Imran Khan on the politics of culture

Reading Imran Khan lay out his feelings towards Pakistan's history of colonialism in Jason Burke's article in the Observer today, Londonstani couldn't help wonder whether the dynamic he describes is felt as universally as he suggests.

"Khan says he first became aware of the effects of colonialism as a teenager. "My first shock was going from Aitchison to play for Lahore. The boys from the Urdu [local language] schools laughed at me… Then in England we had been trained to be English public schoolboys, which we were not. Hence the inferiority complex. Because we were not and could never be the thing we were trying to be."

Even the memory agitates him. "I saw the elite [in Pakistan] who were superior because they were more westernised. I used to hear that colonialism was about building roads, railways etc… but that's all bullshit. It kills your self-esteem. The elite become a cheap imitation of the coloniser."

Londonstani does agree that the feeling of inferiority is real and does propel people to attempt to exorcise themselves of the stigma in different ways. There was a time in South Asia when "aping" Western habits, dress and modes of living was seen as a way to be equal (As Londonstani has seen in his great grandfather's memoirs). When, as Imran suggests, the acquired habits didn't lead to acceptance on equal terms, later generations came to vilify those same Western habits and idolise the "indigenous".

It's always struck Londonstani as odd that its often the wealthy (or upper middle class) in post colonial countries in the Middle East and South Asia and Muslims in Western countries that almost fetishise an imagined sense of the "pure" and "original". In this world view, "Western" or "modern" norms, vices or "problems" include (but aren't limited to) dysfunctional families, drug or alcohol use, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, consumerism and greed. As if somehow none of these things existed in 1,400 years of Muslim civilisation from Morocco to Malaysia.

The result is that those from formerly colonialised countries either idolise or vilify their own society and the civilisation that used to rule them. Neither the West nor their own societies are seen for what they are; good and bad.

However, this unhealthy relationship is based on a power dynamic. The former coloniser needs to be seen as powerful and influential. Therefore, worthy of emulation or vilification. What happens when the goal posts change?

The reason Londonstani brings this up in the context of Jason's article is that he mentions Imran Khan turning 60. The former cricketer is seen as amongst Pakistan's "younger" politicians. In reality, Imran Khan's age means that his world view is fashioned by an experience most Pakistanis will not have lived through. 66 percent of Pakistanis are under 30. Colonialism definitely does not loom as large for them.

While it's true that Western fashion, language and habits are seen as status symbols across various levels of Pakistani society, no longer are they "English" cultural markers. What makes you "cool" in Pakistan is increasingly likely to be the trends of a globalised youth culture. Some of it might be Western in origin, but a lot of it is going to be filtered through Chinese, Indian, American or Arab tastes.

To get out of this nasty little vicious circle Imran Khan needs to figure out how in the future Pakistani youth culture will be contributing to the global mix. A plan to unleash Pakistani creativity on the world is what Londonstani wants to hear from a man who plans to be the country's future leader. What he doesn't want to hear is a man who courts the country's young sounding like the old guy at your grandmother's house on Eid that everyone avoids.

Changing relationships - Government and the people(s)

UK diplomat Tom Burn, an old friend of Londonstani's from the days they both studied Arabic at university, has started blogging on Her Majesty's Service. This, in Londonstani's view, is to be encouraged because 1) Tom is very clever and needs to be listened to, 3) It's not common to hear what clued-up people working in government are thinking about the evolving nature of how governments and people interact, and 3) Tom has good taste in Hip Hop music. (So please, drop him a line and ask him what OutKast and The Pharcyde can teach us about power relationships).

Tom's latest post makes some very interesting points about governance:

"What I think is interesting about the Arab Spring and the broader impact of change driven online across the world, is the potential it has not only for changing the relationship between citizens and government, but also for changing government itself. A government that simply changes how it delivers its messages might be missing the point. Might online society also change government itself?"

And then the killer line at the end;

"We cannot just go on governing in the same way, but communicating digitally. We also have to think about how to govern digitally."

In Londonstani's experience, sensible grown up types sometimes get a little incredulous at the idea that interwebs can change the world, and so dismiss the whole discussion outright. In Londonstani's view, the point here is that the online world, social media and the rest, is just a new tool for disseminating and sharing information. This by itself is not a new phenomenon, but a continuation of a process that started with people drawing on cave walls before progressing to print, radio and television. However, it does change the relationship people have with information; where does it come from, who controls it, how much are you willing to share, how much do you get to know etc. This in turn affects the relationship between people, and between people and power.

Mubarak's end didn't come when Facebook and Twitter arrived in Egypt, but when al Jazeera showed Egyptians that US warships were moving through the Suez Canal on the way to attack Iraq.

Marc Lynch on strategic communications in Syria

Middle East expert Marc Lynch has a policy brief out over at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) arguing for more diplomatic pressure on Syria rather than armed intervention.

Two recommendations that caught Londonstani's eye were what Marc calls "counter regime propaganda" and "support and encourage unity amongst opposition groups".

