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November 2007

THE SAIS OBSERVER SAIS Students

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SAIS Student Earns Reputation for Expertise and Peacemaking in Pakistan

By Alex Selim

When high profile guests come to SAIS, it’s not uncommon for students to try to gain access to the speakers and pick their brains about their areas of knowledge. But before fielding a question from Josh White at a talk in September, Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Richard told the second-year South Asia studies student, “I’ve heard a lot about your adventures. Someday you’ll have to explain them to me yourself.” Among the “adventures” that Boucher was referring to was a year-long trip to Pakistan as a guest of the Chief Minister of the North-West Frontier Province before starting SAIS. White later returned to Pakistan this past summer in order to study Islamic politics and American foreign policy toward Islamic parties. His first visit to Pakistan coincided with some very momentous events including the earthquake in Kashmir in October 2005, the failed air strike targeting al-Qaeda leaders by U.S. Predator Drones in January 2006 and the riots in response to the Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammad. Over the past few years, the graduate from Williams College in Massachusetts in 2001 with a degree in history and math who grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, has developed an expertise in a region where few others have gotten as much access as he has. “Pakistan is one of the greatest strategic concerns facing America today but there are very few people doing field studies there,” he says. “I guess it’s a bit dangerous,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. He explains how he once had to hide underneath a table at an underground internet café as a zealous mob attempted ransack the place during an anti-Western riot. He then sneaked out the back door. He also ended up this summer at the Red Mosque in Islamabad on the day that it reopened for Friday prayers after the government’s commando operation against its extremist leaders. He watched as the madrassa students retook the mosque and hoisted the flag of jihad, before again being expelled by police. “I left just before the tear gas,” he says with as much modesty as fascination. White began working with Pakistan in 2005, when the Institute for Global Engagement, a faithbased NGO that he worked for, invited Chief Minister Durrani to Washington for a week of, what White calls, “relational diplomacy” to discuss the

troubling new Shari’ah law his party had proposed in the provincial assembly. The Chief Minister reciprocated by inviting members of the NGO, including White, and other American experts to visit the Pakistani frontier. While they were there, the chief minister signed an agreement with IGE to work on interfaith and education projects. White decided to stay on in the provincial capital of Peshawar to work on these programs, and study local history and culture. He described his experience in Pakistan in an article he wrote for the magazine Christianity Today: “That a 27-year-old American Christian was hanging out in Peshawar as the guest of an Islamist political party that four years earlier had come to power on a pro-Shari’ah and anti-American platform caused no end of wonder to the local diplomats and church community. To them, it seemed a bit crazy. For me, it was an extraordinary opportunity to glimpse Islamist political leadership from the inside; to get to know these people as people; to begin to tease apart rhetoric from reality, slogans from conviction; and to find myself, on a certain scorching May morning, the only Westerner making a trip down to Bannu [a town bordering North Waziristan].” It may sound surprising that a Christian would care so much about Islamic studies but, White says, “Interfaith work is a hobby of mine.” He describes IGE, with which he is still affiliated, as an organization that works to inform the Christian community about the rest of the world, and that practices quiet diplomacy on behalf of religious minorities of all faiths in East, Central, and South Asia. Similarly, White, who attends the Anglican Church of the Resurrection on Capitol Hill, aspires

Josh White poses with Maulana Fazli Ali, Minister of Schools and Literacy, North-West Frontier Province

to get Christians to look at the world more broadly and to think about Islam and Pakistan through the lens of more than just “radicalism.” To White, the Christian mission ultimately must be a mission of peace-making. In the same vein, he gave a speech on peacemaking this summer, in Urdu, to an interfaith conference of 200 religious leaders and students in Peshawar. In the meantime, White is continuing his study of Islamic politics. Last summer, he interviewed over 100 people including members of President Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet, senior Islamist political figures, and representatives from NGOs and the World Bank. He hired assistants to help him with his research, and even had tea with the governor in Peshawar. White believes that the international community is right to have deep concerns about the implications of Islamist politics in Pakistan. But he is also interested in the ways in which Islamist participation in the political process and the challenges of actually having to govern can have a moderating effect on religious parties. “When you are an opposition leader, you can say anything you want. But when you come to power, you suddenly have to think: how will I able to carry out my promises?” Though the religious rhetoric is sometimes dramatic, White says, often when people vote for Islamist parties what they most want is good governance. “It’s surprising, but most of the religious parties’ own constituency didn’t really want a strict form of Talibanization.” He notes that many people liked the abstract idea of Talibanism, but didn’t actually want the Taliban to visit their village. He also believes that there may be a pushback against Al Qaeda in the region, what he calls an “Anbar moment,” as the local power brokers get disgusted with the instability that Al Qaeda brings. Not only is White studying Islamic politics in Pakistan, but he is also studying American reaction to it. “I’ve seen in Pakistan that we don’t deal with the situation very well. Why am I one of the only Americans that these people have ever met? What’s wrong with this picture?” On November 14, he will be speaking at a panel discussion at SAIS called “Pakistan’s ‘Islamist’ Frontier: Emerging Trends in Islamic Politics and U.S. Policy Options Toward Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province” with a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a scholarin-residence at the Middle East Institute. After graduating this spring, White plans to apply to for a PhD program where he can continue his studies on South Asia and sees himself as possibly doing future research on the subject of religion and political stability. There is no doubt that White has a promising future ahead of him. Yet somehow between his studies, his research, his lecture and his PhD program applications, he’ll have to find some time to get in contact with Richard Boucher’s people. Alex Selim is a 2nd year MA candidate in Middle East Studies and an editor of the Observer

SAIS20036Nov  

For more pics see page 12 Diversions 2 On Campus 4 Bologna Connection 5 SAIS Students 6 Arts and Culture 8 Op-Ed 9 November 2007 Volume 8 No...

SAIS20036Nov  

For more pics see page 12 Diversions 2 On Campus 4 Bologna Connection 5 SAIS Students 6 Arts and Culture 8 Op-Ed 9 November 2007 Volume 8 No...

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