Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Time for another war and more ‘regime change’ footage on CNN

US – NATO action in Libya may be a war by proxy, but it is a war nonetheless. Of that fact there is little doubt.
The western powers have taken sides in a domestic civil war which promises to get bloodier in the coming months. The war may be disguised as a 'humanitarian' mission but the facts speak otherwise. The UN authorized 'No Fly Zone' encompasses ground targets which have little linkage with Libya's air defense systems. 
Libya's National Security Adviser, Moatessam Gaddafi with US Secretary of State Clinton in April 2009

After the initial salvoes against Libyan air defense units, the attacks have mostly centred on Libyan ground units likely to hinder military progress by the Libyan rebel 'coalition.' Consequently, anti-Gaddafi military forces have not only held existing 'liberated' territory but are also inching westward in their push to oust Libya's ruler of 42 years.  
It is no secret that the Libyan rebels owe much of their continued existence to the western led air campaign against Gaddafi's ground forces. Taking out a Libyan tank does little to secure the skies above Libya.
Surely, Gaddafi is no saint. He is erratic, eccentric and dictatorial. Though there are few reports of Gaddafi killing political opponents on a mass scale. In that sense, Gaddafi was no Saddam Hussein.
Libya's contraction of the 'Tunisian Flu' may have changed such calculations. It seemed that Gaddafi is prepared to use state military force to counter, well, anti-state military force. During the course of Gaddafi's efforts to keep his Great Revolution intact he would certainly have killed many of his compatriots.
Nevertheless, there is a fine distinction between Libya and Egypt or Tunisia.
In Egypt or Tunisia, anti-regime demonstrators did not have widespread access to weapons. Nor did Tunisian or Egyptian state institutions crumble along tribal or geographical lines. The military and civilian bureaucracy remains intact in both nations. Consequently, 'post revolutionary' reconstruction in both states is progressing in a stable manner.
On the contrary, Libya has fractured along traditional tribal lines with tribes from eastern Libya forming the brunt of the anti-Gaddafi coalition. Gaddafi's governing organs of state have all but disappeared in most of eastern Libya, including the rebel 'capital' of Benghazi. It's hard to govern in the face of gunfights and aerial bombardments for control of cities and towns.
Undoubtedly, the world's 'powers that be' did not have an easy choice for Libya: sit back and watch Gaddafi slowly exterminate anti-Gaddafi military forces or intervene and become an active participant in a Libyan civil war. The decision might have been easier if the world knew more about the Libyan rebels and their ability to form a credible government in a post-Gaddafi scenario. 
Arguably, the Islamic world's first written national Constitution, the Ottoman document of 1895 promulgated under Sultan Abdul Hamid
Unfortunately, Libya's best case scenario might be a slide towards post-Saddam, Iraq style anarchy.
Surely, Libya can recover from post-Gaddafi anarchy in the course of several years given the country's small population base and vast oil wealth. However, as the Iraq experience demonstrates, once political cleavages appear they are hard to suppress; especially when ordinary citizens have easy access to weaponry.
The Islamic world's painful transition from backward, religious obscurantist peoples to citizens of modern, nation states continues. Gaddafi's Libya provides another example of the fragility of countries without an explicit political contract between the state and its citizens, even when excessive wealth acts as temporary glue between rulers and ruled.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Social integration, Singapore’s sharia law and Minister Mentor Lee – II

Some weeks ago, I posted an article titled, 'Social integration, Singapore's sharia law and Minister Mentor Lee.' The post elicited an insightful comment from a reader named Sean.
The questions posed by Sean deserve a thorough answer. Hence, this post is devoted exclusively to responding to Sean's queries.
Isn't AMLA part of the special privileges that were given to the Malay community early in our time of independence because of makeup of the region and the claim that Malays have on Singapore?
Broadly speaking, yes that is a fair statement.
Obviously, the issue must be examined in terms of the 'realpolitik' of the region. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) affects communities other than only the Malays. It is applicable to all Muslims, regardless of race and sect and Singapore has a large number of Indian Muslims. (Technically, under Singapore law I am classified as an Indian Muslim; one who has money deducted for SINDA but am governed by 'Malay Islamic law.')
However, Singapore is a sovereign nation with its national identity. In other issues, including close relations with Israel, organ donation, etc. the government has shown that it is able to act independently based on the principle of reasonableness irrespective of 'race based' politics.
And after some posts I've seen from other people, how would the Malay-Muslim community in general react to the removal of AMLA?
It is a misconception among the Malay community that the removal of AMLA will significantly alter rights or privileges granted to Malays. Perhaps some Malays will be upset about not being able to indulge in polygamy but in the larger scheme of things, Malays will not need to alter their behaviour in any way. They may still freely heed the advice of MUIS or other religious bodies, including in  dress code, inheritance and dietary habits (halal versus haram).  
For example, AMLA is not necessary for Muslims to bequeath their assets based on a particular interpretation of Islamic law. In other words, in a 'non-AMLA' environment, a Muslim may draft a Will enforceable by Singapore courts which distributes his estate as per MUIS recommendations on Islamic laws of inheritance.
Take the case of availability of alcoholic beverages to Singaporean Muslims. There is no compulsion upon Singaporean Muslims to drink alcohol just because it is legally available. Individual Muslims may make up their own mind about the desirability of drinking alcohol.
In other words, by removing AMLA Singaporean Muslims may 'opt-in' to MUIS recommendations about conforming to behaviour patterns in line with Islamic law. However, as should be the case in any free society there is no compulsion based on religious edicts. Thus, non-Malay Sunnis (or Shias, Ahmedis and other Islamic sects) are not forced under threat of legal action to adhere to certain Islamic rules of behaviour.
Below I highlight the two main areas are of concern raised by AMLA in a secular state. In all three areas AMLA infringes upon the civil rights of Muslim Singaporeans by diluting certain fundamental rights.
1.   The laws of inheritance. Muslims are not permitted to write a Will. A Will written by a Muslim for his entire estate is not recognized by Singapore law and will not be enforced by Singapore's courts. In practice, this means that an individual may work their entire life to accumulate savings only to have them divided based upon a formula prescribed by MUIS. If an individual wished to bequeath their entire estate to their mother or other members of their immediate family they are unable to do so due to AMLA.  