On the communications approach, Marc suggests that an effort that would publicise the regime's atrocities to effectively disabuse supporters of the convenient falicy that the government is not massacring civilians to cling to power, but rather fighting a militant insurection.

Londonstani hasn't been in Syria since the uprising, but keeping in mind what he remembers of the media environment there, he suspects that Syrians who want to know what's happening are likely to be able to find out. What the regime is relying upon is the desire not to know. This may be because people have a personal link to the establishment, or a personal stake in the status quo (which could, but not necessarily, have an ethnic/sectarian element).

An effective communications campaign against the Syrian regime would start where all effective communications begin; figuring out what the regime is saying and trying to understanding what emotions/fears/hopes it's trying to tap into.

The most obvious regime line of argument - as seen time and again in other Arab states - is the claim of "Western conspiracy"and the appeal to Arab/national pride. Addressing, disproving and defusing this narrative is key. Marc's point about reassuring minorities that the fall of the regime might actually be a good thing for them, makes sense within this approach.

The point about the Syrian opposition could also be linked to diplomacy and communications. Yes, the opposition needs unity. One way to encourage that would be to leverage Syrian civil society groups, diaspora communities and individuals inside the country to press their would-be representatives to shoulder their responsibility more effectively.

Democracy promotion - not-so-soft power

Is democracy promotion "soft power"? Over at Foreign Policy, Christian Caryl makes the very important point that, actually, no.

"We Americans tend to see promoting democracy in other societies as a gentle, win-win, do-gooding exercise. What we tend to forget, though, is that introducing democratic institutions into previously authoritarian societies means changing the structure of power. And we should hardly expect those who are losing power to step aside quietly. Those catchwords so favored by the humanitarians may sound harmless, but in certain quarters they have explosive force. "Transparency" is a curse to the intriguer in the shadows. "Accountability" is a nightmare for the unelected autocrat. And "good governance" fills the corrupt official with dread."

Like Caryl, Londonstani also believes that this sort of thing is very worth doing. But lets be clear that in terms of difficulty and effect, it's in no way the easier option.

Networks and counternetworks

Author Jonathan Liddell has been in Homs reporting on the Syrian regime's assult on the city. His dispatches - describing how medics and the wounded are being targeted - adds to the harrowing picture of events unfolding in Syria.

The printed edition of the Guardian has a side bar by Liddell titled: "How I made it into Syria undercover". Londonstani is unable to find this smaller piece in the online edition, so it's worth copying out a small portion of it for a little closer attention:

"The Ba'ath part and the mukhabarats (security agencies) - a grid that has dominated the life of the country for decades. Society had in these past few months put in place a counter-grid, almost as effective, made up of civilian activists, notables, religious figures, and, more and more armed forces... This counter-grid resists the other one, circumvents it and is even starting to absorb it in part."

For those interested in political activism or social change, the idea of identifying and connecting networks (or grids) is something that comes up time and again. Politicians running for office and writers rely on endorsements as much as underground urban music promoters in the UK rely on informal networks to get the word out and sell tickets.

There is often reference to networks of some sort or another in the thinking of activists from Martin Luther King to Gandhi to Omar al Mukhtar. While thinkers like Saul Alinsky have focused specific thought on identifying and connecting networks.

While a range of actors, activists and agitators seek to multiply effects by utilising networks, there are, in Londonstani's experience, two notable exceptions; al-Qaeda inspired extremism and Western public diplomacy.

At first glance, AQ seems to be all about networks and alliances; AQ in the Islamic Meghreb, al Shabab, utilising "lone wolves" etc. But all of those examples are tactical alliances with like-minded organisations. And, without a doubt, harnessing networks for tactical benefit has served AQ well. However, AQ is limited in utilising networks to accomplish its ultimate aim of world wide conflict by the rigid nature of its ideology. AQ is fantastic example of the "strength through unquestioning unity" school of thought, which means there is a very definite limit to how much it will allow its ideology to adapt or be influenced by the ideas or needs of potential allies, collaborators and the general public.

Londonstani, although not an expert in AQ ideology (you need to look to people like Will McCants or Thomas Hegghammer for that), sees the group's "Vanguard" ideology as rooted in the idea that effective action can only be accomplished by elite groups who drag the masses along with them.

Public diplomacy by the likes of the US and UK largely seems to avoid engaging with networks of civil society, media and business actors in places where they want to have an impact. (Arriving with an army to talk to rebels about how to help remove a dictator is not quite the same thing). However, one possible model to look at is the way international aid organisations like Oxfam, Amnesty and the ICRC spend much time and resource identifying those with similar aims to them and working them.

Either way, identifying, assessing and engaging with networks in order to make things happen is not the easy way of getting things done. But it is the most effective. If you don't think so, just look at AQ's (lack of) mass popularity across the Muslim world.

British decline and jingo-ism

Interesting article in the Guardian last week on the decline of British power in the world and the inversely proportional surge in jingoism:

"The rattling of the old jingoistic sword is a sure sign that the English ruling class feels its power ebbing away, torn between a European super-state, the aspirations of the Celtic fringe and demographic changes within England itself. Whether the English can awake from their long dream of empire and use this opportunity to renew their sense of identity remains to be seen."

