Sunday, August 28, 2016

Interview with Raza Ahmad Rumi

Antara Ray Chaudhury

Raza Rumi is a Pakistani author, policy analyst and a journalist. He has been affiliated with The Friday Times, Pakistan’s foremost liberal weekly paper, as a writer and an editor for a decade. Raza is also a commentator for several Pakistani, regional and international publications. In Pakistan, he worked in the broadcast media as an analyst and hosted talk shows.

In 2014, Raza moved to the United States after an assassination attempt. Currently he is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College, New York. He is a fellow at National Endowment for Democracy (USA), the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs (USA) and Jinnah Institute (Pakistan).

Raza continues to be the consulting editor for weekly The Friday Times, and a senior fellow at the Jinnah Institute in Islamabad. In addition, he has been a commentator and a current affairs talk show host in Pakistan and is affiliated with the Express TV, Pakistan. He contributes regularly to Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, New York Times, The Diplomat, Fair Observer, CNN and Al Jazeera, Daily O, Scroll India, The Hindu and Indian Express. He is the author of ‘Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller’ published by HarperCollins, India.

Here’s his interview by Antara Ray Chaudhury over email where he spoke about his new book, state of civil liberties in South Asia, religious fundamentalism, and reimagining the future of the region.
1. Your new book ‘The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition’ looks at contemporary Pakistan from 2008 onwards which marked the transition from General Pervez Musharraf’s authoritarian regime to a democratic order. How this transition has withstood the challenges of radical Islamic forces, role of Army, weak civil society and Imperialist interventions especially by US post 9/11.

The transition has been greatly affected by the factors identified here. That is the underlying story of the essays in my book. Military rule, internal and regional conflict and Islamist insurgencies have had their toll on governance in Pakistan. The civilian government led by Asif Ali Zardari inherited all these challenges and tried to grapple with them. The real success of the civilian government was to devolve powers to the provinces and reset Pakistan’s constitution debased by two military dictators. But there were endemic issues of corruption, nepotism and inability to take the state close to the people especially through local governments. Pakistan’s story in Indian or global media however ignores the bigger picture. The truth is that not only civilian government undertook important measures (e.g. revising the visa regime with India among others) but it also completed its term and handed over power to the incoming elected government. This happened for the first time in Pakistan’s history thereby setting a new trend.

Furthermore, while the Army remains the most powerful of institutions, it had to take a back seat during 2008-2013. Since 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been undermined at times by the opposition backed by sections of the military but the constitutional order has continued. In 2014, despite the calls by Imran Khan and sections of Pakistani media, the Army Chief did not contemplate a coup. The democratic process is taking root in Pakistan the civilians have wrested some space within the power matrix. This is the underreported story of Pakistan in the global discourse as the world is not interested in Pakistani people but its military to deliver certain objectives. Pakistan’s civil-military binary is becoming more complicated now as the media, and the judiciary have emerged as power centers in their own right.

2. You survived an assassination attempt in 2014 by extremist forces. Considering the radical extremism and terrorism prevalent in Pakistan, how do you see the prospects of reform, free speech in Pakistan & also about the possibility of reforms ‘within Islam’ itself?

Constitutional rights such as free speech are linked to democratic governance. Historically, Pakistani state run by civil and military bureaucrats has used censorship for all sorts of purposes. The key objective has been to muzzle dissent and critical reporting that would lead to some measure of accountability of the elites. Over the years, this situation has improved. Pakistan’s media industry has expanded manifold and contributed to the downfall of Gen Musharraf in 2007. This has made the state insecure and in recent years there has been reversal of some of the freedoms gained after much struggle. Due to the security policies of Pakistani government, non state militias have also grown in size and influence over the years and now they also compete for control of media narratives along with the state. The journalists, activists and intellectuals are in the crosshairs of these ongoing power struggles.

