Friday, March 25, 2011

Letter from a Friend in Pakistan

I asked if I could post this and my friend said, "You are welcome to post anything I've written to you as long as it's clearly stated that I'm offering opinion rather than Truth As We Know It." I'm actually not sure what the difference is between those two things, but never mind. For those of you whose attention has been on other parts of the world, Raymond Davis is the American contractor (but with, apparently, diplomatic immunity) who fatally shot two people in Pakistan.

March 17, 2011

Well, Raymond Davis made his exit from Pakistan last night, after 6 weeks of high dudgeon all around. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

The whole thing makes me sick. One hardly knows where to start, and since it’s really a vicious circle, it probably doesn’t matter where. So let’s start with the fact that U.S. taxpayers are paying top dollar—through the privatized outsourcing by which our government now conducts so much of its business—for inept spies conducting questionable business with little to no result. Spies are supposed to blend into the landscape, remain anonymous. How could this man have been quite so tone-deaf to his environment? And why do we continue paying premium prices for goods and services that don’t actually get delivered?

Then there’s the Hypocrisy Factor of Pakistani public sentiment surrounding this case. It is not, in fact, exactly unheard of in these parts for thugs to approach a fancy car stopped at an intersection for the purposes of looting its passengers, or for calamity to ensue therefrom. In fact, a close friend was telling me just this morning that a man living in Defence (a very posh suburb of Lahore) was approached in just this way about a year ago, and when he, ensconced in his vehicle, drew a weapon—who knows whether it was legally licensed or not, this being relevant only because the media here has made much of the fact that Raymond Davis’s weapons were “illegal”?—even though the would-be miscreants turned and ran, the driver chased them down and shot them. Nothing much was made of this, no hue and cry was raised, certainly nobody heard of the killer being arrested, much less prosecuted. But then, he wasn’t an American spy, just your average wealthy citizen who, because of privilege, lives above the law.

 The Raymond Davis case was “settled” in accordance with Shari’ah law,the practice being known as “Qisas and Diyat”. It was designed about a millennium ago, and spoke very reasonably to the loss of a contributing family member in a tribal society such as those in Arabia. The principle behind this law is extremely practical, and is designed to provide an alternative to the endless vendettas that were wont to continue ad nauseum between clans practicing the “eye for an eye” approach to altercation. You lose a member of your family in a raid, say, or a dispute escalates to the point where one party kills the other. It is not that killing someone is anathema; it is more that society recognizes that in such situations the family of the murdered party has lost a contributing member. Thus, in token compensation of that loss, the family of the murderer offers money and/or goods of value such as goats, sheep, camels, what have you. Customary practice back them was that, when a family accepted such a payment (diyat), they implicitly forgave the wrong done them. In this way both families were released from the obligation to kill any member of the other whenever the opportunity arose. The vendetta was brought to an end without loss of honor to anyone. The concept of being ableto render token compensation is known as qisas.

Following this custom, when civilians are killed in Afghanistan by occupying forces such as those of NATO or the U.S., their families are now routinely compensated with “blood money” in the amount of about $2,000. This is a considerable sum in one of the poorest countries in the world, a society which remains both deeply religious and profoundly tribal. More importantly, I think, through such payments the U.S. acknowledges responsibility, even remorse, for the “collateral damage” they have caused, and they do so in local terms. The families of suicide bombers are similarly compensated by the adults who send other people’s children to early graves with the promise of glory.

Now, to return to whatever it was that transpired in Lahore on January 27, 2011. A foreigner driving a fancy car was approached at an intersection or was otherwise stalled in traffic, when he was approached by two young men named Fahim and Faisan who, he claims, were bent on robbing him. He was heavily armed and evidently of a bellicose nature. He was a C.I.A. mercenary and not unaccustomed to using his weapon. At the very least, he lost his head: he kept on shooting even after one of the erstwhile attackers had turned to flee.

The whole country was in an uproar. Raymond Davis was immediately arrested and put in jail, pending charges and all sorts of negotiations around whether or not he could be prosecuted according to existing treaties between the U.S. and Pakistan, whether or not he was a “diplomat” and therefore immune from local prosecution or—as was generally expressed in these parts—he was a common murderer who must be brought to justice. The outrage was breathtaking out there on the streets. People who made little of the routine lack of justice that pervades daily life here, such as the case of the man from Defence who chased down two would-be miscreants and punished them with death, could hardly contain their moral outrage at Raymond Davis. Religious parties made weekly demands that he be hanged, trials be damned. Finally the sense of impotence that has been engendered by Pakistan’s long history with the U.S. seemed potentially assuageable if Raymond Davis could be made to pay. In a place where conspiracy theories abound and are genuinely believed to explain most of what transpires in the world, all hell broke loose. Finally there was vindication in the eyes of many that a Foreign Hand really is to be found behind every act. And let me just add here that I have absolutely no idea what really happened, the evidence and testimony being staggeringly conflicting. But by this manner of thinking, nothing is ever what it seems and none of the primary actors in a given drama is actually accountable or acting on his [sic] own.

