Category news & critique

ACLU Infographic Raises Questions About Prison Industrial Complex

Although it may be hard at times to compartmentalize the work that we here at Sparrow do, avid readers of our blog and followers of our work will see some re-occuring themes. One theme is that we are critical of capitalism, another is that we are critical of the military & prison industrial complexes. With ever increasing privatization both of these complexes are growing exponentially at rates that eclipse many industrial trends world wide. An infographic recently released by the ACLU confirmed that the prison industrial complex is racist, growing, oppressive, packed with non-violent offenders, and a significant threat to our democracy.

Please share this infographic on tumblr, twitter, facebook, etc.


Unity Production’s Creative Video Response to Islamophobia

From Unity Productions comes a powerful testimonial of the 1.8 million Muslim Americans who are as “every-day” as the rest of us. All cliches aside, they’re our doctors, our police, our teachers, and our first responders. To paint this diverse constituency of millions with a broad brush of prejudice because of the actions of a dozen or so zealots, is not only to do so ignorantly, but also does our democracy as a whole a great disservice.

Despite all the measures this country has taken to further freedoms of expression we continue to live in a time of religious intolerance. Though some people’s anger is not completely misplaced, especially in cases where selective applications of religion further sexism, racism, homophobia, speciesism and other actions that directly infringe upon the rights of others, these legitimate grievances should never justify blindly ignorant or hateful actions. Through respectful discourse we should always challenge repressive elements of any social group, and its even ok if people feel offended while they sort things out, but when people cherry-pick negative attributes from a specific religion and then proceed to scapegoat that religion as a predicate for all the world’s problems we begin to traverse down a slippery slope of bigotry and xenophobia that can only end in disaster. Words do have power, especially in timultuous times. One need not look further then the recent attacks in Norway to see the vulgar fruits of seeds planted by hate-mongering bloggers and far-right pundits.

We live in a media-driven culture with an increasingly homogenized narrative. One that habitually trumps sensational lead-lines while passing on surrounding factual foundations because they are less inflammatory or take too long to explain in a 30 second segment. This habit has created a Hollywood-like news cycle infatuated with explosions, scandal, and falls from grace. In this cycle we almost only hear about Islam when it is conflated with terrorism, explosions, conflict, or the repressive elements of a minority’s interpretation of Sharia. Perhaps explaining these conflations is contributing to this cycle of xenophobia as well?



< The Sparrow Project has printed these benefit t-shirts in an attempt to combat Islamophobia.  Proceeds raised from the sale of these shirts will benefit victims of hate crimes.


Less newsworthy, but far more important facts remain under-reported. Xenophobia is running rampant across America and around the world. Racist evangelical conservatives who separate “Allah” from the “God” of the Christian New Testament, disregard the fact that Jesus spoke Aramaic (a language which shares many words with Arabic including “Allah,” as the word for God) and are ignorant of the glaring fact that all of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths worship the same single deity. The term “Islamist” is a term fabricated by right-leaning pundits and bloggers like Glen Beck, Michael Savage and Pamela Gellar, who attempt conflate non-violent Muslims with fascists. Moreover, Jihad means to “strive” or “struggle,” and this term can include everything from one’s personal struggle with alcoholism to a wider social struggle against oppression from a dictator or governing body, the true definition of Jihad is completely divergent from the contemporary adaptation of the word repeatedly used by the mainstream western media. Despite popular western belief, most fundamentalist Muslims do not endorse violence as part of their Jihad. Moreover, most Muslims are not fundamentalists.

However, these less sensational facts don’t support the right-leaning media’s hysterical narrative that at times could appear to exist for no other purpose then to perpetuate a climate of fear of Muslims and to further justify preemptive US military actions in Islamic countries. When the habitual focus of media outlets on both the left and right leave little space for factual dialogue surrounding Islam, its merits, its practitioners, and its tremendous beauty then the onus is on us to create our own inventive grassroots responses to Islamophobia and racism. The Sparrow Project applauds Unity Productions for developing this hard-hitting video short where vulgar soundbites from Michael Savage and similar Islamophobes are juxtaposed against the dominant message of beauty, peace, love, and solidarity.


