Monday, April 30, 2012

Dargah diplomacy: promises and perils

by Virendra Parekh

India is going through one of its periodic bouts of exuberance over prospects of better ties with Pakistan. Islamabad’s recent willingness to liberalise bilateral trade between the two countries has met with enthusiastic response from the Indian side. While good relations with a neighbour is a highly desirable objective, what should worry us is that powerful sections of the Indian establishment, including the current Prime Minister and the dominant English-language media, are more than willing to go overboard to befriend Pakistan, throwing national interests to the wind. This is what is happening now.

Pakistanis claim that this time, everybody (add, including Army) is on board in the move to improve relations with India. This makes eminent sense. Even the most hardnosed Pakistani policy makers realise that their country is spectacularly isolated. With Afghanistan on boil, relations with US on ice and fair weather friends turning their backs, Pakistan has discovered the benefits of dealing with the enemy that knows you well.

And then there is the economy. Pakistan GDP growth rate has dwindled from 6.8 per cent in 2007 to 2.4 per cent in 2011. Its industrial sector contracted by 0.1 per cent in 2010-11. Private corporate sector is shrinking. Pakistani elite classes are shifting not only their capital but even their families out of the country. There are no buyers for Pakistan government bonds outside the government. In its wisdom, Pakistan threw out IMF and went out of its way to displease the only country that has the financial muscle to help it out of trouble: US. The only bright spot is exports: textiles, cotton, rice. Pakistanis have realised that it makes no sense to keep away from one of the largest markets in the world: India.

Pakistan made the first gesture last month to deepen trade ties with India. Earlier, it had a positive list of 2,000 items which alone were allowed to be imported from India This was replaced with a negative list of 1209 banned items. This straightaway increased the number of exportable items from India more than three-fold. On its part, India has now agreed to reduce its sensitive list of 865 items that are not given preferential market access under the South Asia free trade agreement by 30 per cent within four months.

India exported goods worth $2.33 billion to Pakistan last year, while imports from there were worth $330 million. Trade through third countries, such as Dubai, is estimated at $10 billion per year. So, if direct trading is allowed, bilateral trade can grow several times. Pakistan feared earlier that if it opened its gates, its markets will be swamped by Indian goods. Now it has taken a more realistic stand. It has promised to grant India the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status under WTO by the year end. This should be welcomed.

What is not welcome is the move to ease visa restrictions for businessmen between the two countries. India and Pakistan are reportedly working on a mechanism to issue multiple-entry and reporting-free visas for businessmen. India must proceed with extreme caution here, because businessmen are not the only people in Pakistan keen to enter India. Terrorists, mullahs espousing Wahabi Islam, havala operators and traffickers in fake notes and drugs are even keener to enter India than genuine businessmen. With the connivance of the Pakistani establishment, it would not be difficult for them to pose as businessmen.

And what must be rejected out of hand is the idea of allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) from Pakistan. The ‘in-principle’ decision taken by the government in this regard must be reversed immediately.

It is amazing that at a time when most countries are wary of letting in Pakistanis even as visitors, the Manmohan Singh government is all set to roll out the red carpet for them in the garb of economic cooperation.

India is considering removing Pakistan from the negative list of countries for FDI, so as to allow Pakistani companies to make investments in India. Countries in the negative list are debarred from investing in India. At present, Pakistan is the only entry in the negative list under the Foreign Exchange Management Act. The government had deleted Sri Lanka in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2007 from the list.

Nowhere in the world is Pakistan regarded as a worthwhile investor. A country surviving on American doles is not expected to generate investible surplus for other countries. Pakistan’s total overseas investment in the last five years works out to a paltry $418 million dollars, which will hardly merit mention in a footnote in any official document.

The move is intended to be a political signal, and the reason behind it is as sloppy as can be. “When we can allow investment from China, there is no reason to block Pakistan,” a senior official is reported to have said. Forget the fact that China is an economic giant wooed by all, whereas Pakistan is a tinderbox whose chief exports are Wahabi Islam, terrorism and drugs. Notice that this is the same logic used by Congress leaders in the pre-independence period while slowly yielding ground to Jinnah’s Muslim League: now that we have conceded so much, why not a little more?

The sinister implications of this needless appeasement hardly need to be spelt out. ISI agents posing as businessmen will be able to buy large properties, set up expansive factories and offices, and employ Pakistani spies and local fifth columnists as legitimate employees with the right to move all across the country. They will be able to receive large sums as lawful investment and launder havala money as business profits.

“But Pakistani businesses here will be subject to our laws on excise, sales tax, income tax, isn’t it?” Are you kidding? The smallest Indian factory owner, the lowliest trader, the humblest businessman, knows how to manage these watchdogs. Will Pakistanis, flush with currency – silver as well as leather – and political patronage, have any difficulty in dealing with them?

In another voluntary abandonment of national interests, India last year withdrew its opposition to the controversial trade-aid package proposed by the European Union (EU) for Pakistan, at the General Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Under the package, around 75 tariff lines or products from Pakistan would get concessional access to European markets for three years, of which 67 would have zero tariff. On the remaining eight, tariff rate quotas (TRQ, limited imports at reduced duty) would apply. This concession was offered by the 27-nation EU to help Pakistan in the wake of the devastating floods last year. It would boost Pakistan’s exports by 88 million pounds per year.

Note that the proposal was shot down, not once, but thrice. The move was opposed by India, Brazil, Bangladesh, Peru and Vietnam, as it would impact their exports to the EU. Besides commercial logic, such a waiver would set a bad precedent and go against the WTO spirit of non-discrimination. In fact, WTO has never taken up such a waiver before. This is not a relief package. If EU wants to help Pakistan, let it give cash. But EU wants to favour Pakistan at the expense of other, poor countries. There is no way one can approve this.

Yet India, which should lead opposition to the idea, caved in after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally intervened to ease things for Pakistan

Apparently, the FDI proposal was discussed between Dr. Manmohan Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani when the latter came here to watch the cricket World Cup final in March. In other words, when the country was euphorically celebrating its victory in the cricket World Cup, its Prime Minister was quietly preparing to sell it down the river. 

