Sunday, 26 November 2017

The 'Post 9/11' era and periods in history


World history is conveniently divided into periods. It is likely September 11, 2001 marked the end of the post-war period and the beginning of a new era. The events of 9/11 are a handy reference point for a 'before' and 'after' comparison.

'Before' included a relatively stable economic order buttressed by the Bretton Woods Agreement; a political structure based on clear demarcations between the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union (remember the USSR?) and the Free World led by the US.


Developing nations joined either the American or Soviet camp. In return for supporting either the capitalist or communist systems these countries were given economic and military aid, a form of clientelism. Ostensibly, the aid delivered by the patron Superpower was meant for development. To be sure, much of the aid did trickle down to the masses, positively affecting the lives of millions. However, a large part of the aid money was recycled back into Western economies. Corrupt politicians pocketed aid money and deposited these funds into bank accounts say in London and Geneva. Once in the international banking system, the money returned to the developed economies.

While the 'Eastern blocWestern bloc' system may not have worked for all, it worked for some. Certainly it worked for those at the top who managed it.


Then came the demise of the USSR. And the evolution of 'Socialism with Chinese characteristics' in Deng Xiaoping's China. The Communist bloc disappeared almost overnight. If that weren't enough, 9/11 happened.

Suddenly, the world was reeling from violence underpinned by a so-called Islamic ideology (even if the ideology is decidedly un-Islamic to most Muslims). One thing led to another and before sane people could blink, the US and its Coalition of the Willing implemented Operation Enduring Freedom and invaded Iraq in 2003.

US soldiers enter a palace in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003 (Source: Wikipedia)
The Iraq invasion precipitated a chain of events which continue in motion until today. Already a tinderbox due to the Palestinian question, the Middle East erupted into a cacophony of wars, revolutions and ever changing political alliances.

Shia Persia – contemporary Iran – viewing itself as a historic regional power adeptly filled political vacuums in Iraq and Syria thereby adding to its already strong foothold in Lebanon via Hezbollah. Simultaneously, Sunni Islam's Al-Qaeeda virus transformed into a more deadly disease called Islamic State (IS). IS, mainly through its involvement in Syria and Iraq, fueled the symbiotic relationship between extreme versions of Sunni and Shia Islam. Ultimately influential state actors were sucked into the conflict.

Saudi Arabia, along with its new best friend the United Arab Emirates (UAE), initiated a military expedition in Yemen with sideshows in Bahrain and Qatar. All three operations avowedly designed to block Shia Iran's expanding influence in the Arab world. Indeed, it now appears a tacit alliance between Saudi Arabia and the Arab world's historic 'Mother of All Enemies' i.e. Zionist Israel, is in the works to counter Iran's regional strength.

Throw in a hot-headed 32 year old ruler – Saudi Arabia's new Crown Prince – and a fiery anti-Western Turkish Islamist politician – President Erdogan – and the ingredients for prolonged instability are truly in place.

An Al-Qaeeda affiliated fighter in the Sahel region of Africa (Source: Wikipedia)
On the bigger global stage, a reprise of the 1970s Cold War is taking place in the form of renewed conflict between the US and Russia (and China). Meanwhile, 'Red' China has transformed itself into an economic and political powerhouse. Indeed, the health of the global economy hinges on Chinese growth rates. If China sneezes the world catches a cold. Buttressed by its new found economic clout, China now employs a more muscular foreign policy in order to project its strength. The South China Sea dispute is evidence of China's new approach.

The world is in a new 'Post 9/11' phase. It is doubtful there were many certainties in the past. Now there are even fewer certainties – simply many questions which only time can answer.

It is in this context that I enrolled for the online course, Understanding 9/11: Why 9/11 Happened and How Terrorism Affects Our World Today offered by Duke University. The course should provide me with information about recent changes. Undoubtedly, like any humanities course, there are biases in the material and its presentation. However, I intend to soak in the knowledge in order to make better personal judgments about the subject (isn't that the purpose of learning?).

To complete the course I am required to submit two papers. The first assignment – a maximum of 1,000 words – is about 'Radical Islamic Fundamentalism.' Through the document I must explain key elements of Al-Qaeeda's philosophy, its origins and the radicalization process to my local police chief.

Below is my paper in its entirety.

____________________________________


To: The Commissioner,
Singapore Police Force,
Republic of Singapore.

From: Imran Ahmed,
Policy Consultant,
Radical Islamic Fundamentalism Expert.