New York Magazine Interviews Andy Stepanian About The CMU

Q. You were a “balancer.” What exactly did that mean, and when did you come to this realization?

A. I was actually doing my laundry, and a guard comes up to me and says, “You’re not like all the other Muslim guys, you’re going to go home soon. Keep your head up, you’re only here to balance.”


Following his hard-hitting investigative report on Communications Management Units titled ‘Little Gitmo‘, New York Magazine‘s Christopher Stewart  conducted a short interview with Sparrow’s Andy Stepanian about his personal experience as an inmate there.  You can read the interview online HERE or read commentary in this week’s printed edition available on news stands everywhere.

Please take a moment to comment on New York’s website and thank them for their continued coverage of the CMU issue.



The Financial Institutions Fight Back

A Look at the Unapologetic Greed of the Financial Sector
by Stephanie Basile

After causing the largest economic collapse in recent memory and taking our taxpayer dollars to help themselves (but no one else) weather the storm, the financial institutions have somehow decided that the financial laws in this country are too strict! Two recent news stories in the New York Times illuminate just how incredibly greedy and unapologetic the people running these institutions are, and just how unwilling the federal government is to challenge this unmitigated greed.

It’s important that we, as activists, are aware of the aggressive and often behind-the-scenes lobbying that the industry does so that we can challenge and offer an alternative voice to the destructive behavior of the financial institutions.

First, the federal government has apparently decided that the financial institutions can be trusted to police themselves! A July 7th story details how the government adopted new guidelines which allow corporations to report their own crimes to the government. They can then negotiate a deal in order to delay or altogether avoid criminal prosecution.

In one example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began an investigation into Beazer Homes, one of the nation’s 10 largest home builders. They found that Beazer took part in such fraudulent activities as offering a lower mortgage rate if buyers paid an extra fee, but then not giving them the lower rate, and enticing homeowners by offering down payment assistance, but not disclosing that it then raised the price of the house by the same amount. After learning of the HUD investigation, Beazer paid a law firm to conduct its own investigation. The company ended up entering into an agreement with the government in which it would pay consumers and the government $55 million in exchange for the HUD dropping its investigation, thus avoiding criminal charges.

Eerily, this brings us one step closer to the ideal corporatist state, in which the lines between corporate power and government power are not just blurry but nonexistent. With these new guidelines, now we don’t just have a government that weakly enforces the law, but instead actually allows corporations to police themselves and pay their way out of criminal prosecution.

Then on July 14th, the Times featured a story on Steve Bartlett, the head of Financial Services Roundtable, which represents 100 of the country’s largest financial institutions. Bartlett is on a mission to challenge the injustices done to the financial institutions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which Obama signed into law in July 2010. This bill contains nearly 300 new rules aimed at regulating the financial institutions.

While the bill don’t substantially change the unwieldy amount of power already enjoyed by the financial institutions, these pesky new rules are offensive enough that Bartlett and others are lobbying hard to have at least two dozen of them repealed. Among the offensive rules: executive compensation disclosure, in which companies must disclose CEO pay and the ratio of CEO pay to median pay of regular employees. There’s nothing about actually limiting the absurd amount of money CEOs make, just filling the rest of us in on the enormous gap between CEO and employee pay. Another rule: improved credit rating guidelines, in which credit rating agencies must follow tighter accounting guidelines when issuing credit ratings. This measure addresses the problem in which credit rating agencies often mislead investors by releasing overly positive credit ratings.

The powers that be do not like these rules, and they’ve gone into hyper-defense mode. The Times reports that Wall Street spent $52 million in lobbying in the first three months of 2011, up 10% from the previous quarter.

