Huma Yusuf

Articles - Reviews - Freelance Journalism

Beyond binary

June 10th, 2010

This article first appeared in The News on September 23, 2007.

What would politicians be without their gift for the gab? Thanks to their oratorical vigor, propensity for righteous rants, ability to dwell on the details, and vulnerability to making off-the-cuff remarks, they stay in the news and shape our views. In the run-up to elections, however, politicians – and their politics – tend to become reductivist. Issues are often boiled down to the level of liberal or conservative, for or against, good or evil.


Even in Pakistan, where a plethora of political parties and politically motivated actors exist, bipartisanship seems to be a growing trend. With an election date looming, the country’s complicated socio-political cocktail is being distilled into a simple case of either/or. This urge to simplify arguably helps citizens in relatively healthy democracies navigate elections and cast the right vote. But in our case, banking on binaries will only take the common Pakistani a step further away from genuine representation.


In an editorial published in The Washington Post last Thursday, Benazir Bhutto declares that the “central issue facing Pakistan is moderation vs. extremism”. She points to democracy as the only way to win back the “hearts and minds of a generation” in the battle against fundamentalism. Her decision to simplify the ‘Pakistan problem’ to a neat binary was strangely echoed in the recording by Osama bin Laden released on the same day. In his 23-minute-long diatribe against General Musharraf, the al-Qaeda leader urges Pakistanis to wage ‘jihad’ against the president, his army and other supporters. In other words, bin Laden breaks down Pakistan’s political state of affairs into a case of militants vs. the military.


Since the Lal Masjid showdown, Pakistan’s political landscape has been repeatedly reduced to the binary that pits extremist militants against the military. Take, for example, the oft-quoted survey released earlier this month by the Washington-based think tank Terror Free Tomorrow. Local and international politicians, policy makers as well as the mainstream media have highlighted the fact that the survey shows bin Laden to be more popular than General Musharraf amongst Pakistanis, with the former boasting approval ratings of 46 percent against the president’s 38 percent.


Of course, the politics and problems of a nation as diffuse as Pakistan are rarely so easily summarized. What most media coverage of the Terror Free Tomorrow survey neglects to report is that the statistics also show Pakistanis to have a 69 percent approval rating of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, 63 percent for Benazir Bhutto and 57 percent for Nawaz Sharif. The average Pakistani’s ability to see that there are many influential actors in the epic drama that is national politics is, however, dismissed in favor of a neat binary placing the military in opposition with the militants.


Similarly, Bhutto’s convenient thesis that extremism is the thorn in Pakistan’s side that can only be removed once the moderate masses are mobilized and democracy restored is quickly complicated – even within the space of her editorial. In the course of her “moderation vs. extremism” argument, she discusses the pitfalls of martial dictatorship, the longstanding affair between the mullahs and the military, the fragility of the Pakistani Constitution, dynastic politics, and the challenge posed by disenfranchised youth. While she tries to present the political challenge facing Pakistan as straightforward and black-and-white, she too must permit for shades of grey.


One of the main dangers of casting Pakistani politics in terms of binaries such as moderation vs. extremism and militancy vs. the military is that such constructs promote the fallacy that Pakistan is facing one, monolithic problem – the increasing tide of religious extremism. Unfortunately, we all know that this is far from the truth. Glancing at the headlines in major English dailies last Friday alone, I was reminded that Pakistan has yet to contend with pressing issues such as the raising of dams, the reconstruction of earthquake-devastated areas, nationalist movements in Baluchistan and the Northern Areas, inflation, the challenges of nuclear proliferation, foreign policy snafus with India, Afghanistan and the US as well as human rights infringements such as child marriage and karo kari. Indeed, extremism is merely one of many beasts that have yet to be wrestled.


Another danger of turning to binaries when discussing Pakistani politics is that we may come across as naïve enough to believe that there is one simple solution to the problem of extremism. A return to democracy or the brokering of a power-sharing agreement between politicians and generals will not reduce instances of militancy in the country.


Facilitating social mobility, making primary and secondary education mandatory, promoting religious scholarship and debate, improving ties with Afghanistan, fostering a sense of nationalism or state ownership, and making our society more tolerant by championing minority rights are only a few of the ground-up measures that will be required to stem the tide of fundamentalism. To acknowledge this complexity is to explode the simplicity of the catchphrase that a return to democracy will heal what ails the nation.


Speaking to colleagues and friends in the US and across the Pakistani diaspora, I am also made aware of the fact that binaries that do not exactly add up lead to much international confusion about Pakistani society. Soon after the release of bin Laden’s anti-Musharraf recording, I received a number of phone calls and emails from people asking for clarity on the ‘Pakistan problem’. They knew that the Pakistan Bar Association was opposed to Musharraf because of the general’s open disdain for Supreme Court rulings and constitutional mandates. They also knew that bin Laden had called for a movement against Musharraf. Did that mean, they asked, that Pakistan’s judiciary was sympathetic to the cause of fundamentalists?


While most Pakistanis know that this is not the case and remain aware of the largely secular standpoint of the judiciary, we should not underestimate the power of mixed signals that binaries can generate. We should also consider the fact that if well-educated, upper-class, newspaper-reading Americans are having a hard time parsing out the bigger picture of Pakistani politics, then perhaps low-income, illiterate Pakistanis with only sporadic access to information are having the same difficulties keeping the nuances of our political landscape straight. 


The fact is, the first step towards restoring democracy in Pakistan must be increased political transparency at all levels. Rather than throw out catchy binaries and present problems in ‘us vs. them’ terms, politicians should clearly lay out their positions regarding different issues, contextualize their relationships with other political actors, and talk with some complexity about the different problems facing the country. The media – both international and local – should also make an effort not to frame multifaceted issues in terms of either/or and refrain from sensationalizing points of contention as dramatic showdowns. It is only when we as a nation move beyond binary that we can begin to edge towards democracy.



Transplant tourism

June 9th, 2010

This article first appeared in The News on September 6, 2007. 


Much like a rebellious teenager, Pakistan has developed a reputation for trouble making across a variety of international communities, disciplines and industries. Nuclear proliferation, human trafficking, environmental degradation, cyber fraud – name it, and chances are that Pakistan is believed to be complicit in some form or the other of bad behavior. Unfortunately, the international medical community is hardly exempt from thinking that our nation is up to no good. Pakistan, after all, is one of the global leaders in ‘transplant tourism’.


