Tripoli Diary

Nostalgia in Tripoli

The first meeting with Muammar Qaddaffi was the most dramatic. It was exactly a week after President Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of this city on April 15, 1986.

In a sense, the current Anglo-French enthusiasm for Qaddaffi’s elimination completes the circle begun with Reagan’s air attacks. Remember, the Reagan-Maggie Thatcher combine had taken upon themselves the daunting task of reversing the process of Western decline after US defeat in Vietnam, emergence of communist governments in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua plus powerful communist parties in Italy, France, Spain. The attack on Libya was part of Reagan’s counter offensive, climaxing in the Star Wars project leading to Soviet implosion. This alas was followed by Neo Cons overreach and the fall of rampaging capitalism, Occupy Wall Street. The Anglo-French rush into Libya is (partly) to keep the wolf from the European door.

Yes, that memorable first meeting. Past midnight I find myself being driven to Bab el Azizia, the fort like compound where Qaddaffi lives. Foreign Minister Kamel Maqhour greets me at the gate. Then, past a series of rectangular spaces to a dimly lit room with low ceiling, like a spruced up army camp. Behind a rectangular table, in air force over alls, a black embroidered gown over his shoulders, and flanked by gorgeous, well chiseled women body guards, (one ebony black the other, its marble counterpart) stands Qaddaffi. It is a stunning trio, like an ad for a fitness parlour.

Man for Thatcher

The conversation bristles with self conscious sexuality. Reagan attacked him to impress Margaret Thatcher, he laughs.

“He is a failed actor who became President of a great power and he wants to show he can move fleets, big war machines. He is suffering from old age. He wants to finish the world before he goes. I have studied psychology. I know what I am talking about. He has a special relationship with Thatcher – he wants to prove to her that he is a man.” Men from Sirte, reared on camel’s milk, are known for flaunting their macho sexuality.

He looks athletic compared to the Kings and Sheikhs who populate Arab summits. His arrogant carriage is itself something of a taunt. Occasionally he adds insult to injury by calling them “lackeys of imperialism” provoking outbursts some of which have become part of Arab summit folklore. At a summit at Sharm al Sheikh Prince Abdullah (now King of Saudi Arabia) screamed across the table, pointing at Qaddaffi, “Kalb” which means “dog”.

Rajiv Gandhi’s initiative

At Rajiv Gandhi’s initiative, Non aligned foreign ministers decide at their meeting in New Delhi that a delegation of foreign ministers led by India’s Bali Ram Bhagat should proceed to Tripoli in the spirit of NAM solidarity.

Rajiv asks me “aren’t you covering the story?” His special assistant Ronen Sen navigates my request for an interview with Qaddaffi through diplomatic channels. At Tripoli’s hotel Mahar, I buttonhole Bhagat and hand him a copy of my interview request to be handed to “the leader”. I was granted the interview, but, ironically, Bhagat was sacked soon upon his return. Reagan apparently threw a ginger fit at the Indian initiative.

Qaddaffi, meanwhile stepped up his diplomatic contacts with New Delhi. His son, Saif ul Islam visited India with a “sealed” letter from Qaddaffi for Prime Minister Vajpayee. This was in 2001, after Qaddaffi had made his peace with the West. In those days Qaddafi was a ghost of his former self, like an actor without a stage.

The letter is his “new internationalism”. He urges Vajpayee to take the initiative to “reunify” India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a reversal to the pre 1947 structure! Vajpayee is amused. He should take up the project first with Pakistan, Vajpayee suggests with a glint in his eye.

Shikar Trophy

The straightforward colonial solution as to what to do with Qaddaffi’s body would have been to hide it from people who might be tempted to build a shrine around which might grow popular movements – like the last Moghul emperor dispatched to Yangoon to die in the garage of a junior officer or, better still, like Osama bin Laden tossed in the sea.

Why did the West want him to be killed? In his appraisal to me, Qaddaffi was on target: oil, one of the world’s largest reserves of under ground water, an angry clergy choked by his secularism, his links with Africa, promotion of African population in Libya annoying the Mediterranean Arabs, unwavering support for Palestine and, ofcourse, “my fierce independence”.