In Londonstani's experience, jingoism is definitely not limited to the UK, or England. That sense of belligerent nationalism can be found pretty much anywhere countries feel a sense of power and prestige ebbing away. Often, the greater the perceived past glory, the more ugly the jingoism, and the greater ability to ignore present failings (umm Egypt), or blame others (... Pakistan).

Anyway, Billy Bragg suggests:

"Unless and until we throw off our imperial pretensions and begin to relate to our neighbours as equals, joining with them in creating new networks of active devolution and shared sovereignty, we English are in danger of becoming an insular people, jealously guarding the right to make our own laws while increasingly unable to control our destiny."

Easier said than done... but still good idea.

The Anthony Shadid Middle East masterclass

The New York Times published on Friday what must have been one of the last articles written by Anthony Shadid before he passed away.

"Islamist Ideas on Democracy and Faith Face Test in Tunisia" embodies exactly what James Zogby meant when he said:

"Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Anthony appreciated the fact that the story of the region didn't begin the day he got the assignment. His reporting reflected a historian's appreciation for context. He understood contemporary Arab realities, because he knew from whence they had come."

To really fully appreciate what Middle East coverage has lost, read the article and see an expert effortlessly delve into the roots and evolution of Islamist politics - an issue that will be key in the development of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

"No one knows how one of the most critical chapters in the history of the modern Arab world will end, as the region pivots from a movement against dictatorship toward a movement for something that is proving far more ambiguous. But the generation embodied by Mr. Ferjani, shaped by jail, exile and repression and bound by faith and alliances years in the making, will have the greatest say in determining what emerges."

To Londonstani, Anthony's genius was always to promise less and deliver more in his writing. In this article on Tunisian Islamist Said Ferjani, you get - not only an exploration into the thinking of key Islamist figures - but context about its rise as a political philosophy, insight into its evolution and knowledge about the processes that have affected its development.

As Anthony moves from Ferjani's first contact with Islamist thinker Rachid al-Ghannouchi:

"He was always talking about the world and politics,” Mr. Ferjani said. “Why as Muslims are we backwards? What makes us backwards? Is it our destiny to be so?”

to a paragrapher primer on Islamist political philosophy:

"The questions posed by Mr. Ghannouchi have shaped successive generations of Islamists, a term that never captures their diversity. The theme was examined in the work of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose notion of missionary work proved so successful over 50 years. It was there, too, in the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian thinker whose writings resonated long after he was hanged in 1966, helping give rise to a militant Islamism that bloodied the Middle East. Later, “The Hidden Duty,” a text that laid the groundwork for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, tried to resolve the issue. So did Mr. Ghannouchi, who endorsed pluralism and democracy, even as revolution raged in Iran."

to the London experience of ideological evolution;

"Mr. Ferjani compared his years in London to the intellectual awakening he underwent in Kairouan in the 1970s. Settling with his wife and five children in the neighborhood of Ealing, he remained in Islamist circles, soon embroiled in the debates over Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but broadening his horizons into civil society. He took classes on the history of Europe, democracy, the environment and social change."

the reader gets a sense of a transnational ideological movement responding to ground realities as members disagree, learn, adapt and evolve their thinking.

"In debates that played out across the Arab world, though often ignored by the West, the questions of reconciling democracy and Islam raged from the 1990s on."

And this is really why Anthony was so good at what he did. He got to the bottom of a simple reality by humanising it, while many others spoke around the issues without helping anyone understand what lay behind them.

For Londonstani, it was Anthony's novelist-like writing skills that made him so readable, but it was his knowledge and empathy that made him so rare.

RIP Anthony Shadid

It was with much sadness that Londonstani learnt this morning that foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid passed away during a reporting assignment covering the Syrian uprising.

Londonstani had the good fortune to meet Anthony on several occasions and he was always generous with his time and his advice. In a profession that has earned a reputation of attracting the vain, maladjusted and slightly unhinged, Anthony stood out as a professional driven by a genuinely altruistic desire to tell the stories of the voiceless.

Reporting in war zones all too often focuses on those doing the fighting, Anthony told the stories of those caught in the middle. And in the grand scheme of things, it's what they think that will decide how things eventually turn out.

George Packer at the New Yorker says this about Anthony:

"Anthony knows that terrain better than any foreigner. Is Tripoli about to fall? Shadid will get inside as soon as he can. Is Cairo having another revolution? He’s there and knows how to explain why it’s happening. If anyone can get into Homs, it’ll be Anthony. He combined professional excellence with quiet indefatigability, so that you only noticed it when he wasn’t on the scene. He was the Cal Ripken of foreign correspondents."

Aid and the US-Egyptian psycho drama

Steven A Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations says it's time to cut aid to Egypt.

"I say we oblige [Egyptian Minister] Aboul Naga and wind down the aid program—including military assistance—as soon as practical."