Barlett estimates that the new rules will cost the financial industry $14 billion. Even in the world of cutthroat lobbyists and shrewd businesspeople, Bartlett is known for being particularly aggressive. The Times article quotes him as saying, “I wish I could look the other way. I’ve got 14 billion reasons to be aggressive.”

Nowhere in Bartlett’s “14 billion reasons” is the human cost caused to working families all around the country thanks to the reckless corporate greed of his clients. But then again, in the corporatist state, in which government’s sole purpose is to ensure unlimited power and profits for corporations, pesky things like people’s livelihoods just don’t factor into the equation.

Stephanie Basile is a union organizer who lives in Brooklyn.

New York Magazine Investigates CMU Program & Deceptive Sting Used to Entrap Yassin Aref

This week New York Magazines Christopher S. Stewart published a hard-hitting and deeply personal investigation into the secretive federal prison programs known as Communication Management Units.

The units have been given nicknames like “Little Gitmo” and “Guantanamo North” because of the glaring ethnic and racial disparity of inmates designated to these units.  62% of inmates designated to the CMUs are Muslim men — a fact that both the ACLU & The Center For Constitutional Rights (CCR) highlight in their pending lawsuits against the prisons.  Labeled by the CCR  as an “experiment in social isolation” these institutions specifically isolate and silence inmates whose cases involve abundant press attention or possible prosecutorial misconduct, like that of the case against the Albany, NY Imam, Yassin Aref.

Stewart highlights the case against Aref in his feature, providing intimate details that the public has never seen before and that the federal government has made efforts to bury.  The sting employed to entrap Aref was a layered mess of corrupt government informants, uninformed innocent merchants, and high tech spying.   The three year operation to entrap Aref started with a hunch provided by military intel that was later redacted because it was grossly incorrect.  However once the ball started rolling it did not stop, and Aref now sits in federal prison serving a 15 year sentence for allegedly providing material support for a terror organization he knew nothing of…

Click HERE to to read Christopher Stewart’s article in New York Magazine

Be sure to share this important article & leave comments thanking New York Magazine for their continued commitment to important issues like this one.


A Message to the Media Regarding the US Boat to Gaza (video)

An update from  Andy Stepanian, co-founder of the Sparrow Project.

For the past 24 hours I have been glued to twitter as a few of my close friends set out with the US Boat to Gaza with hopes of documenting the breaking of the maritime blockade that has economically crippled Gaza since 2006 and isolated 1.6 million Palestinians in what some humanitarians are calling “the world’s largest open-air prison.”

Shortly after my release from the Communications Management Unit I started a project, reaching out to families of political prisoners still held in the CMU.  It was through these efforts that I met two amazing people — Paul Park and Noor Elashi.  I met Paul while documenting the efforts of Project Palestine. Paul directed and shot this video and Noor helped story board the piece.

With high profile interviews from academics, humanitarians and artists their video provides a brilliant response to the accusations levied against the flotilla by media outlets that support the blockade.  As activists we already understand that the flotilla’s purpose is not one of confrontation nor is it aligned with any Palestinian authority, but savvy PR initiatives by many special interests are quick to label the flotilla as such and in-tern they cultivate fear and distrust within the Israeli populace, inflame IDF forces that may at one point engage the flotilla, and control the flotilla narrative amidst the international community.  It is important that we as activists turn the tide in the smothering public relations efforts levied from these special interests.   Please take a moment this afternoon to share their video on social networks, twitter, etc.

We will be posting updates on and from the flotilla in real time via our twitter account we invite you to join this conversation and help us to wage our own grassroots PR effort in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

All the best,


Johnny Cash Could Teach Peter King a Thing (or two) About Prison-Born Terrorism Plots

Yesterday Congressman Peter King held his second hearing into radicalization within Islamic communities in the United States. This hearing focused on the potential for radicalization within the state and federal prison industrial complexes, specifically highlighting a conspiracy by four California men to wage war against the United States through attacks against military recruitment facilities and other targets in and around Los Angeles in 2005. One of the four men, Levar Washington, who pled guilty to his involvement in the plot was confined to the same secretive federal prison program I was confined to in 2008 for my involvement in an animal rights protest campaign. Levar and I became friends while incarcerated together, we were both young, we were both vegetarians, we would work out together every day, we would discuss spirituality, politics, and every Friday we would sit together and watch animal planet’s ‘Whale Wars’ show on the prison TV. It was an unwritten code in prison to not ask much about someone’s case unless they brought it up in conversation first, so I never learned about Levar’s charges until one afternoon he opened up to me…

Levar, a once-outspoken member of the Rolling Sixties Crips had spent his adolescent and teen years in the California juvenile corrections system, he eventually turned 18 and served the remainder of his time on the yards of some of California’s hardest state penitentiaries — Pelican Bay, CSP, Sacramento, and Folsom State Penitentiary. His life on the yard was one of constant oppression, violence, and sorrow. Levar would spend weeks and sometimes months segregated in the “Hole” or “S.H.U.” (Secure Housing Unit).  It was in the hole at Folsom State Penitentiary that Levar first picked up the Quran. Also segregated to the hole at Folsom was Levar’s future co-conspirator Shakyh Shahaab Murshid (born to the name Kevin James) and during their time together in the hole Kevin turned Levar onto Islam and onto a secret organization he founded in 1997 called Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS) Arabic for The Assembly of Authentic Islam. Levar’s foiled terror plot years later was to be claimed by JIS according to a pre-drafted press release FBI agents found on the floor of his apartment during his arrest.

Johnny Cash at Folsom State Prison.  ”Folsom Prison Blues” Cash’s song about the daily oppression of prisoner life highlights the desperation of men living behind Folsom’s walls.   It was from this yard, rife with oppression, that Levar Washington and Kevin James allegedly hatched their 2005 failed terror plot.  Cash’s words resonated with the Folsom men and prisoners everywhere, a stark contrast to the xenophobic rhetoric Congressman Peter King and some of his hand-selected witnesses used when trying to quantify prisoner radicalization.  King and the “expert witnesses” displayed that the lens from which they view these serious issues through, retards their ability to confront real life issues of oppression and violence that impact all of us…

For Levar the Qur’an answered his questions about justice, it gave his life a new meaning, it healed old wounds, and his relationship with the text was purely restorative. Peter King’s witnesses made an attempt to argue that it was the cherry-picking of the scripture itself or Islam by it’s very nature that led Levar down the path that eventually ended with his involvement in a terror plot years later. King’s hearings did so without fully acknowledging the oppression, violence, and conflict that enveloped Levar Washington’s life prior to his introduction to the faith. It may be easier for King to scapegoat a religion and chase fictitious bad guys in a system he does not fully understand then begin to address the all-too-real looming problems of disempowerment in inner city communities, xenophobia, failing foreign policies, poverty, and lack of education. All of these factors enable and encourage radicalization to a greater extent then religious scriptures do.

King however is not alone with his approach. How often do we as a culture search for quick fixes to myriad ailments while disregarding our need to make lifestyle changes that challenge our personal comfort. From deeply personal individual battles with cancer to the global war on terror, human responses to these acute onslaughts are almost always reactionary and seldom preventative. Amidst the immediacy of our tragedies we rarely question what brought us to those malignant moments –instead we desperately reach for quick fixes– surgery, chemotherapy, torture, carpet-bombing. In the global war on terror preventative medicine is often practiced as pre-emptive military action, rendition, entrapment, torture, and sanctions. These means never challenge the cultural roots of the problem and often actually serve as a tool for recruitment. Like flourishing bacterial cultures in a petri dish, terrorism is a symptomatic cultural reflex that can be easily seen growing out of its own hospitable environments. Levar Washington is a reactionary by-product to poverty, oppression, and a life of incarceration, not a terrorist recruit of the Quran. Until King begins to acknowledge the predicate problems that spawn terror plots he will continue chasing his own xenophobic tail, will continue to offend America’s beautiful Islamic communities and will continue waisting US taxpayer money.

Women v. The World: The Conservative Attack on Reproductive Rights

by Bina Ahmad, Calla Wright and Nicholas Laccetti


We thought this battle was over. And that we had won.  In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that even unmarried women could use contraceptives.  In 1973,Roe v. Wade continued this momentum by granting further reproductive rights.  These were supposed to be the stepping-stones on the path to equal human rights for all U.S. residents, regardless of our sex or gender. The early 1970s were perceived by many as the turning point after centuries of struggle. Suddenly the government lost its ability to police women’s bodies, or tell us we were unfit to make our own decisions.  We seemed well on our way to a society where our health, opinions, and autonomy mattered.  Roe v. Wade was supposed to signal the end of man’s dominance over woman, not the start of a protracted battle.


And yet, if the current political climate reveals anything regarding the rights of women, it’s that the well-coordinated, multi-pronged assaults once thought of as a thing of the past, are alive as they ever were.  Since 1973, conservative forces have continuously chipped away at the progress we’ve made.  Plan B could have been made widely available in 2003, but was not offered over the counter until 2006 . We’re still waiting on an over the counter emergency contraceptive for individuals under the age of 18.  Many states require waitingperiods for individuals seeking abortions, and parental notification/permission if the patient is under 18 years. In 42 of the 50 U.S. States, you are more likely to live in a county without an abortion provider than ina county with one.  Abstinence-only sex education prevents young people from beingprepared to protect themselves when the time for intimacy comes. Combine these facts with the recent string of murders of abortion providers and the subsequent closing of even more clinics, and you have a climate that can only be described as antagonistic, aggressive and hostile.


This is not a climate created by those who respect life.  If it were, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania would never have proposed a bill allowing hospitals receiving federal funds to refuse to provide abortions when the procedure is necessary to save women’s lives.  And when the anti-choice movement reached a seemingly all-time low by supporting and provoking the murder of abortion providers (Dr. Tiller’s for instance) we thought we had seen the “pro-lifers” at their worst.  That is, until legislation was introduced in three separate states to include“defense of an unborn fetus” under the definition of “justifiable homicide.”  Translation: not only are anti-choice individuals committing murder, they may very well get away with it.


This is also not a climate promoting equality. Federal funds no longer finance abortions provided at Planned Parenthood, yet conservatives still wished to defund the nonprofit organization entirely.  For many low-income individuals, largely people of color, Planned Parenthood is their only option for pap smears, cancer screenings, HIV tests, contraceptives and prenatal care.  Though there is a conservative push to ensure equal protection of fetuses—some government officials have proposed spending resources to investigateeverysinglemiscarriage—government programs that promote equality of U.S. citizens are losing support.  The public school lunch program, healthcare for low-income children, community health centers, the public education system, the Center for Disease Control, and the WIC (Women, Infants, Children) Program are all facing potential cuts.  And to make injustice a truly global phenomenon, a recent House resolution seeks to defund family planning groups working abroad to prevent infant and maternal deaths.


This is not even a climate conducive to reducing the number of abortions provided each year.  Therecent push to defund Planned Parenthood was particularly egregious given that its affordable and accessible birth control has prevented hundreds of thousands of unwanted pregnancies and abortions annually.  According to a March 3rd article, “Planned Parenthood helped prevent 973,000 unintended pregnancies, which would have resulted in 433,000 unplanned births and 406,000 abortions in 2008.”


This is a climate openly opposed to the progress women have made.  Thisis an assault on our bodies: a doctor may conscientiously object to providing an abortion, but not conscientiously object in any other medical procedure.  This is an assault on our sexuality: the original draft of one federal bill sought to deny federal funds for abortions of rape victims who were not “forcibly” raped, but raped nonetheless.  This is an assault to our integrity: one Georgia bill seeks to redefine victims in rape, stalking and domestic violence cases as “accusers”.  This is an assault on our intelligence: women find themselves forced to go through “abortion education,” waiting 24 hours, and “thinking” deeply on their personal decision to abort because women just aren’t seen as intellectually capable of deciding what is best for their bodies, their families, and themselves without government intervention.