Subject: Origins and key elements of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the radicalization process

Date: November 18, 2017

'Radical Islamic Fundamentalism' has the potential to drive individuals towards violence. One dangerous strand of radical Islamic fundamentalist ideology is provided by Osama Bin Laden's (OBL) Al-Qaeeda and its offshoots such as ISIS and Jemaah Islamia (JI). These fringe Islamic ideologies form a critical part of any individual's radicalization process and must be understood as they potentially pose a threat to Singapore as a plural multicultural society.

Origins of Radical Islamic Fundamentalism

Radical Islamic fundamentalism relies on specific interpretations of historical and contemporary conditions found in the Islamic world. These conditions can be categorized into three broad headings: political and economic decline; 'un-Islamic' religious practices; and Westernization of Muslim societies.

Firstly, radicals believe the political and economic decline of the Islamic world is directly attributed to non-Muslim Western nations, e.g. the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and related Islamic Caliphate. Western colonialism is also blamed for the demise of Islamic nations and dividing the Islamic Ummah into arbitrarily defined nation states.

Secondly, radical Islamists consider contemporary Islamic beliefs and practices to be tainted by centuries of influence from 'un-Islamic' ideas. Consequently, present day Islamic society and religion is believed be fundamentally 'corrupt.'

Lastly, these radicals believe Islamic societies have been 'Westernized' through centuries of contact with 'un-Islamic' Western nations. That is, Islamic societies are diffused with un-Islamic cultural and social practices. In recent years, this belief has been compounded by the forces of globalization.

Al-Qaeeda Ideology: Some Key Elements

Al-Qaeeda believes there is a war taking place between Islam and the West, including the US. It is therefore a religious duty of all Muslims to wage war – a lesser Jihad – against Americans and Westerners in order to protect the Islamic world and avenge its mistreatment by the West. Moreover, any Muslims not participating in this war are deemed un-Islamic and, hence, legitimate targets under OBL's call for jihad. The ideology makes no distinction between civilian and military combatants, all are potential targets in this holy war.

In OBL's 1996 Declaration of Jihad, he built on ideas expounded by an Egyptian Islamist thinker named Sayyid Qutb in a book titled Milestones (1964). In Milestones Qutb wrote, “Our whole environment, people's beliefs and ideas, their habits and art, rules and laws - is Jahiliyyah [an age of barbarity or darkness predating Islam].”

In the Declaration, OBL appeals to economic, social and political grievances within the Muslim world to advance his argument. He states Muslims and Islamic nations have been humiliated by Western nations in many ways, e.g. through war, occupation and plunder.

In 1998, in a bid to gain more credibility, OBL joined forces with several known religious figures and issued a statement under the World Islamic Front banner. In this 1998 call to action, Al-Qaeeda focuses more openly on America. He refers to the US 'occupation' of Holy Lands in Saudi Arabia – a reference to US soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia. Further, the statement speaks of ongoing injustices such as United Nations and US sanctions against Iraq following the 1991 war. In a final bid to convince his audience, Bin Laden attempts to associate the US with Israel, using Israel's general unpopularity within the Islamic world.

Al-Qaeeda's radical Islamic ideology urges violence against American and Western persons and interests. Indeed, the ideology goes further by exhorting Muslims to fulfill their religious duty by undertaking such violence, even against other Muslims who are seen as passive bystanders in this holy war against the US. The 9/11 attacks are the most poignant examples of such violence.

Radicalizing Individuals to Violence

Radicalizing individuals to commit acts of violence is a complex process. There is no predetermined, rigid or formulaic path by which an individual moves from being a non-violent individual to one ready to commit violence in the name of Islam, even if the person is sympathetic to radical Islamic fundamentalist causes.
There are multiple routes towards radicalization and many use forms of social media. Likewise, there appears to be no one type of individual who tends to radicalize.

A review of known radical Islamic terrorists demonstrates diversity across national, ethnic, linguistic, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. Hence, it is difficult for law enforcers to detect potential terrorists based on a specific racial profile. Nevertheless, evidence indicates that most terrorists tend to be young males.

Some individuals radicalize because they experienced a traumatic event, e.g. death of an acquaintance or family member. Consequently, they may wish to avenge the death and turn to terrorism. Alternately, the individual may identify with a larger group (e.g. Iraqi Sunni Muslims) which he somehow seeks to defend from an 'enemy.'

There are several other known theoretical tracks to radicalization discussed by radicalization expert Clark McCauley. These include thrill seeking by young persons. Another is based on Group Dynamics. Here individuals within a group tend to move towards extremes and ultimately all members of the group are radicalized. Group isolation, where a group is isolated from society and hence strengthens bonds to such an extent where violence becomes acceptable is another possibility. Mass politics is another method. Here if a group is attacked then it may respond in ways – i.e. violence – which otherwise it may otherwise have considered inappropriate.