This deceptively alluring alliteration refers to the appalling practice by which impoverished donors sell their organs to richer compatriots or patients from wealthier, western countries where organs for transplant purposes remain in short supply. Such illegal procedures account for 10 percent of all kidney transplants worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 1500 transplant tourists annually receive organs for a fee in Pakistan. Other statistics pit that figure to be much higher. For example, CNN reports that 2000 illegal operations were carried out in the country in 2004. Only China is reported to have a worse track record, hosting over 2000 transplant tourists each year. However murky these estimates might be, the fact remains that an illegal organs trade is bustling in our back yard.


This harsh reality may be about to change. After more than a decade of activism rallying for the regulation of human organ transplantation, the government has finally addressed the problem of Pakistan’s thriving kidney trade. The Transplantation of Human Organs and Human Tissue Ordinance 2007 – promulgated on Monday and effective immediately – seems specifically crafted to stymie the country’s ‘kidney mafia’.


The ordinance mandates punitive measures of up to 10 years imprisonment and a one-million-rupee fine for those who deal in organs or remove them improperly. More importantly, the ordinance explicitly bans the donation of organs to foreigners. Opportunities to donate organs to non-relatives are also curtailed. Painting broader brush strokes, the ordinance recommends that transplant institutions be established nationwide and that each relevant medical institution boast an evaluation committee intended to appraise transplant cases.


This long-awaited ordinance comes at an interesting time. Just as we’ve banned organ trade, the global medical community is debating whether it would be better to legalize the practice. An increasing number of medical practitioners in the West point out that illegal organ trade continues to flourish on the black market even after being banned. They suggest that it would be better to legalize and regulate transplants – enforcing procedural standards and providing donors with reliable post-operative care – rather than let them continue below the radar of health practitioners. This rationalist argument does not, however, have many takers among those who dwell on the ethics of medical practice. Indeed, many decry the suggestion of legalizing organ trade because it would undermine far too many social mores.


The fact is, organ trade involves an infrastructure of exploitation that establishes an unhealthy power dynamic and suggests that some lives are worth more than others. It is a widely acknowledged truth that illegally traded organs are transplanted from south to north, east to west, from poor to rich, black and brown to white, and from female to male bodies. In following these trajectories, illegal organ trade recalls the worst forms of exploitation in human history and thus deserves to be banned rather than regulated.


That said, transplant tourism is most widely condemned because it is financially exploitative and facilitates an environment in which people are induced to sell their body parts to meet the needs of high-paying customers from developed countries. Global financier and philanthropist George Soros’ critique of the illegal organ trade is probably the most descriptive as he discusses the erosion of social values in the face of market values. He points out that owing to their indiscriminate nature, markets are well suited to reducing everything – including human body parts – to the level of commodities that can be bought and sold. The idea that nothing is sacred and that everything can be purchased for the right price is disturbing enough that we should celebrate the ordinance that aims to check the callous sale of human organs as if they were canned goods.


On a less theoretical level, the transplantation ordinance can do far more than protect the bodily integrity of Pakistan’s poorest citizens. Hopefully, the very existence of this legislature will serve as a continuous reminder of the extent of impoverishment and desperation in our country. If we officially recognize that some Pakistanis are so financially insecure that they are tempted to sell their kidneys and corneas, we might be moved to address more organic issues such as literacy, employment and social empowerment alongside the drive to stem organ trade. 


Interestingly, the ordinance may also spark a useful – even if seemingly unrelated – conversation about the state of religious scholarship in Pakistan. The ordinance as it is drafted legalizes cadaver organ donation. On one hand, this measure goes a long way to ensuring that a safe, legal supply of organs for transplantation purposes remains available. On the other, the subject of bodily integrity and whether the human form is sacrosanct is one that is hotly debated in most monotheistic religions, including Islam.


The fact that this clause of the ordinance has not sparked a hue and cry amongst more vocal elements of Pakistan’s religious right is telling. It seems our clerics and scholars are far too busy arguing about whether women can be pictured on billboards to debate subtle issues such as medical ethics and the spiritual ramifications of new technologies and medical advancement. While one would not want this much-needed, inevitably life-saving ordinance to be stalled while clerics consider the fine print, the fact that there has been no debate indicates that religious scholarship in Pakistan is non-existent.


No doubt, then, the Transplantation of Human Organs and Human Tissue Ordinance 2007 is yet another step in the right direction in this year of judicial revivalism. Unfortunately, legislature is inconsequential without the means to enforce it. Pakistan should pause and consider the fate of its neighbors before daring to be lax in the implementation of this ordinance. China, the world leader in transplant tourism, promulgated a law banning the sale, theft and misuse of human organs in 1984. Two decades and much government denial later, the nation is still widely accused of allowing organs to be stolen from executed prisoners. For its part, India cracked down on the illegal trade of body parts in 1995 after passing the Organ and Transplant Law. Only after a decade of law-enforcement has India been able to shake off its reputation as the great kidney ‘bazaar’ and organ ‘warehouse’. Pakistan owes it to both its most needy citizens and its international reputation to prevent the sale of another kidney or cornea.  




Update in process

June 8th, 2010

Dear readers,

After an unfortunate hacking incident, I am currently in the process of changing and updating this website. Please check back in a few days for a complete archive of all my published work.

For my latest column, please visit’s Columnists page. My column appears in the paper every Sunday.

Thank you,


The sound of silence

June 8th, 2010

This article first appeared in The News on July 12, 2007.

Throughout the Lal Masjid showdown, the local media has been quick to make quips about the situation. Jabs at ‘Aunty Aziz’ gave way to ironic comments about how Operation Silence was being drowned out by the noise of sporadic gunfire and punctuated explosions. However, since the army entered the mosque’s premises on Tuesday night in a bid to flush out the remaining militants, the local media seems to have lost its sense of humor.


At the time of this writing, 66 people are reported dead, with a comprehensive body count yet to be undertaken. In sum, the death toll of the Lal Masjid encounter is expected to creep into triple digits. There is no doubt that in addition to precious lives, much has been lost during the past week, including the integrity of our capital city, any lingering ability to trust in an authority figure, and the delusion that any safe havens remain in Pakistan. Now that the Lal Masjid tragedy has run its course, its time to question whether anything could have been gained.


Before Operation Silence was launched, the Pakistani public was confronted with a face-off between army jawans and a mosque full of believers with varying convictions and different interpretations of their mission. This juxtaposition provided a rare opportunity to engage in a productive and nuanced debate on the different forces that are shaping our society, the intersection between religion and politics, and the complex incarnation of Islam in contemporary Pakistan.       