Many industrialists and investors (both Indian and foreign) have rightly accused the Manmohan Singh government of policy paralysis, poor governance and endless dithering on important issues. But when it comes to the Prime Minister’s own agenda (appeasement of Pakistan and protection of US interests), the same government is found to be full of clarity, vigour and resoluteness.

Dr. Manmohan Singh did not resign as the Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi described Indian planners as a bunch of jokers. But he was all prepared to resign as Prime Minister on the issue of nuclear deal with US. That tells us something about both, Dr. Singh and the deal.

A fool messes up everything he handles. A confused man cannot take decisions on any issue. But if you act foolishly or in a confused manner on most matters and are a picture of wile and resoluteness on a few, you are not a fool. You are a clever man with your own agenda. India is blessed with a Prime Minister who is clever – too clever, perhaps, for its own good.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Inventing Muhammad?

by Robert Spencer

Why would it matter if Muhammad never existed?  Certainly the accepted story of Islam's origins is taken for granted as historically accurate; while many don't accept Muhammad's claim to have been a prophet, few doubt that there was a man named Muhammad who in the early seventh century began to claim that he was receiving messages from Allah through the angel Gabriel.  Many who hear about my new book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam's Obscure Origins ask why it would matter whether or not Muhammad existed -- after all, a billion Muslims believe he did, and they are not going to stop doing so because of some historical investigations.  

Yet the numerous indications that the standard account of Muhammad's life is more legend than fact actually have considerable implications for the contemporary political scene.

These are just a few of the weaknesses in the traditional account of Muhammad's life and the early days of Islam:

-  No record of Muhammad's reported death in 632 appears until more than a century after that date.

 -  The early accounts written by the people the Arabs conquered never mention Islam, Muhammad, or the Qur'an.  They call the conquerors "Ishmaelites," "Saracens," "Muhajirun," and "Hagarians," but never "Muslims."

-  The Arab conquerors, in their coins and inscriptions, don't mention Islam or the Qur'an for the first six decades of their conquests.  Mentions of "Muhammad" are non-specific and on at least two occasions are accompanied by a cross.  The word can be used not only as a proper name, but also as an honorific.

-  The Qur'an, even by the canonical Muslim account, was not distributed in its present form until the 650s.  Casting into serious doubt that standard account is the fact that neither the Arabians nor the Christians and Jews in the region mention its existence until the early eighth century.

 -  We don't begin to hear about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and about Islam itself until the 690s, during the reign of the caliph Abd al-Malik.  Coins and inscriptions reflecting Islamic beliefs begin to appear at this time also.

-  In the middle of the eighth century, the Abbasid dynasty supplanted the Umayyad line of Abd al-Malik.  In the Abbasid period, biographical material about Muhammad began to proliferate.  The first complete biography of the prophet of Islam finally appeared during this era-at least 125 years after the traditional date of his death.

The lack of confirming detail in the historical record, the late development of biographical material about the Islamic prophet, the atmosphere of political and religious factionalism in which that material developed, and much more, suggest that the Muhammad of Islamic tradition did not exist, or if he did, he was substantially different from how that tradition portrays him.

How to make sense of all this?  If the Arab forces that conquered so much territory beginning in the 630s were not energized by the teachings of a new prophet and the divine word he delivered, how did the Islamic character of their empire arise at all?  If Muhammad did not exist, why was it ever considered necessary to invent him?

Every empire of the day had a civic religion.  The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was Christian.  Its rival Persia, meanwhile, was Zoroastrian.  The Arab Empire quickly controlled and needed to unify huge expanses of territory where different religions predominated.  The empire was growing quickly, soon rivaling the Byzantine and Persian Empires in size and power.  But at first, it did not have a compelling political theology to compete with those it supplanted and to solidify its conquests.  It needed a common religion -- a political theology that would provide the foundation for the empire's unity and secure allegiance to the state.

Toward the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth, the leaders of the Muslim world began to speak specifically about Islam, its prophet, and eventually its book.  Stories about Muhammad began to circulate.  A warrior-prophet would justify the new empire's aggressive expansionism.  To give those conquests a theological justification -- as Muhammad's teachings and example do -- would place them beyond criticism.

This is why Islam developed as such a profoundly political religion.  Islam is a political faith: the divine kingdom is very much of this world, with God's wrath and judgment to be expected not only in the next life, but also in this one, to be delivered by believers.  Allah says in the Qur'an: "As for those disbelieving infidels, I will punish them with a terrible agony in this world and the next. They have no one to help or save them" (3:56).  Allah also exhorts Muslims to wage war against those infidels, apostates, and polytheists (2:191, 4:89, 9:5, 9:29).

There is compelling reason to conclude that Muhammad, the messenger of Allah came into existence only after the Arab Empire was firmly entrenched and casting about for a political theology to anchor and unify it.  Muhammad and the Qur'an cemented the power of the Umayyad caliphate and then that of the Abbasid caliphate.

This is not just academic speculation.  The non-Muslim world can be aided significantly in its understanding of the global jihad threat -- an understanding that has been notably lacking even at the highest levels since September 11, 2001 -- by a careful, unbiased examination of the origins of Islam.  There is a great deal of debate today in the United States and Western Europe about the nature of Islamic law; anti-sharia measures have been proposed in at least twenty states, and one state -- Oklahoma -- voted to ban sharia in November 2010, although that law was quickly overturned as an infringement upon Muslims' religious freedom.  Others have been successfully resisted on the same grounds.

If it is understood that the political aspect of Islam preceded the religious aspect, that might change.  But that will happen only if a sufficient number of people are willing to go wherever the truth my take them.

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad.  His latest book, Did Muhammad Exist?, is now available. 


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The India-China Rivalry

by Robert D. Kaplan

As the world moves into the second decade of the 21st century, a new power rivalry is taking shape between India and China, Asia's two behemoths in terms of territory, population and richness of civilization. India's recent successful launch of a long-range missile able to hit Beijing and Shanghai with nuclear weapons is the latest sign of this development.

This is a rivalry born completely of high-tech geopolitics, creating a core dichotomy between two powers whose own geographical expansion patterns throughout history have rarely overlapped or interacted with each other. Despite the limited war fought between the two countries on their Himalayan border 50 years ago, this competition has relatively little long-standing historical or ethnic animosity behind it.

