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Where are the moderates?

The `war against terror' has created a new language, says AYESHA KHAN. It is being used to frame all discussion of current political and military realities. At this point, one has to question the complicity of the media in adopting this new terminology of `friend' and `foe' without seriously and consistently questioning its assumptions.

Northern Alliance soldiers looking at the vapour traces left by U.S. fighter bombers in Afghanistan ... the foes in this war believe that political ends can be achieved through military might.

THE other night pretty Zain Vergee of Cable News Network (CNN) held an "Insight" programme discussion with a panel of experts to find out why we were not hearing more moderate Muslim voices from the Muslim world. I think she genuinely wondered why, without a trace of irony. The token Arab on the panel, editor of Al-Quds newspaper, hinted at the truth when he mentioned that the moderate Arab states she referred to were not representative of their people, and as such the people were not as moderate as she thought.

Raghida Dergham, writing for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, noted that United States' Government officials and politicians had little interest in speaking to members of the Arab press, despite their propaganda efforts to create support for their war effort. With regard to Al-Jazeera, the only free news channel in the Arab world, U.S. interest peaked when it tried to convince the Qatari Government to censor it. Given this kind of track record, is the U.S. media in particular in any position to gauge the mood and temperament, moderate or extreme, among Muslims?

While part of the problem lies in lack of western access to and interest in voices from the Muslim world, a more serious one comes from the new language of deception that western politicians and their supporters, even in our part of the world, are using to frame all discussion of current political and military realities. For example, a war on terrorism has been declared, but even the United Nations cannot agree on a definition of the word "terrorism" and who constitutes a "terrorist". But the Al-Qaeda network is an example of terrorism, and its leader is accused of masterminding the attacks on the U.S.. No evidence has been produced in a court of law to make this case, suggesting that those accused of terrorism do not enjoy any legal protection or fundamental rights before international law. Worse, the countries in which they operate are by association guilty and punished before they can argue or prove their own innocence.

And at this point, we have to question the complicity of the media itself in adopting this new terminology of friend and foe, this war on terrorism, without seriously and consistently questioning its assumptions. Instead of challenging the rules of the game as laid out by the politicians and military machines in charge of this new war, too many journalists — particularly in the electronic media — are blithely toeing the line. They are creating an obfuscation of the truth where clarity would most certainly serve the better, but possibly less welcome, cause of peace.

The result is that Indian journalists appearing on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) are scathingly supportive of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan because the bombs will hopefully wipe out camps that train Harkat ul-Mujahideen fighters. Meanwhile the U.S. Government itself is careful not to name that group among its target for fear of irritating the Pakistan Government. So who is the enemy and what war are both our Governments supposedly all supporting? Obviously one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and the circle of accusations goes round and round as long as we cannot agree on a working definition of terrorists. Meanwhile, the media in the West and in South Asia are discouraging an open debate on defining terrorism and fanning the winds of war instead. In the end, the cause of violence is served and the cause of peace is belittled leaving us all culpable.

In this impossible, Kafka-esque new scenario of enemy and friend, guilty and innocent, the media and politicians now need to create a macabre new category of "moderates" to calm the world down. Should we even have to spell out the fact that the U.S. President has, by virtue <147,1,0>of his own limited worldview, forced out the middle space by giving the world only two options: to be his friends, or his foes (i.e. the friend of the ``evil-doers'')?

Nonetheless, efforts to create this false category persist. So what is a moderate as defined by a section of the media? A moderate is someone who is somewhere in the middle of two extremes. As per current journalese, it is a Muslim who opposes extremist Muslims who engage in acts of terror, and may also support the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. It is a Muslim in the middle.

But if we accept this framework, we are evading a larger truth. Those currently waging war and those engaging in acts of terrorism may oppose each other in the battlefield, but on a spectrum of morality and ideology, for observers in the developing world they snuggle together fairly comfortably at the same far right end. This is apparent not just to Muslims, but to a host of South American observers who have been traumatised first-hand by U.S. support to anti-democratic forces in their home countries, and the terrorist tactics that they were trained to employ against their own people by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). George Monbiot, writing recently in The Guardian, quietly exposed the details of one such training camp in the U.S. (The Guardian, October 30, 2001).

Both foes in this new war believe that political ends can be achieved through military might — through bombs and other secret technologies that they reserve the right to use. They both want to control the media. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda do so through limiting the presence of journalists, barring a few favourites, in their territory. The U.S. and its allies do so by buying up commercial satellite pictures of Afghanistan, giving incomprehensible Pentagon briefings about their activities, and refusing "access" of disliked journalists to the White House and other places of power if they do not toe the line.

Both so-called opponents allow for the death of innocent civilians in the pursuit of their ideological objectives, for one the so-called defence of freedom and for the other a similar defence of freedom for their brand of politico-Islam. Hot in pursuit of their goals, democracy can be forgotten and principles of civil liberties and human rights take a back seat. So too can humanitarian assistance to the suffering, which neither the Taliban nor the Americans seem committed to facilitating with any degree of seriousness.

The Taliban do not let aid convoys do their work in Afghanistan, and they are raiding food storehouses of non-government organisations. The U.S. bombs disregard pleas to halt their mayhem so that aid convoys can pass. Instead they drop yellow food packages from the sky, labelled "bean and potato vinaigrette" that will, anyway, never reach the weakest. The death of civilians is of little interest to anyone — not those who attacked the U.S. buildings, nor those who bomb Afghan villages and say that numbers sound exaggerated and anyway, conveniently, cannot be confirmed.

A local newspaper vendor in Karachi waits for customers ... the doublespeak of the media confuses the reality of this so-called war.