It is important to state that most sympathizers of radical Islam seem not to take the final step towards violence.

Conclusion

As has been seen by the capture and detention of several Jemaah Islamia (JI) terrorists and radicalized individuals, Al-Qaeeda's extreme radical Islamic fundamentalist ideology has the ability to influence Muslims in Singapore towards extreme violent behavior. (JI is the Al-Qaeeda offshoot active in Southeast Asia.) Radical Islamic fundamentalist ideology espouses violence against open societies such as Singapore and even against Muslims who have integrated into a pluralistic, tolerant society. While there is no single route to radicalization, it is known that the largest group of potential terrorists are young males. Hence, It is important Singapore curbs their ability to seek out and imbibe radical Islamic ideological thought and the individuals / groups which espouse such thought.



Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. At the time of writing, Imran is living in Rashidabad as a volunteer at the SST Public School. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

What am I doing in Tando Allahyar? That's in rural Sindh (Pakistan) in case you didn't know!


Almost one million people live in Tando Allahyar district located in Pakistan's Sindh province. One million is not a small number but the population is spread over many villages and towns across an expanse of almost 1,500 square kilometers. Yes, the district is about twice the size of Singapore and has less than twenty percent of the island republic's population.



Take Rashidabad, my 'hometown' since September. Rashidabad is less than 35 hectares in size – one third the size of Singapore's Gardens by the Bay. By my guesstimation Rashidabad has a resident population of maybe 2,000. However, the town's daytime population probably swells to at least twice its resident population due to visiting students, patients, employees, etc.

For most Singaporeans, the entire country of Pakistan is considered off limits, so what is a Singaporean-Karachite doing in 'ulu' Rashidabad?

Well, yes, I am a Pakistani by birth so no part of Pakistan is alien to me … technically. The reality is more complicated.

Pakistan is an interlinked mosaic of different cultures and linguistic regions. As a Karachite, my DNA is quite different even from urbanite compatriots from Lahore, Peshawar, Hyderabad or Islamabad. Often we speak a different language. Culture, including dress, gender roles, food and religious traditions vary widely.

A Karachite from the twenty million strong City of Lights doesn't see the world like a Sindhi speaking farmer from Quba village, Tando Allahyar district. The Quba resident grew up hearing tales of Watayo Faqir and his beautiful poetry. She is entirely indifferent to Shakespeare's (Sheikh who?) plays and sonnets taught to many Karachites in school.

Karachi, after all, is Pakistan's answer to New York city (no kidding). On the contrary, Tando Allahyar is primarily an agricultural area producing some of the country's finest mangoes. Though it is adjacent to one of Pakistan's oldest and finest agricutural universities.



But I digress. What am I doing in Rashidabad?

I am here to experience Pakistan beyond cities and locales familiar to me. I am here to live life to the fullest; an acknowledgement that leading a full life often requires escaping the hustle and bustle of cities like our own Singapore. It means no riding subway trains, no CNBC financial news or shopping malls. Instead one must stop and smell the roses and enjoy the world's simpler pleasures.

But mostly, I am in Rashidabad to interact with kids and teach them English in the process. I do that at the Sargodhian Spirit Trust Public School (SST), Rashidabad; a boys boarding school established in 2005.


Selfie time with SST students!





As for my time with SST students? I will spare you tales about teaching the next generation of leaders, etc. Instead, let's just say I will try to stop myself from tearing up when I leave Rashidabad next month! It's hard not to get attached to boys with boundless enthusiasm and energy – no matter how disruptive they may be inside the classroom!

In summary, Rashidabad is much more than a dot on the map. Rashidabad is about teaching and learning. Learning is the reason I am in Tando Allahyar. Who knew teaching is simply another word for learning?


Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. At the time of writing, Imran is living in Rashidabad until December 2017 while a volunteer at the SST Public School. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Bormann Testament by Jack Higgins: a book review


After the last few Jack Higgins novels disappointed me, I was apprehensive about starting The Bormann Testament. I kept the faith as the subject, i.e. the Nazi movement in 1960s post-war Germany, interested me.


I am glad. The Bormann Testament was a fast paced, entertaining novel. The plot moved quickly. There were just enough twists to keep me happy but not enough to confuse me. The story fell into place with a good cast of characters. I could even overlook the author's occasional political pontifications about Germany and its Nazi movement!

If one views the book as a work of 'historical fiction' then it reveals the extent of the German Nazi problem in 1962, a good fifteen years after the war ended with Hitler's Nazis defeated. (Arguably, there will always be an extreme right wing segment in German / European society, especially if one looks at recent political events in Europe?) That backdrop provided good context for the story.