The signal geographical fact about Indians and Chinese is that the impassable wall of the Himalayas separates them. Buddhism spread in varying forms from India, via Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to Yunnan in southern China in the third century B.C., but this kind of profound cultural interaction was the exception more than the rule.

Moreover, the dispute over the demarcation of their common frontier in the Himalayan foothills, from Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, while a source of serious tension in its own right, is not especially the cause of the new rivalry. The cause of the new rivalry is the collapse of distance brought about by the advance of military technology.

Indeed, the theoretical arc of operations of Chinese fighter jets at Tibetan airfields includes India. Indian space satellites are able to do surveillance on China. In addition, India is able to send warships into the South China Sea, even as China helps develop state-of-the-art ports in the Indian Ocean. And so, India and China are eyeing each other warily. The whole map of Asia now spreads out in front of defense planners in New Delhi and Beijing, as it becomes apparent that the two nations with the largest populations in the world (even as both are undergoing rapid military buildups) are encroaching upon each other's spheres of influence -- spheres of influence that exist in concrete terms today in a way they did not in an earlier era of technology.

And this is to say nothing of China's expanding economic reach, which projects Chinese influence throughout the Indian Ocean world, as evinced by Beijing's port-enhancement projects in Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This, too, makes India nervous.

Because this rivalry is geopolitical -- based, that is, on the positions of India and China, with their huge populations, on the map of Eurasia -- there is little emotion behind it. In that sense, it is comparable to the Cold War ideological contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, which were not especially geographically proximate and had little emotional baggage dividing them.

The best way to gauge the relatively restrained atmosphere of the India-China rivalry is to compare it to the rivalry between India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan abut one another. India's highly populated Ganges River Valley is within 480 kilometers (300 miles) of Pakistan's highly populated Indus River Valley. There is an intimacy to India-Pakistan tensions that simply does not apply to those between India and China. That intimacy is inflamed by a religious element: Pakistan is the modern incarnation of all of the Muslim invasions that have assaulted Hindu northern India throughout history. And then there is the tangled story of the partition of the Asian subcontinent itself to consider -- India and Pakistan were both born in blood together.

Partly because the India-China rivalry carries nothing like this degree of long-standing passion, it serves the interests of the elite policy community in New Delhi very well. A rivalry with China in and of itself raises the stature of India because China is a great power with which India can now be compared. Indian elites hate when India is hyphenated with Pakistan, a poor and semi-chaotic state; they much prefer to be hyphenated with China. Indian elites can be obsessed with China, even as Chinese elites think much less about India. This is normal. In an unequal rivalry, it is the lesser power that always demonstrates the greater degree of obsession. For instance, Greeks have always been more worried about Turks than Turks have been about Greeks.

China's inherent strength in relation to India is more than just a matter of its greater economic capacity, or its more efficient governmental authority. It is also a matter of its geography. True, ethnic-Han Chinese are virtually surrounded by non-Han minorities -- Inner Mongolians, Uighur Turks and Tibetans -- in China's drier uplands. Nevertheless, Beijing has incorporated these minorities into the Chinese state so that internal security is manageable, even as China has in recent years been resolving its frontier disputes with neighboring countries, few of which present a threat to China.

India, on the other hand, is bedeviled by long and insecure borders not only with troubled Pakistan, but also with Nepal and Bangladesh, both of which are weak states that create refugee problems for India. Then there is the Maoist Naxalite insurgency in eastern and central India. The result is that while the Indian navy can contemplate the projection of power in the Indian Ocean -- and thus hedge against China -- the Indian army is constrained with problems inside the subcontinent itself.

India and China do play a great game of sorts, competing for economic and military influence in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. But these places are generally within the Greater Indian subcontinent, so that China is taking the struggle to India's backyard.

Just as a crucial test for India remains the future of Afghanistan, a crucial test for China remains the fate of North Korea. Both Afghanistan and North Korea have the capacity to drain energy and resources away from India and China, though here India may have the upper hand because India has no land border with Afghanistan, whereas China has a land border with North Korea. Thus, a chaotic, post-American Afghanistan is less troublesome for India than an unraveling regime in North Korea would be for China, which faces the possibility of millions of refugees streaming into Chinese Manchuria.

Because India's population will surpass that of China in 2030 or so, even as India's population will get gray at a slower rate than that of China, India may in relative terms have a brighter future. As inefficient as India's democratic system is, it does not face a fundamental problem of legitimacy like China's authoritarian system very well might.

Then there is Tibet. Tibet abuts the Indian subcontinent where India and China are at odds over the Himalayan borderlands. The less control China has over Tibet, the more advantageous the geopolitical situation is for India. The Indians provide a refuge for the Tibetan Dalai Lama. Anti-Chinese manifestations in Tibet inconvenience China and are therefore convenient to India. Were China ever to face a serious insurrection in Tibet, India's shadow zone of influence would grow measurably. Thus, while China is clearly the greater power, there are favorable possibilities for India in this rivalry.

India and the United States are not formal allies. The Indian political establishment, with its nationalistic and leftist characteristics, would never allow for that. Yet, merely because of its location astride the Indian Ocean in the heart of maritime Eurasia, the growth of Indian military and economic power benefits the United States since it acts as a counter-balance to a rising Chinese power; the United States never wants to see a power as dominant in the Eastern Hemisphere as it itself is in the Western Hemisphere. That is the silver lining of the India-China rivalry: India balancing against China, and thus relieving the United States of some of the burden of being the world's dominant power.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Religious fundamentalism on rise among Sinhalese, Muslims

Following the threats issued by Buddhist monks against a mosque in Dambulla on Friday that they would demolish it unless the Muslims relocated the mosque from the area, which the monks claimed as a holy Buddhist site, the SL Prime Minister DM Jayaratne, who is also the minister of Buddhist affairs, on Sunday instructed the Muslims to relocate the mosque, triggering anger among Muslims. The Buddhist monks, who are engaged in setting up new Buddhist viharas and Sinhala colonies in the country of Eezham Tamils, have carefully timed their action against the Muslims in Dambulla after successfully wooing the votes of the countries with overwhelming Muslim populations, either to back Sri Lanka or to abstain from voting at the recent Human Rights Council session in Geneva, Muslim circles in Colombo said. 