As humorous as it seems, the news about an unborn fetus summoned to testify in Ohio in support of banning abortion after the first detection of a fetal heartbeat is not an Onion article.  It is an unfortunate reality of the 2010s.  As Alice Walker once put it, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”  Nearly 40 years after the Supreme Court ruled we could take control of our own lives, we are dangerously close to finding ourselves back at square one.  We live in a society where the anti-choice movement, conservative political figures, and popular culture proclaim that the power women have recently gained is just an illusion.  But we cannot give in to these lies and we cannot back down from this fight—as redundant a fight it may seem.  It’s easy enough to concede your rights, but once they’re gone, no one is going to offer them freely back to you.

Wisconsin, The Working Class Awakening

- by Arthur Smilios, Sparrow Media contributor.



Hubris is the gift to the righteous; it ensures that the wicked will meet the sword of justice. The machinations of Scott Walker and his vampiric sponsors, the Koch brothers, in recent weeks, in Wisconsin, are a seminal event. This is momentous: posterity could remember this as the moment the working class shed the yoke of serfdom and accommodation and finally rejected plutocratic dicta that ensure our degradation, enslavement and ultimate extinction. The ignoble Governor Walker’s lies about “balancing budgets” were laid bare by a Yippie-style prank call in which he revealed that his goal is essentially to establish a precedent that would begin a domino effect leading to the dissolution of the organized labor movement.

For too long, the working class has acquiesced to the capitalist class, in supine servitude, so it was a great surprise that the masses arose and demanded that the proposed bill not be passed.



While the events that continue to transpire in Wisconsin are encouraging, it remains to be seen what will eventually come of them. The people of Wisconsin are undaunted and their courage and resolve seems to be spreading. Similar events are occurring in Indiana and are expected in every state where hateful, anti-worker legislation is being proposed. The capitalists and their marionettes in government may have gone too far, this time. Will this be our Cairo? Our truly grass-roots movement from below, rather than the “astroturf networking,” funded by corporations, which has passed for peoples’ movements, in recent years. Will Americans finally awaken and realize that the red herrings of race, religion and every other falsely divisive distraction are just that? Distractions. Will we finally understand that it is about class? Because, it is always about class. If this does turn out to be the case, as I hope it does, then the capitalist class had better take care: we are 95%; they are the degraded product of profligacy and entitlement.



It awaits to be seen whether this is our Cairo, or if our class solidarity is splintered by agents provocateur, simple apathy or the stupefying and seemingly self-loathing practices of workers who vote for politicians who enact programs designed to harm working and poor people. I hope it is the former.



- Arthur Smilios is an unapologetic anti-capitalist, musician rabble rouser.   Arthur was the co-founder of the seminal New York punk band the Gorilla Biscuits. Since his days of performing “Cats & Dogs” (a song that encouraged thousands to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle)  Arthur has strived to braid his art with his passion for social justice.  The Sparrow Project has invited Arthur to continue to sound off on the issues he holds most dear through their blog on .  Arthur’s articles are written exclusively in his own voice, and may not reflect the views of The Sparrow Project.

Pakistan: in the Wake Of Cairo, Tunisia, Bombings & Flooding

Their Suffering Left The Most Lasting Impression – by Bina Ahmad

My family left Pakistan 33 years ago before I was born.  For so many reasons.  The most important and dangerous being that we are a heavily persecuted minority sect in Islam, we are Ahmadi Muslims (no relation to my last name).  Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Benazir’s father) declared Ahmadis non-Muslim in 1974 by constitutional amendment, and his successor through military coup Zia al Haq banned us from identifying as Muslim in 1984 and sparked waves of violence against Ahmadis that has never ceased to this day.  Pakistan’s penal code contains the most strict Blasphemy Law of any Islamic Republic, making “insulting” a Muslim or defiling the name of the Holy Prophet, including just by being an Ahmadi Muslim, punishable by death, and yes many Ahmadis have been executed under this law.  Not that the fanatics need the law since waves of vigilante violence against Ahmadis go unpunished or even condemned by the government.  Ahmadis have lived with this government sponsored persecution (discrimination, murder) ever since, rendering us second class citizens often discriminated against with government support.  Yes members of my family have been persecuted.  An Ahmadi’s Pakistani passport will state “non-Muslim”, something my brave grandmother in her recent passport renewal application refused to say or sign.  The most recent wave of violence occurred last May, 2010, where the Punjabi Taliban massacred Ahmadis in their mosques while praying, killing 90 people and finishing more off by attacking the hospitals survivors were taken to.  It is this very law that has led to the recent death sentence of a Christian woman Asia Bibi after she got into an argument with Muslim women she was working with in the field after they refused water she offered them because she was Christian.  This fanaticism also led to the assassination of the Governor of Lahore this January (while we were in Pakistan) by his own security guard when he announced his support in repealing the law, followed by 1,000s of people rallying insupport of the murderer.  Please see this informative Human Rights Watch report on the May 2010 massacres and on the plight of Ahmadis in general.

Although I had visited 22 years ago, and my mother returned several times (although never openly declaring she was Ahmadi for fear of persecution), my father never went back.  Having survived the bloody partition of India in 1948 into what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a war that resulted in the largest mass forced transfer of people in recorded human history, and barely escaping with his life at just 9 years old (surviving several blood thirsty mobs and a refugee camp), and then the persecution of Ahmadis later in Pakistan, I can’t blame my father for not wanting to go back.

But in the end it is still our homeland.  And I wanted my father to return to our homeland just once, and as I had no real memory of Pakistan either, I wanted to make this pilgrimage with him.  Though it was obviously dangerous and I knew it was going to be emotionally difficult, I still felt that human instinct to return to one’s home.  And I refused to be afraid.  I am, afterall, my father’s daughter.

What hit me first and lingers with me even now is the suffering.  Pakistan is such a brutal land, not only politically but physically in how difficult it is to survive and hack out a means of survival.  And it wasn’t like the U.S. where you can shut out the suffering by stuffing it in impoverished communities and neighborhoods–the suffering was everywhere.  And it clung to you.  Beggars and poverty on every street corner, outside affluent malls and stores, banging on your car window with the child beggars carrying even younger children who are usually drugged to keep them from crying, children deliberately maimed to make them better earning beggars for their pimps, people languishing in the UN Flood Victims camps.  The skeletal horses and donkeys forced to carry loads far too heavy for them, the starving and abundant stray cats and dogs, live animal markets with chickens and turkeys crammed into cages with no water.

And yet so much of this suffering is preventable, if you had a government who cared or an education system that empowered people to fight back against government corruption.  It is this kind of suffering, corruption and governmental neglect that leaves the population vulnerable to any number of forces, particularly those that are seen as the alternative saviors to the poor who have been so neglected by their government.  There are no social services, no welfare, food stamps, education outreach.  In this vacuum enters the much more conservative Taliban influences, particularly in the north near the Afghanistan border in Peshawar, and it slowly spreads like a cancer.  The Taliban runs nearly completely unchecked by the Pakistani government, resulting in one of the stated reasons for U.S. drone attacks in the north.  And the people need something to hold onto when their government completely abandons them and they are being attacked by the U.S.  Like ultra conservative Islamic movements, the Taliban for instance, the mullahs supporting the brutal Blasphemy Law.  Yet without government funding of education, food banks, and the general welfare of its people, it is hardly surprising that desperate people are sitting ducks for any group claiming to lead them in some sort of direction or give them some answer as to why things are the way they are.