Unfortunately, discourse remained thwarted as usual. Despite the lively involvement of the local media in events as they unfolded, the situation was boiled down to a schism. Depending on which side of the fence one was positioned, the Lal Masjid saga was configured as a showdown between the military and the mullahs, American puppets and the defenders of Islam, the authorities and fringe extremists. The thousands inside the mosque were either described as militants or martyrs while army personnel were perceived variously as the forces of oppression or the forces of moderation. As students – both male and female, and of all ages – began pouring out of Lal Masjid, they too were split into two distinct camps: hard-core militants and innocent hostages. From the outset, the Lal Masjid scenario was a case of either/or and never anything in between.


The trend to reduce the situation into simple binaries was most apparent online. A quick search for ‘Lal Masjid’ across the blogosphere yields many links to websites taking extreme stances on both sides of the issue. For example, blogger Mark Alexander who believes that the West is in danger of being taken back to a “less enlightened” era owing to the rapid spread of Islam has been carefully following the Lal Masjid showdown on his blog titled ‘A New Dark Age Is Dawning’. Like others who share his anti-Islam agenda, Alexander is using recent events in Islamabad to highlight the threat posed by religious extremism. Meanwhile, more liberal blogs such as that frequently debate American foreign policy issues championed the Pakistani government’s decision to tackle militancy and take on “those people”. For the most part, though, online discussions avoided the meaty issues and chose instead to grapple over the nitty-gritty: the timing of the operation, the amount of weaponry present inside the mosque, the question of whether a nerve gas was used by the army.


Local blogs such as ‘Metroblogging: Islamabad’ were not much better. While the website itself provided ongoing, reliable updates on each new twist in the tale and its impact on the residents of surrounding areas, commentary on the origins and implications of the stand-off were limited to the comments section. There, readers and bloggers trying to make sense of the situation also gravitated towards opposing ends of the spectrum. Some decried army action as state terrorism while others argued against “terrorist mullahs” and called for the assassination of the mosque’s clerics.


The few threads of genuine debate that did flare up over the past week are now as silent as the corpse-littered compound of the mosque. Members and office bearers of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and Wafaqul Madaris who were willing to critique the obstinacy of Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi and challenge his mandate and method of imposing shariah are singing a different tune now that negotiations are over, the army has made its move, and the flurry of interviews with private cable channels has subsided. The MMA has declared a three-day mourning period for those killed during Operation Silence while various ulema have blamed General Musharraf for failing to negotiate with Maulana Abdul Rashid and the students remaining in the mosque. Concerned and vocal citizens writing on ‘Metroblogging: Pakistan’ who dared to point out that religious discourse is a necessity when Muslims begin killing each other and claiming shahadat on both sides are now reconciled to lamenting the loss of life.  


This, however, is the worst time to put an end to the conversation and let binaries be. We should be questioning why Maulana Abdul Aziz chose to escape from Lal Masjid rather than reducing his capture to a comedy of cross-dressing. We should be asking what it says about the evolution – or is it devolution? – of Islam in Pakistan if Jamia Faridia once received funding from a prominent Karachi-based business family. We should be wondering what to make of the women who fled Lal Masjid and are currently configured as innocents who were exploited as human shields, but who left the mosque calling for jihad and vowing vengeance. We should be investigating why Maulana Abdul Rashid – formerly moderate and forever media savvy – chose not to negotiate with the government.


Above all, we should prevent the Lal Masjid fiasco from being politicised through and through. No doubt, questions about the timing, nature, and outcome of Operation Silence should be raised. But we should also use the tragedy as an opportunity to discuss the crisis that inheres when diverse interpretations of the same religion fail to coexist within an Islamic Republic.


Interestingly, while Lal Masjid went up in smoke in Islamabad, the first Muslim Film Festival was underway in Karachi. Conceived as an opportunity to showcase the diverse, inspiring, creative, and thoughtful side of the world’s Muslim population and aimed at promoting peace and dialogue, the festival sadly attracted few viewers. And instead of provoking thoughtful debate about the teachings of the religion – especially in the context of the Lal Masjid tragedy – the festival was also hijacked by political drama when the authorities objected to the screening of Sharmeen Obaid and Claudio Von Planta’s documentary “Pakistan’s Double Game”. Amidst the noise generated by the political circus, conversations about religion are easily tuned out. Since we are unable to talk from opposing sides of a stand-off, our social fabric has been ripped to shreds and may never be sewn back together again. In this context, the silence is deafening.    




Technology and power

June 8th, 2010

This article first appeared in The News in July 2007.



Technologically speaking, it’s been a good week. Production finally began on the proverbial ‘100 dollar laptop’ while American democracy went online in a big way with the YouTube debate. The confluence of these two events should give developing countries pause to think about their own technology policies. After all, as access to technology becomes synonymous with equality and democracy, it may soon be enshrined as a human right.



The ‘100 dollar laptop’ – also known as the XO – is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of the MIT Media Laboratory and the chairman of the non-profit association One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Negroponte and his team aimed to design a low-cost laptop not only because the project posed a tempting technological challenge but also because they believe that the best way to learn is by doing. Negroponte reasoned that one of the ways to reinvigorate the concept of literacy was by putting technology into the hands of kids on a large scale and letting them tinker and type their way to enlightenment.



The XO – which should be available to children in developing countries by October this year – unfortunately fell short of its reputation and costs 176 dollars. Still, given its snazzy, resilient design and innovative use of open-source software, the machine is a steal at any rate. The laptop boasts a minimalist operating system that fits on the machine’s 1GB of memory. Keeping in mind that electricity is still a rare commodity in most parts of the developing world, the XO is energy efficient and its chargers can be powered by solar energy, foot-pumps or pull-strings. The laptop’s casing is waterproof and has been oven-baked at temperatures of 50 degrees celsius to ensure that the XO can withstand environmental extremes from Peru to Nigeria.



Meanwhile, its screen offers a display that is readable by sunlight (for those who have tried using their laptops in the garden or on the beach, this feature should raise a few eyebrows). The use of open-source software will allow kids to interact with the machine in creative and experimental ways and tailor its design to their own needs. Finally, the laptop’s ability to operate within mesh networks will enable users in a community to interact with each other without relying on routed communication. The OLPC organization expects the governments of developing countries to purchase the economic laptops and distribute them to children free of cost.



The XO’s critics have argued that children in areas that are still desperate for potable water, sanitation and life-saving vaccinations have no need for a cutesy gadget. But perhaps it’s time to think more broadly, and a tad optimistically, about what is required in villages throughout the developing world. No doubt, basic amenities, poverty reduction and health care remain top priorities. But the UN’s Millenium Development Goals call for universal primary education by 2015, and the XO may help pave the way. The machine’s design encourages children to think imaginatively and learn through trial and error. The XO thus expands our understanding of literacy to include creativity and problem-solving skills while improving the technological fluency of youngsters. In a world cluttered with mobile phones, PCs and televisions, privileging alternate types of learning beyond literacy and numeracy may not be a bad idea.