The Muslim leaders in the island are now appealing to influential Muslim countries to condemn the decision by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister. 

Almost all the Muslim member countries of the UN Human Rights Council stood with the Sri Lankan state when the voting took place in Geneva on the resolution tabled by the USA. 

Bangladesh, Maldives, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Kuwait, Qatar voted against the US-proposed LLRC-based resolution, while Malaysia, Senegal, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Burkina Faso and Djibouti abstained, an act which was also interpreted as indirectly backing the Colombo regime. 

Similar to the Dambulla episode, in September last year, a group of Buddhist monks in Anuradhapura went amok on a Muslim shrine and destroyed it claiming that the Muslims were trying to make the shrine into a Mosque and also claimed that the said mosque was situated in a holy Buddhist site. 

In the meantime, a Muslim deputy minister from Kaaththaankudi in Batticaloa district, has been allegedly engaged in destructive activities with the intention of causing disharmony among the Tamil speaking people of the district. 

On Thursday, the letters on the welcome board, which read ‘Batticaloa Urban Council welcomes you‘ in Tamil and located at the border between Batticaloa city and Kaaththaankudi town on Batticaloa - Kalmunai Road, were painted with dark ink, hiding the Tamil letters. The incident has taken place 150 meters from Kaaththaankudi Police Station. 

The same welcome board was also destroyed on 23 September 2011 by some Muslims, who claimed that the Tamil greeting “Va'nakkam” was a “haram” for the Muslims of Kaaththaankudi.

Meanwhile, the Sinhala-Buddhists and their military consider it as their inalienable right to build Buddhist stupas in Saiva sacred centres such as Thirukkeatheesvaram and in any part of the country of Eezham Tamils in the island, whether there are Buddhists or not.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Growing beef trade hits India's sacred cow

When 33-year-old Ashoo Mongia visits the supermarket it's rarely for stocking up his fridge for the week. As head of a cow protection enforcement team, he regularly scours Delhi grocery stores and outdoor markets for food products containing cow beef.

For the last 15 years, Mongia and his team of 120 Delhi-based volunteers have thrown themselves in a battle that pits India's billon-dollar meat industry and growing underground beef trade against Hindu traditionalists keen on preserving the holy status of cows.

"The cow is our mother, it's our duty to protect her," said Mongia, who monitors and raids hundreds of stores, butcher shops and slaughterhouses suspected of carrying, selling or slaughtering India's blessed bovines. "We do this because we believe in what the cow represents in our country, our culture and in the Hindu religion."

This year, India will displace the United States as the world's third largest beef exporter, behind Brazil and Australia. In just the first half of 2012, India exported $1.24 billion worth of meat, and a 30 percent growth in revenue from 2010 exports is projected by the end of the year, according to a U.S. Beef Export Federation study.

While the bulk of Indian exports is buffalo meat bound for Middle East and Southeast Asian markets, the growing middle class in Arab countries has sparked a new craving for cow beef. The rise in demand could make India the world's king beef exporter by 2013, according to USDA estimates.
But as India continues its struggle for economic and political dominance in South Asia, there is concern that Hindu-mandated bans on beef could hamper the industry's future growth, particularly in states like Kerala and West Bengal where the practice is legal.

Relied on by generations of Indians for tilling fields, dairy products and dung fuel, the cow is regarded by Hindus as gau mata, or maternal figure, and has had a long-standing central role in India's religious rituals. Those religious attitudes, however, are viewed by some Indian business leaders as a major hindrance to commerce.

"Cow beef could be a very lucrative business in India," said Dr. S.K. Ranjhan, the director of Hind Agro Industries Limited, who believes that religious attitudes may stand to change once the extent of business opportunities are realized. "I think five-to-10 years from now, people won't be so scandalized by the sale of cow beef."

The majority of India's 24 states outlaw the slaughter of cows except under extenuating circumstances: to stifle contagious diseases, prevent pain and suffering, medical research, etc. And several states -- including Delhi and Rajasthan, among others -- ban the sale and slaughter of cows altogether.

The strict laws against cow slaughter in the majority of India's provinces have forced the lucrative cow beef trade underground. An estimated 1.5 million cows, valued at up to $500 million, are smuggled out of India annually, which some analysts say provide more than 50% of beef consumed in neighboring Bangladesh.

"When you consider just how much money is made from underground cow smuggling, it becomes clear that not only is there a huge amount at stake, but a huge demand that butchers and slaughterhouses are catering to," said Dr. Zarin Ahmad, a fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines in New Delhi, who has extensively studied the work and trade among India's butcher communities.

Working with Mongia's enforcement team is Parmanand Mittal, a cow-advocacy lawyer who works from a home-office on the outskirts of Delhi. Throughout the day, Mittal fields a stream of phone calls -- tipsters who have caught wind of illegal slaughterhouses and owners of gau shalas, or cow sanctuaries, concerned with unexpected expenses associated with new rescues.

In Mittal's office hangs a painting of Lord Krishna — one of the most revered divinities in Hinduism— with his arm resting affectionately on a white calf. While Mongia's crew breaks up the slaughterhouses, Mittal builds a legal case for prosecution. His backlog of casework extensive, Mittal says.

While there might be money to be made from adding cow beef to current exports, India would incur costs elsewhere, Mittal says.

"Cows have long been the source of fuel, manure and fertilizer, among other things. These animals are revered because they've played a large role in the welfare and livelihood of all Indians," Mittal said. "Take away the cow and the repercussions will be huge."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why the silence for persecuted Hindus?

The debate over whether Mohammad Ali Jinnah wanted the country he founded to be a secular or an Islamic one has been going on ever since Pakistan’s inception. This debate is a highly contentious one and shows no signs of abating or even mellowing down despite the passage of time.

Here, I will not ponder on the question regarding the vision that Jinnah really had for Pakistan. However, what no one can deny is that Jinnah was an individual who stood firmly for the generous and fair treatment of everyone, especially the minority communities.