Only when the mist lifts shall we know how many of Libya’s six million population divided into 140 tribes will agree on a leader through the democratic route.

It must enthuse the faithful that every kick on Qaddaffi’s body was accompanied to the sound of “Allah o Akbar”. Is this not poetic justice for a man who had banned the Mullah? The most educated in a community could lead the Friday prayers. He had opened the World’s first military academy for women, something women in Saudi Arabia will have to wait for a hundred years.

For such misdemeanours he was shot at close range and even as his body lies in a freezing room, a BBC camera brings a young, unknown reporter into focus, kneeling next to the body, with the triumphant look of a shikari over a trophy.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Justice Verma, Kiran Bedi, DA and TA

BY ARUN AGRAWAL

The trivialization of the debate on the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal bill involving Kiran Bedi in which even the former Chief Justice of India got involved should sadden every Indian whose expectation of  strong anti corruption law is receding with each passing day.

The fact that even a person like Justice J S Verma has joined this debate is regrettable. Though it is true that the Supreme Court was one institution which kept up its fight against corruption (Justice Verma was one such judge), it is equally true that that there were many judges who were responsible for allowing corruption to become the monster that it has. The Supreme Court  judges of the bygone era should not think that merely because they have a track record of honesty they have become spokesman for the judiciary as a whole and that their perception of an anti-corruption bill is the right one. The blunt truth is that they had their time in the sun and they did not make an iota of a difference to the system. It is best to remain silent and not stake their credibility to a point that corrupt ministers quote them. Or worse, people like me should be compelled to research their past.

Before coming to Justice Verma’s  conduct in claiming DA as Chief justice of Rajasthan High Court in the context of his comparing Kiran Bedi‘s conduct in claiming excess travel bills, to that of a pickpocket giving the money to someone else, it needs to be pointed out that every individual can be accused of some wrongdoing at some point of his life.

Let us begin with Anna Hazare himself.

He was persuaded into celebrating his 60th birthday by his industrialist friend Firodia and he reluctantly agreed. Firodia was to reimburse the entire expenses incurred by the trust, which he did later on. Anna was accused of misuse of trust funds for celebrating his birthday. Anna did misuse the funds for the short period in which the funds were taken from the trust and then replenished. Does that make him unfit to lead the anti corruption movement?

The allegations against Kiran Bedi is that of enriching her charitable organization by saving on her travel entitlement.  It was too trivial an issue for an ex-CJI to comment especially when he has remained silent on many other issues of corruption which were not so trivial. This was more so when he himself was accused by a sitting judge of claiming excess DA.

Kiran Bedi’s transgression was no worse, in my opinion, then that of Justice Verma’s claim of DA of Rs 100 (not Rs 250 as alleged by Justice Sethna) in year 1989-90 as Chief Justice of Rajasthan High Court while staying for free in the state guest house handed over to the High court by the government. The difference was that this loss was to the public exchequer.

Though Justice Verma was exonerated by a bench of three judges of the Supreme Court while he was the CJI (1998 AIR 1344), the fact remains that there was an audit objection for part of the period in which he used the guest house in 1989-90, that an amount was shown as outstanding against his name and that the matter was regularized on 10.6.94 by Chief Justice Mittal (Rajasthan High Court) order stating: So if Hon’ble Chief Justice is ready to pay the charges at the rate of Circuit House, they may claim full DA during their stay at Jaipur.

The judgment also states: Admittedly, at no point of time did the High Court call upon any former Chief Justice to deposit the arrears of charges for occupation of the guest house after the charges were fixed in 1994.

Why did the High Court not call upon the ex-CJI to pay the amount? What would have been the implication if it did? If the claim was raised then it would imply that Justice Verma had wrongly claimed the DA and was rectifying it by paying the rate of circuit house later on. The judgment implied that the charges should have been claimed and paid for to rectify a wrong done earlier? Did Justice Verma make the payment after coming to know of the order?

Does the omission make him any less honest? For the record, after reading the judgment, I still believe that he is one of the most honest person in the country.