I have written several posts on this subject where I highlight the issue in greater detail:

2.   Marriage: Contrary to the Women's Charter, which is enshrined in Singapore law, AMLA permits Muslim males to practice polygamy. The United Nations, supported by international women's rights groups criticize this aspect of Singapore law frequently in order that the contradiction is addressed.

There are other aspects of AMLA's family law sections which are contentious and clash with the Women's Charter, specifically in the following areas:

·         Marriage between a Muslim male and a non-Muslim female;
·         The rights and procedures for divorce available to Muslim women;
·         Inheritance rights guaranteed to Muslim women.

Other than the inheritance rights, there is some recourse available to Muslim women through civil courts. However, a removal of such 'gray areas' between Singapore's civil law and sharia religious law will be beneficial for all concerned.
One thing, the bit where you says "Hence, Muslims who do not conform to Singapore's interpretation of Islamic law, for reasons of personal conscience, must face the Republic's legal enforcement mechanisms." What exactly you mean by the legal enforcement mechanisms?
The law courts and Singapore police must enforce AMLA like any other law. Just because Imran Ahmed does not agree with AMLA does not mean he need not abide by AMLA. I cannot write a will. I cannot bequeath my entire estate to my immediate family. Period.  
In fact, there are a few instances where sons have gone to Singapore's courts to enforce AMLA's inheritance provisions to deny a wife or daughter (female family members) of their inheritance from the estate of a deceased father. In at least one instance, MUIS has supported the claims of a male heir by issuing a religious declaration supporting the male's rights to inherit assets, over the right of female progeny.

Post Script
Since independence four decades ago, Singapore's national identity has diverged considerably from Malaysia. Singapore is its own nation. Surely, Singapore has to manage its relations with larger neighbours but not at the risk of adulterating its own identity. Singapore's close links with Israel is a good example of where Singapore's identity diverges from its neighbours.
If Malaysia were to make it illegal for Muslims to work in establishments selling alcohol, or gambling outlets, etc, will Singapore follow suit to please its own Malay community? Already, freedoms of Muslims in Malaysia, and to some extent, Singapore are being affected by peer pressure amid a rising tide of 'wahabi' oriented Islamic ideology.
Singapore cannot remain a 'pseudo-secular' state indefinitely, where the rights of one particular religious group, Muslims, are defined by specific laws. A simple way to expand Singapore's Common Space is to make the same set of laws applicable to all Singaporeans, irrespective of religious preferences.


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Are Arab protestors for sale?

As a naive young college student in the late 1980s, I predicted the demise of the Arab world's monarchies by the end of the twentieth century. To a teenager watching movies like '2001 – a Space Odyssey,' the twenty-first century seemed a long way off.
Monarchies seemed an anachronism in the modern world of the nation state, a system comprised of citizens with a clear social contract between citizens and the state. 
The six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council