Over the past six decades, Pakistanis have repudiated each of Jinnah’s core beliefs. Lately, however, they have touched new lows when one takes into account the treatment that has been meted out to the Hindu community in Sindh. The Sindhi Hindu community is one of the country’s oldest communities that has lived in this land since the days of Raja Dahir and preceding that. Partition forced many of them to flee their ancestral homeland. However, their love for Sindh was so great that some of them continued to live and soldier on here despite the discrimination and the second class citizen status bestowed on them. But now all this might change. The community is facing its worst crisis as the life, honour and property of its members are under vicious attack, with the state watching on silently.

The sinister trend of kidnapping the females of this community, betrothing them forcibly to their Muslim captors and then making a show of their supposed conversion to Islam, is deplorable to say the least. An exodus of Hindus, particularly the educated ones, has started and very soon Pakistan may lose some of its most hard-working, law-abiding and oldest citizens. As a result, the country will be poorer off as it will lose whatever is left of its pluralistic landscape.

The shameful fact is that civil society and the clergy — who ceaselessly harp about Islam being a religion of peace — have not raised the slightest objection on this attack on the honour of a community we are duty-bound to protect. With the present depressing state of affairs, Jinnah’s soul must be cringing sorely in his grave.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rig Vedic Polytheism and Punya Bhumi

by Vijaya Rajiva

The Rig Vedic worship of many gods and goddesses provoked commentators from Abrahamic faiths (mainly Christians) to call the system polytheism (the worship of many gods). Modern Hindus are no longer intimidated by the polytheist label. Hindus believe that their land isPunya Bhumi (sacred earth) inhabited by the gods and goddesses of the universe, who are invited to special open air feasts (yagnas) and also housed in temples built for them by devotees. Perhaps no country in the world has so many temples, from north to south, east to west, and no other religious tradition has invoked the presence of deities in the Vedicyagnas and their successors in the Agama traditions of ritual and worship.

The Hindu bhakta knows that the gods actually EXIST, but the educated Hindu elite are reluctant to admit to their heritage thanks to the massive indoctrination by the Macaulay-ian educational system and the missionary onslaught on Hinduism which denounces it as ‘pagan’, ‘polytheist’ etc. They contrast it with their ONE true god in whose name they have visited death and destruction on the planet.

Recent commentators from the Hindu side, such as Swami Devananda Sarasvati (a Dasanami sannyasin) and earlier still, the chronicler late Sita Ram Goel, have pointed out that the contemporary educated Hindu elite have been misled by their ill-conceived identification of Monotheism and Monism, and their inability to understand that the difference is crucial to understanding Polytheism.

Sita Ram Goel prefers the word Panentheism to Polytheism (to describe Hinduism) since the former emphasises the special Hindu concept ofIshta-devata, the special deity to whom a worshipper can relate to (a phenomenon unique to Hinduism).

The crucial difference between Monotheism and Monism is that the former believes in a ONE true god, and denounces the gods of other faiths as ‘false gods’, whatever that means, for how can a god be ‘false’ if the concept of god is real?

Monism believes in the Infinite existence of the Divine, which is characterised by Existence, Consciousness and Bliss (Sat, Chit, Ananda). This is better known as Advaita Vedanta or Non-Dualism (Unity, non-divisiveness). Its best articulation came with Adi Sankara (788 -820 CE). There are two other major Vedantas, the qualified non-dualism of Ramanuja and the Dualism of Madhva.

Modern practitioners of Monism are many, the most renowned being the Kanchi Sankarachariar who specially highlighted the importance of the many gods in Hinduism:
“… a yagna is making an oblation to a deity in the fire with the chanting of mantras. In a sense the mantras themselves constitute the form of the deities invoked. In another sense, the mantras, like the materials placed in the fire, are the sustenance of the celestials invoked…” (Hindu Dharma: Chapter on The Vedas).

Elsewhere, the Sankarachariar remarked that the devout Hindu also sees the forms of the celestials appearing in the yagna fire.

These preliminary remarks are intended to emphasise the link between Hindu Monism and Rig Vedic Polytheism. It allows for an enriched Hindu Pantheism where the devotee does not consider his/her chosen deity (ishta devata) as the only true god, and does not anathema-ise the gods of other faiths, as happens in Abrahamic monotheism. This is, of course, the difference between Abrahamic monotheism and Hindu pantheism.

Abrahamic monotheism must be rejected by Hindus for two reasons: [1] political, [2] religious.

Politically, monotheism has been the source of conquest, violence and intolerance, both in Christianity and Islam. It is important that Hindus are always vigilant to this dimension in the interests of security. The security question arises not only in the crude context of everyday dangers such as the throwing of a severed cow’s head by miscreants inside a Hindu temple or the verbal abuse of Hindu scriptures and temples, but the equally looming danger of sophisticated Inculturation. Here we perceive both Islamist and Christian attempts to find their monotheistic doctrines reflected in the Rig Veda, and the sophisticated attempts to wrest the ‘Rishi tradition’ as they call it, from the Hindus, distort it and appropriate it for their own purposes.

In this project, the Vedas are no longer dismissed as ‘paganism’, but viewed as harbingers of the two monotheistic faiths. This can range from the crude attempt by evangelical Christians (and Islamic counterparts) to find references to Jesus in the Rig Veda, and/or references to the coming of the prophet and so on, to the more sophisticated attempts by scholars (mainly Catholic, but also such persons as Dr. Zakir Naik) to find parallels in the thinking of the Veda and their own scriptures and beliefs.

In this way, Inculturation, or the process by which another’s culture is absorbed into one’s own, has become a current trend. The aim, of course, is to eradicate the visited local culture. It is not some gentlemanly exercise or purely scholarly enterprise. The agenda is clearly there.

The link between Hindu Monism and Rig Vedic Polytheism establishes the richness of both dimensions: the Infinite Divinity and the infinite manifestations of this Divinity in the gods and goddesses that Hindus worship. One can theorise about this link, as have the great Hindu philosophers such as Adi Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva. But for our purposes it is important to keep in mind that these manifestations are themurtis (derided as ‘idols’ by monotheists) that Hindus consecrate and install in temples and worship. Hence, the importance of murti reverence and temples in Sanatana Dharma.

When the barbarian invaders arrived, their first task was to destroy as many temples as they could. Thousands of Hindus lost their lives in defence of these temples. The shocking desecration of murtis by Islamists and Evangelicals continues to this day, though on a smaller scale, and mainly by Evangelicals.