Is the author not being petty in raising the issue? Implying that an honest CJI wrongly claimed DA of Rs 100 per day twenty years ago? Yes he is, and that is precisely the point being made. Should we be debating the few thousands of honest people and forget the lakhs and crores of those whose agenda is to sabotage the anti-corruption bill?

Those who loot billions of dollars have a vested interest in allowing the debate to degenerate through their agents in the media and select individuals. The rationale behind their strategy is to discredit those behind the anti-corruption movement so that the status quo of corruption can continue. Is it then surprising that the paid media and the government controlled by the Congress appear to have joined hands?

The report of Press Council of India on paid news, allegations of paid news during the CWG 2010, dubious role of a media outlet in cash-for-votes scam, and the Niira Radia tapes are enough to suggest how pure and honest our media is. A turncoat like Swami Agnivesh, who was caught on camera spying on the anti-corruption movement of which he was a part, has become popular with this section of the media whose ethics match that of the Swami.

Did the media ever question the following acts of TA and DA involving our leaders?

  • Lawyers MPs argue cases in the Supreme Court (and many must have done before Justice Verma) by charging their clients lakhs of rupees by skipping Parliament and drawing the pay of an MP. Has any journalist found it to be wrong?
  • MPs claim their DA in Parliament by coming and signing the register and leaving after lunch. Most Bills are passed without quorum of one tenth of members.
  • Thousands of crores have been spent on purchase of luxury jets for the travel of our ministers. Morarji Desai used to fly on a single ticket by Indian Airlines as PM of the country. What is the traveling cost of the minister to the nation now?
  • No one rakes up the issue of Sonia Gandhi using Reliance plane on her sojourn to Russia, or Jayalalitha using  Essar Group’s plane for her travel to Bangalore.

And then we have a senior journalist-cum television interviewer who confessed to stealing a book from A H Wheeler while on a train journey to Doon School, with the apparent mission (or brief) to run down select members of the Anna team. If Kiran Bedi is ineligible to take up the anti-corruption crusade then how is this particular journalist, who stole a book, be a spokesman for honesty? Or is it his argument that he is defending the corrupt as he too is making lots of money for his company through ads and does not part with a penny to the guests on the show?

Viva la corruption and those who are carrying on the agenda of the corrupt!

(Arun Agrawal is the author of the book Reliance: The Real Natwar. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap)

It is the people and not Lokpal

BY RSN SINGH

Readers, more so those who have served in the government, need to adjudicate these cases as stated below more on moral than legal parameters.

A retired police officer, who by virtue of being the first lady IPS was unfortunately treated like a celebrity no sooner she was born in the service, is now in her new avtar as social activist associated with a number of NGOs.

As in most cases, the Magsaysay Award conferred on her served as the critical passport to her post-retirement stardom. She began to be invited for talks and seminars on issues concerning corruption and character. It is another matter that she is known to have made no difference to corruption while she served in the police.

She was convinced that that she deserved no less than business class air travel for her lecture and seminar tours. Her sponsors invariably relented. But she invariably travelled economy class, that too by availing 75 percent concession entitled to her by virtue of being the recipient of President’s Gallantry Medal. Nevertheless, she invariably submitted wrong invoice and received money for business class ticket. The difference in amount in some travels was as much as five times.

Now when the misdoings have been discovered, she is making the preposterous, rather disastrous plea that the superfluous money she made was for the purposes of her NGO. Her patriotic heart had no qualms about bleeding other organizations to benefit her own!

The basic reason for humans with corrupt proclivities is that they are selfish in make and have little concern for their fellow humans and countrymen. To serve is not their motive. Such people invoke the interest of some organization or the country to camouflage their misdeeds. They are no different from politicians who siphon money in the name of party funds, which in the same vain as the case under question should be considered perfectly legitimate.

Regrettably this kind of fudging of bills is rampant amongst civil servants. The lady in question seems to have persisted with the tendency after retirement and temptation got better of her notwithstanding her current national and international prominence as one of the key members of Team Anna.

