During a talk in Dublin A few years back a respected left luminary postulated that one cause of rising extremism in Pakistan was the increasing number of young people turning to seminaries instead of scientific academies for their education. He attributed this insight—one that is sure to leave most Pakistanis bemused—to ‘a friend, a nuclear physicist in Pakistan’.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the region would know that the education system in Pakistan is highly stratified: people with money send their children to private schools and those without to decrepit public institutions. Further down are the underclasses who are often forced to choose between educating their children or feeding and sheltering them. The dilemma is often resolved by sending children to seminaries, the much-maligned madaris (plural of madrassa) where they get food, shelter, and education. Few, if any, go to the madaris by choice (though almost all except the Westernized elite send their children to mosques at some point for basic religious education).
So the speaker’s comment was odd, Mary Antoinette-ish. It was not hard therefore to guess who its source, the nuclear physicist in question, might be. After reading Pervez Hoodbhoy in Counterpunch on December 14, 2009, one would have to be a fool to question his familiarity with Riverside Drive. However, Hoodbhoy would sound less fatuous if he were equally familiar with Peshawar Road.
In the title and conclusion of his article Hoodbhoy sardonically asks where, if he is the tool of Western embassies—as he says his critic M. Shahid Alam alleges—is his cheque. All one can say in reply is that if he hasn’t received one, then that is a shame since he has certainly earned it at least from Her Majesty’s Government.
In April-May of 2009 the self-styled ‘ex-extremist’ co-director of the Quilliam Foundation (QF) Maajid Nawaz went on a British government-funded tour of Pakistan as part of what the BBC described as the ‘ideas’ arm of the ‘war on terror’. The thinktank, whose operations are underwritten by the UK government to the tune of £1 million, has links to the neoconservative Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC). Together their members run The Spittoon, a blog where under various pseudonyms they smear opponents, mainly antiwar, pro-Palestinian voices (one frequent contributor is Alexander Hitchens, son of Christopher, who is trying to forge a career in the lucrative ‘terrorism expert’ industry). Its members also publish on Harry’s Place, a notorious Zionist weblog that has been described as ‘a hard right wing hate site…the UK equivalent of the US’s Little Green Footballs’. The thinktank also maintains good relations across the Atlantic where Nawaz was earlier hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a spinoff of AIPAC, the leading Israel lobby institution.
Although the thinktank takes its name from a 19th century Islamist Abdullah Quilliam, a British convert to Islam and an anti-Imperial activist, its targets are mainly people who fit that same profile: Muslim anti-Imperialists. British author Ziauddin Sardar reports that at its launch advisor Abdel-Aziz al-Bukhari argued that Muslims should ‘love, obey and respect’ the government. One of the Foundation’s key functions is to cast doubt on the link between British foreign policy and the rise of extremism. For these ‘reformed’ extremists, civil liberties are a dispensable luxury. After it was revealed that the British government’s counter-radicalism programme was being used to gather intelligence on innocent people, QF co-director Mohammed Mahbub ‘Ed’ Husain defended the government’s actions, arguing that they were ‘morally right’. This proved too much even for CSC director Douglas Murray who accused Husain of holding ‘extreme views’ that were ‘appallingly illiberal’. The foundation, Murray argued, is ‘using public money to advocate increasingly totalitarian attitudes’.1
So who invited Nawaz and the Quilliam Foundation to Islamabad? Why, Pervez Hoodbhoy, of course—to ‘reopen minds’, you see.2
Since Nawaz came with a foreign office security detail in tow (suits and body armour courtesy of the British taxpayer), Hoodbhoy can’t claim innocence about the purpose of the trip. At least the BBC’s Tim Whewell was forthright: ‘Backed by the British government,’ he intoned dramatically, ‘Maajid Nawaz is heading for the frontline in the war on terror to fight the ideas he once promoted’. Whewell was soon faithfully reproducing the Hoodbhoy meme, telling viewers how more Pakistani children were forsaking secular education for the madrassas. The clueless reporter took viewers down a madrassa corridor where he found ‘a sign of radicalization before they [the students] have left—Saudi-style head-dresses’! In his interview with Whewell, Hoodbhoy spoke about the growing assertion among students of their Islamic identity and then sagely mused: ‘something…something has happened…something very important, something fundamental has changed’.