Surely, the book is not one of Higgins' best. Nonetheless, it is not a bad way to while away a few hours.


Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. At the time of writing, Imran is living in Rashidabad until December 2017 while a volunteer at the SST Public School. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Karachi as related through short stories


Like any large urban metropolitan area Karachi has a little of everything: wealth, diversity, excitement, danger, humanity, crime and a lot more. Nonetheless, Karachi has no comparison with other cities in Pakistan.

Karachi is more than a mini-Pakistan. It's population contains large numbers of Burmese, (Swahili speaking) Africans, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Afghans and so many more. It has over one million Christians; a similar number of Hindus and smaller numbers of Sikhs.


Karachi is home for all of these communities. They are not foreign talent on work permits and employment passes.

Mai Kolachi was and is a mother for all Pakistanis. She welcomes one and all with open arms. Unlike Lahore, Peshawar or most other Pakistani cities, Karachi asks no questions.

Karachi embraces. Arrive on Monday and call Karachi home on Tuesday.

However, until a few years ago Karachi had fallen under the spell of an envious Evil Eye. It seemed there was no end to Karachi's problems. Riots, crime, terrorism, kidnapping and all types of evil became synonymous with the erstwhile City of Lights.

It is this period of darkness which is captured in “Karachi: Our Stories in Our Words” edited by Maniza Naqvi. The book is a collection of short stories by ordinary Karachites. The stories are intimate and take you deep within the pain of the city, as felt by its authors. Indeed, after reading some of the stories one is left wondering how Karachi survived and even grew by millions even during this strife torn period.

Karachi’s strength also shines through in these tales. Karachites never gave up on Mai Kolachi's city. Today, Karachi is not only out of intensive care but well on the road to regaining her past glory. Indeed, maybe even a stronger Karachi has emerged following the pain of recent years.


Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. At the time of writing, Imran is living in Rashidabad until December 2017 while a volunteer at the SST Public School. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Radicalizing ASEAN's Muslims: ASEAN's Myanmar problem


It is a sad day when in 2017 a Nobel Peace Prize winner presides over a process which the United Nations refers to as ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, there is no doubting the harsh reality of the Myanmar government's actions in Rakhine province. They occur daily, within Singapore's neighborhood and by a fellow ASEAN member state.

Singapore continues to struggles with its response to Myanmar's attrocious behavior. Certainly, the 'ASEAN Way' suggests there should be no interference in the domestic affairs of another ASEAN member state. This is a wise principle. Until recently, the axiom has served ASEAN well and allowed the organization to grow roots.

An old photograph of a mosque in Akyab. Akyan is now known as Sittwe and is the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine province. (Source: Wikipedia)
However, the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's western Rakhine province no longer an internal matter. It has transformed into a regional crisis. The events unfolding in Myanmar's Rakhine state have grave security implications for Singapore, Malaysia and other ASEAN states.

Consequently, the time has come for Singapore and ASEAN to take a bolder stand in its relationship with Myanmar.

ASEAN is no stranger to violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists. Indonesia's off and on problem with such violence threatens to hit the headlines on any given day. Indeed, the region's traditionally 'non-Arab' strand of Islam has weakened enough to make the threat of Islamist violence in Malaysia so pervasive that Malaysian authorities arrest potential 'Jihadis' with alarming regularity. Even at the fringe of the Malay world in southern Thailand, religious-ethnic violence is a disturbingly routine affair.

Nonetheless, it is the Philippines which takes the (Islamic extremist) crown. Despite a 'strongman' leader the country faces an Iraq-like scenario with militants apparently loyal to Islamic State (ISIS) having taken over Marawi - a mid-size city - and held it captive for the previous four months. The siege to recapture Marawi is ongoing at the time of writing.

A photo dating from British colonial days of a mosque in Akyab (now Sittwe) the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine province. (Source: Wikipedia)
The events in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Myanmar may seem far removed from the Singapore's CCTV flooded sterile streets. However, in today's global village they can neve be far from Singapore's shores. These Islamic extremists feed a deviant belief structure which menacingly lurks below Singapore's ostensibly calm surface. 

Starting with the 2001 plot to bomb Yishun subway station stretching to the recent arrests of an Islamic State radicalized female infant care giver and two auxiliary police officers Singapore is not immune to Islamic extremism. On the contrary, based on the number of arrests, the threat to Singapore from Islamic extremists has increased in recent years.

The Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar feed a sense of injustice within Singapore (and the region's) Muslim community. Furthermore, the Singapore government's lack of condemnation of the Myanmar government's brutal behaviour risks alienating Muslims from Singapore's Islamic establishment. Singapore may be one of the largest foreign investors in Myanmar hoping for the crisis to miraculously disappear; but Singapore ignores the Rohingya crisis at its own peril.


Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. At the time of writing, Imran is living in Rashidabad until December 2017 while a volunteer at the SST Public School. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.


Sunday, 24 September 2017

The spirit of sacrifice and the genesis of Rashidabad Model Village, Pakistan


New towns are not born. They are created. Though it is not often a new town's inception is draped in tragedy. Except in Rashidabad's case. Rashidabad is a small settlement in the Tando Allahyar district of Pakistan's southern Sindh province.

Rashidabad's history does not begin with the opening of a hotel or railway station. Instead, Rashidabad's story begins with a tragic death of an air force pilot.

It was in December 1997 that a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pilot named Flight Lieutenant Rashid Ahmed Khan took off on a routine mission in his Mirage fighter jet.

A short while after take off his aircraft caught fire above a densely populated area. PAF ground authorities ordered the pilot to abandon the plane, bail out and save his life. Flight Lieutenant Rashid disobeyed these direct orders. Instead, he opted to save thousands of lives by maneuvering his aircraft to an unpopulated remote area. In the effort, he sacrificed his own life.

Rashid died in the Sindh desert of Tando Allahyar district between the cities of Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas.

Rashidabad has its own railway station on the Hyderabad - Khokrapar (via Mirpurkhas) branch line. The line sees a weekly train towards Zero Point and onwards to India as well as a couple of daily trains towards Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas. 

Following the death of their only son, Rashid's father – himself a retired PAF officer - galvanized a group of retired Air Force officers and in 1998 created the non-profit Rashid Memorial Welfare Organization (RMWO). The RMWO's objective is “[setting] up model villages throughout the country [Pakistan] by integrating all essential facilities in a well-knit mosaic so as to ensure a positive beneficial outflow to the needy rural folk – all under one roof. Our main thrust is on education, health and vocational training...” Rashidabad is the RMWO's initial pilot project.

The Hunar Foundation operates a vocational training institute in Rashidabad.
It has been twenty years since RMWO's establishment and Rashidabad is a thriving town. It provides not only employment opportunities to nearby local communities but also badly needed essential medical and educational services. Today, Rashidabad houses a hospital, schools, school for the deaf, school for the visually impaired and an eye hospital. More welfare organizations are establishing a presence and in the process of constructing their premises.

Rashidabad has a school for those with hearing disabilities as well as one for persons who are visually impaired. 
Death is an inevitable part of life. Everyone eventually faces death. Normally, one views death as a tragedy - an occasion to be mourned. It does not have to be so. Take Flight Lieutenant Rashid's case. His death allowed hope to enter the lives of thousands of Pakistanis.

This story is not about a tragic death but a happy beginning.

That's me posing for a selfie with students from the SST Public School, Rashidabad! 




Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. At the time of writing, Imran is living in Rashidabad until December 2017 while a volunteer at the SST Public School. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Iron Marshall by Louis L'Amour: a book review


L'Amour is the gold standard for novels set in the American West. His prolific output and his masterful storytelling endear him to any reader interested in the 'Wild West.'

It is therefor no surprise I have list track of the number of L'Amour books I have read over the years. I started reading his novels as a teenager and even after several decades his books don't disappoint.

To be sure, a classic Western story follows a formulaic model almost as predictable as a Bollywood movie. There is the hero – an almost bad guy who is at his core a good guy. The love interest who makes but fleeting appearances. The villain and his (or her) accompanying posse of bad guys (and gals).

However, it is L'Amour's ability to surprise within this formula which makes his novels entertaining, easy reads. Perhaps L'Amour pulls the reader so deep into the savage yet noble world of the Wild West that we forget the plot is simply a fairy tale of Good versus Evil.


The Iron Marshall is no different. A 'bad' good guy from 'civilized' New York city finds himself entangled in a small Western cowboy town. Before he knows it, our hero is the town Marshall and trying to unravel an intriguing criminal conspiracy. During his detective work, our hero deals with some 'real' bad guys. On his way to saving the town he also finds time for a 'love at first sight' encounter!

It all sounds rather unbelievable though when told by an experienced wordsmith the story is not only believable but also entertaining. For the un-initiated L'Amour reader The Iron Marshall may not be the best place to start. However, for those of us running out of L'Amour works to read this novel is as good as place as any to lose oneself in rough and tumble of the Wild West.



Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.