Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Annapolis Summit: A Bad Example for Democracy

This Middle East summit commencing in Annapolis today sends a clear-cut message to the Arab world that either Annapolis, or democracy, is a sham. Bush and his cronies claim to be champions of democracy, a system whose essence means that the people rule by fairly electing leaders to represent them. The Palestinians had a democratic election back in January of 2006, and the terrorist organization/militia turned political party known as Hamas claimed an election victory more resounding than either of Bush’s two election victories. This victory was less about Hamas’ Islamic ideology, and more about a lack of alternatives. Still, for many in the US and Israel, it was a tough pill to swallow. This is sensible, considering Hamas’ wholesale rejection of Israel’s existence and the liters of civilian blood it has on its hands. The Bush administration faced a tough decision, either to accept a government led by terrorists, or reject democracy when it doesn’t give you the desired results. Annapolis indicates that the latter choice was selected, which gets decoded by the Arab street as further proof that the US stands for nothing but its own self interests.

This is a replica of what’s going on in Pakistan, Egypt, and in many parts of the world. US supported puppet governments perceived as corrupt sellouts are invited to posh summits sponsored by Dasani water, ignoring and infuriating the Muslim masses. Annapolis is not a step in the direction of peace, but is sadly a painful stab in the heart of any Palestinian who ever believed in democracy. The fact that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ahmed Qureia (Abu Alla) are leading the Palestinian delegation at Annapolis is a slap in the face to the Palestinian people for many reasons, but no reason greater than this: The 1 million-plus Palestinian who woke up on the cold, rainy morning of January 26, 2006 in order to vote now feel like they wasted their day. From the perspective of the nearly 500,000 Hamas voters who are now being represented by people they voted against, Annapolis is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

The Palestinian representatives now in Annapolis are the ghosts from failed negotiations’ past. On the side of the Israelis in Annapolis 2007, the negotiating team today is from a different political party and ideological strain than its Oslo counterparts in 1994 and Camp David 2000. But on the Palestinian side, we see the same exact faces. Abu Mazen was Yassir Arafat’s deputy back in Oslo and in Camp David, which preceded the bloody second Intifadah. Let’s just take a look at Oslo in 94, the negotiations that paved the way for Palestinian sovereignty and a future two state solution. Yitzchak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shook hands and won Nobel peace prizes. Optimism abounded. But on the ground, terror increased, the Palestinian charter was not fully amended to recognize Israel, and Palestinian schoolbooks were not changed to include Israel on the map, all clear violations of the Oslo Accord. While Israel did fulfill most of its obligations by educating for peace, pulling out of certain territories, and allowing for the creation of a Palestinian Authority which it would then arm, Israel did continue building illegal outposts in the West Bank. Neither side is perfect, but at least in Israel there is a degree of accountability for failure. Most undemocratically, an Israeli terrorist assassinated Rabin. But his ideology moved forward, proven by the election of his next of kin in the Labor party, Ehud Barak. At Camp David in 2000, Barak offered the Palestinians total control of Gaza, large chunks of the West Bank, and half of Jerusalem, but Arafat and Abu Mazen rejected this offer. An intifada erupted, leading to a shift in Israel’s politics. Labor was replaced by the more hawkish Likud, which then splintered into the Kadima party after Ariel Sharon pulled Israel out of Gaza. All this has happened in Israel’s dynamic political environment since 1994, indicative of a healthy democracy doing some serious soul searching. Abu Mazen and Abu Allah will be always be respected icons in a Palestinian culture desperate for heroes, but their superpowers have warn off years ago. They represent a stagnant and stale political politburo, completely disconnected from a people thirsting for change.

Instead of hanging out with old “has beens” in Maryland, Israel should try and engage Hamas in their own backyard. This is complicated, but also is relevant for the Americans. In Iraq, Iran, and Palestine, the Arab street needs to see that democracy is the best possible political system and not the club that they are threatened with or beaten with. To defeat an enemy in a war of hearts and minds is to go for the ideological jugular, by supporting democratic institutions that are completely antithetical to a fundamentalist regime. Yes, Hamas today probably prefers total control of the country’s politics under Islamic Sharia law over the democratic ideals of free speech, free press, a diverse array of grassroots political organizations, clean handovers of power, and free elections in the future. Instead of rushing to negotiations with a Palestinian mafia, Israel should wait patiently for an alternative to emerge, or for Hamas to change its stripes. The faux representatives of the Palestinians in Annapolis should know a thing or two about changing stripes. The Fatah organization they founded back in 1965 used to be known as the PLO, which has the dubious title of being the world’s premier terrorist organization. Abu Mazen, once considered a terrorist, is now given red carpet treatment. Ironically, he was perceived exactly the same way Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is perceived right now. The only difference, of course, is that Mr. Haniyeh, as despicable as he may be to Israel and the West, was democratically elected.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Musharraf's Troubles in Pakistan

In reading the mainstream media reports and analysis on the political crisis in Pakistan, I am surprised that I haven’t seen or read more about the earthquake, one of the most significant and traumatic events in Pakistani history, and Jammat e Islami, a powerful Islamic organization that came to the rescue of so many thousands of people after the earthquake.