Londonstani finds himself in agreement with Steven, but not exactly for the same reasons - well not this one anyway:

"It’s hard to run against the “foreign hand” if there is no foreign hand."

Whereas Steven might have gone too far in thinking local perceptions of US influence follow a simple linear logic, he doesn't go far enough in his labelling of US-Egyptian relations as a "psycho-drama".

It's way worse than that. It's more of a zombie horror movie - before the days zombies became funny.

At the crux of the aid issue is a dilapidated, clapped out, Egyptian self image manufactured a long time ago by leaders who saw the Soviet Union as an exemplary model of social control. This self image has taken a serious battering in the modern information age. 

As Londonstani remembers it, before about 2000, the Egyptian state wasn't too keen to talk about the aid it got from the US for two reasons: 1 - It wanted to avoid discussion around it's core reason for moving rfrom the Soviet to the US camp (its economy was a shambles and it needed help). 2 - The aid issue got in the way of the state's defence of its ideological frontiers. 

Londonstani would go as far as to say that existence of the aid was not common knowledge to most Egyptians. The reason why he'd go out on a limb with that last statement, is because US aid to Egypt was one of the first stories he covered as a journalist in Cairo. Thomas Friedman had published a mock letter from Bill Clinton to Mubarak asking, rhetorically, what the US got for its money. That evening, Londonstani did a bit of polling in the local coffeeshops and found that not one person could tell him how much aid Egypt got or when it started flowing. Most were openly surprised.

That changed. Over the next five years, as opposition to Mubarak grew more vocal, US news organisations mentioned the aid more frequently, and US officials became more comfortable with flinging around threats to cut it off. The end result was that many more Egyptians came to hear about the aid.

Mubarak's response was to carry on like before. The sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was first arrested in 2000 for accepting foreign funds without permission, was dragged through the courts for nearly a decade in a case that drew local and international attention. A number of other democracy activists were prosecuted for similar offences.

The US, which was never popular in the Arab world past about 1967, was on an unpopularity high in the run up to 9/11 due to Israel's reaction to the the Palestinian uprising and continuing sanctions against Iraq. Then of course came the invasion of Iraq. As bad became worse, the Egyptian state capitalised on the US's public image misfortunes by insinuating (or outright stating) that all sorts of domestic irritants (from dodgy businessmen, to partying homosexuals to blaspheming false prophets) were part of a foreign (ie Western) plot to destabilse Egypt.

But the reason why Londonstani doesnt agree with Steven that taking away the foreign hand will end the cries of conspiracy is based on the reason why the Egyptian state thought it was such a great play to begin with; people want to believe it.

The military men who run Egypt realised a long time ago that conspiracy theories made people feel important. It made them feel that they were worth being conspired against. As someone clever once said, "There's nothing worse than being ignored".

Egypt's slow fall from prominence under a regime that came to power on the promise of restoring pride was easier to hide because it was too painful to accept.

Apart from that Londonstani is totally in agreement with Steven.

Pakistan and its (friendly) networks

 

Talking about networks, Londonstani had the pleasure of coming across two initiatives recently, both seeking to tap into the concern and goodwill of British Pakistanis to help Pakistan develop into a stable and prosperous country.

The British Pakistan Foundation seeks to harness the funds British Pakistanis send to family and friends to  spur economic development. While the Samosa blog is a forum for debate and a foundation for action.

Both organisations draw on the resources, contacts and knowledge of British Pakistan - a potentially very powerful force for positive change in Pakistan.

Samosa director Anwar Akhtar has an article in the Royal Society of Arts magazine laying out the relationship between Britain, Pakistan and the community of British Pakistanis that, along with a shared history, tie the two countries together. In the article, Anwar makes a point that encapsulates the "potential" part of Londonstani's earlier comment.

"What, if any, are the responsibilities of diaspora communities such as the one to which I belong? Many British Pakistanis have expressed their disgust at the treatment of minority communities, and the misogyny and sectarianism of far-right organisations that use religion to spread hate and prejudice in Pakistan. There was despair at the inability of the Pakistani military to see beyond a cold-war obsession with India, an addiction, of course, that their peers in Delhi share."

Helping Pakistan involves engaging with issues at its ideological core. This is not something that can be accomplished with aid money alone.

Anne-Marie Slaughter and a new approach to foreign policy

Since 2009, Londonstani has been working on developing and applying communications strategies in the UK and abroad. While most of his time is spent on the nitty gritty of making things happen in places like Pakistan, Londonstani is also very interested in the theory behind the practice.

However, there doesn't seem to be much out there about building, maintaining and leveraging influence in a rapidly changing world. What thinking and discussion does exist on this tends to be American. Which isn't  surprising in light of the events of the past 10 years. But consider the UK for a moment. Britain has the advantage (and liability) of historical connections and associations, the English language - which ties together entertainment and information (BBC, Reuters). Add to this a relatively large global investment footprint as well as a domestic culture that is globally connected. Also, there are a number of UK thinkers and practioners who operate in this area; very competent people like Robin Brown (@rcmb), Aaron Ellis (@thinkstrat) and Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s). Last but not least, the UK has been trading on its soft power for several decades, and is quite good at it.