Moreover, media scholars and sociologists have long debated the issue of technology and power. Many have pointed out that in a society that links newness with social distinction and dominance, obsolete media such as VCRs and audiocassettes become politically significant. For the most part, marginalized and exploited social groups are out of necessity surrounded by obsolete gadgets and gizmos and consequently engage in outdated material cultures (huddling around the radio rather than chatting via Instant Messenger). Technology begins to define the difference between living in the past while being socially irrelevant and living in the present while impacting the future. Having access to the latest technology thus becomes an indicator not only of wealth but also of social power.



Throughout the developing world, mobile phones are already disrupting the nexus of technology and power as everyone from the CEO to the chaprasi can give a missed call or send a text message. The XO can similarly help even out the technological landscape and make children in villages and urban slums feel as if they too can participate in the present, the buzz that defines the twenty-first century. In Pakistan, for example, the XO could shake up the way we think about rural education as an either/or choice between government schools and the madrassah system.



By handing kids in villages laptops, we can make them think of technology as something that is inherent to their surroundings, rather than an anxiety-generating phenomenon exclusive to westerners. Through devices such as the XO, modernity can be made familiar and the gap between rural and urban environments can be bridged. Youngsters can be made to feel part of the global village rather than unwelcome or alienated from an international media-savvy culture. At this point, it may seem like an overstatement to say that technical devices can blur social distinctions – between rich and poor, East and West, modern and traditional, us and them – and consequently reduce future instances of resistance, violence and terrorism. But we won’t know unless we give new technologies a try.



Just as Quanta, the world’s largest laptop manufacturer, began assembling the XO in Taiwan, the YouTube-enabled presidential debates in the US reminded us that new technologies give individuals a voice and serve as convenient tools of democracy (YouTube is a video-sharing website). This week, Democratic candidates engaged in a primary debate during which all the questions posed to them came from the American public in the form of funny and feisty 30-second-long video clips. Over 3,000 individuals chose to directly submit their questions for their future president using YouTube. The US media hailed the stunt as a truly democratic format and a successful attempt at leveling the political playing field.



The fact is, new media technologies are increasingly becoming the best way to counteract big government, censorship and authoritarian control. Bloggers from Egypt to North Korea speak out against government atrocities while ordinary citizens capture videos of police brutality on their mobile phones. No wonder then, technology is being seen as a shortcut to equality, democracy and empowerment.



Speaking at MIT in April this year, Frank Moss, the new director of the university’s media labs, explained that he was excited to see how the XO’s innovative design elements – the waterproof casing and sunlight-readable display – would be picked up by commercial laptop manufacturers. He specifically discussed how a vamped up sunlight-friendly screen could help expand the for-profit laptop market to include casual users who simply want to check their email while sunbathing on the beach.



If the governments of developing countries fail to recognize the role technology can play in empowering poor, illiterate populations, efforts to distribute the XO may devolve into test runs for building bigger and better gadgets for the First World, rather than a learning revolution. It’s easy for countries such as Pakistan to get hung up on the fact that they’re still developing. Bracing oneself for the present is hard enough and the right technologies can only make the process easier. The future, after all, is only a click away.



What’s really at stake

June 8th, 2010

This article first appeared in The News on June 28, 2007. 

Salman Rushdie is probably having a good giggle right about now. A master of word play and linguistic acrobatics, he’s probably getting a kick out of the grandiose alliteration that his controversial knighthood lends to his name. Sir Salman has an appropriately sibilant, sinister ring to it, more befitting a cartoon villain in a Disney animation – or a character in a novel – than a political and literary figure.


Moreover, as a world-class troublemaker, Rushdie is probably tickled pink at the international furor and diplomatic rows his accolade has sparked. The fact that his recognition has primarily irked Iran and Pakistan – the two nations he loves to hate – is simply icing on his cake. If Pakistanis were clever, they would know that the best way to punish the attention-hungry Rushdie for his literary and spiritual transgressions would be to ignore him and his achievements. By allowing the speakers of our provincial assemblies, ministers and trade associations to call for his assassination, we’ve made Rushdie’s knighthood all the more exciting for him.


But now that we’ve played into Rushdie’s hands, we may as well use his knighthood as an excuse to spark productive debate. Enough has been said about the decision to knight Rushdie being insensitive and unnecessarily provocative with regards to the Islamic world. Many have usefully pointed out that the knighthood is a throwback to the Danish cartoon controversy, an inappropriate social experiment aimed at proving that the Muslim world really is populated by right-wing fanatics who think that suicide bombings are the best antidote to cultural clashes. (Of course, why more is not written about how you can count on local authorities and clerics to willingly oblige and prove the worst western stereotypes about Muslims to be true is beyond me.)


Rushdie’s recognition has also fostered interesting debates about the undemocratic nature of the knighthood system. Meanwhile, many commentators have pointed out that Pakistanis have betrayed their ongoing vulnerability to the colonial mentality by giving a British knighthood as much importance as they have. After all, if we were really out of the British empire’s clutches, our reactions to Rushdie’s knighthood would have been a resounding ‘So what?’. Finally, one does have to wonder whether this was Tony Blair’s parting shot at a Muslim world that he believes the West should engage, but on a secular, rational platform.


One interesting aside that should be added to the hue and cry surrounding Rushdie’s knighthood is that the author recently reconfigured himself as a humanist, thus evolving beyond his identity as an atheist with critical views of Islam. In April this year, he was awarded the first annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. At a three-day event to promote humanism – the ‘belief’ system that aims to unite the global community of over one billion non-religious people who still aim to live ethically and rationally according to the dictates of universal morality – Rushdie appeared alongside esteemed thinkers such as economist Amartya Sen and psychologist Steven Pinker. But while Rushdie seems to be over Islam, the Muslim world has yet to get over him.


In the flurry of recent critiques of the author, the question that has not been mulled over enough is why Rushdie has been knighted. Indeed, if the British government made one mistake by knighting the contentious author without considering the political repercussions, it is making another, more severe mistake by not clarifying the logic behind the decision. Officially, Rushdie has been knighted for rendering ‘services to literature’. Of course, anyone who slogged through his recent novels such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Shalimar the Clown know that Rushdie is more of a literary has-been who seems hell-bent on nullifying his earlier literary achievements with a profusion of bad prose.