I covered the aftermath of the earthquake for Current roughly two years ago. The disaster devastated Pakistan’s mountainous Kashmir region, which contains some of the most inhospitable, unreachable, frigid regions on earth. Tens of thousands of people were instantly killed, wounded, or made homeless on what was supposed to be a normal Saturday morning. Comfortable people instantly became poverty stricken. Moderately poor people instantly became extremely poor. Children were seen stumbling on top of the rubble, looking and calling for their siblings and parents, only to find lifeless piles of twisted metal and concrete.

Filming these people was the most heart wrenching experience of my life. On numerous occasions I had to put my camera down to compose myself, to escape into my thoughts, or to cry. Yet, despite the incredible hardships these people suddenly faced, I was filled with an incredible sense of hope after seeing the resilience and strength of the survivors.

The earthquake also taught me some valuable lessons about the politics of suffering. Through the prism of this national catastrophe, I could see the political fault lines cracking in Pakistan. After an act of God, it is the job of mankind to pick up the pieces. It would take a massive logistical campaign to feed the victims, keep them warm, and begin the process of rebuilding. Much like in the US with Hurricane Katrina, the Pakistani people logically expected their government to step in and provide the financial, managerial, and logistical support necessary to help in the wake of the earthquake. And just like President George W. Bush and FEMA in the US, according to most of the Pakistani people I spoke to, the federal government led by General Pervez Musharraf, did not do enough to help the earthquake survivors.

While countless foreign aid organizations and foreign armies swooped in immediately and delivered food, resources, and aid to the Pakistani people, domestically it was Jammat e Islami who got credit for providing support the most quickly and efficiently. I remember one evening strolling through the ruins of Muzzafarbad, Kashmir’s capital city and the unfortunate epicenter of the quake. I was led to a makeshift survivor camp built by Jammat e Islami, which had thousands of tents lined up in rows and was feeding thousands of people lentil soup in giant steel vats. The line to get the food seemed endless but everyone got served. I was amazed at this organization’s ability to pull off this giant logistical feat. Clearly, Jammat e Islami understands the old adage that the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

It turns out Jammat e Islami is bigger than I thought. They are the oldest and largest religious organization in Pakistan. They have a flashy website at, a women’s wing, and their own theoretical Islamic Constitution for Pakistan. They are politicized. They recently unified all Islamic parties under one platform, winning 53 out of 272 seats in the 2002 Pakistani legislative elections. In Bangladesh, they have also gone from winning only 3 seats in 1996, to 18 in 2001. (By the way, they were also instrumental in supporting Bangladeshis after the recent floods) They are international; with affiliates in India and Sri Lanka, and, according to the US state department, have ties to Hizbul Mujahideenm, the Muslim militia in Kashmir, as well as Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.

If Islamic law is ever imposed on Pakistan, Jammat e Islami will be the ones to do it. The situation in Pakistan today is uncanny in its similarity to the Shah’s Iran or even Fatah’s Gaza Strip, before they were both deposed by grassroots Muslim organizations. You have a rich, secular, undemocratic, US-backed leadership, utterly disconnected from the people and worst of all, perceived as corrupt. That’s why the Ayatollah and Hamas came to power in Iran and Gaza, not because of Islam, but because of a lack of alternatives. People are much more likely to accept Islamic law if they think it will put more food on the table.

There is a basic civics lesson every seventh grader should know. The primary reason governments were created is to serve the people. Perhaps if General Musharraf had used more of the 5.6 billion dollars he received in military aid from the US to help the Pakistani earthquake victims, he would not find himself in such a prickly situation. Likewise perhaps President Bush would not find himself surrounded by a Democrat controlled House and Senate. The failure of these two leaders to be there when it counts reminds me of another analogy from seventh grade: Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are kind of like getting your butt kicked real bad by the school bully. You’re lying face down in the dirt wondering what the hell happened. Yet you instantly know who your real friends are. They are the ones picking you up from the ground.

Check out my video from the Kashmir Earthquake: