About Kanishk Tharoor

Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor at openDemocracy.  His writings on politics and culture have also been published in  the Guardian, The Independent, The National, The Hindu, The Times of India, The Telegraph (Calcutta), the Virginia Quarterly Review, Foreign Policy and YaleGlobal Online. His appearances on radio and TV include BBC's Today programme, BBC News, BBC Radio Scotland and the Colbert Report. He is a published and award-winning author of short fiction. He studied at Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude with BAs in History and Literature.

Email him at kanishk [dot] tharoor [at] opendemocracy [dot] net.

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Articles by Kanishk Tharoor

This week's guest editors

Benazir murdered: what next?

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated today in an attack that has sent shock-waves across the world. As she left a political rally in the northern town of Rawalpindi, Bhutto was allegedly shot three times before the gunman detonated a suicide bomb, killing twenty-one others.

Her death has incited unrest across Pakistan, with activists of her party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), taking to the streets. Violence overnight is thought to have left at least a further dozen people dead. President Pervez Musharraf has called for a three-day period of national mourning, while leaders around the world have condemned the murder of Pakistan's ostensibly pro-democratic, pro-western champion. It is still unclear which fragment of the country's shattered and bleak political landscape is responsible for the attack; while Islamist, anti-American militants remain the most likely culprits, many in Pakistan - especially PPP supporters - blame the Musharraf government itself.

The perils of oversight

As an unfortunately-named Sudanese teddy bear hogs the headlines, you'd be forgiven for missing another controversial - but decidedly less tidy - story recently. Last week, with the blessings of the huggable, teddy bear-like "Communities" Secretary Hazel Blears, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) came into being.

MINAB, a self-described pool of "moderate" Muslim leaders, seeks to promote a culture of "civic responsibility" in Muslim communities by reforming British mosques and madrassas. Central to its agenda is a ten-point "code of conduct" that asks the country's 1,500-plus mosques to submit to regular inspection, to hire well-educated English-speaking teachers and clergy, to become more financially-transparent and to promote the participation of women, amongst other recommendations.

"Overcoming Extremism"

This week, Anthony Barnett and I attended an impressive conference in Washington, DC convened by the US foreign policy think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "Overcoming Extremism: Protecting Civilians from Terrorist Violence" brought together a broad array of scholars, policy-makers, journalists, activists and survivors of terrorist violence, ostensibly to develop a "shared international agenda" on combating terrorism.

Such gatherings on the Beltway can be damp squibs, with the imperatives of "bi-partisan balance" sapping life and novelty from discussions. Not so here. What I heard over the duration of the conference was serious, energetic and unflinching re-evaluation of the "war on terrorism". Critics - including yours truly - have long been frustrated by the insular nature of even the most well-meaning foreign policy debates in the States. Though it did not arrive at some magical "shared international agenda", CSIS' conference went a long way to opening those debates to the perspectives and experiences of the rest of the world. "Overcoming Extremism" was held by the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, DC on 22-23 October.

Visit CSIS' blog on Prevention, Conflict Analysis, and Reconstruction.

The danger of culture talk

In the course of the discussions at this CSIS conference in Washington on Countering Extremism, other speakers have dipped into a key, but bitter debate in the study of terrorism: one about whether socio-economics or ideology motivate terrorists.

The debate goes something like this: materialists argue that political and economic conditions - war, occupation, poverty, alienation - breed terrorism. On the other side, critics point to the number of well-educated, middle class suicide bombers - those involved in 9/11 for instance, or the "doctor bombers" this year in the UK. It's not poverty that drives such acts, they say, but psychology and fervent ideology

Diplomacy unbound

As it occupies front-pages and spills rivers of ink across the world, the "Iran crisis" offers little hope for resolution. It remains a struggle of delicate posturing and brazen rhetoric, a cold diplomatic war, shrouded in suspicion and assumption. The "E3" countries - the UK, France and Germany - have sought to steer a course in between Tehran and Washington, but recent events and ongoing diplomatic stagnation suggest that Europe has lost the plot.