Freedom of expression is also a victim to state sponsored Islamic identity that has been fostered as a national unity project since the early years of Pakistan. During 1970s under Bhutto and later Gen Zia’s regime (1977-1988) this process was intensified and key legal changes were enacted. For instance ‘blasphemy’ was made punishable by death. The state pampered the Mullah lobby to gain legitimacy for its unrepresentative rule, to create ‘consent’ for the proxy warfare in Afghanistan etc. Consequently, the situation has become more and more dangerous for those who want to challenge orthodox mullahs, sectarian outfits and uphold the rights of religious minorities. I am told that the assassination attempt that I faced was carried out by extremists who found my TV commentaries dangerous and offensive (for they had the potential to influence public opinion).

But this is only one side of the story. There are many brave human rights defenders, journalists and political workers who are resisting these historical trends and continue to defy curbs on free expression and rights violations. That is what gives hope for the country’s future.

3. How do you assess the threat of ISIS- A lot is talked about its novel social media tactics, as well as its radical break from nation-states as we understand; is ISIS a continuing force of Islamic fundamentalism or a ‘break’ of sorts?

The Islamic State of ISIS ‘threat’ is neither new nor as global as it is being made out to be. First of all it is directly related to Western policies in Iraq and later Libya and Syria. Some of the groups that have now coalesced into ISIS are the same, which were supported to sustain ill-planned invasions and state building projects by Western countries. Essentially, the states have disappeared in these countries and ISIS is but a response to that vacuum. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the toxic ideological content has always been there. The fringe in Islamic tradition has always tried to adopt literalism, opposed rational interpretation of faith and engaged in violence for dominance. It’s a centuries’ old struggle.

Yet, ISIS is neither prehistoric nor medieval despite its rhetoric. It employs all the tools of modernity for instance technology, social media, weaponry and capitalizes on the fissures within Western societies such as the alienation of Muslims. At the same time, as Peter Bergen in his new book has highlighted, its threat to America is highly exaggerated. Similarly, Europe’s racist and right wing attitudes will only exacerbate the situation.

4. Further to the above question, the Left is often accused of being apologetic towards Islamic terrorism in its desperate bid to fight US & imperialism. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalist forces also treat the Left as prime enemy (from Afghanistan to Kurdistan). What should then be primary contradiction in this problematic: imperialism or identity-based fundamentalism.

This is a contentious debate and there are merits on both the sides. However, the accusations against Left are rhetorical and polemical to disguise what the military industrial complexes, aided by media they finance, everywhere seek: a continuous cycle of war and profit seeking. At the same time, we cannot ignore what centuries of stagnation within Muslim societies. Ijethad or application of reason to interpret scripture according to the needs of the day has not happened for centuries. Colonial experience worsened this situation in many parts of the world and the lethal mix today has resulted in this huge mess. Sadly, the many movements within Islamic tradition are scattered, victim of sectarian loyalties and suppressed across the ‘Muslim world’. Radicalization is real and it cannot be overlooked or understood as a simplistic reaction to Western ‘hegemony’.

5. For a stable South Asia; peace between neighbors, especially India & Pakistan is very important. However, given the history of Indo-Pak relations, how do you see this peace process moving forward?

I have been an advocate of Indo-Pak peace and have participated in many Track II consultations. My work in media industry has emphasized this. But I am not hopeful about this process gaining ground at least in the short term. Pakistan’s elites have to redefine the country and its national interest outside the imperative of ‘security threat’ posed by India. The encouraging sign is that almost all the political parties in Pakistan want normalization of relations with India. They are relatively weak at the moment but with continued democratization and space civilians would gain in the future, this could change. But the rise of religious nationalism in India makes this process even more complicated as it becomes a mirror image of Pakistan’s self-definition as a Muslim state protecting itself from ‘Hindu’ India. This dangerous narrative may end up feeding hostilities on both sides. Yet history tells us that ideas and boundaries within Indian subcontinent have always been fluid and there is no reason why the present deadlock will remain permanent.