The aim of this blog is to collate and, where possible, add to discussions about developing realistic, successful policies and methods in the new global environment. It's in that vein that Londonstani thought readers, particularly British ones, might be interested in a recent discussion between high-profile US figures on exactly these issues. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote an article back in July titled The New Foreign Policy Frontier. In it she argued that diplomacy is no longer just government-to-government, but also government-to-society and society-to-society. This new dynamic (or dynamics), she points out, opens up the potential for groups or individuals, not necessarily connected to a government, to undertake actions that affect countries in a way previously only governments could.

Equally clever person Dan Drezner (@dandrezner), professor of international relations at Tufts, took Anne-Marie to task over the point that micro-level, non-governmental initiatives - networked or not - had questionable impact on the general scheme of things. And that what networked interaction there was, had been there for a long time anyway.

Leaving the details of the discussion aside, the central point - are we moving from an era of the big men of state to one where "regular" people impact international relations - is one that Londonstani has had on-and-off with journalist and diplomat friends since 2003.

Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks are often cited as the ultimate example of a game-changer enacted by a small group of people without government ties. But the reason Londonstani started thinking about this in 2003 is because that was when he, as a young reporter, noticed that the dynamics of how people in the Middle East see themselves and the world had fundamentally changed. 

As the US geared up for war against Saddam many US-allied Arab nations had tacitly fallen in behind the US, but continued to express public opposition to the impeding war. Egypt under Mubarak was a tightly controlled information environment. State media organisations reinforced for Egyptians a worldview of their leader as an Arab champion and their country as a bulwark against US designs in the region. These were messages that had first been inculcated at school by the government education system.

Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel made plain that the collective deception would not hold. In early 2003, US warships started passing through the Suez Canal, and al Jazeera set a camera up on the banks of the international waterway. As state television showed Mubarak fulminating about Arab solidarity, the highly popular news channel showed US warships passing through Egyptian territory on the way to invade Iraq. At about the same time, Egypt was showing triumphant military marches on state television during its annual war commemoration. Predictably, the contrast between bluster and compliance brought out demonstrators on to the streets asking, "Where is the Egyptian army".

This isn't to say that new media technology changed the way the world works. It's just a new way of disseminating information. And information has been the key to social and political change for a long time. In fact, Egypt has seen it all before. During British rule in Egypt the likes of Ahmed Lutfi el Sayed were distributing leaflets calling for revolution. In the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeni was using taped speeches to build support and turn people away from the shah. As today, technology was making it possible for people to connect with each other and unite around a common cause. 

It seems to Londonstani that this discussion should be less about the world changing and more about changing the methods of those who try and deal with it. Anne-Marie seems, in essence, to be arguing that it's no longer possible (for whatever reason) to do deals with important men in foreign places and expect them to enforce your agreement on their own people. Londonstani would argue that approach never actually worked. If you take the long view of history, Western powers' dealings with Iranian shahs in the era of capitulations had an influence on the evolution that led to relationship the West and Iran have today. In more recent times, Israel and the West's dealing with the autocratic and corrupt PLO leadership has been a factor in the support Hamas can command.

What has changed is powerful peoples' ability to manipulate emotions in order to maintain their privileged positions. The tools they used grew accustomed to using don't work anymore.

So, the question is if you do decide that government-to-society or society-to-society connections provide the more stable relationships, what tools can you use, and how do you use them?

 

UPDATE: Anne-Marie responded to this post via twitter:

To , the question u pose at the end of your piece is EXACTLY my research agenda. Look forward to more convo"

Definitely...

 

Random readings - business and influence

Good NYT article by Roger Cohen making the point that firms moving operations abroad isn't necessarily a bad thing.

“A General Electric or a Goldman or a Twitter tries to work in each country in culturally appropriate ways, but at their base these companies hold an American set of values. And that is what influence is,” Xenia Dormandy, a senior fellow at Chatham House, told me. “Power viewed in state terms alone, or even primarily, is a false premise these days.”

In Londonstani's experience, that last sentence is key, and has been true for British influence abroad for quite a few years already. Wherever Londonstani has worked in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, job seekers want to work for foreign (ie Western) companies not solely because of the money on offer, but because they think their employers will operate a fairer set of standards. British organisations, in particular, retain a powerful association with values such as meritocracy, fairness, honesty. Londonstani isn't saying these are true (sadly in his experience, they often aren't) but the connotation is a powerful asset.

Speaking in a US-specific context, Cohen goes on:

"The conspicuous failure of American hard power — in Iraq and Afghanistan — has tended to obscure the way American soft power has flourished over the past decade. For a while soft power was undercut because the U.S. reputation was tarnished, but the Arab awakening has demonstrated how powerful American-driven social media are in opening up closed societies. Facebook and Twitter have been conspicuous. But when I.B.M. invests massively in Africa — which it has identified as the next major emerging growth market — it is also investing in an openness that advances U.S. interests."