Hoodbhoy however is no mere tool; he is equally adept at taking his own message to foreign capitals. After attending his lecture at the Middle East Institute in Washington, a senior IPS journalist told me he was astounded by the extreme hawkishness of Hoodbhoy’s views. Counterpunch readers could not have missed the fact that Hoodbhoy was rather selective in choosing which war to condemn; he had nothing to say about Afghanistan, a war he supports. He speaks passionately about all the horrors that according to him afflict Pakistan today, but makes no mention whence they arise. In fact, for the past several years, Hoodbhoy has been advocating vigorous military action to quell the frontier unrest. During the years when the military was devastating the tribal belt using airpower and artillery, if Hoodbhoy had any objection at all, it was that Musharraf was not going far enough. He then turned to Western audiences, with alarmist stories about the looming Islamist threat to enlist support for his domestic crusade. He didn’t shrink from maligning even his own colleagues, branding some the ‘urban Taliban’: ‘There are indeed more than a few scientists and engineers in the nuclear establishment with extreme religious views’, he told Counterpunch readers last July.
Under US pressure in May 2009 the Pakistani military launched a major incursion into Swat precipitating the largest refugee crisis since Rwanda. In his inimitable style Hoodbhoy described the incident that triggered this utterly avoidable human tragedy as ‘a miracle of sorts’. He denounced as ‘apologists for the Taliban’ all who urged caution, chief among them ‘opinion-forming local TV anchors’, and lamented that the ‘government’s massive propaganda apparatus lay rusting’. Anyone who suggested that the US presence next door or the indiscriminate drone attacks as possible destabilizing factors he accused of harbouring ‘festering resentments which [produce] a paranoid mindset that blames Washington for all of Pakistan’s ills’. At a time when most agreed that the problems were political and needed to be resolved accordingly, Hoodbhoy was gung-ho, advising the state to use ‘all possible means, including adequate military force’. In 2008 when eleven Pakistani soldiers were killed by US forces at a border post, Hoodbhoy described the resulting outrage as an instance of ‘anti-Americanism’. An incredulous Hoodbhoy wrote in Dawn that ‘some newspaper and television commentators want Pakistan to withdraw from the American-led war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, to stop US fuel and ammunition supplies into Afghanistan, and hit hard against Afghan troops when provoked’. That newspapers and television commentators should reflect what according to an IRI poll is the wish of 80% of Pakistanis? Such temerity! (For background on Pakistan’s domestic ‘war on terror’ franchise, see my ‘Pakistan creates its own enemy’)
Pakistanis recognize that what they face is a political crisis at its core, and a law enforcement issue at its margins. The use of force on civilian populations is not going to resolve it; it will only expose vulnerabilities, swell the numbers of the aggrieved, and compound the threat of retaliation.3 Already Hoodbhoy is holding up the predictable—and predicted—blowback as confirmation of what he calls the ‘militant fanaticism of Pathan tribals’. This is an unfortunate use of words, considering, as the former CIA station chief in Kabul Graham Fuller notes, and the former chief secretary of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province Rustam Shah Mohmand confirms, this is increasingly seen as an ethnic war against the Pashtuns.
In Hoodbhoy’s monochrome vision there are no shades of gray, his worldview is Manichean: You are with us, or you are with the terrorists. Opponents can only be driven by ‘evil’: there are no innocents. Violence is its own explanation, there is rarely a cause. To suggest one is to be an ‘apologist for extremism’. This is no leftist talking, this is Sharon-speak.
For someone who invokes Edward Said’s name to demand immunity from criticism, Hoodbhoy also appears remarkably innocent of the concept of Orientalism. In his writings he never shies away from indulging in the essentialist culture talk that characterizes the worst of the genre. His trope about a modern, enlightened, rational West, and a traditional, superstitious, irrational Islam would be familiar to most readers of Said. For Hoodbhoy culture explains why Islam has failed the test of modernity. History never happened; ‘colonialism’ and ‘empire’ are frivolous concepts used by Muslims to deflect attention from their own failings.
Turning to the age-old question of Islam’s alleged incompatibility with science, in an article for the Guardian, Hoodbhoy waxes wise about its ‘arrested development’. After acknowledging the golden era of Islamic science, he distinguishes ‘modern science’ from ‘ancient science’. Far from being a narrative of progress, one enabling the other, for Hoodbhoy, these are two distinct, culturally determined, paradigms standing in binary opposition. ‘If a civilisation did great ancient science’, he writes, ‘this does not automatically mean that it is equally qualified for doing modern science’. Especially, if it is a ‘culture that questions rather than obeys’. One can only guess what Said would have thought of this sapience.