There are three imperatives here: first rescuing the regional imagination from the bureaucratic clutches on both sides; second, creating greater economic and cultural ties which are always transformative; and civic movements around natural resource conservation and distribution. It is appalling that we allow our armies to fight on a glacier in an era when the world is getting ready to mitigate climate change. There will be a time when dangers of climate change and global warming would push us towards regional solutions.

6. South Asia has been witnessing attacks and curtailment of the people-to-people contact as well as civil liberties as well as rise of fundamentalism of all stripes. What is the way out?

The curse of imagined nationalisms requires ‘othering’ of states and communities. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all employ the threat by the ‘other’ to justify the strong states and curtailment of civil liberties. The global discourse on ‘terror’ has provided another justification to the South Asian states to repress their people. India displays this in Kashmir and other insurgency hit regions, Pakistan has been bombing FATA and tightening security measures in Balochistan and Bangladesh has embarked upon many waves of repressing political opposition. Another dangerous trend is the rise of electronic media which is powerful in all three countries to fuel hate, fear and jingoism. Indian TV channel voices, with exceptions, are no different from Pakistan’s irresponsible TV gurus. Corporate media serves both the state hegemon and narrow band of powerful elites in all countries.

One way out of this imbroglio is to reimagining the future of this region – as an economic union on the lines of the European Union and to devote all resources to fight poverty and deprivation of all kinds. This may sound utopian but change has always been driven by ideas and not the prescriptions of ‘realists’ in strategic communities. Fortunately, independent media especially in the digital world, despite its uneven reach, is already promoting alternative imaginations to war-obsessed and hate spewing mainstream discourses.

7. You are an author who has published not only on Pakistan but about Delhi as well. We would like to know more about your 2013 book, ‘Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller’ and its reception on both sides of the border.

The book was well received by the readers on both the sides. Every other day, I get messages on social media from those who read. Despite the limited access to English language this feedback is quite heartening. Some in India however think that I have focused too much on the Muslim past of Delhi and India and that in the extremist view is search for Islamic supremacy. In Pakistan, the book landed me in a bit of trouble as viewing the ‘enemy’ as part of your cultural tradition is not acceptable to the hyper nationalists. They think that by adding ‘heart’ in the book’s title I am a sell-out. I am tired of such invective and had I not suffered an assassination attempt and witnessed the death of someone close to me, I would have not bothered. But I do get worried at times as to how would I reiterate my loyalty and patriotism if and when I go back to my country. This leads one to the larger question: why are we pushed to prove our loyalty for the birthplace when the very idea of ‘belonging’ is inherent to a relationship with a land?

8. Sufism, prime symbol of syncretic culture in South Asia has come to define a strong cultural bond shared by Indian & Pakistani people. It is often said that Sufi message of hybrid faith, and disregard for scriptural theocracy can effectively counter the fundamentalism in South Asia especially in cultural sphere and in shaping ‘common sense’. Do you see such a possibility? 

The utilitarianism of such an approach and use of spirituality to achieve X or Y objectives are problematic to say the least. I recently followed the efforts of BJP in India to promote Sufism as some sort of ‘alternative’ and acceptable version of Islam. Under Gen Musharraf, similar state patronage was given to bolster the ‘war on terror’. Sufism is central to Islamic idea of spirituality and more importantly it is the lived faith for a majority of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. It binds us together as a cultural tradition and certainly it has an immense value there. Similarly, the Sufi ideas except the Barelvi views on ‘blasphemy’ are an antidote to the Saudi inspired Wahabism. The real importance of this tradition is to popularize it. The jihadists print their pamphlets and papers and have crowded markets in Pakistan but there are fewer acceptable translations of Sufi texts in modern idiom. I think that may just be a starting point and should be encouraged by both states. Instead of doling out money to dynastic administrators of Sufi dargahs, we should publish the works of Sufi Masters in the vernacular and adopt them in popular culture. A loose parallel is Rumi’s massive popularity in the West. Why can’t we do that the same for our local Sufi treasures?


The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition' is Raza Rumi’s latest book published by Harper Collins India in May 2016. 

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