The fact that is not being highlighted enough is that knighthoods are meant to reward individuals’ personal bravery and achievement. The unconfirmed word on the street is that Rushdie was nominated to receive the award by the international writer’s group Pen, which is known for supporting authors who are persecuted by governments and extremist groups for the critical and controversial content of their publications. In other words, Rushdie’s knighthood seems to be an attempt to remind the Muslim world that freedom of speech is a human right that the western world intends to champion at all costs.


The international community frequently recognizes the literary achievements of authors from countries and regions where governments begin to clamp down on free speech. The celebration of writers who dare to speak out when silence is mandated by those in power is a way to slap the wrists of those who dare to jeopardize the freedom of expression. One recent case in point is Orhan Pamuk, who walked away with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 soon after being charged by the Turkish authorities under Article 301/1 of the Turkish Penal Code for ‘insulting Turkishness’ and speaking out against religious extremism. Although the international community’s reaction to the persecution of the Turkish author led to charges against him being dropped, he was quickly recast as a champion of free speech and subsequently courted and applauded by international literary circles.


In this context, Rushdie’s knighthood has served as a convenient way to determine where in the Muslim world free speech is in peril. By crying foul against Sir Salman much louder than even the Iranian authorities, the Pakistani government has revealed its increasing intolerance for free expression to the international community. In fact, Pakistanis should be grateful that the recent trend toward censorship that has been gaining local momentum has laid bare the extent of its irrationality through the matter of Rushdie’s knighthood.


Arguments justifying suicide bombings as a way to deal with those who supposedly blaspheme through literature are simply the most recent incarnation of the government’s attempt to restrict free speech. Closer to home, Pakistanis should be more concerned about the implications of the government banning Octane magazine after it was deemed obscene and blasphemous by Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head cleric of the infamous Lal Masjid. This audacious move was the latest in a string of transgressions against free speech that the government has been executing with little shame: the PEMRA Amendment Ordinance 2007 that tried to empower authorities to confiscate the equipment and suspend the licenses of media broadcasters without lodging official complaints; demanding that certain news analysis programmes be taken off air; blocking the news broadcasts of private cable channels; allowing media organizations to come under attack; preventing FM radio channels from broadcasting news content; periodically blocking, a website that hosts many opinionated and anti-establishment blogs; allowing clerics and religious groups across the Frontier province and FATA to shut down shops selling music and film on VCDs and DVDs.


The fact is, in its brutish attempts to curtail free speech and open expression, the government is beginning to resemble the hordes from Lal Masjid who kidnapped several Chinese students with little justification in an attempt to stem immorality. Once the authorities lose their regard for free speech, they are clarifying just how insincere their pretensions of democracy are. However flawed a writer and individual he may be, Rushdie has long been established as an icon of free speech. By calling for his assassination and condemning his knighthood, our government is brandishing its thoughtlessness and disregard for open expression. This reality, more than Sir Salman’s divisive laurels, should be a cause of concern for thinking Pakistanis.   


Same sex in the city

June 8th, 2010

This article first appeared in The News on May 31, 2007. 


Somewhat titillating yet exceedingly tragic, the story of Shumail Raj and Shahzina Tariq – the couple who have brought the gay marriage debate to Pakistan – has already made headlines and generated endless blog posts across the world. On Monday, the Lahore High Court sentenced the forlorn couple to three years’ imprisonment and fined them ten thousand rupees for perjury.


The sentence was passed after the courts ruled that the husband Shumail was, in fact, a woman, despite two sex-change surgeries to remove breasts and uterus. As such, Shumail and Shahzina’s was a same-sex marriage and thus un-Islamic. Affidavits, the couple’s marriage certificate, and Shumail’s medical records were all examined before it was ruled that the couple had made false statements about their sex and marital status to the courts. Although this is the first case of its kind in Pakistan, Judge Khawaja Mohammad Sharif chose to be lenient when issuing his sentence because he believed that the couple was remorseful about being deceitful. Moreover, in a throwback to centuries past, the court recommended that a team of psychiatrists tend to Shumail to address any trauma that the situation might have provoked.


As it currently stands, Shumail and Shahzina’s case is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, the open acknowledgement by Pakistan’s judiciary and media that a same-sex liaison can exist is a step in the right direction towards acknowledging that human sexuality is a complicated issue.


No doubt, our culture has always made accommodations for transvestites, but their treatment by society and representations within the media reek of ignorance, disgust, fear, fetish, and supernatural elements. Their psyche and biological make-up are rarely discussed in a thoughtful or scientific manner. Instead, transvestites are merely glamorized through film and photography and exoticized through folklore and ritual. On the other hand, considering a trans-gendered person and same-sex couple’s predicament in the nation’s high courts lends the sexuality debate in Pakistan some gravitas and deference.


It is also remarkable that the courts have jailed Shumail and Shahzina for perjury, rather than ‘unnatural offences’. Even if that was not the intention, the court’s decision has emphasised the technicalities and fine print of the couple’s marriage rather than the implications of their sexuality. During court proceedings, the couple has had to explain that their marriage was motivated by a desire to save Shahzina from an unfavourable arranged marriage. The bride’s father believes a marriage between two women should be annulled. The couple’s lawyer, on the other hand, describes the union as a bond of friendship and affection, an attachment forged under the guise of a marriage owing to societal pressures.


These tangled definitions of marriage imply an acknowledgement that human sexuality and its expression exist across a diverse spectrum that cannot neatly fit under categories such as ‘marriage’. Since their sentencing, Shumail and Shahzina have asserted that they are not homosexuals, yet have openly and repeatedly professed their love for each other.


More interestingly, they have appealed to President Musharraf to intervene in their case so as to bolster his own doctrine of enlightened moderation. That Shumail and Shahzina believe some enlightenment is required to feel empathy for their situation suggests that their relationship is a tad more intricate than a close friendship. In any case, the contradictory, dramatic, jargon-filled vocabulary being used to describe the couple’s relationship indicates the beginnings of a difficult conversation about human sexuality and desire.    


Yet another aspect of Shumail and Shahzina’s same-sex marriage is how contemporary the issue is. After all, gay marriage is one of the hot issues that will make or break the fates of candidates during the US presidential election in 2008. Just earlier this month, the state of Oregon passed a domestic partnership act providing same-sex couples the same state-granted privileges, rights, and benefits that married couples enjoy. With the act, Oregon became the tenth American state to provide significant protections to homosexual couples and so renewed the conversation about gay marriage in Washington.