If the underlying unity between Monism and Hindu Polytheism is not clearly understood, many Hindus get misled to believe that the ONE god of the monotheists is the same as Satchidananda (Infinite Divinity) and go on to downgrade Vedic polytheism as an accidental/ incidental feature of Hinduism, which Hindus outgrew in their historical development, and are now presumably moving towards the higher (sic) faith of Abrahamic monotheism. This is a profound mistake and merely parrots the narrative put forward by the ONE god-ists. Nor is the ONE god the same as theishta-devata of Hindus. The ONE god is held by its followers to be the ONLY true god with all other gods being FALSE gods. Whereas theishta-devata is only one among many gods and each devotee is allowed to worship freely his/her own ishta-devata (who may be different from the kula devata or even the grama devata).

The difference is politically significant since the ONE god-ists are prone to intolerance, violence, conquest and proselytisation, as happened historically and continues with a renewed sense of urgency by the Evangelicals today. Hinduism, thus, is always in danger of attack from the ONE god-ists. The punya bhumi is the land peopled by the gods and goddesses of the Rig Veda and many other divinities and eminences of the Indic tradition who are not mentioned specifically in the Rig Veda. It has to stay that way.

The further philosophical /religious/ spiritual dimension of theSatchidananda-Polytheism link is that while Vedanta stresses the former aspect, the latter is important for the householder (grihastha). The four stages of life (varnashrama dharma) each have their own dharma. Even Adi Sankara, as far as is known, stressed that the householder must fulfill his/her duties before taking up the last stage of sannyasa(incorporated from the Jaina ascetic tradition). In this he was different from the Buddha, for whom the monastic life could be taken up at any time that the individual desired.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Jama Masjid car bomb suspect held in Kolkata

An alleged Indian Mujahideen (IM) operative who allegedly planted explosives at Jama Masjid was arrested by Bangalore police in Kolkata on Wednesday.

Kamaal Hasan, 24, is alleged to be part of a module run by IM chief Yasin Bhatkal in Bihar. He was allegedly tasked with planting explosives in a Maruti 800 outside the Masjid, police said.

A shooting at the Masjid on September 19, 2010, days before the Commonwealth Games, left two Taiwanese tourists injured. Hours later, a faulty bomb set off a fire in the Maruti parked nearby.

Hasan’s arrest comes after the questioning of arrested IM suspects alleged to be involved in the blasts at Jama Masjid, outside Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium (April 2010) and at Pune’s German Bakery (February 2010). Their interrogation, sources said, revealed that Yasin Bhatkal could be in Kolkata after which a team of Bangalore police went there. Their search led to Hasan’s arrest.

The Delhi Police, which detected Yasin’s module in November 2011, had named Hasan as one of the Jama Masjid accused, and a non-bailable warrant was issued by a Delhi court.

Before moving to Kolkata, Hasan — from Balha village in Bihar’s Madhubani district — was reported to have “settled” near Delhi’s Paharganj where his family had a “bag-stitching business,” police said.
He was introduced to Bhatkal by Mohd Qateel Siddiqui and Gauhar Aziz in Delhi in 2009. Qateel and Gauhar are in custody.

Sources said Hasan was paid by Bhatkal for providing safe hideouts in Delhi.

“Since Hasan had been settled here for several years, it was easier for him to look for a hideout for Bhatkal’s recruits from Bihar and Delhi,” said an officer.

Sources said that Hasan received training in preparing explosives and using firearms while working at the weapons factory of Irshad Khan, father-in-law of Bhatkal, who was arrested last year.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hindu girl tells Paki SC she would rather die than convert to Islam

"In Pakistan there is justice only for Muslims, justice is denied Hindus. Kill me here, now, in court. But do not send me back to the Darul-Aman [Koranic school] ... kill me". This is the desperate, heartbreaking outburst of Rinkel Kumari, a Hindu girl aged 19, who has entrusted her heartfelt appeal to the judges of the Supreme Court in Islamabad. Her story is similar to that of many other young women and girls belonging to religious minorities - Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis - kidnapped by extremist groups or individuals, most of the time lords or local mafia, which convert them by force and then marry them . And that is what the girl said on 26 March, before the judges of the capital's court.

The drama of Rinkel Kumari, a student of Mirpur Mathelo, a small village in the province of Sindh, began the evening of February 24: A handful of men seized her and delivered her a few hours later into the hands of a wealthy Muslim scholar, the man then called her parents, warning them that their daughter "wants to convert to Islam."

Nand Lal, the girl's father, a teacher of an elementary school, accused Naveed Shah, an influential Muslim, of kidnapping his daughter. The man has the "political cover" provided by Mian Mittho, an elected National Assembly Member, suspected of aiding and abetting. After identifying the perpetrators of the kidnapping of his daughter, he was forced to leave the area of origin to escape the threats of people affiliated with the local mafia. The father found refuge and welcome in Gurdwara in Lahore, in Punjab province, with the rest of his family.

As often happens in these cases, even the judiciary is complicit: a local judge ordered that the girl should be given to the Muslims, because her conversion is "the result of a spontaneous decision" and also stated the marriage was above board. A claim that was repeated on February 27, at the hearing before the court, after which the girl was "renamed" Faryal Shah.

However, the story of Rinkel is not an isolated case: every month between 25 and 30 young people suffer similar abuses, for a yearly total of about 300 conversions and forced marriages. Hindu girls - but also Christian - who are torn from their family and delivered into the hands of their husbands / torturers.

On March 26, she appeared before the judges of the Supreme Court in Islamabad, while the Hindu community waited with bated breath for the girl's statements in court. To avoid pressure, the presiding judge ordered the courtroom cleared and - later - the dramatic testimony was relayed: in Pakistan, "there is no" justice, "kill me here but do not send me back" to the kidnappers.

Speaking to AsiaNews Fr. Anwar Patras, the Diocese of Rawalpindi, condemned "with force" the kidnapping and forced conversion. "The Hindus in Sindh - adds the priest - live a hard life. The reality is getting harder for them, they are forced to migrate because the state is unable to protect them and their property.