Returning to the question of Pakistan, Hoodbhoy ends his Counterpunch article by defending what he claims are among ‘the finest people around’. Two of them—Najam Sethi and Ahmad Rashid—he hails for having fought the Pakistani military in the mountains of Baluchistan in their youth (like the youth fighting in the mountains of Waziristan, one might ask?). However, he is too polite to mention that all of these fine people are presently at war with a more formidable enemy: Pakistan’s dashing, obstreperous, free press. Earlier this year Sethi alleged that
the media created sympathy for the Taliban and support for the Red Mosque terrorists…they made this “America’s war” by spreading the idea that if the US were to leave the region, the Taliban and al-Qaida would dissolve…this same media drummed up support for dangerous peace deals between the Taliban and the army or government.
The media of course are ‘supporters of the Taliban’ in the same sense that opponents of the Iraq war were ‘supporters of Saddam Hussein’. After the media failed to show Hillary Clinton the deference that Sethi thought they should have, in an interview with the New York Times, he denounced them as ‘part of the problem’. Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan’s leading apologist for the ‘war on terror’, is equally vehement, dismissing the leading figures of Pakistan’s lively, muckraking media as ‘untrained, semi-educated and unworldly’. He also blasted the military for refusing to see the war as their own, rather than as an American war.
More upset with the media’s insolence toward Hillary Clinton was Irfan Husain, a liberal columnist for Dawn. After accusing Pakistan’s leading television anchors of ‘muddled, ill-informed thinking’, he compared ‘how angry they all looked’ with ‘Ms Clinton [sic]’ who, according to Husain, was ‘relaxed and articulate…a patient adult, gently chiding and cajoling a bunch of sulking teenagers’. Husain once served on the advisory board of the Pakistan-Israel Peace Forum, an Astroturf lobbying group co-founded by Michael Berenhaus, a leading right-wing Israel lobbyist, to advocate for the normalization of relations between Pakistan and Israel. Husain argued that Pakistan should base its foreign relations on ‘enlightened self-interest’, and the only people who would oppose recognition of Israel were religious parties who have failed to provide ‘cogent reasons… [t]he best they could do was to express their anger over the treatment the Israelis have been meting out to Palestinians under their occupation’. Husain is also not averse to reproducing neoconservative propaganda in his columns: he once wrote about the Muslim ‘fifth column’ in UK and the Islamic menace in ‘Londonistan’, and approvingly cited Christopher Hitchens for the insights. Like fellow ‘finest people around’, Husain is also a staunch advocate of military solutions.
In his classic work The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills described as ‘military metaphysics’ the cast of mind that sees political problems as military ones, and deems force as the sole means of resolving them. This mindset appears to pervade the ranks of Pakistan’s Westernized liberal elite—rightly called the ‘brown sahibs’—who have been baying for blood since 2002. Yet, despite their unabashed warmongering, they continue to receive platform in progressive publications by invoking the names of leftist luminaries that they have associated with. If past associations rather than present deeds guarantee respectable audience, we would have to be equally attentive to Christopher Hitchens’s pronouncements. Surely the layout of Edward Said’s Riverside Drive apartment is as familiar to Hitchens as it is to Hoodbhoy. Western commentators have all too often turned to people in their own image (Anglophone, secular, liberal) when analyzing societies they know little about; they would perhaps gain more if they looked for interlocutors based on shared principles instead. Hoodbhoy may have been a visitor to Edward Said’s apartment, but in his politics he is closer to his bête noire Bernard Lewis. So long as he continues to consort with dubious outfits like the Quilliam Foundation, or fails to restrain his extreme militarism, there is good reason to doubt his left-liberal credentials, past acquaintances notwithstanding.
- This indictment is particularly poignant coming from a man who has himself been accused by James Brandon, a former employee now working for Quilliam, of being one of the leading ‘preachers of hate’, one of the right’s ‘non-violent extremists’ who has ‘routinely demonised Muslims collectively’. [↩]
- According to BBC’s laudatory coverage, QF’s tour included bussing a group of students down from Peshawar under the pretext that they were attending a ‘seminar on peace’ only to be delivered as a captive audience for Nawaz’s rancid propaganda. [↩]
- Interestingly, in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 Hoodbhoy expressed similar concerns, however, his views had evolved to their present position by the first anniversary of the atrocity. [↩]