Interestingly, American presidential candidates resort to the same vague, circular, contradictory language used by the legal officials involved in Shumail and Shahzina’s case when quizzed about their stance on the issue. Democrat Senator Barack Obama, for example, has stated that while marriage is not a human right, non-discrimination is. For his part, Democrat campaigner John Edwards insists that marriage is a contract exclusively between men and women, but is in favor of gay and lesbian ‘partnerships’ and aims to treat them much like heterosexual marriages. Republican Governor George Pataki, on the other hand, opposes same-sex marriage, but champions gay rights. Meanwhile, Senator Hilary Clinton is in favor of domestic partnership benefits, whatever those might be. Inadvertently, then, Shumail and Shahzina have thrust Pakistani legislature into the midst of a global conversation that is complicated, embarrassing, and interrupted with much humming and hawing.


The fact is, there is a ‘first things first’ mentality in Pakistan that falsely believes that we should deal with fundamental issues – democracy, terrorism, poverty, literacy, Kashmir, nukes, and land reforms – before getting embroiled in the grubby details of civil rights, social issues, culture and lifestyle trends. No doubt, the building blocks of a democratic nation must be in place before a society can function properly. But Pakistan must learn how to tackle its political, economic, and social issues simultaneously if it hopes to participate in the global village of the new millennium. In today’s media environment, it is unrealistic to set aside an issue until a government is ready to deal with it. If the world is worrying about gay marriage, Pakistan should be thinking through the issue as well, albeit in a way that conforms with the nation’s particular culture and political maturity.


Interest groups in Pakistan can also learn how best to leverage a case such as Shumail’s and Shahzina’s by observing American politics. Touchy as the subject is, gay marriage circuitously allows politicians to address issues such as equality, racial discrimination, states’ rights versus federal control, the separation of church and state, and the increased partisanship evident in American public debate.


Similarly, feminist politicians and women’s rights groups in Pakistan could seize on Shahzina’s narrative about needing to escape from an arranged marriage to advocate for more freedom for women. Similarly, doctors’ lobbies and medical universities could use Shumail’s botched sex-change operations as an excuse to seek funding for medical research. And someone should certainly point out how sexuality – much like almost everything else in Pakistan – is a privilege afforded to the elite classes, and no one else. In a turbulent country like ours, any opportunity to engender debate or highlight an oft-neglected issue should be availed of.


Interestingly, at the exact same time that Shumail and Shahzina were clinging to each other and awaiting their verdict in the Lahore High Court, “Nigah QueerFest ‘07”, India’s first gay arts festival, was kicking off with a film screening in New Delhi. The festival organisers see QueerFest as a venue where closeted Indians can celebrate their sexuality. More importantly, the festival is a platform from which to campaign against India’s anti-gay law, enshrined in the infamous Section 377. Although QueerFest did not have the same verve, bombast, and audacity as a pride parade in the western world, it did foster an opportunity for debate about equal rights in the world’s largest democracy. If that conversation is unfolding next door, perhaps it is time for us to start eavesdropping. Shumail and Shahzina may yet find that their plight is not as unusual as it seems.

The name of the rose

June 8th, 2010

This article first appeared in The News on May 17, 2007.

The oft-quoted phrase about roses by any other name smelling as sweet sometimes bears recollection. Indeed, synonyms, euphemisms, and metaphors can make reality a tad more palatable, but language cannot alter the facts. And so it was with international media coverage of the events that unfolded in Karachi over the weekend. Actions that were initially being described as rallies, demonstrations, calls for democracy, activism, protests, and initiatives for democratic participation were soon identified more accurately as clashes, showdowns, and, simply, violence.


When stripped of its rhetorical and politicized garb, the mayhem that left 41 people dead, paralyzed the city for three days, damaged urban infrastructure, and compromised press freedom, can only be referred to as unfettered, senseless violence. In this context, I would argue that there’s a value to depicting things exactly as they are. After all, speaking in tongues never helped anyone fumble towards moral clarity or sound judgement.


Student activists at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently exemplified the idea that describing something for what it was could lead to increased fairness and ethical decision-making. The Alliance for Justice in the Middle East (AJME), a student group, is campaigning against Harvard’s policy of admitting and hiring people who boast public, well-documented records of war crimes and human rights abuses. The students are calling for the university to screen for human rights violations as part of its admissions and hiring procedures.


As of now, AJME’s website identifies seven “abusers” who are – or soon will be – in a position to describe themselves as  “Harvard-trained”. The individuals identified by the site as war criminals include six Israeli army officers and one former minister of defence from Guatemala. By asking the university to revise its admissions procedures, its students are essentially asking the institution to scrutinize and decode the notion of ‘military service’ and determine whether or not it is a veiled way of referring to a history of war crimes or abuse.


In other words, Harvard is being asked to call a rose by its name, or, more aptly, address the thorn in its side. Interestingly, the student activists are not shirking from using the term ‘war criminals’ to describe defence officials because the transgressions that AJME is denouncing include genocide, torture, the taking of hostages, targeting civilian populations, unlawfully deporting citizens, killing protected persons, or destroying extensive property.


Currently, AJME is focusing its protest around Dan Halutz who recently arrived in Cambridge to attend the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School (HBS). Halutz’s claim to fame is that he was the head of the Israeli military during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. During that conflict, he sanctioned a policy of indiscriminate aerial bombardment that included the saturation bombing of southern Lebanon, air strikes aimed at civilian areas in Beirut, and the destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure and manufacturing base – activities that amount to war crimes as defined by international human rights organisations. According to AJME, Halutz’s aerial strategy and use of Israeli jets led to the death of 1.200 Lebanese civilians in 33 days. As such, the students argue that a man like Halutz with a known record of human rights violations should not be able to benefit from the legitimacy, social capital, access to power and resources, and personal clout that an affiliation with an institution of Harvard University’s caliber affords.


Unfortunately, Halutz is not the only abuser and criminal to taint the crimson hue and creeping ivy of Harvard. Gabi Ashkenazi, who attended the Advanced Management Program at HBS in 2004, is decried by AJME for twice having command responsibility for the Southern Lebanon Army, Israel’s proxy militia with a notorious record of human rights violations and infamous detention centers where people were tortured and detained in horrifying conditions.


AJME also exposes the war crimes record of Hector Gramajo Morales, who earned a Master’s in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG) in 1991. Gramajo was army vice chief of staff and director of the Army General Staff in Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, when the military killed up to 75,000 people in a counterinsurgency campaign targeting the country’s Mayan inhabitants.


Interestingly, it was while heading to his Harvard commencement that Gramajo was informed that eight Guatemalans were suing him for human rights abuses they had endured at the hands of forces under his command. Although he fled the US soon after, the US courts ruled against Gramajo and awarded damages to the plaintiffs under the Alien Tort Stature, which allows courts to process lawsuits regarding foreign human rights violations.