(Rinkel Kumari) 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

From Bosnia to Syria: Is History Repeating Itself?

by Benjamin Schett

Anyone closely following the ongoing crisis in Syria will notice that the desire for reforms is coming from a large part of the Syrian population which has no ties to the armed insurgency supported by foreign powers. These groups, many of them Wahhabi or Salafi terrorists, constitute a serious threat to the unity of Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian and Druze living together in a sovereign secular state.

In fact, reports suggest that in places where the armed insurgents have managed to gain control, the actions being carried are tantamount to “ethnic cleansing”. However, as long as those allegedly responsible are acting in a way which serves US-NATO interests, their various undertakings go unreported and media attention is strategically diverted.

In reality, many Syrians who are demanding reforms are not opposed to President Al Assad, and in fact believe in his commitment to implement change. Such reforms, however, require time to be carried out in the face of certain obstacles. Indeed, after decades of Baath rule, certain factions within the current regime have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo rather than having their privileges threatened by major changes brought about through reforms. 

Moreover, there is also a peaceful opposition within the country that stands for change through dialogue with the government, knowing that sudden provocations could plunge the country into chaos. In an interview with “Syria Comment” from October 2011, writer Louay Hussein, an outspoken and longstanding opponent of the Syrian government, warned of further escalation:

“I believe there are two reasons why demonstrations will significantly diminish; first, the violent oppression by the authorities recently and second, the increase in the number of armed operations by groups opposed to the authorities such as 'The Free Syrian Army'. This is why I expect more bloodshed in Syria. Moreover, I worry that if we fail to reach a homegrown settlement of the conflict very quickly, we will clearly witness different aspects of a civil war in the near future.”

The mainstream media has dismissed this assessment and ignored these basic facts. Media attention has focussed on the exiled “opposition” group, the “Syrian National Council” (which is already breaking apart thanks to the domineering role of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the “Free Syrian Army”, supported covertly by the West. In addition, one of Western media's favourite sources of information is the small, London-based organization called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, whose claims, though unverified, have nevertheless been broadly quoted.

All this bears a striking resemblance to events leading up to last year’s NATO attacks on Libya, in which tens of thousands of Libyan civilians were killed. But there are two key differences: 

1] This time Russia and China have been playing a more decisive role. They have expressed their opposition to actions which might lead to aggression against Syria.

2] The so-called Libyan “rebels” had some kind of a stronghold in the city of Benghazi in the East of the country, from where NATO could bomb their way into Tripoli. Comparable conditions do not prevail in Syria.

Might this be a reason for the Syrian insurgents to increase violence by carrying out bomb attacks and provoking shootings, in order to cause severe reactions from government troops and destabilize the country, and thereby reinforce sectarian conflicts? Namely, until the situation escalates to the point that Western powers feel they can “justify” the need for intervention?

The efforts for a peaceful solution made by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would only stand a chance if Western countries and their Saudi and Qatari allies stopped their unilateral support for anti-Assad armed insurgency.

The Lessons of History: Yugoslavia

Historically, this situation is not unique and prompts us to consider how similar events have played out in the past, particularly during the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s which set a historical precedent for armed Western intervention. These tragic conflicts, especially in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, served as a playground for exercising the destabilization of an entire region, manipulating public opinion in order to start a war of aggression, and carrying out regime change and economic (and partly territorial) colonization.

(See: Michael Parenti's incisive speech on the destruction of Yugoslavia:

Given the extent to which insurgents in Syria can count on full support from the outside, some parallels to the outbreak of the Bosnian civil war (1992 – 1995) are worth emphasizing. Consider the following: during the war, the leader of the Bosnian Muslims, Alija Izetbegovic, supported covertly by the West, set as a priority the creation of an independent Bosnian state under Muslim rule. However, he had to deal with the problem that his vision did not represent the will of Bosnia’s majority population: according to a 1991 census, 44% of the population considered themselves Muslim/Bosniak, 32.5% Serb and 17% Croat.

While quite accurately all of Bosnia's Serb population (one of the three constitutional nations within the republic) did not wish to leave the Yugoslav federation, the Croat side did support the holding of a referendum on an independent Bosnia. However, anyone familiar with the political aspirations of Croatia's then president Franjo Tudjman and his Bosnian Croat allies will understand that the Croatian side certainly did not favour Bosnia's independence because they wanted to live in such a state; rather, breaking Bosnia apart from Yugoslavia was supposed to be the first step in amalgamating the Bosnian territories having a Croatian majority population within the Croatian “motherland”.

Facing these facts and knowing that civil war had already broken out in Croatia in 1991, the only reasonable way to prevent a catastrophe in Bosnia would have been through sincere negotiations on all sides. This, in fact, was the goal of the most popular Bosnian Muslim politician at the time, Fikret Abdic, who considered himself pro-Yugoslav and received the most votes in Bosnia’s 1990 elections. Nevertheless, Izetbegovic – the candidate favoured and supported by US officials – seized the Bosnian presidency instead. (Incidentally, the fact that Izetbegovic had been in prison for having disturbed the order of the Yugoslav state by stating there could be “no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions” in a text called the “Islamic Declaration” did not seem to pose a problem to Washington.)

In March 1992, a peaceful solution for Bosnia finally seemed to be within reach. All three Bosnian leaders (Alija Izetbegovic/Muslim, Radovan Karadzic/Serb and Mate Boban/Croat) signed the so-called Lisbon Agreement, which proposed ethnic power-sharing on all administrative levels and the delegation of central government to local ethnic communities. However Izetbegovic withdrew his signature only ten days later, after having met with the US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann. It has been widely confirmed that the US was pushing for an immediate recognition of Bosnia at that time.
(See short clip from “Yugoslavia – An Avoidable War”:

A few weeks later, war broke out, and the West was one step closer to achieving its goal of nationwide destabilization. Could the same fate be in store for Syria given the parallel involvement of the West in Syria?

In Syria as in Bosnia, efforts to find a compromise would mean putting pressure on both sides to reach an agreement. But if one side already has full support from the West, what incentive is there in pursuing a compromise with the government? In Syria, the insurgents had foreign support from the outset, automatically sabotaging the possibility of real negotiations.

