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Touching foot in Pakistan

The only way to keep writing about terror organisations — and live.

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published:August 9, 2014 2:21 am
Seating myself on the floor next to the Big Leader, I extended my hand and touched his knee before admitting guilt and  pledging never to badmouth his organisation again. The effect was immediate. I was to live. Seating myself on the floor next to the Big Leader, I extended my hand and touched his knee before admitting guilt and pledging never to badmouth his organisation again. The effect was immediate. I was to live.

An Indian-Gujarati friend of mine, with whom I share my enthusiasm for the Gujarati community of Karachi, has written something about me that needs only marginal correction. Writing in the Hindustan Times of May 12, 2014, Aakar Patel observed: “In a profile of his by a Western writer, I was alarmed to see that the columnist Khaled Ahmed, one of my heroes, actually paid one of the groups to keep them off his back. Such, then, is the lot of the writer of opinion in Pakistan.”

Off my back? The best way I could do that was not write at all. I have, in fact, done much worse to ruin my image. I have gone and touched the feet of my prospective killers, as unfortunately recorded by Karima Bennoune in her book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism (2013). She recounts how I went to Samanabad in Lahore and — it goes without saying — went for the foot of a now-terrorist organisation member offended by what my paper, The Frontier Post, had printed: an FIR saying the organisation’s founder used to molest madrasa children. The now-terrorist organisation was then in the Punjab government coalition and doing terrorism on the side.

It worked. So I got used to touching foot. It is like apologising abjectly to the judge after committing contempt of court: don’t argue. Many years later, I misread the signs and wrote something in The Friday Times that provoked a once-terrorist organisation to send me a legal notice for defamation. I was immediately grateful on receiving a notice and not a bullet in my head. After looking for a lawyer who would defend me in court and not finding a single one — all were either in sympathy with the said organisation or scared of it — I decided to do what had become habit: touch foot.

The first time I touched foot I was editor of the paper, so the decision was taken quickly enough. The second time, my editor Najam Sethi, the bravest man in Pakistan, who printed everything I wrote, had to go with me to a location near Chauburji in Lahore and see how I did it. Seating myself on the floor next to the Big Leader, I extended my hand and touched his knee (the foot being hidden beneath his imposing girth) before admitting guilt and pledging never to badmouth his organisation again. The effect was immediate. I was to live.

Aakar Patel took someone’s account of “how I survived” on trust. Things are much worse than paying off terrorists here. Yet, what the “Western writer” stated was misleading. I was actually paying a “monthly” to an ex-member of a jihadi outfit. His credentials were solid. He was trained in an Osama bin Laden camp just outside Kabul. SK had fallen on bad times financially and had called on me, trusting the rumour that I was working for the CIA and could get him to the US. He was working in a pro-jihad Lahore newspaper, funded by expat Pakistanis and producing unreadable columns of agitprop, but his heart was not in it. He told me many things about what was going on in the jihadi underworld.

Harkat-ul-Mujahideen was on the verge of a split and Jaish-e-Mohammad was about to be born from its rib, with bin Laden and Mufti Shamzai midwifing the new birth. SK gave me the copy of the “hakam (arbitration)” from Shamzai, dividing the assets. Bin Laden chipped in with dozens of brand new “double-cabin” vehicles smuggled through Iran, which he gave to his favourite terrorist leader, who later became his “post office” while living undisturbed in Islamabad. The “hakam” was printed in TFT along with my account. I told Najam on his birthday in June this year that I was forever grateful he didn’t censor my columns.

The bit about me paying off the terrorists was told by my old reporter, MH, to the publisher of the TFT, Jugnu, who immediately rang me about it. I don’t know where MH got it from. He was the ace whose field report in Najam’s Urdu weekly, Aajkal, about what happened to the borderlands evacuated of civilians, near Sialkot, got TFT in trouble. MH is tough, a “black belt” in karate, and was possibly miffed with me for the “monthly” I paid to SK. I was told he had come to fisticuffs with SK at the Pak Tea House. The “monthlies” trailed off after 9/11, the day SK was to get me to meet the UK terrorist “of India fame”, Omar Sheikh, who had just opened an al-Qaeda office in Lahore. Everything disappeared after 9/11.

MH went on to write many books — some with my preface — in Urdu, including his Punjabi Taliban, translated into English, which could get him killed because of his minute scrutiny of the sectarian war in Pakistan. He fled before that could happen and lives somewhere in Europe, which I can’t disclose, writing more revealing books based on the madrasa material he has gathered over the years.

Another “pay-off” was most unfortunate and embarrassed me for a long time. A Jaish boy with a sheaf of fatwas in hand, on the basis of which he got loan-defaulters to cough up money — 10 per cent going to Jaish — came to see me, thinking, once again, that I was a spy and could get him to America. (I don’t know who has spread this about me but the rumour has persisted.) He said he could put together a directory of jihadi organisations if he was paid Rs 20,000.

I talked to Pervez Hoodbhoy of Mashal in Lahore. We decided to pay him the money from Mashal, which has a most elaborate collection of inflammatory mosque sermons on its website for anyone interested in extremism. To cut it short, the Jaish boy ran off with the dough. But Mashal was soon able to publish the bestselling classic, A to Z of Jihadi Organisations in Pakistan by Amir Rana, the best field researcher I have known, who now runs his own NGO from Islamabad.

The ignominy has not worn off. It has made Aakar sad but he has to understand the conditions one lives under in Pakistan. One can get out of a tight spot by grovelling — I don’t have the kind of money they demand — and by touching foot. But the real problem is that faced by most Muslim societies today: the victim of terrorism is as extreme in his thinking as his tormentor. The people to save whose future I write are offended by my liberal-secular worldview, which makes me look as if I am sucking up to America. I was shocked by what a prosecutor had to say about me as I faced a contempt hearing at the Lahore High Court, way back in 1993: I was an American and Indian spy rolled into one, opposed to the very idea of Pakistan.

Yet, I shouldn’t complain. This year, I received the Pride of Performance medal from the president of Pakistan, which means there is someone who thinks I am not a traitor.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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