Similarly, the student activists highlight the case of Doron Almog, who was head of the Israeli military’s Southern Command from late 2000 to mid-2003, bore overall responsibility for Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip, and went on to attend KSG in 2004. At Harvard, Almog was a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In September 2005, the Chief London Magistrate issued a warrant for Almog’s arrest on suspicion of war crimes, specifically, the demolition of homes and other property in the buffer zones of Rafah in January 2002. In order to evade his arrest, Almog left London and returned to Israel.


Other “rogues” identified by AJME include Moshe Kaplinksy, who is expected to attend HBS in the fall this year after serving as the deputy head of the Israeli military during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict and sanctioning the firing of more than 3.5 million cluster bombs in the last three days of the war. Noam Tibon, who also received a Master’s in Public Administration from KSG in 2002, is also ‘outed’ as the commander of Israeli forces in Hebron in the West Bank from 1999 until 2001. Meanwhile, Yitzhak Eitan, who attended HBS in 2002, earned his wartime criminal record as a commander of the Israeli army in the West Bank.


The student activists’ demands that stringent screening processes be implemented by Harvard University essentially translate into a request that no violence of any kind be condoned or celebrated by an esteemed academic institution. No doubt, the call for screening is controversial since it could potentially open up the floodgates to having activist groups on campus influence admission committee decisions in a variety of cases, both military and non-military. Moreover, no one wants to suggest that a career in the military, no matter where, when, or under what circumstances, translates into a history of war crimes.


Still, an attempt should be made to distinguish between military service and human rights violations. Perhaps international codes of humanitarian conduct should consider the predicament of academic institutes faced with the violent and inhumane actions of their applicants, graduates, and current students. Could international human rights organisations and conventions require certain screenings of students? And could they also support a university’s decision to strip a student or alum of academic credentials if they participate in violence, human rights violations, or war crimes? Returning to Karachi, certain local institutions are probably ashamed of the violent and unruly activities of some of their students and graduates over the weekend. Perhaps if empowered to do so, institutes of higher learning could begin the process of identifying and condemning unacceptable violence, rather than clothing it in the rhetoric of social, ethnic, or political unrest.










The travails of tourism

June 8th, 2010

This article first appeared in The News in May 2007.


Summer approaches, and university students begin to get antsy. In a flurry they apply for fellowships and internships, grants and jobs. Most secretly want to wile away the season on a sailboat or lakeside somewhere, but the academic ethos insists upon a season-long quest for that ever-elusive ‘experience’. Caught up in the frenzy, I too applied for a grant to conduct some research in Karachi over the summer, only to be told that Pakistan was a literal no-go.


The fact is, our country has been identified by my institution as one of the 13 most risky places in the world to travel to. As such, the university does not fund research or project prototypes in nations where it believes its students may be in danger – a policy that is both pragmatic and understandable. And while there are some waivers and provisions in place to enable persistent students to access funds for work in places like Pakistan, the process of obtaining them is prolonged and arduous.          


On hearing this fine-print detail – and miffed about being sans grant – I tried to point out that as a Pakistani citizen, I was technically not ‘traveling’ to Karachi and that the research trip was more like a homecoming, really. Not surprisingly, the institution was having none of it: money siphoned through them could not be dispensed in a way that potentially endangered a student. Taken aback by this situation, I tried to informally chat up a grants officer. I explained to her how it wasn’t as unsafe in Karachi as the American press made it out to be, showed her colourful pictures from a friend’s wedding, reminded her that Angelina Jolie often swung by Isloo for dinner, and finally, in a tragicomic last-ditch effort, blurted out, “Didn’t you know? It’s Visit Pakistan Year 2007! The year of the tourist.”


Owing to my accent – and possibly her determination to get me out of her office – the grants officer thought I had said “the year of the terrorist,” which, come to think of it, may be more apropos. After giving me a horrified look, she recited university policy one last time, and ushered me out. As ridiculous as the exchange was, it got me thinking about something.


In some condescending and vaguely communist circles, it’s fashionable to talk about how certain countries are not yet ready for democracy (as if giving a nation enough time to primp and preen under martial law, dictatorial dispensation, or communist rule better prepares it to be democratic). While I’ve always had trouble with that rhetoric, I’d like to suggest that some nations might not be ready for tourism.


On the whole, governments should be invested in promoting tourism, which is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. After all, tourism brings in foreign currency and investment, creates jobs – hotels need employees, souvenirs must be manufactured – and provides incentive for a country to improve its infrastructure and maintain its cultural heritage. More importantly, a steady influx of foreigners fosters a sense of national pride while exchanges between locals and tourists can lead to mutual understandings of different traditions and value systems and thus more tolerance.


A recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, however, made me wonder whether there can be such a thing as too many tourists, too soon. The city is on one level a traveler’s dream come true. It is affordable, exotic, historic and blessed with a stunning landscape. White-sand beaches such as Ipanema and Copacabana afford views of undulating mountains, the world’s largest urban rainforest, and the sun-browned bodies of beautiful people – the result of a genuine racial melting pot. Songs have been sung about this city, the birthplace of bossa nova, the sanctuary of samba. But spend enough time there and a different story begins to emerge.


Tell cariocas – Rio natives – that you love samba, and they’ll tersely remind you that the music originated in the favelas, the city’s infamous urban slums. Bossa nova, they’ll hasten to add, is ‘real’ Rio music, invented as it was in posh Ipanema. Much bitterness ensues regarding the inability of international DJs and pop stars to see the charms of bossa nova as opposed to samba. And here’s when the soundtrack of Brazil’s history and politics crescendos.


A culmination of Afro-Brazilian culture, samba, which took off among black Brazilians soon after slavery ended, was until the middle of the twentieth century considered ‘coloured’ music: the “lewd and raucous” singing and dancing of poor people who could only afford to beat out percussion on overturned steel drums. Even now, issues of race and class permeate Rio’s soundscape, with the best samba being performed in schools for natives throughout the favelas and in cheap open-air, family-owned bars, while remixed samba beats blare in Copacabana’s hottest night clubs.


Similarly, Rio’s most iconic monument, the impressive and imposing statue of Cristo Redentor – Christ the Redeemer – has come to symbolize what lies beneath the veneer of South America’s most hip and happening city. Pristine white, raised above the city’s hubbub, nestled among the lush greenery of a national park, Cristo Redentor symbolizes all that is holy, welcoming, merciful, and hopeful. Until, of course, you ask a carioca about it. While no one born and bred in Rio – or just passing through, for that matter – can deny the beauty and spirituality of the statue, cariocas like to point out that the statue faces the bay, from which one approaches the city, with its arms outstretched to welcome tourists. Unfortunately, the statue’s back is turned towards the slums and poorer outlying areas of the city. “It’s as if he has abandoned Rio’s poor,” was how one local journalist put it.