Not unusually, I was hopelessly wrong with my prophecies. It's 2011 and the same royal Houses sit atop the political pyramids of the Gulf Arab states.
Undoubtedly, change is on its way to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC groups the wealthy oil exporting countries of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. Historically, the GCC states are Kingdoms with rulers who exercise varying degrees of control over their subjects.
Since the GCC nations gained independence in the post World War II era, the political contract has been quite simple: the rulers spread enough largesse in the form of development across their respective populations to maintain social stability and perpetuate the political status quo. At least in the wealthier states of Qatar, Kuwait and UAE, the state provides a cradle to grave welfare system. The same is true to a lesser degree in the remaining three nations of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain.
Hence, it is no surprise that the knee-jerk reaction by the GCC states to social discontent has been to dispense more cash to their citizens. In the case of Oman and Bahrain, the two poorest GCC member states, an aid package of USD ten billion has been structured by the wealthier nations to facilitate such spending.
Surely, money is generally an effective way to co-opt dissenters into the state structure. The Gulf's citizens are no exception. The blunt edge of dissent will certainly be softened by the infusion of cash.
However, there are other forces at play in the modern Gulf.
Today's generation did not grow up in the desert. They were not raised solely on a diet of dates and goats cheese. This generation was also weaned on cable television and the internet. The Gulf now enjoys universal literacy. Its citizens travel the world spending bountiful petrodollars.
Certainly, jobs and the quality of life are part of the equation. But the discontent is also about a desire to have a voice in national affairs: political efficacy. The debts owed by the previous generation to ruling sheikhs do not figure in the calculations of the Gulf's contemporary urbanized youth.
The modern civil contract between citizens and the state is not sectarian. Theoretically, the state is indifferent between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. While this may not be the case entirely in parts of the Arab world, witness Saudi Arabia, it is also incorrect to view the discontent entirely through the Sunni – Shia prism.
Clearly, there is a limit to which Gulf Arab protestors are willing to express their discontent. Unlike protestors in Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, subjects of the Gulf countries have a stake in the patronage systems operated by the ruling families. Ordinary subjects are unwilling to risk these benefits through violent change.
However, change is coming. The Gulf Arab monarchies must take heed. The ability of ruling elites to operate in an unrestrained manner has been irreparably affected. The momentum towards reform, albeit evolutionary and not revolutionary, has begun. Over time, a new social contract between the Arab state and its citizens will be established.
Protests have forced the Arab world's ruling elites to take a crash course in accountability and change. Hopefully the lessons will be learnt fast enough to avoid more disruptive change forced by an increasingly impatient population.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Multan: Satan’s birthplace, holy men and blue pottery

I imagine Multan, the city of one thousand saints, fascinates all who step foot in her domain. At least in the winter time, for few humans relish temperatures in the forties, routine for Multan's summer months. (The city's highest recorded temperature is 54 degrees Celsius.)
For someone who traces his roots to the semi-arid desert of Karachi, Seraiki speaking Multan is intriguing. Starting with its lush farmland found on a unique confluence of mighty Indus River's five tributaries, and ending with the city's aloofness from the rest of Pakistan.
It often seems as if the city forgets it is part of Pakistan, although Pakistan's present Prime Minister is from Multan. 
A montage of Multan city

Multani folklore suggests that when God created the earth, God decided to drop Satan into Multan. Hence, the real reason for the city being a magnet for religious saints and Sufi mystics: one thousand holy men were required to counter Satan's evil hold on the city!
The city illustrates the shortcomings of labelling. Multan is a part of Pakistan's Punjab province. Or so we are taught at school.
Multan is not 'real' Punjab, at least not to outsiders like me. Unlike Lahore, people do not speak Punjabi in public. In Lahore, questions asked in Urdu will elicit a response in Punjabi. Punjabi follows Urdu as naturally as night follows day.
Punjabis may consider themselves to be a martial race but Multanis are more at home as craftsmen. Witness Multan's famous blue pottery. I suspect Multanis will prefer to watch crops grow while lazing on a charpai bed smoking a hookah (hubbly-bubbly) rather than fight the next war. Why worry when crops are growing and the Indus River continues to provide?
Multanis are wrapped up in their own world. They gaze at other parts of the country with wondrous fascination.
The rest of the world may be amazing but it's necessary to maintain a distance between Multan and the universe; the way a child is rendered speechless by fire but still keeps a safe distance from its flames. Multanis obviously believe such detachment is required if the earth is to keep rotating on its celestial axis.
Multani tiles and pottery are well known throughout the subcontinent

There must be something to the diffusion of Islamic influences in the city, Shia, Sunni, Sufi and even Hinduism. (One cannot travel anywhere in Pakistan without noticing Hinduism's pervasive influence on 'Pakistani Islam.')
Multan has a higher proportion of Shia Muslims than Pakistan as a whole. It stems from the city being captured by Ismaili Muslims in 965 AD. Although puritanical Muslims (aka Taliban types) 'purged' the city around the 1080s, the Shia influence remains prominent to this day.
Back in the day, Alexander the Great's conquests brought him all the way to Multan. Some even believe the Macedonian warrior's battle wounds were treated by Multani medicine men. Whatever the truth, Multan's greatness located on the fringes of the civilized world is one aspect of the city which has not changed much from Alexander's time.
Oh and by the way, one may fly into Multan. It is not necessary to take the train!