Let me offer a brief example. On Sunday there was a gunfight between one of the religious fundo parties (as they are affectionately termed) and the police. This took place at a very famous local sufi shrine, Data Darbar Sahib, which the fundos had tried to take over. Sunni fundos don’t just hate America, they hate everyone who isn’t Sunni. Sufis, though Muslims, have been denounced as kafirs for centuries by the orthodox, and the political reasons behind this are not hard to glean (Sufis, being mystics, reject the doctrinal authority of the orthodox and advocate a personal relationship with the divine that often leaves behind ritual and law. Those whose authority derives from mediating between the “Divine Will” and everyone else through their expertise in religious law and ritual, and from enforcing the rules and regulations surrounding the fulfillment of “Divine Will”, have little interest in tolerating the challenge to their authority that mystical religion represents). This gunfight took place in an urban residential neighborhood (one in which we have a neighborhood literacy and vocational training center, and whose populations includes a significant number of minorities who now have no representation at the state level since their one minister was gunned down a few weeks ago) and lasted for about 90 minutes. Human rights implications of who and how many were caught in the crossfire, anyone? I haven’t heard much about qisas and diyat for indigent locals who suffered “collateral damage” because, of course, they have no real claims against the State.

A couple of weeks ago I heard a lecture by a U.S. State Dept. expert exploring current ISI policy. In its guise as the Pakistani State, the Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence seems to have decided on backing Sufis to bolster its position in its power struggle with Islamists, who are increasingly challenging the authority of the state (one need only recall that, in the past two months, the Governor of the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces, not to mention a Federal Minister, have been gunned down in public, and popular sympathy has rested firmly with the perpetrators rather than the victims. Furthermore, the heads of state demurred from attending the funeral of either one on the grounds that it would be too dangerous). My friend Attiya—a pious woman—told me yesterday that workmen who’d come to the house recently were all of the opinion that the Governor had deserved to die for his opposition to the Blasphemy Laws that are being twisted and abused, mostly to eliminate members of minorities. They cited false hadiths to the effect that the Prophet himself (PBUH) had said that anyone who spoke ill of him did not deserve to live. Believe it! And don’t even try to figure out the source of religious authority informing these opinions!

It is the analysis of certain cognoscenti that the “state” sent the police into Data Darbar for this reason, that the shrine had been occupied by Sunni fundos while the state wanted to control sufi shrines and their inhabitants. I, na├»ve and foolish as ever, engaged a Sufi member of the household in conversation, asking him what he thought the attack on the shrine was about, he told me, without pausing, that the Americans were behind it. I found this breathtaking, especially coming from the best-educated and widest-read of all the domestic staff. What did he think was at stake for the Americans? (dissemble, dissemble...)

18 March 2011
All day long yesterday people I know were talking to me about “my” Raymond Davis. The newspapers are full of conspiracy, outrage at the “sellout,” indignation that a double murderer is to go free and once again Pakistan’s status as a client state rubbed in the faces of
Pakistanis. The families of the two slain men were “coerced” by the government into accepting more money than they probably could have even conceived of before their ill use by the powers that be. Rs. 100 million is certainly more than thirty pieces of silver, let me tell
you. Said families were reportedly abducted and forced to sign the diyat, or forgiveness papers, despite the fact that they had really wanted “justice”. Gosh, between the democratic principles of these folks (who may well have coerced their own daughter-in-law to commit suicide, thereby relieving themselves of the burden of supporting a spare woman while gaining a great deal of public sympathy) and the stand-up actions of the courts, the ISI, the CIA, the U.S. State Department and the media in both the U.S. and Pakistan, it amazes me that we haven’t all obtained Paradise by now. I saw a front-page article in the New York Times today that read like a State Dept. bulletin. Moral outrage we have a-plenty; can any of us muster some moral courage, please?

About eight newspapers are delivered daily to the address where I’m staying, about half in English and half in Urdu. They are so full of Raymond Davis and the drone attacks yesterday that killed 40-some people at a jirga in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, obviously all of them innocent civilians, that there was room left for only a small article on Japan’s nuclear crisis. The value of lost life obviously depends on how it is lost and who has taken it. I really don’t think I can take anymore of this right now.

I guess I’m ready to go home. I just hope my flight leaves, what with PIA being so heavily in debt that they can’t get the petrol to run many of their flights this week. Apparently a PIA plane was denied fuel recently at an airport in the Gulf. Qayamat se Qayamat Tak (From Disaster to Disaster). And this despite the fact that the government,which operates the airline, has received countless billions of dollars in economic and humanitarian aid from its U.S. allies in the past decade.

Did I mention my case of existential nausea? Need I elaborate further?

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