Let us not be too impressed that the Pentagon recently announced they were changing the colour of the food packages from yellow, because they suddenly realised (really? How's that for inter-agency coordination?) that civilians would confuse them with unexploded cluster bombs of the same colour. The Third World remembers when Madeleine Albright, then U.S. Secretary of State, was asked whether half a million dead Iraqi children under U.S.-led sanctions was not too high a price to pay, she responded that it was "worth it".

The Taliban and those in the Al-Qaeda network believe that ideology is more important than the act of voting for one's leadership. So do the Americans, who have kept the Saudi royal family in power for years despite domestic demands for democracy, and have supported Pakistani military regimes consistently when it suits them politically. The so-called moderate Arab States represent these interests too, where the values of democracy are subsumed under the need to survive by keeping the oil flowing to America.

And most important, let us not pretend that the term "war on terrorism" is not a major insult to the vast majority of educated humanity. We know full well that war and terror go hand in hand, that war is the ultimate terror in the name of state power, while terrorism is the same thing in the hands of non-state parties. While one kind of violence may be deemed more legitimate in the world community and the other less legitimate, war and terror are the same side of the same coin. After all, Osama bin Laden was a CIA cooperative during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, he and his CIA trainers use the same tools and believe in the same methods, although in different contexts.

The double-speak of the media confuses this reality of this so-called war, because it does little to expose the underlying truisms of the world order as it slips into deeper violence. As a result ordinary thinking, moral human beings across the globe are being silenced instead of standing up for their "moderate" views. I would venture to guess that most people in Pakistan and other Muslim countries in particular do not want to take up for either the U.S. attacks or the likes of Al-Qaeda, but because the problem has been presented in an "either/or" scenario, they choose silence rather than immorality.

John Pilger — the heroic Australian journalist who has dared to speak the truth about many wars, particularly the Gulf War — reminds us in his book Hidden Agendas that the lives and thoughts of ordinary people is a "slow story" for the world's tightly controlled media power-houses. It is deliberately not included in the formation of news because of its potentially subversive power. The death of half a million Iraqi children under U.S.-led sanctions is such slow news that it took years for western journalists to think about taking a look at what was happening in that unfortunate land.

We might also want to look at the "slow news" under our own noses. The famine and humanitarian disaster that has been unfolding in Afghanistan for three years, has made it to the headlines now, when it will be too late to do anything about it. Where were the journalists in August?

Most Pakistanis, even those otherwise verbose leaders of civil society, were eerily quiet at first. Does that mean they are not thinking and struggling to evolve a moral response to the ghastly dramatisation of evil intentions being played out right next door? Slowly, peace groups have begun to march and articles are circulating in the press and on the internet demanding that the media cease its collaboration with obfuscation and get their hands dirty on the ground.

Where are the journalists in Pakistan's villages, exploring feelings under the surfaces, talking to political leaders, women, children, doctors, and many others who might have apt comments to make? They are in the Marriott or their homes in Islamabad, waiting to tell us that they have no verifiable information on how many died today inside Afghanistan, and that the Pakistan's Government has once again said it certainly hopes the war will be over mercifully soon.

So, more important than entertaining the questions of us Muslims posed by CNN and rising to the challenge set by a false dichotomy between good and evil defined by those who are not interested in a moral political order, we should be demanding that the media do its job. Journalists should be consistently asking some very urgent and pertinent questions.

In Pakistan, journalists have been at the helm of intellectual debate, daring to investigate and insist on uncovering shams when others were silenced by money and political threats. Here are a few questions that they — I would add that their colleagues throughout South Asia and the developing world — ought to be asking.

What weaponry is the U.S. using in its pursuit of "appropriate" targets? We all know of the depleted uranium in the Gulf War but we know little (another "slow story") about its long-term effects on the Iraqi population. What about nuclear weapons? Mini-nuclear weapons, with limited impact have not been ruled out in this war, as Defence Secretary Rumsfeld said at one of his press conferences. Why is the press not furiously taking up this issue?

What is the exact history of the relationship between Osama bin Laden, and indeed other Arab-Afghan mujahideen, and the U.S. intelligence services? The public should know more about how this partnership worked and why it went wrong. In that regard, we need to know more about Saudi Arabia, whose culpability in funding sectarianism and violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir is known to us already although precious few journalists talk about it today.

What is the nature of Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S. in the new war, and indeed the specific details of each country's collaboration with this violence? Journalists and public alike have acquiesced to the U.S. censorship of all war-related military and political factual information.

They do not want to tell us, so we will not ask — unless we are Qazi Hussain Ahmed, who is not a role model for most of us anyway. But we must demand to know, and challenge our journalists to investigate and explore, rather than join the sheep-like herd that runs from one press conference to the other, grateful for "access" to political heavy-weights and the morsels of information they toss out.

What is happening to our democracy? It is patently untrue that Pakistanis, and indeed one billion Muslims, do not want democracy, they just want a meaningful one. Just because President Musharraf is doing his best and was smart enough to dump his own military's adventurism in Afghanistan just before the U.S. bombed us back into the Stone Age, does not mean that we have to drop the question. It is as important now than ever before.

Just remember that little attention was paid to this question when the Afghan mujahideen took over Kabul after the Soviets left in 1992, and because no institutions of governance had been nurtured among these so-called leaders they had no idea how to govern. Remember, it is the generals who led us into our engagement with Afghanistan's recent wars. If there is anything left of Pakistan when this war is over, do we want them and the Americans to lead us into never-never land again?

Through asking serious questions repeatedly in a time of crisis, we can encourage rational debate in Pakistan to further the goal of peace and not war. The press in Pakistan and in other countries throughout the affected region can lead this debate, and help the public evolve a reasoned, informed political position regarding the current crisis.

We need to evolve our own views, and dare to be radical enough to challenge the paradigm that we had no role in making.

The writer is a Karachi-based developmental researcher and journalist.

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