The lady is none other than Kiran Bedi.

Can she be a role model to the youth in this country?

Consider the second case. An officer takes study leave for a course. He completes his course and rejoins his service, i.e. Indian Revenue Service (failing to join IAS), which he joined after being trained as an Engineer at the IIT. Obviously his patriotic heart neither took to engineering nor revenue matters.

After he rejoins from study leave it is, like all government servants, obligatory on him to serve for three years. After lapse of one year he proceeds on leave without pay for two years. He then resigns.

His resignation is not accepted on the grounds that his long leave without pay cannot be included in the post study leave three-year mandatory period. One of the reasons why this three-year mandatory period has been stipulated is that the concerned government department must gain out the knowledge and skill acquired by the individual during study leave.

The government asks the individual to pay two year’s salary and the computer loan as a precondition to his release. As is the rule the government does not release any post-retirement monetary entitlements including provident fund till all dues and loans are cleared.

The officer ignores all rules and regulations and does not pay. He insists all dues be paid out of his provident fund. His resignation is till date not accepted.

In the army he would have been court-martialed. Would you like to have this officer as a subordinate? Well this man is Arvind Kejriwal, another key member of Team Anna, and is fighting corruption.

It is significant that Kejriwal’s rise since he received education at the US during his study leave has been meteoric in terms of number and reach of his NGOs. Back from America, in a matter of three years he got the Magsaysay Award.

The two cases pose some larger questions and are symptomatic of the deeper malaise in the civil services. What is the symbiosis between Magsaysay awards and social activists? Is our moral fibre in general weak? Does the colonial mindset and tendency of according hero like status to our civil servants spur corruption and make accountability abysmal? Any country wherein bureaucrats are powerful and lawyers are prosperous is doomed to remain in the third-world. Is India turning into a banana republic?

Is the methodology of selection for civil services skewed? The fact is that most officers in the Police or Income Tax always aspired to join the IAS or IFS and that is why some of them lack motivation to begin with and eventually turn cynical in their attitude to the service and the people. They then decide to use the service as citadel for furthering their financial and political aspirations.

A significant number of such officers have been from IIT or MBBS background. The latest in the list is Sanjeev Bhatt, the police officer from Gujarat. Most of these officers brought no distinction to their profession or service. Their motivation was power and perks. The recruitment pattern does neither produce good technocrats nor good administrators. It accords no emphasis on character qualities. The late Gautam Goswami (MBBS, MD), a Bihar cadre IAS officer, who died young and spent his last few years in jail on charges of corruption was a victim of the same phenomenon. He too was recipient of the Magsaysay award.

In many countries people would find the omissions and commissions of Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal revolting, nevertheless, they appear pedestrian when viewed in the backdrop of the level of immorality and corruption prevailing in the civil services. This explains the mute reaction of civil servants, serving and retired, on the misdoings of Kiran Bedi and Kejriwal. Rather some of them continue to put up a very stout defence on their behalf.

The moot question is that if Anna cannot get three or four people of integrity in his core team what would be the fate of Lokpal?

The problem is not of institutions, it is about ‘We the people of India’. It is easy to rally masses and build mob hysteria by creating class enemies.

There will be no change until there is a sagacious leader who has the moral temerity to appeal and challenge the conscience of the people at large. This appeal to purge individual and collective propensities to corruption will only smite our conscience if it is truly non-violent, all-encompassing and free of prejudice in its import. Anna’s movement though non-violent in tangible terms, unfortunately smacks of implied intimidation, retribution and violence.

(RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research & Analysis Wing. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also a guest blogger for Canary Trap.)

West sets up the war within Islam

BY SAEED NAQVI

Concerned European powers should instantly round up Libyan immigrants by way of evasive action just in case they get very angry at the sight of Qaddafi’s body being dragged through the streets of Sirte, kicked and punched. In time, anger will pass even as TV cameras dwell selectively on the unspeakable chaos in Libya, which will skirt oil installations. Pull back the camera and take a wide angle view of the larger picture.