Kouchner's war talk

Much has been made this week of the unflinching call to arms of France's new foreign minister. Bernard Kouchner insisted in a weekend interview that, in confronting Iran, "we have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war."

A changing relationship

Gordon Brown's first visit as prime minister to the United States - where he shared a lunch of cheeseburgers and French fries with George W Bush - has been widely described as signalling a change in "style not substance" in the trans-Atlantic relationship. Yet, for a relationship that lived so much in rhetoric, in the chummy claps on the back, and the at once sombre and amiable double-act, a change in style is a substantial one indeed.

From the archive: An absolute right

With Human Rights Watch releasing its scathing report on British counter-terrorist policy today, Manfred Nowak - the United Nations special rapporteur for torture - offers a bleak view of the UK and US' conduct of the "war on terror".

OurKingdom, openDemocracy's discussion of constitutional rights (and the lack thereof) in Britain, posts commentary from HRW's Ben Ward.

Benazir's fighting sham

  
"Such is the miraculous nature of exiles," Salman Rushdie once wrote, that "what is uttered in the impotence of an overheated argument becomes the fate of nations". So it may be for Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto, its erstwhile leader now in exile. Dogged by the sharp criticisms of an unimpressed audience, Bhutto drew herself up and glared back. "Young man", she said, directing her gaze at a blunt questioner amongst the mostly Pakistani students assembled at the London School of Economics, "I have every intention of being back in Pakistan by the end of this year". The declaration confirmed what had been rumoured for over a week, sending the attending Pakistani press corps into a tizzy. Bhutto had reached a compromise with the beleaguered and isolated government of President Pervez Musharraf, and will soon return to participate in domestic politics, reasserting the influence of her Pakistani People's Party (PPP) and her own iconic persona. The words were delivered with that typical austere control, immortalised by Rushdie himself in his portrayal of her as the "Virgin Ironpants" in Shame. Yet her performance in London on Tuesday was more cringe-worthy than composed. In trying to market herself at once to the west and to unsatisfied Pakistani youth, Bhutto fell hopelessly short of convincing. All politicians must, to some degree, be self-effacing, but not to the ludicrous extent to which Bhutto replaced her own dubious track record with the aspirations of others. She quoted Vaclav Havel's idealistic battle against communism as matching her own campaign against Islamic terrorism. She adopted Winston Churchill's political clarity, claiming to have only "permanent interests" and not "permanent enemies" in defence of her recent alliances with former foes Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf. She even evoked the prophet Mohammed's exile from Mecca to Medina as the paradigm for her flight from charges of corruption and misrule in Pakistan. Other audiences may have been more impressed. Bhutto pushed buttons that would play well to those policy-makers in Washington, European capitals and elsewhere interested in reforming the Muslim world. She continuously described herself as a "modern Muslim woman" committed to a "modern enlightened Muslim society", a leader who has faced more than her fair share of authoritarianism – in the coup that killed her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and in the legal coup that ended her first stint as prime minister in 1990. She has also been the target of purported assassination attempts linked to Ramzi Youssef and Khaled Sheikh, men responsible for separate attacks on New York's World Trade Centre. A tireless democrat, an anti-terrorist a reforming moderate, an economic liberaliser, a Muslim woman – Bhutto cut a striking figure, periodically letting her white scarf fall defiantly from her hair, before replacing it with practiced modesty. An audience of educated Pakistani students, however, is less easy and less willing to be persuaded. None of her lofty invocations could paper over the weakness of her revisionist history. Pakistan's recent politics, she suggested, were quite simple; they amounted to the contest between democratic modernity (represented by herself and the PPP) and the joined forces of "theocracy", militarism and terrorism (represented by the ruling establishment). This is a woefully skewed description of reality. Musharraf's government in recent years has come under increasing political and terrorist attack from Islamists, and has been opposed by (and not allied with) the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the coalition of religious organisations that agitates against Islamabad's close ties to Washington. To forget current affairs and lump Musharraf and his ilk with Pakistan's hodgepodge of Islamist groups is not simply a sin of omission; it is a transparent attempt to paint herself as the consummate saviour, the antidote to the perceived ills of the Muslim world. Bhutto was reminded of her disingenuousness in embarrassing fashion. When she proposed that, were she in power at the time, the 9/11 attacks, the "war on terror" and the "Talibanisation of Pakistan" would never have occurred, LSE's Hong Kong Theatre burst into peals of laughter. Such a brazen claim took her a bridge too far. It was Bhutto's interior minister Nasrullah Babbar, as one student had her recall, who in the mid-1990s presided over the rise of the Taliban. That she could disavow any connection to the region's "soft Islamic revolution" was beyond belief. Bhutto's return to Pakistan will be welcomed by many in the country. A vocal minority in the LSE hall chanted and clapped their support in an atmosphere that more closely resembled a football match than a lecture. Many of her criticisms of the incompetence and poor decisions of the Musharraf government are difficult to dispute. The general's regime has brought Pakistan dangerously close to the precipice of anarchy. It is, however, a measure of the dismal state of Pakistani politics that a cynical, most likely corrupt ex-leader is expected to bring credibility to the floundering government. Bhutto was right to lament Pakistan's brutal history of military coups and dictatorship. The track record of its elected leaders, including herself and her father, gives little further reason for encouragement.