Further exacerbating the situation, the mainstream media has been aggressively building the case for intervention in Syria. Several statements made by Syrian government opponents and some Western media blame the Syrian government of being responsible for the bloody terrorist bomb attacks in Damascus and Aleppo that took place on the weekend of March 17 and 18. But they were stuck for an answer regarding why it would be in President Al Assad’s interest to cause an escalation in the two largest cities of the country where he is still enjoying the support of a majority of the population.

If we go back to the Bosnian example, we can see who has historically taken advantage of such events. On May 27, 1992, a massacre took place in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, killing many innocent people waiting in line to get some bread. The terrible event was immediately and repeatedly broadcast across the world. Just four days later, on May 31, harsh UN sanctions were imposed on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. For Western decision-makers, it was clear that the Serbs were responsible for the crime. Many experts disagreed with the finger-pointing, and reference should be made particularly to Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, then Commander of the Bosnia UN troops:

“The streets had been blocked off just before the incident. Once the crowd was let in and lined up, the media appeared but kept their distance. The attack took place, and the media were immediately on the scene. The majority of the people killed are alleged to be 'tame Serbs'.”

Similar events took place in 1994 and 1995
(See for example “Yugoslavia – An Avoidable War”, in its entirety:

This finally caused the NATO bombing campaign against Bosnian Serbs, carried out between August 30 and September 20, 1995, as justified by Western calls for “humanitarian intervention”. Following from the Damascus and Aleppo attacks, could a similar “justification” be around the corner for Syria?

A great irony, of course is the hypocritical stance taken by the US government, which calls for peace on the one hand and is a leading global supplier of weapons on the other. While the Obama administration might have called on the Syrian rebels to lay down their arms, there is a vast difference between official statements and what is being carried out on the ground. Indeed, there is currently a multi-billion dollar deal underway between the US and Saudi Arabia (a leading arms supplier for the Syrian rebels) for the sale of US advanced weapons.

This double standard was certainly applied in Bosnia, where the CIA was secretly smuggling weapons into the area despite an arms embargo officially being in place. (See: “Wie der Dschihad nach Europa kam: Gotteskrieger und Geheimdienste auf dem Balkan” [“How Jihad Came to Europe: Holy Warriors and Secret Services in the Balkans”] by Jürgen Elsässer, 2008)

It is worth noting that in the cases of both Syria and Bosnia (among other examples), Al Qaeda-affiliated mercenaries from several Arab countries were involved. In Syria, they integrated the “opposition”, heralded by the Western mainstream media as the victims of the government crackdown.

This should come as no surprise. Those who operate under the “Al Qaeda” label are often serving the interests of Washington. In Bosnia, where Mujahideen fighters trained Bosnian soldiers and fought against Serbs and Croats, the Al Qaeda leadership had to approve military actions by the Bosnian Muslim Army. (See: Balkan Investigative Reporting Network,

One of the Bosnian Muslims who refused to fight against the Serbs, the previously mentioned Fikret Abdic, created his own safe haven by making a peace agreement with the Serbian side and by forming the “Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia”, located in the area of Velika Kladusa. British diplomat David Owen described him as “forthright, confident and different from the Sarajevan Muslims. He was in favour of negotiating and compromising with Croats and Serbs to achieve a settlement, and scathing about those Muslims who wanted to block any such settlement.” (David Owen, “Balkan Odyssey”, 1995, S. 82)

In August 1995, under a joint attack carried out by Izetbegovic's troops and the Croatian army (both Western allies), Abdic's peaceful, autonomous province collapsed. Often in the media, conflicts are portrayed with reference to “good guys versus bad guys”, peacekeepers versus terrorists, us versus them. As this example from Bosnia shows, the full story cannot be accurately conveyed using these stylized concepts; not all Muslims were automatically against the Serbs, and certainly not all were interested in having Izetbegovic as president. 

And in Syria, it is clear that not all of those who are demanding democracy are enemies of the Al Assad government. However, delving into the “grey area” of the good/evil dichotomy puts into question the clear-cut “justification” for intervention, and casting such doubts is certainly not in the interest of the mainstream media and the Western interests they serve. In order to avoid misunderstanding, the people on all sides suffered terribly in the Bosnian civil war. But as in Syria, it is important to establish who has an interest in triggering increased social chaos and violence.

Throughout the entire Yugoslav civil war, separatist forces served the Western agenda which consisted in destabilizing and destroying an entire country. Yugoslavia had free education, an equitable distribution of income. It preserved its independence by being a key player within the Non-aligned Movement. In turn, this historical stance by Yugoslavia served as an example for other countries of the Non-aligned Movement which refused to accept the neoliberal diktats of the IMF.

In the context of the Balkans, the Serbian people bore the brunt of the blame from the West, and were vilified largely because they firmly opposed the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Serbia was the largest Yugoslav nation and suffered heavily during World War Two, when the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement systematically slaughtered Croatia's and Bosnia’s Serb population. It was largely this trauma that made the idea of living in the independent states of Croatia and Bosnia, both led by extremists, unbearable for most Serbs. A realistic image of Serbia’s role in the Yugoslav wars was given by then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, in an interview made during the Kosovo war:

“We are not angels. Nor are we the devils you have made us out to be. Our regular forces are highly disciplined. The paramilitary irregular forces are a different story. Bad things happened, as they did with both sides during the Vietnam War, or any war for that matter.”

All facts considered, the same could easily be said of the Syrian army and other groups fighting on Al Assad’s side. But maintaining an ambivalent position on current events in Syria, as is the trend among many mainstream liberal-leftist circles, means giving in to the neo-colonial and imperialist agenda of Western powers and their pseudo-humanitarian justification. And this despite the fact that they have actively stirred up ethnic and/or religious hatred and ignored reasonable voices, in Yugoslavia as well as in Syria, in order to follow the old Latin concept of “divide et impera”.

Author's Note: According to the latest reports, Syria's government has accepted Kofi Annan's 6-point peace plan. On April 1, the “Friends of Syria” will be meeting in Istanbul, bringing together mostly Arab and Western countries favouring stronger action against President Bashar al-Assad's government. Time will tell how these developments will impact the Syrian crisis and the potential effectiveness of the peace plan, knowing that so many outside players are acting in the background. [The meeting failed – ed]