The scene is now set for a first class conflict within Islam (Libya included) stretching from Pakistan right across the Arab world, North Africa embracing large swathes of sub Saharan African. On occasion this conflict within will spill over as terrorism abroad.

When the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan got into a scrum to launch a programme of manufacturing triple distilled mujahideen Islam in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets the seeds were sown for a conflict within Islam as well.

The three had the same agenda but different emphases: the US wanted to oust the Soviets; Saudis a Wahabized Islam as a bulwark against Shia Iran. Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq saw in the Islamization project in the vicinity an end to his country’s existential problem of national identity. Hard “Arabized” Islam would replace a more “Indianized” Islam.

Reverberation from the Iranian revolution were felt in pockets of Shia dominance in Bahrain, oil rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Lebanon, but the tremors were mild. What shook the regimes which host these Shia populations was the consequence of US occupation of Iraq – emergence of a Shia ruled Iraq,

The psychological effect on Syria of a Shia dominated Iraq was considerable. Sunnis are a bigger majority in Syria than Shias are in Iraq. Yet, the minority Alawis in Syria control the reins of power. Even though the Alawis, being Baathists, were quite as indifferent to religion as Kemalist Turks were, the consolidation of Shia power in Iraq (in addition to the continuing patronage from Iran) has had the effect of causing them to admit to their Shia tilt. If the Baathist blanket frays a little more (and it is fraying) a potential can be developed for Sunni-Alawi tensions.

In Lebanon, the Hezbollah derives directly from Iran and Syria. But sectarianism here can be overdrawn. Consider the trio’s resolve behind largely Sunni Hamas in Gaza.

This embarrasses Riyadh which seeks status in the Arab street where Iran, a non Arab entity, is miles ahead in the popularity stakes on account of its strident support for the Palestinian cause. Former ambassador to Washington, Turki al Faisal, has warned the US that Riyadh will break ranks with Washington if a two-state solution for a Palestinian is not swiftly found to wrest the initiative on this score by the “two pariah states”, – “Syria and Iran”. Never has a Saudi Prince spoken more bluntly. Saudis, he said, would adopt an “independent and assertive” foreign policy “like our recent military support for Bahrain’s monarchy, which America opposed”. Saudis would pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States, “including opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and refusing to open embassy there despite American pressure to do so”.

Without mincing words, Turki al Faisal, has sketched the sectarian faultlines Saudi Arabia is excavating.

In Pakistan, the civil society moderation towards India, for instance, is occasionally scuttled by “the India centered” army. In the context of the Afghan war and particularly after the Lal Masjid fiasco in 2007, the civil society itself is fractured, the moderates now on the backfoot. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, a somewhat cornered army is wary of the Haqqanis of this world, for whom moderation is anathema. Is the Army itself divided between Haqqanism and its exact opposite which is continuously losing ground. The conflict is raging.

In Afghanistan, the Pushtoon are divided between Durranis and Ghilzais who together are in conflict with Tajeks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

In Egypt and Tunis, the softer Islam bequeathed by the Fatamids between the 10th and the 12th century is not exactly comfortable with a thin band of Salafism in the Muslim Brotherhood, hardened because of the Mubarak dictatorship, and his use of the war on terror to keep the hard state in place. Zaidis and the Huthis in Yemen, the Arab and African Muslims are the Central faultline exemplified by Darfur. Both varieties of African Muslims run into potentially the most violent faultline between Muslims and Christians in North and South Nigeria.

With this thumb nail sketch of the backdrop, consider the effects of the “Arab Spring” with those horrible pictures of a dead Qaddafi fresh in our minds. When authoritarian Muslim societies open up, mosques play a decisive role because they have been the only social, political ventilators. And, when the choice is between soft and hard Islam, it is the latter which keeps determining the tempo of the discourse, raising the decibel level as it responds to external stimuli like the NATO bombing of Libya, War on terror, Mid East Peace, unilateral US action in Pakistan’s tribal belt, rubbing of Hamas election results, pulverizing Syria, Lebanon or Gaza by sanctions or any other means when the scramble begins for oil and gas in the waters of the Levant, threatening to leave Afghanistan but building bases larger than a dozen Red Forts.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Lokpal Bill, 2G Scam, and conflict of interest

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while addressing the biennial conference of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Friday, said Lokpal is at the top of his government’s agenda.