Like how Musharaf was a dictator taking over Pakistan in a military coup …and yet to the average Pakistani, Musharaf was much ”better” than Zardari (the current President) because at least Musharaf provided the people with the basic necessities of life- electricity, heat, and gas.  And what else can you worry about when you are worried about your basic survival?  Under Zardari, it’s the first time in the recent memory of many Pakistanis where there are daily power outages for several hours, as well as daily gas outages which means no gas for cooking, heating water or heating your home.  And in northern Pakistan like Peshawar, the temperature drops to the 30′s.  Of course this is the same Zardari who was known as “Mr. 10%” (while married to the late Prime Minister and equally corrupt Benazir Bhutto, taking after her father) since every government contract had to provide Zardari with 10% of the proceeds, so what can we really expect?

But the hardest for me was to stand witness to the UN Flood Victims camps.  My cousin who works for the World Health Organization took me to visit the camps and the people languishing there after the flood displaced them almost a year ago, resulting in one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history.  Absolutely no money comes from the Pakistani government to alleviate their suffering, all of the aide provided for the camps is from the UN and other international humanitarian relief organizations.  It’s not surprising since when the flood occurred last summer, Zardari left the country for “official” visits at the height of the flood catastrophe.  People are living in tents with no running water, no heat, no electricity.  Their “kitchens” are a few bricks surrounding a camp fire.  The hospitals are bamboo huts with a single patient bed for examination.  The children go to school in a larger “children friendly space” tent.  A few families were able to get their hands on precious gas heaters to heat their freezing tents at night, which seemed like a blessing to a family of 5 with a new young infant of 3 months.  But a few nights before we visited the camps, the family’s tent caught on fire from the gas heater, killing all 5.  No one was saved because there was no money to have a doctor on duty at night at the camps.  When we visited the camp, the remains of their tent were still there.  Upon seeing the photos, my father said it reminded him of his experience in the refugee camps during Partition, but he said those camps were even worse than these.  I can’t imagine the horror.


I became much more acutely aware of my U.S./western privilege visiting these camps.  It was cold, dirty, and desolate, and yet I knew I would be returning to a home, where we at least had gas heaters that worked, sometimes.  We had showers and food.  And I knew that soon I would be returning to the U.S. where we hardly ever face power outages on the grand and regular scale Pakistanis do.  But life in the states didn’t provided my family with refuge completely.  Ahmadis are persecuted and shunned by other Muslim communities in the U.S. to this day, even kicking my family out of a mosque in Wisconsin.  Or post 9/11 when Muslim leaders were invited to participate in talks about the violent backlash against Muslims, other Muslim leaders refused to attend the meeting if our religious leader was invited.  Persecuted within an already persecuted community.  In a time when we need to find unity in our global Muslim community as we are increasingly targeted by our own government and conservative forces worldwide, when our name is being dragged through the mud by the Taliban and others who exploit the name of Islam, the most heartbreaking part of all of this for me is that we are divided, and when you are divided as a people, you are easily conquered and subjugated.


As I watch the revolutions happening for the past few weeks in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and now Syria, and the people uniting to shake off oppressive governments, often puppets of our U.S. regime, not letting divide and conquer subdue them, I wonder if Pakistanis will one day have enough of military dictatorships and rigged elections, poverty, U.S. drone attacks, internal divisions and the persecution of their fellow Ahmadi people.  Will we find our place in the revolution?  Will we make a revolution of our very own?



- Bina Ahmad is an attorney, human rights and animal rights social justice activist.  She is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants and an Ahmadi Muslim, a heavily persecuted sect in Islam.  She has worked on social justice issues her entire life, and worked with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the New York branch of the ACLU, Al-Haq (the oldest Palestinian Human Rights NGO based in Ramallah, West Bank), and PETA.  She strives to make the connection between human and animal oppression, and hopes you will join her in the struggle.