Trade and communicate - It's the way forward

UPDATE: There's saying drummed into you if you do journalism training that seems to apply equally well to public diplomacy and strategic communications; "Show don't tell". This seems to be the crux of Cohen's point here.

Independence, partition and devo max - the narratives of separation

Say "Independence for Scotland" to many people across the English-speaking* world and you can be quietly confident that the image forming their minds' eye looks something like this: -

There is a reason for this. Whether we like it or not; where facts fail, narratives succeed. And at no time are narratives more important as when nations are seeking to turn a hazy idea of sovereignty and self determination into a living, breathing state with institutions, laws and most importantly, a social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

Since the pro-independence Scottish National Party became the largest in Scotland's parliament following the 2011 election, the issue of independence for Scotland has emerged as a plausible eventuality.

Although the United Kingdom is an old and established democracy and state, competing regional indentities are still a very raw reality.

So, amongst all the discussion about political points and legalese, Londonstani was interested to read Anthony Barnett's article over at Open Democracy where, quoting Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph, he warns of the cost of defending the union of united kingdoms if the price was a "descent into mean squabbles and brutal negativity".

Brogan argues that the ruling Tory party's approach to campaigning against Scottish independence in a future referendum should not be an all-out onslaught that would run the risk of coming across as anti-Scottish. Part of his justification was the need to deal with the post-referendum reality, whatever it may be.

"His [Prime Minister David Cameron] reticence is required not because it will deprive Mr Salmond of something to complain about, but because he must reserve himself for the consequences of the vote. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there will have to be a renegotiation of the terms between Scotland and the rest of the Union. Whether Scotland chooses independence or opts to remain, there must follow a detailed re-balancing of the political and financial relationship. Be it the “devo-max” Mr Salmond speaks of, or some other arrangement, Mr Cameron must be in a position to negotiate as a respected equal after Scotland has decided."

This sounds like the right way to go about the legally tricky and emotional charged process of decoupling communities with long, close (and often acrimonious) history.

A good example of when this can go wrong is painfully evident in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan scholars such as Stephen Cohen have noted that the idea of Pakistan was born out of an existential fear amongst the Muslim population of British-ruled India. In fact, Nicholas Schmidle's book about Pakistan takes its title from a pamphlet written in 1933 by a Indian Muslim worrying about the future of his community in a free India: To Live or to Perish Forever.

One version of events suggests that the men who carved India and Pakistan out of British India originally planned for a united India. But when they couldn't agree on a formulation that Muslim leaders felt safeguarded their community, the narrative of a separate Muslim land for a separate Muslim nation was born. And to this day, the effects of that narrative makes its presence felt on a global level.

Londonstani can't think of a better historical illustration of the power of narratives to change realities than Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, the cultural capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

This once magnificent building, built by the first avowed atheist member of the British parliament at the turn of the 20th century, played a central role in the founding and growth of the political party that rules India today.

Back in today's Britain, where Anthony Barnett seems to ask why the ethnicities that make up the UK couldn't have their own countries and yet live together happily, Londonstani wonders whether its time to consider a new narrative of belonging for the UK. One that doesn't focus on the outmoded concept of "blood and soil" but instead revolves around whether people share a mutual dependency within interdependent cultures.

* In Londonstani's experience, Braveheart was massively popular in the Arabic-speaking Middle East - Can't imagine why.

Pakistani media, society and the pussycat vigil-aunties

Londonstani did not intend this blog to be dominated by crap in the Pakistani media. But, hey, sometimes the crap in the Pakistani media is just too amusing to ignore (eg. Mansoor Ijaz, Pakistan's own Austin Powers). And then, sometimes, something that seems frivolous and silly allows you a sneaky peak into the dynamics beneath the surface.

About a week ago, a Karachi television show host decided to spice up her regular format by descending on a public park to camera-ambush couples (who didn't seem to be doing much other than chatting or walking arm-in-arm) and demanding to see their marriage certificates.

So far so (sadly) predictable. However, what happened next says more about the direction of Pakistani society than any much of the social science research you are likely to come across.

Best to let Declan Walsh of the New York Times explain:

"This hourlong spectacle, broadcast live on Samaa TV on Jan. 17, set off a furious reaction in parts of Pakistan. Outrage sprang from the Internet and percolated into the national newspapers, where writers slammed Ms. [Maya] Khan's tactics as a "witch hunt...

"Now, the protests are headed to court. On Friday, four local nongovernment organizations will file a civil suit against Samaa TV in Pakistan's Supreme Court, hoping to galvanize the country's top judges into action."

In a country where estimates say that only about 10 percent of the population has access to the internet, it's interesting to see a protest that started on social media platforms amongst a wealthy minority (who are seen as detached and culturally unattuned to the "masses") trickled down to mainstream media and from there it made its way to the legal process. (Seasoned Pakistan watchers might not see this as surprising at all, but Londonstani suspects it would be news to many).

