms. Rehab recollected.  Many attendees drove in from out of state to attend.

Guest speakers included Kareem M. Irfan, Esq. Board of Trustees at AIC, Rashad Hussain, President’s Special Envoy to OIC, Hon. Jan Schakowsky, Congresswoman from Illinois, H. Excellency Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of OIC, Azeem Ibrahim from the Insitute for Social Policy and Understanding, John Edwin Mroz, President and CEO of the EastWest Institute, Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation, Muqteder Khan, Director of the Islamic Studies Program, Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director at CAIR-Chicago, Qamar-ul-Huda of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Richard W. Bulliet of Columbia University, Stephen Grand of the Bookings Institute, Zaher Sahloul, Chairman of CIOGC, Gadeir Abbas, CAIR National Staff Attorney, Imam Mohamed Magid, President of ISNA, Aisha Adawiya, President of KARAMAH, Hayrettin Yucesoy of the Washington University in St. Louis, Ayse Kadayifci of Georgetown University, Salam Al-Marayti, President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Hannah S. Rosenthal, and Marica Hermansen, Board of Trustees at AIC and Loyola University with Rashad Darwish of RiseUp Radio Show as the MC.

The AIC and OIC plan to continue holding this conference annually.