Despite assurances from the top, it still seems unlikely that this government is serious about bringing an effective Lokpal bill to curb corruption.

Take the example of Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who chairs the parliamentary standing committee on law and justice, which will hold deliberations over the constitution of the Lokpal bill. Interestingly, Singhvi, who is also a Congress party spokesperson, has been involved in a legal fight on behalf of the leading telecom companies to stall the audit of their accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the Economic Times recently reported.

The entire issue can be traced back to January 2009, when Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had asked the DoT to conduct a special audit of the accounts of Reliance Communications for under-reporting of revenues. The DoT, in April 2009, ordered similar audit for Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Tata Teleservices, and Vodafone Essar. The companies came under the scanner after allegations that they were not paying the government’s share of revenue by showing the revenue earned under other categories. It was noticed that the reported revenues of some operators were higher in segments that carried low license fees than in other segments where such fees were high.

The government had directed these companies to submit their accounting details of three years (from 2006-07) to CAG in March 2010.

In what could be a clear case of conflict of interest, Singhvi, who is also a lawmaker, was appearing in the court to stall the CAG audit that could have brought revenues to the government.

This is not the first time Singhvi is in the dock. Is it not true that he voluntarily chose to bunk Parliament on August 27 2010, when the Rajya Sabha was in session, in order to argue a case before the Chief Justice of Karnataka? He was representing Vedanta group, which owns Sesa Goa, at that time.

A complaint has also been filed against Singhvi with the Chairman of the Ethics Committee for violation of various clauses of code of conduct, in particular clause 4 which states:

  • (iv) Members should always see that their private financial interests and those of the members of their immediate family do not come in conflict with the public interest and if any such conflict ever arises, they should try to resolve such a conflict in a manner that the public interest is not jeopardised.

Also, Singhvi is not alone when it comes to the arguments of conflict of interest. According to a report by NewsX, a large number of people who are “either sitting in judgement or arguing the 2G case has, at one time or another, been associated with one of the telecom players”.

The report lists the following key players:

  • Union Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, as a lawyer has represented several companies including Nokia and Bharti.
  • Senior BJP leader and Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, served as a lawyer for T-Mobiles, Tata Teleservices, Lucent Technologies and Sterling.
  • Current Home Minister, P Chidambaram, represented Motorola, US’s Bellsouth and Luxembourg’s Millicom.
  • Congress spokesman, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, represented the Cellular Operators Association of India, the Association of Basic Telecom Operators, Bharti and Reliance.
  • India’s current Solicitor General, Gopal Subramaniam has been a lawyer for the Cellular Operators Association of India and Hughes telecom.
  • Current Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati has been a lawyer for the Cellular Operators Association of India, RPG and Usha Martin.
  • Former Law Minister Shanti Bhushan has been a lawyer for Essar Telecom, US’s Bellsouth and Luxembourg’s Millicom.
  • Harish Salve, who served as the Solicitor General of India in the past, represented Reliance, Tatas and Vodafone.

For love of democracy West prefers Islamisation in Syria

BY SAEED NAQVI

The luxury bus leaves downtown Cam hotel to Qassion mountains for a panoramic view of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited city, Damascus. The picture has to be sketched because outside Syria everyone is counting on the level of chaos we did not see.

There are diplomats, journalists, scholars, some NGOs too, invited by a Syrian think tank to study the current situation. Edward Lionel Peck, former US ambassador to several Arab countries was in the group. From the Ahlatala Café at the Qassian heights, the vast expanse looks the very picture of tranquility. The city’s calm is all the more noticeable because, thanks to the media, we have been conditioned to expect tension, conflict, street protests.

“No fireworks here” the manager of the Café intervenes. Derra, Alleppo, Homs, Hama – “those are the cities where you might see some action”.