Declan balances this with the observation that the uproar against Maya Khan's intrusion is limited to the English press and has hardly been mentioned in the Urdu newspapers, which are far more widely read.  As for Maya Khan, she says that her critics are "an elite class that don't even watch my show".

But there's more to this than a cultural tussle (as central as that is to many of the currents that belie Pakistani society and politics). It's also about media and society in a country where most people are under 30.

Back to Declan:

"The controversy has rekindled a debate about the direction of Pakistan's TV industry. Since liberalization in 2000, the sector has exploded from one channel - the state-controlled one - to more than 80 today, 37 of which carry national or local current affairs.

"The media revolution has transformed social and political boundaries: in 2007, feisty coverage played a central role in pushing Pervez Musharraf toward the exit; in recent weeks it helped guard against a possible military coup.

"But television is also a lucrative business controlled by powerful, largely unaccountable tycoons. Last year Pakistan's television stations had advertising revenues of more than $200 million, according to Aurora, an industry journal - 28 percent more than the previous year.

"Amid stiff competition for viewers, channels have relied on populist measures - rowdy political talks shows and, in recent times, vigilante-style "investigative" shows modeled on programs in neighboring India."

Obviously, Pakistani media and the political and financial context it operates in is subject to the same pressures that you'd expect to find in many countries. Money needs to be made, the right (or wrong) people need to be placated and costs need to be kept down. The result is that what is presented as daring and edgy, is in fact very safe territory - in financial and political terms (ie. it's cheap and doesn't annoy the wrong people).

One of the people Declan spoke to called Maya Khan and her cohort of "crusading" reporters, "pussycat vigilantes" because they "avoided challenging rich or powerful Pakistanis, whose Western-style lifestyles go unexamined."

"They only go after the people they know will not bite back," said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a culture writer.

For those looking to see how not to do television on the cheap, here's Maya on her one-woman mission to fix Pakistan.

Pakistan's democracy burden

Zafar Hilaly is a former Pakistani ambassador whose articles Londonstani has long enjoyed reading. From his writings Amb. Hilaly seems to embody some of the best traits of Pakistan's proud diplomatic corps. He's a staunch supporter of the rule of law, and a vocal critic of the destruction of Pakistan's institutions. In Londonstani's mental map of Pakistan's comment-sphere, Amb. Hilaly is definitely not in the pro-military camp. 

So, it was a surprise to see Amb. Hilaly call for the removal of the present government. Londonstani might not agree with Amb. Hilaly's final analysis, but it is a measure of how badly this government has done its job that people like the ambassador would rather have the military and/or judiciary remove it than to have it complete its last few months in power.

"Watching the prime minister pass by in a seventy-car cavalcade even as local investors flee; foreign investments dry up; hunger drives families to suicide and despair takes hold is a cathartic experience. Hence, even if dispatching the government before it has completed its term harms democracy and means that we can’t get to spew criticism at the regime, so be it. The risk is worth taking. As for the public, it is more than ready to trade democracy for bread, a modicum of jobs and a sliver of hope. They’ve had it up to their gills with democracy. All that democracy does is ‘to substitute election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few."

How much misgovernance will Pakistanis tolerate for the promise of eventual democratic progress? Amb. Hilaly for one has found his limit.

Read the whole article here.

Egypt's new parliament

If you're interested in the Middle East, you need to read Marc Lynch's comment over at Foreign Policy on the new Egyptian parliament:

"There are many problems with the new Parliament and the political process which created it.  But the common dismissal of the Parliament by many activists is mistaken.  For one, the near complete wipeout of former regime, ex-NDP candidates -- the fullul -- doesn't get nearly enough attention.  Before the elections, most people expected the Parliament to be split between the Muslim Brotherhood and rebranded former regime elements.  Instead, the fullul lost badly despite lavish spending and well-organized campaigns.  Their failure should be seen as a major accomplishment of the revolution, and a vindication of the rejection of the old regime by the vast majority of the Egyptian population.  The fact is that there is now a popularly elected Parliament, recognized as legitimate by the SCAF, which is almost completely devoid of figures from the old NDP elite.  That's an amazing achievement."

What happens in Egypt will impact how the Middle East develops once the revolutionary dust settles. Riots, violence, resistance against state violence are always going to get news coverage, but if there's one place where the details of the political back and forth really do have an impact, it's Egypt.

Ministry of You-Can't-Make-This-Up

After boring and horrifying Pakistanis in equal measure, the "memogate scandal", took a turn for the absurd and downright embarrassing a couple of days ago. 

It turns out Mansoor Ijaz, the guy at the centre of the scandal, who might be coming to Pakistan to testify, played the part of a  comentator in a 2004 music video that featured naked female wrestlers.

(Sorry mum) But the video is here. Yes, you just couldn't make this stuff up.

And the best Pakistani comment on the whole sad debacle (remember, the memo was totally pointless):

"A businessman from Lahore, who wishes to stay anonymous, thinks Mansoor Ijaz’s wife is the coolest woman on the planet. “OMG! There is a woman out there who wants her husband to partake in such activities and was there by his side all the way through. She is definitely a keeper.”