These mixed feelings about how Rio’s beauty somehow falsely masks the problems that beset the city find their culmination in the fairly popular favela tours. Locals who are uncomfortable with the idea of tourists leaving Rio with incomplete images of a city comprising nothing more than beaches and nightclubs take foreigners through the city’s forgotten slums. Guides explain the history, socio-political context, and infrastructural disadvantages of slum life while also highlighting positive aspects of slum culture. While I could write a whole column about the issues that come with turning poverty and crime into a tourist attraction, I merely want to point to the deep dissatisfaction that cariocas feel about their own city and their need to share its discontents and socio-economic complexities with the world at large.

In other words, slapping a band-aid over an infected wound won’t make it heal any better. Blood and pus will eventually ooze through the gauze. Unless a nation is profoundly proud of its assets and cultural heritage – or willing to have a frank discussion about ground realities, rather than merely project a ‘soft image’ – it should not throw open the floodgates for tourists. Hypocrisy has never been a great marketing tactic, and forcing people to gloss over their local problems just to amuse foreigners is bound to make for some bad press.


The complex truth about Pakistan’s sectarianism, socio-economic situation, infrastructural condition, and political fragility will slip through the cracks of even the best museum display or adventure tour. Let’s face it, valid frustrations cannot be silenced, even when the aim is to make a good impression.

Digital histories

June 8th, 2010

This column first appeared in The News in April 2007.


Americans are dumb. No, not really, but I knew that introduction would catch your eye. While the intellectual vigour of the average US citizen may be up for debate, a report released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press confirms that Americans are no more informed today than they were two decades ago. The report’s main thrust is that the digital revolution and diversification of news sources have had little impact on the average American’s knowledge about national and international affairs.


In its summary of findings, the report explains that, “on average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago.” After asking nearly identical questions to those posed to the public as part of a similar survey in the 1980s, Pew has determined that less Americans today can name their governor, vice president, or the president of Russia than could during the Cold War era. On a more positive note, though, the public’s knowledge of national politics has slightly increased.


On some level, the report’s findings are not surprising. Well-educated men who consume “a lot” of news from a variety of sources – cable television, newspapers, both print and online, and public radio – are better informed than others. The survey does not clarify whether some news sources result in better-informed audiences than others. What is clear, though, is that changing news formats are not having a great impact on the public’s knowledge. The reigning assumption that the Internet is the greatest thing that could have happened to humanity, short of the Second Coming itself, is beginning to seem presumptuous.


Already the pundits are cooking up explanations to justify why, even in the Information Age – the glorious era of media saturation, the epoch when all information worth knowing is supposedly just a click away – connected Americans have trouble naming President Vladimir Putin. Some have commented that these findings reflect more on US educational systems and standards. For their part, progressive pedagogues are suggesting that federal allocations need to be made towards promoting new media literacy and increased Internet connectivity in public school libraries. Liberal bloggers and others of that ilk, meanwhile, are complaining that Americans are becoming politically complacent even while their nation’s interference in the international policy arena has made being informed more important than ever before.  


As compelling as these arguments are, the fact that the Internet has not made everyone brilliant should not come as a surprise. Most people will now agree that the revolutionary fervour that has defined Internet-related rhetoric for the past decade has been a tad overblown. The Internet may be phenomenal, but it cannot magically fix all the world’s problems, give voice to the oppressed everywhere, globally institutionalize democracy through cyber-sanctioned practices, or even make Americans care who the president of Russia is. The way we conduct ourselves, or for that matter, obtain information online will continue to be a reflection of our real world practices. Thus, only those who would have sought out the news regardless of whether it was available to them in dynamic hypertext through RSS feeds are the ones who continue to keep themselves aware of the state of their constituency, polity, and globe.


The fact that the Internet wasn’t going to enact a revolution in and of itself was apparent from the early days of the net, even when optimism regarding the technology was at its peak. Since the beginning, the Internet has been spoken of in terms of a new world and has been configured as a second chance at fixing what went wrong with this reality. But even while people were celebrating the World Wide Web as a space where race, class, gender, and physical disabilities would no longer matter – avatars, after all, need not abide by reality – they were beginning to reenact the troubling history of our world as we have known it through the language they used.


Think about it: the web has always been imaginatively constructed as a world that needs to be colonized. Cyberspace throughout the 1990s was described as a vast, unexplored, territory through which you could navigate – Netscape Navigator, anyone? – and that you were free to explore (using – what else? – Internet Explorer) until you staked your web domain and managed to secure a web address along an ‘information highway’. Most of this activity, aptly enough, was managed by (web) masters. Keeping in mind that language is power – the old notion that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist – we should all be wary of the metaphors used to describe the Internet in the past. In many ways, the language seems to be an attempt to rewrite real history, the history of slavery and imperialism, in its virtual counterpart.


Lest you think I’m being paranoid, think about the new language regarding the Internet that is now being tossed around. Today’s college-going population in the US has been dubbed a generation of “digital natives”, owing to the fact that this is the first group of people to have grown up with digital technology, including computers, video games, new media, cellphones, iPods, and other tools of the digital age. Those who were not born into the digital world, consequently, are being identified as “digital immigrants”, and the less fluent you are with new technologies, the thicker your ‘digital accent’. If you prefer text to graphics, linearity to random access, learn through serious reading rather than playing games, hate multitasking, and print out your emails, you’re a ‘digital immigrant’ with a very thick accent. Of course, while the notion that people across the world and of different ages have varying online capabilities is not troubling per se, the fact that a turbulent, unequal history of migration and discrimination is being evoked to describe that level of online difference is a matter of some concern.


One of the reasons I can’t have a sense of humor about this terminology is because, chances are, real-world immigrants will probably be ‘digital immigrants’ more frequently than natives of the western world. That is, of course, if they even make it online in the first place. Let’s not forget that, whether we like to admit it or not, a digital divide (more like a cyber chasm, if you ask me) exists. Rather than codify unequal access to the Internet through our careless use of phrases such as digital immigrant, perhaps we should try and address the reasons why many people cannot use the Internet to its full potential and remain unfamiliar with new technology. If connected Americans are still struggling to use the Internet as a source of information, what are illiterate people or those who don’t have access to a PC expected to do? It’s high time we took relevant efforts to rewrite a digital history that diverged from our world’s not-so-stellar past and made the language of difference, migration, and colonization redundant.