Democracy crumbling in Algeria?

In recent months, the spectre of Islamist violence has grown across North Africa. After enduring a brutal decade-long civil war, Algerian Salafist radicals have regrouped under the ominous banner of "al-Qaida in the Maghreb" (AQMI). The emergence of AQMI heralded fears of the internationalisation of political violence in the region, fuelled in large part by the presence of numerous North Africans in the battlefields of Iraq. In Algeria, police and military posts in the interior of the country have come under increased threat in 2007, but on 11 April, the AQMI threat hit the heart of the political establishment. Bombs ripped through Algiers killing at least 33 people, in the first such violence witnessed in the capital since the black days of the civil war. The blasts coincided with a number of aborted and successful attacks in Morocco. Violence there has continued after raids into impoverished slum areas of Casablanca prompted reprisal bombings.

A wrinkle in time

Speaking last week at a ceremony for the late Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Wali Khan, Afghan president Hamid Karzai ventured into the murky realm of cartography. He rejected the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan as "unacceptable" and as a "line of hatred separating two brothers". The "brothers" are the Pashtuns, who straddle both sides of the border, and with whom Karzai - a Pashtun himself - is desperate to score points as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan gains momentum. Yet Karzai's salvo against the border is as much grounded in a century-old dispute as it is in contemporary political concerns. The Afghan president continued Kabul's longstanding rhetorical rejection of a border that remains at the core of instability in the region.

Iraq: the sum of the parts


In the northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk today, hundreds of Kurds, Turkomen, Shia and Sunni Arabs marched together in solidarity. At a time when Iraq's bloody sectarian divisions dominate the headlines, this joint protest was a rare, almost nostalgic act of unity. The demonstrators rejected the decree of the government's "Committee for Normalisation" that would remove any Arabs in Kirkuk who moved there during Baathist rule in Iraq. Chants rung out supporting the inherent unity of Iraq; placards opposed the partition of the country.

Madrid plus fifteen

The Madrid summit of 1991 opened the way to the Israeli-Palestinian accords at Oslo in 1993. A gathering of its veterans looked forward as well as back, reports Kanishk Tharoor of Madrid11.

What to do about torture? Manfred Nowak interviewed

The post-9/11 era has raised serious questions over western governments' complicity in secret detention and torture. Manfred Nowak, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, is one of the people best placed to answer them. Kanishk Tharoor of Madrid11.net talks to him.

Kanishk Tharoor: In what ways has the Bush administration directly or indirectly allowed for torture?

Jungle dumb: Mel Gibson's Apocalypto

Mel Gibson's Mayan blockbuster is an imperialist Christian dream but otherwise an historical and cultural nightmare, says Kanishk Tharoor.

"My Name is Red", Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk's novel is less a parable for global modernity than a journey into Turkish history, whatever the author's iconic position in the political landscape might suggest, says Kanishk Tharoor
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