(Actually, there's a whole bunch of hilarious comments in Tazeen's article for the Express. Read it here)

Not the front page

.. more like page 4 or 5. Maybe even the back page.

Front-page news in Pakistan is often boring. Seriously, there comes a point when you just want to be told if a coup has actually happened. Everything else will be wrapping tomorrow's nans.

Like many other places in the world, news coverage in Pakistan often has more to do with the political leanings of the people who own the outlets than it has to do with actual, legitimate interest or news worthiness.

However..

Whereas in those other parts of the world, the really interesting stuff gets ignored or repressed, in Pakistan it just appears buried in local news or the comment section. So, it was with great interest that Londonstani read Umar Cheema's article about the tussle between the old and new faces in Imran Khan's PTI party.

"Imran Khan-led PTI has accepted political heavyweights in bulk, majority of them constituting the lot of people who found space shrinking for them elsewhere. Although their decision of joining has given a boost to the PTI, the political baggage they carry along is something hard to defend within and outside the party."

Read the article in English-language daily, The News, here:

The reason this is interesting rests on Imran Khan's promises of a new politics. Many observers have previously said that Imran is setting himself up for a fall if he presents himself as some sort of magic bullet cure for all of Pakistan's problems. As Pakistan scholar and former foreign correspondent Anatol Levin pointed out recently;

"The truth is that Pakistani politics revolves in large part around politicians' extraction of resources from the state by means of corruption, and their distribution to those politicians' followers through patronage. Radically changing this would mean gutting the existing Pakistani political system like a fish. Nor is it at all certain how popular the process would really be with most Pakistanis."

Imran has become something of a saviour-in-waiting for many Pakistanis, particularly the young, which is understandable but also a little scary. Pakistan's problems are going to need concerted action by many, many people over a number of years. There are no quick-fix solutions of the sort favoured by taxi drivers all over the globe. The answer for Pakistan lies in developing a new political culture.

However, it seems as though Imran's political party is in many ways business as usual.

Cheema describes Imran Khan's reaction to a resolution pushed by long-time party members wary of the new big wigs coming on board; "As the reading was done, nobody stood up to oppose but Imran Khan. 'The resolution stands rejected,' he said, explaining that he did not want to cause any embarrassment to the new comers."

No consensus, debate or compromise, just the clunking fist.

If you're new to the Imran Khan phenomenon, a good place to start is this post on the Cafe Pyala blog:

Pakistan is indeed, as he hammers home again and again, saddled with a parasitic elite that has insisted on usurping, keeping and abusing power to the detriment of the many hovering around the poverty line; but his reductionist identification of them as people who have strayed from the one faith and become 'westernized' is sadly flawed. The powerful elite of which he speaks include the shallu-wearing landlords and industrialists that are now part of his movement for justice. They can also wear beards, uniforms and burqas as well as jeans and ape Saudi Arabia as well as Western pop culture, but apparently that isn't quite as bad."

Read the whole thing here.

Buried in the corner of another English daily, The Express Tribune, was a story illustrating that there are politicians who do "get it".

One is Marvi Memon, an activist and member of Pakistan's People's Assembly, who has launched a new political party in the southern Sindh province.

“Sindh has unfortunately been blessed with a lot of political parties,” she [Marvi] said. “But the mindset – the ‘bothaar’ (feudal) – exists in a sector in-charge or in an SHO [local officials] or feudal. These are old politics.” The ‘new politics’ is good governance, rule of law and institution building."

Another politician, Mehtab Rashidi, sounded a pretty circumspect tone about what the head of the party would need to accomplish.

“Let’s say a few hundred thousand show up – and I’m being optimistic (at estimating that),” she says. “But what next? That’s a big question mark.” She points out what many people demand of anyone eyeing an election: “He has to work on the roadmap. What type of change? How can you change the mindset overnight or in weeks? What happens if early elections are called – is he prepared for that? He has to do a lot.”

This all reminds Londonstani of Stephen Cohen's comments last week in the Express Tribune (weekend magazine, this time) that it's not clear how, but Pakistan is bound to change. 

Bangladesh foils coup attempt

Londonstani knows little about Bangladesh, but read reports about the failed Islamist military coup with some interest. 

"Military spokesman Masud Razzaq said in a statement that the attempt had been thwarted by the "whole-hearted efforts of army soldiers ... He said the officers planning the coup were in active military service and had "extreme religious views".

Recently murdered Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad talked in his last book Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban about armed Islamist groups recruiting inside Bangladesh in the 1990s. While the reports on this latest coup point out that military revolts are not uncommon in Bangladesh.

"Bangladesh, a parliamentary democracy since 1990, has witnessed two presidents slain in military coups and 19 other failed coup attempts."

There's little further information about the "extreme religious views" angle, and Londonstani is not qualified to hypothosise, but it's not hard to find information on the kind of groups operating in Bangladesh and how they fit in to the wider regional context.