An Indian businessman invites me to spend the evening with a Syrian Sunni family he has known for long years. The husband is a retired civil servant; the wife dons a white chiffon scarf. She has a sad, beatific smile on her face. Her two daughters in frocks are constantly replenishing the centre table with fruits, baklavas, scones, soft drinks, Turkish coffee – endless hospitality.

The negative media focus on Syria in recent months has erased from minds the continuing reality: the country is among the few remaining parts of the Arab world where elegant, gracious living is still possible.

“But it may end soon” the wife says, wiping her tears. “Can you imagine – I have to wear this scarf now”. She is Sunni who are supposed to be with the Islamist rebels opposing the Alawi ruling elite. Then why is she unhappy wearing a scarf? Syrian social order is in turmoil.

The population of Syria consists overwhelmingly of Sunnis – say 80 percent. The biggest minority are Alawis, in their origins a Shia Sect but as a result of decades of Baath party training, have shed their religion. They are secular in a non religious sort of way, rather in the image of Mustafa Kemal Pasha or the more Socialist, left leaning Jawaharlal Nehru, a blend of an abiding local culture and western education.

Until the Ayatullahs came to power in 1979, Teheran, Istanbul, Beirut, Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Baghdad, Algiers, Tunis and any city in Morocco, and even Tripoli had among their populations the most secular elites. The secular enclaves may have been few but emphatic secular presence was a check on mindless religiosity. How was the secular stamp rubbed out in most of these societies in the space of three decades? Each city has a different narrative. The narrative of Damascus is currently in the making.

With the world’s media arrayed on the other side, it is difficult to persuade those who would care to listen, that it is secularism which is fighting with its back to the wall in Syria.

But the narrative the media beams about Syria is: Assad brutalizes his people.

It can be nobody’s case that Arab monarchies and dictatorships, Kemalist Turkey and Shah’s Iran were paragons of liberal democracy, if that be such a non negotiable value. But a certain elegant urbanity was available in these enclaves. In Cairo and Beirut, this urbanity came along with a sparkling intellectual life. Mubarak’s Cairo stilled the fizz. An anti intellectual aridity crept in which gradually overwhelmed most of the cities listed above. Damascus, believe it or not, is the last bastion where one can sit with friends and discuss ideas.

What, then, is our hostess that evening so distraught about? The growing religiosity travelling from across a post Kemalist Turkey and post Saddam Hussain Iraq have generated peer pressure for the scarf. And now, the impulses which brought in the scarf are providing hospitality for Islamism to topple the Baathist structure. Islamism is being preferred to secular Baathism by the US, Europe, Israel (Saudi Arabia) because the move removes Syria from the Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas chain. The regional chessboard changes.

Historically, in Syria Sunnis owned most of the lands and the rather poorer Alawis gravitated towards the army and other services. Just as the great Red Army, in the ultimate analysis, turned out to be a Russian army, the Yugoslav army, a Serbian army, the Syrian army is mostly an Alawi army. This army is the backbone of the Baath structure. Much the largest membership of Baath party comes from the Sunni majority for the obvious reason.

But they do not have as much of a “control” on power as the Alawis do particularly since the ascent of Hafez Assad in 1971.

There has always been a little bit of Muslim Brotherhood of varying strengths throughout the Arab sub stratum. The Iranian revolution in 1979 and breakdown of the Lebanon power sharing system after the Israeli occupation caused something of a stir in the central city of Hama, inviting a brutal crackdown by Assad in 1982.

The “Arab spring” broke up into three theatres – North Africa upto Egypt. Britain and France are to this day trying to manage the mess they have created in Libya. The Saudis are at the wheel on Bahrain and Yemen. Syria appeared to have been spared. Then Turkey began to look like a good model for Arabs in search of the electoral route. Moreover, if Syria can be fitted into that scheme, Iran will lost an ally and Turkey will gain influence.

The media has taken up the project with its concoctions and exaggerations. Double check this last fact with Ambassador Peck who is quite as puzzled. Meanwhile the lady with the scarf will swear by the holy book that she and her family in Alleppo have seen arms being funneled in for the protestors from Turkey. Others talk of Protesters being armed from Iraq and Jordan, a story the media will not investigate.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)